Editor’s Note: A while back, guest writer Seth T. Hahne wrote an article in which he spoke of the difficulty encountered when he read a disappointing review of Coraline and saw that the writer of Coraline had seen said review. The author of the review took issue with the article, and asked that we give him an opportunity to submit an article in response. Below is that article, written by Michael Karounos, completely unedited or tampered with.
This article is prompted by Seth T. Hahne’s review in which he took issue with my review of the movie adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline. I felt that Seth engaged in a unnecessary personal attack on my character and raised the issue with him. After some communication back and forth, Seth and I have agreed to disagree. I also contacted the editors who, after reviewing the article, sided with Seth and concluded that the article did not reach the standard of a personal attack. For more information on the background to our dispute, I direct you to the comments section of the article, “Sticks and Stones: Being Hurt by a Christian Review of Coraline.”
Seth’s misreading of my review prompted me to explain how and why I write reviews. My approach to writing movie reviews is simple because the venue is simple. I write for family sites as a past-time and my methodology is as follows: 1) I write from a Christian perspective; 2) I look for material that reflects on Christ or the Church; 3) I next look for material that comments in some way on social values (e.g., marriage), on institutions (e.g., the military, religion, etc.), or on contemporary cultural issues (e.g. abortion, euthanasia, etc.); 4) Then, to support my perspective, I try whenever possible to give background on the movie by quoting the director or the writer; and, lastly, 5) I try to govern my tone and language because what I write reflects not only on me but on the site as well. This doesn’t mean one can’t take strong positions; I do. I’m just always conscious of representing my faith. This is one of the areas where Seth attacked me as “bringing a mockery on the brotherhood” for being so mistaken in my interpretation of the movie. Even, for the sake of argument, assuming I was “wrong” from Seth’s perspective, a difference in opinion does not constitute a valid basis for a personal attack. This is something that reviewers and reviewers of reviewers need to remember.
In my approach, there are three basic elements to the reviewing process: the subject; the reviewer; and the audience. In The Analogical Imagination (1981), David Tracy conceives of three “publics”: the public of the church, the public of the marketplace, and the public of the academy. Adapting his terms, I define the “public” of the church as the reading public of whichever site I am writing for. The “public” of the marketplace I define as the movie-going public (myself included) who attend movies and desire detailed information on the content of the movie. Lastly, the “public” of the academy is irrelevant to the reviews I write for popular sites and is not a factor in my writing. What I would like to emphasize is that on a conservative Christian web site, a reviewer’s first responsibility is to his audience. There are times when I really like a movie which may have sexual, violent, or cultural content that is inappropriate for the audience I am writing for and I have to remember to disqualify the movie. The Watchmen was like that for me.
The point about audience is the only one I want to emphasize. If you read Seth’s reviews at Christiananswers.net you’ll find they’re very different from the kind of writing he does here. Christiananswers.net would never publish a review attacking anyone, much less another Christian, but both are Christian sites. The difference lies in the reading public. Reviewers write for one type of audience there, for another type of audience here. The reviews I write for Christiananswers.net are different than those I would write for this site. At the former site, I’m writing for parents or otherwise sensitive Christians who want to know whether a film crosses the line of appropriateness in one way or another. Those standards are not the standards of this site, but surely the readers of this site can appreciate the distinction, especially as Seth himself observed the distinction when writing there. Writing to your target audience is always critical, whether it’s a novel, a song, or a movie review.
The second critical element in writing a review, besides knowing one’s public, is knowing oneself. The question that each reviewer must answer is: “What is my Christian relationship to culture?” The answer to this question will determine the perspective of the writer. In his classic, Christ and Culture (1951, 2001), H. Richard Niebuhr describes a typology that I feel is still relevant: 1) Christ against Culture; 2) Christ of Culture; 3) Christ above Culture; 4) Christ and Culture; 5) Christ Transforming Culture.
The first type is self-explanatory. The second type is what Niebuhr calls the “accomodationist” type; this type is at home in the culture and looks out at Christianity from within culture. The third type comprises a synthesis between culture and the “new” law of the Gospel. The fourth type sees the demands of both Gospel and culture as co-equal and vacillates between them. The fifth type, which I subscribe to, represents the effort on the part of the believer to “transform,” to “restore,” to “convert” culture:
Hence, the opposition between Christ and all human institutions and customs is to be recognized. Yet the antithesis does not lead either to Christian separation from the world as with the first group, or to mere endurance in the expectation of a transhistorical salvation, as with the fourth. Christ is seen as the converter of man in his culture and society…(43)
That is my own approach: don’t separate from culture, but engage it, analyze it, and write a counter-argument if it’s necessary. Some movies get positive reviews; some get negative reviews; and movies I perceive as polemical in turn get polemical reviews. Examples of the latter are The DaVinci Code and V. Some viewers strongly disagreed with me, as it is their right to do, but when you disagree you should remember that having an opinion about the movie is not license to attack the reviewer. Point out where you disagree and move on. It isn’t necessary to impugn the reviewer’s character, understanding, or faith. Most importantly, commenters have to remember that the reviewer writes for the regular public of the site and not for the passerby dropping in.
So, whether it is Seth taking note of the objectionable “fornication” in his review of The Beach or the “grisly” violence in his review of Memento or it is I taking offense at the portrayal of social relationships in Coraline, when writing on Christiananswers.net we likewise position ourselves both against culture and for it in the profound sense Paul articulated: “We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5).
The lesson we can all glean from this little spat within the body is to ask ourselves: “What is my Christ-self?” Niebuhr’s typologies are an excellent place to start that conversation and it will help everyone to understand that the reason we may disagree so strongly about certain things-abortion, death penalty, burning coal, and even movies-is that we stand in different orientations to Christ’s church and to the surrounding culture. That understanding should lead each of us to remember that we are all fallible and, most importantly, that the culture will know us by our love for one another (John 13:35). Absent that love, there is no difference between us and the lost culture we are trying to redeem.