Those values viewers in the heartland are at it again, clicking "forward" on yet another wave of hot emails about sin, evil, magic and Hollywood.
Here's the news, as harvested on the Internet by experts at Snopes.com, a giant website dedicated to researching urban legends.
"Hi! I just wanted to inform you what I just learned about a movie that is coming out December 7, during the Christmas season, which is entitled 'The Golden Compass.' … What is disturbing to me is that this movie is based on the first of a trilogy of books for children called 'His Dark Materials' written by Philip Pullman of England.
"He's an atheist and his objective is to bash Christianity and promote atheism. I heard that he has made remarks that he wants to kill God in the minds of children, and that's what his books are about."
Snopes.com researched the many issues raised in this message — concluding that these emails are (you may want to sit down) essentially true.
It's even true that Pullman devotees have accused New Line executives of editing out some of the book's juicier heresies in an attempt to offend fewer Christian consumers. After all, the studio has about $180 million invested in this project and would like to make two more movies based on the award-winning trilogy.
"What's really amazing is that all of those evangelical and Catholic critics have been aiming their heavy artillery at J.K. Rowling and the Harry Potter books, when they could have been firing at Pullman, whose books came out first," said Sandra Miesel, co-author of the upcoming book "Pied Piper of Atheism: Philip Pullman and Children's Fantasy Literature."
"Pullman is brilliant at hiding what he's really saying," she added.
"Also, his books were marketed for people with more elite tastes. Once they started winning awards, they became more popular. And now, here come the movies, so people are really starting to pay attention."
Pullman has, however, never been soft spoken. In one famous interview with the Sydney Morning Herald, he expressed amazement that Rowling's Potter books took more flak in Bible Belt America than his own.
"I've been flying under the radar, saying things that are far more subversive than anything poor old Harry has said. My books are about killing God," he explained. As for his own beliefs, he added: "If we're talking on the scale of human life and the things we see around us, I'm an atheist. There's no God here. There never was. But if you go out into the vastness of space, well, I'm not so sure."
As a writer, Pullman greatly admires Milton's 17th-century classic "Paradise Lost," with its battles between good and evil to determine who will rule heaven. The "His Dark Materials" trilogy covers similar territory and tries to turn the tables through the triumph of two young adventurers, Lyra and Will. The goal is for this couple — a new Eve and Adam — to eat forbidden fruit and, this time around, destroy God.
Along the way, Pullman serves up clergy who kidnap and torture children, visitations from gay angels, fickle witches patrolling the skies, a wise shaman, warrior polar bears, a brilliant ex-nun and plenty of opportunities for children to get in touch with their inner "daemons," the talking-animal spirits who represent their souls.
At the heart of the story is a substance called "Dust," which may or may not be Original Sin in a physical form. Then again, Pullman recently told Atlantic Monthly that "Dust" is evidence of a godlike energy unleashed when people gain wisdom, explore their emotions, challenge authority and
— especially for adolescents — explore their sexuality.
Meanwhile, evil incarnate has a name in Pullman's books — the "Church."
Its bishops wear purple, its cardinals wear red and there is a Vatican with fancy guards. By the end of the trilogy, the ultimate villain has been identified as, "The Authority, God, the Creator, the Lord, Yahweh, El, Adonai, the King, the Father, the Almighty."
In the movie, however, "Magisterium" is always used instead of "Church."
These forces of evil are, however, fond of Orthodox Christian iconography and Bible verses written in Latin.
"I guess it helps to know that the word 'Magisterium' is the term used to describe the teaching office of the Catholic Church," said Miesel. "That's really subtle. … Actually, it's not very subtle at all."