The Sanctuary of Cinema: Can Movies Perform a Religious Function?

Last week I wrote about one of my interests, specialty coffee. Today I would like to write about another one—movies.

I will never forget one of the first movies I ever watched, the original Superman. When I say “original,” I mean Richard Donner’s Superman (1978) starring Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder.

I don’t remember the movie theater in which I viewed the film (In fact, I think I watched it on laser disc), but I know one thing; it had an unforgettable impact on my personal, childhood beliefs. Like any boy of that age, I was mesmerized. The bright colors of Superman’s costume, the power of Superman’s abilities, and the movie magic that allowed me to witness a man fly, are all reasons I wanted to watch it over and over again. Yet, the movie altered my four-year-old perspective in a more foundational and lasting way.

SUPERMANWhat Superman imposed on my four-year-old mind is simple, that good and evil exist and that those with the power to do so are obligated to defend what is good and fight against what is evil.

Like most children with hero fantasies I was determined to act out those fantasies in my everyday life. My mother, sympathetic of my desire to fight bad guys and aware of my appreciation for Superman in particular, sewed me a cape. It wasn’t exactly like Superman’s cape; in fact, it was Superman red on one side and Batman blue on the opposite. I suppose she used scraps from her pile of left-over material because neither the blue nor the red were solid colors. They both were covered in a pattern, a silhouette of a seagull in flight. But, that fact was easily overlooked. I love it and I wore it every, single day.

On one of those days as I was ‘flying’ around the barnyard of the farm next to our house, I discovered the two older, neighbor boys throwing rocks at chickens. Channeling my inner Superman, and inspired by my celluloid hero, I placed myself between the would-be villains and the helpless chickens. The cape became my shield from the barrage of stones.

As anyone can imagine, a cotton cape is ill-suited for protection from stones, and my actions only encouraged the boys to double their efforts.  Not surprisingly, my misadventure ended in tears, a trip to the hospital, and two small stitches under my left eye.

The scar from the stitches, still barely visible today, is a constant reminder of the power of movies.

My actions were not simply the result of my upbringing under the leadership of loving parents that taught me the clear difference between right and wrong. My actions were fueled by a child-like desire to emulate a hero, a larger than life character made real to me by the power of movie magic. By embracing Superman’s example I put myself in harm’s way with great gusto. Superman put substance on the moral framework my parents had taught me. Watching the film undergirded that morality and inspired my action.

I may not wear a cape anymore, but I am convinced of the power of movies to inspire us, challenge us, and bring us to tears. But more than that, movies have the potential to serve a religious function by undergirding, illustrating, enhancing, and even altering our beliefs. Film has the potential to not just reach us on an emotional level, but to also serve a religious function.

At times during this semester I will write more about the religious functionality of film, specifically how film uses conventions and film language to assume a spectator that finds pleasure in the religious experience.

DS

 

The Make-Believe Major (or… People Say the Darndest Things) – Part I

This post begins with a love storyCrush.  Ill-advised infatuation.

And a competition.

During my time as an undergraduate, there was a certain young man who took an interest in me, and I definitely took an interest in him.  He was whip smart, witty, ambitious, handsome enough, and a great conversationalist.  He was not a theatre major, though he took several classes in our department.  Throughout our doomed acquaintance, we had a sort of friendly cut-throat competition centered on academics.  In fact, he wagered that he would easily graduate with a higher GPA than I would.

He didn’t.

After losing, however, he argued that it wasn’t an equitable battle.  If he told me once, he told me over and over that his major was much harder than mine (and more worthy and more academic and more serious and… you get the point).  I never knew how to respond except to roll my eyes and call him a sore loser.

But it stuck with me, and my academic pursuit felt diminished for a long time.

He’s not alone in his opinion.  Throughout my professional career, I’ve encountered many individuals who have said deeply disparaging things about theatre as an academic endeavor or a profession in general.  Aside from being hurtful, these comments come from a place of ignorance grounded in stereotypes and half-truths.

So from my own limited experience, I would like to address some of the statements that have been leveled at me at some point during my studies and career.

Exhibit A:  Don’t you all just play games in class?

There are always acting or directing exercises practiced in select classes that may look, to the outsider, like pointless frivolity.  But they are not pointless.  So much of what we do demands creative problem solving and fresh, innovative ideas.  Many of these exercises are used to develop and hone critical thinking abilities in a time-sensitive environment.

There are also many classes that demand extensive research, analysis, and memorization.  We constantly examine dramatic structure and literary theory.  We must communicate in the language of design (set, lighting, sound, costumes, make-up, hair and wigs, properties, graphics) and be skilled in carpentry, scenic painting, sewing, make-up application, hairstyling, electrics and wiring, publicity, public relations, business management, and technology.   We must have a solid grasp on math (especially geometry), psychology, world history, major literary movements, foreign languages, fire and safety codes, structural engineering, politics, current trends, cultural differences and personal health.  We should be critical of our own work and thoroughly versed in the ideas, problems, and history presented in each new production.  By necessity, we must also be trained as good communicators, listeners, and collaborators—always able to provide an answer for the artistic choice we are determined to pursue.

So no… it is *not* all fun and games.  But it is a comprehensive education that results in very marketable skills.

Exhibit B: But everyone just ends up working at a Starbucks.  Or starving.  Or switching careers.

