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Month: April, 2009

We Are All of Us Called to Be Heroes

I’m appearing as William Roper, St. Thomas More‘s Lutheran son-in-law, in a production of A Man for All Seasons, presented by the Pasadena Theatre Company at the Chesapeake Arts Center in Brooklyn Park, Maryland. Our show closes this weekend (though we’re doing a school show next Tuesday morning, tomorrow a week). This is one of my favorite plays, and was made into one of my favorite movies.

To me, one of the major benefits of this play is the challenge it makes to us, as audience members, to think about how far we would go to maintain our integrity. In our modern Western society, we think of saints as something anachronistic, a relic from a by-gone era. And as I pointed out at the talkback after yesterday’s matinee, when we study the saints, especially those who were major figures in society, we tend to discount any religious motivations for their behavior, and instead focus on political or social motivations. We discussed the motivation of King Henry VIII in pursuing More, whom he could very well have left quiet in retirement, in which case we wouldn’t remember Sir Thomas. Our talkback guest, a history professor from a local university, pointed out that Henry was a significant theologian, and a man who experienced scruples of conscience (for instance, when he mercifully commuted More’s sentence from drawing and quartering to beheading). If you take the view that Henry (and More, and the Pope, and all the other religious political leaders of the time) acted only out of political and selfish motivations, you miss a rich layer of human experience and historical study.

But back to saints. One argument that’s often made about saints, and other heroes, in drama is that they’re “too good,” and therefore the audience can’t identify with them, which means they need to be “humanized.” For example, I remember when I took a course in Arthurian legend at NYU. The professor asked us which of Arthur’s knights we would choose to be if we could. The vast majority of the class chose Lancelot, a handful chose Gawain, and I chose Galahad, because he was the only one who remained sinless and pure enough to wholly achieve the Quest of the Grail. The other students felt Galahad was “too good,” and therefore a character with whom they couldn’t identify. Lancelot and Gawain were “human,” because they made mistakes. It’s not that I could identify with Galahad’s goodness – I’m not even on Lancelot’s level – but if I were to aim to be like any of the knights, why would I stop with Lancelot? Why is Galahad seen as “not human” because he is good, rather than the most fully human of them all?

To me, this idea of heroes and saints being “too good” and therefore not “human” sets up a dangerous dichotomy between the quest for spiritual perfection and “being human.” We are all called to be saints. All of us will either allow ourselves to be made perfect, or will fall to the depths of lowest depravity. There is no just “being human.” Part of being human is the call to sainthood. Now, as humans, touched by original sin, we will all fail in the quest for perfection, but thankfully we have grace, which, if we allow it, will mold us in the end into shining beings even more glorious and good than even the saints were here on earth.

One thing that interests me about actors is the common claim that playing villains is more interesting, because their motivation is more complex, and that playing the good guy is boring. IMHO, the good guy is the more interesting one, because he is the character who does not allow himself to give into the temptations that villains allow themselves to fall into, or he is the one who is redeemed from previous sins by making the hard choice to do good instead. Make no mistake, acting morally and doing good is a lot harder than living for oneself and watching out for “Number One.” I’d rather play a character who has the courage to make that tough choice than play one who’s slick, cool, and morally cowardly. And if it’s the writers who are making villains three-dimensional and making heroes two-dimensional? Then I think that’s a symptom of our fallen nature, which finds it easier to imagine evil than imagine good. To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, in order to write (and play) villains, all we have to do is look inside ourselves to find the necessary anger, lust, and pride, whereas in order to write (and play) heroes, we must imagine the inner mental and spiritual state of people better than ourselves. (If someone can find me the exact quote, I’ll add it. I’m blanking on it at the moment.)

All this is to say that we are each of us called to be Thomas Mores, and therefore to read or watch the play A Man for All Seasons should not solely be an exercise in understanding the political, social, and religious decisions that led St. Thomas to his martyrdom, but should also be a lesson in how each of us should act should we (God forbid) be placed in a similar situation. And people are still martyred, and made to suffer, today, for their faith, and for their consciences. The whistle-blower who loses his job and financial security because he will not keep silent about wrongdoing; the student who loses a friend because he will not lie about the friend’s cheating on a test; and the soldier who is mocked and threatened because he exposes inhuman and illegal behavior toward the enemy – all of these share in some small way the honor of those like St. Thomas who treasured their conscience more than their life. Not to mention the thousands of people each year who are actually murdered for their religious beliefs. It still happens today, and will continue to happen, which is why saints and martyrs like St. Thomas must not be thought of as anachronisms, but as living examples on which to model our own behavior today.

