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A Review of Dr. Dean Nelson’s Writer’s Symposium

by Ian Sturak

Recently, I had the pleasure of attending the Writer’s Symposium by the Sea. It’s an annual event, consisting of several nights of interviews with prominent authors, columnists, and philosophers; many truly brilliant people. It’s hosted locally at Point Loma Nazarene University, and is organized by the school's Journalism Department head, Dr. Dean Nelson, Ph.D.

Dr. Nelson served as a Journalism Professor for both of my parents when they attended the school. They’ve remained close friends with him, and - constantly in awe of the interviews he fosters - are always sure to attend his symposium in capacity or another.

Dr. Nelson, who himself occasionally contributes to prominent publishers such as The New York Times, has won numerous awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, and has written or co-written fourteen novels. He never fails to invite the most insightful of guest speakers. The Symposium has, in its time, hosted authors such as Amy Tan of The Joy Luck Club, Ray Bradbury of Fahrenheit 451, Billy Collins, the 2001-2003 Poet Laureate of the United States, Destin Daniel Cretton, director of Just Mercy and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, as well as countless others. His impartiality invites an amazingly broad spectrum of people to share their beliefs, and his resistance to pressure to disinvite controversial interviewees speaks to his journalistic authenticity.

I had the personal privilege of listening to two profound speakers at the symposium - David Brooks, opinion and editorial columnist for the New York Times, and Dr. Cornel West, one of the brilliant minds of American philosophy and racial advocacy. The crowd for each was enormous - Brooks attracted an audience filling most of Brown Chapel, the repurposed church building in which the symposium was held. Social distancing wasn’t necessitated due to a mask requirement, so nearly ninety percent of the two thousand seats were taken by avid listeners. Dr. West brought even more of a crowd, the event completely selling out.

It was truly a wonderful experience to hear the two men talk, for neither of the interviews could have been more dissimilar, and yet each was so insightful in its own way. The juxtaposition of the two interviewees - Brooks, a man once famously the only conservative on the New York Times opinion staff, and West, a fiery proponent of revisionist Marxism - additionally speaks to the fact that Dr. Nelson doesn’t invite people based on the categorization of their beliefs, but rather for the depth of conversation they’ll provide.

I attended Brook’s talk first, and was pleasantly surprised by the openness he brought to the theater. He described his own journey, and how that had driven him to write his many books. He also discussed how he got his first job, and how his experiences had been shaped by who he was. I was surprised by the fact he didn’t mention the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which had been imminent at the time - the news that Russia had invaded broke during that interview. However, it wasn’t for the lack of great conversation - his religious journey, and his turn from atheism to Christianity halfway through his life was fascinating.

Dr. West was also undeniably one of the best speakers I’ve ever heard. He had a cadence with which he talked, an emotionality that felt like a constant spur to thought, leading one to look deeper into situations. The conversation flitted from subject to subject, with a single discussion going from his influences in the works of Kierkegaard, Marx, and Chehkov, to his friendship with the singer Prince, to his experiences with religion. His view of contemporary politics, along with his delightful descriptions of President’s Putin and Trump as “gangsters,” was complimented by his years of political and philosophical knowledge. At one particularly fascinating point, Dr. Nelson asked him about critical race theory - a controversial and often misconstrued philosophy on how to view the treatment of racial minorities both in today’s world and throughout history. His defense of the concept started with the simple statement that he felt he was prepared to accurately speak on the subject - because he had written a forward to the theory's original text.

Each conversation was both thoughtful and dynamic, not wasting a single moment and never becoming boring. I can’t speak for the other guest present at this writer’s symposium, Nadia Bolz-Weber, a Lutheran theologian and minister, but I’ve heard her interview was wonderful as well. Throughout each interview, Dr. Nelson’s skill in both directing the conversion and allowing his interviewees to speak with interruption was fabulous. I never felt like they were cut off, and his selection of questions was marvelous, for even the ones that seemed simple at a base level primed to reveal discussion that questioned powerful philosophical, religious, social beliefs.

The symposium was truly a wonderful event to attend. Its interviews with David Brooks and Dr. Cornel West did a powerful job of exploring their lives and ideologies, a thought-provoking experience for all who saw it.


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