Sunday, November 9, 2014

Defining Leadership Inside and Outside the Church

My church is looking for a new Lead Pastor.  Last week (October 27, 2014) I attended an information meeting to learn about the process.  In Baptist circles pastors are hired by the local congregation (though often with denominational assistance).  As the job ad suggests there are biblical requirements, character qualities, educational achievements, and professional skills required by candidates for this office.  It is a difficult calling.  Coincidentally my faculty is looking for a new Dean. This week I had a visit from a search committee member soliciting my perspective about what we needed in a Dean.  Most faculties will expect that a Dean will be an effective manager, an academic, and the public face of the school.

I have been reflecting on leadership and what makes someone a leader both in the church and outside.  I'm going to distinguish between people in leadership roles and leaders. Not every administrator is a leader.  Leadership is however a tricky concept to nail down.  If you executed a library catalogue keyword search for the term leadership you would find nearly half a million books.  A leader, at its simplest level, is someone others choose to follow.  For the church Jesus would be the archetypical leader: he founded Christianity but never studied theology, never held office, never had an earthly title, or even owned a piece of property.  People followed him to their death (and beyond).

Ok, maybe not fair to invoke Jesus Christ here so lets consider a human example: Ghandi.  He has been called "the preeminent leader of the Indian independence movement" but his leadership was not based on political office or traditional power.  In part it was his personal charisma.  Obama's charisma (he was relate-able) helped get him elected.  Pope Francis' charisma (he is inspiring) will help him introduce tough reforms.  But charisma is fleeting, and leadership must be built on something deeper.

So I thought what makes me want to follow someone?  Here is my list:

1. TRUST.  I trust a leader who cares for my interests as well as their own and values the things I value.  We live in an age where a CEO can lay off 1000 employees and take home a million dollar bonus.  Then the company brings in a consultant to help build trust and morale.  Duh.  If you take care of me, I will take care of you.  If you are taking care of you, I will take care of me.  For example: my children are important to me.  If you are a church leader and you want me to trust you, then show me my kids are important to you by the priorities you set.

2. KNOW THYSELF.  A leader understands her/his own strengths and weaknesses.  They share their successes and own their faults.  I have encountered a leadership maxim that effective leaders should not apologize for leadership failures to those they lead.  I can't reconcile that the model of servant leader in the church.  A leader who understands their weaknesses can find those with complimentary strengths to support them and when needed to correct them.  I think that also applies outside of the church: leaders who don't own their failures or blame shift destroy trust.

3. LISTEN. The Republican gains during the 2014 U.S. Senate elections elicited an interesting response from the Democratic President Obama: "I hear you."  However, as one commentator noted their was no indication that any of his key policies would change.  It seems that the message to the public is "I hear you" but "I'm not listening."  One hundred town halls won't help if I don't believe you are listening.  Leaders listen.

4. SPEAK.  The daily tasks of the church push out time to ponder the big picture for most of us.  A leader must have a vision and communicate it effectively to those who follow.  Here is your chance to transform my values and to align them to the values you believe are essential to the big picture.  Belief change is not easy, and I need to see clearly the benefits, but I am open to change.  Some church transitions fail because people aren't open to change.  They also fail because church administrators failed to communicate.  The same applies in the secular world.

Leadership.  Hard to pin down; but needed so desperately.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Leaders Seeking God's Will - David's Defence

It is finished. On August 18, 2014 I successfully defended my PhD dissertation before an examining committee of seven, and a great cheering squad in the gallery.  It was a long defence taking nearly the full three hours, but in the end I passed without corrections.

The process for Interdisciplinary PhDs at Dalhousie University is to have an examining committee comprised of my supervisor, my three committee members, a representative from the ID PhD program, a chair appointed by the Faculty of Graduate Studies, and an External Examiner.  My External was Dr. Gregory Grieve from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.  The candidate (me) gives a short presentation of less than 25 minutes.  Then beginning with the External, the committee members each take turns asking questions.  There can be a break mid way through (though not in mine) and then a second round of questions.  This will continue for 1-2 hours and then the gallery and candidate leave the room while the committee deliberates.  I then wait impatiently for the chair to invite hopefully Dr. David Michels back into the room.