“We are all of us called to be heroes.” – Adam, The World Over (Keith Bunin)

Offending the Audience

Several of us theatre artists have been having a passionate discussion on offending the audience, and other matters relating to the place of art and the responsibilities of artists, on Scott Walters’ blog, which I’ve found so valuable (see this post) that I’ve added him to my blogroll.

Scott puts his finger precisely on the problem with the modern art world when he says:

Artists have been taught, ever since the Romantic Movement, that they are above society, above morality, that they have no responsibility to anyone except themselves and their so-called vision, and that despite their anti-social stance society ought to support them because they’re Special People.

This was exactly the atmosphere at my undergraduate university, where many of my peers, encouraged by our professors, congratulated themselves on being artists, and therefore so much more sensitive, empathetic, and courageous than those plebians who weren’t brave enough to “live the dream” of life as an artist. And the height of bravery as an artist was being unafraid to shock, confuse, and offend your audience. I remember watching a taped theatre piece in which a naked man urinated on stage, fully facing the audience and the camera. At that point, which was about 45 minutes into that increasingly enraging piece of theatre, I and a couple other students walked out of class. When I mentioned it to one of my other professors, I was told I had a problem with peeing. On stage – you bet I do.

If you’re an artist of any kind, I highly recommend you read at least some of the thread (now over 70 comments long), which can be found here. Feel free to join the conversation there, or let me know what you think here.

One of the questions that came up was the purpose of art, especially whether artists have a responsibility to make art with their community in mind. I listed a few of my goals as an artist:

-Give people hope
-Inspire them to a morally higher level of behavior (more compassionate, more truthful, etc.)
-Increase a sense of empathy for others
-Celebrate the beauty and goodness in the world

Since I plan to write a doctoral dissertation (or at least Master’s thesis) on the moral responsibility of the artist, this particular question is of the utmost importance to me. I’d like to ask you, awesome readers: What are some of the goals you believe artists should have – if any?

Cole’s Top 10 Reading List

My good friend Tyler from high school is a restaurant manager at a top restaurant in New York City. Since I’ve moved to Baltimore, I don’t get to see him and his new wife (also a culinary professional) as much as I’d like. This week, Tyler asked me about a reading list, thoughtful books I’d recommend. So here it is, starting with my top choice, with a few notes on why each book is included:

1. The Bible – It may be a cliché, but there is a reason the Bible is the number-one best-selling book of all time. As a Christian, I believe it is the Word of God and contains the keys to eternal life. However, it has also had a greater impact on Western culture than any other book. If one would be literate in our culture, one must have some familiarity with its stories and symbolism. In addition, the ideas and people contained therein, especially the central Person of the New Testament, are a challenge to every thoughtful person.

2. The Lord of the Rings (J.R.R. Tolkien) – IMHO, this is the greatest piece of literature of the 20th century, and one of the greatest of all time. Besides creating a thrilling story, Tolkien managed to tap into the deep sense of loss that is a part of being human. (Visit Bruce L. Edwards’ blog to read a good article by Megan J. Robinson on the sense of lost joy in Tolkien and the sense of future joy in Lewis – two sides of the same Christian coin.) There is such ravishing, sorrowful beauty in Middle-Earth, that to be lost in that world is both humbling and ennobling.

3. Les Misérables (Victor Hugo) – This is the book that made me choose to be a Christian, and first taught me that mercy and forgiveness were infinitely greater acts than an insistence on cold, hard justice. During my teenage years, I took Jean Valjean as my model, and his example of selfless love remains with me as (I hope) an influence on my behavior. When I re-read the book last year, for my third total reading of it, I was struck for the first time just how left-leaning the politics were, and how they wouldn’t fly with Lewis. For example, Hugo insists that universal education would solve crime, and that criminals shouldn’t be treated as people who willingly broke the law, but as patients in need of healing. Just read Lewis’ essay “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment” (in God in the Dock) to see how he felt about a theory of punishment that takes away any acknowledgement of a man’s free will. However, if one does not get hung up on the many mini-essays of this type with which the book is speckled, one can be profoundly moved by the story of a man who is redeemed by grace.

