Revival and Moral Philosophy: A Puritan Vision for American Higher Education

Part of ongoing series: The Holy Spirit and the Liberal Arts

In these ‘revival colleges’ the anti-slavery movement found a welcomed sanctuary, the largest foreign missionary movement in history found its origin, and literature, art and the sciences found a home in the academic curriculum, resulting in a profound spiritual/intellectual synthesis throughout American society.  

by Gary David Stratton, Ph.D. • Senior Editor

While most Christian traditions look to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost as the historical birth of the church [1], seventeenth and eighteenth-century Puritans in England and colonial America emphasized the outpouring of the Spirit as God’s ongoing means for awakening unbelievers to seek the Lord and reviving the spiritual life of believers.[2] The Puritans believed in religious education and the personal catechizing of every family in every parish every year,[3] however their pastoral experience warned them that such efforts would eventually fall upon deaf ears and hard hearts if not for the continual renewing work of the Spirit.[4] They developed an ecclesiology that all but demanded outpourings of the Spirit recur periodically for ongoing reformation of the church and society.[5]

Jonathan Edwards

Jonathan_Edwards-240x240
“America’s Theologian” and Princeton College president, Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758)

No one did more to help set Old World revivalism on its feet in the new world, than Northampton, MA Congregationalist minister Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758). A “towering intellectual figure”[6] often described as “America’s greatest theologian,”[7] Edwards viewed the outpouring of the Spirit as an acceleration or intensification[viii] of the Holy Spirit’s normal activity so that much is “done in a day or two, as at ordinary times … is done in a year.”[9] Like all Puritans he held that such outpourings were God-granted events to be sought by ministers and their congregations as their only hope for advancing the gospel on the earth: “(F)rom the fall of man to this day wherein we live the Work of Redemption in its effect has mainly been carried on by remarkable pourings out of the Spirit of God.”[10]  (See, Do America’s Colleges Need ‘Revival’?)

Edwards wasn’t talking in mere theoretical language. In 1734 over 300 men and women—nearly a quarter of Northampton’s population—professed conversion to Christ in a single six-month period. “There was scarcely in the town, old or young, left unconcerned about the great things of the eternal world… The work of conversion was carried on in a most astonishing manner… and the number of true saints multiplied… (until) the town seemed to be full of the presence of God.”[11] Edwards’ popular account of Northampton’s revival, Faithful Narrative (1737), caused churches across the colonies to pray for similar outpourings. It wasn’t long before the answer came.

The First Great Evangelical Awakening

The First Great Awakening was a broad religious awakening felt throughout much of the British Isles and American colonies from roughly 1734 to 1742. Early movements included field preaching revivals in the United Kingdom under the leadership of Methodist leaders John and Charles Wesley,  a revival in the Connecticut River valley that eventually spread to Jonathan Edwards’ church, as well as revivals among Dutch Pietist immigrants in New Jersey under the leadership of Theodore Freylinguysen, and New Jersey Presbyterians under the leadership of Gilbert Tennent.[12] The awakening reached its zenith in the theatrical preaching of British Methodist George Whitefield, whose evangelistic tour of the colonies in 1740-1741 became the first genuinely “national” event in American history.[13]

In ten weeks Whitefield spoke to audiences whose total attendance equaled at least half the population of the colonies he visited,[14] including “virtually every New England inhabitant.”[15] By the time the awakening subsided as much as twenty-percent of the total population of the American colonies had professed faith in Christ.[16] Due to the tremendous evangelistic impact of these revivals, leaders became known as evangelicals and the movement first became known the Evangelical Awakening. As Noll concludes, The Great Awakening, “marked the beginning of a distinctly evangelical history . . . (and) a consistent pattern of convictions and attitudes that have been maintained over the centuries since.”[17]  (See, The Great Awakening & the Birth of American Celebrity Culture)

Religious Affections and Religious Education

Despite the apparent victory of revivalism, Edwards was convinced that the weakness of the First Great Awakening rested in ministers’ uncritical acceptance of revival experiences and mere professions of faith as signs of genuine conversion. Like his Old World forebears, he sought a thorough reformation of both the individual and society. He penned A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections (1743) to challenge ministers to guide those who professed faith away from short-lived counterfeit conversions and towards genuine faith. [18] Edwards believed that only an encounter with the “divine and supernatural light” provided by Holy Spirit was capable of transforming human affections out of the sinful lowlands of self-interest and into love of God for God’s sake.[19]  This meant that the only uncounterfeitable fruits of genuine repentance were neither emotional experiences nor ecstatic visions, but rather a sacrificial love of others and passion to grow in the knowledge of Christ for no other reward than knowing his love. Parents and ministers were charged with catechizing the next generation, as well as reminding them of the glory of heaven and the ever-present threat of hell, so that by rigorous discipline they might experience genuine conversion.[20] Edwards exhorted his congregation, “The religious education of children is one of the principle means of grace that God has appointed in his church.”[21] (See, Jonathan Edwards Goes to the Movies: Religious Affections and Story Structure.)

