Wonder at Work: Part Two of Brad Bolt’s Reimagined Pedagogy

Wonder has to be experienced before anyone can hope to understand it. Unfortunately, the impersonal method of writing about wonder can at best offer glimpses of wonder instead of its encompassing embrace. If one hopes to experience wonder then I would advise them to wake up early in the morning before the world wakes from its slumber, gaze at the majestic stars above thy head, and allow the mind to ponder the beautiful illuminations and one’s position of adoration of the incomprehensible sky. As the Integrated Humanities Program (IHP) realized, “when man looks at the stars he is struck with wonderment, and wonder, the Greeks said, is the beginning of the desire to know”­­ (Robert Carlson, Truth on Trial: Liberal Education Be Hanged. Location of Publication Unknown: Crisis Books, 1995, 33). The interaction with the stars opened the students up to a world which was blossoming before their eyes. This world was full of beauty, truth, friendship, love and all of the other sensory-emotional experiences a person hopes to fill their life. One may ask the question, “Is looking up at the sky all I have to do to start experiencing and understanding wonder?” The answer is, “Yes!” Experiencing truth and beauty firsthand through the use of one’s senses is how wonder begins. The medium can and will change, such will be the case of substituting stars with literature, person to person interactions, and so on. Long story short, the individual must come into direct contact with a medium for truth and beauty then allow the mind to love and appreciate the beauty and truth being experienced though the senses.

Another concrete example of wonder at work, once again, comes from the IHP:

The IHP also offered Latin, taught in the beginning entirely by the oral method, that is, without the use of a textbook or formal grammar. This course was, as everything was in the IHP, presented in the poetic mode. The students, by listening carefully and repeating what they hear, learned to speak very simple Latin from their memories much like children begin to learn their native language without any study of grammar, without any books. This was gymnastic in that it allowed for direct wrestling with the Latin; it was musical in that it brought forth much delight and laughter in the challenge and mistakes of trying to conduct an entire lesson without using any English, pointing, gesturing, acting out, the words and meaning instead. Books and grammar were not excluded altogether if the student decided to continue with Latin, but they were simply delayed so that the mind would not be filled with paradigms and rules and all the systems of a disintegrated language. Rather, the student would have in the memory the sounds of Latin words and phrases used in real conversation. Once again, the emphasis was to do Latin, not to study it (James L. Taylor, Poetic Knowledge. Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1998, 152).

This “delay of paradigms and rules and all the systems of disintegration” can and will be said about learning any science or discipline. If the individual only has the disintegrated aspects of any science or discipline the individual will not and cannot love and appreciate it because the individual does not know enough about the science or discipline for love to overcome the lust. All things in this world can be lusted after but can fall short of love because the soul has not experienced it and the intellect has not come to understand it. If and when the soul and intellect experience truth and beauty, the fruit of the interaction is wonder. This wonder is experienced, not taught. The experience of raising a child illustrates this point.

The anticipation of the birth and joy of being able to hold one’s child soon begins to enter into a deeper love and sense of wonder as the raising of a child is experienced. Reading a book about paradigms and rules of raising a child when experience has been gained allows the individual to properly place the information into a lived experienced in which growth occurs. As in the case of learning Latin, it is through the direct experience of doing the discipline in which one begins to understand it and once it is understood love and wonder increases. The love of the child, gained through the experience of raising the child, far surpasses any disintegrated theory of how to best love a child. The experience of gazing at the beauty and innocence of the child, fills an individual with wonder. This is what can be said about wonder. The more time an individual spends living in a perpetual sense of wonder, the more love of truth, beauty and goodness the individual begins to experience. Yes, paradigms and rules eventually play a factor but the IHP knows in order to gain this appreciation and love of learning and knowledge it has to be experienced, not taught in theory, but practiced. May God give us all the grace to live in a perpetual sense of wonder.

This is the second in a series of guest posts by Brad Bolt.

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The Track Less Traveled – A Guest Post

“What do you know?” These words quite regularly came from one of Dennis Quinn’s colleagues and was directed towards students (Iris Exiled, 21). Dennis Quinn was part of a school of wonder, better known as the Integrated Humanities Program at the University of Kansas. Quinn nor the school are the foci but both illustrate the power of wonder within the educational setting or conversion process. Ultimately, it is the experience of wonder which leads a person towards a fulfilling life. This fulfilled life is one steeped in truth and love, and the pathway towards truth and love ignite the fires within our souls and intellect to contemplate life outside of our ever present limitations, trials and tribulations. When the mind is grappling with the sense of wonder there is a sheer joy and exhilaration with the possibilities which exist before us. It is this true sense of life which keeps us coming back for more truth, it is this sense which calls us out of ourselves towards something genuine and concrete, something eternal. It is the sense of wonder which continually orients a person towards the contemplation of God.

