Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

How Should Christians Deal With "Bad Books"

There's been a fair amount of discussion in certain quarters recently about Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials series, due to the fact that the movie of The Golden Compass will be coming out this holiday season. (It seems to underline that those who organize boycotts and such aren't exactly great readers when books usually don't get noticed unless they either run #1 on the NY Times best seller list or are made into movies.)

JulieD of Happy Catholic (who managed to read a good 10x as many books as I do each year) has links to some of the better discussion on the topic. (more here) Julie remarks:
Now that the movie is coming out, we are seeing the usual email chains from concerned Christians saying things like, "I'm going to tell everyone about this movie. I hope it totally bombs because we were all paying attention!"

First of all, I don't think that works. Secondly, it draws more attention to the movie than if everyone had just not said anything. Third, of course, it just adds to that mythos of closed-minded, stupid Christians as the norm.
Amen to that one.

I've never quite "got" the movie/book boycott thing. If you think a movie is going to be lousy, you generally won't go see it. If you think you won't like a book, you don't buy it. If you feel strongly about it, you might then go and tell your friends why you don't want to see the movie/buy the book. If you're got persuasive reasons, they may well do the same, and after a while bad buzz begins to build. "Yeah, I dunno. A couple different people all said that movie sounded dumb." That sort of collective judgement can really slow down sales.

A "boycott" on the other hand is designed to generate a very different sort of news. "Group X seems really worked up about that movie, like it's some big threat. I wonder what it's like." "Maybe we should go watch that movie so we can 'understand both sides'." There's just no upside that I can see. If you think a movie is lousy (and if you can articulate a slightly more comprehensive reason than "It's anti-Christian" -- a complaint general enough it makes people curious) then tell people so. But creating a media event out of your outrage is generally only going to help the other side. (Imagine if people from the pro-Iraq side of the political spectrum had attempted a boycott campaign against Lions For Lambs rather than just passing on the word: "It sounds like an overly talky piece of political propaganda." People might have watched it...)

I think that we Christians would do ourselves some favors if could stick to categorizing and dismissing things rather than working up a publicity-hogging fuss about them.

In a wider sense, I'm not entirely sure what to think about all the fuss. I haven't read His Dark Materials, and what I've heard about it doesn't make me particularly interested to do so. And yet, some of the "how will we protect children from this" talk strikes me as a bit overblown.

By age 11-12 or so when I started reading fiction voraciously, I quickly went through most of the books suitable to my age which we had around the house (which means several hundred) and started rooting around the public library stacks for science fiction and fantasy. By 13 I'd exhausted everything that looked interesting in the YA section and moved on to the adult SF/F section.

Since my parents had been (and were still to the extent that time allowed) big genre readers, they at least knew of a lot of what I was reading, and they provided some guidelines. "Nothing by Marion Zimmer Bradley" was one rule, and after sampling a few pages of Mists of Avalon I had no urge to violate it. "No Heinlein written after (and including) Stranger In A Strange Land" was another. Another was, "If there's graphic sex, stop reading." Odd as it may sound to the more suspicious parent, this was followed pretty consistently as well.

Now, the science fiction and fantasy genres are not, generally, very friendly to Christianity. There's an awful lot of SF that takes the "religion is just superstition" angle, and much fantasy is heavy into neo-pagan/new age ideas. "Soft SF" often manages to combine the worst of both: holding that organized religion is all superstition while engaging in airy thoughts on the "spirits" of planets and the "universe coming to know itself" and such.

Honestly, though, a strong family Catholic culture left me pretty-well teflon coated to this kind of stuff. I discussed various things that came up in books with my parents, but they didn't necessarily have to make an effort to "read this book with your child and discuss what it means in a Christian context".

We spent a fair amount of time around the house talking about what everything meant in a Christian context, and so worrying about what one particular YA novel meant didn't exactly come on the radar. I had my own increasingly clear ideas on how the world worked and what life was about, and rather than making sudden about-faces whenever I ran into a book with a new point of view, I tended to judge books by how "true" they rang when compared to my own mostly-formed worldview.

So when it comes to "protecting" children from "dangerous books", I don't think the main job of a Christian parent is to scrupulously search for hidden anti-Christian messages in every book your child wants to get out from the library. (If your child is up to snuff, you won't have time.) What's more important is to make sure your child has, by the time he or she is ready to start reading widely, a coherent and distinctly Christian worldview.


