Christology and the Close-up: God is in the details

I have discussed in previous posts the religious value that film holds. When most audiences strike up conversations about religion and film, our discussions usually begin with recent films like God’s Not Dead, Son of God, or Exodus.  Or, we might also talk about films that are seemingly void of religious content in order to point out the moral and spiritual degradation of our society—The Wolf of Wall Street or Fifty Shades of Grey come to mind.

Yet, these conversations do no justice to the religious potential that film has. Film does not offer viewers a religious experience based primarily on content—moral, religious, or otherwise. The spiritual depth of film lies primarily in the subtle power of the language and conventions of film, the close-up for example.

Let’s take as our case study two Christ-figure characters on nearly opposite ends of the Christological spectrum: Willem Defoe’s Jesus from Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and Brandon Routh’s Superman from Brian Singer’s Superman Returns (2006).  Of course, one character represents an adaptation of the New Testament Jesus Christ, while the other is a comic book adaptation of a messianic hero. Both are textbook examples of cinematic Christ-figures. And, as cinematic Christ-figures, Jesus and Superman contribute to the dialogue on Christology. How we depict our messiahs in media speaks volumes about how we view the Christ of our theology.  I argue that the Christological depth of these two characters is found in the subtlety of the films’ close-ups. If we take a quick look at a couple of shots from both films, we will see an important Christological distinction between the two characters that illustrates the true power of film.

First, in the opening sequence of Last Temptation, the film introduces the character of Jesus with a bird’s-eye shot of him lying in a fetal position in the dirt followed by a close-up of his face as he wakes from his disturbing dreams.

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The camera takes the perspective of someone looking down at Jesus. He is wearing earth-tones and literally wallowing in the dust.  The fetal position suggests he is born not from heaven, but from the earth. His hair is disheveled and his face is unshaven. And, the voice-over speaks of torturous visions and self-loathing.

In contrast is one of the early sequences of Superman Returns in which the audience is allowed a peak at Superman’s personal musings, his own thoughts of what it means to be a savior. The camera begins from a perspective of someone looking up at Superman as he floats above the earth. When the camera moves to a close-up of his face it maintains this low-angled perspective. Superman is depicted as the perfect specimen of heroic humanity with his perfectly coiffed hair, his piercing blue-eyes, and his clean-shaven face.

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vlcsnap-2015-03-06-09h22m32s83In these two sequences from two different Christ-figure adaptations the audience is invited to embrace either of two sides of the dual-natured Christ. The Last Temptation invites the spectator to identify with the humanity of Jesus in a way that no other film has done before or since. We are asked to not just assume that Jesus is human because he takes human form, but we are invited to relate to the sniveling, self-loathing, tortured soul of Jesus as he writhes in the dirt. This fact is probably the real reason why the film is so controversial. For, while the dream sequence depicts Jesus getting married and having children, it is the film’s constant and subtle reminder of Jesus’s unabashed humanity that sits so awkwardly with Christians who hold Jesus high as an object of worship and reverence.

Yet, it is the “secular” film of Superman Returns that depicts a Christ-figure that Christians feel more comfortable with. He is a Christ who hovers above us, eagerly waiting to come to our aid because he has the supernatural power to do so. He is good and perfect and above us, both morally and literally.

Last Temptation depicts the humanity of Jesus. Superman Returns depicts the divinity of Christ. And, both films do so, not just in the grandeur of moving-making magic—the sets, the costumes, the lighting, the makeup—or in the totality of the plot, but in the simple and subtle use of the close-up.

This is what endows movies with such potential for providing powerful religious and spiritual experiences: the cinematic progression of images that are able to express things that simple words cannot.

The renowned film critic, Andre Bazin states in one of his early essays that, “The cinema has always been interested in God.” For Bazin, that means that the most successful depiction of religious matter in cinema are films that do not overtly attempt to represent the divine, but those that deal with the psychological and moral aspects of faith instead. In other words, it is not the direct and manifest depiction of divinity that resonates favorably with audiences, but the more indirect and metaphorical approach of simple film conventions, like the close-up.

So, next time you are watching a movie and feel your heart tugging you into a moment of religious reverie, take a close look to notice the subtlety, the small things on the screen and revel in the real magic of movies.

DS

 

The Audition (or… Rejection)

For the performer—whether actor, singer, or dancer—auditions are a mainstay of theatre.  And I believe that not enough training actually focuses on how to audition.  That’s a shame really.

Because…

Our world *is* rejection.  You cannot be in this discipline without becoming intimately acquainted with rejection.  You have to arm yourself against rejection and learn how to take it gracefully.  And that can be really hard when you set your hopes on a particular role.

ETBU theatre major Sally Perkins receives auditioning tips from professional actor Lincoln Thompson at an audition workshop.

ETBU theatre major Sally Perkins receives auditioning tips
from professional actor Lincoln Thompson at an audition workshop.

I’ve learned some hard and valuable lessons along the way as both a performer and auditor.  And a great many of these cross over into the work force, personal relationships, and other situations where we might face rejection.  So let me explain these lessons in terms of the audition, and you can relate them to your own life experience, whatever that may be.

