The Priesthood of the Crossed Keys: Grand Budapest Hotel as Hagiopic

Most movie-goers are familiar with the hagiopic, whether they know it or not. Mel Gibson’s The Passion of Christ (2003) and Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014) are both recent and fairly well-known examples, particularly among evangelical Christians.  The hagiopic, a term coined by Pamela Grace the author of The Religious Film, is a “saint” picture, a biographical film devoted to a holy person. It is a film genre that is distinct from the biopic because the film is “concerned with the hero’s relationship to the divine,” and the world of the conventional hagiopic is  a place where “miracles occur, celestial beings speak to humans, and events are controlled by a benevolent God, who lives somewhere beyond the clouds” (Grace 1).

As a specific genre the hagiopic offers its viewers a kind of ritual experience. The experienced viewer, familiar with the conventions of the hagiopic willingly joins in on the events that describe the suffering holy figure. It is an important film genre for offering religious experience to viewers because the hagiopic typically deals with important and universal questions of “suffering, injustice, a sense of meaninglessness, and a longing for something beyond the world we know” (Grace 3). Furthermore, those questions are not framed simply by giving pat, orthodox answers, but by dramatizing the inner conflicts of the holy protagonist in ways that are universal to human experience.

Wes Anderson’s  The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) is anything but a religious film by any stretch of the imagination. The film’s protagonist, a liberally perfumed concierge who “goes to bed with all” his friends, would not be considered anything even akin to the word holy by audiences that hold that term in high regard. Yet, the film utilizes the conventions of the hagiopic to achieve its depiction of the kind and charming M. Gustave  as a priest serving his disciples in the last vestige of human civility on earth, The Grand Budapest Hotel.

The Grand Budapest is, according to Zero, “an institution”–a temple, if you will, to the religion of civility where the staff devotes their lives to serving their guests. As concierge, M. Gustave is the chief priest placing the needs of others before himself. While the guests feast on champagne and lavish dinners, Gustave eats cold cereal in his tiny, sparsely furnished studio.

There are a number of essential elements of Grace’s holy picture that are upheld by Anderson’s film and represented by the character of M. Gustave as a priest.


First, Gustave, as the high priest of the institution of the hotel and a member of his profession’s holiest and secret order The Society of the Crossed Keys, serves and ministers to the congregants of the hotel. He delivers sermons on Sunday to his staff. He ministers to widows (the elderly women at the hotel) and orphans (Henkels and Zero). He spreads the verses of his scripture (Romantic poetry) to those who are in need of comfort during moments of tragedy or those who wish to commemorate instances of celebration.


vlcsnap-2015-03-27-14h56m33s963Second, Gustave administers sacraments to those under his care. He gives blessings to other priests. He accepts alms to light a candle in the Sacristy for his congregant. He administers the Eucharist of fine food and drink to those whom he ministers to–Mendl’s pastries and champagne are his body and blood of choice. And, he officiates the wedding between Agatha and Zero.



Finally, Gustave suffers and dies for the sake of his ideology and service to others. He is beaten a number of times over the course of the film, usually as a consequence of defending those in his service or upholding the ideals of his calling. Then, in his final act, Gustave sacrifices his own life for his successor and brother in arms, Zero.

The question for us as viewers is, why? What is the meaning of using conventions of the hagiopic as a subtext for The Grand Budapest Hotel? Why is important to have Gustave depicted as a representative of a kind of priesthood, a saintly figure who ministers to others through the institution of a grand hotel?

The answer is simple, really. Because, how you treat people in life really does matter.

Gustave represents the forgotten world of people who offer “faint glimmers of civilization left in this barbaric slaughterhouse that was once known as humanity.” Gustave is a kind and charming servant who regularly puts the needs of others before himself. In our current global situation in which religious zealots cut off heads of their victims live on the world wide web, or a depressed man commits suicide by flying a plane full of passengers into a mountain, or children kill other children with automatic weapons, don’t we all wonder what went wrong? And, for those who live in the Post-enlightenment, Post-church, Post-modern western world where both God and the author are dead, there is little doubt that we still ask the question.

Hence, Grand Budapest’s Gustave reminds us that, even though, the grand institutions that used to provide us with answers are slipping away (The Hotel or the Church),  there remain certain ideals that we should cling to. Gustave’s ideology can be summed up in the words of Christ, “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 7:12 NIV).



I Can’t. (or… I Have Rehearsal.)

Maybe you’ve seen the t-shirt.

I can’t.  I have rehearsal.

