Sticks and Stones, Redux: A Review of a Review of a Review

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 you’ll find they’re very different from the kind of writing he does here. 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 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 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.

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  • I have to say this was a pretty disappointing article. There has been absolutely no effort either to explain how the original review was “misread” nor to explain how you were actually insulted (i.e., there has been no response to fairly detailed explanations that you were not actually insulted at all except to insist that Yes, you in fact were). Further, there has been no effort to interact with CAPC’s original article, either in its criticism of your review or in its purpose, to explore how a believer ought to react to the discouragement one feels when a fellow believer says something dumb).

    Mr. Karounos, the contempt with which you hold the CAPC reader is evident. After repeated requests for some level of involvement beyond the mere leveling of charges, you persist in showing you do not care. You’ve written several times (on the other article) about the respectful attitude you wish to show your enemies and yet you offer no charity or humility. You lord rank over Brannon in order to dismiss his criticism. You dismiss any discourse from Seth with a wave of your apparently majestic hand. And then you intend this incongruous article as a response.

    The methodology behind your reviews was never at stake. The liberties you take in interpreting certain films were, but you don’t really go into that or attempt to justify your interpretation of Coraline. Instead you talk about writng for particular audiences and what you try to accomplish in your reviews, neither of which were ever at stake. Perhaps this could have made a worthwhile contribution as an article focused on how Christians might approach film review vs. film criticism, but as a response article it cannot help but fail.

    Sprinkling in unsubstantiated details like “Seth attacked me as ‘bringing a mockery on the brotherhood'” does not help an article about an unrelated topic (primarily, your review methodology) does not turn this automatically into a response. When I saw that a response had been written, I was looking forward to reading something that engaged either the principal ideas of the original article or at least dealt with the criticisms as proffered (since there was no real engagement by you in the comments).

    So far as your methodology for writing reviews for goes, I don’t have any bone to pick there. It works for the audience and really that’s the point, right?

    The Danes last blog post..20090417.teaParty

  • David Dunham

    I couldn’t agree more Dane.

  • Michael Karounos

    Dear Dane and David,

    Your complaint is not with me but with the terms of the article. I was expressly told that I could not discuss the original article except in “4 sentences.” This article is an attempt to move past the contentious discussion of the previous article and to advance the discussion.

    Dane: I do not disrespect the capc reader as evidenced by the fact that I took the time to try to explain my methodology within the terms offered to me. Also, Brannon and I amicably resolved our differences in a private e-mail exchange.

    Lastly, I never questioned anyone’s right to criticize my conclusions. The spat was merely about whether the comments were ad hominem or not. On that score, we have agreed to disagree.

    Best wishes,

  • The following is an exact copy of the terms in question that I presented to Michael (I did add emphasis to the relevant areas):

    With this in mind, we would like to offer you the opportunity to propose a response article in the same vein as Kiel’s “Why Christian Hip Hop is Not a Failure.” In that article, he spends about 4 sentences explaining the context, which was the other article, and then spends the rest of the article arguing a thesis. If you would like to propose to us a thesis that would answer Seth’s concerns, you are welcome to. We would like to print an opposing article as long as our readers’ best interest is in mind.

  • Michael Karounos

    Richard wrote me in a private e-mail what he was generous enough not to write in public. He accused me of saying one thing in an e-mail to him what I did not reveal in public. Here is the quotation from my e-mail that he cites:

    “This is a conversation I invite because I believe it will feature criticism of the positions rather than of the person and will benefit everyone. Whether we agree or not, at least we will do so on principles and not personality.”

    And so I have staked out what my positions are. However, as Richard is highlighting “Seth’s concerns” I can see that I misunderstood. I took him to mean “Don’t get into a tit-for-tat” because in the paragraph before the one he cited, he wrote:

    “At this point, it seems to us that the differences between you two would not be best resolved through further dialogue and would likely result in a semantic debate, since Seth has made it perfectly clear that he did not intend to attack you, and you continue to insist that he did. If you still have concerns with Seth’s post, please feel free the address them in the comments section.”

    So, I took that to mean that I was not to get into a “semantic debate” and studiously avoided attacking Seth’s positions.

    As for addressing Seth’s “concerns,” I can only say that I consider them to be unanswerable as they are an attack on a person and not on a position. Here are the issues Seth raises: I consider the movie, based on a quotation characteristic of Christians, to be anti-Christian. Seth disagreed. I consider the social relations of the movie to be misanthropic. Seth disagreed. I consider the image of a huge-breasted woman to be pornographic. Seth disagreed. I consider the movie to be inappropriate for children. Seth disagreed. There is no and can be no quarrel about those disagreements. I grant Seth his opinion and hold to mine. We only disagree on the language used to characterize me as a person and as a representative Christian who brings a “mockery” on other Christians. There we disagree.

    I have stated the matter as fairly, honestly, and concisely as I know how. I avoided personal attacks and staked out a critical position. I simply do not know what Richard or Dave want me to address beyond what I have written.