Alex Cavalli is Deputy Director of a Think and Do Tank. He also is an actor who performs two productions, one based on John’s gospel, and one based on Paul’s letters. During our interview, he shared how God led him through significant events in his life -- studying plasma physics, collaborating to invent the first Internet search engine, finding his acting talent (doing Biblical Voices), and loving in the midst of hateful situations.
How did you start Biblical Voices?
It’s a long story. I have a PhD from Dartmouth in plasma physics. I studied thermonuclear fusion (the physics behind hydrogen bombs) for the purpose of creating controlled thermonuclear reactions to produce electricity. I left the world of physics and got into American industry, where I’ve had opportunities to do many different things, including working with CAD software and semiconductors. When I came to Austin in 1984, I was a researcher at MCC (Microelectronics and Computer Technology Corp.). We had to do tech reviews on a monthly basis, for which I thought I needed to improve my public speaking skills. So, I looked in the yellow pages and found Professionally Speaking. They said, “We focus on developing your voice, because when your voice is representing you, then everything else about your public speaking will be right.” The explanation was so unusual that I set up an appointment. I started working with Joe Ann Watson, the owner. She tried all of the exercises to help me, but nothing was working. She was really praying like the dickens, but I didn’t know any of this at the time. Finally, she asked me, “How would you like to do some acting? How about some Shakespeare?” It turned out I didn’t need public speaking help; I needed acting training. Joe Ann had earned her degree in Drama from UT Austin in the early 1940s and, over the years, had been a speech coach for TV, theatre, etc. She offered to work with me for free. Eventually, we developed a production of Macbeth that required only Macbeth (who I played), Lady Macbeth, and a narrator. Some audience members said that they had understood Shakespeare in ways they had never understood him before, which was quite a surprising compliment for me, as I had never acted before. I should add that Lady Macbeth was very, very good.
It sounds like in addition to your incredible understanding of physics, you had a natural acting talent waiting to be found. What did you do next?
Joe Ann and I had become friends as we had been collaborating. One time when we were in the car, Joe Ann asked me if I would like to do a production with her on the Gospel according to St. John. I agreed immediately. I took the Bible and transcribed John onto the word processor (it was pre-Internet), and Joe Ann began to cut the 4 ½ hour-long gospel down to half its size, carefully, so as not to misrepresent the intention of author. As we rehearsed, we kept editing -- putting things back in and taking other things out. After a year of working to get the final script, it took another year to memorize it and understand how to deliver it. Every Tuesday night as we worked, something new would be revealed to us.
Then, in 1989, we invited some Bible scholars to see the two-act production. By the second act, they were blown away. We realized we had a production. Then a lady named Connie Stricklin, who had gotten her PhD in religion from Wellesley and gave Bible talks, saw it and loved it. Her PhD thesis was on the Gospel of John, so she recommended the very best scholarship for us, one of which was The Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel by Charles H. Dodd. I read that marvelous book, which then influenced the performance. We started offering it to people around the country. Then, in 1997, we decided to do a production based on Paul’s letters. The Internet was obviously running by then, so I didn’t have to transcribe the KJV; I only had to copy it. Joe Ann and I created the script as Paul talking one-on-one to the audience. After we had the script, it took only four months to have it ready for production. So now we offer two productions. It is important to know that while I’m the “face,” the first production was Joe Ann’s idea. Her encouragement, prayer, and patience -- sitting there holding the script week after week, never getting bored, allowing me to discover John -- were crucial to its success.
It’s interesting how you moved from the world of physics to industry to the gospels. What made you switch from physics to business?