It’s true, too.  Few people realize what a sacrifice it is to actually be a theatre major or practitioner.  There are so many events, opportunities, organizations, and televisions shows that we give up because rehearsals take precedence.  And in educational theater, we often start one show the minute we close and strike the previous.

Rehearsals are as unique as the production they are supporting.  I almost hate to catalog it here because there are infinite ways to mount a play.  And the hours will look different based upon the producing organization.  High schools will typically rehearse 8-10 hours a week.  Professional companies will rehearse eight hours a day.

At ETBU, we typically rehearse four hours each evening.  This is on top of the standard academic work day.  And every show receives 4-6 weeks of work, depending on its complexities and specific needs.

The calendar order looks a little something like this:

Table work.  This is the time when the actors and director (and possibly other support staff) read through the script as a company.  Often these rehearsals are used to discuss changes in rhythm or mood.  Difficult passages may be the focus or even correct pronunciation of unfamiliar words.  Dialects are honed.  Some directors limit this work to just a couple of days.  Others may spend a few weeks at the table, making sure the actors are comfortable with the text prior to staging.

Blocking rehearsals.  Visual storytelling should support the text.  As Hamlet advises the players in Shakespeare’s masterpiece, “Suit the action to the word, the word to the action.”  If you see a play in a foreign language, the movement alone should give you an understanding of relationships, power, and conflict.  So you cannot underestimate the importance of good blocking.

Our rehearsals at the university tend to start off organically.  This means the actors are allowed to explore the space and define their characters bringing their instincts, preparation, physicality, and research to each scene.  We can find some really lovely moments this way, as they come up with their own ideas for motivation and action.  As a director, my job is to guide them into the strongest choices.  I always have to keep in mind what the audience will see and how they will interpret our spatial relationships.

Fine tuning the blocking can last throughout the entire rehearsal process.  Some moments are really difficult to stage, and choices made early in rehearsals may be scrapped entirely and reconstructed in an effort to make the emotion and storytelling stronger.

A dance rehearsal for Blood Wedding by Federico Garcia Lorca.  Produced by Baylor University.  Dr. Marion Castleberry, Director.  Photo by Sarah Chanis.

An early dance rehearsal for Blood Wedding by Federico Garcia Lorca.
Produced by Baylor University. Dr. Marion Castleberry, director. Photo by Sarah Chanis. 2009.

Special rehearsals.  Typically, these work days focus on a production’s additional needs such as choreography or set changes.  If a play is dance heavy, then choreography needs to be the focus early on so that each subsequent rehearsal reviews and polishes.  The same could be said for fight choreography.  It’s essential to commit these to muscle memory early so that later additions such as lighting, costuming, and an audience don’t distract the actor and result in injury.  Additionally, scenic rehearsals facilitate quick set changes and prevent the loss of the audience’s attention.

(Side note: I saw a play mounted at Actors Theatre of Louisville that had a twelve-minute fight scene involving sixteen actors.  When I asked members of the company how long it took to rehearse the fight, they replied 40-50 hours.  Respect.)

BW Rehearsal 02

A polishing rehearsal for Blood Wedding by Federico Garcia Lorca.
Produced by Baylor University. Dr. Marion Castleberry, director. Photo by Sarah Chanis. 2009.

Lines-off rehearsals.  No more scripts on the stage.  In addition to the work put in for academics, production work, and rehearsals, actors have also been carving out time to learn their lines.  This takes discipline and several weeks to master—depending upon the size of the role.  During these rehearsals, actors are allowed to call for “line” and the stage manager will read it to them.  Hopefully they immediately pick up and go with it.  However, sometimes these days feel like one step forward, fourteen steps back.  It all depends on how prepared and confident the actors are.  At some point, usually about a week after the first lines-off rehearsal, we institute a “no-more-line-call” policy.  It’s sink or swim.  It’s vicious.  And I like it.

BW Rehearsal 03

A dress rehearsal for Blood Wedding by Federico Garcia Lorca.
Produced by Baylor University. Dr. Marion Castleberry, director. Photo by Sarah Chanis. 2009.

Polishing rehearsals.  The last few days prior to going into tech rehearsals are where some of the best work happens.  The blocking is set.  The lines are solid.  Now the actors work on emotional truth and connection.  New discoveries are made and new risks taken in almost every rehearsal.  It’s one of the most beautiful parts of the entire process.  The really difficult scenes may get a lot of work here; in essence, everything is done to make sure the performance of the actor is worthy of an audience.

