“Holy Fools”: Exploring the Journey of Calling for Christian Variety Performers

The juggler: a village fair by Fritz Beinke, 1873.

I am happy to announce that my PhD dissertation has been published to ProQuest, an academic database for published research.

I have made the dissertation open source, which means anyone anywhere can access the full content free of charge.

Here is the full dissertation:

Please share far and wide. I am very much excited about this research and the future projects that may come out of it.

Here is the abstract:

The purpose of this study was to explore the experience of a lived calling for Christian variety performers. A basic qualitative study method was employed to conduct hour-long semi-structured interviews with thirty seasoned variety performers (jugglers, magicians, ventriloquists, clowns, and other similar entertainers) who ascribe to the Christian faith and claim to live out a life calling through their vocations. All the participants live and work in North America except for one who lives in England. The findings were evaluated through a theoretical framework of theology, vocational meaning-making, and socio-cultural learning theory. Prior research has shown that a calling-oriented approach to one’s work can lead to deep levels of satisfaction, meaning, and engagement in one’s work (Duffy et al. 2018, 423). But research has also unearthed what are known as “dark sides” to calling (Duffy and Dik 2013, 433). This study found both positive and negative experiences related to living out one’s calling as well. Based on the findings from this study, the major themes were named as journey, joy, community, and oblation. Calling was found to be an ongoing journey. The variety performers expressed the purpose of their work, both intrinsically and extrinsically, in terms of joy. The participants described the essential role of community in their lived callings, identified in this study as the vocational support system. Finally, this study found that each participant viewed their calling as an oblation (Maslow 1967, 94), something they wholistically offer back to God as a sacrificial offering. Implications for practice and suggestions for future study are discussed.

Coming Soon: “Holy Fools”

My PhD dissertation will be available to the public very soon!

I am so excited to share that my full 274-page PhD dissertation will be available (for free) to the public very soon. Stay tuned for the details. The title is “Holy Fools”: Exploring the Journey of Calling for Christian Variety Performers.

I didn’t know this ahead of time, but when I went to upload my dissertation to the academic database (ProQuest) through my library, I was able to choose whether I wanted my dissertation to be made public or kept behind a paywall.

The paywall option means my dissertation would have been available only to people with academic institution access (certain educators and students) unless they paid to see my dissertation (which I think would cost like $20 or $30 just to see it).

In my own research journey, I ran into such paywalls when looking for sources. I was blessed to have institutional access through my library, so I could request pretty much anything and get anything. But it was nice to find open source research out in the wild because it meant I was able to download the PDF instantly without making a library request for it. Of course there is plenty of crap out there for free on the internet, but there are also some very reliable and useful sources available for free out there as well. One skill in research is to be able to tell the difference.

There are many people around the world who do not have such access to academic literature and would benefit from such access. I myself was thrilled to have free access to Harvard scholar Jan Ziolkowski’s six-volume The Juggler of Notre Dame research for my dissertation. He made all six volumes free online through Open Book Publishers. You can choose to purchase the physical copies. But the PDFs are all freely available online.

I was inspired by the way Ziolkowski (and others) offered their research online without a paywall. I’ve heard that academic research/journals is a big-money industry that does not always look out first for the authors and researchers.

So I chose the open source option on ProQuest. It meant that I gave up any potential royalties I could earn from ProQuest had I chosen the paywall option. I want my work to be available to as many people as possible for as long as possible. I worked hard so that my work could be of service to the world.

In all honestly, probably only my Mom and two other random humans out there in the world would pay for my dissertation, so why not disseminate it far and wide!? Call me a fool for doing so, but see my dissertation for more on that 🙂

Here is a little sneak peak of my editing process (and the abstract if you’re interested). I’ve been making the final touches for the past few weeks. But it is now in the hands of my library. Once they approve the formatting, it should go live soon thereafter. I can’t wait to share it with you!