So I am a doctor now.  Convocation on October 7, 2014 is merely the formality, but my wife says I have to go. :-)  I was privileged to have a great supervisor and committee.  I learned a lot from each of you.  I still feel like a poser calling myself "Doctor" but I'll get there.

For those interested, please find below a re-recording of my presentation.  A little too formal and rushed for my liking but I was trying to cram 7 years of work into 25 minutes.  Enjoy the pictures - I don't like lots of text in a powerpoint.

Next week I will share some of my experiences at the Information Seeking In Context Conference ISIC 2014 in Leeds, UK.

Good to be done (Take us out Cool and the Gang.)

Sunday, June 8, 2014

CAIS 2014: Over the Falls without a Theory

The late May evening was warm, and the mist rising from the Niagara Falls was welcome.  The boardwalk was filled with tourists: delighted conversations in a dozen languages, and starry eyed couples walking arm in arm.  My own thoughts turned to the absence of theoretical grounding in new information science research.  Sigh.

I was in town for the 42nd Annual Conference of the Canadian Association for Information Science at at Brock University.  CAIS is only one of 75 academic societies that meet during Congress. The Brock News notes that over 8,500 delegates attended Congress, presenting over 10,000 papers at 2,500 events over 8 days. I will share some of my highlights in the next posts.

CAIS is a wonderful gathering of Canadian and International academics and practitioners interested in research around information. This year CAIS partnered with the Librarians' Research Institute, a CARL initiative to encourage and support Librarian's research. There were a wealth of great papers and you can peruse the program.  Several papers/posters/panels stuck with me.  Julien and O'Brien presented a study of trends in Information Science (IS) research.  Positive changes: more research on non-work/school contexts (health, hobbies, home, etc.), and more research in practitioner journals (escaping the Ivory Towers).  Negative findings: surveys/questionnaires remain the dominant research methods, and most research remains ungrounded in theory.

"Hello, I am calling on behalf of BMO with a short survey about your recent experience with us..."

After the ten minute tightly scripted survey ("Uh, was five "mostly satisfied" or "generally satisfied") I thought about useful facts about my visit she might have asked but didn't. Oh well, BMO's loss.

Surveys/questionnaires are a very straightforward data collection methods. Easy to collect and analyze.  What's not to like? collected is only as good as the survey questions asked, and what people say they do, and what they do aren't always the same (gasp!) Using multiple methods allows researchers to consider their questions from different perspectives.  Experimental and observational methods allow researchers to discern between what I say and what I do.  Participant observation lets me walk a mile in the shoes of my participants, and I begin to understand why they do what they do. So many little time!

"If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." (Newton, 1676)

Theory matters because I am not smart enough to do it all on my own. Whether I acknowledge it or not I owe an intellectual debt.  Also science is not only about theory building, it is about theory testing.  I reflected on my own research and how well I ground back what I discover.  I am usually comfortable saying, "My research supports X's theory" but less comfortable disagreeing, "who am I to disagree?"  I am a researcher with good data and credible findings. Time to get serious about building knowledge.

Next: Librarians Professional Identities and Collaborative Research


Oh, in case you wondered if you dropped your watch while leaning out to take pictures of the Horseshoe Falls, that study was completed in 1955. :-)

Sir Isaac Newton, Letter from Isaac Newton to Robert Hooke, 5 February 1676, as transcribed in Jean-Pierre Maury (1992) Newton: Understanding the Cosmos, New Horizons(Paraphrasing John Salisbury who paraphrased Bernard de Chartres.)
"Standing on the Shoulders of Giants, Mushon Zer-Aviv, 2006,

Monday, November 25, 2013

Star Trek: Into Darkness - A Theological Critique

Theological Critique of Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013)
David H. Michels, 2013

In two recent classes of Religion in Contemporary Society we had the opportunity to discuss different approaches to religious critiques of films (theological, mythological, and ideological).  Here is my theological critique of Star Trek: Into Darkness.  Comments and responses welcome.