Because our goal is to tell a good story.  Always.

Later, in another blog post, I will talk about tech and dress rehearsals.  Those are beasts in and of themselves.  But for now, if you see a theatre major, ask them if they are in rehearsal.  Ask them what they are doing in rehearsals.  Ask them how many hours they put in.  Be invested in the work they do.

Just to have that work–those hours–acknowledged is reward in and of itself.


Stop, Collaborate, and Listen…

We’ve all heard the teamwork phrases before -

There’s no “i” in team…
Two heads are better than one…
Teamwork makes the dream work…

- and still yet, as an introverted K-12 student (and probably as a college student), no words inspired more fear and trepidation than the infamous phrase: “Class, today we’ll be working in groups.”


Learner confession? I hated group work when I was a student. On further reflection, I think that my dislike for group work was in line with the reasons that student still give for not wanting to work in groups. It takes longer, someone always seem to get stuck with the majority of the work, things might not go my way, and on and on. You’ve heard (or said) the same things.

Teacher/Librarian confession? Despite my own experiences, I often ask my students to work in groups because I recognize that the exchange of ideas is vital to the educational process. Thank you, Lev Vygotsky… and Socrates.

I’ve also learned to look forward to opportunities to work with others within my professional career.

This past Friday Cynthia Peterson (Director of Library Services) and I were able to attend the meeting of the North Texas Library Assessment (NTLA) group hosted by SMU libraries. If you are thinking, “What a fun way to spend a Friday,” then you would be correct. What’s fun about library assessment? Besides the obvious, talking about ways that we can improve the methods that we use to highlight the impact that libraries have on our communities. This particular group’s mission is to “provide a venue for communication and collaboration for library professionals interested in assessment.” Basically, NTLA is a group of people who love libraries and are committed to assessing a variety of aspects about them in order to convey their value.

One thing that my discipline is particularly good at? Sharing ideas.

For instance – at this particularly meeting, I learned that UNT libraries are working to implement a grid of heat map sensors in order to find out what areas in the libraries are most heavily used. How cool is that? Tarrant County College Libraries are offering free information literacy classes and are considering using a badge program to encourage participation. I’ve latched on to the thought about a badge program and have plans for it somewhere down the road.

Working with librarians has taught me to love collaboration.

Sharing ideas, working together, listening to each other – it makes all of our libraries better. While every idea isn’t scalable or applicable, just hearing what others are doing and thinking about how it might impact what we are doing in our own library provides an opportunity to think from a different perspective. It’s probably why I’ve signed up for more webinars, podcasts, journal alerts, listservs, and rss feeds than I care to think about.

I’m also a fan of collaboration within the university. Every information literacy session that I’m able to teach comes out of some amount of collaboration with the teaching faculty. We work together to develop assignments, craft learning outcomes, and ultimately help students to engage with information specific to their discipline. As I’ve said before, reference and instruction is at it’s best when I’m able to collaborate with teaching faculty.

Even as I process my growing appreciation for teamwork, I also realize that working together can be tricky. Perhaps collaboration is somewhat difficult because it requires a certain amount of humility. We can’t do it all ourselves. Reaching out for help reminds us that we don’t know everything. It also requires that we are vulnerable with other people. There’s also the feeling that I can get something done faster when I work on my own. Collaboration is certainly not what I’d call an easy sell.

That being said, the more that I am willing to reach out to my friends and colleagues, the more I’m finding these days that we can do things better together.

Dog & Cat Teamwork Meme

Dog & Cat Teamwork Meme

Case in point: Last week the students in Dr. Ray’s Business Research Methods class needed to learn how to conduct a focus group. My friend and colleague, Dr. Emily Prevost was asked to lend her expertise and teach the students the ins and outs of focus groups. If you know anything about focus groups, you know that it helps to have a client or a problem on which to focus. Cue the librarian. Working together with Dr. Ray and Dr. Prevost, I was invited to engage with the students as a “client.” These students met with me and Dr. Prevost last Thursday to develop the questions about the library that they would be asking their participants. Tomorrow these same students will actually conduct a focus group for the library based on the questions that they developed. Students will be given a chance to conduct a focus group and I’m (hopefully) able to glean some qualitative data about the library and student research skills – isn’t that quite the deal?! By working together with Dr. Prevost, Dr. Ray, and the BRM students, we are able to accomplish much more than we would be able to do independently.