  1. Your self-worth is not dependent upon any particular audition.  Decide this now.  Though you may face 287 rejections in a row, never let it affect your self-worth.  Do let it affect how you prepare for an audition, the roles you pursue, and the classes you enroll in.  Take initiative, learn, grow, and try again, but never, ever consider it a reflection of your individual value as a person.
  2. If you didn’t get a role, it doesn’t necessarily mean you didn’t give a good audition.  There are so many factors that could have made someone else a better choice.  But if you left a favorable impression, they are more likely to remember and consider you the next time you audition.
  3. Just because you played the lead role with a company or organization does not guarantee you future opportunities.  That’s just the way it works.  However, it is important to be dependable, likable, and professional in each job.  Because the connections and friendships you make in any production *can* lead to future opportunities down the road.
  4. Always view the audition in a positive light.  Know that those actual human beings (with feelings) sitting in the dark need a solution to their problem.  You might just be that solution!  One of the best pieces of advice I ever received from a working actress was this: “When I audition for a role, I always view it as a performance.  For those few minutes, I am the character.  It’s thrilling.  And I thank the auditors for the opportunity.”  So I have learned to be grateful for the experience and to enjoy the moment.
  5. The auditors will often make their decision within the first few seconds of your audition.  How you enter the room, how you introduce yourself, how you acknowledge others… all of this goes into the audition.  They are judging you from the beginning to figure out if they want to work with you.  If you enter sheepishly or aggressively, they will most certainly read your body language.  If you stumble over introductions, that will be noted too.  Think positively, believing in yourself.  You *will* make a good impression to someone.
  6. Never, ever, ever go in unprepared.  Research the play, the people, the organization.  Memorize your audition pieces backwards, forwards, sideways, and diagonally.  Have multiple monologues prepared.  Multiple songs.  Whatever the production or company demands, make sure you are equipped to present a professionally prepared audition.
  7. You will get conflicting stories.  No two auditions will be alike.  One auditor may tell you you’re a romantic lead, while another calls you a character actor.  Know yourself, and do not let a one-time critique upset your goals.
  8. If you receive a part, accept it with grace and treasure the experience.  Remember that your joy may be some else’s grief, so don’t boast about it.  And don’t complain about it!
  9. If you are not cast, do not belittle or slander the individual who did.  That is more a reflection of who you are than who he/she is.  Rather, congratulate those individuals and, if possible, find a way to support their work behind the scenes or from the audience.
Theatre majors participate in mock cold reading auditions in class.

Theatre majors participate in mock cold-reading auditions in class.

As for our own department, since we are small (but mighty), we choose to open our auditions up to anyone interested—students in other majors, faculty, staff, community members—so that we might enrich our experience through others who wish to contribute to our work.

To that end, I would like to explain how we make our casting decisions at ETBU.  This isn’t too far off from what the rest of the world does either.  We base our choices on the following:

  • The quality of the audition
  • Chemistry with other actors
  • The individual’s suitability for a role (i.e. physical appearance)
  • Specific performance skills required by a role
  • Experience
  • Availability
  • Dependability
  • Academic standing
  • Specific course or degree requirements

Hopefully, we reach a decision that everyone feels confident about.  We create a company of actors whom we trust to bring the work to life.

And then?

Then the journey begins…

TEL

The cynic and the critical thinker

Earlier in the semester I was asked to teach one of our Learning and Leading courses in the instructor’s absence. The lesson focused on leadership and critical thinking. As the students and I talked about what critical thinking was I was reminded it can be a difficult concept to explain. When I asked students what they thought critical thinking was I was met quite a few puzzled expressions. One brave student ventured a guess… “is it when you think…. critically?” Well, yes… but what does that really mean? Do we automatically doubt everything that we hear? And what’s the difference between our culture’s tendency toward cynicism and critical thinking?

Let’s face it. These days it is hip to be a cynic.

We are bombarded with information day in and day out. As I pointed out a few weeks ago, we are often misinformed and this spurs our disillusionment or distrust for information and the humans who curate it.

Grumpy Cat via Reddit

Grumpy Cat via Reddit

Admittedly, as someone who still makes the argument that sarcasm is a spiritual gift, I am prone to be somewhat of a naysayer. Couple that personality with a job where I frequently talk to students about the types of information they use, how it is created, and often how it can be misleading can lead me even further down the path to cynicism.

But… there is hope for us yet, my fellow recovering cynics.

In their 2007 book titled Unspun: Finding Facts in a World of Disinformation, authors Jackson & Jamieson put forth one solid rule to evaluating information: “Be skeptical, but not cynical.”

What’s the difference?

Evidence.

From a philosophical standpoint, skepticism holds that the possibility of knowledge is limited. However, today we popularly speak of skepticism in terms that lean toward a looser definition that describes a general questioning attitude. The word skeptic actually comes from the Greek word skeptikos which means to reflect. Developing this questioning attitude is a part of a becoming a critical thinker.

As Jackson & Jamieson  explain, the separating factor between being a skeptic and a cynic when it comes to information is found in the proof. While the cynic automatically assumes that the information he/she has encountered is false, the skeptic simply demands evidence to support the validity of the claims that are made. A cynic – despite their attempts to be perceived as the opposite – is actually in the same boat as the naïve person. Like the gullible person, the cynic has neglected the evidence and falsely assumed they have the answer.