The Second Great Awakening

Revival Colleges

This quest to educate and revive an entire generation toward genuine faith and experiential knowledge of God drove Edwards’ spiritual descendants in the development of perhaps the most influential educational movement in American history—the revival college. When the faculties at Harvard and Yale rejected the First Great Awakening, friends of the revival (known as “New Lights”) founded of a flurry of liberal arts colleges with a revival bent. Some, like Dartmouth,[22] Amherst,[23] and Mount Holyoke[24] were founded directly on Edwardsean principles. Others, like Williams,[25] Princeton,[26] Rutgers and the University of Georgia[27] were later captured by followers of Edwards’ educational vision. In the end, nearly all colleges of the era were eventually influenced by the Edwardsean project. As noted higher education historian and Edwards biographer George. M. Marsden notes, “Much of the antebellum collegiate education was shaped by New Englanders with an Edwardsean heritage, (who) controlled most of the nations leading colleges, including the state universities.”[28]

Timothy Dwight and Yale College

The power of the revival college movement was made possible in no small degree due to the influence of Edwards’ grandson, Timothy Dwight (1753-1817).   Dwight was appointed president of Yale College in 1795 in a striking pro-awakening takeover of what had once been an anti-awakening institution.[29] Yale experienced four revivals under Dwight and these outpourings of the Spirit were clearly a welcomed and promoted aspect of the president’s educational program.[30] Yet Dwight was so committed to the life of the Spirit flowing through the normal day-to-day life of the college he refused to cancel classes during seasons of spiritual awakening, even when petitioned by the student body to do so.  Dwight instead carefully guided them his students to a more holistic approach to the Spirit’s work in the life of college, an approach which eventually spread to many if not most of America’s colleges. [31] Under Dwight’s presidency Yale grew into the largest and most influential college in the Americas and the educational center of what came to be known as the Second Great Awakening (c. 1790-1840)—a society-wide transformation of much greater duration and depth than the more short-lived First Great Awakening.[32] (See, The College Chapel: Puritan Relic or Campus Hot Spot.)

Revival Colleges and Social Reform

The best of these revival colleges formed the intellectual backbone of a transatlantic revivalism that became a dominant theme in America from 1800 to 1860, and a “central mode of our search for national identity.”[33] In these colleges, literature, art and the sciences moved into the academic curriculum for the first time, the anti-slavery movement found a welcomed sanctuary, the largest foreign missionary movement in history found its origin, a vision for universal public education found a champion, women and African-American students matriculated for the first time,[34], a resilient ethic of moral citizenship found a remarkable incubator [35], and a generation of national leaders marked by both the knowledge of learning and the knowledge of God was born. (See, Higher Education and the Knowledge of God.)

Mark A. Noll notes that the leaders of these colleges were key to a “surprising intellectual synthesis” of revival and common-sense moral philosophy that dominated American thinking from 1790 to 1865 and which led to the remarkable “Christianization” of American society.[36] Dramatic church growth among all revival-oriented denominations—particularly Baptists and Methodists led to the formation of nearly 500 new revival colleges across the Western frontier. These educators were revivalists first and foremost [37] Their effectiveness as educators came, not in spite of their commitment to the work of the Holy Spirit in higher education, but rather because of it. (See, The Holy Spirit and the Liberal Arts)

Revivalism Ruined and Renewed

Sadly, the success of revivalism eventually led its undoing as churches and colleges began to rely upon periodic seasons of awakening to produce spiritual maturity in their members rather than ongoing religious education and discipleship. Highly volunteeristic conceptions of conversion and high-pressure tactics to secure decisions gradually eroded Edwardsean concerns regarding counterfeit conversions and safeguards to encourage the genuine fruit of Spirit-created repentance.[38] The publication of Christian Nurture (1847) by Congregationalist minister Horace Bushnell (1802- 1876) began an intellectual and practical backlash against revivalism’s over-emphasis upon public professions of faith, and birthed the modern religious education movement.[39]

While educational leaders such as A. B. Simpson (Nyack College), A. J. Gordon (Gordon), and V. Raymond Edmond (Wheaton), as well as Baptist, Wesleyan, Pentecostal, and Charismatic renewal movements preserved concern for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and even sparked modest revivals in many churches and colleges,  modern evangelicalism has yet to produce a synthesis of revival and Christian education capable of effecting a society-wide movements on the level of the First and Second Great Awakenings.