As I reflect on collaboration, one particular chapter of scripture continues to ring in my ears:

“…If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be?But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!…” 1 Cor 12:17-21 NIV

So whether you are the eye, the ear, the fingernail, or even the elbow, you’ve got an important part to play. We need you — you need us! This week I challenge you to think of ways that you can collaborate with those around you. What skills have you observed in them that would pair nicely with some of your own goals? What insights could they bring to that stale project that you haven’t touched in a few weeks?

What could you create together?


Don’t “Let it Go”: Why I Wish my Five year-old Daughter Would Watch More Frozen

A few weeks ago I was flipping through our movie collection asking my five year-old daughter which movie she would like to watch. When I came to Frozen I was shocked that she turned it down with a hint of disdain in her voice. I was surprised because until that moment Frozen had been her most favorite movie, by far.

Now, probably much like every other parent of an elementary aged child, I must admit that I know every line of the film by heart because of the sheer number of times we have viewed the film. I should be overjoyed that she has grown weary of Elsa, Anna, and Kristoff’s adventures.

Yet, I find myself quietly disappointed that she has moved on from Frozen.

Let me explain why. Unlike a number of Disney princess films Frozen avoids the objectification of women.

The objectification of women, as my World Literature students know, is a common motif in literature and it has been since the oral story tellers of Gilgamesh first began recording their story on clay tablets in the second millennium B.C. Women have been objectified in the ancient writings of Mesopotamia through the Greek epics and tragedies and on and on until the advent of commercials.

Literally the term objectification is more than a catch word for the ideology of feminism; it is simply the act of making a woman into an object. As such, women in literature are typically depicted as either maidens, mothers, or harlots. The three roles are interchangeable between stories. Hence, the motherly character of Ninsun in Gilgamesh is very much akin to the wise goddess of classical Greece. The unfaithful wife in A Thousand and One Nights has much in common with Circe and Calypso in The Odyssey.  On the other side, though, the male heroes Odysseus, Gilgamesh, and Oedipus all have rich character traits that make them unique from one another. Let’s face it, the one story of the world’s greatest literature is by and large a story of masculinity.

Circe Offering the Cup to Odysseus (1891) by John William Waterhouse

Circe Offering the Cup to Odysseus (1891) by John William Waterhouse

I want my daughter, though, to embrace female heroes that possess rich characteristics, women of literature like Scheherazade, who saves her nation by telling stories, or Tagore’s  Chandara who would rather die than live under oppression. Ultimately, I want my daughter to grow up wanting to be a strong, independent woman who is an active participant in her own story, very much like the kind of woman her mother is.

When we think about Disney princess films, though, more often than not they are stories of princess objects—characters that are interchangeable with one another, characters who lack depth and uniqueness. Most Disney princesses are passive characters led along through the story in order to find the prince. They rarely take an active role in their own story.

Let’s take Snow White as an example, the first Disney princess movie, and the model of princesses that came after her. In the final, climactic scene of the film in which our princess overcomes the crisis and fulfills her potential Snow White is objectified. She is depicted sleeping with arms folded across her chest in a chaste repose awaiting the prince to come and bless her with the kiss of true love. She becomes the princess object simply by passively receiving a kiss and waking up to marry the prince. The mise-en-scene objectifies her as a chaste, even angelic, maiden in the shot below. Snow White is anything but a subject who is active in her own story. 


In contrast is the climactic sequence of Frozen. In the scene Anna, who dreams of becoming a Snow White-like princess finding love at first sight, instead chooses to turn away from her chance at uniting with her love interest, Kristoff. She makes the choice to turn from romantic love and actively sacrifice herself for her sister. The subtext of the Snow White princess motif is subverted when Anna chooses a true act of love—giving her life for her sister. This is the “true” love that is celebrated in Frozen. And, that is the type of love I want my daughter to strive for, the kind of love also modeled by Christ. 


Don’t get me wrong, I like Snow White as much as any other dad. And, in our home all manner of Disney princess movies will never go out of style. Yet, if there is a Disney princess I want my daughter to emulate, it is the princesses of Frozen, the princesses who take an active role in giving their life for others.


Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day (or… The Creative Process)

The creative process is a fickle phenomenon.

As artists, I firmly believe we are compelled to create.  It’s more than just a passing interest—it’s a consuming need to express our world, its beauty, its hardships, its messed-up-murky-monkey business… all in an attempt to make sense of it…

or tell a memorable story…

or inspire change…

or wrestle with the dark questions.

I believe our ability to create—following the example of our great Creator—is an amazing gift.  It’s also incredibly hard and humbling.