This track or pathway towards the contemplation of God is traveled by everyone. The secular, individuals who do not hope to reach this end or are unaware this end exists, and the religious, people actively attempting to strengthen their relationship with God. The secular and religious person start off riding the same train whether they realize it or not. Unfortunately, both the secular and religious get off at one of the many false summits, believing they have reached absolute truth and the end of their journey. This person says to their self, “I know everything now, there is nothing left to ponder because I have all of the truth I need to live a fulfilled life of purpose and meaning and the remaining journey is one filled with unknown and meaningless contemplations which will only lead towards a disillusioned sense of absolute truth.” However, the train does continue and the contemplations only grow in beauty and majesty. The track less traveled, the one which perpetually carries on and leads towards the Absolute Truth, the contemplation of God, is the focus of this work. It is aimed at the secular and religious alike and charges them with continually answering the question, “What do you know?” in hopes the person will stop getting on and off the train at false summits, will catch the next train as it approaches their current resting place and the individual will reenter the train, take their seat and enjoy the ride, growing in their love of truth, beauty and God. The train is fueled by wonder and it is wonder which keeps the individual on the train and sustains the conversion process, or the contemplation of God. In order to prove this thesis three areas will be expounded (1) explanation of wonder, (2) necessity of wonder within conversion and (3) actual examples of wonder used as a tool within the educational or conversion process.

(This is the first in a series of guest posts by Brad Bolt.)

Playing the Gender Game

Okay class, which of these two poems was written by a man and which by a woman? That question (and the poems themselves) made for an exciting opening salvo for a class on the distinction between gender and sex. Here are the poems I used:

Those lines that I before have writ do lie,
Even those that said I could not love you dearer;
Yet then my judgment knew no reason why
My most full flame should afterwards burn clearer.
But reckoning Time, whose million’d accidents
Creep in ‘twixt vows and change decrees of kings,
Tan sacred beauty, blunt the sharp’st intents,
Divert strong minds to the course of altering things;
Alas, why, fearing of Time’s tyranny,
Might I not then say ‘Now I love you best,’
When I was certain o’er incertainty,
Crowning the present, doubting of the rest?
Love is a babe; then might I not say so,
To give full growth to that which still doth grow?

 

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for right.
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

In order for the exercise to work, I had to bet on the students NOT knowing the authors of these poems already. Turns out only one student had read either of these poems in high school. Midway through our blind attempt to discern which poem a woman had penned, this student “revealed” her knowledge and “helped” the rest of the students decipher the mystery. Ironically (perhaps fittingly) this student had misremembered the identity of the author, thereby plunging the class deeper into the abyss of unknowing. The students thought the exercise would be a cake walk. All the expected arguments were made and the common stereotypes bandied about, but the more we spoke the more arbitrary our decision seemed to be.

After revealing the true identity of the authors (Shakespeare and Browning, respectively) we discussed why we thought it would be easy. Wouldn’t one expect people of different genders to express the fundamental truths about human love in radically different ways? I mean Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus, right? I think the fruit for the class (at least the lowest hanging fruit) was the discovery that men and women might be more similar than we thought. Different, yes, but not aliens from distant planets. Shakespeare and Browning express fundamental experiences of love, beauty, and goodness in unique ways, but not incommensurate ways.

For part II of this class session I ask the students to split up into men and women. Working together, they come up with a list of the ten most annoying characteristics of the opposite sex. (I borrowed this exercise from David Cloutier.) A representative of each group then proclaims these attributes and the fun begins. In addition to garnering laughs, this exercise tends to ruffle the feathers of students’ assumptions about sex and gender. Why? Because after the initial discussion about whether the attributes are true, false, or exaggerations, I ask each gender/sex group to work together again state which of the attributes are entirely socially constructed and which are entirely biological. Inevitably, the students come back from their attempt befuddled. It turns out that arguing for the complete social constructivist theory of gender is a lot harder than they thought. At the same time, the entirely biologically-centered theory of gender falls on equally hard times. Students come away seeing the relationship between biological sex and the category of gender in a much more nuanced way than they had before.

Thoughts? How do you introduce gender theory?

Wonder and Love: Fuel for the Engine of Intellect

“The purpose of the humanities is not knowledge but to humanize–it is the indispensable prerequisite to science because the love of the subject is the motive and purpose of science.”  –John Senior

Being a science, theology would seem to require the humanities as a prerequisite. What to do, then, when “non-humanized” students park themselves in a theology class? Can a student who does not already love theology even be taught? I think the answer is “yes,” and not just because my job depends on it.

The student who already loves explicitly the “object” of theological study (God, truth about God) is the one who comes to your office two hours before class with the following question: “You had us look at the Belgian bishops’ catechesis on the ten commandments, but I think they missed a couple of things. Look here in Exodus…”  This student wants to dissect the decalogue, understand how each tradition numbers it and why, what virtues and actions relate to each commandment, etc.? All because the student deeply loves the God toward whom these commandments tend.

On the other hand is the student who can’t believe we would be forced to memorize the ten commandments, let alone their different organizations and explanations. That’s what google is for! Certainly a love of some kind has motivated such a statement, but not the love for God and the truth about God.

Should professors simply “teach to” the first student, blossoming in the front row, while allowing the second to all the more wilt away in the back? I think John Senior would answer, “no way.” But how can this be? Didn’t Senior say that love for the subject was the motive for the science? He did, but he also adds that “love of the subject is the motive and purpose of science.” The statement suggests that, even if I enter the science from a foul motive, I might just end up loving its object and the science itself despite myself. But how does this happen?

