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.

That Unspeakable Something (or… The Power of Design)

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

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

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

The Set from Eurydice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So to all the designers out there… thank you.


Chicken Eggs & Umbilical Cords: Info Lit on the Farm

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

Photo Credit: wisefly via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: wisefly via Compfight cc

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

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

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

Photo Credit: cafemama via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: cafemama via Compfight cc

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now… how do you take your eggs?


World Literature as General Revelation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Connection (or… The Void)

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

You still have to find your way in.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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



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

Information can get you into trouble.

Better said, misinformation can get you into big trouble.

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

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

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

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

Photo Credit: adstarkel via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: adstarkel via Compfight cc

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

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

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

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

Frame 1: Authority is Constructed and Contextual:

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

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


Providence and my Fancy Watch

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

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

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

I am not sure, but I did forget.

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

It all began the day I lost my watch.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


You Should Do Shakespeare! (or… How We Choose Our Season)

Once, after a performance of a contemporary play, a patron told me, “You should do Shakespeare.”

Sometimes it’s hard to find the grace to respond with kindness when I’d rather be banging my head against a wall.  Repeatedly.  Then I remind myself… they don’t know the whole story.

ScriptsChoosing a production season for any theatre, whether professional or educational, is a painstaking process.  We can agonize over it for months before we commit to next year’s work, essentially because there are several criteria that guide our selection of a play.

I’d like to share those with you.

1. Is the cast size consistent with the talent in the department?

It is folly to choose a show we have no hopes of casting.  Though our productions are open to the entire student body, we have found that only those who have a deep love for the theatre are willing to commit to the demanding schedule required of any show.  This limits the size of the cast and, as a result, the type of shows we can do.

2. Does the production have academic and thematic merit?

We are a university committed to the intellectual growth of our students.  If we say we want them to think critically, then the material must demand intellectual inquiry through skillful storytelling and ask the participants thought-provoking questions regarding the content.  Wrestling with great literature helps our students think and problem solve beyond everyday expectations.

3. Has the play been recognized for excellence?

This is closely tied to #2.  Usually those plays that have been popularized through strong word-of-mouth reviews, legitimate awards, or favorable critiques provide the richest academic and artistic challenges.

4. Will the demands of the show exceed our budget or workforce?

Selecting the wrong show can sabotage an entire department in one of two ways: we can break the bank by committing to a play that demands too much of our budget or we can break our backs by selecting an overly ambitious show that will drain our workforce.  With a season of at least four shows, we must find a healthy and economically sound balance.

5. Will the experience stretch, challenge, and grow our students (both on stage and behind the scenes) in a way that prepares them for professional or graduate-level academic work?

Students should experience a wide range of genres, forms, and styles from across history to better understand the discipline.  We must also prepare our students for the real world by engaging them with the work out there now.  They are challenged to make bold choices, take risks, engage their faith, and set their boundaries.  It’s not all black and white, and our students must know how to dialogue about their limits in a profession that won’t necessarily sympathize with them.

6. Does the play reflect the faith and values of the institution?

This question is best answered by our Theatre Arts and Christian Worldview statement found on our website and in our programs.  In short, we absolutely want to maintain the integrity and mission of our university.  We love to discuss the redemptive, cautionary, or unresolved conflicts found in the work we do.  As a result, we often schedule talkback sessions after particular performances to help answer the difficult questions.  Our goal is to balance the needs of our students with the expectations of our patrons.

7. Is it something we personally want to work on for 6-9 months?

That’s about how long we spend on any one show, often overlapping the various needs as the schedule demands.  While one show is in performance, another is being designed, while another is being researched and conceptualized.  If we aren’t passionate about the work we have chosen, the end product will suffer.

2014-15 Production Season

2014-15 Production Season

I love Shakespeare’s work and would welcome the opportunity to produce any one of his histories, comedies, tragedies, or romances if we can do the play justice.  However, large cast sizes, multiple male roles, few female opportunities, lengthy run times, multiple sets, iambic pentameter (with numerous variations), difficult thematic content, and some of the most beloved stories ever told make his work a significant challenge for a department of our size.

So we work to grow.  We try hard to recruit top-tier students.  We train them in voice and movement, acting and design, analysis and history.  We build our stock of period clothing, weapons, and props.  We dream big and problem solve within the limitations of our facilities.  We press on in the hopes that one day we will do Shakespeare.

But until that time comes, we strive to meet the immediate needs of the department in a way that gives students opportunities that are just as rich and rewarding.  Maybe it will be Miller, Ruhl, Brecht, Molière, or Sondheim, but it will be just as worthy.