Anonymous said...

Amen to that. Also, I really had no desire to see The Golden Compass myself (it just seemed like one of the many standard-fare, LOTR/Narnia/etc copycat movies out there).

After all this hull-a-ba-loo over how anti-Christian it is, I now want to see it only to see what all the fuss is about. I mean, another movie out there with anti-Christian messages? Wow... haven't seen one of them before...

Foxfier said...

Like I keep telling folks.... My main problem is that the guy has gone out in public and lied.

I already knew I wasn't going to go and line the pocket of yet ANOTHER unimaginative twit who plugged "The Church" into the bad guy slot, but to lie about it?

Screw him.

Darwin said...


I agree that it's disingenuous (and rather pathetic) when he claims that he didn't write these to evangelize atheism, when he previously stated the contrary.

I just don't see him as being all that different from a lot of other SF/F writers, or being worth giving the attention of a boycott.

Kiwi Nomad said...

I saw an article by Mark Shea quoted in another blog. He was discussing wider issues, but commented briefly on how some decry Harry Potter books.

"Beyond this, though, there is another dimension to holiness that has to be learned and many Catholics never do.

It is the realization that we do indeed live under the New Covenant and that our primary mission as Catholics is to make the world holy, not to keep the world from defiling us."
It was an interesting article and put a different slant on the discussion.

Michelle said...

Succinctly put. I agree completely.

Rick Lugari said...

How Should Christians Deal With "Bad Books"?

List them in the Index Librorum Prohibitorum and proceed to round them up and burn them. Then round up the authors, burn them at the stake, then give them a fair trial.

Piece of cake...

Anonymous said...

"It is the realization that we do indeed live under the New Covenant and that our primary mission as Catholics is to make the world holy, not to keep the world from defiling us."

I didn't read Shea's article, but if this quote is indicative, he has, as he often does, missed the point. Catholics don't object to this stuff because they're afraid it might defile them. They object to it because it teaches serious error to those who are less equipped to detect and defend against it: their children, for instance.

Matthew Lickona said...

Check this:

Not plugging my blog, but the article mentioned therein. Not commenting on boycotts, or even the film, but the anti-Christian message in His Dark Materials is hardly hidden, and further, is, the piece argues (and argues well) anti-human.

Anonymous said...

I don't need hysteria, but I appreciate being informed in advance when a film is objectionable. It often happens that a well-meaning friend or relative offers to take the children to a movie. No hidden agenda there, the host just picks whatever movie is the latest film marketed towards children.

I know better than to expect Hollywood to make films to my standards. And I know better than to expect all my friends and relatives to question the popular culture as much as we do. So it is quite helpful for me to learn, somehow, in advance that a film has problematic material in it, so I can tactfully recommend the host choose some other film instead.

A boycott of sorts, I suppose. But better than prohibiting the kids from ever going out with someone else, on the chance the movie selected will be not only dumb, but offensive and misleading.

(Dumb is fine with me: the kid will remember the kindness of their host, forget the film, no big deal.)

Foxfier said...

Jennifer -- good point.

A neighbor's dad knew that their boy loved fantasy, and that Lord of the Rings was poor Claud sat with his 11 year old grandson through some very bloody fight sceenes. >.<
The kid was scared stiff.

Darwin said...

Keeping an eye on what movies your kids watch is a very real concern, and one that people often seem to completely ignore.

While books were pretty wide open in our family, the parents were _very_ restrictive on movies. This meant that I missed out on a lot of birthday parties and such and was known as having one of "those" moms. (Plus I missed out on all the conversations of the merits of Nightmare on Elmstreet vs. Haloween. Not like that's anything I spill tears over these days...

The Opinionated Homeschooler said...

The bishop of Austin, Bp. Gregory Aymond, just mandated that the Pullman books be removed from all Catholic school libraries. I know for a fact that our parish library has/had them; I'll have to look to see if they've been taken out.

Unknown said...

I don't prevent my kids from reading anything (when they are old enough to choose for themselves). My 18 year old daughter said she tried to read one of his books a few years ago and said it was so unengaging that she quit midway into the first chapter.

I think the movie looks boring (having seen the previews). I intend to say nothing at all about it and hope that it goes away quickly.