Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Matt 24 watch, 43: The Golden Compass 4 -- the Lucy Pevensie school of epistemology

Just this morning on the local relay of the usual morning BBC news -- a familiar 7:00 am or 8:00 am morning ritual all over the English-speaking Caribbean -- there was an item on the 75th anniversary of that venerable global institution.

As I listened to it, my mind went back to the recent issues over BBC's sad loss of credibility and tendency to regrettably biased reporting and commentary. Thence, my mind turned to this blog's recent remarks on the Golden Compass movie [which by the way, opened with unexpectedly low box office numbers], and to The Chronicles of Narnia, which Mr Pullman has so often and so harshly derided.

(I also remembered my promise to get around to the substance for this post -- I have been busy over the past few days, with consultancy issues, with the GLI initiative and with updating the now long note on Information, design science etc. Pardon the delay . . . and, ASAP, I will also be getting around to interesting links between the ever unsettled Middle East, Israel, the ongoing peace process, Iran, Venezuela and the Caribbean. But, let's get back to this post . . . )

. . . I found the suggested explanation for the Golden Compass' low box office numbers in the USA interesting, especially the contrast with numbers in the UK:
Rolf Mittweg of New Line Cinema, which released Compass, concedes that the religion controversy might have had an effect. But he points out, "Historically, that tends to be ineffective — look at The Da Vinci Code. No one was supposed to see that, either."

He notes that the film did better internationally, grossing $55 million in 25 territories, led by the United Kingdom, where it brought in $18 million. Outside the USA, Mittweg says, movies are "not at all affected" by religious controversies. [Translation: Slander, hostility-inducing misinformation, advocacy for questionable early sexual behaviour, and blasphemy against the Church and God have little impact on the public in truly secularised cultures. Shades of Rom 1.]

Gregg Kilday, film editor with The Hollywood Reporter, paints a complex picture. Though church opposition can't be discounted, he says, "to claim it's a victim of religious controversy, there's no real evidence of that, at least not at this point."

The film may have suffered from a general tiring of fantasy films, he says. He noted the poor box-office performance of Stardust, which topped out at just $38.3 million this year. "And while the movie has been treated as a potential franchise, a la Lord of the Rings, in some ways, it was never fated to be like that," Kilday says. "The Pullman trilogy isn't as well known, and this is a fantasy built around a young girl" — not exactly a fit with the genre's core young-male audience.

What's more, he says, "in reaching out to younger females, it obviously ran up against Enchanted."

Disney's princess film, in fact, is holding well, according to studio estimates from Nielsen EDI. The film captured No. 2 with $10.7 million after two weeks at No. 1 . . .

Muy interesante.

Especially, let us observe the deft dodging of the point that Pullman has clearly gone across some very serious lines in the culture with his very overt hostility to the Judaeo-Christian tradition and a highly questionable incident in his trilogy, in which Lyra, the approximately 12 year old anti-heroine engages in a highly sexually charged encounter with Will, her companion for much of the trilogy. [Cf Atlantic Monthly's discussion here.]

Onward, my thoughts went to a key incident in the very first book in the Narnia series, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

The incident occurs shortly after Lucy, the youngest of four Pevensie children, had discovered a gateway to the parallel universe of Narnia, while hiding in a wardrobe. (NB: In a later book, The Magician's Nephew, it turns out that the wardrobe was made from the wood of an apple tree planted from a Narnian seed and used to save the life of Professor Kirke's mother. That name Kirke is also, plainly, a hint: "kirk" is the Scotch word for "church.")

On returning to England from Narnia, Lucy announced her discovery to her brothers Edmund and Peter, and her older sister, Susan.

They don't believe her and worry as to whether she has turned liar all of a sudden, or whether she has lost her mind.

Soon enough, the worried older siblings bring the matter to Prof Kirke, and ask for his help. An epistemologically interesting exchange occurs, starting with a sharp retort from the good Professor [which I duly emphasise]:
"How do you know?" he asked, "that your sister's story is not true?"

Oh, but--" began Susan, and then stopped. Anyone could see from the old man's face that he was perfectly serious. Then Susan pulled herself together and said, "But Edmund [NB: who had by then also been to Narnia and had come under the bewitchment of the wicked white witch, Jadis, who had usurped power in Narnia and was running a Nazi-style police state, making it "always winter but never Christmas"] said they had been only pretending."