Agents of Vocation

In my PhD research about Christian variety performers, I am coming across a theme known as “agents of vocation.” That term comes from scholar Kathleen Cahalan, who found in her own research that “many people first experience a sense of ‘calling’ through another person.” Someone spoke into their lives in a way that led them to take up a calling. She calls those affirming voices “agents of vocation.” But the opposite can happen as well. There can also be people who “discourage or deny a calling that a person may hear” (Cahalan and Miller-McLemore 2017, Calling All Years Good, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, p. 19). I found the same theme in my research – people who speak into (or against) the callings upon Christian variety performers. And I found that those people are extremely influential and formative for the individuals who feel called (for better or for worse). I also found in one of my participants a story of an agent who served up both sides of the coin: he discouraged the performer early in life from chasing the calling of a juggler (the person thought he was crazy and wasteful with his master’s degree). But then twenty years later this same person apologized and said, “I’m glad I was wrong.”

You’re an agent in someone’s life. Consider how you can speak into that person and encourage them in their callings. You may see something about their gifts or calling that they have but haven’t yet named. And you could be the person to name it and nudge them in the direction of their God-given callings in life.

Stained glass piece by Atelier Miller, 2018. Juggling the Middle Ages, Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, D.C. October 19, 2018 // Photo: Courtney Randolph

The above piece is based on the story of the Juggler of Notre Dame, a medieval tale about a juggler who discovers divine approval in his vocation as a performer despite antagonism from religious onlookers. The virgin Mary acts in the role of the “agent of vocation.”

The long dark tunnel still has a light at the end

My family recently visited the Claudius Crozet Blue Ridge Tunnel near Shenandoah National Park. Originally constructed as a train tunnel in the 1850s, the tunnel went defunct near the end of WWII (1944) when a newer tunnel was built close by to take it’s place. The old tunnel was left unused for some time, until just last year, when a 20-year construction project was completed to convert the tunnel into a hiking/biking path.Why did it take so long? Well, one unique feature about the tunnel is it’s length. At almost a mile long, the tunnel was the longest train tunnel in the United States when it was built. To restore such a long tunnel certainly takes a lot of time.
But another neat feature arises from that same detail: when you have such a long tunnel (which is still unlit, by the way), the effect of the “light at the end of the tunnel” is extremely captivating. Because it was left unlit, hikers and bikers must bring their own flashlights/headlamps. The tunnel is a straight line. So when you enter the long, dark tunnel, you can still see the light at the end – and it is a tiny dot of light.
This tiny dot of light serves as a sort of North Star for you as you march through the tunnel. Flashlights help, of course, but your mind and soul is drawn to that little dot at the end. It is the natural reminder that the tunnel and the darkness is not forever. If you press on in that direction, no matter how dark it feels in the moment, the light is there. And it slowly gets bigger and bigger.
See where I’m going with this? The past 12 months have been a long dark tunnel for our collective human existence. But the light at the end is there. We can see glimmers of it. And it is getting bigger and bigger each day. I believe the Lord is our light and our hope as we go through this darkness. May his light continually shine over you and through you today and everyday.

The Power of Affirmations

Can you think of a time when someone spoke life into you through an affirming word? Did anyone ever tell you, “You’re really good at that” or “You should consider doing such-and-such with your life, it would really help/serve others”?

I’m studying the topic of calling for my research and I am learning that we as humans act as participants in the calling process for one another. And it is a powerful force that can change the trajectory of someone’s life.

Someone might believe they are called by God to something and then God uses other humans to whisper affirmations in that person’s ear to confirm that calling. Or maybe someone doesn’t even know that God is calling them, but others around them can see a calling upon them that is as clear as day.

Think back to the times that people have affirmed you in your gifts, talents, and vocations. Then think about how you can pay it forward and speak an affirmation into someone else’s life around you. Pay attention to the gifts, talents, passions, and callings that you see in others. And prayerfully consider affirming that person through simple words of, “I have noticed that you’re really good at [fill-in-the-blank] and how much it means to others.”

The Masked Juggler

On Monday night, I experienced a first in my life: I performed an entire show while wearing a face mask. Here’s the story: a retirement home had originally booked my show for March 28th, but that date got postposed for obvious reasons. Skip ahead to September 2020 and now the retirement home is letting people onto their property (with safety protocols in place). They took my temperature at the gate and I proceeded to set up in the clubhouse for my show. Masks were required of course. And though I was informed I was free to unmask for my show (my audience was socially distanced with masks), I chose to keep the mask on due to this being a high-risk age group. I performed the show, which they all seemed to really love and appreciate, and I packed up my things and went home.