I see it like this: Imagine the student is a vehicle. The engine of each student’s intellect requires fuel. The engine’s work is to acquire, understand, and systematize knowledge. The gears only turn, however, as a result of the small explosions that push the pistons. The combustion of the fuel drives the engine. So it is with students learning a science. The task of learning requires mental discipline, that is, work. The work, though, is fueled by wonder and love. When wonder and love encounters the spark of truth, it combusts and drives the intellect toward the acquisition, understanding, and systematization of knowledge in the science. The greater my love for the subject, the longer I can concentrate on the work of learning. In other words, I can drive farther on the road of understanding the greater is my tank full of Wonder and Love related to the science at hand.

What am I saying? What I am trying to articulate is the fact students need a full tank of wonder if they are going to apply the intellectual discipline of memorizing, comparing, contrasting, analyzing, etc., but sadly many pull up to the classroom running on fumes. They park in their seats asking whether this course will help them get a better job, or graduate early, etc. What do you do with that? That empty tank is a recipe for apathy.

I don’t have all the answers, but I’ve got a few ideas. I attempt to load every class with at least one or two “refueling stations” for wonder and love. For example, we’d been talking about two theologians arguing over how to interpret question 91 of the Summa theologiae I-II. I could tell the tanks were running low. I stopped the class session and said, “Get up, we’re going on a field trip!” I could tell by the drool one student was wiping from his face that we’d make the right move. Where did we go? Where else but the rare books room of the library. We pull in, jaws drop. They didn’t even know the place existed. I disappear for ten seconds and come back with an early 17th century manuscript of Aquinas’ Summa. Cracking it open to question 91, I begin reading out loud. No longer “studying” the Summa, we are doing the Summa. Of course, we bring along an English translation, and spend the rest of the class session taking a walk through question 91, the students reading and interpreting on the fly. After what seemed like a short while, I ask what time it is. We’ve gone well over time. No one cares. Students stay after for an hour roaming around. “When can we come back?” the ask.

For some of the theology majors in the class, the experience was a kind of lighter fluid to reignite the coals of their Latin studies. So this is why I’m struggling through the dative case! For non-majors, the experience played the chord in them that harmonizes to the beauty of “things old.” For a student in the digital culture of now now now, what better experience than to hold in one’s hands a 400 year old book that took years and years to write. Of course it’s a hyperbole, but some students unfailingly say, “I’m never using a kindle again!”

These are the experiences that energize the student for the discipline of study, of the science of theology. At the same time, however, they are the fruit of the good practice of teaching a science itself. The more we know about a subject, the more we encounter what is beautiful and lovable in it. Here’s to wonder!

When Love Is No Love at All

When teaching “love” to undergraduates, many wisely rely on Lewis’ The Four Loves. I recently discovered a less-read Lewis text that surpasses the former for pedagogy in moral theology. It is Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold.

No Lewis expert myself, I had never heard of this text until a colleague of mine made the audacious claim that is it was Lewis’s best work. I could leave no such scandalous claim unchallenged. I knew I’d have to read it soon. That’s when God’s providence stepped in. As I walked past the “free books table” at the University’s library, what should confront me but a tattered old text so worn that the cover was illegible and completely torn from the book’s body. This book, literally, could not be judged by its cover. You’ll have no doubt as to its identity: Till We Have Faces. Not one to test God, I committed to read it straight away.

Two pages in, I knew I wasn’t in Narnia any more. This is no children’s book. Lewis reflects on the various truths and distortions in both Greek and “barbarian” culture and religion, refusing at every turn a facile reading of any character or any truth claim. Lewis retells the story of Cupid and Psyche from Metamorphoses, with some important changes. Sparing you the details, I will hopefully draw you into your own reading of the text (either for its use in teaching or your own meditation on the nature of love.

More than anything, the text tore at my heart by revealing to me ways that my own “love” for the people closest to me might not be love at all, or at best a distortion of love. Rather than willing and acting for the good of the beloved, I might (without even knowing it) be devouring the life of those I love for my own ends. The novel’s central character, Orual, discovers that what she initially considered an act of great self-sacrifice was in fact only a service to herself at the expense of her beloved. Let me explain.

Orual’s sister Psyche (a strange name, I know) believes she had been wedded to a god, a god who has created for her an indescribably beautiful (yet invisible) castle on a plain miles away from town. In the dark of each night this god visits Psyche, commanding her never to gaze upon his face. Let’s face it, one might more easily believe that Psyche has lost her sanity, or that she is being fooled by some criminal living on the lam.

