Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Little Women... Big Musical

Rehearsals are now underway for my school's holiday musical extravaganza, Little Women, based on the novel by Louisa May Alcott (1832–1888). I am directing a stellar cast of talented young women and young men, and I am working with a very gifted director of music. This is my second foray into the world of directing musicals (my first experience was in 2008 directing The Sound of Music). I use the word "foray" because I feel like I am entering someone else's territory and taking spoils. When I was a high school student, I was never involved with the theatre productions at my school. Of course, they used to put on plays like Oedipus Rex and Flowers for Algernon... 'Nuff said.

Little Women The Musical is a fairly new Broadway production, premiering in 2005. The musical, however, is solidly rooted in the classic story by Alcott. The script also appropriately balances drama and humour and the musical numbers are surprisingly delightful. I am surprised because "21st century" and "delightful" rarely go together. Yet, every time I get fed up with the tidal wave of ugly art and post-modern doggerel flooding the creative world, I am pleasantly startled by something beautiful and good. Unfortunately, I find these occasional "roses among thorns" almost exclusively in popular media... e.g., musicals and Hollywood films. Perhaps there is hope in the masses, people made in the image of God, who still prefer truth, beauty and goodness.

This musical is by no means deep or profound; no musical ever is deep or profound. But it is not shallow and meaningless either, which is often the case with the high art one might see at the Toronto Film Festival. So, what is it? It IS delightful.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Great Conversation blogspot

I have launched a "commonplace blog" for one of the courses I teach. The blog is called The Great Conversation. The course I teach is Classical Civilization, a senior course focusing on the literature, philosophy, culture and history of the Greco-Roman world.

A commonplace blog and a Well Educated Mind

My students are collecting from their readings any interesting, pithy, thought-provoking quotations/excerpts and posting them to the blog. Some posts are simple quotations; some posts will include commentary, analysis and reflection. My hope is that my students will do more than "read" the assigned texts; my hope is that they will take in, interact with and learn from the texts we are studying.

The idea to create a "commonplace blog" came from reading The Well Educated Mind by Susan Wise Bauer (2003). In the book, Bauer writes about commonplace books, books where readers would gather and collect quotations from what they were reading. It serves as a record of some one's intellectual journey through collected passages from his readings. Below is an explanation of the origin and methods of keeping commonplace books:

“Time was when readers kept commonplace books. Whenever they came across a pithy passage, they copied it into a notebook under an appropriate heading, adding observations made in the course of daily life. Erasmus instructed them how to do it… The practice spread everywhere in early modern England, among ordinary readers as well as famous writers like Francis Bacon, Ben Jonson, John Milton, and John Locke. It involved a special way of taking in the printed word. Unlike modern readers, who follow the flow of a narrative from beginning to end, early modern Englishmen read in fits and starts and jumped from book to book. They broke texts into fragments and assembled them into new patterns by transcribing them in different sections of their notebooks. Then they reread the copies and rearranged the patterns while adding more excerpts. Reading and writing were therefore inseparable activities. They belonged to a continuous effort to make sense of things, for the world was full of signs: you could read your way through it; and by keeping an account of your readings, you made a book of your own, one stamped with your personality. . . . The era of the commonplace book reached its peak in the late Renaissance, although commonplacing as a practice probably began in the twelfth century and remained widespread among the Victorians. It disappeared long before the advent of the sound bite.”
—Robert Darnton, “Extraordinary Commonplaces,”
The New York Review of Books, December 21, 2000

The Great Conversation

My plan is for the creation of a class set of collected quotations and commentary, posted in the blogsphere. Students will listen in and contribute to the Great Conversation---that is, three millenia of writing, discussion and thinking about the ideas and values that have shaped Classical and Western civilizations. Collectively, we can chart our intellectual growth and changing perspectives as a class.

Why Blog?

Blogging adds a public and communal aspect to the commonplace book; students can read and comment on each other's thoughts, positions and opinions. Students are exposed to varying perspectives on the same texts they have also read. Blogging also adds a "published" aspect to writing. Students need to organize their thoughts in a way that can be understood. They are writing for an audience. They must adhere to the conventions of grammar, spelling and vocabulary. This is not always done perfectly... but the students are no longer writing for a mark. They are writing to communicate to other people, in their class and in cyberspace.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

At L’Abri: A Personal God

Several months ago, I began a series of blogs entitled, At L’Abri: Learning from Francis Schaeffer. My plan was (and is) to read as much of Schaeffer’s writings as possible in one year. My hope was to read Schaeffer exclusively, but alas, that has not been the case entirely. A few other books have crept in... However, of (or on) Schaeffer, I have read the following:

Francis Schaeffer: An Authentic Life by Duriez (biography)
True Spirituality
Mark of a Christian
Art and the Bible

I am currently reading Escape from Reason and my church is going through Schaeffer’s How Then Shall We Live film series.

