By Rosa Salter Rodriguez
The Journal Gazette
Janelle Sou Roberts | The Journal Gazette
Leave it to the Rev. Scott Stiegemeyer not to stray too far from the front lines of the culture wars.
A pastor in the Lutheran Church’s Missouri Synod who now serves as admissions director of Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, Stiegemeyer has a longtime interest in the intersection of faith and popular culture.
So, it didn’t surprise him when an editor at the synod publishing house called him three weeks in advance of the release of the controversial movie version of Philip Pullman’s “The Golden Compass” and asked him to write a study guide for use in churches.
“He was a reader of my blog,” says Stiegemeyer, who uses current events and cultural topics to gather readers to his “Concordia TheoBLOGical Seminary.”
But, while some are calling on Christians to boycott the movie because of its allegedly anti-Christian themes and Pullman’s militant atheism, Stiegemeyer’s guide doesn’t.
Instead, it lays out some of the issues and provides biblical and doctrinal context for approaching the work in a question-and-answer/discussion format.
Should Christians read/see works by unbelievers? Who is Philip Pullman and what does he believe? Should I, as a Christian, see the movie?
Formerly a pastor at Concordia Lutheran Church in Pittsburgh, where he started his first blog, “The Burr in the Burgh,” Stiegemeyer has credentials that include presentations on C.S. Lewis’ “The Chronicles of Narnia” and “The DaVinci Code.”
For about two years, he and another Lutheran pastor, Don Matzat, turned an otherwise dead Sunday night radio time slot into two hours of lively chat on a call-in show, “Let’s Talk About Jesus.” The two took on topics such as the then-popular apocalyptic “Left Behind” book series.
“Questions and Answers about Philip Pullman’s ‘The Golden Compass’ ” is available free at www.cph.org/compass.
Why would you as a pastor even get involved in this area of popular culture?
“It seemed to me that congregation members, especially those of the younger generation, are getting more and more of their information from entertainment media even more than from the hour they’re in church on Sunday morning. Popular culture is influencing people’s faith. So as a pastor, I felt called to help them sort the good from the bad, and interpret what they are hearing and seeing from the perspective of their faith.”
What piqued your interest with this movie?
“Well, I had read the novels several years ago, and what piqued my interest about them then is they’re fantasy genre, and with fantasy genre novels, they often have spiritual themes. And Pullman has been outspoken about wanting to be the anti-C.S. Lewis (known for his Christian orientation). I think (Pullman) may be a bit tongue in cheek about that, but he despises C.S. Lewis. So that intrigued me. And a lot of (the commentary) was sort of predictably reactionary and emotional. … ‘Knee-jerk’ is a good word. So I wanted to balance that out.”
For those of us who might have been living under rocks, what’s the fuss about with this movie?
“This is the first part of a trilogy called ‘His Dark Materials.’ Its (theme) is not at all subtle. The characters find the church and God are evil, and they go on a crusade to kill God, whom they call The Authority. It’s set in an alternative universe, but very similar to the one we know. The characters do travel between universes. But it’s very complex, as fantasy novels are. ‘The Golden Compass’ is the most toned down, and the movie, if anything, softens the potentially objectionable material.”
So what happens in “The Golden Compass?”
“The bad thing that happens is that children are being taken, and what you eventually find out is that it is the church that is taking them and torturing them. The church is conducting experiments on them and basically sapping their souls. The heroine and her companions go on this rescue crusade.”
Not a pretty picture.
“No. It’s not a pretty picture. (Pullman) clearly does have an anti-church agenda.”
Which I’d guess you think isn’t accurate?
“In his view, the church is oppressive of free thought and free expression. I think it’s unquestionably true that at times in its history it has been oppressive, by burning books, and, occasionally, people. I’m not defending the flaws. But even from a secularist point of view, the church has done a lot of good.”
So you think Pullman is going to the extreme?
“In his church, there are no good people. There’s no ambiguity there. There’s nothing redeeming. And there’s nothing appealing about the religious characters. I think it’s not only not true, but it also hurts his storytelling, because the art of a good storyteller is to have characters that are multifaceted.”
Do you think his portrayal of God is Christian?
“ He portrays the church and God as being purely about law and rules. His favorite term for God is ‘The Authority,’ which leaves out a lot of things, like mercy and kindness, compassion and love, which are essential features of the God I believe in. He never really talks about Jesus and what he represents. If the church taught what he says, I’d be against it.”
Do you think the movie or the book is appropriate for the audience at which it’s aimed, which is young teens?
“It is targeted to the 12-to-14 age group. That’s a very difficult age. Young people are starting to define themselves. If you have someone who is uncertain in their beliefs, this could have an influence. And there is some merit to the argument that it is an entrée to the other books, but I think that is a weak argument. Do I think it’s appropriate? I wouldn’t ban it. But I don’t think I would just hand it out. I think discussion in a book club or church group is certainly a good way to approach it.”
So, if I’m a parent of someone in that age group, what do I do?
“I am a parent of someone in that age group! (Stiegemeyer and his wife, Julie, a children’s book author, have a son, Jacob, 12.) We went and saw the movie together. I didn’t block him from the book, but he doesn’t show any real interest in it. He was interested (in the movie), but I would have given the movie only a fair grade because it was confusing, and it wasn’t that well crafted as a film. His one response about the movie was that it was confusing. He liked the action scenes and special effects, the computer animation.”
What about parents who say they don’t want, as Christians, to expose themselves or their kids to these ideas?
“Some parents will say, ‘I want to avoid it,’ and I don’t blame them for that; I can respect that. But as a parent, I think we have the responsibility to equip ourselves to answer the challenges it raises, not avoid them. I’m not one of those Christians who want to shield themselves from the surrounding culture.”
So, you’re saying to parents “Don’t overreact”?
“I don’t think it’s a major threat to faith. People will want to forbid it, but I think that will have the opposite effect. If a kid wants to read it, he’ll read it, or if he wants to see the movie, he’ll find a way. I’d rather he do it in front of me than reading it or seeing it and hiding it from me. That way we could have a conversation about it. I just don’t want to make a law about it. I don’t want to be what Pullman says we are, which is lawgivers to exclusion of everything else.”Sphere: Related Content