As the great philosopher Stephen Colbert once said in his commencement address at Knox College, “Cynicism masquerades as wisdom, but it is the farthest thing from it. Because cynics don’t learn anything. Because cynicism is a self-imposed blindness, a rejection of the world because we are afraid it will hurt us or disappoint us. Cynics always say no. But saying “yes” begins things. Saying “yes” is how things grow. Saying “yes” leads to knowledge.”

The person with a cynical attitude says, “No. I won’t believe it no matter what you say.” A skeptical thinker says, “That’s interesting. Could you show me the evidence for it?”

In teaching our students how to engage with the world, it is imperative that we model practices of skeptical questioning that help us find the truth. In her Psychology Today article, developmental psychologist Dr. Mary Price-Mitchell outlines some of ways that skepticism can be modeled:

  • Challenge claims by asking for evidence.
  • Engage in metacognition. Ask, “What makes you think this way?”
  • Maintain a healthy dose of doubt. Does the argument or claim even seem logical?
  • Play devil’s advocate. For the sake of the argument, try looking at it from the other side.
  • Use both logic and intuition. Don’t rely on just one.
  • Check your bias barometer. Consult multiple sources and ask questions like, “What’s the other side of the story?”
Photo Credit: atomicity via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: atomicity via Compfight cc

When it comes to information literacy, I find the boundary between encouraging students to be skeptics who question information and pushing them over the edge to becoming another member of the cynical masses is sometimes a fine line to walk. Oft quoted Barbara Fister pointed out why information literacy can be a hard sell when it comes to evaluating information: “…we have to make judgments all the time about things that we don’t know first hand and haven’t made our profession. We have to read and we have to winnow and yes, it’s work.” If you’ve ever heard the exasperated huff of a student who has gone from Googling to searching a database for the first time, you know what I’m talking about. She’s right – critical thinking and decision making takes work… but isn’t the truth worth the effort?

What about being a people of faith? Many Christians believe that faith and skepticism or critical thinking are diametrically opposed. I would argue that doubt and questioning are the stones on which we sharpen our faith. When we use our doubts to ask questions–when we are skeptical of the information we encounter–we have an opportunity to find answers that will develop our faith into a richer understanding of God, of the world, and of ourselves. One of my favorite pastoral authors, Tim Keller talks about faith and doubt: “A person’s faith can collapse overnight if she has failed over the years to listen patiently to her own doubts, which should only be discarded after a long reflection.”

So let’s be positive skeptics. Let’s be thoughtful, inquisitive, reflective critical thinkers who work to reject what is false and embrace what is true. I want to be a person who is able to say “yes.” As we make our way through the information terrain, it seems to me that we could all use a dose of hopeful skepticism.

Leadership, Machiavelli, and Walter White: Why I wish my students would watch more TV

Don’t tell my students, but I used my snow days this week to finish watching the final season of Breaking Bad.

 I know, I should be grading papers (They will be done and grades will be turned-in in plenty of time for Mid-terms, I promise), but my wife and I have been working through all five seasons together for the past year.  We decided it was high time we found out what happened to Walter White and friends.

"Portrait of Niccolò Machiavelli by Santi di Tito" via Wikimedia Commons

“Portrait of Niccolò Machiavelli by Santi di Tito” via Wikimedia Commons

Coincidentally, my world lit. class read Machiavelli this week. At some point in the discussion our thoughts turned to current and popular examples of leadership that may or not exhibit Machiavellian qualities. We skipped through some of the obvious personalities—President Obama, Oprah, Bill Belichick—and I suggested Breaking Bad’s Walter White. Thinking I had hit on just the right topic of discussion, I was surprised to look out at a sea of blank faces. Only one person in the entire class had ever watched the all of the series of Breaking Bad, and a handful had ever seen any episodes.

We moved on to a couple other examples, but few pop culture characters illustrate the spirit of Machiavelli’s The Prince quite like Walter White. Is it strange to wish my students had watched more Breaking Bad? No, I don’t think so. The truth is that popular media products have the potential to put flesh on the often difficult writings of world literature. Walter White’s rise and fall can put Machiavelli’s teachings into action.

So, I am left imagining the discussion we could have had.

On Virtue and Vice:

Machiavelli says, “For if you look at matters carefully, you will see that something resembling virtue, if you follow it, may be your ruin, while something resembling vice will lead, if you follow it, to your security and well being” (1610).

What Walter White does: He chooses to leave his job as a high school chemistry teacher that does not supply his family with the money they need to become a drug lord in order to gain wealth to “provide for his family.”

On Cruelty and Clemency:

Machiavelli says, “If you have to make a choice, to be feared is much safer than to be loved . For it is a good general rule about me, that they are ungrateful, fickle, liars and deceivers. I conclude that since me love at their own inclination but can be made to fear at the inclination of the prince, a shrewd prince will lay his foundations on what is under his own control, not on what is controlled by others” (1612-13).

What Walter White does: He rules his empire with an iron fist, forcing his henchmen and distributors to fear even the sound of his name.

Photo Credit: Frank Ockenfels 3/AMC

Photo Credit: Frank Ockenfels 3/AMC

Walter White’s story, on the small screen, gives life to words written more than 500 years ago.

But, there is something more valuable I want my students to get, something more than just putting a new face on old words.