This experience caused me to ask myself a question: Why in the world is this retirement home full of people at a high-risk of getting sick asking me, a juggler, to come entertain them?

I believe it is because we humans, no matter our age or risk of sickness, need good live entertainment for the healing of our souls. Yes, I am arguing that comedians, entertainers, musicians, and variety performers are essential. Don’t believe me? Look at World War II. It was one of the most devastating times on earth in recent history, but you know who was traveling from base to base? Entertainers. It was the USO show* and comedians, musicians, and other entertainers would come and perform for the troops to boost morale. If even a world war couldn’t shut down the need for entertainers, what could?

You see, even in the worst of times (in fact, especially in the worst of times), entertainers are called upon to share their gifts with those who are suffering. Even the Bible says “a joyful heart is good medicine” (Prov 17:22). I am proud to be a live entertainer, and I will continue to share my gifts as safely as I can for whomever will watch and listen.

*For more about the USO shows in WW2, see this article here.

Emerging Cicada

My family and I were at a local playground a few evenings ago. I saw something curious on the side of a little playhouse. It looked like some sort of toy sticking out horizontally from the outer wall. I looked closer and it was moving!

It was a cicada. And we caught it during it’s moment of emerging from it’s exoskeleton (also known as the exuviae). I couldn’t help but think about how the new comes out of the old…..

“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!”

2 Corinthians 5:17, NIV

The Circus is Still Alive

This pandemic crisis is causing a lot of industries and sectors of work to reevaluate the core of who they are and what they do.

I once read about the difference between form and function. The example the author gave was about the railroad companies of the 19th century. If their focus would have been on function over form, then they would rule the skies in the 21st century. But we don’t have B&O Airlines, do we? You see, the railroad companies of yesteryear were focused on form, which is a long train on a track. Their function was transportation.

Remember Netflix in its early years? It was a DVD-by-mail service. You would pick what DVD you wanted to watch and they would mail it to you. Then you would return it and pick your next DVD. But when online streaming became more viable, they changed their entire model over to streaming and ditched the form of the DVD model. That’s because Netflix chose to prioritize function (entertainment) over form (DVDs or streaming).

For circus entertainers, we need to remember that our function is more important than the form in which it takes (though both are important and to a certain extent, inextricably linked, I believe). This means that a pandemic shutdown may force us to alter our form, but it does not shutdown our functionality.

Personally, I lament this shift in that I would much prefer to entertain crowds in person. But I am confident that this is only for a season and that it is contributing to helping keep vulnerable people safe.

Vaudeville (live variety shows) was the form of entertainment in early 20th century America. But then came the moving picture (“movies”), which drastically reduced the demand for vaudeville. Some of the most talented actors and actresses of early Hollywood came straight out of the vaudeville circuit (Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney, etc). So the function of entertainment lived on, just in a different form.

Now think about the circus – Ringling may have shut down a few years ago. But the spirit (the function) of the circus lives on and is taking on new forms in the 21st century (such as Cirque du Soleil). And even in the pandemic crisis, circus performers are doing creative things to keep entertaining audiences.

What does form and function look like in your work? Are you seeing a more clear delineation between the two during this pandemic? I am seeing it clearly in the circus and live entertainment industry. We are all still artists. Our function remains the same (providing entertainment, joy, laughter, suspense, welcoming and bringing people together, etc). But the forms we take on during this time look a little different. We deliver our function via video, live streaming, and even in person on streets, driveways, and small backyard gatherings.

If you want me to entertain in a creative way for you and your group during this season or beyond, visit this link to get a quote for my work. Thanks for reading!

Eternity Kids Club – Children of the Bible

Hello! In today’s episode, we are finishing up our series called “Children of the Bible.” Over the past few weeks, we learned about different kids in the Bible and how God used them for big and important things.

Click on this link to find all the Eternity Kids Club episodes. Simply click on the one you want to watch: