10 Principles of a Positive Catholic Approach to Arts & Entertainment

10 Principles of a Positive Catholic Approach to Arts & Entertainment

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“Even beyond its typically religious expressions, true art has a close affinity with the world of faith, so that, even in situations where culture and the Church are far apart, art remains a kind of bridge to religious experience.” –Saint John Paul II

It would be easy to list negative reasons why Catholics should shun many of the offerings of today’s arts and entertainment industries. But to begin with the negative isn’t really a Catholic approach to anything. So let’s start afresh with the 10 Principles of a Positive Catholic Approach to the Arts & Entertainment.

1. God made artists to be his associates in his creativity activity–or what J.R.R. Tolkien calls “sub-creators.” See Saint John Paul II’s 1999 “Letter to Artists,” section 1.

2. St. Thomas Aquinas teaches that the best and noblest activity of human beings is that activity by which we imitate God the most, i.e., contemplation. The fine arts (fiction, theater, music, dance) are ways of contemplation, ways in which we behold the grandeur of human beings finding, or failing to find, their happiness. (Interesting factoid: the Greek word for “contemplation,” theoria, is not only the root of our English word “theory,” but also of “theater.” Etymologically, a theater is a “place of beholding,” i.e. a place of contemplation.)

3. The Catholic tradition of the arts is not insular and defensive by its nature but open and inclusive, even of those noble works of pagan antiquity such as the epics of Homer and Virgil. (For more on how Homer and Virgil can belong to the Catholic tradition of the arts, see my recent self-interview on Ethika Politika, “The Catholic Tradition of the Arts: A Cantankerous Q&A.”)

4. The Catholic tradition of the arts produced the greatest poet of the medieval period, Dante, and the greatest poem of that era, Dante’s Divine Comedy. The heart of the entire Catholic tradition, including its art, is to see life as a divine comedy, a resolution of all conflict and suffering into one magnificent and never-ending Joy.

5. The Renaissance, brought to you by…Catholic popes, artists, benefactors.

6. Oh, and William Shakespeare? Yeah. He was one of ours.

7. While taking care not to be seduced by scandalous features of certain modern works of art, Catholics can also appreciate the ways in which some modern art is looking for a kind of transcendence. Reflect upon these beautiful lines from Saint John Paul II’s “Letter to Artists, section 10: “Even beyond its typically religious expressions, true art has a close affinity with the world of faith, so that, even in situations where culture and the Church are far apart, art remains a kind of bridge to religious experience. In so far as it seeks the beautiful, fruit of an imagination which rises above the everyday, art is by its nature a kind of appeal to the mystery. Even when they explore the darkest depths of the soul or the most unsettling aspects of evil, artists give voice in a way to the universal desire for redemption.”

8. The world of art needs the Church. See Saint John Paul II’s “Letter to Artists,” section 13: “Artists are constantly in search of the hidden meaning of things, and their torment is to succeed in expressing the world of the ineffable. How then can we fail to see what a great source of inspiration is offered by that kind of homeland of the soul that is religion? Is it not perhaps within the realm of religion that the most vital personal questions are posed, and answers both concrete and definitive are sought?”

9. As an example of the Church’s positive approach to modern arts, note that as early as 1936 Pope Pius XI thought enough of the importance and power of motion pictures to devote an entire encyclical letter to a Catholic approach to this art, Vigilanti Cura. (For those keeping score, 1936 was three years before Hollywood’s annus mirabilis of 1939, when it issued The Wizard of Oz, Gone With the Wind, and Wuthering Heights.)

10. The Catholic tradition of the arts is the greatest tradition of art and artists the world has ever known. On the all-star team would certainly be: da Vinci, Fra Angelico, Raphael, Botticelli, Palestrina, Tallis, Brubeck, Dante, Shakespeare, Chaucer, Chesterton, Waugh, Percy, O’Connor, Spark, Powers, Guinness, Ford….One could go on.

So what principles of a positive Catholic approach to arts and entertainment have I missed?

 

The photograph above of Sir Alec Guinness is reproduced courtesy of Allan Warren at Wikimedia Commons.

What Truth Should We Take Away from “The Giver”?

What Truth Should We Take Away from “The Giver”?

