Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Whose God, Which Deity?

Perhaps it is providential that the film version of Philip Pullman's THE GOLDEN COMPASS opens during Advent. This is the time of the Church's year when the lectionary offers us a heavy dose of John the Baptist. And I suggest that John is just the figure we need to put into conversation with Pullman's story and the larger conversation about it in our culture.

The Christian Right is busy, as usual, calling for boycotts and warning parents not to let their children see the movie or read the story. Even most secualr commentators I am aware of presume Pullman's atheist agenda. But I wonder. It feels to me like there is too much passion, too much venom for a convinced atheist. Me thinks he doth protest too much! It seems as though he is enraged at the God whom he claims does not exist - which seems an inappropriate response to a non-existent being. And that raises the question for me: whose God, which deity is Pullman committing deicide on in the HIS DARK MATERIALS trilogy?

Just to say the word "God" begs this question. What God are you talking about, which deity is the one you worship or posit as true? Pulllman, it seems to me, posits the angry, vengeful, capricious deity of Old Testament caricature and, sadly, too much Christian teaching and practice as his target. And to that I think we Christians should shout AMEN! After all, we hold (or should hold) no brief for that deity either. He seems more at home among the pantheon of Greek deities on Mt. Olympus than on Mt. Zion! Good Riddance to him and thanks to Pullman for this debunking! After all, this kind of stheism, the debunking and refusal to give adherence to the putative deities of the Roman world, ironically, earned the early Christians the same charge many Christians are throwing at Pullman - atheist! More irony - the "Authority," the God-figure in the stories is revealed at the end as a false deity - a pretender who snookered all the rest of the creatures into beleiving his lie. Some other creature in some other book is also associated with similar prevarications, I believe!

In Matthias Grunewald's magnificent "Isenheim Altarpiece" John the Baptist is unforgettably pictured as pointing his long. bony finger at the agonized suffering Jesus on the cross. If we agree with Pullman's demolition of the "Angry Tyrant" deity (and God willing, we will), then we ought turn our attention to the one to whom John points. For it is that pathetic, powerless, pitiful suffering figure on the humiliating cross on whom "the hopes and fears of all the years" rest! It in in his death for us, for our well-being and flourishing, rather than our deaths for him, that we find the kind of deity who might provoke Pullman to rethinnk some of his views about God. Even if not Pullman, there remain too many still wedded to or tortured by this deity (and his hencemen, the authroitative, repressive church) who deserve to know about this one to whom John points in Grunewals's painting as in the New Testament.

Perhaps it twas this deity as well whose death Nietzsche celebrated. IF so, let's celebrate with him. Let us be proud to be atheists of this stripe. And let us be aware that we live in a world "with devil's filled" as Luther put it in his great hymn A MIGHTY FORTRESS IS OUR GOD - devils of finance and commerce, devils or privilege and poverty, devils of propriety and dessert, devils of oppression and ignorance, devils of education and pride, in short a demon-infested cosmos, all running around trumpeting themselves "gods" and calling humankind to give their loyalty and their lives to them! We need an even more comprehensive "atheism" than the one Pullman envisions. May we let John the Baptist point us to true deity as he directs our gaze to Jesus - "the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world"! (John 1:29)


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