First of all, I see no shame in holding down an honorable job to pay the bills, no matter where that comes from.  Life hits us hard from all sides, and sometimes you just have to survive.

However, in my experience, I’ve known two (TWO!) theatre majors who took jobs at Starbucks.  I imagine if we took a comprehensive query of Starbucks baristas, we would find people from all walks of life with a myriad of specialized interests and pursuits.  So, this argument against theater seems a little short-sighted at best.  But yes, *some* theatre majors end up in an entirely different field.  Yet I’ve known mathematicians, nurses, foreign language specialists, teachers, businessmen, lawyers, cooks, and engineers who, at some point, have significantly changed career paths.

That said, theatre provides individuals with a wealth of skills and knowledge that can be utilized in almost any job.  I’ve got this lovely man’s article posted outside my office door.

But I also want to highlight the wealth of opportunities available in the theatre.  If you are willing to learn and branch out, the options are vast.  There are far more jobs to be had than just as an “actor.”

Backstage View

Backstage View

Let me provide you with a sampling:

  1. Stage Manager
  2. Designer (in any area)
  3. Director
  4. Playwright
  5. Choreographer (Dance or Fight)
  6. Casting Director
  7. Technical Director
  8. House Manager
  9. Business Manager
  10. Artistic Director
  11. Dramaturg
  12. Educator/Academic
  13. Critic
  14. Carpenter
  15. Seamstress
  16. Crew Member (in any area)
  17. Box Office Manager
  18. Scenic Painter
  19. Master Electrician
  20. Board Operator (Lights or Sound)
  21. Rigger
  22. Music Director
  23. Dance Captain
  24. Vocal and/or Dialect Coach
  25. Agent

Yes, it’s true that many theatre practitioners must supplement their income by taking second or third jobs.  Yes, it’s true that most theatre practitioners market themselves in more than one area or specialization.  But where there is true passion for the art, there is determination, sacrifice, and grit.

We’ll pursue this discussion further next week with an examination of two related comments leveled against the wisdom and intelligence of those who champion theatre, but for now I hope this has generated a deeper understanding of the discipline and a respect for the level of training demanded of our majors.

To be continued…

TEL

Asking Questions

Last week my colleague Will Walker sent me a link to a photo essay blog discussing some of the more interesting questions that were asked at the New York Public Library during pre-Google times. NYPL is posting photos on Instagram each Monday from their reference archives of questions they have received over the years. I don’t know about you, but knowing that makes my Mondays a little better.

I did enjoy looking through the questions that they have received along the way and chuckled at some of the questions that reminded me of my own experiences working public and academic reference desks. My personal favorite from the NYPL collection was the card that showed a variety of questions that were asked in a single phone call. This was not unlike my experiences with an elderly gentleman who made a habit of calling the public library reference desk asking me questions about how much I thought a painting might be worth or where he could find a manual for an antique small appliance whilst he rummaged around in his attic. Answering questions or helping others find the answers they seek is a large part of my job. Truth be told, it’s actually one of my favorite parts.

View more

(Image Courtesy of the New York Public Library)

All of that has me thinking about our ETBU students and how they ask questions and interact with me at the reference desk. How do students go about finding answers to the their questions? In my world, we call this “information seeking behavior” and we study how users engage in the search for information. One thing we have learned about information seeking behavior among college students is that they don’t often think to approach the reference librarian for help.

Librarian Barbara Fister discussed why students don’t ask questions at the reference desk in her appropriately titled Fear of Reference article. She found that students were embarrassed to admit that they didn’t know something that they thought that they should already know. To them, it can appear that their fellow students already have this library thing down pat and here they are just trying to figure out how to find a journal article (when truth be told, many of them couldn’t tell you the difference between a journal and an article).

The reference desk isn’t the only place that this happens. There is something vulnerable about asking a question and admitting that there is a gap in your knowledge. There is some element of trust involved with letting another person know that they know something you don’t know. After all, most of us can recall that annoying, “I know something you don’t know” sing-song taunt that our grade school peers used to tease us on the playground… or was that just me?

In life, we need to be able to ask questions. It starts with curiosity and the humility of admitting that there is something you don’t know. We see examples of people asking questions all throughout scripture. We know that the Bereans searched the scriptures each day after Paul and Silas taught to make sure that they were telling the truth – one assumes they were asking questions to guide them in their research. Proverbs 2 encourages readers to “cry out for insight and ask for understanding.” Jesus was even known for responding to a question by asking another question. Clearly, questions are part of the process of learning and seeking the truth.

We know we should be asking questions, but that still doesn’t change the fact that sometimes asking a question can be down right scary. So how do we help our students become more comfortable voicing their questions? I believe we start by making them feel safe to ask questions.

The first two weeks of the semester generally sound the same at the reference desk. Since we are still a good ways from research due dates, I can usually rely on the questions that I answer to be fairly basic – How do I login? Where’s printer 2? Do you guys have textbooks here? – you get the idea. And while some in my profession would see those types of questions misuse of their expertise – I say bring it on.

Why?

I welcome their questions because I know that if a student can feel comfortable asking me a tech support question during the first week that he or she might be a little less anxious about asking me for research help when the time comes. I hope that maybe if asking the first question isn’t too painful that we can break down that library anxiety barrier (yes, that’s a real thing we’ll talk about more later) that separates us that we can make some real progress in finding the information that they seek.