Adapted from, Gary David Stratton. 2015. “Revivalism,” in George Thomas Kurian and Mark A. Lamport, eds. Encyclopedia of Christian Education, Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littleton Academic Press of America.

See also:

The College Chapel and American Higher Education: Puritan Relic or Future Hope 

Notes

[1] Joel 2:28-32; Ezekiel 39:29; Acts 1:4-8; 2:1-21; 4:24-31.

[2] Thomas S. Kidd, The Great Awakening: the Roots of Evangelical Christianity in Colonial America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007), 2; Mark A. Noll, The Rise of Evangelicalism: the Age of Edwards, Whitefield, and the Wesleys (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 18. Richard F. Lovelace, Dynamics of spiritual life: an Evangelical Theology of Renewal (Downers Grove, Ill: Inter-Varsity Press, 1979), 121.

[3] Richard Baxter, The Reformed Pastor (Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 2002), 67-122. See also, Perry Miller and Thomas Herbert Johnson, The Puritans (New York: Harper & Row, 1963). J.I. Packer, The Redemption & Restoration of Man in the Thought of Richard Baxter: a Study in Puritan Theology (Carlisle, UK: Paternoster Press, 2003).

[4] Donald G. Bloesch, The Holy Spirit: Works and Gifts (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 2000), 106-110. See also, Geoffrey F. Nuttall and Peter Lake. The Holy Spirit in Puritan Faith and Experience (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 15ff.

[5] George M. Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: a Life New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 152. See also, Noll, Rise of Evangelicalism, 53-60.

[6] Harry S. Stout, The New England Soul: Preaching and Religious Culture in Colonial New England (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 228. See also, Noll, Evangelicalism, 44.

[7] Gerald R. McDermott, Understanding Jonathan Edwards: an Introduction to America’s Theologian (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009); Robert W. Jenson, America’s Theologian: a Recommendation of Jonathan Edwards (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988).

[8] Samuel C. Storms, Signs of the Spirit: an Interpretation of Jonathan Edwards’ Religious Affections (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2007), 25.

[9] Jonathan Edwards, “A faithful narrative of the surprising work of God in the conversion of many Souls in Northampton, and neighbouring towns and villages of the County of Hampshire, in the Province of the Massachusetts-Bay in New England (1737),” in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 4: The Great Awakening, ed. C. C. Goen (New Haven, CT:  Yale University Press, 1972), p. 21.

[10] Jonathan Edwards, A History of the Work of Redemption (1755) (New Haven, CT:  Yale University Press, 1989), 138.

[11] Ibid, 13-14.

[12] Noll, Evangelicalism, 71-99.

[13] Harry S. Stout,The Divine Dramatist: George Whitefield and the Rise of Modern Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1991).

[14] Noll, Evangelicalism, 13. See also, Gary David Stratton, “Paparazzi in the Hands of an Angry God: Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, and the Birth of American Celebrity Culture,” The Other Journal (Fall, 2010), 23-35.

[15] Stout,Divine Dramatist, 90; Frank Lambert, Pedlar in Divinity: George Whitefield and the Transatlantic Revivals, 1737-1770 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994), 128; Arnold Dallimore, George Whitefield: The Life and Times of the Great Evangelist of the Eighteenth-century Revival (Westchester, IL: Cornerstone Books, 1979), 527; and Harry S. Stout, “Whitefield, George,” Dictionary of Christianity in America, ed. Daniel G. Reid (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1990), 1252.

[16] For further exploration into the realities versus myths of the Great Awakening see, Frank Lambert, Inventing the “Great Awakening” (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999); Harry S. Stout, “Religion, Communications, and the Ideological Origins of the American Revolution” The William and Mary Quarterly: A Magazine of Early American History 34 (1977), 519-541; and Michael J. Crawford, Seasons of grace: colonial New England’s revival tradition in its British context (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 13ff.

[17] Noll, The Rise of Evangelicalism, 18-19.