Some Things We Don’t Get to Know

One of the first sentences that I learned to string together was apparently, “I can’t know that,” when I didn’t know something. I can know that I said that because many family members and people who knew me then like to remind me of this fact. It may have been cute toddler babble then, but I can’t don’t know… I’m starting to think that I was on to something. While “can’t” might not be completely accurate, I’m convinced that there are some things that we just don’t get to know.

Early in my career as a teacher I realized that while I worked hard to assess what my students were learning, there were some things that I would not be able to witness them achieve beyond the context of my classroom. Anyone who has taught for more than a year knows that once the students leave your classroom, you often never know where they are going to end up or even what, if any, impact you have made on their lives.

Some things we just don’t get to know.

"George Washington Carver c1910" by not listed - Tuskegee University Archives/Museum. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

George Washington Carver c1910” by not listed – Tuskegee University Archives/Museum. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

This past weekend I spent some time thumbing through my third and fourth grade yearbooks. I was on the hunt for the first name of my third grade teacher, Ms. Hoskins. Unfortunately, the yearbook editors only listed the adults in the yearbook by Mr., Mrs., or Miss so-and-so. The information hunt continues.

I was searching for Ms. Hoskins’ first name because I was preparing for the reading that I will present at the upcoming annual African American Read-In event later this month. I’ve selected a few poems from a collection by Marilyn Nelson titled Carver: a life in poems. The Ms. Hoskins connection comes in because she is the first person that I remember telling me about the contributions of African American scientist Dr. George Washington Carver. I can remember being fascinated by Carver’s story and amazed at how his innovations had shaped the world I lived in. Ms. Hoskins was the first person to teach me about her alma mater, the Tuskegee Institute, and told stories of the incredible accomplishments of its graduates. She made an impact on my life in that third grade classroom. Here I am over two decades later recalling the things that she taught me about the world. And I wonder… does she have any idea that I remember what she taught me?

Some things we just don’t get to know.

Fast forward to early in my career as a librarian. I was working the reference desk one afternoon when the phone rang. We were well into the Google era and so we didn’t really get a lot of genuine reference questions via the phone. One that day, though, someone needed the assistance of a reference librarian. The exchange went something like this:

Photo Credit: Tambako the Jaguar via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Tambako the Jaguar via Compfight cc

“Reference desk. This is Elizabeth, how may I help you?”

“I need to know what the gestation period is for an elephant.”

“Okay. Just a moment and I’ll look up that information for you.” (meanwhile, I’m… Googling the gestation period of an elephant. Yes, sometimes we use Google too.)

“The gestation period of an elephant generally lasts 20-22 months depending on the species.” (I also would have told her the source that I used)

“That’s what I needed to know. Thank you.” (Click)

What just happened here? Did I just help in determining the due date for an elephant? The caller gave me no information about why she needed the information. Was she using this information for a purpose other than satisfying her curiosity? What made her think to contact the local librarian for this information in the age of the internet?

Some things we just don’t get to know.

Today I often experience this phenomenon of not knowing when I help a student with a research project or speak to an entire class. Many of my interactions with students are boiled down to somewhere between a 3-minute online chats and a 50-minute one-shot instruction session. Knowing the nature of the job does make me more intentional about forming relationships with students when I am able. Still, there will always be the fact that I don’t see the end results in much of my work. I get them started on their research, but rarely see the final paper. I teach them about the ethical use of information, but I don’t get to see how that plays out for them in practice. As teachers (and teacher librarians) we usually don’t get to see the rest of the story. We plant seeds that we may never have the opportunity to see harvested.

Some things we just don’t get to know…

…And yet, the older I get the more I find that I’m okay with some of the not knowing. 

Admitting that I’m comfortable not knowing something in this world where we pride ourselves in knowing things seems a little risky. After all, I’m a librarian. I’m supposed to be excited about knowing things. And I am… most of the time. I used to think that the uncomfortable thing was not knowing the answer; that was until I got to things that I just flat can’t figure out – things I can’t know.

The Apostle Paul wraps up his well-known writings on love to the Corinthians with a discussion on things that we don’t get to know… yet.

“We don’t know everything, and our prophecies are not complete. But what is perfect will someday appear, and what isn’t perfect will then disappear. When we were children, we thought and reasoned as children do. But when we grew up, we quit our childish ways. Now all we can see of God is like a cloudy picture in a mirror. Later we will see him face to face. We don’t know  everything, but then we will, just as God completely understands us.” 1 Corinthians 13:10-12 CEV

There are still so many things that I don’t get to know. Does Ms. Hoskins know that what she taught to a poofy-haired, snaggletoothed third grader has influenced what I will share with the ETBU community later this month? Highly unlikely. What in the world was that elephant phone call about? Beyond satisfying idol curiosity, I have no idea. What stuck in the mind of the student who sat on the third row of the class that I taught two weeks ago? I haven’t reviewed my assessment data, and so at this point I can only hope.