Last academic year 78% of the 733 user interactions we had in information services occurred in person at the reference desk. The experience those students had when they got up the nerve to ask a question is important to me. Whether I have a student who needs help finding an article involving a certain statistical method, or someone who just needs to know which printer to use, I’ll take that question. After all, I know what it might have taken for you to decide to ask it.

Composition and Coffee beans: How owning a coffeeshop made me a better professor

PaperFew here in East Texas are aware that when I held an assistant professor position at a sister university I owned a small coffeeshop in downtown Plainview, TX. My wife and I had a grand idea to purchase and remodel a mid-century diner to take on new life as a gourmet coffee shop and local hang-out. Just as she was finishing her bachelor’s degree at Texas Tech we purchased the building, completed renovations, and opened in time for a new school year. I would maintain my full-time teaching job while she ran the family business.

Two months later a small hiccup left me running a new business fulltime, teaching a full load, and my wife at home with severe morning sickness that left her bed-ridden. Her aversion to strong smells—coffee being her least favorite—forced me to actually strip down and jump in the shower before I was allowed to greet her from a long day at both jobs.  So, I became the sole proprietor while my wife took on the equally challenging task of a mother to one, and then a year later, two children. Even though those six years number among the most challenging years of my life, I learned a number of important things that have made me a better equipped college professor.

Now, there are a few obvious elements of owning a coffeeshop that may well serve an English professor. The endless supply of fresh and delicious coffee left me with all the energy I needed for late night grading and early morning classes. The proximity to the lives of students who frequented my shop and were employed as baristas allowed me a unique role in educating and training them in and out of the classroom. And, my position as a small-business owner allowed me a unique perspective by which to teach my freshmen students the ins-and-outs of professional writing.

Yet, the most valuable thing I learned from owning a coffeeshop is something that is more profound, but less obvious.  It is a lesson that plays a critical role in my approach to teaching at a small, faith-based university.

When my wife and I first opened our shop, we, like most independent coffeeshop owners at that time, found our inspiration from Starbucks, the world famous coffee purveyor that introduced the American public to Italian-styled coffee drinks like the espresso and the cappuccino. We set our menu options and our prices to reflect our similarity with the chain. We were proud when customers compared us in a positive way to the coffee giant. And, even while we strived to create products that were superior in quality, we knew that we owed a great debt of gratitude to the big guys for every dollar put in our cash register.

However, over the course of our six years in the business things changed drastically, not just in our coffeeshop, but in independent coffeeshops around the nation.  These coffeeshops adopted what has become known as the “third wave.”

latte artThe “third wave” approach to artisanal coffee is characterized by promoting sustainable growing practices, purchasing beans directly from farmers—a practice that pays fair prices and cuts out the middle-man—and pursuing careful roasting methods that enhance flavor without burning the coffee (Most third wave coffee is lightly roasted).  It is also associated with alternative brewing methods, like the pour-over, that celebrate the inherent uniqueness of each coffee variety. Baristas began pouring latte art and talking about the specific flavor qualities of single-origin beans—beans from a specific lot of an individual estate rather than beans from a given nation, like Columbia.

Small coffeeshops took on practices that not only produced the best product but were healthy for the local and global community. And, those small, independent shops are really the only places capable of providing that level of quality and that amount of positive community interaction.

Small, independent shops that embraced the “third wave” approach have become so numerous and popular that the large corporations are now trying to emulate them. Starbucks now has pour over coffee and serves a “blonde” roast. Chick-Fil-A now serves coffee that is advertised as purchased directly from small, family farms. And, latte art now makes regular appearances in Hollywood blockbusters and on the packaging of grocery store creamers.

So, as a professor at a small, faith-based university, this observation is the most important thing I have learned from the coffee business. It is the observation that a group of purposeful, highly-trained and creative individuals that dedicate themselves to their craft can operate a successful venture and provide a valuable and satisfactory service to its proprietors in ways that challenge the establishment. What if the small, faith-based university could approach education in the same way that independent coffeeshops approach coffee?

As a professor at ETBU I know that if we embrace the best practices of education we can provide the highest standard of education to our students. But we must also ask ourselves what we can do better. How can we best utilize our role as a small school that has a high teacher/student ratio to provide better small-group instruction? How can we push the educational envelope in fresh and meaningful ways to provide students with a quality of education that they can’t get at one of the big guys? In what ways can we use our model to train our students and give them hands-on experience for service to both the local and global community? How can we make the small university education cool again?

DS

Where’s My Death Scene? (or… The Value of Theatre)

When I was a little girl, I often found myself digging through my mother’s closet and drawers to create what I termed “old-timey” clothes.  My mother’s fashion sense was not in any way “old timey”—but her nightgowns could be layered and belted on my frame to resemble the great robes of eighteenth-century royalty.  It fascinated me that people from long ago did not attire themselves as we did in the early 1980s, and I wanted to explore that with my own “designs” and imagination.

I was also a pretty voracious reader.  After reading Little Women (the abridged version) as a third grader, I would spend hours in my room reenacting scenes from Meg’s life.  Not long after, I was orchestrating talent shows and made-up plays from the living room with neighborhood children.  Yes, I was *that* kid.

After one particular living-room performance, which idealistically I believed EVERYONE would want to be a part of, I found myself near tears because one of my friends had categorically refused to participate.  I now understand that she had stage fright, but that didn’t (and still doesn’t) exist in my genetic make-up.  To heap insult upon injury, my mother pulled me aside for a scolding.  My offense?  I had invited the neighborhood into our home without warning and the house was a mess.  Oops.

