Kyle A. Thomas is a theatre artist and doctoral student studying theatre history at the University of Illinois. Originally from Little Rock, Arkansas, Kyle has traveled all over the world teaching, performing, and learning about these performative creatures called Human Beings. You can find out more at his website: www.kyleathomas.net. Many thanks to Eddie Carson for being a great teacher and for asking all of the hard questions.
1. Tell us about your experience being educated in a Christian high school and college. What were the pros and cons?
First of all, let me quickly summarize the educational experiences over the course of my life so that there is a contextual baseline from which these comments can be understood. I attended Christian private schools at the elementary and high school levels, but attended a public school for middle school. After high school I attended a Christian private four-year liberal arts university. Some years later I also taught for a Christian private school for three years before entering graduate school at a public university. In addition to my graduate work I also teach for this university and at the local public community college.
So having quickly outlined that information, I will begin with the thing that I enjoyed most about my experience as a student in Christian private schools. The two schools I attended were relatively small compared to other schools in the area. This is perhaps due to the cost of private school education, not necessarily their Christian emphasis. Nonetheless, I was a much better student when I received more personal attention from my teachers. This is perhaps the most important overall aspect I received from my experiences in these two schools.
But, I would also add that the emphasis on a Christian education did have a lot of positive effects on my life. For example, I remember a Bible class I was required to take in high school where we were taught to use philosophical, logical, scientific, and other forms of argumentation to prove the existence of a Creator and eventually the validity of the Bible and superiority of the Christian faith over other faiths. Essentially, this was a class designed to teach us how to talk to an atheist about the Christian God. I learned so much about argumentative and rhetorical techniques in this class, most of which continue to serve me well in my current academic work.
This course opened the door to questions that I had never asked myself. I wanted to understand the perspective of other faiths and non-believers. I was also set upon a course of exploration about WHY I personally chose to believe in the Christian faith. Surely if I had been born in Saudi Arabia I would be asking myself the same question about Islam, so I needed to know why my faith needed to be MY faith. Eventually though, over the course of a decade or more, these questions and exploration led me to sources that intellectually shook loose my faith in a higher spiritual power that is sentient and the source of all that is. I will always be glad that I took that class.
In addition to that class, my Christian education also had a particular historical narrative that was a part of its spiritual pedagogy. The Bible is a historical book and this aspect of its ontology was highly fascinating to me. How did it come into being? Who wrote it? Why? How did it survive the centuries? Etc. This singular focus on one historical text across many different academic fields was actually a helpful way of approaching history. Instead of examining a large historical epoch, I was enrolled in classes that were concerned with the historical context surrounding this book. Whether it was an actual history course, literature based, or theologically oriented, there were always particular methodologies employed in exploring the historical qualities and stories of the Bible. Of course, I found this constant historical education very enjoyable and much of my early work in the study of history dealt with Christian religious history. Even still, it is a major part of my research.
As to the more negative experiences with Christian education I must admit that, looking back, it is hard to identify moments where I didn’t feel that I was being indoctrinated within reclusive walls. Even in my youth I was very aware of the fact that there were certain things that my peers in secular schools were taught that I was not. For example, I found that my knowledge about evolution was severely underdeveloped as I went to college because a lack of emphasis on it during my science classes in school. The excuses used to justify a modified Christian perspective towards subjects like evolution were, even at the time, questionable and often defensive. Teachers and students alike knew the subject areas that were contentious and in most cases my teachers avoided any debate on the topic (which, in my experience, was rarely expressed from students).
My best classes were the ones where we were encouraged to spur debate and received a respectful and receptive environment to voice our opinions (and there were classes like this). But there were classes where this was highly discouraged. I do remember clearly a few classes where the only way to do well was to repeat exactly what the teacher wanted you to repeat exactly the way it was delivered to you. In instances of differing opinion I might experience public shaming or ridicule. I was put into the dilemma of having to question whether I should provide an [subjective] answer I disagreed with on an assignment and possibly poorly in the class or just capitulate and do what the teacher wished in order to do well in the class. That was not education, it was brainwashing.
2. What was it like having Eddie Carson as a teacher during his first year? Be honest. What are your thoughts regarding the rest of your teachers in shaping your intellect?