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The Noble Lie

The new film adaptation of Lois Lowry’s Newbery award-winning 1993 young adult novel, The Giver, directed by Phillip Noyce, follows the book in making use of the conceit of the “noble lie” first formulated by Plato in the Republic. A noble lie is a false story that leaders of a community tell the general populace “for their own good.” A noble lie obscures the truth, but eliminates potential conflict and secures harmonious political life. In the Republic Plato has the chief characters of his dialogue, Socrates, Glaucon and Adeimantus, construct an imaginary city, a “city in speech,” that is perfectly just. But the city is founded upon a lie about the natural origin of the peoples that helps maintain the three strictly-defined social classes upon which the justice of the city is based.

The elders of the apparently utopian “Community” at the center of The Giver tell a lie about the world that existed before an undescribed global disaster. They say nothing to the general populace about war, poverty, disease, starvation, or other evils, which do not exist in the Community. But they also do not permit love, strong emotion, sex, religion, even music and color–because they see these things as the sources of diversity and thus of conflict and thus of the evils they have eliminated. Within the Community, Sameness is the driving political principle. Only one elderly man, the Receiver of Memories, knows in full what the world was like before the Community came into existence. In his mind he stores all the memories from that older world, both good and the bad, so as to be a source of wisdom for the Community elders. The Giver is the story of a boy, Jonas (played by Brenton Thwaites), twelve in the book but more like sixteen in the movie, who is chosen to be the next Receiver of Memories, and so becomes apprentice to the elderly “Giver.” But when Jonas discovers from the Giver that the Community has been founded upon a noble lie, he takes it upon itself to risk everything in order to unveil the truth.

Sameness Everywhere

As a film, The Giver has a good premise but is rather lackluster in the execution. A big part of the problem is that the central conflict–lying baddie elders vs. innocent Jonas and his friends–is inherently two-dimensional. The best sci-fi narratives play with the questions of what is essential to human being and to political life, and The Giver plays with both questions and at times in interesting ways. The Community, for example, like the ideal city in Plato’s Republic, eliminates the natural family, which serves as the cause of some interesting conflict. But somehow the absence of the natural family from the Community, and even of love, color, and a sense of the horror of death, fails to generate the kind of interest that we experience when we think about the essential place of emotions in human life through the Star Trek characters of Spock and Data. The Giver tries to make the devil’s advocate argument that choice and diversity and beauty only lead to conflict and suffering, but it’s a tough argument to make and it’s never done convincingly. A big part of the problem is that Meryl Streep’s icy Chief Elder is predictable, boring, and in need of a better hairdresser, and Jeff Bridges’ Giver, even in the scene with Taylor Swift’s Rosemary, never gives us a really compelling point of emotional connection (it doesn’t help that the voice Bridges gives to the Giver is unnatural and distracting). In the end, it’s the lack of rounded characters, combined with a two-dimensional central conflict the resolution of which is never really in doubt, that causes The Giver to come off flat and disappointing, inflicted with the same malaise of Sameness which governs the Community it depicts.

Beyond the Coast of Dystopia

In the Republic, Plato engages in an exercise somewhat like the sci-fi writer–indeed, the noble lie imagined by Socrates and his friends has a certain fantasy element to it. In thinking about the question of justice, Plato plays with the questions of what is necessary to human nature and political life. The Giver does the same, but the answers the film comes up with are ones far different than the ones Plato’s characters find. What truth does Jonas discover beyond the coast of the dystopian Community? He discovers that human happiness depends upon the very things the elders of the Community have kept secret. Love can lead to war, yes, but a truly fulfilling human life without love is impossible.

But perhaps even more fundamental to love is choice. In the final confrontation between the Chief Elder and the Giver, the Chief Elder declares that the power of choice had to be taken away from the members of the Community because “when human beings are given the power to choose they always choose badly.” In vanquishing the world of Sameness The Giver upholds choice and diversity as the defining features of human nature. This is the truth Jonas struggles to make known. The good memories Jonas receives from the Giver show that religion, for example, is part of the truth of what makes us human, but it’s religion enfolded within choice that is celebrated, religion as an expression of human diversity, not religion as worship of the one true God. Jonas also receives memories that celebrate the value of traditional marriage and the family, but again, what is being valued is one among the many varied and beautiful ways in which human beings live out their loves, not the special value of this particular institution. The Giver also pays a certain homage to Christian virtue–in the Giver’s exhortation to the elders on “love, hope and faith” and in the Christmas carol in the film’s closing shot–but it is not full-blooded Christian virtue that is being honored but rather Christianity as a symbol of a  richer form of human existence. What Jonas finds beyond the coast of dystopia, in short, are the liberal virtues (understanding “liberal” in the broadly philosophical sense) of which choice, not charity, is the greatest.