So it was time to redirect my energies.  My mother happened upon an ad in the paper for a local children’s theatre.  Their production for the summer?  Little Women.  Did I want to audition?  (She had to explain to me what an audition was first.)  Ummm, YES!  And while disappointed to learn I was too young to play Meg, I did receive the part of Beth.  The rest is history.

Beth in Little Women

“Beth” in Little Women

There are two interesting segues to this story.  The first is that the adaptation of Little Women we performed was “cleaned up.”  Spoiler alert.  In this version, nobody died.  Imagine my ten-year-old brain trying to conceive why anybody would want to change a word of Louisa May Alcott’s literary masterpiece.  Where is my death scene?!?!  Everybody should grieve Beth’s sacrifice, illness, and loss!  It was unconscionable.  Eventually, however, I adjusted to the new approach, but it rang false.  I couldn’t articulate it then, but I know today that theatre was/is a way to wrestle with the difficulties of life.  That it was and is necessary to explore grief, love, doubt, inequality, and suffering through art.

The other branch to this story is providential.  Just a few months prior to my audition for Little Women, I heard the gospel presented in church—for what was probably the thousandth time—in a way that finally hit me.

My Sunday-School teacher was a rather rotund, middle-aged man named Buddy.  Buddy was unassuming, humble, and full of kindness.  And I liked him because he didn’t condescend to us.  There was no baby-talk.  There were no silly voices or exaggerated tales.  We were fourth and fifth graders together.  We were the highest echelon of elementary students.  Top dogs.  Almost adults.  And he spoke to us with the gravest sincerity, and his words sunk in deep.

I find it no coincidence that, after meeting Jesus, I should be introduced to the world of theatre.  I wouldn’t understand the connection between the two for years, even as I hungrily gobbled up every theatre opportunity that presented itself, but that fact was that God was preparing me, shaping me, using me as He designed me to be: an artist who is compelled to create in the image of her Creator—obliged to create in an effort to explore, to connect, to relate, to entertain, and to educate.

This brings me to the crux of this post.  An acquaintance of mine queried last year, “What really is the purpose of theatre at a small, liberal arts school?”  Or, we might ask, “What is the value of theatre anywhere?”  What does it do?  What should it do?  The debate is as old as theatre itself.  And there are (generally) two camps that the arguments fall into: theatre as entertainment and theatre as instruction.  Theatre should delight!  Theatre should inform!  Well, yes.  And yes.

There are those who want escapist entertainment that doesn’t require much thought.  They want to be awed by the spectacle and roll with the laughter.  Theatre should be equal parts romance, poetic justice, and action.  It should allow them to set aside their own concerns for a few hours, and delight in the trials and triumphs of some other life.

Then there are those who want to be challenged by something new, who want their perspective challenged, who want to examine the tough subjects through the intimate setting of theatre.  They carry the story with them beyond the curtain call and into the days and weeks ahead, turning it over in their mind and wrestling with it in their conversations.

The best theatre, in my opinion, does both.  It explores relevant topics or stories in a way that captures the audience’s imagination and heart.  It inspires discussion at the very least.  It never bores.  It demands examination and change.  It emboldens and encourages.  It lifts and it humbles.  It heals and it hurts.  Therein lies its purpose and its value.  And I know of no other way to bring so many diverse topics and so many different people together in one collaborative, cathartic event than the theatre.  And to me… that has great worth.

TEL

Why the library?

Library CardTo this day I have in my possession (and still in good working order, I might add) the first barcoded library card that was issued to me by Ms. Wendell Ogidi at the Palestine Public Library. Based on my foggy memory and my early rendition of a cursive signature, I’d guess I was entering fifth or sixth grade. Before that I can remember visiting public libraries as a younger child with my parents in Garland, Texas. I still have memories from the Abbett Elementary library where I was taught about the Dewey Decimal System via an overhead projector and transparency sheets. Last semester Will Walker mentioned that ETBU Library Director, Cynthia Peterson, talked about playing “library” as a child. She’s not the only one. I think my sister might still owe me a fine…

I was a proud member of the Bluebonnet Club both at Story Elementary and at Washington Sixth Grade Center (thank you, Ms. Rozman) where we read and discussed the books nominated for the Texas Bluebonnet Award. I can remember researching Y2K (warning: for some this will make me seem terribly young and for others you might need a definition of Y2K) on dial-up internet connection (perhaps even a CD database) from my public library computer on an orange and black screen. And between libraries and Baptist life, I have developed an affectionate appreciation for the usefulness of a golf pencil…

Me and libraries? We go way back.

So in Spring 2011, when Dr. Dub Oliver asked me during my interview why I chose to be a librarian, I should have been able to produce an answer. Right? Well, sort of.

Before coming to ETBU, I had recently completed my Masters of Library Science degree from the University of North Texas. I also was leaving the first library job I had ever had with the library that grew me in my hometown. Prior to that I had spent time trying to help middle school students learn to love reading as a public school teacher in two great districts.

And so why did I choose the library?