When I was 27 doing my postdoctoral work at the University of Arizona in Tucson, continuing the plasma physics experiments that I had done as a graduate student, I had a moment of realization. The reason I had become a physicist was, at heart, because I believed that if I studied physics, sooner or later I’d get to know God better. I thought I could understand God by understanding how the universe He created works. I had been searching in so many ways, but finding nothing that was satisfying to me. At one point I realized two things: 1) I was never going to find God by studying the material universe; and 2) there isn’t any matter. Most physicists are not saying that there’s no matter; they’re just explaining that matter is not what we think it is or what it appears to be. But what I realized was that matter was a construct of consciousness and nothing more. I had already been thinking about all of these things when, years later, I walked into Joe Ann’s office. At one point after we had gotten to know each other, I told her that I was absolutely certain that what we’re looking at is not real; rather, the objects we see are symbols of some reality that’s here that I can’t see. I wanted to know what those symbols really are. It was after many of these discussions that Joe Ann invited me to do John’s gospel.
Wow! It would take an entirely different interview to discuss your conclusion that matter is only a construct of consciousness. So, I think we’ll let our readers think about that on their own and continue on with your life. Is that why you left physics?
After this realization, I knew I didn’t want to continue in the world of physics or work in a large government lab. I found my way into corporate jobs, as I mentioned before. I haven’t regretted any of it. I’ve gotten to do so many things, which have led me to this lovely position.
What are some of the things you’ve done in corporate America?
When I was working at MCC, we got onto electronic commerce and did work for the government. Bill Clinton and Al Gore were very interested in the concept of a National Information Infrastructure and began making research funds available to figure out how this would work. We did some of this research. I was the architect who provided the vision of how this idea would work, and I was collaborating with a brilliant group of technologists. One morning I sat down and prayed and drew 7 boxes that represented what business people do every day. I knew that whatever we designed for electronic commerce also had to do these 7 things. Based on that diagram and other work that we had done, we created the first Internet search engine and put it out in January 1994, 6 months before Yahoo! put up their search engine. Every search engine afterwards copied ours, including Yahoo!
Wait! You created the search engine for the internet? Why did Yahoo! get all the credit?
The consortium for which we were working wouldn’t let us commercialize the search engine quickly enough, even though I knew that it would be worth billions. Microsoft even wanted to license our Windows-based web browser, but our consortium wouldn’t license it, so they went to a company called Spyglass. Spyglass’ web browser became the heart of Internet Explorer instead of our browser. We could’ve had that market, too. We also created the first virtual private network. Even today, the entire internet works exactly like the picture I drew that morning.
Why didn’t they let you commercialize the search engine?
The institution was going through a major change in direction, which was taking it away from our work. Few understood what we were talking about at that time. We got entangled in the difficulties of the institution as a whole, and by the time were free to act, it was too late.
How were you able to handle watching what you created and that incredible profit slip away from you?
It was very hard. There was really nothing we could do about it. So, you let other ideas come to you, recognize the good ideas, and pursue them to fruition. And you stay with God and let Him guide you. What I’m seeking most is to gain a sense of spiritual existence. It doesn’t really matter what happens in the material existence. Other people got wealthy off of the search engine, but I still possessed wealth. I was wealthy spiritually. I had the solace of this beautiful gospel to go rehearse and perform. That’s what I leaned on.
How did you lean on the gospel?
John’s gospel is completely different from the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) and different from most everything else in the Bible except for Revelation. John is theologically very complex and metaphysically deep. In order to be able to perform it with honesty, accuracy, and inspiration, Joe Ann and I plumbed the depths. The ideas I was learning and the understanding I was gaining helped lift me out of my personal struggles.
How is John different from the other gospels?
Everything happens on two levels or stages -- the human or relative and the absolute reality. John shows us that what Jesus does on this world stage is only a “sign” of Christ and the Christ-like man on the stage of reality. Jesus fed the multitudes, meeting the human need (John 6:5-13), and then shortly thereafter, he said, “I am the bread of life” (6:35). The signs or miracles are symbols on the human level of the demonstration of the absolute reality of the Christ. When John talks about truth, he uses the word “alethea,” which has more of the sense of absolute reality. John does not typically use the word to mean the truth versus a lie (although this is also part of his intention). When John quotes Jesus as saying, “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32), he is really telling us that when we know what is true or real, we will be free. The concept of what is real runs through the gospel from beginning to end: “For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus” (John 1:17). John shows how Jesus’ signs are proofs of the stage of absolute reality or real existence; or, as Dodd puts it: Jesus’ life reveals “signs of eternal realities,” and this is a “life which expresses the eternal thought of God.” I was coming to understand this.