[18] Jonathan Edwards, A treatise concerning religious affections, in three parts (1746), in The Works of President Edwards, vol. 2, ed. John E. Smith and H. S. Stout(New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1959).

[19] Jonathan Edwards, “A divine and supernatural light (Matthew 16:17).” In Sermons and Discourses, 1730-1733, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, 17, ed. M. Valeri and H. S. Stout (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999), 405-426.

[20] Marsden, Edwards, 28-29.

[21] Jonathan Edwards, In Sermons and Discourses, 1743-1758, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, 25, ed. Wilson H. Kimnach (Jonathan Edwards Center, Yale University, 2008), 723.

[22] Leon. B. Richardson, History of Dartmouth College (Hanover, N.H.: Dartmouth College Publications, 1932), 239-40.

[23] Claude M. Fuess, Amherst, the Story of a New England College (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1935), 30.

[24] Joseph A. Conforti, Jonathan Edwards, Religious tradition & American Culture (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995), 69-89.

[25] David W. Kling, “The New Divinity and Williams College, 1793-1836(Religion and American Culture, 1996): 195-223.

[26] Frederick Rudolph and John R. Thelin, The American College and University: a History (Athens, GA: The University of Georgia Press, 1990).

[27] Ian H. Murray, Revival and Revivalism: the Making and Marring of American Evangelicalism, 1750-1858 (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1994), 132.

[28] Marsden, Jonathan Edwards, 499. George M. Marsden and Bradley J. Longfield (Eds.), The Secularization of the Academy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 8-9.

[29] Brooks Mather Kelley, Yale: a History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974).

[30] Revivals were noted in 1802, 1808, 1812-1813, 1815 by Chauncey Goodrich, “Narrative of revivals of religion at Yale College from its commencement to the present time.” Journal of the American Education Society X, 1838, p. 295-302. See also, Charles E. Cunningham, Timothy Dwight, 1752-1817: a Biography (New York: Macmillan, 1969), 300-334.

[31] John Wolffe, The Expansion of Evangelicalism: the Age of Wilberforce, More, Chalmers and Finney (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007).

[32] Noll, Evangelicalism, 200.

[33] George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth Century Evangelicalism, 1870-1925 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), 222. See also, Richard Carwardine, Transatlantic Revivalism: Popular Evangelicalism in Britain and America, 1790-1865 (Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 1978)

[34] William C. Ringenberg, The Christian College (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006), 85-96.

[35] Julie Reuben, The Making of the Modern University (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 74-77.

[36] Mark A. Noll, America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 9.

[37] Smith, Revivalism and Social Reform, 5. Author’s italics.

[38] Allen C. Guelzo, “An Heir or a Rebel? Charles Grandison Finney and the New England Theology,” Journal of the Early Republic, 17 (1997): 61-94. See also, Allen C. Guelzo, “Oberlin perfectionism and its Edwardsean Origins, 1835-1970,” In Jonathan Edwards’ writings: text, context, interpretation, ed. S. J. Stein (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996) and Allen C. Guelzo and Douglas A., Sweeney, The New England theology: from Jonathan Edwards to Edwards Amasa Park. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006).

[39] Horace Bushnell, Views of Christian Nurture, and of Subjects Adjacent Thereto (1847) (Delmar, N.Y.: Scholars’ Facsimiles & Reprints, 1975). See also, Conrad Cherry, Nature and religious imagination: from Edwards to Bushnell. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1980), Robert Bruce Mullin, The Puritan as Yankee: a Life of Horace Bushnell (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 2002).Harold William Burgess, Models of Religious Education: Theory and Practice in Historical and Contemporary Perspective. Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1996), 81-83. Ironically, Bushnell and Charles G. Finney, perhaps the most famous revivalist of the era were great friends and admirers of each other’s work. See, Charles E. Hambrick-Stowe, Charles G. Finney and the Spirit of American Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1996), 253, 274-275,298.