And Yet Nature Abides

It was the first-century B.C. Roman poet Horace who in one of his epistles wrote, “You can drive nature out with a pitchfork, but she will always come running back.” In upholding the liberal virtues The Giver drives out those certain aspects of human nature which exist prior to our choices. For Plato, and for the Christian tradition up until the late middle ages, what is most important is the direction that nature gives to our choices, not the power of choice all by itself. It is nature that directs us to the traditional understanding of the family, to love (understood in a definite ways), to the intrinsic value of all human life, to music, and to color. It is nature which celebrates (within limits) diversity. Nature directs us to our fulfillment, which makes it very difficult entirely to do away with nature even when we do our best to drive it out.

And so we see in the argument of The Giver, in its condemnation of the values of the Community, a clear affirmation of nature’s ways: biological reproduction, the natural family, the value of color and the fine arts, the horror of euthanasia and of death generally. Though the movie itself is ambiguous on the point, the finest truth we can receive from The Giver is that the grandeur of human choice is only realized when we choose according to the direction given by our shared human nature.

What did you think of The Giver (film or book)? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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Looking for more dystopian sci-fi? Take a look at my short story, “The Bureau of Myths,” available at Amazon for just 99 cents.

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The stills from The Giver above are reproduced courtesy of Walden Media and The Weinstein Company.

Lauren Bacall’s “Slim”: America’s Femme Fatale

Lauren Bacall’s “Slim”: America’s Femme Fatale

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It’s been a week of celebrity deaths. Lauren Bacall died yesterday, God rest her soul, a sad event which has inspired reminiscences from entertainment writers around the world. Reflecting upon Bacall’s breakout and now iconic role as Slim in Howard Hawks’ 1944 classic, To Have and Have Not, the New York TimesManohla Dargis observes that Bacall’s presence in the film “draws on both feminine and masculine qualities that suggest an excitingly capable woman.” Slim is a thief and possible prostitute with a heart of gold who falls in love with Humphrey Bogart’s character, Harry Morgan, and later helps him smuggle members of the French resistance out of Vichy-controlled Martinique. Slim is Harry Morgan’s not-quite femme fatale in this noir-ish world of danger and deception.

In Arts of Darkness: American Noir and the Quest for Redemption, Thomas Hibbs defines American film noir as a counter to American optimism:

“Instead of the narrative moving toward an affirmation of the American dream, of the efficacy of democratic virtues and the resiliency of the communal foundations of American life in the family, the dream becomes a nightmare, and the vices of greed, envy, and lust predominate. Faith in progress is seen as naïve, replaced by a haunting sense that misdeeds of the past cannot be overcome or rectified. Noir characters are highly susceptible to irrational passion; in their dependence on circumstances beyond their control, they exhibit a potentially fatal vulnerability. Characters find themselves trapped in a sort of labyrinth, in the midst of which they embark upon a quest to solve a set of mysteries, usually involving both a crime and a woman.”

Slim is the woman who helps Harry Morgan escape the labyrinth, but in doing so she embodies a witty but, contra Dargis, dark distortion of both masculine and feminine qualities, evincing the vices of greed and lust and cunning that enable her to fight her way through her and Harry’s nightmarish world. If in Slim Bacall portrays, according to Dargis, “an erotic emblem of American wit and war-ready grit,” she also serves as the femme fatale of the America founded on democratic virtues and the power of the family. Leaving this dream of America high and dry, Slim sails into the night with Morgan at her side, whistling away.

What Matt Walsh Gets Wrong–And Right–About Robin Williams’ Suicide

What Matt Walsh Gets Wrong–And Right–About Robin Williams’ Suicide

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Matt Walsh describes Robin Williams’ recent suicide as a “bad decision.” Without any qualification, this judgment presumes too much. Suicide as an objective act is certainly a moral and social evil, but to say that a suicide has made a bad decision at least appears to claim knowledge of that person’s subjective state, and that is knowledge we simply cannot claim to have. In the order of charity, we should in fact presume the very best regarding Williams’ subjective state at the point of his death.