4. Mere Christianity (C.S. Lewis) – Of course, I must have some Lewis on this list! Mere Christianity is one of the most concise, clearly-written explanations of what Christians believe and why, and would be my first recommendation (after the Gospels) for someone to read who wants to know more about Christianity.

5. The Abolition of Man (C.S. Lewis) – As I wrote earlier, this is one of Lewis’ most under-rated books. See this post for my thoughts on it. Moral relativism taught to children under the guise of an education in the liberal arts is a very dangerous thing. This book is best paired with a reading of Lewis’ Space Trilogy, especially the final book, That Hideous Strength, in which the ideas of Abolition take horrific fictional form.

6. Man’s Search for Meaning (Viktor Frankl) – As a clinical psychology doctoral student, I was angered by schools of psychology (Freudianism, Behaviorism) that had a deterministic view of man. Your responses to the world are formed as a child, either by your parents or by rewards and punishments, and once they are set, you have little to no say as to how you will respond to life’s situations. Viktor Frankl, the founder of logotherapy and a Holocaust concentration camp survivor, took the view that the greatest ability and the greatest dignity of man was to be able to choose his own response to a situation, even one has oppressive as a Nazi death camp. He writes about how the prisoners most likely to survive the camps were the ones who felt they had a purpose, a mission to live for. Probably the most famous Frankl quote is this:

“We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

7. The Seven Storey Mountain (Thomas Merton) – Again, I’ve spoken about this book here, but it really made me think about both Catholicism and particularly monastic life in a new way. If anything, the spiritual autobiography, and Merton’s beautiful language, are worth reading, even if one has no inclinations toward Catholicism. (Though be warned, he does have some harsh words for Protestants.)

8. Taliesin (Stephen R. Lawhead) – This fiction book is the first in Lawhead’s five-book Pendragon Cycle. It tells the story of Taliesin, the father of Merlin. It takes place during the introduction of Christianity to Britain, and the way Taliesin takes to the idea of one God, above all the gods he knew and worshiped, made me look at Christianity in a new way – not as a displacement of all previous knowledge and experiences of the divine, but as a fulfillment of them. Taliesin was also the first piece of contemporary Christian fantasy I had read; it made me glad to know that there were still writers carrying on the tradition of the Inklings. After Taliesin, my favorite Lawhead book is Avalon, which is a sequel to the Cycle, in that it takes place in modern-day Britain, when Arthur returns to take up the kingship of Logres in a country that is about to abolish the monarchy as an outdated and oppressive institution.

9. “On Fairy-Stories” (Tolkien) and “On Stories” (Lewis) – Two of the best essays on the importance of fantasy ever written. Tolkien’s breakdown of what people mean by the “escapist” accusation, and how the “escape of the prisoner” differs fundamentally from the “flight of the deserter,” provides especially good apologetic fuel to the lover of this type of literature. Also, Tolkien’s concepts of the Eucatastrophe and Subcreation are invaluable, especially for anyone who wants to better appreciate #2 on my list. (Read a nice little essay on the differences between co-creation and sub-creation here.) I tell ya, practically everything Tolkien writes brings nobility to the genre.

10. The Everlasting Man (G.K. Chesterton) – A look at the Christian story as the central fact and fulfillment of history. This book was an influence on Lewis. The two most important ideas I took away from it are 1) the Crucifixion and Resurrection as the literal crux of all history, and 2) civilizations and cultures are not all created equal. A culture that sacrifices babies to blood-thirsty gods is not as valuable as one that promotes the care of widows and orphans and the honor of all human life.

So there you are, a top 10 reading list. Top 10 of what, you may be thinking. Just the top 10 books to come to my mind when asked what I would recommend. There are books that are more thought-provoking, more morally strengthening, and more imaginative than most of these, but I’m giving you those books that first came to my mind when I thought of what had an impact on me. At the least, I hope I’ve provided some possible options to add to your bedside reading stack.


He is Risen!

