Monday, October 15, 2007

Some thoughts on from what, when and how to protect young people

October 9, 2007
Catholic League president Bill Donohue discussed the league's reaction to the upcoming movie, "The Golden Compass":

"New Line Cinema and Scholastic Entertainment have paired to produce 'The Golden Compass,' a children's fantasy that is based on the first book of a trilogy by militant English atheist Philip Pullman. The trilogy, His Dark Materials, was written to promote atheism and denigrate Christianity, especially Roman Catholicism. The target audience is children and adolescents. Each book becomes progressively more aggressive in its denigration of Christianity and promotion of atheism: The Subtle Knife is more provocative than The Golden Compass and The Amber Spyglass is the most in-your-face assault on Christian sensibilities of the three volumes.

"Atheism for kids. That is what Philip Pullman sells. It is his hope that 'The Golden Compass,' which stars Nicole Kidman and opens December 7, will entice parents to buy his trilogy as a Christmas gift. It is our hope that the film fails to meet box office expectations and that his books attract few buyers. We are doing much more than hoping—we are conducting a nationwide two-month protest of Pullman's work and the film. To that end, we have prepared a booklet, 'The Golden Compass: Agenda Unmasked,' that tears the mask off the movie.

"It is not our position that the movie will strike Christian parents as troubling. Then why the protest? Even though the film is based on the least offensive of the three books, and even though it is clear that the producers are watering down the most despicable elements—so as to make money and not anger Christians—the fact remains that "We are fighting a deceitful stealth campaign on the part of the film's producers. Our goal is to educate Christians so that they know exactly what the film's pernicious agenda really is."

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While the entire effort bothers me, I will limit myself to what really bothers me about this particular communication:

"To be specific, if unsuspecting Christian parents take their children to see the movie, they may very well find it engaging and then buy Pullman's books for Christmas. That's the problem."

For my part I think protests, like the one Bill Donohue is calling for in this communiqué, are the problem. After all, it is efforts like this that make me want to investigate further, just as the Index of Forbidden Books provided a reading list for previous generations of Catholics. Does anybody really think that these kinds of tactics are effective, or, in this case, either necessary or desirable? When it comes to things like this we're better off teaching our young people to be critical viewers than we are trying to protect them from things that are aimed at their age group, like this trilogy of books, the first of which is being made into a film.

Lest I be misunderstood and subject to a barrage of straw man arguments, I do believe it is important, for parents especially, but all adults who work with young people, to see to it that they are not exposed to things for which they are not ready and that are truly harmful, like pornography and excessive and graphic violence, not to mention rampant consumerism, which is probably as soul-maiming as anything, and from which the two other dangers I mention spring! In the age of the Internet this is no easy task. In other words, as parents we should know and be interested in what are children are “into” and even why that appeals to them. Of course, this is best done through dialogue and relationship, not suspicious interrogation. In other words, there is no need to protect young people from ideas about the world that differ from the ideas they hold as well as from the ones Christian parents seek to communicate to them.

In my several years of experience in Youth Ministry with high school and junior high school teens one aspect of my ministry was to try and teach them to become critical viewers. However, I quickly became aware that young people are often better able to explain the basis and assumptions on which things are based than most adults, as well as why and with what they agree or disagree in said media, be it books, journalism, film, music, video games, etc. In other words, while I was able to teach them something about being critical viewers, like helping them reason by teaching them some elementary informal logic, they were not nearly as gullible as I thought when I began. As a parent of a teenager, I more aware of this than ever.

At the end of the day, I am firmly convinced that what I am trying to teach my children and, via my ministry, the children of other people, is far superior to any of the ideas put forth by Pullman in his books or those by many other writers and artists who are critical and even hostile toward faith. What next? No Orson Scott Card because he is LDS and in much of his writing he sets forth an LDS understanding of the world, or no Khaled Hosseini because, as a Muslim, he writes in a compelling manner from an Islamic perspective, or no Tolstoy, given his really bizarre ideas on God, faith, and religion? I believe it was Hunter S. Thompson who once said that if, as a parent, you inculcate in your child a passion for reading you have done half of your job. While I know with certainty that there would be much about which Thompson and I would have disagreed (he is deceased), I think he is spot on with that observation!

Being exposed to other ways of looking at the world can be and often is a cause to examine what we believe more carefully as well as allowing us to honestly dialogue with others who do not share our outlook. In all honesty I am more worried about bad religion than I am about atheism, which the vast majority of people, even in the "secularized West," reject. On that score, I suppose the one thing I agree with Donohue about is the necessity of not being an unsuspecting parent. In other words, know what your children are into and let them tell you about it, establish a dialogue, encourage them to be critical for themselves instead of playing the heavy. After all, who can imagine telling their 13 year-old son or daughter, "We can't go see the The Golden Compass because you might want the book for Christmas?"

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