References Baxter, Richard. The Reformed Pastor. Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 2000. Bloesch, Donald G. The Holy Spirit: Works and Gifts. Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 2000. Burgess, Harold William. Models of Religious Education: Theory and Practice in Historical and Contemporary Perspective. Wheaton, Ill: Victor Books, 1996. Bushnell, Horace. Views of Christian Nurture, and of Subjects Adjacent Thereto (1847). Delmar, N.Y.: Scholars’ Facsimiles & Reprints, 1975. Carwardine, Richard. Transatlantic Revivalism: Popular Evangelicalism in Britain and America, 1790-1865. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 1978. Cherry, Conrad. Nature and Religious Imagination: from Edwards to Bushnell. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1980. Conforti, Joseph A. Jonathan Edwards, religious tradition & American culture. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1995. Crawford, Michael J. Seasons of grace: Colonial New England’s Revival Tradition in its British Context. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991. Cunningham, Charles E. Timothy Dwight, 1752-1817: a Biography. New York: Macmillan, 1969. Dallimore, Arnold. George Whitefield: The Life and Times of the Great Evangelist of the Eighteenth-century Revival. Westchester, IL: Cornerstone Books, 1979. Edwards, Jonathan, “The religious education of children is one of the principle means of grace that God has appointed in his church (Psalms 78:5–7),” in Sermons and Discourses, 1743-1758, ed. Wilson H. Kimnach. Jonathan Edwards Center, Yale University, 2008. ______________. “A divine and supernatural light (Matthew 16:17),” in Sermons and Discourses, 1730-1733: The Works of Jonathan Edwards, 17, ed. M. Valeri. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999, 405-426. ______________. A faithful narrative of the surprising work of God in the conversion of many Souls in Northampton, and neighbouring towns and villages of the County of Hampshire, in the Province of the Massachusetts-Bay in New England, in The works of Jonathan Edwards, 4, ed. C. C. Goen. New Haven, CT:  Yale University Press, 1972. ______________. A History of the Work of Redemption, in The works of Jonathan Edwards, 9, ed.J. Wilson. New Haven, CT:  Yale University Press, 1989. ______________. A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections, in Three Parts (1746), in The Works of President Edwards, 2, ed. John E. Smith. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1959. Fuess, ClaudeM. Amherst, the Story of a New England college. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1935. Goodrich, Chauncey. “Narrative of revivals of religion at Yale College from its commencement to the present time.” Journal of the American Education Society X (1838): 389-310. Guelzo, Allen C. “An Heir or a Rebel? Charles Grandison Finney and the New England Theology,” Journal of the Early Republic, 17 (1997): 61-94. ____________ “Oberlin perfectionism and its Edwardsean Origins, 1835-1970,” In Jonathan Edwards’ Writings: Text, Context, Interpretation, ed. S. J. Stein, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996. Hambrick-Stowe, Charles E. Charles G. Finney and the Spirit of American Evangelicalism. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1996. Jenson, Robert W. America’s Theologian: a Recommendation of Jonathan Edwards. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988. Kelley, Brooks M. Yale; a History. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974. Kidd, Thomas S. The Great Awakening: the Roots of Evangelical Christianity in Colonial America. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007. Kling, David W. “The New Divinity and Williams College, 1793-1836,” Religion and American Culture, 6 (1996): 195-223. Lambert, Frank. Pedlar in Divinity: George Whitefield and the Transatlantic Revivals, 1737-1770. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994. ______________. Inventing the “Great Awakening.” Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999. Lovelace, Richard F. Dynamics of Spiritual life: an Evangelical Theology of Renewal. Downers Grove, Ill: Inter-Varsity Press, 1979. Marsden, George M. and Bradley J. Longfield (Eds.), The Secularization of the Academy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. Marsden, George M. Fundamentalism and American culture: The Shaping of Twentieth Century Evangelicalism, 1870-1925. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980. ______________. Jonathan Edwards: a life. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003. McDermott, Gerald R. Understanding Jonathan Edwards: an Introduction to America’s Theologian. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. Miller, Perry, and Thomas Herbert Johnson. The Puritans. New York: Harper & Row, 1963. Morgan, Edmund S. The Gentle Puritan: a life of Ezra Stiles, 1727-1795. New York: Norton, 1984. Mullin, Robert Bruce. The Puritan as Yankee: a life of Horace Bushnell. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 2002. Murray, Ian H. Revival and Revivalism: the Making and Marring of American Evangelicalism, 1750-1858. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1994. ____________. America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. ____________. The Rise of Evangelicalism: the Age of Edwards, Whitefield, and the Wesleys. Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 2003. Nuttall, Geoffrey F. Richard Baxter. London: Nelson, 1966. Nuttall, Geoffrey F. and Peter Lake. The Holy Spirit in Puritan Faith and Experience. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992. Packer, J. I. The Redemption and Restoration of Man in the Thought of Richard Baxter: a Study in Puritan Theology. Carlisle, UK: Paternoster Press, 2003. Reuben, Julie A. The Making of the Modern University, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996. Richardson, Leon B. History of Dartmouth College. Hanover, N.H.: Dartmouth College Publications, 1932. Ringenberg, William C. The Christian College. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006. Rudolph, Frederick and John R. Thelin. The American College and University: a History. Athens GA: The University of Georgia press, 1990. Storms, Samuel C. Signs of the Spirit: an Interpretation of Jonathan Edwards’ Religious Affections. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2007. Stout, Harry S. “Religion, Communications, and the Ideological Origins of the American Revolution” The William and Mary Quarterly: A Magazine of Early American History 34 (1977): 519-541. ____________. The New England Soul: Preaching and Religious Culture in Colonial New England. New York: Oxford University Press. 1986. ____________. “Whitefield, George,” Dictionary of Christianity in America, ed. Daniel G. Reid. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1990. ____________. The Divine Dramatist: George Whitefield and the Rise of Modern Evangelicalism. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1991. Stratton, Gary D. “Paparazzi in the Hands of an Angry God: Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, and the Birth of American Celebrity Culture,” The Other Journal. (Fall, 2010). Sweeney, Douglas A. and Allen C. Guelzo. The New England Theology: from Jonathan Edwards to Edwards Amasa Park. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006. Wolffe, John. The Expansion of Evangelicalism: the Age of Wilberforce, More, Chalmers and Finney. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007.