In honor of our Risen Lord, here is St. John Chrysostom’s Easter Sermon, from the Internet Medieval Sourcebook, from which today’s Easter litany at my church was taken:

The Easter Sermon of John Chrysostom

Pastor of Constantinople (~400 AD)

Is there anyone who is a devout lover of God?
Let them enjoy this beautiful bright festival!
Is there anyone who is a grateful servant?
Let them rejoice and enter into the joy of their Lord!

Are there any weary with fasting?
Let them now receive their wages!
If any have toiled from the first hour,
let them receive their due reward;
If any have come after the third hour,
let him with gratitude join in the Feast!
And he that arrived after the sixth hour,
let him not doubt; for he too shall sustain no loss.
And if any delayed until the ninth hour,
let him not hesitate; but let him come too.
And he who arrived only at the eleventh hour,
let him not be afraid by reason of his delay.

For the Lord is gracious and receives the last even as the first.
He gives rest to him that comes at the eleventh hour,
as well as to him that toiled from the first.
To this one He gives, and upon another He bestows.
He accepts the works as He greets the endeavor.
The deed He honors and the intention He commends.

Let us all enter into the joy of the Lord!
First and last alike receive your reward;
rich and poor, rejoice together!
Sober and slothful, celebrate the day!

You that have kept the fast, and you that have not,
rejoice today for the Table is richly laden!
Feast royally on it, the calf is a fatted one.
Let no one go away hungry. Partake, all, of the cup of faith.
Enjoy all the riches of His goodness!

Let no one grieve at his poverty,
for the universal kingdom has been revealed.
Let no one mourn that he has fallen again and again;
for forgiveness has risen from the grave.
Let no one fear death, for the Death of our Savior has set us free.
He has destroyed it by enduring it.

He destroyed Hades when He descended into it.
He put it into an uproar even as it tasted of His flesh.
Isaiah foretold this when he said,
“You, O Hell, have been troubled by encountering Him below.”

Hell was in an uproar because it was done away with.
It was in an uproar because it is mocked.
It was in an uproar, for it is destroyed.
It is in an uproar, for it is annihilated.
It is in an uproar, for it is now made captive.
Hell took a body, and discovered God.
It took earth, and encountered Heaven.
It took what it saw, and was overcome by what it did not see.
O death, where is thy sting?
O Hades, where is thy victory?

Christ is Risen, and you, o death, are annihilated!
Christ is Risen, and the evil ones are cast down!
Christ is Risen, and the angels rejoice!
Christ is Risen, and life is liberated!
Christ is Risen, and the tomb is emptied of its dead;
for Christ having risen from the dead,
is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.

To Him be Glory and Power forever and ever. Amen!


Trailer for The Narnia Code

Bruce Edwards has the trailer for The Narnia Code on his blog. The Narnia Code is the new BBC documentary inspired by Michael Ward’s book Planet Narnia, which claims that each of the seven Chronicles of Narnia was based on one of the seven medieval heavenly bodies. According to Bruce’s post, the documentary “debuts in Britain on BBC1, Thursday 16th April 2009 at 10.35 pm.”

I was able to speak with Michael Ward about his book, and his studies at Oxford, Cambridge, and St Andrews, while at the Kilns. (He earned his D.Phil. from the Institute of Theology, Imagination and the Arts at St Andrews, which is the program I plan to apply to.) He was a special guest at the farewell banquet on our final night. I’m not sure I quite buy his arguments. He doesn’t claim to have hard-and-fast proof of his thesis, but only hints, and the idea that “it’s the kind of thing Lewis would do.” However, I’m going to reserve final judgement until after I’ve read the book. And he is an amusing conversationalist, with a clever dry wit.

I most vividly remember his breakdown of the differences between Oxford and Cambridge, with Oxford producing prime minister after prime minister, and Cambridge producing Communist spies. Also, during the English Civil War, Oxford was a Royalist university, while Cambridge produced the regicide Oliver Cromwell. Let me note also that I’m currently playing William Roper in a local production of A Man for All Seasons, about St. Thomas More, the Chancellor of England who lost his head to Henry VIII for refusing to acknowledge Henry’s supremacy over the Catholic Church in England (which Henry took over to create the Anglican Church). Where did Sir Thomas study? Oxford. Where did the bad guys of the play, Thomas Cromwell (related to Oliver) and Richard Rich, study? Cambridge. ‘Nuff said.

