Phrases on Stun: Honor Star Trek’s 50th in Words

Let’s boldly go into a brief blog post honoring this week’s 50th anniversary of the “Star Trek” universe. Calling it a brand or franchise is correct but inadequate. Like the actual universe, “Star Trek” seems to keep on growing, spawning new creations and rekindling inspiration.

As the CBS online news network reported, “Star Trek” is sometimes mocked for having led young fans to adopt nerdy as cookie-cutter imitators of their favorite characters, repeating favorite lines and re-telling favorite stories. While this happened in some instances, Gene Roddenberry’s brainchild showed human diversity at work and encouraged people to pursue their own unique dreams with hope for the future. Phrases that motivated viewers “to boldly go” into the “final frontier” impacted people’s lives because they were memorable words that were lived out—in fiction and in fact.

So, as I have been developing a new web home playfully called OnWord, complementing and continuing my professional forays into the frontiers of writing and communication, I realized I should offer my own salute to “Star Trek.” I’m incorporating into my blog and my business this occasional theme, or meme: “Phrases on Stun.”

You’re hereby invited to join me in recalling, and awaiting daily with new receptivity, key phrases and other well-crafted combinations of words that literally can become “words to live by.” I’m planning to honor—and, please God, to help create—verbal content that adds to the net quantity and quality of ideas, meaning, and purpose in this universe.

This is important. I fear the overflow of text and its permutations, so easily accessed online today, can lead to “information inflation.” This devaluation can rob content of meaning and nullify the power of good writing and communication to renew us, to surprise us. Remember, we celebrate this power to “stun” in a positive sense, and we reject the negative power of those words which are weaponized like phasers, used to capture attention only to destroy or demean or dismiss.

As my first proposal in this installment of “Phrases on Stun,” I offer the words of Jesus in this Sunday’s (Sept. 4) Gospel reading, from Luke 14: 25-33. You can read the whole passage, but here’s one taste of the Eternal Word’s unmatched ability to stun people and revitalize futures with his phrases: “Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.” This hard saying surely lived on in the minds and hearts of Jesus’s followers when they saw him suffer on his Good Friday journey. It jolted them even as it jolts us with tough love in our church pews today.

I would like to hear your candidates for “phrases on stun,” and I invite you to enjoy the habit of listening for new stunners—and celebrating them whenever and wherever they jump out from today’s dull mainstream of words lacking passion or compassion.

To assure you that this exercise can be fun—and not always as challenging or holy as today’s Scriptures imply—I return to the anniversary we’re celebrating this week. Captain Kirk’s son, David Marcus, reaffirms my purpose behind “Phrases on Stun” in this memorable father-son dialogue from the movie “Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan,” as archived at the Memory Alpha website. David begins:

“You knew enough to tell Saavik that how we face death is at least as important as how we face life.”
“Just words.”
“But good words! That’s where ideas begin. Maybe you should listen to them. I was wrong about you, and I’m sorry.”
“Is that what you came here to say?”
“Mainly. And also that I’m proud—very proud—to be your son.”

Tonight, Steven welcomes … the Philippians

If you haven’t completed your daily Scripture reading yet, you’re in luck. I can provide four profound Bible quotes, all from Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, pre-packaged in an entertaining video format. We can thank three slightly surprising sources–a politician, an actor, and a comedian–who had memorized their own favorite slices of Philippi when I saw them on TV. The comedian, Steven Colbert, a clever and joyful Catholic satirist who deserves to be watched closely as he hosts “The Late Show,” orchestrated this unusual Bible study. He prays and preys in popular culture–sometimes worthy of a censer, sometimes worthy of a censor.

Colbert can spark memorable moments that evoke the best, timeless virtues of television entertainment. As a host (someone who makes good things possible for others), he can bring together talented guests for intelligent, witty conversations that bring audiences hope about themselves and the world. Under ideal circumstances, viewers can head to bed feeling truly entertained–that is, given sustenance, paid attention to, respected for their dignity.

