goldcompass.jpgDr. Francis Schaeffer was the prophetic voice of the 20th Century. He forewarned the Christian community of both postmodernity (before it was called postmodernity) and the real issues behind secular humanism. He was a brilliant man whose wisdom, epistemological skills, and grasp of the history of philosophy made him an awesome asset to the Christian community. He was a noted speaker with a worldwide ministry until his death in 1984.

One thing, however, that Dr. Schaeffer said stands out in my mind as of great importance. It is not in the category of philosophy, or theology. It is something very simple. Schaeffer rejected the idea of a very public, and popular, western ministry to live in the Swiss Alps and minister to students, day in and day out. He and his wife Edith lived hidden away up there and had no organizational support, no fund-development department, and no PR group. Many of his former colleagues thought he was crazy and some were even angry that he would do this. Dr. Schaeffer, however, shared the gospel with hundreds of college students, and his wife helped as many.

He would sit and talk with every student who came through his doors to wrestle with him about the meaning of life and about God. He would patiently listen to them, taking them seriously, and then he would gently and honestly point out the wholes in their worldview. Many students came to Christ through that ministry. And from it all Francis Schaeffer has a great lesson to teach Christians today; it is a lesson about evangelism and compassion.

In his book The God Who is There Schaeffer describes the fundamental shifts in the culture that have led people further and further away from truth and from God. Through Philosophy, theology, and art the culture has abandoned truth and made the nature of evangelism more difficult. His own prescribed method of evangelism involved tearing down a persons worldview, but the way that one does that is of paramount importance. So Schaeffer writes:

These paintings, these poems, and these demonstrations which we have been talking about are the expression of men who are struggling with their appalling lostness. Dare we laugh at such things? Dare we feel superior when we view their tortured expressions in their art? Christians should stop laughing and take such men seriously. Then we shall have the right to speak again to our generation. These men are dying while they live; yet where is our compassion for them? There is nothing more ugly than a Christian orthodoxy without understanding or without compassion.

That is probably the greatest lesson we can learn from Dr. Schaeffer. You can never share the gospel with someone whom you do not take seriously as a human being; and they will never want to listen to you if your words are not truth and compassion mixed together. There church, and individual Christians in particular, have over the past several centuries struggled greatly with this kind of evangelism. We have often found ourselves more interested in turning up our noses, mocking, belittling, and boycotting the culture, but Schaeffer would have us to find compassion for the culture. So he says, “As I push a man off his false balance, he must be able to feel that I care about him. Otherwise I will only end up destroying him…” We must have compassion.

Yes I am angry that Philip Pullman wants to “destroy Christianity!” But in his books (which have been adapted into a full length motion picture, released today) I also sense that there is a man who hates God, who is honest about it, and who needs the gospel. I will find in some of his major fans similar feelings of religious disdain. How I share the gospel with them will need to start with recognizing this factor and lovingly tearing down the worldview that supports it as I bring them the gospel. What Schaeffer does so well is to remind us that the culture is part of life, where people’s worldviews are expressed, and though we would often criticize and demean culture it can and should actually be part of how we do evangelism.


  1. I just want to note that Christians should actually applaud Pullman’s rejection of self-righteousness and what might be called abusive religious authoritarianism. Jesus didn’t have very nice things to say about those people either.

    The unfortunate thing is that he has confounded the power structure of the Catholic Church with the one true living God. I plan to go see the movie with friends, and let people know that I pretty much agree with Pullman — and that’s why I follow Jesus.

  2. That’s an interesting comment Geoffrey. And I think I understand what you mean. There has been a lot of religious “self-righteousness” within the church.

    There is a problem with your assessment, however. Actually several. For one, as you note, Pullman does connect the church and the living God. So to say you agree with him is to confess atheism.
    Furthermore there is a reason that Pullman connects the church and the living God: Jesus did.

    Jesus established the church. Commands his followers to be part of it, and calls the church (not individual Christians) his bride. The church, both universal and local, matters to God. You can’t so simply separate the church (calling it evil) and God (calling Him good). God established the church and, though yes it is still flawed, it is His bride.

    So, to make such broad sweeping comments about Christianity, which is essentially the more specific focus of Pullman (not simply the church),is to make take a strike at the God who bought them and loves them!