Eddie Carson was one of my favorite teachers. I believe this is because he unlocked a natural enjoyment of history that I was unaware of until that point, mostly due to poor history classes and teachers that I had had in earlier years. The class he taught for me, World History, is impossibly difficult to cover from a pedagogical standpoint. But, it was his approach to history that unlocked my interest in the subject. He would ask us to think about historical events and civilizations in more abstract ways – this was not just about dates and names. For example, I remember an assignment where we were instructed to create our own form of government. There were no limitations, just write a one-page paper about a form of governance you would create. Feeling the rush of having so much power, it was hard not to want to centralize authority around myself; I actually had to curtail my own ambition for the good of those that I governed. I had to consider more than just myself, which for an eighteen-year-old boy is difficult to do (note: Mr. Carson actually had to move me to a different desk in the room midway through the year because I wouldn’t stop turning around to flirt with the girl that sat behind me).
Although there were times I did find the class boring (it was still early in the use of PowerPoint as a teaching tool and Mr. Carson’s slides could be awfully heavy with text), I knew that he wanted to bring history to us, make it more alive. To this end he brought in his regalia from when he received his Master’s Degree. He used this to explain the educational foundations we still use that were built in the Middle Ages. I was mesmerized! For one, I was fascinated by European history, especially as a child of German and English immigrant families, but knew almost nothing about it. And here it was living in front of me. That was a decisive moment in my life – I was going to receive that regalia in my future. We learned about the Germanic tribes of central Europe, something I knew so very little about, and from that time I have been curious about that particular cultural history and have sought to fill its holes.
Like Mr. Carson, most of the influential teachers in my life encouraged my interests within the parameters of their classes. They did not limit me to a narrow understanding of things and often pushed me beyond what I thought I was capable of.
3. Tell us about OBU. Did you have a mentor? What did you enjoy most about OBU and the faculty? What work or writing has driven your intellect?
Yes, I had a very strong mentor at OBU. He was the chair of the Department of Theatre and is now the Dean of the School of Fine Arts. For the sake of privacy I’ll refer to him as Dr. H. Truthfully, I could write a novel about the impact he has had on my life, but I’ll try to keep things brief. Not only did he see a talent in me that I had only begun to understand as a freshman in college, but also he would not let me rest until I had realized what I could do with that talent. He pushed me like no other teacher before and none since. He went beyond teaching me the craft of acting or the basics of directing and taught me about the ART – giving me a way to interact with a big world full of diverse people. I was never allowed to just skirt by on the basics but was always asked about which plays I was reading, what monologues or scenes I was working on, what auditions I would be attending, etc. Essentially, he opened up the world to me and helped me realize that this life is what I make of it. He taught me that success does not come to the talented but to the hard working. After all, I was not the most talented actor or director, but I was taught the value and transformative power of education. By the time I finished undergrad I was ready to take on any challenge knowing that if I set my mind and my energy to something that I could achieve it.
In addition to his mentorship, Dr. H. also introduced me to a playwright/theorist that would change my life. I took Theatre History my junior year and while studying the important figures of the twentieth century I was introduced to the work of Bertolt Brecht. Brecht was a German communist working and writing in Berlin in the years before the Nazi takeover of power. He was greatly influenced by cabaret, clowning, puppetry, and the work of the German expressionists. He attempted to create a theatre that was anti-realist and in opposition to what he saw as dangerously bourgeois. Dr. H. encouraged my study of Brecht even going to so far as to advocate for my senior arts paper to emphasize Brecht’s theory of the Epic Theatre.
Brecht’s work influenced my own directing methods and when I while I was teaching theatre at the high school and middle school level I worked with my best students on applying some of his theories into our own devised work. Now I apply one of his core theories, the Verfremdungseffekt, in my work researching acting and directing methods for approaching performance of historical texts.
I must also mention another professor that was very influential in my life even though I wasn’t as close to her as I was to Dr. H. I’ll call her Dr. T. Dr. T. was my German professor and all of us in her class suspected she was an atheist. She was a brilliant woman and fluent in several different languages. For this reason she was always mentioning her work with translating Kant, Nietzsche, Marx, Tolstoy, Trotsky, and others. She never said much about them, but she would often drop a little piece of information into the pool of students to see if anyone would bite. I bit. She played her cards close to the chest and never revealed much about her thoughts or her work, deferring to recommended office visit after class. I remember asking her about her beliefs and she would always answer with questions. I wondered why a woman who was an atheist would teach at a Christian university. But her intellect was enthralling and I was challenged by her queries. Among the many things she asked me about I remember one very clear declarative statement she once told me: “Kyle, you will be a very smart person and you will be an atheist.” I was so upset by this. How could she think this about me! I had told her about my faith and how passionate I was about my God and my Jesus. Today, I wonder what it was that she saw in me that caused her to say this. There are many curious Christians that have their faith strengthened. What was different about me?