The Late Show accomplished this act of kindness for me during some random moments on Thursday, Aug. 25. You can simply enjoy seeing (around the 2:30 mark in this video) how it came to pass that Colbert playfully exchanged Philippians quotes with vice presidential candidate Gov. Tim Kaine.

Later, Colbert opened the door for two more quotes, enthusiastically pitched/preached by celebrity Tony Hale of the HBO series “Veep” (at about 2:29 in this video). My thanks go to blogger Blake I. Collier here for the images and insights. He captured Hale’s supporting role in the New Evangelization.

Three ostensibly coincidental pop-culture incursions by the Holy Spirit on a single, sometimes coarse late-night show? Proponents can use the term “Godwinks” for such coincidences which stage midnight raids on TV’s toxic thinking and shameless self-promotion .

We might credit this troupe of accidental purists–Colbert, Hale, and Kaine–with suddenly taking a detour around conventional edginess, jolting us with references to St. Paul’s inspired writings, instead of something cynical or dismissive. Their unscripted conversations connected the dots between the wise words of Phil 2:3, Phil 4:6, Phil 4:8, and Phil 4:13, not necessarily in that order. We can’t promise this connectivity was birthed in total innocence. This game of verse-versus-verse might have roots in Pharisaical show-off instincts.

But we can be grateful that quoting the Philippians, in some contexts, is still considered a desirable public act (albeit humble bragging). Acting through various amalgams of good will and mere pretense, boastful self-promotion and spontaneous authenticity, God continues to pass along the Good News, in our acts of speaking and listening, in print or video. We watch imperfect human beings perform as empowering hosts and engaged guests, somehow inviting the Holy Spirit in for a moment of true entertainment. The Late Show, like other TV shows where real professionals cultivate wit and kindness, can literally point to a brighter new day. Paul foretold this in Phil. 1:15-18. We can learn from the Philippians, who were a receptive audience for Paul, “staying tuned” as he unveiled paradoxes and other truths with life-changing implications.

THANKS TO ALL OF YOU FOR STAYING TUNED! With this entry in my long-running blog at, I am transitioning so that past reflections and new commentaries all can be found in a different online place. They are part of my independent venture, OnWord, with its official home at, which will grow as a reflection of my larger body of work, thoughts, relationships, and aspirations for the future. One playfully misspelled word sums up that lifetime vocation of communication, driven toward perfection through collaborations among colleagues, clients and communities of all sorts. That word is ONWORD!

Now for a word from South Africa, via Popes John Paul and Francis

Thanks to Rocco Palmo and his “Whispers in the Loggia” blog for teaching me the word Ubuntu.

Wikipedia defines Ubuntu as a South African word meaning human kindness. In tribute to South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, Palmo posted on Dec. 5 a text of remarks that Pope John Paul II (also of sainted memory) spoke to Mandela and the people of South Africa during his visit there in 1995.

“South Africa refers to itself as a “Rainbow Nation,” indicating the diversity of races, ethnic groups, languages, culture and religions which characterize it,” the Pope said as quoted by Palmo. “And you have the extremely rich concept of UBUNTU to guide you, according to the saying that “People are made people through other people.” John Paul went on to honor Mandela’s government for striving to create a fairer and more prosperous society in which people of all faiths would work together and share together, keeping alive a “flame of hope.”

Fast-forward to Dec. 10, 2013, when the word Ubuntu and the teaching that “people are made people through other people” are top-of-mind as we watch news coverage memorializing Mandela. It is good that our Pope Francis today calls all Catholics worldwide to prayer and action against the scourge of hunger. See the Loggia’s blog report on this Caritas campaign, which likewise must endure a long time, keeping hope alive.

Palmo provides the prayer being circulated for the Dec. 10 global wave of prayer, appropriate for prayers of the present and future, reminding us always that “people are made people through other people.” Ubuntu is a rich concept. I think Pope Francis would see it reflected in his flock as we pray without ceasing this call for basic human kindness, for feeding our bodies and souls:

O God, you entrusted to us the fruits of all creation so that we might care for the earth and be nourished with its bounty.

