Golden Compass Should be a Christian School Required Text

If Christian teachers can’t handle Philip Pullman’s questions, Christian students won’t either.

April 26, 2019

Philip Pullman’s trilogy, His Dark Materials, has caused frustration across the Christian community since it’s origin in 1995. Problems especially escalated when the film version of the first book came out in 2007 (this is when I first became acquainted with Pullman’s work).

I was in grade seven when I first heard about the Golden Compass movie that was coming out that Christmas. The movie looked intriguing as it had fantasy like elements that reminided me of Lord of the Rings, as well as James Bond and Tom Cruise’s ex-wife as star characters.

What could be wrong with a movie like that?

Well…everything apparently.

Pullman’s original work has been coined as an “atheist allegory,” contrasting the work of CS Lewis who used children’s fantasy to portray different stories of the Christian God. In his work, Pullman appropriates Lewis to make a story that questions Christian doctrine, God’s morality, and the Church’s ethics.

Of course, a story like this cannot do anything else but send the evangelical crowd into a state of fear. Evangelicals were afraid that this trilogy of books would open up Christian children to ideas that aren’t biblical and likely turn the Children the way of the atheist.

In very slight defense of the evangelicals, after reading the books, some people were more keen on atheism than before. However, I’d like to contend that in a proper Christian educational setting, this book series could be a phenomenal tool for improving faith formation, making strong literary connections, and providing high student engagement in the English classroom.

Faith and Learning

If teachers cannot handle Phillip Pullman’s questions, their students won’t either. Let’s be honest, In The Golden Compass, Pullman asks some brilliant questions such as,

Where did original sin come from? Does it exist? And is it moral?

How do we know the church isn’t corrupt?

If God exists, isn’t he lazy and possibly ill-tempered?

These are just a taste of what thought-provoking questions the trilogy dives into, and as a Christian educator, I would rather embrace these questions than reject them. As I embrace Pullman’s thoughts and wrestle with them, I ask more questions to justify my pre-held beliefs:

What do I believe about original sin? Where did it come from?

I’ve seen corruption in the church, what do we do with that as Christians?

If the Bible says God is love, why does Pullman not agree?

As I ask these questions, I can’t help but think that my students will also encounter these same questions on their spiritual formation journey. With that in mind, how amazing would it be, as a Christian educator, to come alongside these students and create spiritual growth through question asking.

To wrap up this section, I’d like to clarify that I’m not advocating for Christian schools creating novel units where questions are only answered in a trite evangelical way. I’m advocating for students to ask these questions, and for Christian teachers to guide them in a way that fosters spiritual growth.

In my opinion, there is a big difference.

Literary Connections

Regardless of your religous stance, I hope you’d agree that The Golden Compass is a literary work of art.

This book is plum full of literary allusions to the Bible, John Milton, CS Lewis, and more. The connections, parallels, and commentaries that are made are endless.

As many Christian students have already read The Chronicles of Narnia, or at least The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe (LWW), this would be a perfect Christian high school English text. In fact, I even think that this book could be paired fabulously with an LWW unit.

Reading Narnia at an older age opens our eyes even wider to the allegory Lewis was trying to tell. In addition, it creates a broader connection to Pullman’s work, as he appropriates Lewis’ style. This connection opens a fascinating conversation on why Pullman may have chosen to copy Lewis.

With Lewis’ Children’s literature and Pullman’s YA literature in mind, Christian students can begin to ponder big topics such as indoctrination and church power in their perspectives, and the perspectives of the authors.

High school students in a Christian school are already wrestling with these topics. It’s time to embrace them. I could see students asking,

Have I been indoctrinated? Does Pullman think so? What do I think?

Answers to these questions improve critical thinking and foster spiritual formation.

Finally, English would not be the same without the realm of fantasy, and The Golden Compass encapsulates so many crucial elements of fantasy, including controversial topics like including multiple worlds in one story or series (Tolkien and Lewis strongly disagreed on this element of fantasy).

The Golden Compass is a brilliant work, and its religious tension makes it even better for both faith and learning and studying literature. The book is also a thrill ride, which leads me to my last point.

High Student Engagement

I’m a teacher now, but I’ll admit it, when I was in high school I found a lot of the novels we read a bit bland. While I have more respect for William Golding, Chinua Achebe, and Harper Lee in my adult years, I can’t say I was thrilled by there work in high school.

The Golden Compass, on the other hand, is geared towards young adults and teens. The book is quite literally meant to be read for pleasure by high school aged students. As a teacher, it is like striking gold when you find learning opportunities that students thoroughly enjoy. In my opinion, this book can help accomplish the engagement piece your a class of students is craving.

As you read The Golden Compass, the reader is engulfed with mystery as Lyra, the protagonist, unravels the story behind her secretive Uncle and the deeper secrets about humanity, hidden in a mystical substance called Dust.

There is no asking why this book is on the Top 100 books recommended for high school students by BC Teachers (I teach in British Columbia). It’s an adventure, a mystery, and a thought-provoking story. As a reader, and as a teacher, I’m not sure what more I would ask for.

In summary, this contentious novel has caused problems for evangelicals all over the world, but I think it’s time to actually see it for what it is, a book full of questions. If we want to expand our teaching in faith and learning, we need to embrace questions and not reject them.