Orual loves her sister more than life itself–or so she thinks. She thinks this love demands she rescue her sister Psyche from this foolish dreamworld. An attempt at reason fails, so Orual goes as far as stabbing herself through the arm to show she is willing to kill herself (and even her sister Psyche) if Psyche refuses to see things in the light of “reason.” Orual, then, compels Psyche to shine a lamp upon her sleeping lover in the night. Psyche, for love of her sister, betrays her new beloved spouse, disobeying his command to have faith in his goodness. In the light of the lamp, the god awakes, and as his splendor is revealed to all (even the unbelieving Orual) the castle crumbles to the ground and Psyche is banished to wander the world in eternal exile. At this very moment, Orual is given the beginnings (only the beginnings) of a realization that what drove her to compel Psyche into betrayal was not love, but jealousy and envy under the guise of love. Orual, who had been as a mother to Psyche, raising, teaching and caring for her, could not bear becoming second in Psyche’s heart. Neither could Orual bear the ease and innocence with which Psyche put her trust in the unseen, the unverified presence and truth of the god to whom she had been wed. Orual wanted Psyche’s faith, but rather than ask for and accept it, her cupidity for her sister’s love, her desire to be “god” for her sister, to be the central consuming love of her sister, would not allow Orual to believe that Psyche’s faith could be real. Psyche at once desired and hated her sister’s faith. Rather than embrace it, she could see only to destroy it, and in so destroying to recover Psyche to herself. Ultimately Orual’s plan failed. She discovers that the object of Psyche’s faith was real, true, and beautiful. The god was no dream. Her willingness to kill Psyche led to a fate worse than Psyche’s death–her sentence of wandering till death in exile.

Perhaps, though, Orual couldn’t be accused of having no love at all, merely not the fullness of love. Allow, if you will, an explanation from C.S. Lewis’s The Four Loves. In Lewis’s mind, we should likely accuse Orual of having a mere “erotic” love, the love of “eros” for her sister Psyche. This, of course is not reducible or synonymous with sexual love. It is rather a love of cupidity. A desire to possess and unite oneself with the other. It is a love that attracts me to the beloved passionately yet it is a passion to bring the beloved entirely to myself, to possess the beloved for myself as good in itself. It is a love that tends toward idolatry. This is how Orual loved her sister Psyche. When she saw that she could no longer possess her sister and her sister’s undivided love, she decided at that moment that no one else would have her either. Her love, this “eros,” ultimately devoured Psyche in its insatiable hunger. Orual lacked one of Lewis’s other loves, namely “agape,” or love that serves the beloved for the good of the beloved. Agape chastens the other loves, especially “eros.” Had Orual acted “agapically,” she would have patiently helped Psyche pursue the truth, and even been open to hearing the truth from Psyche. Instead her desire to possess closed her ears, mind, and heart to what the truth might really be. May it never happen to us!

The beauty of Lewis’ Till We Have Faces lies in the fact that the meditation on love carries through all the relationships in the book. I have merely scratched the surface of one relationship (the sisterhood of Orual and Psyche). What I hope to have accomplished here is to suggest a text that can be used in tandem with teaching on the four loves whenever an ethics or moral theology class might bring them up. As we all know, stories teach the good life better than any lecture or textbook. Let’s let a master do our teaching for us. Teach the four loves (storge, eros, philia, agape), then put students face to face with Till We Have Faces.

Of course there are endless novels and short stories inviting reflection on the nature of love and its distortions. I’d love to hear what is helpful for you in teaching love as well.

Day One – How To Wake up a Student

Ironically, the precious first-day energy from students typically gets wasted on the silliness of syllabi. On day one, we have the opportunity to speak before the walls of apathy entrap the student’s mind. Full of questions, expectations, rumors, doubts, the students file in and nervously sit. Will I pass? Will this class be boring? Is this professor as difficult as everyone says?

All this nervous energy sadly ends in a crash when we slowly walk students through the syllabus, promising that things will get better next time. Eyes gloss and get heavy. Snores resound.

Tired of squandering an opportunity, I like to start the first day with a bang! Let’s look at “Intro to Christian Ethics,” which begins for me with a living case study. After a quick prayer, I tell the students, “I’ve never liked how subjective grades are. I also can’t stand all the work at the end of the semester trying to figure them out! Therefore, I propose we get this whole grade thing over with right now. Any takers?” Believe it or not, a majority of student hands shoot up. I ask each student to write her/his name on a piece of paper, rip it out, and pass it up to the the front. Writing the letters A, B, C, D, and F on the board, and placing the names in a hat cleverly revealed from behind the podium, I state that we’ll be assigning grades by lottery. Going through the entire class, giving an equal number of each grade type, student faces transform. From Cheerful A’s, to happy B’s, to contented C’s, to disgruntled D’s, to furious F’s. At this point, jaws have dropped, adrenaline has been rushing for a couple minutes, and students are still trying to discern whether I’m serious. But at least they’re awake.

At this point I ask: “Does anyone object?” Hands shoot up from one B, half the C’s, and all the D’s and F’s. The A’s, hoping to disappear, move not a muscle. Here’s where the real fun (and learning) begins. By the time an hour has passed and the socratic conversations have ended, the students have attempted to argue that my method of grading is unethical in every way they can imagine. Most common arguments relate to “fairness,” “standard rules for grading,” and “effects on student learning,” or “you’ll get in trouble if you do that.” Only rarely does a student suggest it’s not conducive to human flourishing or happiness in general. Without knowing it students have done deontological, consequentialist, and eudaemonistic ethics. They also encounter the various the typical choices facing a person who attempts to convince the “other” of a moral position: (a) walk away and forget it; (b) find common rational ground and move from there; or (c) appeal to coercive power (i.e., if you grade this way, we’ll see that you get fired). As if that weren’t enough, in addition to arguing against my “objectively fair yet bad method,” they have offered a better “ethic of grading” based either on deontological, consequentialist, eudaemonistic grounds, or a mix of these approaches. They didn’t know it but they actually DID ethics on day one.