At the time I would have told you that I had always sort of kept librarianship in the back of my mind as a career path. [Note to readers: I’ve lost count the number of people who tell me that they always thought about being a librarian if (fill in the blank with first career choice) hadn’t worked out.] A series of life circumstances and situations made it possible for me to step out of my classroom role and work full-time in Adult Services at my hometown library while I worked on my MLS. At the time I could give you the standard “Why are you a librarian?” answer – I loved reading and being around people who loved reading. Even more than that, I loved learning and now I was surrounded by information. Every day I had the chance to feel like I was sharing something with my community and the work that I was doing made it easier for people to get to the information that they needed to make their lives better. Also, I got to help select the books for the collection – who wouldn’t love that? It sounded like a good enough reason to pick a career to me.

Back to Dr. Dub’s interview question. My initial response was something quippy about there not ever having been a librarian track at church camp. Beyond that, I think I did manage to say something about believing that people should have access to information and that being able to use that information to take charge of your own learning can make all of the difference in a person’s life. That statement remains to be one of the true reasons why I love being a librarian.

Since then, though, I’ve thought more and more about where my Christian faith intersects with my career of librarianship and what it means to be a Christian librarian. In hearing the teaching faculty talk about faith and learning in their disciplines, I’ve begun to ask myself where librarians and the role of the library fits into the larger picture.

As it turns out, I’m not the only one who asks these kinds of questions. For me, questions about my calling to the library go something like this:

  • Where does the library and its mission fit into what I believe about my faith?
  • How does what I do on a daily basis serve God or those around me?
  • Why should a Christian, or anyone for that matter, care about information and its use?
  • Just what exactly am I supposed to be doing here, anyway?…

These are some of the very questions I hope to address in this semester’s blog. I hope you’ll join me as we look together at how the world of information intersects with our faith, how reading impacts empathy, why I believe Christians are called to be information literate… and many more reflections from a librarian’s point of view.

Why the library? I think the answer to that question is something I get to continue discovering. As the library and my role within it continues to evolve, I am constantly finding a new reason to enjoy this calling to educate, steward, and serve. I hope you are able to do the same in whatever work that God has called you to join him in doing.

Curious about something? I know the feeling. It’s a job hazard for me. Leave a comment below and I’ll try to get to it in a future post. Happy reading and thanks for following.

EDP

Spring 2015 @ The Intersection

It’s hard to believe, but we are entering our fourth semester of The Intersection blog at East Texas Baptist University. For any newcomers, you should know that The Intersection was created in Fall 2013 by the Center for Excellence in Christian Scholarship (CECS) to provide an online outlet for ETBU faculty to reflect on what it means to “create and participate in scholarship that embraces a Christian worldview without compromising in the pursuit of scientific truth and intellectual inquiry.” Over the last three semesters, 11 ETBU faculty members have reflected on their teaching experiences, explored how faith intersects with their academic disciplines, and asked us to consider questions and ideas from their unique perspectives.

This semester the CECS is once again excited to announce the three ETBU faculty members who have agreed to take us on another 15 week journey into what it means for them to study, learn, and teach from a Christian worldview. The following faculty members will begin sharing with us next week – Ms. Traci Ledford, Department Chair and Associate Professor of Theatre Arts; Dr. David Splawn, Assistant Professor of English; and myself, Ms. Elizabeth Ponder, Librarian and Manager of Instruction & Information Services for Jarrett Library who also serves as the Program Coordinator for the CECS.

Traci Ledford, David Splawn, & Elizabeth Ponder

Traci Ledford, David Splawn, & Elizabeth Ponder

You will have a chance to get to know these bloggers more in their first posts next week. In keeping with our format, each writer will post once weekly on Monday, Wednesday, or Friday. This semester our bloggers will take on topics such as on finding God in the details of art, bringing a Christ-like approach to writing instruction, and exploring how information and faith collide – just to name a few. We hope you’ll stop by three times each week to see what they have to say or subscribe via email by signing up on the right side of the page. Engage with our bloggers by leaving comments and asking questions throughout the semester.

Have an idea that you’d like our bloggers to explore this semester? Leave us a comment below or email cecs@etbu.edu.

We’ll see you at The Intersection!

Joy to the World*

First, I would like to thank the ETBU Center for Excellence in Christian Scholarship for allowing me to take part in blogging this semester. It has been an excellent experience and I hope that this particular project continues long-enough that I eventually have another shot at it. In particular, I’d like to thank Elizabeth Ponder for keeping us all in-line.

For weeks I had roughly sketched out that this final week I would write about missed opportunities and unanswered prayers, noting ETBU’s focus verse for this year (Proverbs 3:5-6). I was going to talk about several instances of my life in which I had reeeeeeally wanted something and it did not work out, but in the end it was a blessing: jobs I didn’t get that were downsized within the year, opportunities that I was sure were “the big break” that didn’t happen but were replaced by something better, relationships that (thankfully) did not pan out…

But something else is weighing on me: “My trouble is Christmas.”

“You know, Santa Claus and ho-ho-ho.”

***Disclaimer: If you are under the age of 10 or so, there is a MAJOR spoiler in today’s post so you probably won’t want to read it.***

Reader, I have questions you need to consider:

What are you going to tell (or what do or did you tell) your kids about Santa Claus? How will/do/did you answer these questions?

  • Who is he?
  • What does he do? How does he get into the house?
  • Is he white or black or Hispanic or what?
  • (At the mall) “Mommy/Daddy, is that the real Santa?”
  • What about Rudolph, Frosty, Jack Frost and all of the other peripheral characters?