You sent us your Son to share our very flesh and blood and to teach us your Law of Love.

Through His death and resurrection, we have been formed into one human family.

Jesus showed great concern for those who had no food – even transforming five loaves and two fish into a banquet that served five thousand and many more.

We come before you, O God, conscious of our faults and failures, but full of hope, to share food with all members in this global family.

Through your wisdom, inspire leaders of government and of business, as well as all the world’s citizens, to find just, and charitable solutions to end hunger by assuring that all people enjoy the right to food.

Thus we pray, O God, that when we present ourselves for Divine Judgment, we can proclaim ourselves as “One Human Family” with “Food for All”. Amen.



This Whovian — or Whoosier? — Learned from the Doctors: The Present Isn’t Enough

The recent blockbuster episode of the brilliant BBC series “Doctor Who” got me thinking again about the danger of “presentism” in today’s world.

Did you see the episode entitled “Day of the Doctor,” in which three different reincarnations of that lovable Time Lord, Doctor Who, come together to rethink and reshape the past, present, and future? The episode, marking a 50-th anniversary celebration of the ingenious series and (according to the Wikipedia article) a tribute to generations of Doctor Who fans called Whovians (I presume in Indiana we’re called Whoosiers), presented many unforgettable images and ideas. My favorite was the notion of capturing an entire scene, nay, an entire planet, in a moment of time, inside a picture frame, where so much has already happened, so much is ready to happen, but we’re told the viewer of this brilliant 4-D “painting” in a Time Lord’s gallery can “just add time” to bring the scene to life, as one “just adds water” to Lipton’s Cup-of-Soup.

I may never look at an art gallery the same way again. Every enduring work of art, I realize, is of its own time but is somehow of all time.

The reason I bring this up is the connection of this time-freezing to the compelling notion of “presentism,” to which I was introduced by Daniel Rushkoff’s recent book, Present Shock. The word presentism is not new, but it’s very thought-provoking. Rushkoff talks about how our modern society, with its advanced technology and rapid pace of life, makes life seem like everything is happening in the present. I haven’t read enough of Rushkoff’s insights to fully understand how he analyzes this phenomenon, but it coincides with an impression I’ve had for some time. When we want everything to happen right now, or when now is the only timeframe that matters, or when we pursue the titillation of a completely immersive now, we risk forgetting or discounting the past and the future. Our imaginations and faith, used constructively, help us transcend the traps of the present moment. The past and future are gifts from God, although they also impose accountability upon us.

It has been my privilege to write a book celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Hesburgh Library and to see how the building, its people, and its role on the Notre Dame campus literally and figuratively bring past, present, and future together. This coincidence of three timeframes is the stuff of journeys and stories. It gives the Notre Dame campus its traditions, its lively celebrations of victory and discovery, and its focus on people and projects representing hope for the future.

Presentism, if I understand Rushkoff’s insights correctly (and I hope to study them more carefully in the near future!), poses a danger even as it seems to offer an alluring opportunity to live in the moment–an immensely exciting, adrenalin-charged moment–and then to move on in a series of random, disjointed, busy moments. Here’s my thought as it relates to communicating messages about society, about human life, about Notre Dame, and even about Doctor Who. I think Time Lords would agree that isolating present moments inside picture frames must be the exception, not the rule, even though those frozen scenes of potential energy are hauntingly beautiful. In everything we do, in every story we tell, we must be energized by the changing times, not mesmerized by a single moment. We Whoosiers can embrace the Doctors’ advice to embrace the learning that occurs in its own good time, from past to present to future. There can be immense energy (and human efficiency and divine grace) in the present moment, but don’t get trapped in it. Just add time.