Ultimately, the students may not come away from day one having read the entire syllabus, but they came away with an experiential sense for the field of ethics and definitions for three ethical methods. Hopefully what I’ve done on day one is a little intellectual Jujitsu–using the student’s own mental and emotional energy to move their minds somewhere they didn’t think they were going…on beyond apathy-land.

Theology of the Lego Movie (Part 2)–spoiler alert

It’s 7:30 p.m.–teeth-brushing time. This is one of the best times for important father-son conversations, especially if you’ve just returned home from the Lego Movie.

While applying our spicy-mint toothpaste to his toothbrush, my oldest son (7 yrs) is reminded of the “Kragle,” and asks me, “Papa, was Lord Business really the Dad?”

Not wanting to miss a pedagogical heartbeat, I put the question back to him, “What do you think?” He replies, “I think Lord Business is the dad. I mean, he had the same tie, the same hair, and the same voice.”

Continuing, my son asks, “Papa, do you think there’s a moral to the Lego Movie?” (Before you think this strange, you should know we read and discuss moral tales and fables daily.) Again, I put the question back to him, “I’d love to hear what you think about that. Do you think there was a moral?”

At this point my head was spinning…what’s he going to say? Rules are bad because they stifle creativity? Following directions is tyranny? Would he get something edifying from the film? My son’s reply, though, put a smile on my face: “Oh, yeah. I think it’s saying you can’t just make everyone do exactly what you want all the time. You have to let other people have a say in the game. Otherwise, no one’s going to want to play with you.”

This statement was a profound personal application by my son, who has a sacrosanct lego table of his own in the basement, which he had zealously protected from the creative/destructive impulses of younger siblings. Let’s put in perspective just how big a deal this moral lesson is for the child’s mind. From the child’s perspective, the lego world he or she creates is as “real,” as important, and as beautiful as the ceiling of the Sistine chapel, the Mona Lisa, the Pyramids of Giza, you name it. That lego world is as real and important to the child as my dissertation was to me, as each article I write is to me now, as each class I teach is to me now. They represent the real enactment of one’s creativity and identity. So, when I ask my son, “could you please let your brother play with those?” It’s as if someone had asked me, “Could you let another grad student have a shot at writing that chapter of your dissertation?”  Consider the trust and vulnerability required to comply with that request.

Now, you could respond, “it’s just legos, and we need to teach children that certain things are more important than others.” Of course this is true, but in the child’s world, play is possibly the most serious and important activity imaginable. We do violence to the child’s moral psyche if we unfairly trivialize their real contribution to the beauty of the world around them through their play.

Let’s return, though, to the question of the father, the son, and the moral of the movie. With toothpaste tube in hand, I stood confronted face-to-face with my main concern about this film–the father is the villain. My son and I continued with a great conversation about what the father really needed to learn and how that applies to our own life. In the course of that conversation I discovered what is really at stake in the moral formation of the Lego Movie. The Father-son relationship in the film operates at two levels: (1) the concrete level of a real dad and a real son; and (2) the metaphorical level of God and humanity. Let’s look at both.

At the concrete level, the film’s narrative plays out Finn’s (the son’s) conflict with his own father. Finn wants to make a creative contribution to the imagined space of the lego worlds that his father scrupulously builds, protects, and crazy-glues together. Finn deeply appreciates his father’s creativity, in fact, at the film’s climax he calls his father “the Special,” that is, the most awesome, creative, inspiring person ever. The Father, for his part, lives in fear that his son will destroy the order of the lego universe he has created. So set upon its order is the Father that he locks into place toys that were made to be built and taken apart again. His use of crazy glue is made to appear neurotic. (Maybe it is.) This father, in his micromanaging need for control and order, combined with his fear and distrust of his son, is in need of conversion. Conversion finds him, however, when, in the process of taking apart his son’s work, he realizes the intricate beauty of his son’s creations, the great skill his son must possess to make the the models and integrate them into the lego worlds as he has. The father finally discovers “himself,” the Lord Business minifigure. This moment in the mirror reveals the nature of the game his son has been playing. Humbled, the father asks, “Son, if the construction guy were to say something to Lord Business, what would he say?” Finn tells his father that it’s the father’s creativity that has inspired the son to create. Furthermore, he begs the father to put away the Kragle and allow his son to participate in the creative endeavor with him. Deeply moved, the father changes his ways and makes his son a partner in the project of lego world-building and play.