Adapted from Gary’s article, “Revivalism and Higher Education,” in The Encyclopedia of Christian Education, Scarecrow Press, 2014.

Do America’s Colleges Need Revival?

Part 6 in series: The Holy Spirit and the Liberal Arts: The Future of ‘Two Handed’ Higher Education

In trying to reach his students, Jon ended up transforming his culture and the future of American higher education

by Gary David Stratton • Senior Editor

“(A) strong, visible, salient, or intentional faith is not operating in the foreground of most teenager’s lives. Their worldview is little more than moralistic, therapeutic, deism, or more specifically, ‘whatever.'”

– Christian Smith, and Melinda Lundquist Denton. Soul searching: the religious and spiritual lives of American teenagers.

Jon’s students broke his heart. As recently appointed pastor of his church and headmaster of their school, he strove to provide his students with the best biblical instruction and ‘spiritual formation’ programming available. Yet despite his every effort they were completely apathetic about their faith.

Sure, most attended church each Sunday, but it didn’t impact their daily lives one wit. Everything was one giant ‘whatever,’ as they wasted their vast potential in partying and public drunkenness. His youth group was literally the laughing stock of the town. Slowly Jon came to the sobering conclusion that ‘business as usual’ was failing his students. Something had to be done.

However, Jon was not your typical youth pastor. His three-fold strategy to win his students to Christ was not for the faint of heart. First, to make sure they clearly understood what it meant to follow Christ, he began preaching a Sunday evening hour-long sermon series on “Justification by Faith.” Second, to make sure his students understood the concepts, he and his wife invited them to evening discussions in their home. Third, because he didn’t trust in the power of his own persuasiveness and programming, Jon began to pray for each student by name, often spending hours each day asking God to ‘pour out’ his Spirit upon his teaching and ‘awaken’ the hearts of his listeners. After a year and a half of intense efforts… nothing changed.

Then suddenly it seemed to Jon as if “the Spirit of God began extraordinarily to set in and to wonder­fully work among us.” Several students began to follow Christ. One was a young woman who had been the ringleader of the party crowd. Word of her conversion went “like a flash of lightning” into the heart of virtually every youth in town. They came to Christ in a flood and would talk of nothing but Jesus and eternal things for hours on end. The change in the young people was so dramatic that soon the work of God spread to their parents and then to the entire town.

Within six months nearly a quarter of the town’s population professed faith in Christ. Jon later wrote:

“There was scarcely any in the town, old or young, left unconcerned about the great things of the eternal world… The work of conversion was carried on in a most astonishing manner… and the number of true saints multiplied… (until) the town seemed to be full of the presence of God.” [1]

As word of the ‘revival’ among Jon’s students spread, churches and schools across America began to seek a similar work in their own towns. Churches began to passionately preach the truth and create small groups where people could connect with one another and the word of God. But Jon’s model had convinced that that great teaching and educational programs were not enough to reach the next generation. They began to unite in prayer asking God to pour out his Spirit upon their efforts and awaken the hearts of those farthest from God.

Within seven years, the First “Great Awakening” had swept the eastern seaboard resulting in as much as 15% of the total population of America professing conversion to Christ. Jon’s approach to student ministry not only transformed the church, it also became the underlying educational philosophy for three generations of “revival colleges,” such as Dartmouth,  Brown, and Princeton, who lated appointed Jon their college president.