A friend (and fellow performer) once shared this description of the creative process.

This is awesome.
This is hard.
This is awful.
I’m awful.
This might be okay.
This is awesome!

That so perfectly sums it up.

We are often terribly excited to begin a project… and then we quickly realize how ambitious it is.  How intimidating.  Too much to do and to get right.  Questions and doubts begin, asking whether or not the work will ever come together.  At points, we may even loathe the process, fearing that it will never reap the beauty we hope for.

Then we start blaming ourselves.  Maybe we’re the reason it’s not coming together.  Maybe we’re the reason everything is terrible.  Personally, I’ve been a part of near 100 productions in my lifetime, and the pattern has never changed.  We never seem to remember, in the throes of a creative process, that Rome wasn’t built in a day.

Rome.  Lovely. "Na Koloseum i K Franciszki Rzymianki". Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Rome. Lovely.
“Na Koloseum i K Franciszki Rzymianki”. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Yet, we push through… and it gets a little better.  A little sharper.  A little stronger.  We start to see glimmers of the huge potential this project has.  And we sprint towards that goal.

Personally, I never want to tackle a production that is too easy.  I’m constantly looking for a play or musical that will challenge the students, our limited facilities, and our budget constraints.  I don’t think we grow as artists if we stick to the same old routine.  I don’t think we educate our audiences either if we just give them some rehashed product they’ve come to expect.

Part of the love/hate relationship with mounting a production is the thrill of tackling something new compounded with the effort and energy it takes to make it a realization.  Uncharted territory is exciting.  However, if fear takes over and we settle for status quo, then our art suffers terribly.  I have known several directors who routinely return to the same production they did a few years ago.  Their repertoire seems to be limited to about 15 plays total.  I will never understand why they do that, especially when there are so many incredible works which have been available to produce since the dawn of time, the written word, and Aeschylus.

I exaggerate a little, but you understand my point.

We must overcome our fear of the difficult, of the unknown, and of our limits as created beings.  Let me be clear.  I’m not advocating some unwise regimen of extremist behavior here.  Our art cannot be our idol.  I’m talking about removing the chains of the “what ifs” and exchanging them for the satisfaction that says, “Look what we did!”

To create is to be brave.  To step out in faith and exercise the gifts we have been given by the Father.

There are so many subsets of the creative process contained within a production… so many ways to be brave.

  1. The playwright’s work to create the world of the play
  2. The director’s approach to realize that world
  3. The designers’ renderings, presentations, and models
  4. The technical director’s oversight of the build
  5. The actors’ wrestling with the characters and motivations
  6. The choreographer’s interpretation
  7. The scenic charge artist’s detail and nuance
  8. The stitcher’s embellishment
  9. The composer’s/sound designer’s aural story

And on and on and on.  Everybody creates!  Everybody works to contribute their special skill or gift to this GINORMOUS—or, honestly, it could be “simple”—product that will invite hundreds of others (spectators!) to judge their work.



Why on earth do we exert so much effort, engage in vulnerability, and invite criticism?

Because we cannot keep our work to ourselves.

Theatre is communal.  It loses its value without an audience.

This is where I think television and film fall short.  Though an audience may engage with the material presented on the screen, there is no give and take that is reciprocal.  The film doesn’t change based upon how you react to it.  But the theatre…

Every performance is different.  Connection.  Inflection.  Chemistry.  Comedy.  Rhythm.  It’s so wonderfully dynamic.  You know exactly where you stand with an audience for each performance, and it is always some place new and unchartered.  You know when you connect and when the crickets are chirping.  It’s an unbelievable exchange of emotion and thought that goes both ways.  You share space.  Air.  Energy.

And, at the end, polite applause.  Sometimes ridicule.  Silence.  Judgment.  Questions.  Strong opinions.


Praise.  Like-minded excitement.  Dialogue.  Thoughtful consideration.  Enthusiastic exchange of ideas.



Try Something New

Spring Breaks are good for the soul. Can I get an amen?

After observing a moment of silence to commemorate the passing of Spring Break 2015, I spent last night unpacking my bag and preparing to reenter life as I know it. This vacation was rather low key. It did involve a few “treasure hunts” at various resale shops, thrift stores, and estate sales. No matter where my scavenging takes me, I always find my way to the used books section to see what needs to become a part of my collection. Spring Break ’15 exploring resulted in the addition of a mint condition, autographed copy of Art Spiegelman’s The Complete Maus.