Ultimately, I don’t think the film undermines fatherhood. It is okay to present fathers in need of conversion. There are some scenes where husbands/fathers get a bad rap apart from the whole frame of Finn and his father. For example, the one comedy that plays on everyone’s TV is a scene where a buffoon husband/father asks his wife in a dopey voice,”Honey…where are my paaaannnnnnttts?” We see here the emasculation of men, who not only don’t wear the pants, but they don’t even know where they are. They’ve got to ask their wife. Whether the film thinks this is a good thing or not, I can’t tell. But the buffoonery of a husband is the standard of comedy. This strikes me as a hit against fathers. Regardless of this point and one instance,  the film actually reinforces the concrete importance of fathers. Remember, Finn tells his father that it is his father’s amazing creativity that has inspired him to create and play. Finn calls his dad “the Special,” the most awesome person ever. Sons deeply desire to be invited into the creative world and energy of their father. So, for us fathers–whatever we are passionate about, whatever we love, chances are our sons will love it too. The challenge becomes discovering how to trust our sons and initiate them into those loves, those passions, in ways that allow them to make a real, creative contribution. I think the film tells us about how a father leads. A Father leads by passionate commitment to making the world a more beautiful, true, and good place–whether that is through fishing, legos, music, books, one’s job, etc. Children have good aesthetic detection. They will be inspired by the beauty, truth, and goodness we’re passionate about. The awesome, yet dangerous thing is this: once they are inspired, they’ll want to make their own contribution. As fathers we can’t keep them on the sidelines out of fear they’ll mess it up. We have to continue teaching them the virtues and technical skills required to make authentic creative contributions to the world, while all the time inviting their greater participation in the creative endeavor of life.

This concrete struggle between a real father and a real son, however, also carries an extended metaphor, about which I am less hopeful. The metaphorical level pits God (the Father) against the son (Finn). How can I make this claim? Throughout the film, the characters of Vitruvius and Wyldstyle (as well as the other master builders) manifest a kind of religion (or at least a spirituality) around “The Man Upstairs.” From the context in the film, the term clearly refers to the Father, i.e., God, a divine, unseen, omnipotent, omniscient being existing beyond their world. At one point, Vitruvius, Wyldstyle, and Emmet take a trip into Emmet’s mind. Inside they discover cavernous emptiness. During their journey through Emmet’s mind, the image of a human hand appears. Vitruvius and Wyldstyle are shocked, because no one has ever seen “The Man Upstairs.” They hypothesize that Emmet’s mind has been kept so empty for the purpose of making room for the great vision of “The Man Upstairs.” They take it as evidence that he might in fact be, “the Special” after all.

This is all interesting, but the metaphor has troubling consequences. If God is equated with the Father, and if the Father is an over-controlling, micromanaging, fear-motivated tyrant, then we have a serious theological problem. We essentially have the film making a re-presentation of the serpent’s argument to Eve in the garden. The serpent causes Eve to doubt whether God’s rule is worth following. The serpent causes Eve to doubt whether it’s good to live within God’s order or to create her own order/disorder. The serpent causes Eve to doubt that God has her best interest at heart. The serpent causes Eve to consider that God might just be an over-controlling rule-making tyrant who doesn’t want her to “be like God,” that is, doesn’t want her to participate in the creative knowledge of good and evil. Just as the Father in the film is afraid of letting his son actively participate in the creative endeavor of the lego-world, so the serpent suggests that God is afraid of Eve gaining the power of knowing good and evil, of being able to participate in the determining (i.e. deciding) of what is good and what is evil.

The moral implications are large. If God is the Father, then God is so obsessed with order that he crazy-glues our lives into immovable shape (i.e. natural law = crazy-glued, instruction following existence). He creates rules to make us happy, but just as Emmet’s happiness was empty, so will ours be if we follow God’s instructions / rules. Those who follow the divinely created instructions made by the one who (according to the film) always has his eye on you, are blind to what makes us special…rule-breaking creativity! The order created for us is boring and not good enough. To be truly happy we must break free of its order-obsessed shackles. In a certain sense, we could say the film is a statement against natural law ethics and God as natural law giver. Ultimately, God needs a conversion. “The Man Upstairs” needs to realize that we’ll all have a lot more fun if we, his creatures, get a creative say in what’s right, wrong, and what truly fulfills human persons. God should lead us by inspiring us to create rather than by constraining us to his rigid, crazy-glued moral order.

Whoa! Am I being cynical here? Maybe. If so, here’s a more positive reading of the film’s theology.

The eyes of charity would probably see that the film makes a confused, Freudian conflation of the human father and God as a projection of that father. From a charitable Christian standpoint, I think the theological gold that remains when we melt out the admixtures is this: God invites us to participate in his creative act, but as creatures. God is the just and perfect law-maker, the creator of natural law, for example. But he created it for the same reason poets create poetic forms (e.g., the sonnet). The poetic form is not a prison cell but a skeleton that invites the author to fashion flesh, sinew, organ systems, and finally a skin around it. (Thanks for this insight Fr. Gilsdorf.) This is the beauty of God’s natural law. As the Second Vatican Council’s document Gaudium et spes has it (when speaking of marriage), we participate as interpreters of God’s plan of love rather than as authors of that plan. Our gift of reason allows us to see the beauty and goodness of the divine ordering of things and contribute to the beautiful working out of that order in the world. With every act of love we make, every service of sacrifice rendered, every act of openness to life, we are given “a say in the game” as my son put it.God isn’t the one in need of conversion. We are. We need to see that our dignity lies not in breaking the rules but cooperating in the divine wisdom of God’s moral order in ever new, ever ancient ways.

Once again, “Thank you Legos.”

There’s so much more to say about this film–gender roles, violence, anger. Depending on the response I’ll do a third post or move on to greener pastures. Thanks for any comments!

Theology of the Lego Movie: Brick Creation and Moral Formation

I recently took my two oldest sons (see the blog’s background picture) to their first ever movie in a theater. They are 7 and 5 yrs old. As a reward for working real hard on a Saturday in their grandparent’s yard, we went to see The Lego Movie. Having read multiple positive reviews, I remained in trepidation as I took a seat and planted my feet on the sticky theater floor.