Walsh writes: “Suicide does not claim anyone against their will.” This also needs qualification. It seems plausible that Williams’ illness in a way, and to an extent we cannot know, “coerced” his judgment. Someone I read yesterday compared living with severe depression to living with a loaded gun next to one’s head. Feeling the nozzle of a gun at one’s temple doesn’t take away one’s decision-making power, but it sure puts some serious physical and psychological constraints upon it. See the Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 2282: “Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide.”

See also this excellent interview with the two authors of The Catholic Guide to Depression.

Abuse of drugs and alcohol can also contribute to a suicidal impulse, and we know that Williams recently received treatment for addiction, but until more facts come to light we shouldn’t speculate about how all of this might have contributed to his suicide.

I am no authority on depression, and so I am wondering whether depression can become so bad as to be wholly incapacitating, such that we have to say that the suicide did not really make a decision, did not commit a human act, because his rational faculties, through no fault of his own, were totally impaired. I would be interested to hear from experts on this point.

In any event, it is well to keep in mind possible mitigating factors when assessing the morality of someone’s suicide–especially from a distance.

Walsh goes on to argue that we shouldn’t turn the discussion about depression into a “cold, clinical matter.” “Depression is a mental affliction, yes,” he says, “but it is also spiritual.” Here I think Walsh is onto something. Yesterday I too argued that in moving so quickly past the horror of Williams’ suicide to celebrations of Williams’ talent and cries for better depression awareness that we miss talking about the most important thing in this situation: the need to understand depression, as with every human suffering, in light of Christ’s suffering. We may never understand or be able to control all of the organic causes of depression, but we can do our best to place that suffering, and help others place that suffering, into the very wounds of Christ and join it to his suffering in love and reparation. I’m not saying that taking this supernatural outlook will cure depression, or that the depressed person should not pursue every available human means of healing. I’m saying that only in the Cross does suffering make ultimate sense. Only in the Cross do we find a lasting hope. Our task as Christians is to bring this message of hope to the world, both through advocating appropriate human means of healing and by spreading the Good News that depression and other evils never have the final word.

It is because our culture is losing faith in this hope that it is becoming so sentimental about death. Walsh criticizes the tweet from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences that under an image of Disney’s Genie from Aladdin, a character voiced by Williams, said “Genie, you’re free.” Death is freedom for those who die in the love of Christ, but it is doubtful that the Academy meant the tweet to be taken in this context. Again, no one should presume to judge the subjective state of Williams’ soul. We should be praying for his repose and for the consolation of his family and friends. But neither should we construct sentimental heavens that can be entered without cost. This diminishes the dignity of the human person, who can either find his fulfillment and freedom in God or waste himself seeking himself. The sadness of Williams’ untimely death naturally impels us to seek comfort, but let us seek it in that which truly comforts, and not in sweet imaginings.

P.S. Looking for a great weekend read? Try my blackly comic thriller, High Concepts: A Hollywood Nightmare.

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More in the mood for some dystopian sci-fi with a romantic twist? Try my short story, “The Bureau of Myths,” just 99 cents at Amazon.

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Also on Amazon is my play, The Actor, based upon little-known events in the life of the man who would become St. John Paul II.

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The photograph of Robin Williams above is reproduced courtesy of 20th Century Fox.

The Artist and Depression

As I was on Twitter last night following the commentary on the death of Robin Williams, I saw someone post a quotation from Stephen Fry which began, “If you find someone suffering from depression, never ask them why.” I think I know what Fry’s point is. Oftentimes, if not all the time, the depressive cannot begin to explain the cause of his symptoms.

But there is a deeper level at which Fry’s advice seems to be the worst possible. For while someone suffering from depressive symptoms may not be able to explain the organic or psychological roots of his pain, he still has the ability, and I would underscore the opportunity, to ask: “Why is this happening to me? What is the point of this suffering? What could possibly be the basis of a real hope for satisfaction and fulfillment in my life?”

Depression is a disease that needs to be attacked on many fronts and with many different kinds of support, but such philosophical and indeed theological questioning should not be left out of the equation. Walker Percy liked to suggest that the depressed person might be the healthiest person among us, in the sense that he has become acutely, painfully aware that something is radically unstable about the world.

When celebrities such as Robin Williams and Philip Seymour Hoffman take their lives on account of their depression, we have a laudable impulse to show our compassion for their malady and to praise their talents. This is right to do. Yet as I was listening to the retrospectives on Robin Williams’ life on the news this morning I became concerned that perhaps we were moving by Williams’ suffering too fast. I make no judgments about Williams’ psychological problems and how he was handling them–I have no knowledge of that and no wish to judge. My point is that we should not move too quickly past the question: “How is one to live with apparently unbearable suffering? How is one to find any positive meaning in it?”