Walter White and Machiavelli offer worldly leadership models. And, if there is anything the Breaking Bad shows us as viewers is the dead end of that leadership model, the model that places the gain and maintenance of power as its highest priority. While Machiavelli’s words may be good advice for a leader who wants to maintain power at all costs, we watch Walter White dying alone on the floor of a Meth lab.

Referring back to my post last week, I argue that the human story at times serves to illustrate the aspects of human existence that are sinful or devoid or God’s grace—the flaws of tragic heroes or Gilgamesh crying over the realization of his own mortality.

And so, Walter White and Machiavelli are perfect illustrations of the wrong kind of leadership, the kind that puts the pursuit of power above the act of service.

We may vilify Walter White for his context has a meth drug-lord, and rightly so, but the show is not just about a guy selling meth. It is primarily about something more common to all of us—the pursuit of our own sense of power. When Walter White admits in the end that he did it all for himself, not for his family as he claimed for 61 of the 62 episodes, it illustrates the fruitlessness of that pursuit. He did it not for the betterment of those under his care, but because he was good at it and it made him feel alive.

If Walter White’s story reminds us of the hollow results of Machiavelli’s teachings when we take them to their logical conclusion, it also suggest that there must be, and should be, and alternative leadership model. That model is illustrated in the words of Christ,

Jesus called them together and said, “You know the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:25-28 NIV).

Ultimately, what I want my students to take away from studying literature like Machiavelli or consuming media like Breaking Bad is the realization that as humans we are all trying to make sense of how to live in the world around us. We ask questions. Art forms, like literature and television, can give voice to those questions.  We attempt to come up with answers. Art can also give voice to those attempts.

Yet, we, as followers of Christ-like leaders must be wise to discern the wisdom of the word from the wisdom of the world. We find our answers elsewhere.

DS

 

Machiavelli, Niccolo. From The Prince. The Norton Anthology of Anthology of World Literature,  Shorter 2nd ed. Ed. Peter Simon. New York: Norton and Co., 2009. 1607-1618. Print.

That Unspeakable Something (or… The Power of Design)

The design process of a play is so important to any production.  It can literally make or break a work… apart from the direction or performances.  Design is that often unspeakable something that takes your breath away when the curtain parts.  It is a feast for the eyes (or ears) that works together with actors to bring the playwright’s world to life.

Design often starts with a concept–a sort of unifying theme or principle that will drive the vision of the play—normally proposed by the director or the team as a whole.  An audience will usually be unaware of this concept except for its subconscious weight.  However, if a design concept works and is well executed, then the patron will have a sense that something elevated the production to a whole new level.

For ETBU’s production of Eurydice (a contemporary retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth), our approach was the mythological and the mundane conceptualized by transforming the underworld into a sewer complete with the river Styx and a Greek mosaic in the shape of a manhole cover.  The surface was scenically rendered as a boardwalk and lit with a bright daylight look.  This concept was rather easy to formulate; the work was rife with imagery that demands an otherworldly design.  Every aspect would adhere to the concept.  The costumes would circumvent the globe and the centuries to help pull in iconic looks from different cultures and time periods—both heroic and common.  The sound design permeated the air with drips, rainfall, and flowing currents as well as music from various centuries.  Lighting complimented the atmosphere, distinguishing between the world of the living and the realm of the dead.  The result was an environment that engulfed the audience through its proximity and substance.

The Set from Eurydice

The Underworld Set and Lighting Design from Eurydice
Scenic Design: Stacy Bone
Lighting Design: Josh Closs

For our production of Pride and Prejudice, it wasn’t easy to articulate a concept for the simple fact that Jane Austen isn’t known for her imagery.  In fact, the only recurring “symbol” in the adaptation were personal letters.  We were also tasked with time-period realism, multiple outdoor and indoor scenes, and a need for simplicity because of the number of set changes.  Our concept became that of “an open book”—honoring Austen’s work as a novelist.  The set was designed to look like an open book (complete with title page inscribed on the center panel) while at the same time resembling a structure that could serve as both interior walls and exterior buildings.  Each Bennet sister was given a “color of ink” in which their costumes would be predominantly designed: Jane was blue, Elizabeth was green, Mary was brown, Kitty was yellow, and Lydia was pink and red; the goal was that they would stand out from the parchment color of the set, representing their respective personalities.

The Set (Interior) and Costumes for Pride and Prejudice Costume Design: Sarah Bussard Scenic Design: Traci Ledford Lighting Design: Stacy Bone

The Set (Interior) and Costumes for
Pride and Prejudice
Costume Design: Sarah Bussard
Scenic Design: Traci Ledford
Lighting Design: Stacy Bone

The Set and Lighting as an Exterior Location for Pride and Prejudice

The Set and Lighting as an Exterior Location for
Pride and Prejudice

Ultimately, a designer must give as much to the production as the director and actors.  When I queried my colleagues about their responsibility to a play, one responded:  “As a designer, my task is threefold: to give the audience as much information as possible about the environment, the characters, the purpose of the story; supporting the director’s vision of how the story should be told; and giving the actors a safe environment where they can play.”

A designer should therefore be a strong communicator both in conversations with the director and in their designs; they must also be imminently practical with the budget and protective of the artists on stage.