“WHAT KIND OF CHRISTMAS MUSIC IS THAT?!”

So anyways, I attended the Texas Lions Camp in Kerrville, TX several summers as a pre-teen and teenage Type I diabetic. The first couple of times I attended, the camp was long-enough that it ran through Sundays, and I remember one Sunday in particular that has stuck with me a long time.

There was an optional “Sunday service” I attended, and even as a youth I recognized that something was wrong about it. It was like expecting Dr. Pepper and getting watered down Mr. Pibb. There was no specific talk of God, no prayers (just something like “silent reflection”), and no songs…except one. The only reason I stayed for the entire service was that on the program, for some odd reason, there was Joy to the World. I thought, “how ridiculous…a Christmas song in July. But at least it is Christian.” We got to that point, and with all of my pent up frustration, as soon as I started loudly blurting “JOY TO THE WORLD, THE LORD IS…”

“JEREMIAH WAS A BULLFROG! HE WAS A GOOD FRIEND OF MINE!”

That’s right…it wasn’t “Christmas song” Joy to the World blaring loudly through the speakers, it was Three Dog Night’s Joy to the World (I don’t remember having ever heard that song before in my life to that point, but I probably had).

In hindsight, adult me knows that the Texas Lions Camp could not quite offer a “Christian worship service”, but why fake one if it isn’t going to be the real thing? I mean, good grief! The song talks about drinking wine and “making sweet love to you”. Many of us hadn’t hit puberty yet, so what were we meant to be worshipping?! (And furthermore, who thought “this is a great idea!”)

Despite probably being well-intentioned, the “Sunday Service” did nothing to center worship on God. Instead, it distracted from those things that were important.

(I don’t recall there ever being another “Sunday Service” in my subsequent years at the camp, but that might be because the camps shortened to not overlap on Sundays, they stopped doing them, or I simply repressed ever seeing that option offered again.)

“All I want is what I… I have coming to me. All I want is my fair share.”

I take those earlier questions about Santa Claus and use them in my M.Ed. coaching class. I present them as if I am asking out of context for student opinions on how I should proceed with my own kids, and then I move on to a thorough discussion of what sorts of ethical restraints they might have in Pee-Wee coaching versus professional coaching. This leads to a discussion on moral relativism versus moral absolutism (“Why do you have significant differences between what you think is acceptable for Pee-Wee versus pros?”). Then I ask these two questions:

Question #1: Was Robin Hood a good guy or a bad guy? Was he right or wrong?

(and then I nail them with the next transition…)

Question #2: Why is OK to lie to your kids about Santa Claus? How can you then expect them to believe some of the more-important things you say?

Now to you, the reader…why DO we lie to kids about Santa Claus? That is what we do. Really, think about it. What good reason is there to lie to your kids about the existence of Santa Claus? We expect kids to believe that a red-coated fat man at the North Pole delivers toys to children around the world in one night on a sleigh pulled by magical reindeer, and that’s before you get into the entire backstory of Frosty the Snowman, Jack Frost, Elf on a Shelf, Yukon Cornelius, the Island of Misfit Toys, and the whole variety of other characters that have been somehow equated with a Christmas story. Eventually, they find out it isn’t true and there is a level of trust that is violated. “But Will, it is innocent and there is no harm done.” Is that true?

“Let’s face it. We all know that Christmas is a big commercial racket. It’s run by a big eastern syndicate, you know.”

Now before you label me a Grinch, I recognize that my complaint isn’t a new one. The entire point of the original Charlie Brown Christmas special was that commercialism and secularism should not take the focus away from Jesus on Christmas, and that show was released in 1965 (nearly fifty full year ago!). That said, I wonder how Charles Shultz would feel about this sort of thing happening with his creations?

Week15 Snoopy Christmas Airplane

In fairness, my kids currently do receive one gift from Santa each year, if for no other thing than them having an answer when someone asks “what did Santa Claus bring you?” This concession was the result of much deliberation in my household. I believe that we should give each other gifts, as a commemoration of the gifts the wise men are said to have given baby Jesus. However, I also believe that we should not extort behavior from our kids (by proxy of a fictional character) by saying things like: “you might get that toy, but you’ll have to hope Santa thinks you are a good-enough boy/girl to deserve it.” It should be emphasized that gifts are given at Christmas out of love to commemorate the birth of Christ. Period.

“What kind of a tree is that?”

Week15 Star and Crescent Tree TopperThis is for sell at our local “big box” store: star and crescent tree toppers.

I consulted several individuals much-more qualified than me to speak to this, and there was no consensus on the intention, but all agreed that the star and crescent is most-definitely a non-Christian religious symbol. Some I consulted noted that people buying it might not be aware of what it represents to certain groups, and this is probably the truth. I just want to point out that this is a product that exists. Is Christmas now so secular of a holiday now that families with those belief systems do not feel threatened celebrating it in their households? I doubt that, but one must admit that this could be evidence to the contrary. At the minimum, this may show the cultural ignorance of those that purchase the tree topper, unaware of its meaning to billions of people.

“Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?

When we lie to our kids about this entire fantastical “Christmas character” alternate universe, they will eventually find out it isn’t true. If we as parents and as society are willing to lie to our children about that, should it surprise us that when they are older they don’t believe us when we tell them that 2000 years ago, a baby was born in a manger under fantastical circumstances, that the carpenter’s son went on to perform supernatural miracles, that was He was the Son of God, that He died for our sins, and that He rose from the dead on the third day? Because really, “That’s what Christmas is all about.”

