Sometimes I don't quite know what to say to people when they ask where I went to school. No one has ever really heard of Abilene, Texas, much less Abilene Christian University, and explaining the ideological background in which I was raised — as well as how that changed, and how I evolved to the point where I was really kind of frustrated and heartbroken at the way the school and its students sometimes handled themselves — always takes too much time. (I will never even attempt to explain Sing Song.) That's not to say I was ever particularly ashamed of my degree; I earned a B.S. in journalism from some respectable instructors, and my two years on the staff of the campus paper were solid ones, considering we only published twice weekly and came from a Division II school.
So it's only out of deference to the teachers whose work helped me gain the skills to find a good job, and to some fading memory of the good time I had there, that I'm holding back from ripping the campus newspaper to rightful shreds. (I have a feeling I will not be able to do keep my word, though.) I'm trying to be understanding, I really am. I haven't even kept up with the campus paper since I was a recent graduate. But an editorial published in their increasingly shallow pages the other day has stirred up the feelings of bitter disappointment I felt by the time I'd reached the end of my days at ACU.
The editorial ran under the headline, "Golden Compass not so golden for Christians."
...I should probably take a moment to explain briefly the paper's mindset. It's a campus paper published at a private Christian university in Texas, which means most editorials (and a terrifying number of news stories) are going to necessarily seek out the God angle. The paper is even called The Optimist, and among the regular letters we received in my time were queries as to why we didn't publish more upbeat stories and "live up to our name." To be clear: We were often asked by unhinged alumni and current students to slant the news in a happy way. As the Arts Editor, I often received angry letters from alumni whenever I gave positive reviews to R-rated films. One such man, writing in the Lucado-esque doublespeak that passes for spiritual depth among some believers, told me that ACU had "broken covenant" with him by allowing me to write positive reviews of films that "do not measure up to Christian standards." Can you understand now, to some small degree, what that place is like? It's as if the institution and its alumni are practically daring you to drop your chosen major of journalism and pick something like youth and family ministry (which from a real-world marketplace standard has to be even more useless than a generic speech/communications degree). There are some genuine, earnest, progressive believers at the school, but they are always shouted down by the spiteful and controlling.
The editorial board at the Optimist, once a topic is decided upon, farms out the writing to one of the students on the board. This also often overlaps with the Opinion Writing class, whose members spend the semester under the firm guidance of a professor who takes particular delight in excising the passive voice from your columns until you go blind at all the red ink he's spilled on your page. (The final exam was just to write another column, but the professor would dock you a letter grade for each instance of passive voice. Yeah.) So it's not like I don't understand or remember what it was like to feel pressured and stressed and up against the wall to get a column out on deadline. But the editorial in question must've been written by a student so hard up for ideas and so clearly resigned to turning in a below-average piece that they felt there was naturally nothing else to do but write a lazy, inflammatory, and downright irresponsible column.
The editorial, which can be read in its pathetic entirety by clicking here, starts out with a slanted lede: "Controversy continues to swirl around the movie The Golden Compass, due in theaters Dec. 7." Wait a minute. You can't just throw that out there. Is the controversy because of the books' inherent religious stance, whatever that might be? It's foolish to think that (a) the reader knows all about these supposed controversies, or that (b) you don't have to back this up with evidence. Obviously, an editorial is going to take a side, but is it necessary to start out so declamatory? I really am curious.
The editorial states that the film's plot comes from Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. Actually, I'm wrong; it simply names the series without crediting the author. This isn't just shoddy reporting, but almost criminally stupid in an editorial that's apparently (given the headline) going to build some kind of case against the movie based on the books. Why is the author not mentioned? What did the author have to say about the film adaptation of his works, or the way controversy is apparently continuing to swirl? Does no one have a Lexis-Nexis account? Could no one be bothered to look this up? The film is also directed by Chris Weitz, but New Line removed him for a while and replaced him with Anand Tucker, only to eventually boot Tucker and bring Weitz back on board. Does this have anything to do with the delicate task of transferring the books' religious views (again, whatever those actually are) into a four-quadrant tentpole that's supposed to start a new film franchise?
