by Annette Bridges. © 2007. All rights reserved.

I’ve always encouraged our daughter to question and probe into any and every subject. No topic was off limits, including those that I hold most dear as well as those I strongly oppose. As a parent, I admit it has not been easy to have my child debate my deeply cherished and respected values. But the debates — and there were many — helped me clarify and understand better the basis for my values and opinions. And I hope encouraged her development as an independent thinker!

At age 24, Jennifer Gamel recently completed her master’s thesis. As a young woman who reads widely and goes to see the latest movies, she was, I thought, the right person to ask about the controversy and concerns surrounding the upcoming release of the film “The Golden Compass” — since I’ve yet to read Phillip Pullman’s trilogy myself, and she has. Here are my questions and Jennifer’s responses:

How would you respond to someone describing “The Golden Compass” as “sugar-coated atheism”?

I would cautiously disagree. I don’t believe this book, the first in Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy, has an atheist agenda. Since Pullman is a vocal atheist, individuals are perhaps afraid his views will taint his writing, but as those of us who have read his books will attest, they are extremely thought-provoking — even spiritual — books.

Pullman himself has responded to similar questions: “In the world of the story — Lyra’s world — there is a church that has acquired great political power, rather in the way that some religions in our world have done at various times, and still do (think of the Taliban in Afghanistan). My point is that religion is at its best — it does most good — when it is farthest away from political power, and that when it gets hold of the power to (for example) send armies to war or to condemn people to death, or to rule every aspect of our lives, it rapidly goes bad. Sometimes people think that if something is done in the name of faith or religion, it must be good. Unfortunately, that isn’t true; some things done in the name of religion are very bad. That was what I was trying to describe in my story.

“I think the qualities that the books celebrate are those such as kindness, love, courage and courtesy too. And intellectual curiosity. All these good things. And the qualities that the books attack are cold-heartedness, tyranny, close-mindedness, cruelty, the things that we all agree are bad things.”

With all the negative comments about Pullman’s trilogy, I was intrigued by remarks of an assistant professor of religious studies, who is also a Catholic. This professor is planning to start a class on the trilogy and found Pullman’s books to be “breathlessly written adventures, rich in Christian ideals and theological probing.” In fact, this professor has also co-authored a book titled “Killing the Imposter God.” Your thoughts?

I would say this professor is in agreement with my own perception of the books. I don’t interpret Pullman’s writings literally. There is no denying that God is killed in the third book, but this God is not how I believe God to be. Pullman’s God is weak and useless and obviously able to be killed. I believe it is the concept of a manlike God with mortal qualities that needs to die so that a purer, more accurate understanding of God can emerge. Pullman’s God is an impostor and in no way corresponds to the traditional Christian viewpoint of an omnipotent and immortal God.

Some parents have expressed concerns that Pullman’s presentation of church and God will have a negative impact on young people. How would you respond?

I think some children are too firmly directed about how to believe spiritually. They are rarely given an option to stray beyond what their parents think, and I believe this is one reason why some young people step away from organized religion in their 20s and 30s. They are tired of being told what to think. Having a more honest and open approach with children in regard to religion and spirituality may have more positive results in the end.

Still, if parents have some concerns about their child reading a book such as “The Golden Compass,” they might consider reading and discussing it with their child. That way, the child is graced with the parents’ life experiences and opinions along with the author’s ideas. This is better to me than simply denying a child access to what some consider a controversial book. Nothing would have tempted me more than my mom closing a door on what I could read.

What is your view about boycotting movies or censoring books?

As a literature and movie connoisseur, this thought appalls me. My master’s is in Literature, and when I look back at humanity’s history, I see the evils of book censorship. Does that mean that parents should not control what their children read? No, but I would emphasize motive. If the motive is a belief that the subject matter is too adult or perhaps scary, then there is nothing wrong with it. However, if parents simply want to control their children’s thinking, out of fear that they will develop opinions that stray from the parents’ beliefs, then I am highly against it. I believe children should be encouraged to come to their own conclusions about what they are going to believe in, and such ability only creates better and more responsible adults. Reading a book can only broaden a child’s ideas and vocabulary. And that’s a good thing!

If someone asked you what “The Golden Compass” is about, what would you say?

I would say it is about a young girl’s destiny to make a positive impact on her world. Lyra is a good role model for children. She is strong and brave, not afraid to make sacrifices for the greater good. In many ways, this book (and all three books in Pullman’s trilogy) are genuinely inspirational about the power of one person standing against many for what is right.

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So what do you think? Did I raise an independent thinker? My daughter and son-in-law are coming to town so we can see “The Golden Compass” together as well as go to “The Nutcracker” ballet. It should make for an interesting weekend — filled, I suspect, with lively dialogue!