Luke 2: 8-14

8And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field , keeping watch over their flock by night. 9And, lo , the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid . 10And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold , I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. 11For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. 12And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes , lying in a manger. 13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying , 14Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

Thank you for reading this semester.

WW

Jesus, Africa, Refugees, and a Retelling of the Christmas Narrative

As you reflect on the Christmas story do you celebrate and affirm its connection to Africa and refugees?

Photo Credit: withrow via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: withrow via Compfight cc

Each semester in “Introduction to the New Testament” I ask students to corporately retell the Christmas story.  Working together students generally note many of the more commonly known elements: the inn and its lack of room, angels, shepherds, wise men and a brilliant star.

Most semesters, however, students neglect the tyrannical attack unleashed on the town of Bethlehem by Herod that would rightly be labeled today as genocide or more accurately – infanticide.  This seems to speak to a collective desire in many western cultures to minimize atrocity.  This is unsurprising given the response of many to the recent influx of 50,000 Central American unaccompanied minors to the United States who are primarily fleeing a context filled with gangs, drugs, rape and violence.  This further corresponds to a general lack of media attention to the more than 1 million Syrian child refugees fleeing from war who even now face the onset of winter.  It is perhaps easier and safer to avoid drawing a direct connection between one of the most celebrated biblical narratives to these and other similar realities.

Most semesters students also fail to include the journey to Egypt.  Matthew 2:13-15:

When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”

14 So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, 15 where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

Throughout the Old and New Testament the Jewish people looked to Egypt as a place of safety and refuge.  Africa has long played an important, though often undervalued, role in the broader history and development of biblical faith.

How long did the “holy family” stay in Egypt?  The Bible is unclear but it is safe to assume that the first few years of Jesus’ life were spent in Africa.

Where did they go when they arrived in Egypt?  The text is unclear but there was a sizable Jewish immigrant population in Alexandria so perhaps they relocated to northern Egypt.

How did Joseph and Mary feed Jesus and reconstitute their home in a new country?  Again, the text is unclear but two assumptions are probable.  First, there were surely individuals who helped them along the way and so entertained unaware the Son of God.  Second, it is possible that Joseph and Mary used the gifts from the Magi to help them in this difficult process.

What is clear is that the holy family had to flee for their lives from a deranged governmental system and they found safety and security in the arms of Africa.

It is not possible to know the kinds of interactions, if any, Jesus had with people around him while an infant in Egypt.  But it is reasonable to assume that Alexandria was filled with business interactions and cultural exchanges between the immigrant Jewish population, local Egyptians, people from the broader Roman world and Sub-Saharan Africans navigating the Nile, the life blood of the region.  Certainly this impacted the development of Joseph and Mary who may have later recounted to Jesus how they were saved and lived at that time.  We cannot know the influence of Africa on Joseph, Mary and Jesus but it is reasonable to assume that it significantly impacted this family.

Moreover, part of the reason why this text is compelling is because it so clearly states that Jesus was at one point a refugee.  At Christmas we celebrate many titles for Jesus – Messiah, Immanuel, Christ, Prince of Peace, Son of God – and these are all powerful and true names.  But Jesus is also the refugee, the one forced to flee his home, the politically betrayed and abandoned one, scared and fleeing in the night, nervous at the border, wondering how life will go on.  Jesus, Joseph and Mary were all refugees.

We do not often celebrate Jesus the refugee.  What would it mean this Christmas for churches to affirm that Jesus was a refugee protected by Africa?

Reflecting on this passage the Africa Bible Commentary notes:

The fact that Jesus was a refugee on African soil should teach us many lessons.  God was not ashamed to let his son become a refugee.  By sharing the plight of stateless refugees, Jesus honoured all those who suffer homelessness on account of war, famine, persecution or some other disaster.  There are millions of refugees on the African continent and many of them have a terrible life…  The sad thing is that far too many Christians are either unconcerned or believe the lie that every refugee is a troublemaker.  Yet the Bible is full of men and women who knew what it meant to be refugee.

Jesus as refugee is good news to many this Christmas season.  We can turn to those experiencing true difficulty and say, “God has not abandoned you.”  Jesus is one who understands as one without home, without wealth, at one point even without a country.  The Gospel is good news to the broken and the suffering in this world.

Photo Credit: 10b travelling via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: 10b travelling via Compfight cc

Jesus as refugee is also a challenge to Christians this Christmas season.  If Jesus was a refugee today would the church welcome him or miss him altogether?  If was Jesus was a refugee, might we find the Spirit of God still at work in refugees today?  If Jesus was a refugee, might we also have a responsibility to help others who find themselves in such a situation?

If the church is unwilling to help refugees then who will?  If the church is unwilling to step into this difficult kind of situation and offer the love of Jesus then where is the hope of the Christmas season?  The church must be willing to step into the most difficult, most broken, most challenging spaces because the light of Jesus shines brightest in the darkest of contexts.  We must train and mobilize our churches to be politically and consciously aware of this biblical mandate.

According to recent statistics from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees there are approximately 43.3 million refugees worldwide today.  Jesus was a refugee.

41% of the refugees are children.  Jesus was a refugee child.

