Scott Cawelti

About Scott Cawelti -

Scott Cawelti was born and raised in Cedar Falls, Iowa. He taught writing, film, and literature at the University of Northern Iowa (UNI) from 1968-2008, and has written regular opinion columns and reviews for the Waterloo / Cedar Falls Courier since the late 1970s.  He played for years in a folk duo with Robert James Waller and still regularly performs as a singer/guitarist/songwriter. Scott continues to teach as an adjunct instructor at UNI.



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  • Tribute to an Old Friend

    • Posted on May 03, 2015 by Scott Cawelti
    Here is this morning's Courier column on Lynn Nielsen, who died Monday, April 20.  He is widely and deeply missed.  I took this photo on Easter Sunday, fifteen days before he died.  

    My old lunch buddy, fellow bar musician, church organist, UNI colleague, Danish chef, spiritual seeker, neighborhood activist, world traveler, and creative spirit left us for good on April 20th. 

     Lynn Nielsen left a large and sad band of mourners who will grieve his absence while feeling grateful for all he gave.   

     Over the last decade or so, Lynn and I had become close friends. I loved his passion for improving his neighborhood, his deep engagement with UNI as a professor and mentor, his musicianship as a jazz pianist and church organist, his quest for travel, especially to Paris, where he arranged to play massive cathedral pipe organs, and his openness to discussing religion and spirituality no matter where it led.    

     During our many lunches, we toasted friendship and discussed the state of everything. I treasured our conversations.     

     Otherworldly matters came up over worldly lunches with wine—the French touch.  We explored spiritual issues after a column I wrote on “Promise Keepers,” a Christian men’s movement that I had pointedly criticized, and which he supported. 

     He wanted to discuss his commitment to the group.  I readily agreed to meet, since he was articulate and funny.  Humor goes a long ways toward dissolving differences. 

     Soon we enjoyed common ground.  Our mutual passions—music, books, and teaching—gave us plenty to hash over.  We also realized that we shared questions about not just our own beliefs, but all beliefs.  

     “We all want the same things,” he’d say, wondering why people sink into pointless and endless squabbles.   

     I had been a born-again Christian as a teenager, gave it up, and gradually discovered Buddhism through years of meditation and workshops.  Lynn had been a lifelong Lutheran who discovered it wasn’t the only religion that made sense.  He knew history, and how many religions were based on legend and myth, widely believed through sheer repetition.   

     He held his beliefs dear, and I respected him for that.   

     As we agreed, the opposite of faith is certainty, not doubt.  Humility is a central trait of all genuine spiritual seekers, and involves degrees of questioning and doubt.  

     Lynn never insisted that his was the one and only truth. Nor did I.  Along with music, that kept us friends.  He always, and I mean always, sent extended comments on my columns, and I learned from his observations and criticisms.  He humbled me more than once.  

     Lynn struggled with people who excluded and judged others based on their beliefs—that was not what Christ stood for.  

     He believed that Christianity should stand for compassion, generosity, and gratitude, as do all world religions at their core. 

     However, as Gandhi put it, “I like your Christ.  I do not like your Christians.  They are so unlike your Christ.”  I used that quote as a bumper sticker, and he loved that.   

     Of course Gandhi didn’t mean all Christians, and certainly not Lynn Nielsen.  
    Lynn walked the walk, being more like Christ—without a trace of religiosity or pride—than many Christians I’ve known. 

     He was a Pope Francis Christian, not a Jerry Falwell Christian.    

     Though he never preached, he often mentored, and several men from a Bible study group he led testified at a friends gathering that his insights and challenges led them to deeper understandings of Christianity.  They expressed profound thanks for his guidance and leadership. 

     Besides, he threw great parties, or “lovefests,” as he called them.  He created tables full of Danish dishes, pastries, desserts, all accompanied by plenty of well-chosen wines. He loved diversity, and invited friends, neighbors, colleagues, students—anyone who would enjoy lovefesting.    
    And before dinner, we always sang  “Amazing Grace.”  
    How sweet was that sound.  

