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!

Stephen Colbert, GK Chesterton, and Conversations of Hope

Here’s a shout-out to ACE’s own Patrick R. Manning for his cover story in the latest America magazine, noting that TV’s Stephen Colbert offers inspiration to catechists with his threefold approach: “delight, instruct, and persuade.”

This connection between the ability to delight people and the ability to persuade them, an idea Patrick attributes to St. Augustine, is worth pondering. The combination makes me think of my hero in matters of evangelization (and all constructive argumentation), the renowned British author G.K. Chesterton.

Chesterton, a genius who lived in the first half of the 20th century and famously visited Notre Dame in 1930, took delight in writing about nearly everything and trying to convince his readers of truths he had drawn  from his reason and his Catholic faith. His efforts at persuasion often included delighting his readers in various ways—through witty observations and brain-tickling paradoxes, for example.

He saw dangers arising in the culture around him, but he found joy in his faith, so he maintained a charismatic demeanor. He gave so many people consistent delight that they became loyal readers throughout his career as journalist/author/poet/playwright.

“He is a [sane] man who can have tragedy in his heart and comedy in his head,” Chesterton wrote in Tremendous Trifles in 1909.

Perhaps we do need to more consciously and consistently combine delight and persuasion in our dialogues about faith and values in 2014. It works for Colbert as he energizes his audience and prods them to think between the lines of the news stories of the day. He must be a great catechist in his own Catholic parish in New Jersey.

I raise  one caveat: Any delight or comedy we use in the New Evangelization, or in secular civil discourse, has to be approached with prudence, purpose, and moderation. The confusion of “news coverage” with crude satire, slapstick, cynicism, mockery, or nihilism has proliferated in some circles. This blurring  of lines is counterproductive for teachers and learners alike. We need to emulate Colbert when he quests comically for “truthiness” and sustains the dignity of himself, his subjects, and his audience amid his mischief. A sense of dignity is essential for true delight and persuasion to occur.

I am reminded of the Wall Street Journal op-ed piece written by University of Notre Dame President Rev. John Jenkins, CSC, a year ago, in which he noted that recovering persuasion as a goal and skill in our national discourse will help society to regain a sense of civility. That, in turn, would pave a broader road of dialogue for the pursuit of truth, wisdom, and smart solutions for today’s great challenges.

Father Jenkins put it this way: “If I am trying to persuade others, I first have to understand their position, which means I have to listen to them. I have to appeal to their values, which means I have to show them respect. I have to find the best arguments for my position, which means I have to think about my values in the context of their concerns. I have to answer their objections, which means I have to work honestly with their ideas. I have to ask them to listen to me, which means I can’t insult them.”

The Colbert Report takes these prescriptions seriously, partly because they also happen to work for building audiences. Indeed, these approaches cause delight. They make people laugh, partly because Colbert himself is clearly enjoying himself as he embraces this dialogue with people. He is undaunted by this Chestertonian dialectic between  tragedy in the heart and comedy in the head, between the weakness and the wonder of human life which together point us toward God. The discovery of hope as one walks the way of the cross is a theological insight that can indeed delight people. It just happens to be a foundational insight of the Congregation of Holy Cross, with its watchwords “Ave crux, spes unica” — Hail the cross, our only hope.

So thanks to Patrick Manning for pointing us toward an evangelization that combines delight, persuasion, and civility in our engagement with cultural issues and our encounters with individuals—whether they be students, TV viewers, book readers, or simply fellow citizens. Good evangelization opens the door to good catechesis as the participants journey together toward the Way, the Truth, and the Life. As Chesterton would testify, it’s the work of a lifetime—and longer—but our stubborn rejection of dejection is really the only way to communicate, and to live.

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!


God’s in the details — and the patriotic songs

I was blessed to start out this 4th of July with Mass at St. Matthew’s Cathedral, a Mass celebrated by Bishop Kevin Rhoades to mark the end of the Fortnight for Freedom. Especially in light of the Bishop’s remarks about the need for America to respect religious liberty, it was a powerful after-Mass meditation to think about God’s presence in the patriotic songs we sing on days like today.

I knew about America the Beautiful, Battle Hymn of the Republic, God Bless America, etc., but the hymnal in the pew also contained The Star Spangled Banner, and this one surprised me. Most Americans only know the first stanza, if that. Did you know that the stanza that was third in the hymnal–and fourth in the Wikipedia article about the anthem–is another powerful statement of gratitude to God? Here it is, as provided by Wikipedia:

O thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved home and the war’s desolation.
Blest with vict’ry and peace, may the Heav’n rescued land
Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation!
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto: “In God is our trust.”
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave![12]

GK Chesterton once said that he pitied the atheist who was thankful but had no one to thank. Many expressions of our patriotism are seamlessly connected to religious values. As long as we sing these songs about America, we’ll be remembering and reaffirming the values of past generations who saw a connection between the blessings of this country and the One who blesses.

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.

Knocking from the Inside

Behold, I stand at the door and knock. We Catholics immediately know this Gospel passage, and we picture Jesus requesting entry into our lives, into our hearts.

This is a wonderful image, especially with Easter on our minds. But Pope Francis has shed a new light on it by turning it around and prompting us to think about it as New Evangelists. Sometimes, he says, Jesus may be knocking from inside and asking to go forth from the Church, from our hearts, into the world through us.

Now that’s an even more compelling image–to be pondered by the Church, by the professional writer, by the Catholic educator, by all Catholics with roles in the public square. We are called to accept the Lord into a close personal relationship, but we are also sent–in the closing words of every Mass. We must go forth to give glory to the Lord through our lives.In a sense, we must be releasing Christ’s love into the world wherever we go.

This is a key mission of the Catholic school and a reason why so many graduates of these schools have gone forth to make excellent contributions, through the values they’ve learned, to the lives of their families, their communities, their Church, and the world. Thus, Catholic schools are a beautiful tool of evangelization, including the New Evangelization to disengaged Catholics.

Likewise, someone entrusted with the mission of communicating to the world as a writer must help send forth the Good News to others through well-chosen words of faith, hope, and charity. Gifted writers are not given the gift so that they might hoard it. Powerful words can be the instruments through which the Lord’s message bursts forth from our hearts and lovingly breaks through the barriers set up by the disengaged and the disheartened.

On this Easter, when the tomb of Jesus is found empty, it’s exciting to think of our Risen Lord using our vocations (in education, in communications, and in many other fields) to become a “doorbuster” to enter hearts and bring hope.

PS — If you like the kind of judo-flip that Pope Francis does with the image of Jesus knocking, you’ll appreciate the eye-opening explanation that ACE’s Father Joe Corpora  gives to the parable of the unjust judge. See the great six-minute video. Remember the parable about the widow pleading ceaselessly to the unjust judge until he gives her what she wants? Father Joe explains that it’s helpful to see ourselves as the unjust judge. As with Jesus knocking, the kingdom of heaven is persistently requesting that we — as individuals and as a world hungry for love, holiness, and justice — pay attention and humbly receive the gifts of grace persistently offered to us, so that we might find true peace.