26% of all refugees are in Africa.  Jesus was a refugee in Africa.

There are also likely refugees in your community some who may be recently resettled.  Would you consider searching out a resettlement agency in your area and partnering with them this Christmas season?

Each Christmas we worship, though we may not always state it clearly, the refugee Jesus.  This season let us acknowledge and affirm the special connection shared between Jesus and our brothers and sisters from Africa.  This season let us also pray, minister and befriend those with whom Jesus specifically identified: refugees.

EMB

Basketball Jones

The week before any prolonged university break (Thanksgiving, Spring Break, etc.) is a difficult one. Everyone’s focus, including the professors’, tends to wane. In an effort to ensure students attend the days prior to a break, a variety of motivational tools must be used. In one of my classes this Fall, I gave a test. In the other three, I had to get creative:

“And if you guys come to class Thursday (or Friday) maybe we’ll watch a movie? Or maybe I’ll tell you some old story or otherwise embarrass myself in some way? Or maybe, just maybe, all I just said was a lie and it will be a normal class day? Whooo knoooows?!” (Imagine all of that being said with over-the-top, exaggerated hand gestures and inflections.)

Sometimes I just tease my students, but sometimes, I deliver.

What I had for those Thursday and Friday attendees this year were a variety of VHS tapes of my various basketball experiences, ranging from (briefly) a Pee-Wee game in 3rd grade, some Junior High and High School games, an intramural game at ETBU (team name: Hoosier Daddy), and head coaching in an ETBU JV game. The Pee-Wee game in particular was a huge hit.

Basketball has been an important part of my life. My father was a women’s sports (including basketball) coach for 35+ years and was an all-state performer at Avinger. There even exists an 8mm film of his Avinger team besting a Harleton team with a future NBA center in the state playoffs, during a snowstorm, in ETBU’s own Keys Gym. My mother was a successful “guards and forwards” player, my older brother was 3rd team all-state, I grew up in Avinger, Texas, where there wasn’t much else to do…the stars were aligned. However, a few things happened:

  1. I didn’t really like it until after I was diagnosed with Type-I diabetes at 11, and so I was already behind my peers.
  2. By the time I really started liking it and started figuring out how to best work basketball around the diabetes, I stopped growing. I was 5’10” in 8th grade and stopped growing by the beginning of my sophomore year of high school, topping out at my current 5’10¾”. Of note, my Dad is about 6’1, my older brother is 6’2”, and my younger brother is 6’6”…until 8th grade I was well-ahead of both of my brothers’ paces on growth charts. Oh well.

Now, I still enjoy playing and watching, but the truth remains that for a significant portion of my young life, it was too important to me. What I am going to share with you now is the moment I realized it wasn’t that important.

“We want Will, we want Will…”

My freshman year at ETBU, I had worked my way up from JV to varsity over the Christmas break. Now, it helped that some people failed out, but I also legitimately beat out some others. That was the last year ETBU had J-term, a month-long mini-session before the Spring semester. During J-term, I was occasionally getting to play in varsity games, but the majority of ETBU students were not on-campus yet to see that happen.

Fast forward: the Spring semester has started, it is the last home game, Senior Day, against Letourneau, Shadow Day…perhaps the biggest crowd I’d seen in Ornelas Gym. My mother wanted to attend, but I urged her to go to my younger brother’s junior high game instead since the previous game against Letourneau had been close and I hadn’t played.

Long story short, we got up by 20 and I had a “Rudy moment”.

This should have been a crowning achievement for me, given my physical stature, my medical condition, and the work that had to occur to get to that point. However, that “basketball culmination” was mostly empty. The people that cheered for me to get in most-likely assumed I was awful, for one, but beyond that I had no one with whom to share it. Few people I cared greatly for were there. My parents were at the junior high game, several of my better friends had left, my then-girlfriend left the game early and I couldn’t get in-touch with her (pre-cell phone Will Walker), and my good friend that is now my wife wasn’t there. It is a story that quite literally only exists in a few memories and in a poor-quality VHS cassette.

To that point, I’d always tried to use basketball to fulfill something more in my life beyond just exercise and having fun, and when I finally did something “of note”, it was totally unsatisfying.

In Ecclesiastes, Solomon notes that “what” we do is important, but I also think that the relationships we forge along the way are indescribably valuable. “Triumphs” aren’t all that fun unless there are people with which to share them.

Even more than that, though, I think that I’d made basketball an idol.

Exodus 20:3-4

“You shall have no other gods before me.
You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below.”

Basketball in and of itself isn’t idolatry, but even good things can become idols. The linked blog post notes how the Israelites made something good (Moses’ staff) into an idol. Although it served God’s purpose at one time, it was made evil by the human heart. Basketball served (and continues to serve) important purposes in my life, but it was not the “end”, it was the “means”. For a long time I could not keep that in the proper perspective.

I hope that the interactions I have with our students helps them to put the things they do in the proper perspective as well. I have many students whose majority of self-worth is tied to athletic performance (or choir, or debate, or theatre, or grades, or socializing…), but we are so much more than those things. Extracurriculars might be the “means” that gets a person to ETBU or to another important spot in life (i.e. basketball, tallness, and Shawn Bradley), but it our job as professors to ensure that students never look at any potentially-idolatrous thing as the “end”, ruining something that pursued in moderation might serve good.

WW