This Just In … EWTN News Nightly

The biggest news in Catholic news right now is the debut of “EWTN News Nightly.” Thanks to Deacon Greg Kandra’s blog, you can see the Sept. 3 premiere and enjoy intelligent commentary about the telecast. Thanks to Lisa Hendey’s blog, written in advance of the debut, you can feel the kind of excitement that a number of news junkies have been experiencing about this potentially huge step forward in the New Evangelization.

What kind of news junkie would get excited about a show like this? Well, G.K. Chesterton, for one. Yes, he’s been deceased for decades, so we won’t see him blogging about “EWTN News Nightly.” But he was a journalist for whom an interest in the latest news was seamlessly integrated with an interest in the whole world–its past, present, and future–and how everything gained importance, or at least relevance, when looked at through a Catholic lens.

When everything is inherently noteworthy, and lifelong learning is an embrace of Christ the Teacher and the search for Truth, you don’t need state-of-the-art visuals or frenetic theme music or tantalizing story teasers to keep you watching. So “EWTN News Nightly,” which will be presented only weekly at first, has none of those things. It’s mature and well-spoken and a bit reflective–maybe so much so that it could use a bit more urgent dynamism. And anchor Colleen Carroll Campbell is a refreshing presence who radiates professionalism in her clear thinking and good questioning. Her approach toward her on-camera guests is right and rare: They must increase, and I must decrease.

This is just the beginning for this bold EWTN experiment. It will be worth watching future episodes and praying for the success of the project. The New Evangelization needs this kind of regular mass-media testimony that the Catholic faith is relevant to the world, and vice versa. This intelligent, faith-filled anchor and her team will remind people that the news need not be a cheapened commodity or a subjective product of personal, relativist perspective. Journalism, at its best, is a way of journaling about the human journey. This journey helps us keep growing, and this program is likely to keep growing, too.

Poetweets on a Notre Dame Theme

Have you heard of poetweets? They’re short bursts of verse that use 140 characters–the length of a tweet.  Similar to haiku being limited to 17 syllables. Thanks to the author of this Prezi description of poetweets.  This relatively new art form, as commented upon at Cafebabel, has already caught on in New York City, where there’s an annual contest.

So is it time for Notre Dame to inspire poetweets? I try my hand at introducing the concept on Twitter @wschmitt and #poetweet. If you like the idea, please retweet me!


Gateway Episodes: This Concept Opens Up Some Possibilities

Thank you, Abby Ohlheiser, whose post in the June 25 Slate introduced me to the concept of “gateway episodes.” Abby mused on how a TV series, perhaps a now-cancelled series that one always wanted to sample  and still can catch up on via DVD sets or online archives, may have produced one episode that serves as the perfect introduction to the essence of the series–its characters and characteristics. Check out the gateway episode, and you then can determine whether you want to experience more.

Indeed, you could become “hooked” on the series, which calls to mind the darker predecessor term, “gateway drug,” as applied to marijuana. I prefer a more positive interpretation, and use, of the “gateway” concept. Robert Frost popularized the idea that “good fences make good neighbors.” In these days when a lot of metaphorical fences are being built, we need to celebrate gateways that break through walls and traps into broader thinking and brighter possibilities.

Now I’ve started thinking about “gateway episodes” as they apply to TV series I’ve loved, but I’m gladly going forth from there to ask questions relevant to my work and my faith: Might it be a good communications/marketing strategy for an organization to seek out and highlight a story that serves as a “gateway episode,” a great entry point and introduction that compels first-time visitors to come back to learn more about the organization? If you had to pick a “gateway episode” in the history of Notre Dame, what would it be? Is the typical Fighting Irish football weekend a gateway episode into Notre Dame’s past, present, and future? Does the Catholic Church need to identify and publicize “gateway episodes” in its history or present-day story that draw people close enough to understand some basics, to become intrigued by some mysteries, and to pursue deeper knowledge of the institution–and of the Risen Christ?