There is only one answer to these questions. The meaning of suffering can only be found in the heart of Christ. Christ takes our suffering up into his and gives it an eternal value. In saying this I don’t mean that psychological and medicinal remedies are not important for the person suffering from depression. I mean, rather, that artists and others suffering from depression need also to benefit from the spiritual aspect of their struggle. Artists are not special in this regard, but the cultural prominence of celebrities like Robin Williams highlights the crucial need of exploring the question of suffering in the only context in which the question can be answered: a Christian theological one.

Robin Williams, Rest in Peace

Robin Williams, Rest in Peace

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It was Barbara Nicolosi who said, in a talk I heard her give several years ago, that light comedy has its own role to play in the development of culture.”Just to make people laugh,” she said, “that, too, is a grace.”

Robin Williams died today, one of the great comedians of our time, and may God grant him every mercy and peace. Though his prodigious comic gifts would be enough to earn our praise, Williams was more than a comedian. He was also a gifted dramatic actor, as his Oscar-winning turn in Good Will Hunting eminently proved. I didn’t like everything Williams did, but so many of his performances, and not least his manic improvisations in interviews, delighted and charmed me.

I am saddened to hear that Williams’ battle with depression seems to have gotten the better of him. The artistic temperament and the depression that sometimes comes with it can be its own kind of cross, and those of us who are artists are well reminded to regularly pray for those in the arts and entertainment industry.

And so I pray for Robin Williams tonight, and for his family and all who mourn him, with special thanks to God for the graces that he gave us through this deeply talented man.

Robin Williams, rest in peace.

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Catholic Artists Must Appeal to the Secular World

Catholic Artists Must Appeal to the Secular World

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Many thanks to Matt Emerson over at America for linking to my recent piece at The Catholic Thing: “A Catholic Moment in the Arts?”

In the article I try to put my finger on the reason why we Catholics still so often hark back to the great Catholic writers of the 20th century. I contend that there’s still something about that great collection of artists that needs recapturing today, namely–

a greater, more effective engagement with the secular world of the arts and entertainment. All of the writers listed above [Waugh, Greene, O'Connor, Percy, Spark, Powers, etc.] wrote fiction that can justly be described as Catholic, but they all also established large reputations with readers outside the Catholic fold. This was somewhat easier to do fifty or a hundred years ago. There is no question that Western culture has declined precipitously in recent decades, putting the Catholic imagination more and more out of sync with the prevailing secular culture. Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited was a Book of the Month Club selection for January 1946. It is difficult to imagine a novel about a Catholic conversion enjoying such popular approval today. And yet, in order to evangelize our culture Catholic artists must find ways to get their work in front of popular, secular audiences. It’s an enormous challenge, but one Catholic artists must take up without excuses. The culture desperately needs our vision.

Here’s the rest of the article. I’d love to hear what you think about it. In particular,

How do you think it is possible for Catholic writers (and other artists) to establish reputations outside the Catholic fold? Do you agree this is even an important endeavor? 

 

* The image above is a photograph I took of the model of Shakespeare’s Globe that can be found in the museum attached to the Globe Theatre in London.

3 Ways to Turn Your Marketing into Compelling Media

3 Ways to Turn Your Marketing into Compelling Media

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Evander Jolly IV, King of Patria, has written a poem.

It’s called “Prince Farnsworth, Whose Love of Roasted Marshmallows Led Him to a Horrible Fate,” a title which pretty much distills the subject matter of the poem without entirely spoiling the ending.

Listen to King Evander’s poem by clicking here.

King Evander is a character from my humorous Kingdom of Patria series for middle grade readers. If only the goodly folks of Patria would stop electing him to the royal throne (the king of Patria is elected democratically), then King Evander could spend his time doing what he truly loves to do, write poetry. But it’s his very aversion to political power that makes him such an attractive candidate to the Patrian people. For Patrians distrust anyone who wants to hold political office too keenly. There’s much wisdom in that…

The other day I sent a link to a blog post featuring King Evander’s poem to my Trojan Tub Entertainment email list (Trojan Tub is the company I founded in order to pursue all my Patria-related activities). My hope was that the kids and families who have enjoyed my Patria books would press “Play” and enjoy re-entering the world I’ve been creating for them. Would you call what I did “marketing”? Yes, I suppose so. I won’t deny for a moment that a big part of my aim was to keep the name of Patria sweet upon the lips of my readers and ultimately sell more books. But I was aiming for more than that. In sending King Evander’s poem to my list I also wanted to share with them a work of humorous poetry, with accompanying cartoon, simply for the sake of sharing it. Neither in my email nor in the blog post I linked to did I make a pitch for the books. The poem was a gift, one of many I have shared and will continue to share with my readers.

So what can you learn from this for the marketing of your project or organization?

First, marketing today, especially in the digital space, is not chiefly about advertising or publicity as those have been customarily practiced. Marketing today is media creation. Recently my family and I enjoyed Ben Stiller’s movie adaptation of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. One of the final scenes is a comic encounter Walter has in an airport Cinnabon with Todd, a representative of eHarmony, the online dating service. Their being in a Cinnabon is obvious product placement, but we weren’t put off by this because the scene is so funny. Indeed, the fact that they’re eating Cinnabon is part of what makes the scene so funny (“This is frosted heroin,” Todd tells Walter about their danishes). Copyblogger’s Brian Clark, in his new online course, New Rainmaker, talks about a study that concludes that audiences actually prefer product placement in the midst of media they enjoy rather than having products pitched to them by more traditional means.

(By the way, if you’re not following or are not aware of Brian’s FREE New Rainmaker course, then do not pass Go and do not collect $200. Get over there!)

So the point is the following: when we’re engaged with entertaining or informative media, we are more open to the value of a product or service.

Question: How can you turn your marketing into media? What means of media creation do you have at your disposal?

The second takeaway from my sharing of King Evander’s poem is that the media we create needs to tell a story. The digital economy is a connection economy. That means that in the digital space people are not primarily looking to be pitched something (“Hey Tweeps, my book is on sale today at Amazon for just 99 cents!”). It’s not that a direct pitch is such a bad or always untimely thing, but Facebook and Twitter and Google+ and Instagram and Snapchat and your website are primarily platforms of conversation, shared passion, friendship. And what is one of the best ways to connect with people, especially those at a distance and with whom we don’t already have a relationship? Storytelling. The human heart is made to respond to stories. The story of your project or organization needn’t be a work of fiction–though think how funny the Geiko gekko or Flo of the Progressive car insurance ads can be. But your story does have to engage us with the same power that a great work of fiction does.

Related Reading: Why Your Organization Needs to Embrace the Art of Story.

Finally, while the media we create needn’t be given away free, as I did with King Evander’s poem, free doesn’t hurt either. Most people will respond well to generosity. It helps build trust. My attitude in sending along the poem was: “Here’s a poem for you and your family to enjoy. It’s a small thing but I made it for you with care and in anticipation that it would bring smiles to your faces. You owe me nothing for it; it’s simply yours to enjoy. If it inspires you to share it with friends, to go to the Kingdom of Patria website, to buy my books, then that’s great. But nothing is required. I just wanted to reach out in friendship.” Frankly, isn’t that attitude a whole lot easier to adopt than the one that drives you to constantly be hawking your wares?

I recorded and edited King Evander’s poem in my home office using a Snowball microphone and GarageBand. I packaged it into a blog post and linked to that post in my email newsletter that I send out using Mailchimp (the free service). Pretty simple stuff as far as media creation goes.

So what kind of media are you going to make today?

P.S. If you’re interested in signing up for the Trojan Tub Entertainment newsletter, you can sign up on the homepage of the Kingdom of Patria, or send your email address directly to me at danielmcinerny@gmail.com.

Why Your Organization Needs to Embrace the Art of Story

If Seth Godin is right, and I believe he is, we now live in a post-industrial, “connection economy.” It thus behooves your organization–business, school, volunteer group, parish, what have you–to learn the language of connection.

Think about it: what do you connect with? What makes you feel like you’ve really established a bond with a person or an organization or a brand? 

For me, it’s the sense that I’ve been listened to and understood.

The sense that I’ve been valued.

The sense that someone is “speaking my language.”

In business, it’s the sense that a product or service or event taps into my most cherished interests and desires–followed by an impatience to share the experience with others.

But for a great connection to happen, there must be great communication. Someone has to speak or otherwise convey the understanding and the appreciation and the excitement that creates a bond. 

