There are two kinds of Christians in the world. Upon hearing (rightly or wrongly) that Pullman is an atheist who wrote a fantasy book about the death of God and the corruption of the church:
The first kind of Christian gets angry, boycotts the movie, and forwards cautionary e-mails to friends and family.
The second kind of Christian responds, "An atheist wrote it? Hmmm. That sounds interesting..." And then he goes and buys the book, reads it, and attends the movie with his friend Kyle to see what's up.
My overwhelming impression of the book and the movie:
I like the armored bears.
In a great twist of fate for this blog, science in Lyra's world (Lyra is the protagonist of The Golden Compass) is called "experimental theology."
I'm just getting into the second book--The Subtle Knife--so this analysis is preliminary, but Pullman seems to be having fun conflating science and theology across Lyra's world and our own. For example,
Lyra's World :: Our World
Experimental Theology :: Science
Theologians :: Particle Physicists
Original Sin :: Dark Matter
Thus, scientific breakthroughs in Lyra's world are called "heretical" or "heresy." Which is an interesting thought as one ponders how religious fundamentalists view evolution...
"Cutting" in the name of religion and for social control is a big symbol in The Golden Compass. The religious overtones echo circumcision and eunuchs. The social control overtones echo female circumcision and lobotomy.
I don't see why Protestants are upset with the books/movie. Now Catholics, I can see why they are angry...
There seems to be a lot of Eastern spirituality in the books. Dust, early in my reading of The Subtle Knife, appears conscious. Plus, Dust is what makes the alethiometer (the Golden Compass)--a tool of divination--work. In short, Dust seems like the Tao and the alethiometer is the I Ching.
Pullman is mischievous with his depiction and naming of dæmons. Dæmons are soul-like animal companions all humans have in Lyra's world. The playful thing here is that the "demon" is the "soul." And the "church" is trying to "cut out" the "demon" to control the people. But, as we see in the book, what "the church" calls "demons" are really our "souls." Get it? The big bad church is trying to exorcise the demons of the world but they are (malevolently?) mistaken: They are actually killing people's souls in order to better control them.
This is an interesting little move but it's confused in that everyone in Lyra's world, even the church, knows dæmons to be good things. That is, although Pullman's move is semantically cute, it is narratively flawed. A church attacking what is universally believed to be a good thing isn't the church as we know it. It's a cult. But it is worse in Pullman's world in that even the church knows dæmons to be good things. Which means The Magisterium (the church) in Pullman's world is so confused as to have no recognizable counterpart in our world. In short, I think kids can safely read the books. Although The Magisterium is called "the church" in Pullman's books, it is so clearly NOT the church that when kids encounter The Magisterium they will immediately say, "That's not the church!" Which ultimately scuttles any attempt by Pullman (if he even had this intent) to undermine "the church" (as if there even exists a Magisterium-like "church" in this post-Christian world). (btw, that is my general take on a lot of Pullman's playful, multi-layered symbolism: Cute, but structurally flawed by his own hand.)
But the most interesting thing about dæmons is how they echo Christian orthodoxy about the fundamental features of the Imago Dei. More specifically, dæmons evoke notions of the Trinity. That is, in the doctrine of the Trinity God is never "alone." God is defined as a community. In Lyra's world human personality is always communal. People are not singularities. Loneliness doesn't exist.
I prefer non-fiction. But I do like the armored bears.