Let’s take it up a notch. Why do bad things happen? For that matter, why do good things happen? Does what I do help his kingdom come? What is God like? Well, as Paul says, I do have a fuzzy picture. I guess the comforting thing is that while I don’t get to know some things now, God knows them, and hopefully there’s a big YET at the end of some of things I just don’t get to know.


The Christian Gaze: How movies assume a religious audience

In my post two weeks ago I discussed the potential for movies to serve a religious function. I would like to come back to that topic today.

Usually when I mention to someone that I study how films serve a religious function the first response of that individual is to bring up a religious film, like The Greatest Story Ever Told or The Passion of Christ. Or, as one comment mentioned on my post, we think about films that are solely produced as “Christian” products—Kirk Cameron’s films or Billy Graham’s productions.

However, it is not just these “religious” films that offer themselves up as interesting subjects for religious discussion. There are a vast number of “secular” films that are regularly examined under the microscope of religion and film studies. In fact, I only discuss “religious” films in order to explore the more foundational elements of how film offers religious experience.

Surprisingly, films that audience members typically label “secular” often provide us with some of the most interesting discussions on the religious aspect of movies, often more than those films that we might usually describe as “religious.”

And, it makes sense. God often reveals himself to us in the great stories that happen in everyday life, not just stories we share in the confines of the four walls of the church.

"Gran Torino poster" by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Gran_Torino_poster.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Gran_Torino_poster.jpgOne such “secular” film that I have studied is Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino, which depicts a crotchety widower forced by a chain of events to use violent acts to protect his neighbors, a family of Hmong immigrants. In the end, the man, Walt Kowalski (played by Eastwood) sacrifices his own life in order to save the Hmong children from the violent world of Detroit’s ethnic gangs.

It is the penultimate scene of the film, in which Walt is gunned down in the street leaving his bloodied body lying on the ground in the form of a crucifix, that gives us ample material for spiritual analysis.

This scene does not simply depict a heart-wrenching moment when an innocent man dies for others, it also invites the audience to interpret Walt’s character as a Christ-figure.

Christ-figures are not uncommon in the realm of “secular” film, or literature for that matter, but what is most interesting is how the film uses its own language and conventions in order to assume a kind of religious, particularly Christian, audience.  It is my observation that film does not merely propagate religious themes or relate theologically charged narratives, but film assumes a religious audience that discovers a sense of rich fulfillment in finding religious meaning in movies.

Before I demonstrate how this is true, it is important to understand how movies assume a particular perspective, or gaze, for the audience.

The most obvious example is when a movie objectifies a woman on screen.Rear-Window-pic-2

So, in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window when Jimmy Stewart’s character carefully watches a beautiful woman through his binoculars, the film assumes the perspective of his male gaze as he looks at her as a potential sexual object. As we know, it is not an uncommon occurrence in the movies when the female lead is introduced to the audience the perspective of the camera emphasizes her female form, assuming a male gaze regardless of the gender of the audience watching the film. The camera assumes the perspective of a man who gains a sense of pleasure from looking upon a woman as an object of affection. This is what we call the male gaze.

If there is a male gaze, why not a Christian gaze?

Therefore when we watch Clint Eastwood’s Walt Kowalski fall dead in a cruciform position, the film assumes the gaze of a person who is familiar with the significance of a sacrificing savior who dies on a cross. Even more than that, as the camera zooms in to a close-up of Walt’s hand as blood pours down his wrist, then switches to a bird’s-eye shot of Walt in his cruciform death, the film assumes the gaze of an audience who feels a particular sense of religious affinity for Christ on the cross and experiences a sense of spiritual pleasure from the religious imagery on the screen.

It is the movie’s choice to take that particular perspective, assuming the audience will find a bit of spiritual satisfaction or pleasure in understanding that Walt has just made the grand sacrifice.

Without even thinking about it, the audience knows that Walt’s act of laying his life down for the lives of others is not just the right thing to do, but it is a holy act of sacrifice akin to the act of Christ on the cross. This is accomplished through the simple body position of Walt and the careful perspective of the camera angles.

This observation does not merely suggest that the director made a choice to borrow the sacrifice of Jesus in order to bring weight to his film’s climax. When we see the camera’s perspective on Walt’s death we are reminded that the religious perspective, particularly the Christian perspective, is still powerful and relevant.

It is also a reminder of the universal and powerful significance of the imagery of the cross. For, there is no more compelling way to emphasize a self-sacrificial act than to liken it to the substitutionary act of Jesus on the cross.