This usually doesn’t happen in a PowerPoint presentation. Or a white paper. Or a memo. Or a speech. Or a boilerplate newsletter. Or a banner ad. Or standard web copy. 

Perhaps sometimes, but not often. 

So where does it happen? 

The customary medium of great communication is that of a story.

Tell Us a Story

In a story, as screenwriting guru Robert McKee defines it, idea is wedded to emotion and a connection is made between two or more human beings. 

Godin argues that what drives the connection economy is “art.” Works of “art,” broadly defined, are works that communicate ideas that connect to our most cherished, most human interests and desires. 

And what’s the paradigmatic human art? Storytelling.

So this is my syllogism:

We live in a connection economy.

Connections are best made through great stories.

The connection economy requires great stories.

So how are you and your organization adjusting to the connection economy?

Are you relying on conventional advertising and conventional website presentation to spread your message, or are you really trying to connect to your audience through the power of great storytelling? 

In what ways is it possible for you to incorporate great stories in your media? Consider one famous example. 

1984

Drones in baggy grey uniforms stomp in formation as a weird techno-beat pulsates around them.

On an enormous video screen, a grey Big Brother pontificates about unity, ideology, and blah blah blah.

Suddenly a woman, chased by security guards, breaks through the crowd. She is a shock of color with her blonde hair, orange shorts, and white t-shirt. And she carries a sledgehammer.

Perhaps you remember the voiceover as we watch her race toward the video screen:

“On January 24th Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like 1984.” 

Finally comes the iconic moment when the woman spins around and heaves her sledgehammer into Big Brother on the video screen, and the screen explodes in a flash of light. 

Yes, this is the famous television ad for the Apple Macintosh, a commercial which first aired in January 1984 during the third quarter of Super Bowl XVIII. Created by Lee Clow and his team at the Chiat/Day advertising agency, and directed by film director Ridley Scott, who had just made the hit movie Blade Runner, the Macintosh ad created a sensation. As Walter Isaacson reports in his biography of Steve Jobs, that very evening all three major television networks and fifty local stations carried stories about the ad. Eventually, TV Guide and Advertising Age would hail it as the greatest commercial of all time. And meanwhile, it helped make the reputation of the world’s most famous personal computer.

Why did the Macintosh ad create such a sensation?

Because it showed us a dramatic world populated by intriguing characters.

Because it compelled us by conflict.

And because it brought that conflict to a riveting climax.

In short, the Macintosh ad told us a story.

And it did it in less than 60 seconds.

What would you rather experience? Sixty seconds of “Buy my new computer!” Or 60 seconds of a short film?

I thought so. 

This is why your marketing needs to become enthralling, memorable storytelling.

Stories as Ethical Persuasion

But telling great stories involves more than knowing how to plot and create characters. These are essential ingredients, but more is necessary. For storytelling to be insanely great, it also has to be effective as ethical persuasion

What does that mean?

The word “ethical” comes from the Greek word ethos, which most literally means  “accustomed place” or “habitat.” One’s ethos is where one lives–not only physically, but also morally, socially and psychologically. Stories are forms of persuasion in that, through word and image and sometimes music, they try to convince us of the truth about something. As forms of ethical persuasion, stories try to convince us that a certain space or outlook should become our true “accustomed place.” 

With the Macintosh ad, Jobs didn’t just want to create a TV commercial; he wanted to draw us into an ethos.  

As Isaacson writes: 

the concept of the ad had a special resonance for [Jobs]. He fancied himself a rebel, and he liked to associate himself with the values of the ragtag band of hackers and pirates he recruited to the Macintosh group. Even though he had left the apple commune in Oregon to start the Apple corporation, he still wanted to be viewed as a denizen of the counterculture rather than the corporate culture.

But the Macintosh ad resonated with so many, not because everyone who saw it was persuaded that he belonged to the hippie (or former hippie) counter-culture–though no doubt many who saw it were so persuaded. The ad resonated with so many because it hit upon a fundamental truth about being human, namely:

That human beings are not made to be drones in service to Big Brother–political or corporate.

That a truly human life prizes creativity and individuality over mindless compliance to those who would seek to control us.   

Who doesn’t want to be a shock of color in a grey world? 

The Macintosh ad was successful because it compellingly tapped into this truth about our “accustomed place” as human beings. And the Macintosh itself was successful because it delivered on its promise to be a powerful instrument of creativity and individuality. 