To achieve their goals, designers must be able to analyze the script for imagery as well as necessity.  Obviously, research is of paramount importance… Designers must be armed with a broad knowledge of architecture, furniture, fabric, texture, music, shape, line, color, and décor throughout the centuries.  They must be able to problem solve quick scenic or costume changes (or know how to cover them with lighting and sound effects).  Technology in the field is constantly changing as well, so understanding how to program the newest light board or edit sound with the latest software can often be a real challenge.

And what breaks my heart is that so often their hard work goes on behind the scenes without much in the way of applause.  Or understanding.  Or appreciation.  It bears repeating: it is a massively time intensive collaboration to go from director’s approach to finished product involving the cooperation and investment of many, many people.

The next time you venture to see a show, I would encourage you to stop for a second and appreciate the details: the scenic elements, the subtleties and intricacies of the lighting design, the color and contour of the costumes, the personality contained within the makeup and hairstyle of each character, the aural environment of sound, and the nuances that complete the world through set dressing or props.  Then look for their names in the program.  After the conclusion, seek them out if they are onsite.  Shake their hand.  Acknowledge the product or praise their talent.  Spread a good word about the work they do.

Their labor and partnership are invaluable to me, and the results dependent upon their talent and efforts.

So to all the designers out there… thank you.

TEL

Chicken Eggs & Umbilical Cords: Info Lit on the Farm

I wish you all could have heard me as I yelled at my radio while pulling into the campus parking lot last week. The sound you would have heard coming from my vehicle would have been something like this: “Chicken eggs don’t have umbilical cords!” Now there’s a sentence I never thought I’d hear myself say.

Photo Credit: wisefly via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: wisefly via Compfight cc

You probably don’t know this about me, but at one time in my undergraduate life I majored in Agricultural Education. It’s true. In addition to the random bits of knowledge I have acquired as a librarian, I currently have in my knowledge bank information about the different cuts of beef, sheep shearing techniques, and how to judge horse conformation. I also have a fair knowledge of poultry science – many thanks to my fabulous high school ag teachers. It is because of my knowledge of poultry science that I felt confident in shouting back at the radio that despite what the person who had called in said, chicken eggs (or any eggs as far as I know of) do not have umbilical cords.

I had been clicking through my presets on my car radio and landed on a syndicated show that was asking listeners to call in with their strange behaviors to ask the DJs to weigh in on whether or not these people were “crazy” for the things that they did. Having my own peculiar habits (my friends know that I prefer that my food doesn’t touch), this caught my attention. This particular caller stated that she never ate eggs that she had not cooked herself because, “the little white umbilical cord in the egg totally grossed her out.” She went on to say that she believed the umbilical cord in the egg connected the baby chicken with the shell. Um… nope. That’s not how it works.

Please know, my initial concern was not this particular person’s lack of knowledge when it came to poultry science. I don’t expect that everyone has an understanding of the inner workings of a chicken or its egg. What troubled me was that with the exception of one, all of the DJs seemed to accept this as fact. Only one was brave enough to say, “Really? There’s an umbilical cord?” Yes. Go with this thought.

Photo Credit: cafemama via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: cafemama via Compfight cc

Of course, I immediately looked it up when I reached my office to confirm my suspicion and remind myself of the anatomy of an egg. If you are interested at this point, the white “squiggly” thing that the caller described is actually called a chalaza and it is a protein structure that keeps the yolk (where the baby chick, assuming it is a fertilized egg, would get its nutrients) from smashing up against the wall of the shell when it is moved. Never fear – no umbilical cord in birds. Actually, if you see the chalaza in an egg you should feel good about the egg you’re about to eat as it is probably a little fresher than others where the chalaza isn’t visible — but enough poultry science for today.

What this whole scenario seemed to be lacking was skepticism. Only one DJ expressed a hint of skepticism, but ended up believing what the group had told him. Not only had this person gone her entire life without anyone telling her or even suggesting that the thing she was avoiding wasn’t actually what she thought it was, but the folks on the radio didn’t bother to question it.

How often do we accept the things that we hear or read without ever questioning whether they are built upon the truth?

An op-ed piece from last week’s NYTimes was cited by librarian Barbara Fister in her blog this week. The article Lies Heard Around the World looks at falsehoods told in politics around the world. Apparently, 2014 was a banner year for political fact checkers. As the article asserts, “Misinformation, unchecked, can turn elections, undermine public health efforts and even lead countries into war.”

My chicken egg concern is obviously small when held next to misinformation in politics. At the very worst, listeners who believed the umbilical cord myth may miss out on some very tasty Eggs Benedict in the future. That said, it can be seen as a very minor symptom of a much larger problem.

We have so much information coming at us that we often forget (or don’t have time) to question its validity.

I’m ranting about misinformed egg consumers, but really it is a huge concern when you stop to think about all of the decisions that are made in the world by people who have taken what they’ve heard at face value. There is a pervasive need in our information landscape for us to be skeptical.

Skepticism is defined as a skeptical attitude; doubt as to the truth of something. It is a key part of critical thinking and I would assert that it is foundational to information literacy. The first step in seeking information is always the realization of a need for information.  If we can model for our students and the rest of the world this practice of questioning the ideas that we encounter, then perhaps we can help them “become discerning consumers of ideas rather than passive accepters of other people’s visions of certainty.” As it has been pointed out, skepticism can quickly lead way to cynicism (more on this next week); however, if we are able to coax out and encourage those moments where students say, “Really?” in response to a statement then I think we are on the right track.