What I have been meaning to do for quite some time is blogpost about some of the nuggets of wisdom I have been mining from the mind of Schaeffer; and, there have been plenty of precious nuggets along the way so far.

Let me offer one nugget Schaeffer repeatedly stresses: our God is a personal God, who knows and deals with us personally, intimately and individually.

The power of this point has become increasingly clear both from my reading of Schaeffer and from my study of other faiths. I am presently teaching an Apologetics course during our Christian Education hour at my church. The series is focused on World Religions. As I have been preparing for this course, I have been struck by the vision of god (or gods, or supreme entities, supernatural force, etc), which so many religions in the world cling to. The vision is of an impersonal, aloof “power”, which lacks personality and which has little (or no) specific interest in the affairs of individual human beings. What a contrast to the infinite, personal God---the God of the Bible---who is not only infinitely interested in human beings, but also interested in individual people. He knows me better than I know myself. He loves me; He died for me. He works in me. His dealings are not general, but specific. He deals with me personally.

“How beautiful Christianity is---first, because of the sparkling quality of its intellectual answers, but second, because of the beautiful quality of its human and personal answers. And these are to be rich and beautiful… But these human and personal answers do not come mechanically after we are Christians. They come only on the level of what God made us to be in the first place, and that is personal. There is no other way to have beautiful answers.” True Spirituality

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Imagining Reality: Hamlet

The central reason for Shakespeare’s continued appeal over the last four centuries is his ability to depict reality, to give a true portrait of the real universe we inhabit. In particular, Shakespeare gives us insight into the human condition. It is important to note that Shakespeare’s portrayal of reality is not banal like so-called “reality” TV---dull, predictable, meaningless and crass. Rather, Shakespeare's portrayal of reality is rich, textured and at times, sharply perceptive and deeply painful. This portrayal of reality is often lost by modern audiences because of the poetic depiction. Indeed, I have never met three, bearded witches in the Scottish highlands nor have I been caught in the midst of a bloody family feud in fair Verona. But poetry is often a better venue for communicating the intangible realities of life in this universe.

Such is the case for prisoners at the Missouri Eastern Correctional Center. For the prisoners, the reality of Hamlet was both remarkably real in a literal sense and poetic sense. Recently, my brother sent me an article by Jill Carattini (Ravi Zacharias International Ministries) where she cites a performance of Hamlet, which was performed at this correctional facility (1):

“…For a group of prisoners at the Missouri Eastern Correctional Center, Hamlet, both the man and the play, hit disruptively home. Over the course of six months, a prison performing arts program gave a handful of criminals, who are living out the consequences of their violent crimes, the chance to delve into a story about a man pondering a violent crime and its consequences. The result was a startling encounter for both the players, most of whom were new to Shakespeare, and the instructors, who long thought they knew every angle to Shakespeare’s tale, but came to see how much they had missed. One man, in order to play the character Laertes, found himself reckoning with the temptation to manipulate as a means of getting what you want, only to realize a kind of cowardice in such actions. In a moment of clarity through the life of another, he admits, ‘I can identify with that [struggle] and I can play that role very well—because I’ve been playing that role my whole life....To put a gun in somebody’s face—that’s an unfair advantage. That’s a cowardly act. And that’s what criminals are; we’re cowards.’ He then admits with striking transparency, ‘I am Laertes. I am. I am.’”

What struck me most powerfully about this story is how a “fictional character” impressed upon the convict’s heart the true nature of his actions and his crimes… All the legal statements and court proceedings, media articles, victim impact statements---even a cold, hard prison cell---failed to show him the deep, cowardly reality of his crime. It took a story, a four hundred year old story, to awaken his soul and his mind to reality.

This event reminded me of the prophet Nathan when he told a story to David. It was a parable that David took literally; David's reaction was outrage and cries for justice, until Nathan said, “You are the man!” (2 Samuel 12). David failed to see the wickedness of his adultery and his scheme of murder until confronted with a story. Even in Hamlet, the pensive prince uses drama to elicit the guilt of the murderous brother Claudius: “the play’s the thing / Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King.” (II.ii). Claudius couldn’t help but react when confronted with the reality of his crimes through imaginative storytelling.

This is why God created humanity with an imagination---not to waste on wishful thinking or empty dreaming---but to gain a clearer picture of reality. Carattini continues in her article to comment on Jesus’ use of story. She writes, “Jesus places us beside images of a kingdom that turns things around, stories that shock and offend us, metaphors that wake us to the presence of a surprising God, to the mindsets and pieties that block us from seeing this God, and to the abundance of divine grace that beckons us to look again and again.” May you exercise your imagination when you read Shakespeare and when you read the Scriptures. Awaken your mind to the poetry, the imagery, not for art’s sake but for Christ’s. Don’t forget to imagine.

(1) As heard on This American Life with Ira Glass, 218: Act V, October 12, 2007.