Narnia Code Website

Planet Narnia Website

Here’s the trailer:

The Fellowship Family-Friendly!

The Fellowship, the Lord of the Rings gamer film I shot the concept poster for, has been awarded the Dove Family Seal of Approval! The Dove Foundation review is here. The film’s manuscript was reviewed, as it’s still in pre-production. You can learn more about the film here.

ETA: Our director, Ron Newcomb, is featured on the Actors, Models & Talent Competition website, here. (Note: I don’t recommend AMTC, or other pay-to-play open talent competitions. They’re just not worth the money. I include the link here in case you’re interested in learning more about our awesome director.)

The Green Book

Last summer, I attended the first of two Summer Seminars-in-Residence at the Kilns. This one was led by Dr. Christopher Mitchell, the Director of the Wade Center at Wheaton College. There were about a dozen of us who attended the seminar. The first weekend in February, eight of us got together for a reunion at Wheaton. Chris Mitchell took us into the lower depths of the Wade, into the double-sealed room that holds Lewis’ actual library. There Chris showed us Pauline Baynes’ original sketches for the illustrations in The Chronicles of Narnia, an afghan that Joy (Lewis’ wife) had knitted, and several books with Lewis’ own annotations, including one in particular: the Green Book.

In The Abolition of Man – one of my favorite Lewis works – CSL writes in reaction to a book of which he received a review copy. With his signature courtesy, even toward his intellectual opponents, Lewis declines to name the authors with whom he took issue – or even name the book. Instead, he calls them Gaius and Titius, and their book the Green Book. He assures his readers that the Green Book is no conglomerate of other modern educational books, or a hypothetical textbook, but an actual book sitting on his shelf.

I squee’d when Chris pulled the book off the shelf, and then not only revealed its identity, but let us hold it. When I received the book and tenderly opened its pages, I saw dozens of scrawled notes on the inside covers, as well as on the various pages. It was amazing to see a Lewis thought, and know how it had developed in the published Abolition.

The Abolition of Man is one of Lewis’ most under-rated works, and one of his most intellectually robust. However, it still maintains the clear readability of Lewis works like Mere Christianity. I highly recommend you put it at the top of your CSL reading list if you haven’t read it already.

The problem with the Green Book, according to Lewis, was that it purported to be an English textbook, but it really taught very little about English at all. Instead, it taught philosophy in the guise of literary criticism. And not only philosophy, but bad philosophy. Here students were taught moral relativism and subjectivity in the name of not being “taken in” by statements of feeling or value. Gaius and Titius quote the story of Coleridge at the Falls of Clyde, in which he speaks with a tourist, who calls the waterfall “sublime.” G & T inform the student that the tourist was not really making a statement about the waterfall, but about his own feelings about the waterfall. They go further to inform the student that poets are never really talking about the subject they seem to be talking about (e.g. Love, the Fall from Heaven, a cloud of daffodils), but are merely talking about their own feelings, their own psychological experiences. (See Lewis’ brilliant exchange with E.M.W. Tillyard on this Personal Heresy, now finally back in print in an inexpensive edited paperback edition!)

For Lewis, this reading of poetry took away any possibility of poetry communicating anything of value. G & T were in effect saying that nothing could be beautiful, or good, or true in itself, but only that we could feel happy, or calm, or safe, or some other feeling when we thought of them. But of course, if I’ve started to describe my psychological state, I’m no longer describing the waterfall. And what is the point of making poetry about majestic waterfalls, if all I’m really saying is that the waterfall induces feelings of majesty within my emotional experience? I might as well just show you a scan of my amygdala and be done with it. It would give you the same amount of information about the world in a more efficient manner, and be more honest.

To be continued when I review the new edition of The Personal Heresy

By the way, in case you’re wondering. The name of the Green Book? The Control of Language: A critical approach to reading and writing, by Alec King and Martin Ketley (1939).

P.S. You can now follow Bruce L. Edwards, Lewis scholar and writer of the Introduction to the new Personal Heresy, on Twitter @cslewisnews! Oh, and you can follow me @colematson.