Friday, November 5, 2010

The Golden Compass: School of Nietzsche (book series review)

I recently finished the His Dark Materials series, by Philip Pullman, better known as the Golden Compass series, which is comprised of three books:
1. The Golden Compass
2. The Subtle Knife
3. The Amber Spyglass

I had heard all kinds of talk about this series, and being a Christian, most of the hubbub was bad. So of course, in ordinary me fashion I decided to investigate. My favorite kind of fiction is young adult fantasy and it is both my privilege and responsibility to read as much as I can, especially since I am the mother of three children who will most likely be voracious readers like their parents, and also because in my deepest hopes I would one day love to be a writer who contributes to this particular genre.

It is my goal with this post to simply deliver my opinion of this series. Keep in mind I come from the viewpoint of Biblical standard, so if you don't share the same perspective, I pray you will not be offended but simply take into consideration anything I might think in the same way I would do with you.

I will give the positive first :)
I thought this series quite well-written, with much application of modern philosopy, explanation of physics and some nice irony, imaginative and inspiring as far as creativity and plot, and hosting several quite loveable and understandable characters. It was not hard to picture myself as one of the hero or heroine, and the adventurous spirit was contagious. I was also able to gain, by reading these books, a better sense of where atheists are coming from in their belief set.

Now for the negative.
I hated this series. As far as the ideas and content, I was deeply disturbed at what I found. I have not read every award-winning young adult fantasty series out there, but I have read quite a few, and I will say of all those I have read, I felt this series was by far the most dangerous set of books for kids that I have read.

The books start slowly in their ultimate design, which the reader starts to suspect and suddenly becomes wise to: The destruction of God. By men. John Milton's Paradise Lost is frequently alluded to, and these books take up the stance of commending the Fall of man as a stepping stone of progress, instead of a "paradise lost." These works are deeply cynical about any kind of spiritual authority, other than self, and set the church up to be an evil institution intent on controlling everything with rules and punishments. There is none of the beauty of faith in these books. Most of the bad guys are employed by or in cahoots with the church.

While I could go on and on about the specifics, I will stick to the largest theme. God is portrayed as an old feeble angel that became power hungry and had a little more cunning to him than his fellow heavenly hosts, and so he set himself up as The Authority and began dishing out severe rules for all of mankind to follow or not follow - at their own peril. The books are all about the main characters Lyra and Will, being chosen to dispel the myth that is God, destroy Him and His armies, and set up a new worlds system (the book is in the setting of multiple parallel universes) as a new Adam and Eve, without God or any kind of allegiance to anything higher than the physical world and self. The culmination of plot in these books is the war that man wages against God and all His angelic armies. God dies of His own frailties in the end of book three, and is written as a geriatric mute who no longer speaks or understands and seems liable to wet his pants at any moment.

These books are powerful in their ability to render God silly and laughable, unworthy of regard, and in the light of mockery and scorn. They are quite persuasive without seeming to be so, at undermining reverence toward God and anything mysterious that surrounds our knowledge of Him.
I was astonished by the blatantly atheistic and humanistic content in these books. By the end of the second book and in the third, there are multiple bold references in complete mockery calling God by His Biblical names, such as Yahweh and the Ancient of Days,  in jest. The first book is deceptive. It's a good story and you only just start to see the glimmer of Pullman's motive, and so are drawn into the wild, imaginative adventure Will and Lyra and all their comrades are on. It is only when you are hooked and move on to the second book that the confession from several characters of their scorn and hatred for The Authority is revealed. It is sudden and stunning and by then you want to keep reading because you have fallen for the characters.

I believe that by being subtle and well-written this book becomes dangerous. It attacks the existence of God, and it also attacks adolescent belief in God, which I feel is the far more dangerous of the two in this context. How well I know to what extent the fiction I read as an adolescent helped to shape my ideas, morals, beliefs, tolerances, and supposed facts about the world. I feel that if the belief in God that resides in almost any child in whom it is nurtured, and I believe that young faith to be a natural, instinctual response to eternity, is undermined, it sets one up for a life without hope. Without prayer, or the peace that comes in trusting in Divinity, in the Higher Power that is at work, wherever you are in that belief.