“When the crew of the Enterprise is called back home, they find an unstoppable force of terror from within their own organization has detonated the fleet and everything it stands for, leaving our world in a state of crisis.  With a personal score to settle, Captain Kirk leads a manhunt to a war-zone world to capture a one-man weapon of mass destruction.  As our heroes are propelled into an epic chess game of life and death, love will be challenged, friendships will be torn apart, and sacrifices must be made for the only family Kirk has left: his crew.”1


Star Trek: Into Darkness is the second film in the Star Trek franchise reboot. The Star Trek franchise has a long and complicated relationship with religion, due in part to creator Gene Roddenberry’s reported rejection of Christianity.2 Religion played a small role in Roddenberry’s 1966 TV vision of the utopian United Federation of Planets.  The subsequent film series, where Roddenberry played only a consulting role,3 did explore religious, spiritual, and ethical themes such as life and death, euthanasia, and even the search for God and “the Garden of Eden” (Star Trek V).  The TV series Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1998) frequently explored moral and ontological questions (e.g. 2:9 “The Measure of a Man”, 3:3 “The Survivors”, 3:22 “The Most Toys”) but was like the earlier series was critical of religion (e.g.1:1 “Justice”, 3:4 “Who Watches the Watchers”).  The later series Star Trek: Voyager (1995-2001) and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993-1999) regularly explored spirituality and science.  The franchise’s relationship with religion/spirituality offers insight into its audiences evolving attitudes toward religion and the growing interest in spirituality.


I. Explicit References to Religion and Religious Questions

Explicit religion plays a small role in this film.  In the opening scene we find a primitive alien culture in pursuit of Kirk who has apparently violated a taboo by stealing a sacred text.  In the course of their escape the aliens watch in awe as the starship rises from the water.  This is a violation of the Federation’s non-interference directive, and as a consequence changes the indigenous religion.  This encounter with religion raises a question about the view of religion.  By reducing religious belief to a technological misunderstanding, the scene potentially challenges the Christian doctrine of special revelation through supernatural means, that is, that God does intervene in human history.4
Kirk is rebuked by Admiral Pike for “acting like God” in his rejection of the rules.  Later when Scotty is arguing with Kirk over the unjust military orders, Scotty pleads: “Jim, for the love of God don’t use those torpedoes.”  After the Starship Enterprise is saved from crashing a crewman says: “it’s a miracle”.  Spock replies, “There are no such things.”  The use of these common figures of speech provide little insight into the religious perspectives of the speakers, and portray a traditional Christian understanding of God as omnipotent and benevolent.  Spock’s rebuttal conveys his character’s personal disbelief in the idea of divine intervention in the affairs of people.  

II. Implicit Religion and Ethical Questions

a. Resisting Evil
The film subtitle “Into Darkness” reflects the central issue of the film: how do enlightened people respond to evil without becoming that evil?  Characteristically a post- 9/11 film, the once utopian United Federation of Planets is now imperiled from an act of terrorism from within.  Pushed to the brink of war the crew of the starship Enterprise discovers that factions within their own government have lied to them.  Star Fleet plans to use long distance covert torpedoes to assassinate the suspected terrorist Khan in enemy territory, reminiscent of the use of drones in the U.S. war on terror.  Captain Kirk also struggles with his own loss and desire for vengeance.  The questions raised in this film are universal and transcend particular theological traditions.  Most religions for example have engaged the question of war.  It was Augustine in the fifth century who developed Christianity’s first theology of “just war”, 5 though alternative Christian theologies exist.6 The main characters’ crisis however was the place of revenge.  Vengeance/assassination is challenged on both legal (Federation law), and ethical grounds (Spock argues “this action is morally wrong”).  Khan will later speak about Kirk’s conscience.  Yet the basis of the heroes’ moral position is never clear in the film.  Why, in the face of very practical arguments, are these actions immoral?  The Christian tradition for example forbids revenge on the basis of God’s sole jurisdiction as judge: “Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord.”7 Further, there is a positive obligation of mercy on one’s enemies: “But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked.”8 The characters do not discuss their own moral foundations but then appear to act out of a moral code familiar to western audiences influenced by the New Testament tradition.