Reading on, it's apparent that the author only has one source for the editorial: An article about the film published on MTV.com that revolves around the angry protests of Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League, and his attacks on the movie. (Actually, the editorial spells it "Bill Donahue," but I'm going to assume they mean Donohue.) Donohue is the only source quoted in the editorial. Again, I know that editorials are meant to build an argument and take a stand, but wouldn't it make more sense to include both points of view before presenting the paper's opinion? Even if that opinion opposes Donohue, it still looks terribly weak to only have his words as a source.
Another major problem with the editorial is its insidious use of "many," "more," and "controversy" when talking about movies that apparently generated protests from Christians over their religious content. Take this sentence: "Christians worldwide continue to protest the release of the movie because of its atheistic views." Really? Christians worldwide? Where? Who? When? They surely weren't protesting at any movie theaters; the film bows Dec. 7, and this editorial ran on Nov. 7. Where are all these protesting Christians? Are they sending angry letters or emails? If so, are they organized or acting on their own? Are the protests physical? Have their protests been reported somewhere? If so, where, and what were the details of the protest? If not, why write the sentence? It's as if the author had no idea how hazardous and just plain stupid it is to invent facts. Later on, the author writes, "Many other movies, including The Da Vinci Code, have caused controversy in the Christian sphere and led Christian groups to boycott the movies." Again, you can't just say this stuff and refuse to back it up. The Da Vinci Code wasn't that long ago; who protested it, if any, and why? Where were the alleged protests? Did they accomplish anything?
The editorial then drops any pretense of effort or respectability and loses all energy, sputtering to a nonsensical ending by quoting John Milton in what's both a clear attempt to fulfill the number of sources required by the Opinion Writing professor and another sign of lazy research: The quote about truth and falsehood grappling in the marketplace of ideas from Milton's Areopagitica is emblazoned in the Comm Law syllabus and bandied about often in that class. The quote was staring the author in the face, and they used it, regardless of its inaccuracy. Read and weep:
The Optimist believes that while the concerns of the Christian groups have validity, trying to stop the movie's release cripples the marketplace of ideas.
John Milton wrote in Areopagitica that when truth and falsehood grapple, truth eventually wins.
If Christians believe in their religion and its truthfulness, they shouldn't feel threatened by ideas that counteract their beliefs.
Truth will win in the end, and by disproving differing opinions, that truth of Christianity remains stronger.
Even the Opinion Writing professor thinks that part of the column is weak. (I have no idea how he stetted the rest of the piece; he's clearly grown more forgiving since I took his course.) He wrote a letter to the editor of the school's paper stating that he found the author's invocation of the marketplace of ideas "illogical. The marketplace of ideas comes down on the side of releasing the movie and permits people to oppose the release of the movie. The ideas are grappling in the marketplace. No one is going to stop the film. And no one is going to stop people from trying to stop the film. That's the way the marketplace of ideas (works)." He even calls out the author by relaying the excuse they gave when they refused to do rewrites: "We've all looked over it and think it's okay. I don't have time to fix it because I have an obligation to the Reporter-News in 45 minutes." The author, apparently eager to take their poor work ethic and sloppy journalistic habits and infect an actual newspaper, didn't think it was worth it to take the time and fix just one of the many glaring errors in the editorial. I can't say that bodes well for my alma mater.
While I personally disagree with the editorial — I think any Christian who gets really upset at The Golden Compass should probably spend more time worrying about widows and orphans and clothing the naked and feeding the hungry, and less time panicking about the non-apocalypse — my main beefs here are with the awful structure and embarrassing lack of insight. The piece pays lip service to a kind of calm strength Christians should take in their faith while also loudly doing everything it can to reinforce a cultural divide between the conservative Christians and the big spooky evil that is Hollywood. The entire editorial is lazy and uncaring, and that makes it dangerous.
This is why it takes so long to tell people where I went to school. When I do, they'll assume that I'm a Christian and that I'm proud of where I came from. They're only half right.