  3. David,

    I think there may be a misunderstanding here. It seems that our friend, Geoffrey, was not talking about the Church in general, but Roman Catholicism in particular. Perhaps he does not beleive, as Rome does, that the Roman Catholic Church is the only true church. If so, he would not be making the sort of distinctions your are understanding him to make. Geoffrey sounds to me like a protestant who considers Roman Catholicism “abusive religious athoritarianism” of “self righteousness.” His agreement with Pullman seems to lie here.

    Even if he were unwittingly making the sort of dichotomy you understood him to make (which I agree with you that we cannot ultimately make the dichotomy so sharp between Christ and his church), he would not be guilty of atheism, he would only be guilty of too sharp of a dichotomy. Accusing him of atheism seems a little extreme.

    Hitler was part of the “visible” church. Real Christians do terrible things that may shock us. The Church often misrepresents the God they know (just as Jesus’ closest followers often misunderstood and were poor representatives). We must keep a distinction between God/Christ and the church, but we must also recognize, as you do, that the true church, though still sinful, is Christ’s bride, a good thing, something Christ himself establishes by his power and for his glory.

  4. Perhaps I wasn’t clear enough. I don’t mean to accuse anyone of atheism, accept Philip Pullman. I certainly didn’t mean to call Geoffrey an atheist. Sorry Geoff.

    All I am saying is that you can’t say you agree with Philip Pullman, who is out to “destroy Christianity” and who kills God in his books, without being an atheist. Philip Pullman’s attack is not simply against religion, or Roman Catholicism, or the Church, it is against God.

    I do now see, however, that Geoffrey specified the Catholic Church. Sorry again Geoff. Nonetheless, as I said above, Pullman is not simply attacking Roman Catholicism, he’s attacking the Christian faith, and in his works and in this movie you can’t separate the two as though you are agreeing with Pullman only on certain points but not the whole.

  5. It is important to agree with anyone precisely where they are correct and disagree precisely where they are incorrect. When Pullman shows self-righteousness as evil, he is making a correct statement about the world. When he extends his observation of hypocrisy to an argument that the church and therefore God must be evil, then we must disagree with him there–he goes beyond what the real world evidence allows.

    From what I understand, Pullman’s Christian characters are extremely flat. All believers is the stories are evil and corrupt–they are the bad guys. In this sense, he is very much like Dawkins who creates a strawman out of God and then knocks that strawman down, claiming victory for atheism. Pullman fills his world exclusively with hypocritical/evil believers as evidence (of some kind) that believers are mistaken in their worldview.

    Another striking parallel could be draw between this and campy/didactic/shallow Christian literature and film in which all the unbelievers have miserable lives, have immediate and profound consequences for their sin, and are the “bad guys” (except for the character who converts).

    Of course, there is really good literature and film (film? hmmm, well I hope so at least) made by Christians which don’t stereotype unbelievers for the sake of futile didacticism; nevertheless, it is interesting to me how Pullman’s troublingly reductive characterization of believers can be seen mirroring some Christian “writers” troublingly reductive characterization of unbelievers.

  6. Some good points in this discussion – but please don’t miss this most important one: Pullman’s books and this film are not aimed at us as mature Christians, but at our children. The level of discernment necessary to make some of the distinctions you are making is just not there yet for children the age of the film’s intended audience.

  7. It is a good point, and that is why parents and more mature Christians need to be all the more thoughtful and engaging with this content. I think it would be a mistake for Christians to make the kind of comments that our friend Geoffrey is making precisely because of the point that R.Hill has spoken to.

  8. I see what you’re saying, David, but I think Geoffrey’s comments do get at an important issue. Christians cannot simply take an issue like this and think about how to protect their kids… though that is one concern.

    When the world caricatures Christians in this way, we should also become introspective- WHY do they see us this way? Are we doing things in our churches that perpetuate these false notions? Are those things biblical?

    My grandmother still tells stories of the awful, cruel, and hypocritical way her church acted toward her family when she was young. As a result, most of the people in her family turned away from the church, disillusioned. Those family members would likely see this movie or the books and immediately identify with them.

    That should challenge us as Christians to portray our faith rightly, and to be a beautiful city on a hill, not a beautiful city that looks like a cesspit from the outside.

  9. Ben, I don’t intend for our consideration of this work to be focused solely on protecting our kids…I think my original article proves that point (it has nothing to do with protecting kids).