b. Facing Death
The question of death is also briefly explored in this film first in Spock’s telepathic meld with the dying Pike and later in Kirk’s death.  Spock says he experienced Pike’s feelings “at the moment of his passing: anger, confusion, loneliness, fear.“  Kirk, as he dies, says, “I’m scared Spock. Help me not to be. How do you choose not to feel?”  Death in Star Trek: Into Darkness is something to be feared.  There is no sense of an afterlife beyond the grave in the movie.  Resurrection and Life after Death are central teachings in the Christian tradition.9  Accordingly, there is a triumphalism and assurance in New Testament Christianity: “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”10 The characters’ revelations of their own fears make them more easy to relate to, but at the same time offer the viewers little hope. 

c. Sacrifice and Redemption
An important subtheme is sacrifice and redemption.  In the opening scenes Spock is prepared to give his life to save the aliens and his crew on the grounds that “the good of the many outweighs the good of the few or the one.” This is a proverb cited in earlier movies. Kirk also offers his life in exchange for the lives of his crew, and he will later make the ultimate sacrifice to save his ship.  This Christian principle of substitutionary sacrifice is expressed in two New testament passages: “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends,11 and the prophetic words of the High Priest regarding Jesus “You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.”12 Kirk however is a flawed hero: rash, arrogant, self-centered, and womanizing.  Pike earlier claimed that he saw greatness in Kirk but Kirk’s actions have resulted in his loss of command.  He must redeem himself and find his greatness, and he does this by his sacrificial death and subsequent resurrection (though scientific rather than supernatural).  Kirk is a Christ figure in that he is offers a voluntary substitutionary sacrifice.  Christ however is seen as an effective sacrifice in that he was sinless.13  Christ’s death was said to redeem people while Kirk’s death redeemed himself.  Christ’s salvation was considered permanent while Kirk’s was temporary; there will be another deadly movie crisis!  An interesting question to explore is the attraction of a flawed hero such as Kirk to the audience.  Why does such a man inspire trust and confidence?  Is he more relatable than the blameless Saviour of Christianity, and thus the everyman hero?


Star Trek: Into Darkness is a sci fi shoot-em-up in the full sense of the phrase.  It is filled with firefights, chase scenes, and explosions, and is an entertaining night out.  But on occasion, amid the CGI, the film tries to engage in contemporary social issues like the war on terror, and the ethical questions it raises.  The heroes also wrestle with personal questions like life/death, and sacrifice and redemption.  The movie does not explicitly challenge Christian doctrine and in fact asks more questions than offers answers.  Star Trek: Into Darkness leaves the door open for Christian dialogue about these questions.  The question remaining is whether in an arguably post-christian society we can still engage in these kinds of conversations. 


1. Synopsis, Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013), Paramount Films, Online: Internet Movie database,
2. E. Christopher Reyes, In His Name ([S.l.] Authorhouse, 2010), p. 39.
3. See Susan Sackett, Inside Trek: My Secret Life With Star Trek Creator Gene Roddenberry (Tulsa, OK: HAWK Publishing Group, 2002); Greenberger, R. Star Trek: The Complete Unauthorized History (Minneapolis, MN: Voyageur Press, 2012) at 115.
4. See Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1985) at 175ff.
5. Paul T. Jersild and Dale A. Johnson, Moral Issues and Christian Response (Toronto: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1993) at 218-225.
6. Ibid. 225-230.
7. Romans 12:18, Holy Bible, New International Version.
8. Luke 6:35, Holy Bible, New International Version.
9. 1 Corinthians 15:12-31, Holy Bible, New International Version.
10. 1 Corinthians 15:55, Holy Bible, New International Version.
11. John 15:13, Holy Bible, New International Version.
12. John 11:50, Holy Bible, New International Version.
13.  Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1985) at 777ff. Online: Google Books, .

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