I believe Philip Pullman, the author of this series, knows this and pursues the "liberation" of the minds of youth worldwide from that of reliance on God or the belief that He is at least there. Mr. Pullman is a professed atheist, passionately so. While I disagree with his beliefs, there are many writers out there whose beliefs I share in no way, but whose fiction I love for the simple reasons of relevance, application, truth, beauty, creativity, and skill. For me, these books were offensive. I remember reading The Davinci Code (Dan Brown) and never once being offended, because I felt the whole time that while that book could definitely confuse and divide, it was always fiction and more of an expirement in theological history than a soapbox for the author. Pullman's books are a potentially lethal assault on faith in God, period.

I warn against letting your child read these books at a young age. I also caution against letting them read the books by themselves. I would not be surprised if they end up on many public junior high and high school required reading lists, or at least if the first one does. They have won all kinds of awards and accolades.

Good fiction is meant to illustrate that which is true. Sometimes, the story is sad, or gruesome, or difficult to read. But if it is good, it resonates with us somewhere. We find ourselves and our plight, and hopefully, a semblence of the real cure to that plight, in some way, in good fiction. However, when fiction starts to lie and call something fundamentally what it is not, we have reason to be alarmed and counter it. Though I read a lot of controversial fiction, in order to talk about it with others and to know what is being published and revered, I take many of my cues for art and literature from Philippians 4:8, " Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things."

I am in no way a professional reviewer of books, although that would definitely be near the top of the list of my dream jobs :)

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

My God Rocks: Story of a Bank Robbery

Has God ever intervened in your life in a huge and dramatic way? What about in a small way? Have you ever felt that absolute certainty in the middle of one of life's storms that He was right there with you, lending you courage, giving you grace, making you strong despite your very apparent weakness?

It is July 2002.

I am 7 months pregnant with my daughter Carson, and work as a bank teller part-time. I am standing behind the teller line on a Friday afternoon, counting the cash in my drawer and wearing a plaid maternity dress, when the glass doors at the front of the bank fly open and a hostile male voice screams, "Get the @#$* down now!"

In complete alarm I look up and watch four masked men dressed in black shirts, camouflage pants and holding guns run into the bank and head straight toward the teller line. My brain is already switching into what trauma experts call "survival mode", where I am willing to do whatever it takes to only live.
All along the teller line and throughout the bank I hear gasps of fear and shock as every customer and employee drops to their knees and faces on carpet and cold tile. One of my closest and oldest friends in the world, Carrie, works out in the lobby at one of the desks. One of the men shouts something unintelligible and I hear her voice in response and feel my hands clench involuntarily in expectation of something terrible. Turns out she sassed the guy. He pointed a gun in her face and shouted for her to get down and she looked down the barrel of that gun, remembered her southern belle upbringing and said with attitude, "O-kay!" before crawling under her desk and activating the alarm. I remember when she later told me what happened, I loved her refusal to act the victim, and her spunk in the face of such horror.

"Jesus help me", I whisper desperately as I fall to my knees, breathing shallowly and feeling my heart start to squeeze with pressure and panic. I breathe prayer after reflexive one word prayer, reliant on the intervention and protection of the God I have loved since I was 3 years old, trusting that He will, as the psalmist wrote, "give His angels charge over us, to guard us in all of our ways". As I crouch there, moving my mouth with no sound, the weirdest thing happens. I start to feel calmer. I hear the men jumping over the counter of the teller line. I hear people sobbing and falling everywhere. There is, accompanying the adrenaline coursing through my veins, the wretched anticipation of a gunshot.

But a weird peace drops over me.

I start to feel as though I am cocooned inside a bubble of quiet. I cannot feel the intense turmoil that I am sure is roiling in the air around all of these terrified people. There is instantly a noticeable difference in the erratic pumping of my heart. I suddenly know with certainty that God is here with me, in the middle of this horror. I can feel Him. I am suddenly sure that I will be okay. The apostle Paul refers to a "peace that surpasses understanding" in the book of Philippians (ch.4). Kneeling there, almost tranquil in the midst of a violent bank robbery, I have firsthand experience with this supernatural sedative and decide to pay attention.