    And I agree that one of the great things about the pop culture is that its critiques offer us a chance at self-inspection. Yet, again, Pullman is making attacks on the Christian faith, not simply about the church, and therefore to say, “I agree with Pullman…and I follow Jesus,” is impossible. I bet Phil would agree.

  10. I probably shouldn’t speak too much for, “Geoffrey,” but it strikes me that his original comment was that he “pretty much” agrees with Pullman’s attack on the negative aspects of the Catholic Church, rather than saying he agrees with the central thesis of Pullman’s atheism.

    Nobody is saying that Pullman is correct that the church is an essentially evil organization bent on destroying human happiness. And nobody is saying that becoming an atheist like him is what causes you to follow Jesus. However, it would be true to say that the church has some serious historical mistakes that need to be dealt with honestly. That’s all I’m trying to point out.

  11. Uhm. Just a note. The church in the book is not the Roman Catholic church. It is, apparently, the only church as there was a Reformation, but no schism (as Calvin took the seat of the papacy to Geneva). There doesn’t even seem to be an Eastern Church. There is only The Church.

    So to view his attack as being leveled against the Roman Church alone is inaccuarate.

  12. Calvin became Pope prior to the events of the book and after his papal reign ended the papacy dissolved and became a number of various counsels and other organizations composed of various religious authorities. Sometimes competing, sometimes in agreement.

  13. I find the idea of “destroying Chrisitanity” quite brutal and authroitarian in its own right. There is one thing Schaeffer points out again and again in his writings and that is the contradiction involved in rejecting God. Even to reject an authoritarian church one needs a basis for that rejection other than one’s own feelings. I find that the athiests I talk to that tell me the church is oppressive or whatever have a very hard time explaining why. Ironically they usually invoke some sort of transcendent moral law to denounce whatever they feel is unjust or wrong. The delicate task is then to show them that what they are invoking is actually pointing to something great i.e. God. The trick then is not clobber them with the logical contradiction of their own thinking but gently guide them to it. Not easy but necessary.
    Remember Christ died while we were ALL his enemies.
    P.S. Something Augustine has said applies here too. Never judge a philosophy by its abuses.
    God Bless Damian

  14. In this day, I wonder why anyone bothers to buy a book detailing criticism of a flash-in-the-pan pop-cult experience. Imagine how much use someone will get out of that book in nine months (or even one). Especially when you can get all the information you need by 1) reading the material firsthand and 2) opening up Google and typing in His Dark Materials.

  15. The Dane–
    In that same thought, I wonder how many copies of anti-Da Vinci Code books are laying around unattended right now.

  16. Wow, I really appreciate everyone’s insightful comments in response to mine. I pretty much agree with most of what is said here — first of all, that of course as a Christian, I do not “agree” with Pullman in any simple sense. But as Alan and Ben point out, when someone is so easily able to confuse the errors of the church with the Truth about God, we do need to ask ourselves why. And (I believe) to take some of the criticisms to heart.

    So just to be clear, I do not agree with Pullman’s conclusions, but I identified with many of his criticisms of the church (Roman Catholic and otherwise). The same perceptions (Christian = narrow-minded, self-serving, hypocritical, anti-intellectual, hate-filled) had caused me to utterly reject Christianity for many years.

    I did end up seeing the movie. Interestingly after seeing it, I’m less worried about protecting kids. They seem to totally miss the whole religious subtext. But it was a good enough movie that I can readily imagine adult non-believers leaving the theater nodding their heads in agreement. I want to suggest that we should be the believers who attend the film with our non-believing friends, and maybe hear their stories of faith lost or compromised. Because that can be the start of a relationship that ultimately leads someone back toward God.

    And if you are thinking, “Gosh, I don’t have any non-believing friends,”….

  17. I stole this from a facebook group because it says better than I know how to:

    “Whether it’s The Last Temptation of Christ, V for Vendetta, The Da Vinci Code, Harry Potter or–the latest–The Golden Compass, some seem to neglect any understanding of personal resposibility and open forums of discussion. Media is an expression of culture and as such we should try to understand the overtones for the sake of not living blindly. If you don’t want your kids to see a certain movie or whatever, don’t take them to see it. But to campaign for others to follow your lead and say that “Christians have a moral duty” to do so is just plain wrong. I personally want to understand the cultural zeitgeist of which I am a part so I know how best to act, and I for one do not find mandates of boycotting to be helpful at all. The day we stifle open discussion is the day we eliminate our own freedom and saw our legs off from under us.”

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