Barbara Fister referred to these observations of information literacy outside of the walls of academia as “information literacy in the wild.” Maybe I’ll consider my chicken egg umbilical cord experience as an instance of “information literacy on the farm.” Either way, it certainly brings home the fact that these are lifelong skills we are teaching.

Now… how do you take your eggs?

EDP

World Literature as General Revelation

As a follower of Christ and an academic I take for granted that the stuff I teach my students in class is fair game for religious discussion. But, I have the feeling that the majority of my students do not automatically use a faith-based approach to the reading of most of the texts we read in my world literature course.

The difficulty of the ancients like the Epic of Gilgamesh, the eroticism of A Thousand and One Nights, or the wit and sarcasm of Don Quixote tend to distract us from the perspective that faith has to offer.

don quixoteNot to mention that students of literature must also pay careful attention to conventions of language, the intricacies of different cultures, the particulars of genre, and a variety of narrative forms. We have a responsibility to study the literature for its own merit as literature; in a sophomore survey course in literature we rarely sit around all day and talk about religious aspects of the literature in question.

I am convinced, though, that the World Lit. course is one of the most important courses any American college student can take today. I am also convinced that it is one of the courses most naturally open to an integration of faith and learning.

In order to integrate a faith perspective on world literature one of my basic goals is to communicate to my students the unique role that literature plays in the act of general revelation.

No doubt, there are a number of texts that are explicitly religious,—the Bhagavad-Gita, the Quran, and Augustine’s Confessions—but the majority of our texts fall into the canon of world literature simply for their merit as model examples of their time period, geographical origin, or genre.

So, I begin each semester with a look at Thomas C. Foster’s How to Read Literature Like a Professor. Foster reminds us that every story ever written is a small part of one story.

“One Story. Everywhere. Always. Whenever anyone puts pen to paper or hands to keyboard or fingers to lute string or quill to      papyrus. Norse sagas, Samoan creation stories, Gravity’s Rainbow, The Tale of Genji, Hamlet, last year’s graduation speech, last week’s Dave Barry column, On the Road and Road to Rio and “The Road Not Taken.” One Story (185).

If we are wondering what that one story is about, Foster explains that it is about us—humans—about what it means to be human, about this world and the next, about where we come from and where we are going.

The first thing I want my students to understand is that all of the stories we are about to read are linked together by their own humanity. The stories we read in this class are all stories about us.

The second thing we look at each semester is the Genesis creation story. We look at the story as an example of humans telling the story about where we come from, but also as an example of specific revelation—the Genesis account is unique because it literally claims to tell God’s story—“And God said . . . ..”

For most of the rest of the semester, we examine works of world literature from this perspective, that they are all part of the one story. My hope is that students understand that the words of literature represent the intent of Romans 2:15, “They demonstrate that God’s law is written in their hearts, for their own conscience and thoughts either accuse them or tell them they are doing right” (NLT).

800px-The_Plague_of_ThebesSo, we read about Gilgamesh’s unsuccessful attempt to find the secret of eternal life.

We read about the personal flaw (sin) of Oedipus that drives his story to its tragic end in a play that we learn was originally written as an act of worship.

When we read the Bhagavad-Gita we understand the link between poverty and the Hindu caste system, and we are reminded that religious belief and practice can have a powerful , practical implication upon the lives of the masses.

Even the meta-fictional and narrative-resistant nature of Post-modern fiction reminds us of how mixed up and lost humanity is.

Ultimately, I hope that my students walk away with a glimpse of how that one, human story communicates the truth of the Biblical worldview—that there is one true God who created us, loves us, and has a plan for us.

DS

Connection (or… The Void)

This week one of my colleagues suggested I discuss how we connect with a production.  And, in reflection, each one has a different… love story.

Initially, we certainly hope to be touched by the narrative itself.  We all have our favorite novels, short stories, movies, or television shows.  There is something about them that we delight to revisit every now and then.  Maybe it’s the action or the setting.  Maybe it’s the language or the character relationships.  Maybe it’s the big mess of feeling we are left with at the conclusion.  Perhaps there is something satisfying or redeeming about the work.  Surely, it’s some fantastic combination of all of these.

In order to spend several months on any particular work, we must find something we desire to be a part of.  Something much bigger than ourselves.  Something that speaks to our own need for connection.

Connection.  That’s a huge reason why we do what we do.  And it starts with a connection to the playwright’s voice.

We are constantly reading.  New plays appear on the market all the time.  We listen to suggestions from friends and critics.  We seek out historical work with a timeless message.  The search is relentless for that one play or musical that grapples with our heart strings and illuminates a part of our own journey.

Connection.

When I set out to find my thesis play–a work I would spend months researching, rehearsing, and ultimately writing a 200+ page thesis on–I knew it must capture my soul.  It had to combine characters I would adore with a journey that would rend my heart.  I found it in Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac.  Every single act ended with a page-turning climax.  The characters were both noble and flawed.  And their over-arching desire was to be loved.  To be loved.  Loved for who they were… in spite of who they were.  Battlefield skirmishes, honorable sacrifices, swordplay, poetry and unquenched desire set in seventeenth-century France?  What’s not to love?  It grabbed hold and would not let go.  It filled that void inside me… a need to be a part of something bigger than myself.  Something nobler than myself.  Something more beautiful.