     We’re all bereft.   


    Posted in
    • Personalities
    • Religiosity
    • Cedar Valley Chronicles
  • Twe New God Films Provoke Thought

    • Posted on Apr 13, 2014 by Scott Cawelti

    Here's is today's (Sunday, April 13) Courier column. Rare to have two films out at the same time with the idea of God at the center, so they deserved a column, I thought.    

    Two feature fiction films just out deserve a look.    Or one of them, for sure.

    One is epic, complete with villains, heroes, monsters, mob violence, and a violent climactic knife fight, and one is good old-fashioned propaganda.  Both deal with God. 

    Noah and God’s Not Dead each put “God” at the heart of the characters and actions, and show characters who believe in a higher deity.  Both end somewhat happily, though not without casualties.  Both are entertaining, though for me, Noah wins hands down on that count.  

    Aside from those similarities, these God-focused movies could hardly be more different.  Noah amounts to an expanded, action-adventure version of the Biblical flood story, with added fantasy bad guys, a villain-hero conflict, and superpower creatures who help build the ark and defend the good guys.

    God’s Not Dead, however, offers a story about God that will likely please mostly conservative Christians--all but the cult of hard-core anti-evolutionists.  It accepts evolution and the Big Bang as scientifically accurate and acceptable realities.     

    The film tells the story of how a Christian university freshman during his first semester makes a fool of his atheist-bully philosophy professor by convincing a roomful of fellow freshman in class that God’s not dead.  

    This is significant because the atheist professor had forced those students to write and sign a declaration that “God is Dead”—and the freshman, who refuses to sign, is given an opportunity to make his case for God to his class, which he does successfully.  

    The lecture-room of freshmen gets converted to believing in God, thanks to the power and eloquence of this young Christian believer.  Actually, they’re converted to believing in his faith, since he admits that it’s impossible to prove God exists.  Faith in God gets supported in the film, not proof of God.  

    As the film proceeds, a Chinese exchange student converts, as does a Muslim woman and the atheist professor’s girlfriend.  They all see the light of faith in Jesus and end up together at a Christian rock concert.    Really.

     Everything and everyone in God’s Not Dead bows to the power of the filmmaker’s narrow vision of Christianity, thanks to an impossibly manipulated plot.  It’s basically a propaganda film for evangelicals, who will cheer its outcome—unless they struggle with huge plot improbabilities. 

    Other potential viewers, such as warm-hearted and kind non-believers, needn’t bother.  It’s a ham-handed attempt to proselytize for evangelical Christianity.     

    Which brings me back to Noah himself, who struggles mightily with God in the film Noah.  This film’s God-centered plot raises a powerful and disturbing question: Where is God?  Is he out there, commanding and waiting for us to obey as we seek His signs?  That’s where He first exists for Noah, who feels compelled to build the Ark.  

    Then Noah discovers that he can’t continue to obey that commanding God without harming his family, so he turns to his (Noah’s) conscience.  Here’s the problem:  To follow his conscience, he has to disobey the ark-commanding God. 

    Which one is the true God?  You can’t follow both.   Noah doesn’t know, and feels as though he has disobeyed God by not wiping all mankind. So he falls into drunkenness and despair.   

    However, Noah’s family believes he made the right decision, and in fact they finally convince Noah to believe that his conscience was God, too.

    Thanks to Noah’s conscience, all of humanity gets to start over, cleansed by the flood. The doves arrive, the rainbow appears, and mankind repopulates the earth.  Of course humanity has improved since Noah and the flood. Fewer sinners, more righteous people.  Right? 

     Viewers leave with a happy ending, but a nagging question:  Which God should be obeyed when they conflict?   The commander or the conscience?  

     I do recommend Noah because it raises that question so memorably. 


    Posted in
    • Religiosity
    • Cedar Valley Chronicles
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