Interestingly, too, the resonance of the ad depended to a great extent on the connection with George Orwell’s novel, 1984. The Macintosh ad manifests the techniques of great fiction, but it also pays deeper respect to the craft of storytelling by playing upon the themes of a great novel. Someone at Chiat/Day knew their literature, and that knowledge became a huge payoff for the Macintosh campaign. 

Now, what story do you want to tell? 

Why I May Not Be Able to Help Your Organization Tell Its Story

The use of storytelling techniques in branding and marketing is not anything new. (Hey friends from the ’80s, remember these?) Brand storytelling has been around for some time. Nevertheless, it’s currently enjoying a surge of interest. 

From those offering to teach storytelling techniques, some valuable things can be learned. For example, about the beauties of the Pixar Pitch. Or the need for even a blog post to have a beginning, middle and end. Or about the importance of making the visitor to your site feel like the hero of the story you want to tell them.

Yet the shortcoming with these sorts of approaches is this: storytelling is not reducible to a set of techniques. Harry Potter went from being a series of children’s books to becoming a worldwide pop culture icon not merely because J.K. Rowling learned that “if you want to hook your audience, you have to keep them in suspense.” 

The Harry Potter books became a sensation, in large part, because in writing them J.K. Rowling struck some deep chords in our shared humanity. Ultimately, Rowling wanted to persuade us of the truth, goodness and beauty of a certain ethos, one in which sacrifice for those we love–even to the point of death–is the highest expression of human nature. This ethos is not a set of techniques. You don’t pick it up like chess or cupcake baking. An ethos, again, is an “accustomed place,” the place where one lives not only physically but psychologically, morally, spiritually. It is a way of being in the world. 

And that is why I may not be able to help you with your brand marketing. Because while I want to talk with you about how storytelling can be an invaluable asset to your organization, I also want to talk with you about telling stories that will resonate with us as people, and not just customers, clients or leads. Some may not be interested in doing this much work. Others will only be interested in an ethos which panders to our less noble appetites.

But for those who wish to explore storytelling as ethical persuasion, as a way of speaking to the deepest motives of our shared human nature, then I just might be able to be of service to your organization.

3 Questions for Zach Braff

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Or anyone else who might be interested.

In his recent interview with Elvis Mitchell on KCRW’s The Treatment, actor-writer-director Zach Braff (Scrubs, Garden State) talked about his new film, Wish I Was Here, which Braff described as a story of a man “searching for himself in a quirky, funny way….struggling to find his own spirituality.” Zach no longer professes the Jewish faith in which he was raised and claims not to believe in any “higher power.” Braff’s intriguing interview raises three questions:

1. Why should human beings feel a spiritual void if there is no higher power to begin with? Is this a mere residue of a religious upbringing (Cf. “Catholic guilt”), or do human beings possess some kind of natural desire for the spiritual?

2. How is it possible that a human being would have to go in “search of the self”? What is the self that it is something that can be lost? And how does the search for the self relate to the struggle to find a spirituality? Is it the same struggle?

In the interview Mr. Braff states: “When you don’t believe in a higher power per se, what my spirituality is is finding some way of dealing with the, I don’t want to say ‘curse,’ but the mind-f@!# of living on a spinning rock in the middle of infinity. What my spirituality is is the science of it all, the earth, the elements, the fact that we’re evolved from cells and looking into nature. You know, I see God in little things, I mean I feel cheesy saying this but it’s the truth, in an orchid…I see that as my higher power…or you go online and see some bizarre-looking animal that lives a zillion miles under the sea and I see some higher power in that….”

3. The poet William Blake talked about the ability “To see a World in a grain of sand,/And Heaven in a wildflower….” Is that what you find, too, Mr. Braff, in the zygote and the orchid and the bizarre sea creature? If so, then this is an interesting kind of spirituality or transcendence, a transcendence based upon “the science of it all” in which you stand in what the novelist Walker Percy called “a posture of objectivity over against the world, a world which he [the scientist] sees as a series of specimens or exemplars, and interactions, energy exchanges, secondary causes….” From this godlike vantage point, the world indeed looks pretty spectacular, but also ultimately reducible to material actions and reactions of finite duration. Question: how is it possible to sustain transcendence or spiritual uplift when the object of one’s privileged vision, beautiful as it is, is also as prone to decay as you and I are?