Of course by then Jonathan Edwards, had become a household name.

Do American Colleges Need Revival?

Do twenty-first century schools and churches need such ‘revival’? The question seems laughable to those who equate ‘revival’ with slick televangelists, emotional appeals and high-pressure altar calls resulting in little long-term fruitfulness, or periods of religious excitement when undergrads neglect their studies to immerse themselves in dualistic expressions of spirituality.

Yet to Jonathan Edwards and most early American cultural and educational leaders, ‘revival’ meant something altogether different. For them revival was a descriptive term for the aftermath of a season of ‘spiritual awakening’ caused by ‘an outpouring’ of God’s Spirit. The outpouring of the Spirit resulted in the same kind of knowledge of God’s Presence, sense of awe, conviction of sin, and sacrificially loving community that was evoked in the church at Pentecost (Acts 2:42-47). As J.I. Packer boldly articulates, “Revival is a repeat of the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost.[2]

To Edwards, a spiritual awakening was a season of an “extraordinary effusion of the Spirit of God” that resulted in “accelerating and intensifying” the normal ministries of the Holy Spirit.[3] Edwards described such seasons as times when:

“God seems to have gone out of his usual way, in the quickness of his work, and the swift progress his Spirit has made in his operations on the hearts of many. (M)uch was done in a day or two, as at ordinary times … is done in a year.”[4]

Like most early American schools, Princeton was established as a “revival college” and later named Edwards their president. (Photo: Nassua Hall, princeton.edu)

To Edwards, spiritual awakening was key to the mission of the church and academy.These seasons of the “outpouring” of the Spirit resulted an intensified conviction of sin, sanctification of character, illumination of intellect, and impact upon culture so that Christians became more earnest in their pursuit of God, more Christ-like in their love and service, and more committed to their vocation in the world.

Edwards’ experience in the Great Awakening coupled with a lifetime of scholarship on the subject led him to the conclusion that: “(F)rom the fall of man to this day wherein we live the work of redemption in its effect has mainly been carried on by remarkable pourings out of the Spirit of God.”[5]

Could he be right?What might such a movement look like in American churches, youth groups, colleges, and cities?

A Third Great Awakening?

While much has been lost in American excesses over the past century, Edwards’ older idea of revival being the result of a spiritual awakening is central to historic evangelical higher education. The quest for society-wide spiritual awakening drove much of the educational vision of nineteenth-century Evangelical leaders in their attempts to develop America’s first genuinely Christian colleges. As George M. Marsden, noted historian of higher education and Edwards’ leading biographer explains:

“Much of the antebellum collegiate education was shaped by New Englanders with an Edwardsean heritage, (who) controlled most of the nations leading colleges, including the state ‘universities.”[6]

The best of these colleges formed the intellectual backbone of a transatlantic revivalism” that became “the dominant theme in America from 1800 to 1860” and a “central mode of our search for national identity.” In these colleges, literature, art and the sciences moved into the academic curriculum for the first time, the anti-slavery movement found a welcomed sanctuary, the largest foreign missionary movement in history found its origin, a vision for universal public education found a champion, and a resilient ethic of moral citizenship found a remarkable incubator. [7]

The spiritual-intellectual synthesis of ‘revival colleges’ dominated American thinking from 1790 to 1865 and led to the remarkable “Christianization” of society. Could it happen again?

Noll notes that the leaders of these colleges were key to a “surprising intellectual synthesis” of evangelicalism and common-sense moral reasoning that dominated American thinking from 1790 to 1865 and which led to the remarkable “Christianization” of American society.[8] As legendary historian Timothy Smith asserts, these educators first and foremost “were revivalists” and we ignore their effectiveness to our peril (author’s italics). [9] Their effectiveness as educators came, not in spite of their commitment to the work of the Holy Spirit in higher education, but rather because of it.

 

Edwards and the Humility to Learn from History 

All this is to say that Jonathan Edwards certainly appears to be a promising starting point for educators and ministers seeking to reach a new generation marked by spiritual apathy and what researchers Christian Smith, and Melinda Lundquist Denton have labeled “moralistic, therapeutic deism.”  Accordingly, this series will exploring Jonathan Edwards’ theology of spiritual formation and awakening in 19th century American higher education in order to connect it to our 21st century educational philosophy and practices.

