Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Clearly SOMEBODY's plot, anyway


Cryoelectron tomography of a magnetotactic bacterium: a three-dimensional reconstruction of the interior of a Magnetospirillum gryphiswaldense cell. The cell membrane is blue, the magnetosome crystal red, and the surrounding vesicle yellow. The image makes it clear that both the membrane vesicle and the "mature" magnetosomes are strung like pearls on a chain along a filamentous structure (green), which is similar to a cytoskeleton. From the article "Bacteria Which Sense the Earth's Magnetic Field" Image copyright: Max Planck Institute for Biochemistry

Sometimes science sounds just like Dungeons and Dragons, doesn't it?

So the question of the day is: Can literature corrupt?

That may sound like a pretty big question for my extremely small and flippant blog, and don't worry, I ain't gon' get all smart on you or anything, it's just that a couple things have come up in the last couple days, and I wanted to think about them.

Our Aimee got the following email about the forthcoming movie The Golden Compass from her relatives sur le bayou, and then from the room mother of her daughter's first grade class:
"We need to get the word out about this movie - it is coming out in December - an atheist produced it, it is marketed for children and in the end they kill God.
Send this to everyone you know.
The Golden Compass is a big film, due for release on Dec. 7, targeting children. It has an atheistic theme that destroys God in the end of the film with the intent to 'kill God in the minds of children'."
Apparently The Catholic League has called for a boycott. Not that boycotting movies appears to be within their purview - the stated mission of The Catholic League is
"to safeguard both the religious freedom rights and the free speech rights of Catholics whenever and wherever they are threatened."
Whatever. How about if I don't touch that.

Just this weekend I had recommended the movie, and the books that it is based on, to my friends in NYC, who, as it happens, are Catholic, and, as it happens, had decided
not to read the books or take their kids to see the movie, on the grounds that the trilogy (called His Dark Materials) is anti-Church. I didn't know about the boycott. I don't even think of His Dark Materials as having anything to do with Catholicism. I just think it's an astonishing adventure story with a lot of metaphysics thrown in. I don't generally recommend it to anyone under about 13 because the concepts are really quite mature. I know some grownups I wouldn't recommend it to, let's just say.

So I was a bit surprised that they'd already heard about the movie and had decided against it, but then, I often discover that I am quite oblivious.

In my opinion, if you participate in decisions about what your child reads, I am all for it. Hell, you participate in any facet of your child's life, that's great. Too many parents don't. And my friends have been at this parenting thing a lot longer than I have. So when I meet parents who don't let their kids read Harry Potter, or Philip Pullman, or Captain Underpants, I usually don't press the point. I don't always get it, but that's ok.

I pushed it a little with my friends this weekend because His Dark Materials is, as I say, an astonishing adventure, and because, as I say, it doesn't strike me as anti-Church. If you've read these books, now is the point where you call me an idiot. The books are patently anti-Church. All the bad guys are working for The Church. And, yes, in fact, God dies.

However, the world of His Dark Materials is not our world. It's like saying that the movie Aliens is anti-corporation. It is. But it's not like Ridley Scott is pointing a finger at, say, PepsiCo. Or even Microsoft. (And god knows there are novels that do just that.) It's a different world, and it's a different Church.

I also find that having a character named God, who dies, is kind of an interesting thing to try out in an alternate-universe novel, and further, I think that Christians and atheists alike can have interesting conversations about it.

There are important differences between Philip Pullman's God and the God that my friends and their kids have a relationship with. First of all, Pullman's God is in a book. Secondly, he's a guy, an old guy - a mortal guy. Thirdly, he's not very important. Say what you will about God in our world... I don't even believe in Him, and even in my life - that God is important.

So, the God in the books is definitely Philip Pullman's God. Pullman is certainly an atheist. So'm I. But there are so many Gods. I think everyone who believes in God - or a god - probably believes in someone different.

And none of this really answers my question: Can literature corrupt?

Are Aimee's relatives right? Can watching The Golden Compass 'kill God in the minds of children'?

I personally think that no fancy movie with Nicole Kidman is going to change an individual's mind about anything except perhaps the advisability of trying cosmetic injections.

Books, though, are a more personal experience, and I think get inside your head more. Can reading The Golden Compass kill God in the mind of a child?

Depends on the child. Depends on the family. Or... wait. You know what? Fuck this hedging. No. No kid is going to read this book and move from a position of full faith to thinking that God is Dead. It's not a newspaper, it's fiction. There are talking animals in it - no child is going to read this book and then turn around and start talking to squirrels.

On the other hand:

Aimee says that these are the relatives who believe that the war in Iraq is God's punishment for the legalization of abortion. Maybe, if you live in a world where such things are possible, maybe in that world animals could talk. Maybe a child could read Harry Potter and become a devil worshipper. If you believe in magic, anything could happen.

And... our Token Boy Librarian, upon reading my earlier post about the company that is offering to freeze the stem cells in your menstrual blood to use in possible future customized medical treatments, said,
"see, and here my first thought was 'well, that's clearly a vampire plot'.
I think I need to take a break from the graphic novels."
Ok, so... I could be wrong. (And weirdly, that's exactly the kind of thing my friend in NYC would say, and in exactly the same words.)

I didn't write this to pressure my friends, who read this blog, to bring His Dark Materials into their house (in fact, you put it that way, and it really sounds menacing - like the Pure Evil in the toaster oven in Time Bandits). I respect immensely their engagement in the intellectual and moral life of their kids. Besides, their kids are too young for those books, which I forgot. Plus, it's entirely possible that they might take offense at the way Philip Pullman slags his fictional Church in the books. I myself get pretty cheesed-off when certain authors consistently treat their fictional females with disdain, so I don't read those authors.

However, I maintain my position that when a kid comes from a family in which morals and behavior are presented consistently, explained, and discussed, that kid can evaluate non-familial inputs (such as current events, the behavior of other kids, TV characters, and books) with a critical mind.

If it's taste, it's one thing. If it's fear, then you've already lost.

And as for the title of this post... here's my theory: