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Austin Bishop Checkmates 'Dark Materials' in Schools

Trilogy's anti-religious themes and author's beliefs get books banned from local Catholic schools

By Justin Ward, Fri., Nov. 16, 2007

Privately run religious schools throughout Austin are boycotting a controversial children's book because of its anti-religious themes and the beliefs of the book's author, British humanist Philip Pullman. Last week, Austin Bishop Greg­ory Aymond, concerned with the book's portrayal of the church as hierarchical and authoritarian, ordered all copies of Pullman's trilogy, titled His Dark Materials, banned from Catholic schools in the diocese. Aymond said in a written statement: "Pullman's books attempt to devalue religion, especially Christianity. Our children deserve better reading material than what is in these books." According to Aymond's office, Catholic school Superintendent Ned Vanders told an assembly of principals Wednesday that the bishop had "requested" all of Pullman's books be removed, and by Thursday the books were off library shelves.

Interest in Pullman's work has been mounting across the country in anticipation of the release of a new film based on the first book in the series, The Golden Compass. The book's growing popularity among American children has set off a wave of alarm among some parents and religious leaders, who see it as a full-frontal assault on Christianity from an outspoken atheist. The trilogy is being billed as the atheist counterpart to C.S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia. A strong underlying theme in the books is the conflict of religion and science, and Pullman leaves little doubt as to which side he's on. The heroes of the trilogy are scientists and thinkers, and the role of the villain is played by the church. The Golden Compass takes place in a fantasy parallel universe ruled by a church theocracy called the Magisterium. One character, a physicist and former nun named Mary Malone, describes Christianity as a "powerful and convincing mistake."

Some Protestant religious schools in the Austin area are following the Catholic Church's lead and calling for boycotts as well. Although many of the schools contacted for this story did not have the books to begin with, sources said schools, including Hope Lutheran and Hyde Park Baptist, would actively discourage children from reading the book or seeing the movie. Also, parents at Small Middle School in Austin Independent School District protested the selection of The Golden Compass for an afterschool book club. Neither the school nor the librarian prohibited children from reading the book, but students were encouraged to select something else.

Mary Eifert, eighth-grade interim principal of St. Paul Luth­eran School, is taking a different approach. Eifert said she has researched the book and received information from parents, but the school will not participate in any official ban. But she said she plans to educate parents and students about the book and "how it is not in accord with our teachings."

"I believe parents have to make their own decisions on what they will or will not allow their children to see, and maybe they will use the movie as a teaching tool," she said.

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