Does every human life’s story have a gateway episode? In an age when our popular culture often seeks out and spotlights personal episodes of embarrassment or accusal or superficiality for the purpose of entertainment or schadenfreude, do we as communicators or journalists, or brothers and sisters in Christ, owe it to others to seek out gateway episodes in people’s lives–rather than episodes that build fences? Does every individual’s spiritual journey toward God have a gateway episode? Is God always in the business of creating and opening gateways that open up possibilities for closer relationships?

These are big questions that I hope to come back to over time. Right now, I’ll begin my practice of the concept by asking smaller questions that are nevertheless fun. What was the best gateway episode for the classic “Star Trek” series? It turns out that this conversation has already taken place online. And I love the first answer I saw at this site–namely, the great episode titled “City on the Edge of Forever.” No pun intended, the correspondent advises us, realizing that the episode is about a mysterious alien gateway that allows the Enterprise officers to go back in time to a profound setting of love, friendship, and adventure. This was indeed Star Trek at its best. Perhaps seeking out such gateways is a wonderful way to approach storytelling and celebrate intrinsic, positive possibilities.

Why This Blog is Called “Word”

Since the exciting election of Pope Francis, lots of people have been quoting the guidance attributed to St. Francis: Preach always, when necessary use words. By saying this, St. Francis would not have been deeming words unimportant. To the contrary, according to Catholic wisdom, we sometimes fast from things to show how important they are, to show that they should be valued and respected, not wasted or taken for granted.

That point is the perfect segue into my explaining the name of this blog, “Word.” It’s one of my favorite words–a word not to be taken lightly because it represents something properly valued by people, and by the Church in particular. Words have been rich in meaning to me from my grammar school days, instruments of learning and fun, vessels of potential power and influence, the common currency for building relationships and exercising one’s reason and faith.

Thanks to my father, himself a wordsmith, and to my Catholic school teachers, who took words seriously, I wound up building a career (I hope it was also receiving  a vocation), as a writer, trying to demonstrate good stewardship in the world of words. All of this made me want to give this blog the simple title, “Word.”

It’s my privilege to have written a book that is scheduled to be published by the University of Notre Dame, with the title, Words of Life. This phrase draws upon the “Word of Life” mural that has become better known as “Touchdown Jesus.” This is the mural on the front of the Hesburgh Library, whose upcoming 50th anniversary is the motivation of the book. John the Evangelist liked the word “word” and used it to describe Jesus Christ—the utterance of God the Father from all eternity, the truth and wisdom of God, allowing Jesus to say, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.”

This helps to make Christ the perfect teacher, and indeed the mural also symbolizes Notre Dame’s embrace of Christ the Teacher. It’s an embrace reflected in the Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE), where I’m privileged to be on the communications staff.

“Word” has not lost its power of authority and validation. The Urban Dictionary tells us that the word can be used to say, “I’m telling the truth,” or “That’s the way it is,” or simply “Amen.” It can also mean confirmation or affirmation more generally, as in “Good idea,” or “That’s okay.” This “word” helps to build relationships of trust, and we need words like that. Such words refer to both the mind and heart—to faith and reason, you might say—and so they’re multi-dimensional just as people are. While precision is important in a communicator’s choices of words to convey a message, I’ve always thought that the Catholic Church encourages a dynamic and vibrant vocabulary—not just a legalistic, technical jargon like some institutions—because it likes evocative words.

There are times to unleash the power of words. The Church has made the decision that the Mass, in its new Roman Missal translation, is one place where an abundance of words and their elaborate nature generate a sense of overflowing love and praise and thanksgiving. I anticipate that Pope Francis will help to lead the way in showing people the other side of Church wisdom–seeing the need to leave some room for sparse language, indeed for silence, so that actions can speak louder and listening can take place. As with so many Catholic insights, in this case taken from an insight of the Hebrew Scriptures, to everything there is a season. Sometimes words should gush with excitement, and sometimes they are more authentic and powerful in small quantities. They are one of the key tools of the New Evangelization, and their effectiveness in telling truth and giving life will depend partly on our wise choices about their use.