I note the time on my wristwatch: it is 2:04pm. I can hear the bank robbers, after vaulting over the teller line, begin to ransack our drawers for the thousands of dollars locked inside. Fortunately for me, my drawer is unlocked because I was counting my cash, so they are able to take the cash quickly and without paying any attention to me at all. I crouch there quietly, both hands spread wide on the worn blue carpet, every pore listening intensely. I notice one of the men's shoes: black athletic sneakers that I am later able to describe to the police. I hear another teller pleading with one of the men; it seems her drawer was locked and she is completely hysterical and without the presence of mind to give him her keys. I silently pray. "Help us God. Preserve our lives. Keep us safe." Over and over. Crazily enough, these coherent thoughts come to my mind and I offer them to Heaven with all I am, knowing this to be my only option, my real reliance, my most hopeful alliance. She finally hands over the keys but not until he has punched her. I can hear her sobbing now, and I am praying for it to be over. Now.

My eyes trained on my watch, I am frozen, listening to every sound. Now I can hear customers that are on their hands and knees and laying on the floor in the lobby being robbed of the cash in their hands, their purses and rolls of coin they were bringing to deposit. I hear gasps and screams, thuds and shouting from one of the gunmen, then I hear coins fall to the tile floor.

They finally leave. Though it seems an eternity, they are there for less than 3 minutes. Immediately I stand up and walk to the phone. I dial 911 and in a calm voice tell the operator we have been robbed, please send the police. My fellow teller, the one who has been punched, is crawling toward me, sobbing, and I help her up and wrap my arms around her, cradling the phone in between my shoulder and ear, the big sister in me wishing I could have stopped her from being violated in this way. The customers in the bank are starting to stand up, employees are beginning to come out from under their desks. I am amazed, even while I give the bank address to the emergency operator, find a chair for the teller who was hurt, and with Carrie and my fellow employees, start to help customers stand, checking to make sure everyone is okay, and assessing what is missing, that I am not shaking, not crying, not without the sense to do what is needed for the crisis at hand.

I am okay. I still feel as though there is an invisible barrier with a temperature-controlled environment of peace that completely surrounds the immediate air I am breathing. As I write this now, it reminds me of the verse that a close friend of mine, whose 7 year old daughter was diagnosed with a brain tumor as a tiny infant, puts at the bottom of all of her emails - "He will keep in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on Thee." (Isaiah 26:3)

The police come. I am able to remember the time, the shoes, a few important details, the type of car they were driving, and how to work the video surveillance system to play back the tapes. Carrie is okay, the teller who was punched is okay but badly shaken, we are all okay. After the police leave, we finish out the work day with locked doors, only admitting customers whom we recognize or can identify quickly. It is not until days later that I realize the experience I have had and the real, sustaining involvement of my Heavenly Father on my behalf and that of those in the bank. What if it had turned out worse?

In the Old Testament, in the book of Exodus, God instructed the Israelites, after He brought them across the Red Sea and delivered them miraculously from the hands of their enemies and certain death or slavery, to build a tower of rocks, a memorial to remind them and future generations of His faithfulness to deliver them. He knew they might forget just how good He is. He knew the power that lives in just one testimony of His strength and willingness to help those He loves. This story teaches me many things, but one of them is that our own experiences, whether grand, gruesome, mundane or messy, hold riches for those whose shoulders we brush in this life. No one can tell your story but you. God works in your life uniquely and means for it to be shared - a fine thread tightly woven into all the others, making a rich tapestry that verily shouts of the color and wisdom, the joy and peace to be had in living a life that acknowledges and trusts God.

I will never forget the inexplicable peace, heightened awareness and endurance that dropped over me that day at the bank, so remarkable it was. It defied coincidence and pointed definitely to the care and ultimate control of God. It served to cement my faith even more fully to the daily trust of His guidance and help, His promise to rescue and protect me, and to design great opportunity for my life.

This story is one of my rocks.

My God rocks :)