From Act III of Cyrano de Bergerac (Photo Credit: Sam Hough)

From Act III of Cyrano de Bergerac
(Photo Credit: Sam Hough)

Cyrano and I connected.  And I poured myself into the process.

As a director, designer, playwright, or actor, so much of yourself goes into a production.  When your work is torn down or criticized, a little piece (or a huge chunk) of your confidence goes with it.  But I know of no other way to honor the work than to fully invest my own self in it.  Because I’m asking every one of my collaborators to make a personal investment as well.  So the choice must be to select something that feeds your creative soul.

So what happens when you don’t have a say in the choice?

You still have to find your way in.

When ETBU’s School of Fine Arts decided to do Sunday in the Park with George as its huge centennial celebration production, I didn’t really know much about the show.  However, people I trusted loved it and recommended it.

All throughout the summer prior to casting and rehearsing, I tried and tried to connect with it.  I read it over and over.  I researched it.  I watched the original Broadway production repeatedly on DVD.

Nothing.  Nada.  Zip.  I wasn’t connecting to it on any level.  Not the story.  Not the music.  Not the message.  Not the characters.

We finalized the design.  Nothing.  We held auditions.  Nothing.  We started rehearsals…

It wasn’t until I saw the students grapple with the difficulty of the piece that I found my way in.  I would come to love this show because I loved them.  Every one of them.  And I think we were all a little terrified of the challenge before us and deeply grateful that we were not alone in the process.

Act I Finale from Sunday in the Park with George (Photo Credit: Lindsay Steele)

Act I Finale from Sunday in the Park with George
(Photo Credit: Lindsay Steele)

Sunday in the Park with George is ultimately about the sacrifice and work it takes to make great art.  It’s about the compulsion to create and the need to make our mark through excellence.  But it doesn’t sugarcoat the end result which is often marred by the struggle to find balance and priority in the midst of the creative process.  It can get ugly, gritty, short-tempered, and self-absorbed.  George is also about connection and, conversely, disengagement.  Somewhere in there is a cautionary tale about the cost of art… and what happens when we mix up our priorities and fail to invest in those who invest in us.

Disconnection.

It’s odd, really.  We examine all kinds of human disconnection through this unique collaboration we call theatre.  Play by play we look at selfishness, fear, manipulation, rejection, and neglect.  Play by play we also examine generosity, courage, perseverance, grace, and sacrifice.  And we apply what we learn to our own lives and worldview.  We know intimately the God-sized hole in our own hearts and the many things we try to fill it with.

So by the end of my time with both Cyrano and George, I had become acutely aware of the respective sacrifices and hardships they explored, and my own life became the wiser for it.

We are made for connection.  And theatre, through its timeless tales and characters, connects people across history, across miles, across the curtain line, and across the stage.

…yet another reason why I love this discipline so much.

TEL

Misinformed

Let me begin by saying that I have tried to avoid this topic. Honestly, I haven’t wanted to touch it with a ten foot pole. That said, it is a part of the world we live in, and as a librarian it comes up frequently in my daily conversations.

Information can get you into trouble.

Better said, misinformation can get you into big trouble.

Recent headlines only further testify to the fact that our society still recognizes that value of truth and reacts strongly to a perceived or real violation of trust. For me, the timeline of misinformation leading up to post unfolded like this:

And that’s just what’s happened in the news that I observed within the last two weeks.

Let’s face it. None of us likes to think that we’ve been misinformed… perhaps even lied to.

The sheer quantity and speed that information comes at us makes it difficult to know what or who to believe. We have a constant stream of information flowing at us all day every day if we let it. Gone are the days when you rushed home to catch the 6 o’clock news or stayed up to watch the 10 o’clock broadcast. We have information coming at us from everywhere… all. day. long.

Photo Credit: adstarkel via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: adstarkel via Compfight cc

Despite our best efforts, knowing whether or not we should trust an information source can be tricky. Those of us who have been trained to be skeptical and critically think about information have a better chance of adequately evaluating a source. It’s for this reason that in nearly every class that I’m asked teach information literacy concepts, I make it a point to talk about the Information Cycle. If we can understand the process that occurred for the information to get to us, we should have a better chance at evaluating its level of reliability.

When I talk to students about evaluating sources they can usually tell me something about the types of sources they might encounter. They know different types of news sources and can give you examples of magazines that they think tend to be more trustworthy than others. Students are well aware of the bias that can exist in news sources. In any given class I can expect that someone will throw out the term “bias in the media.” That being said, student contributions tend to slow down when I start asking questions about peer-reviewed journals and the scholarly publishing process. While they may have been asked to find a journal article in the past, most of them don’t have a firm grasp of why these sources are valued above other options. Once they have an understanding of the process for creating different sources, students are better equipped to navigate the information landscape.

Knowing where the information came from and the creation process that it underwent to get to you is a key element in being able to evaluate how trustworthy a source may be. You have to have an understanding of what went into producing the information and what the purpose of that information is to be able to judge its validity.

