Philip Nel > Weblinks > Literature > Children's > Open Letter to Snopes.com


On 31 October 2007, I sent this letter to the editors of Snopes.com and posted a copy to the CHILD_LIT listserv. The letter made the rounds on other listservs, and landed on several blogs. Snopes.com has failed to correct its misinformation (which has been on the Snopes.com site since 23 October 2007); the editors did update the entry on 2 December 2007, but left all factual errors intact. My goal is to get Snopes.com to correct its page on The Golden Gompass. For this reason and because many people have sent requests for the text of my letter, I have decided to post it on my website.

If you agree that Snopes.com should live up to its editors' claim that they "work hard to keep our information accurate and up-to-date," why not drop these editors a line? Their names are Barbara and David Mikkelson, and they can be reached via their website's Contact Us page. Though they failed to respond to my letter, perhaps if they receive enough letters, they will in fact keep the site's information accurate.


31 Oct. 2007

Dear Editors of Snopes.com,

I write to report an error in the Golden Compass entry (http://snopes.com/politics/religion/compass.asp).

You identify the claim that the Golden Compass film is "based on a series of books with anti-religious themes" as "True." A better answer would be either "False" or "It's a matter of debate." I teach Philip Pullman's series in my college-level Harry Potter class, and I teach the first book (The Golden Compass) in my Literature for Adolescents class.

One can interpret the novels as anti-religious, but only if you equate the institution with the religion. That is, if a corrupt church is synonymous with Christianity, then, yes, the books are anti-religious. However, if you see a corrupt church as a perversion of Christianity, then you would be hard pressed to support the notion that the books are anti-religious. The church in Pullman's series is very clearly a flawed institution, and -- unlike the church in the contemporary U.S. and U.K. -- has the power to govern, to create laws, to impose punishments, and to fight wars. The critique of the church in Pullman's series is a critique of a human institution that seeks (wrongly) to impose its will on people's lives.

However, the His Dark Materials series is very invested in spirituality (in general) and Christianity (in particular). Some of its central characters are angels. Ultimately, the series ends up endorsing a Romantic or Transcendentalist notion of Christian faith. Nature becomes the route to the divine. For Pullman's characters, heaven is when the soul becomes one with the universe.

To claim that the protagonists "kill God" is also false. The Authority dies while in the care of Will and Lyra, but the Authority is not the creator of the universe. He has falsely claimed to be the creator of the universe, but he is not the creator. If Christians understand God as Creator, then we cannot claim that this Authority is God: he is not a Creator. Also, he's not killed by Will and Lyra. He dies while they are trying to protect him. In sum, this scene is far more complex than your website portrays it.

Your entry should distinguish between the words of a character and the message of the author. To represent a certain point of view is not necessarily to endorse that point of view. So, for example, the quotation "every church is the same: control, destroy, obliterate every good feeling" (The Subtle Knife, p. 50) is taken out of context. Ruta Skadi -- the "beautiful, proud, pitiless" Queen of the Witches and a former lover of Lord Asriel (p. 49) -- makes this argument to convince the witches to support Lord Asriel, who, she notes "hates the Church" (p. 51). However, supporting Lord Asriel is a morally complex act. He is not a bad character, but nor is he a good character. We are to value his battle against the corrupt church, but not the means through which he wages that battle. He is sympathetic, but also ruthless; smart, but dangerous. So, while it's true that those words ("every church is the same...") appear in The Subtle Knife, it's not clear that they represent Pullman's position.

The His Dark Materials trilogy is a rich and complex work of fiction. Snopes.com is irresponsible to make the bold, broad claim that it's "True" that the series is anti-religious. Literature does not work that way. As Emily Dickinson wrote, "Tell all the Truth, but tell it slant -- / Success in Circuit lies." Literature tells the truth slant; rarely does it make bold statements of policy. Some characters may do this -- characters created by Philip Pullman, Don DeLillo, and Milan Kundera do make bold statements. But, as any smart reader knows, the character is not the author. To get at the "Truth" of a work of fiction, you need to read more carefully. You need to consider all quotations in context. For these reasons, I caution Snopes.com against making such claims. And I advise you to be more careful, subtle readers.

Sincerely yours,

 

Philip Nel
Associate Professor
Director, Program in Children's Literature
Dept. of English, 103 ECS Bldg.
Kansas State University
Manhattan, KS 66506-6501
U.S.A.
www.ksu.edu/english/nelp :: philnel@ksu.edu


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