If I have to summarize my experience with OBU I would put it this way: it was a wonderful institution that allowed me to ask big questions, explore all that I was ready to experience, peaked my curiosity, and left me wanting more out of life. It is that last point that I think this is the mark of a great school, but OBU already had the answer for that: Jesus. Despite all the intellectual doors the school opened for me, the answer still always needed to be Jesus (even if this wasn’t always explicitly stated). It’s ok to read Nietzsche as long as you accept that he’s wrong about a lot of things. I didn’t know it at the time but my thirst for life wasn’t being satiated with the answer of Jesus.
4. I recall you being very passionate about theater while at CAC. The fact that both you and your brother have committed to this profession is intriguing. What drove you to be an academic with a passion for fine arts?
The easy answer to this is that I love history as much as theatre. After leaving undergrad I had very little formal history education but read anything I could get my hands on, especially if it dealt with the Middle Ages or church history. Some of those books include: God’s Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 570-1215 by David Levering Lewis; Life in a Medieval Village by Frances and Joseph Gies; A Mighty Fortress: A New History of the German People by Steven Ozment; The Lost History of Christianity by Philip Jenkins; Lies My Teacher Told Me by James W. Loewen. I spent several years acting and directing but these were things were not enough to keep me satisfied on a daily basis. I also loved teaching but wanted to find a way to combine all three: theatre, history, and teaching. Grad school was the natural choice. The University of Illinois has one of the oldest Theatre History PhDs in the country and I also get to work with one of the most respected medieval theatre historians in the United States. My driving motivation right now is to open up history to people through the use of theatre. I always say that theatre is the laboratory of life. Humans are performative creatures and in order to study humanity we must understand this aspect of our existence. Much like mathematics is the language of the universe (you could even say the language of God) I believe that the arts are the language of humanity – they are our cultural markers and the entry point for understanding our condition at any given throughout our history.
5. What role has the theater played in your religious evolution? Being an atheist, how did you come to this realization?
The biggest thing theatre has done for me during the religious journey of my life is constantly push me to respectfully and honestly approach the perspectives of others – to try and understand the world through their eyes. As an actor I must see the world through my character’s eyes without the bias of my own perspective. This is extremely challenging and has tested my patience over the years. I have played a wide range of characters, many of which never espouse a particular religious standpoint. But, because I was a conservative kid from the south it didn’t take much to push my boundaries. I have played gay characters, abused characters, loved characters, hated characters, lost characters, sexualized characters, terrified characters, funny characters, and for each one I had to step into their world, into their state of being. This training helped me see MY world differently as well. In the four years I was in undergrad I think my world grew tremendously as I learned to listen to others and really try to understand their perspective. And I wanted to know more about the world writ large. I traveled, studied different languages, and sought new experiences to stretch myself. Once I had a taste of more than the American south, I was hooked and had to have more.
Eventually, this led to bigger questions about religion and belief. To go back to my description of my religion class in high school, I wanted to know my faith was MY faith. As my respect for the various ways of seeing and experiencing the world had grown through my undergrad years I realized that my religion seemed more and more exclusive and this significantly bothered me. I was turned on the writings of John Shelby Spong, an Episcopalian bishop who had many similar experiences with religion in his life. [His books are wonderful and I highly recommend them, especially Jesus for the Non-religious. I’ve also had the pleasure of meeting him and attending some of his lectures and he is the best listener and most patient man I have ever met.] Slowly, I began to pull away from religion as an institutionalized idea of faith and tried to simply define my faith for myself. But as someone trained to explore the viewpoints of all people I also turned to atheist writers to see how I felt about their point of view. The first two writers I picked up, Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, put me off and I found them offensive. I found them to be angry atheists. Why were they so angry? Why did they so vehemently attack religion? I couldn’t shake these questions and I went looking for writers who had left Christianity and embraced atheism. Dan Barker and John W. Loftus, both former Christian preachers, posed some of the most gut-wrenching questions and their experiences with Christianity, similar to my own, left me raw and upset. Philosophers like Daniel C. Dennett, along with Hitchens and Dawkins also used a lot of scientific knowledge in their books, which led me to Neil Degrasse Tyson and Michio Kaku, in order to posit scientific, yet fascinatingly beautiful, answers for being and consciousness. By my late twenties, having already abandoned religion, I no longer sought faith in the form of spirituality. I do have faith though. Faith that people can do good in this world. Faith in my abilities and myself. Faith in hearts and minds of others. Faith in the love of my friends and family.*
*I should mention that my partner of eight years and I took much of this journey together. We were both raised in evangelical homes. It was she who suggested I check out Dennett, Spong, and Barker. And while we are no longer together, I will always cherish this journey we took together and thank her for being a loving, understanding, and equally challenging force for good in my life.