The brand new ACRL Framework for Information Literacy in Higher Education talks about information reliability in terms of authority:

Frame 1: Authority is Constructed and Contextual:

“Information resources reflect their creators’ expertise and credibility, and are evaluated based on the information need and the context in which the information will be used. Authority is constructed in that various communities may recognize different types of authority. It is contextual in that the information need may help to determine the level of authority required.”

Can I trust this information? Is this from a reputable source? What was the author’s purpose in creating this information? As we encounter new data in this information deluge it is vitally important that we think critically about where it came from in order to determine its reliability. After all, part of our call to the truth involves making sure that what we share, what we retell, and what believe is in fact the truth – so far as we can tell.

EDP

Providence and my Fancy Watch

At an early age I was taught about the providence of God. One of the first verses my mother had me memorize was Romans 8:28—“And we know that in all things God works for good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (NIV). Knowing that God has good plan for our lives is one of the simple aspects of faith we begin to teach our children.

So, when did I forget the simple, yet oh-so-important, concept of providence?

whole world in his handsAt what point during my “grown-up” time on planet earth did I stop believing that God has a good plan for my life, that he cares about all the little day-to-day things that concern my attention?

I am not sure, but I did forget.

I became aware of this fact this past August when my wife and I moved to Marshall.

It all began the day I lost my watch.

Now, the watch in question is not your ordinary Timex from Target. It is special. It is valuable because of it price—at least 15 times more than I have ever spent on a watch—and because of its origin—it was a gift from my wife’s parents on the day I completed my PhD.

It is the kind of watch that I have always wanted, but would never buy for myself. It is the kind of watch that says that I am a real grown-up, serious about telling time. It is the kind of watch I imagine passing down to my son (which one, I haven’t decided).

So, sometime during the dark hours of our first night in our new home, my watch was quietly removed from the console of my unlocked car in our driveway. It was devastating. I knew that it would be a long time before I could afford another watch like that. I knew that I could also never replace its significance as a gift. I was disappointed, to say the least.

We did all the things you are supposed to do—called the police, asked the neighbors if they saw anything, visited pawn shops, reported the theft to the insurance company—and there seemed to be no hope of ever finding the watch.

After word got around to the neighbors, my colleagues at work, and my family members I remember repeatedly hearing the same phrase from several people, “Oh, I will pray that you find it.”

That phrase, even though I am a God-fearing, Jesus-following, Providence-believing Christian, seemed ridiculous to me.

My educated, grown-up mind told me that it was gone, either sold for easy cash or it had become a permanent part of the wardrobe of the thief that took it. How would prayer miraculously bring the watch back to me? The possibility that God would convince the thief to bring it back or somehow keep it safe in the pawn shop until I arrived to get ti was not just unlikely; it seemed an impossibility to me.

It also seemed absurd to think that God, who must concern himself with all the troubles in the world—starvation in North Korea, wars in the Middle East, poverty in the city where I live, or the plight of small children suffering under unimaginable oppression and abuse—would be concerned in the least bit with a stolen watch.

I told my wife after hearing the “I will pray you will find it” phrase from one individual that I did not want God to give one thought to my watch. It seemed downright selfish to even imagine that God should care about one silly watch, just because it meant a lot to me and I asked him for it. I told her that I would not even pray for God to give my watch back.

But, I prayed it nonetheless. The watch means a great deal to me, and I wanted it back.

The ironic thing is the timing of the missing watch. You see, my wife and I had spent the better part of two years trying to find God’s plan for us. As I neared the completion of my degree we sought out God’s will for us on a daily basis, constantly fretting about where I would get a permanent job, where we would settle.

At the very moment in which we finally found a home, I lost the watch and was not just convinced that I would not find it; I was also convinced that it was too small a thing for God to be concerned with.

The lost watch represented my own questions about the nature of God’s plan for my life. Does God really care about the plan for my life? Does he even care about the little things, like a lost watch?

This lost watch was a synecdoche for my lost soul. That’s a fancy word we English professors use when a small part of something stands in for or represents the whole.

If I really believe that God did not care about my watch, then how could I believe that God did care about the direction of my life?

Eventually, I was calmly resigned to the fact that the watch was lost forever. I was not mad at God. I was just certain that sometimes bad things happen; we move on. It wasn’t God’s fault because it really shouldn’t be any of his concern.

fancy watchWell, as you can see from the picture, that is not the end of the story. One evening, several months later a neighbor came to our house and brought the watch to me. She had found it inside the bushes in front of her house less than a block away from our home. It seems that the thief had a change of heart for whatever reason and tossed the watch away. It lay there gathering dust for months, not a scratch on it.

I have spent a lot of time trying to answer the questions that come to mind when I think about the loss and miraculous return of my fancy watch. Why was it taken? Why did the thief not keep it? Why did several months pass before I found it?

I can’t help but imagine all the tiny little events that happened to ensure that the watch was returned to me. If the thief had understood its true value or completed his/her malevolent plans, it would never have been left behind. If it had fallen outside the bush, it could have been gobbled up by a lawn implement or found by someone else. If my neighbor had not been one of those people who said, “I will pray you get your watch back,” she might not have remembered that it belonged to me.

But, none of those things happened. What did happen is that God saw fit to return the watch to me. And I am grateful.

The best thing about the watch, though, is not how well it tells time. The best thing is that when I look at the time, I am reminded that God does indeed care about my life, even the little things.

DS