The Complete MAUS by Art Spiegelman

The Complete MAUS by Art Spiegelman

Autograph: Art Spiegelman

Autograph: Art Spiegelman

For those unfamiliar, The Complete Maus tells the story of Vladek Spiegelman, a Jewish survivor of Hitler’s Europe, and his son, a cartoonist coming to terms with his father’s story. It has been hailed by the Wall Street Journal  as “the most affecting and successful narrative ever done about the Holocaust.” And still, I haven’t read it up until now. Why? As you may have noticed, there is a mouse or maus on the cover. This is a Holocaust narrative told in comic book/graphic novel form where the Jewish characters are mice and the Nazis are cats. To say the least, this form will certainly be a departure for me…

…And I think that’s a good thing.

My all-time favorite course that I took while completing my MLS was Reader’s Advisory. This was the course where we were taught about how to help patrons find their next favorite book. Despite some of the incredible algorithms that have been created to advise a reader in what to read next, reading is still best when it is social and people still ask librarians for their recommendations. And, contrary to popular belief, we don’t get to sit around reading books all day so developing readers advisory skills helps when met with this task.

What I liked about this particular class was that it required me to leave my usual literary comfort zone. If I were left to choose, my go-to books tend to be realistic fiction with strong female (and often Southern) characters, some historical fiction from very specific time periods, nonfiction again limited to certain subjects, and young adult dystopian novels. I’m one of the only librarians that I know that truly does not enjoy the mystery genre – why read the whole thing when I can just skip to the end to figure out who-done-it? Romance and western novels follow too much of a formula for me and so I usually pass those by as well. I can handle some fantasy if it is loosely tied to reality, but sci-fi tends to be outside of my normal preferences. In terms of format, I will read either a book in print or an ebook, depending on what is available to me at the time. For the last several years now I’m finding that I “read” more audiobooks than anything else.

We all have our preferences.

The one that I haven’t figured out how to read and enjoy yet? You guessed it. Graphic novels.

A graphic novel is generally considered to be a long story or novel written in comic book format. Among the vast field of works found within the graphic novel designation, Spiegelman’s Maus is often touted as the preeminent example of this literary form. While comic books first made their appearance in US during the 1920s, graphic novels began to emerge in the 1980s and were seen as the “more sophisticated and better produced comic book.” One author describes graphic novels as neither a genre nor a format: “The term “graphic novel” describes neither a discrete literary genre nor a specific publishing format. Rather, it denotes a sensibility: an attitude taken toward comics.” If a sense, the graphic novel asks us to believe one thing – that comics “deserve more respect.” As someone who didn’t grow up reading comic books and is not really what one would call a “visual learner” I’m going to give this graphic novel thing a try. I’m going to try and respect this format/attitude that has an international fan base. I’m going to

So what does my reading a graphic novel have to do with anything?

Today I’m reminding myself (and you) to try something new.

I am a creature of habit. I have a morning routine (put the dog out, shower, makeup while watching CBS This Morning and sipping coffee, hair, dressed, pet care, out the door), a bedtime routine (it almost always involves a super hot soak in the tub), and I’m one of those people who could eat the same meal for days on end without noticing (especially if it was pizza). I know what I like to read and how I like to read it. And still, there are times when it is good for me to try and work something new into the ordinary.

What good could come of this “try something new” I speak of?

  1. It gives me another way to connect with people. As a librarian, I spend a lot of professional and personal time talking about books. What books have I read? What do I recommend? Have I read the new…? I like to be able to engage with people in these conversations. Trying a new type of literature will give me the ability to talk about it with some of my friends and patrons who deeply appreciate this literary form.
  2. It stretches me. I’ve already said that I can be set in my ways. I’m not really a visual learner and so attempting to read a graphic novel seems to slow me down. It asks me to pay attention the things that I would have skimmed by before. It engages another part of my brain that probably needs to be lit up now and then.
  3. I might actually like it. For every person who can tell me what they love to read, there are at least that many if not more who can tell me exactly what they hate to read. It is interesting to find out later on that sometimes they approach reading something new like a kid with a vegetable. Have they tried it? Nope. But they are pretty sure they won’t like it. I’m hoping that by picking a graphic novel that is from a genre that I’m already interested in reading (Holocaust literature), that I may actually enjoy it.

Have you been waiting to try something new? Let this be your invitation. Eat a new food. Take a different route. Listen to a different genre of music. Throw caution to the wind and read a graphic novel.

I would love to hear about it in the comments below!

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.


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.



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.



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.


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…


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?


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.



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.