Were there any particular passages from John that helped you through the huge disappointment?
No. By then I was memorizing so much of it that various passages would come to mind at various times. What really helped me through the difficult situations at work were the uplift and inspiration I gained by rehearsing. It was no longer a play to me; it became a communication. There’s really quite a difference. The gospel production comes from the heart, not from any acting techniques. The gospel became part of my life through the performance of it. When I have to do another show, I don’t have to rehearse to remember lines. I don’t ever forget it. There’s no way to do this gospel from a personal point of view; if you did, it would be an utter failure. Performing this gospel is all about communicating the Word, the message. Ministers and audience members have told me that they have understood John for the first time and have felt the Holy Spirit in the room. I have been very grateful for these comments.
How wonderful -- kind of like the day of Pentacost! What is your production of Paul like?
Many people have the wrong impression of Paul. They think, for example, that he’s a disciplinarian and hated women. But that’s not true. He was gifted with abundant revelations but really had no one to talk to. As he built the churches in the Roman Empire, he spent much of his efforts giving the Gentiles a moral framework in which to operate. The Gentiles lived in a culture full of sexual promiscuity, cultic rituals, and figurine deities. Half of the Gentile world was enslaved, living with the threat of starvation and being arbitrarily killed. Women who were unattached were devoid of rights or protection. It was very far from the Jewish world of moral rectitude. So Paul spent a lot of time dealing with these issues in order to keep these churches going. As he wrote to these churches, you can almost hear him say, “You know, you’ve got to do all this stuff, but if I could really talk with you, this is what I’d tell you….” And then he’d share his revelations: “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity [love], I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal” (I Cor. 13:1). When you find these passages where he really wants to talk, you learn what a great man he was, how much he loved and exhorted others to love, and how he would not have survived the trials he went through if he did not love so expansively. This is the foundation of our production. We get to the heart of Paul, which is love. If I could perform these two productions full time, I would.
What are you doing at your other job with the Think and Do Tank?
Aside from research, we have many projects. One of them has been to develop technology incubators. An incubator is a place with a staff that has deep knowledge of how tech concepts can turn into profitable companies. Entrepreneurs apply and, when accepted, are mentored and connected to sources of expertise and capital until they can be birthed along as independent companies. One of the first incubators in the U.S. was the Austin Technology Incubator. The model was used by Silicon Valley. We have recently helped create incubators in a number of countries coming out of the Soviet Union who want to know how to form companies for themselves and commercialize technology in order to produce economic wealth.
Are there any other challenges you’ve had where inspiration from the Bible has helped you?
About 10 years ago, I was in a very difficult situation at work. There were intense differences of opinion that some days seemed to be a kind of hatred aimed at me. I kept trying to do the right things -- trying to accommodate my colleagues, trying to stay with the positive and point out similarities on how we saw things. But every time I tried to accommodate in a humanly friendly way, things would get worse. Eventually I realized I had been doing the wrong thing by trying to be humanly loving, accommodating, and interactive. The only thing that would resolve the conflict was Love with a capital L, God’s Love. I needed to take my stand from what I knew to be true. I stopped trying to reason and accommodate. Rather, I tried as best as I could to have a sense of divine Love that goes above human problems. When I was really able to get some meager sense of God’s Love, how God loved me and everyone, the problem was resolved, and I was taken out of the situation. It taught me that unselfed love leads no matter how hard it is. Since that time, my philosophy of leadership is that all true leadership is based on unselfed love. I actually give a talk to business people on this topic, and it’s amazing to see their responses. Now, when I’m in a leadership position, I try to love wisely, which is the only thing that truly works. Love, based on God’s Love, is the most fundamental aspect of good leadership.