Monday, December 10, 2007

Winter wonderland

I see by the news today that there is an ice storm that has shut down travel from Texas to New Hampshire. 12 people dead in traffic accidents attributed to the weather. Airports shut down in Chicago and Oklahoma City. I guess it's really winter.

Way down yonder in New Orleans, it has been in the 80s for the last several days. I had a Christmas open house on Saturday and had to keep the a/c blasting so people who had come in their Christmas clothes wouldn't die of heat stroke. Mind you, we are breaking records for high temperatures right now. This is not your typical December weather.

But it is incredible that you don't have to go too far north to hit a massive ice storm.

And you wonder why we crazy people continue to live here. August is the pits, but we love winter.

Y'all come down. Mardi Gras is the first Tuesday in February.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Alternative universes, explained

I have done something that Alfred Hughes, the Archbishop of New Orleans, hasn't done. I have actually READ Philip Pullman's book, The Golden Compass. Just finished it a week or so ago, in fact. According to Sunday's Times-Picayune, the archbishop hasn't read the book, and he encourages Catholics not to read it either -- or to go see the movie based on the book, which opens this Friday.

And while I admit I'm not Catholic, I also admit that, as a Protestant pastor, I haven't lost my faith over this book. Not even close. But I certainly am amused at the handwringing agonizing that's been going on over it.

"All our children are going to lose their faith if they read this book." Oh, please. There are a lot of things in this world that might cause a person to "doubt," but The Golden Compass isn't one of them.

I am a big fan of fantasy and science fiction. I've been reading it since I was oh, eight or ten years old and going through the Milton Latter Library's entire collection of juvenile science fiction and fantasy (Robert Heinlein's Red Planet and Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles were two favorites.) As you may have noticed by my present occupation, I didn't lose my faith reading them. BTW, the very copies I read of some of those books are STILL on the shelves at Latter. I checked.

One theme in science fiction and fantasy is that of the "alternate" or "alternative" universe, a world that looks a lot like ours but isn't. Classic Star Trek had an episode featuring an alternative universe, where Kirk and Spock were very different from their counterparts in this universe. The television series "Sliders" featured a group of characters who "slid" into alternative, or parallel, universes every week, and history had taken a different turn in each universe. And Doctor Who left Rose Tyler behind in a parallel universe at the end of last season -- if you need a good cry, watch that last scene between the two of them as they part.

Warning: "spoilers" follow. If you really want to read The Golden Compass, be aware that what follows will give away some plot details.

Well, the first sentence of the book begins "Lyra and her daemon..." As the story progresses, we figure out that a "daemon" (pronounced "demon") is an animal spirit that accompanies the humans in this book, and that the two are inseparably linked. There is no indication that these "daemons" are evil spirits. They are a part of who these people are. So right there, you know that this is a fantasy world.

And then, if you had any doubt that you were in a parallel universe, turn to page 27 (I am quoting from the mass market paperback edition): "Ever since Pope John Calvin had moved the seat of the Papacy to Geneva and set up the Consistorial Court of Discipline, the Church's power over every aspect of life had been absolute. The Papacy itself had been abolished after Calvin's death, and a tangle of courts, colleges, and councils, collectively known as the Magisterium, had grown up in its place."

Pope John Calvin -- did you get that? (Now we're in MY -- or our -- territory, Presbyterian and Reformed fans!) Clearly, this is an alternative universe! (Maybe that's why the Roman Catholic Church is upset -- in this universe, Calvin became pope!)

Yes, the Church (aka the Magisterium) does some terrible things in this universe. Please note, however, that this is not the Roman Catholic Church of this universe. And even if it was, well, I have some books of church history on my shelf that detail some pretty awful things the Roman Catholic Church -- and the leaders of the Protestant Reformation, for that matter -- did in the name of Jesus Christ. But maybe we don't want our children to know about them?

Back to that issue of "children" reading this book. I am not a reading specialist (just a reader), but on the basis of the complexity of the language, I would put the reading level of this book at somewhere around adolescence. Maybe eighth grade or high school. This is not a little kids' book. It contains words that younger children would balk over: "naptha," "anbaric," "alethiometer," to name a few. So a child who would sit down and read this book would be of an age to start making reasoned judgments for him- or herself.

If I were a concerned parent, what I would really worry about are some of the themes in this book. Who are Lyra's parents? The ones we are told about? Or are they not her real parents? And do they love her? Or do they want her only to suit their own purposes? Are they good people, or are they evil? I would worry a LOT more about these issues than the alternative universe depiction of something called "the church" which clearly bears no resemblance to church organizations as they exist in our world.

And just to make a book review out of this, Philip Pullman is a good and imaginative writer, but he is no J.K. Rowling. Lyra Belacqua is no Harry Potter. But he writes an interesting tale.

Alas, I won't have time to see the movie during the first few days it's on, but I will see it. And books two and three in the trilogy are in the mail to me even as I write this. If they turn out to be truly awful, I will let you know. If they're pretty good, I'll let you know that, too.

In the meantime, I would be happy to discuss this book with anyone who would like to join me in conversation. I only have one requirement: you actually have to READ the book first.