In what is reminiscent of controversy surrounding J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter" series for its alleged glorification of witchcraft, debates on whether Christians should see a movie charged with promoting a pro-atheist and anti-God book series have been heating up in the wake of the weekend release of "The Golden Compass."
The movie is based on the first novel of a children's book trilogy by British author and avowed atheist Phillip Pullman. It follows a young girl named Lyra in her quest to uncover the reason behind the disappearances of children including that of her best friend. As part of her journey, she uses the aid of a golden compass to unlock answers and outwit members of an authoritative body known as the Magisterium. She is also accompanied by her "daemon," an animal which represents the physical manifestation of her alter ego or soul.
New Line Cinema has been marketing the $150 million budget movie toward children as a fantasy film and toned down the heavy anti-religious themes found in the book from the movie, slating it for blockbuster success.
But the purging of the book's religious elements from the big screen adaptation has not sat well with many Christian groups, most notably the Catholic League, which has red-flagged the movie for its "sugar-coated atheism" and what it deemed as an assault on the Catholic Church.
Contending that Pullman has an agenda to promote atheism, the Catholic League has urged Christians to boycott the film which they believe would persuade more people, mainly children, to read a series that is riddled with pro-atheist notions.
"It's Pullman's trilogy, not the film, that really sells atheism to kids," reiterated the group's president, William Donahue, in a statement Wednesday.
Conservative evangelical group Focus on the Family has also chimed in through its movie review publication Plugged In Online. Associate editor Adam R. Holz referred to Pullman's message as "blasphemous and heretical" in his article entitled "Sympathy for the Devil."
In a review for the movie, Holz recently added, "But even watered down, 'The Golden Compass' is still awash in a twisted worldview and dark spirituality."
Responding to the antagonism his work has received, Pullman said in a recent interview that those behind boycotting the book or film are "dictators."
"I don't believe in doing that, because I'm a Democrat," the British author told Chicago Tribune in an interview published Friday. "There is no place for dictators in the world I want."
In other recent interviews, including one on NBC's the "Today" show, Pullman denied promoting a pro-atheist agenda and maintained that his story rejects any authoritarian body that abuses its power.
A spokesman from New Line Cinema issued a statement, saying the movie is not "anti-Christian nor anti-religion" and insists that the book series "has been praised by countless clergy and religious scholars for its deep spirituality and exploration of important theological issues."
While many Christian leaders, ministries, and parents have expressed strong concerns about the film and the book series in long rebuttals, movie reviews, and blog entries, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has disagreed with the boycott and issued a somewhat positive review of the film.
"Most moviegoers with no foreknowledge of the books or Pullman's personal belief system will scarcely be aware of religious connotations, and can approach the movie as a pure fantasy-adventure," said the group's review. "Taken purely on its own cinematic terms, [the movie] can be viewed as an exciting adventure story with, at its core, a traditional struggle between good and evil, and a generalized rejection of authoritarianism."
The review also suggested that "rather than banning the movie or books, parents might instead take the opportunity to talk through any thorny philosophical issues with their teens."
The Rev. R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said in his Dec. 4 blog entry that Christians should approach the film as a "mixture of challenge and opportunity" where they could "show that Christians are not afraid of the battle of ideas."
He agreed that a boycott would not dissuade the general public from seeing a film which he described as "extremely attractive."
"We must take the responsibility to use interest in this film to teach our own children to think biblically and to be discerning in their engagement with the media in all forms," said Mohler.