When Mad Mel snapped his cinematic whip in The Passion, Jews cried out about the film's depiction of their faith. In Gibson's movie, Jews were distinctly made to look sinister, marked by centuries-old stereotypes including the requisite hooked schnoz. While many Christians thought the work a thing of beauty, most Jews I knew found Jesus being whipped to carpaccio repulsive and hard to digest. Cut to: A new holiday movie sparking its own controversy in America - now also showing in Israel - causing the Catholic League to call for a boycott of The Golden Compass. The problem they say is the first book in the trilogy on which the film is based, a children's fantasy called His Dark Materials, is anti-Catholic and promotes atheism. They're afraid kids'll get hooked on the series and, like Harry Potter, will devour all the books which eventually reveal God to be a charlatan right before He's killed. While the act of deicide would offend most religions, Jews included, the CL's particular problem is with the depiction of a sinister institution closely resembling the Catholic Church called "the Magisterium." On the other side of this argumentative sphere, atheists aren't happy either, saying Hollywood has caved into pressures from Catholics and watered down the screen version of the book. To lend further fictional perspective to this cultural maelstrom, the Compass story takes place in an alternate universe. If The Passion was a historical event and was of this world, it was seen through the lens of an anti-Semite (Mel's in vino veritas moment ended any debate) and got the praise of the Church. But while Compass is a work of fantasy with talking polar bears, it still's got Church leaders hot under the collar. I'm no Einstein, but on the outrage meter, there needs to be some universal equilibrium between what's historically inaccurate and what's make-believe. THE NARRATIVE kicking up all the dust is about a 12 year-old girl who goes on an adventure with the help of a golden compass, (a sort of magical Nintendo DS) after she hears about an amazing substance called, well, Dust. When asked a question, the compass tells the truth. (I'm sure both sides in this fight wish they had one.) What's interesting about this latest row is, unlike other recent holiday fare of past years, from
's two-sided controversy and the tension it personifies are indicative of the moment.
Atheism has been re-popularized in the culture with books out by Chris Hitchens, God Is Not Great and Richard Dawkins', The God Delusion| and a US presidential election with the GOP's Mitt & Mike ascending the lead on a platform of piety, each claiming they're more in sync with God.
While Nietzsche claimed God is dead years ago (I thought atheism was so last, last century), today's Earthly battle has resurfaced due to the collision between east and west and the polarity between Islam and Judeo-Christianity. For Hitchens and other atheists they figure, if all the heavenly talk only leads to killing each other, each claiming their side's the true north, why not do what Gershwin lyricized and let's call the whole "God" thing off.
The problem is that that model's only led to nihilism and an impoverished culture in need of something spiritually more meaningful. On the flip side, the divinely apocalyptic crusaders are unable to grasp scientific theory, still mad at Galileo's heresy.
Like any good philosopher, while gazing at the screen version of The Golden Compass last week, I questioned its meaning and concluded the whole controversy as overblown, deciding both sides are in need of a real compass - one that doesn't just point blame.
After all, it's possible to be an atheist but adhere to religious ideals. In other words, atheists can and do have a moral north and God for them can often simply be defined as something that is "higher" to strive toward -something within and not outside of us.
Indeed, the fissure which Compass represents is indicative of a lack of global perspective over religion and a misguided culture that has lost its way, instead relying heavily on opposing extremes, with no center or equanimity.
The writer is based in Baltimore and works in communications.