"That is a point," said the Professor, "which deserves consideration . . . For instance . . . does your experience lead you to regard your brother or your sister as the more reliable? I mean, which is the more truthful?"

"That's just the funny thing about it, Sir," said Peter. "Up till now, I'd have said Lucy every time." . . . .

"Well," said Susan, "in general, I'd say the same as Peter, but this couldn't be true -- all this about the wood and the Faun."

"That is more than I know," said the Professor, "and a charge of lying against someone whom you have found truthful is a very serious thing . . ."
The issue of Lucy's possible madness, naturally enough, then comes up.

The Professor dispatches the suggestion with a hook-shot to the boundary: " Oh, you can make your minds easy about that. One only has to look at her and talk to her to see that she is not mad."

Next . . .
"But then," said Susan and stopped . . . .

"Logic!" said the Professor half to himself. "Why don't they teach logic at these schools? There are only three possibilities. Either your sister is telling lies, or she is mad, or she is telling the truth. You know she doesn't tell lies and it is obvious that she is not mad. For the moment then, unless further evidence turns up, we must assume that she is telling the truth."
And so, we come to the central issue of epistemology, the philosophical study of knowledge: whose report do we believe, why?

The best answer, in a world of fallible, finite, too often ill-willed people, hinges on credibility, and on being open-minded but critically aware.

On the principles of reasonable faith, in short:
--> We should trust the straightforwardly and plainly, habitually truthful over the devious, manipulative and deceptive.

--> We should examine circumstances and known facts to see if one who hitherto has usually told the truth may be either lying or mistaken or outright deceived.

--> We should not beg the question by ruling out logically possible options that don't fit our current view of the world, or by demanding an impossible standard of evidence for such: extraordinary things require ADEQUATE evidence, not "extraordinary evidence."

--> When in doubt, we should hold our conclusions provisionally, pending further clarification.

--> When such a conclusion holds up and shows itself to be reliable relative to facts and fresh discoveries, is coherent and powerfully explains a lot about the world, we should be prepared to trust its reliability.
By that light, The Chronicles of Narnia wins hands down over The Golden Compass, and the His Dark Materials trilogy.

(So, by the way, if you are looking for a set of books to give to a favourite child for Christmas, Narnia takes my endorsement hands down over The Golden Compass and its ilk, or for that matter the latest Harry Potter tome.)

And, by that light, the Apostle Paul's AD 55 report takes my endorsement hands down over and against the fulminations of Mr Pullman and his atheistical ilk:
1CO 15:1 Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. 2 By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you . . . .

1CO 15:3 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. 6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep . . . 8 and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.

11 Whether, then, it was I or they, this is what we preach, and this is what you believed.
So, now: whose report will you believe this Advent Season? Why? END


One of Mr Pullman's ill-founded but sometimes persuasive accusations against Narnia is that C S Lewis sends Susan to hell for simply growing up and becoming fashion conscious.

I find Chris Whiteside's rebuttal to such notions here very interesting, and telling on Mr Pullman's want of doing basic research before making sharp accusations:
. . . a careful reading . . . will show that [The Last Battle”] does not predict whether Susan will go to heaven when she dies. There is a far more practical reason why she does not join the other characters in heaven at the end of the book – she isn’t dead yet. At the conclusion of the Narnian series Susan is alive and well in England and, if she has any sense, suing British Rail for vast sums of money as compensation for wiping out her entire family in a rail accident.

This is not just my own interpretation, although I arrived at this view myself from reading “The Last battle”. C.S. Lewis confirmed it himself in a letter to a boy named Martin in 1957 which can be found in the book “Letters to Children.” In his words
“The books don’t tell us what happened to Susan. She is left alive in this world at the end, having by then turned into a rather silly, conceited young woman. But there is plenty of time for her to mend, and perhaps she will get into Aslan’s country in the end – in her own way.”
Personally I suspect that Susan would have come back from what would appear to her as the wasteful and tragic death of her parents, brothers, sister and cousin by campaigning for better rail safety and justice for the survivors and families of rail crash victims. When Susan rediscovered the strength she had as the Queen who defied and outwitted Prince Rabadash, the Board of British Rail and the Department of Transport wouldn’t have known what hit them !
Indeed! (Rabadash of Calormene had wanted her hand in marriage in Narnia . . . )

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