Part of my anxiety was rooted in my knowledge that narratives are deeply morally formative, and I wasn’t sure whether this film would offer the kind of formation I wanted my children receiving. This is doubly important because my children so rarely watch film media. I knew this film would stick immediately and almost indelibly in their minds (they love legos). We all know that story-telling is among the best ways to teach a child character. The children learn through narrative what a good character looks like, what a villain is like, what courage is, etc. If I tell my son, “you need to be more generous!” the command falls on deaf ears, unless his mind has a story that has generated an intuitive sense for what generosity looks like.

My anxiety was not immediately eased when the opening scene satirized Emmet. The humor lies in his mindless following of the rules, which are in many ways ordered toward his good and society’s good but result in a kind of hollow, saccharine happiness experienced by the characters, who sing the same song all day and all night—“Everything is awesome!” (We sing this song all day and all night now also. Thanks Legos.) They watch the same TV show every day, etc. They live a life of content, happy order. But the film wants to suggest that this order is ultimately death-dealing and unfulfilling. “Oh, no,” I thought. Is this going to be another facile film about “finding oneself by breaking all the rules?” Is this another spiritual-but-not-religious movie? Is this another film saying rules are constraining efforts to create social conformity while libertinism anarchy is good?

Praying quickly for patience and charity, to see the true, good, and beautiful wherever it might be found in this film, I watched on. As I predicted, the film juxtaposed the happy but shallow rule-follower to the dark but deep rule-breaker and master-builder “Wildstyle.” As time went on, however, the film starts becoming philosophically self-aware and rich. For example, when Emmet, Wildstyle, Batman, and arrive in Cloud Cuckoo Land there is a telling dialogue. Uni-Kitty tells a baffled Emmet about the lack of order in this topsy-turvy land: “Well, we have no rules here. There is no government, no bedtimes, no baby-sitters, no frowny faces, no bushy mustaches, and no negativity of any kind.” Wildstyle under her breath says, “You just said no like a thousand times.” Uni-kitty, continues, “and there’s no consistency.” Whoa, was that a critique of radical moral relativism I just heard? Wow. At this point the film starts looking up.

I discovered two things about the film: (1) it’s honest ambivalence about the positive and negative elements of the various philosophical worldviews taken by the characters. A rule of order can lead to human flourishing, but a rule of empty, arbitrary order extended at the cost of personal participation in the generation of that order is death-dealing. (2) The film shows us an example of human dignity consonant with Catholic understanding of that term.

Let’s see how both of these play out. The film is honest about the woes that accompany a radically individualist worldview, and in being honest about these woes, the film discovers human dignity. Consider Wildstyle, dark, rule-breaking masterbuilder intent on becoming “the special,” complete with dyed hair matrix-like fighting skills. Vitruvius reveals that Wildstyle has changed her name countless times owing to a lack of self-confidence. She is a masterbuilder, yes, but her masterwork of construction is herself. She thought she could make herself “the Special” if she found the piece of resistance (cap to the Krazy Glue). Her obsession with being different masks her lack of identity and uncertainty in her dignity. Her constant reminders to herself and Emmet that “I have a boyfriend…and it’s super-serious” constitute a psychological pep-talk, a vain effort at self-esteem boosting. This is the cost of radical individualism, the never-ending and often vain quest at identity self-construction without instruction. Being special is all on me! I see this in so many students. They want to be different, but they are so busy looking at how everyone else is being different that they end up following a standard script of what “being different” looks like. With Wildstyle, they struggle with the existential question: Where does identity come from? Is it created or given, built or received? Now, Catholic theology tends toward “both/and” answers, but I think the weight of the both/and lies ultimately on our identity being “given” and “received” rather than selfmade. For one, Mary, the primary non-divine example of Christian virtue, is the one who perfectly receives God’s will in her life with her own perfect fiat, “behold I am the handmaid of the Lord, may it be done to me according to your word.” Even Christ, in John’s Gospel, tells us that he can do nothing except what he sees the father doing. His works are received from the father. His death, too, is received as God’s will. Christ reveals his acceptance of God’s providence for him during his prayer in the garden of Gethsemane. Adam and Eve, for their part, bring sin into the world through their own attempt at identity construction. Eve thinks, “heh, I guess I would like to make myself like God.” Whoops! Oh, the woes that have followed since that fateful decision. Adam and Eve’s dignity was that God had made them to be in fellowship with himself, each other, and creation. They rejected that identity when they attempted to be like God.

The Lego Movie shows the audience the same truth. Humanity cannot bear the weight of having to create its own identity. The prideful Wildstyle only comes to confidence and fulfillment in the movie when she trusts Emmet enough to return to and accept her given name, Lucy. (I hope this name choice was intentional, as Lucy come from Lux/Lucis, which means “light.”) The humble Emmet, on the other hand, having no ability to make himself special, is made special by circumstances (falling down a hole and getting stuck on the “piece of resistance) and the care of persons (Lucy telling him he is special). Wildstyle discovers that Emmet actually desires to know the truth about her rather than one of the many identities she’s constructed for herself to make herself feel special. Emmet shows Lucy she’s special because he wants to know what’s ordinary about her. This gives Lucy the confidence to own the truth about herself and flourish in joy as the film climaxes and resolves.

Through this interaction between Wildstyle and Emmet, the film introduces the audience to the Catholic social principle of the dignity of the human person, a classic both/and doctrine. The dignity of the person is at once a status given by God (in light of our having been created in God’s image, destined for fellowship with him, and redeemed by his blood) and a goal to be reached (in light of the fact that we so often act below our own dignity and treat others in ways that countermand their own dignity). Status–Emmet realizes he HAS dignity (given to him extrinsically by Wildstyle and Vitruvius’s confidence in him). Goal–Emmet must LIVE UP TO that dignity. When he finally owns the dignity given to him, his eyes are opened. He can “see everything,” become truly creative, and make the gift of his own life for the sake of his friends. What’s neat about the film is that it accomplishes this pedagogical end without my two sons realizing that it ever happened. Kudos to Legos.

The next installment of this series will consider “conversion” in the film, violence in the film, Emmet as Christological??, and the true center of my anxiety about the film…..the father is the bad guy!!! Perhaps there’s something here. We’ll see next time.

 

 

Position Papers – Starting with the End in Mind?

A temptation exists for students to treat classes much the way they treat going to the movies. Both involve an exchange of money for content. Students may be tempted to expect “edutainment” from their professors rather than Socratic, intellectual weightlifting. Stretching the analogy even more, we might say most of the students come to class as anything but a tabula rasa. That is to say, they’ve already “read the reviews” for this movie. “How hard is this class?” “Does the professor give a lot of reading?” “What are the tests like?” In other words, many students have front-loaded expectations and perceptions about the class (usually for the good but occasionally not). Those expectations serve as a kind of momentum for the professor to work with (and at times against). We have all probably experienced this reality. This momentum can occasionally be difficult to direct.

The challenge to inspiring pedagogy is discovering what’s written on the student’s tabula when they come into class. This is why I require a one-on-one meeting with each student during the first two months of the semester. What kind of predispositions and background noise does this student have buzzing in his or her brain when I mention the word “baptism,” or “sin,” or “chastity,” etc. in class? My knowing the students is crucial in my capacity to effectively present material and ignite their intellect in meaningful Socratic dialogue.

I have found a similar reality when it comes to applied ethical questions. For the most part, students have not spent much time thinking about in vitro fertilization and embryo transfer, or about whether contraception serves or countermands the human good, or whether marriage is or isn’t indissoluble, whether capital punishment is just, or what conditions make for a just war. No, students haven’t typically sat and thought about these questions, but if my class is a movie about these topics, then they have many times already “read the reviews.”

What do I mean by this? I mean that (for better or worse) students bring to class the intuitions about these moral questions that have accumulated in their mind from personal interactions, personal experience, parents, friends, media, and ecclesial communities. For example, on the question of in vitro, the most typical response to the question, “do you think in vitro fertilization and embryo transfer corresponds to a life of Christian discipleship?” is…”well, I know this person who did it and, she’s a nice person, a great parent. So, I guess it’s a good thing.” The point is, students generally begin the class having some kind of intuitive position on most of the moral questions we treat–even if they’ve never expressed it before. Those positions sit on a spectrum from precisely examined to wholly unexamined. These positions are a kind of momentum that the professor has the privilege of working with, directing and redirecting.

The challenge for solid pedagogy in moral theology is to invite those intuitive, unexpressed, unexamined positions into the front of the students’ minds from the get-go. For this reason one of the first assignments is to write a brief position hypotheses/statements on the applied moral questions we will treat throughout the semester. What I’m really asking for is an “immediate, intuitive inclination” from the student. In other words, what are the first arguments and conclusions that come to mind for you on this moral question. This is an ungraded assignment, the purpose of which is to begin the students journey toward making explicit their vision of the good life. I am most interested in the reasoning the students use (and whether they’ve used reason at all) to arrive at their positions. Students also know that they aren’t “married” to any position they’ve expressed in their position paper. The assignment merely makes explicit the first “gut reaction” the student had in the face of the moral question. Whenever we then treat one of the applied moral questions in class, I ask the students to revisit their position paper and consider how their own gut reaction relates to the various arguments we encounter for all the sides of the issue at hand. Did anything change? Did things stay the same? If so, what arguments buttressed their initial intuition or changed their initial intuition?

This level of personal engagement with the material is, of course, contingent upon how well students learn the various arguments and principles applicable to the cases.  I rely on my personal meetings and the “position hypotheses/statements” to help me discern how best to deliver the content. My knowing where the students are coming from, that is, what’s on their intellectual tabula, gives me an insight into kinds of approaches students have been exposed to already, which gives me the best chance of giving them all the resources they need to make these moral decisions themselves and take responsibility for the formation of their consciences.

This practice is new for this semester, so I am not sure whether it will be good in the long term. One critique I’ve thought of myself is this: by asking students to come up with intuitive position statements at the beginning of the semester, am I actually making it harder for them to be open to development or change on those very same questions? Am I contributing to the ossification of the implicit conclusions they’ve already received (whether for good or ill)?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this idea. I’m sure there’s much to honed here.