However, before we can learn anything from Edwards, we first need to humble ourselves as he did on that fateful day in 1734, when he finally admitted that “business as usual” was failing his students. Then and only then can we look into the genius of this man who’s “revival thinking” shaped virtually all American higher education for over 150 years. As Marsden expressed so eloquently in his biography of Edwards:

“We will never learn anything from the sages of the past unless we get over our naïve assumption that the most recently popular modes of thought are best… We need to use history for the guidance it offers, learning from the great figures in the past—both their brilliance and shortcomings. Otherwise we are stuck only with the wisdom of the present.”[10]

In future posts I will explore key moments in the history of the Holy Spirit and the Liberal Arts in relation to Smith and Denton’s generational research and then tackle Edwards’ unique approach to genuinely Christian higher education that proved so influential in early American colleges.

Next: Revival and Moral Philosophy: A Puritan Vision for American Higher Education

.

Other posts in the series:

NOTES

[1] Jonathan Edwards (1737), A Faithful narrative of the surprising work of God in the conversion of many Souls in Northampton, and neighbouring towns and villages of the County of Hampshire, in the Province of the Massachusetts-Bay in New England. C. C. Goen (Ed.). In H. S. Stout, (General Ed.), The works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 4: The Great Awakening. (New Haven, CT:  Yale University Press, 1972). (Originally written as an unpublished letter, dated May 30, 1735, to Boston clergyman, Benjamin Colman, who had requested an account of the Connecticut River Valley revival of 1734-5. It was first published in London in 1737. Normally referred to as Faithful Narrative.)

[2] Keep in step with the Spirit. (Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell, 1984), p. 256. See also, Martin Lloyd-Jones, Joy unspeakable: the baptism of the Holy Spirit. (Eastborne, UK: Kingsway, 1985), p. 280. For a similar assessment of Pentecost being the “prototypical revival” see also other Reformed theologians such as, Kuyper (1900), Packer (1984), and Lloyd-Jones (1985). This viewpoint is also held by most Wesleyan (e.g. Stokes, 1975; Dayton, 1987), and Pentecostal/Charismatic thinkers (e.g. Williams, 1999; Keener, 1999). See also, Sinclair B. Ferguson, The Holy Spirit: contours of Christian theology. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1996), p. 84.

[3] Edwards, J. (1733ms/2005). Persons ought to do what they can for their salvation (Ecclesiastes 9:10). In H. S. Stout, K. P. Minkema, C. J. D. Maskell (Eds.), Works of Jonathan Edwards Online. Retrieved March 30, 2008, from http://edwards.yale.edu/ref/6168/e/p/8 (Originally preached December 9, 1733.  Privately published in Boston 1734.) See, Samuel Storms, Signs of the spirit: an interpretation of Jonathan Edwards’ Religious affections. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2007), p. 25.

[4] Edwards, Faithful narrative, p. 21.

[5] Jonathan Edwards (1774), A History of the work of redemption. Wilson (Ed.). In H. S. Stout, (General Ed.), The works of Jonathan Edwards, 9. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989), p. 138. (Originally a series of sermons preached in 1739 that were later expanded and published posthumously in 1774.),

[6] Edwards, A Life, p. 8-9.

[7] R. Carwardine, 1978; P. Miller, 1965, p. 3,6; Marsden, 1980, p. 222.  See also, J. R. Fitzmier, 1998; Smith, 195; Ringenberg, 1987, 2006, 2007; and Reuben, 1996.

[8] America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 9.

[9] Revivalism and Social Reform in Mid-Nineteenth Century America. New York:  Abingdon Press.

[10] Edwards, A Life, p. 8-9, 499, 502-3

 

Saint Patrick and the Missional Future of Christian Higher Education

Part 5 in series: The Holy Spirit and the Liberal Arts: The Future of ‘Two Handed’ Higher Education

The patron saint of Ireland is rarely credited with what was perhaps his greatest achievement.

by Gary David Stratton, PhD • Senior Editor

“I am driven by the zeal of God, Christ’s truth has roused me. I speak out too for love of my neighbors who are my only sons; for them I gave up my home country, my parents and even pushing my own life to the brink of death. If I have any worth, it is to live my life for God so as to teach these peoples; even though some of them still look down on me.”

–Saint Patrick

Saint Patrick is credited with numerous extraordinary feats, both legendary and mythical. In fact, the myth and the man are so intertwined, it is often difficult to tell fact from fiction. Can you name which of the following common beliefs about the patron saint of Ireland are true and which are myths?

1) Patrick converted pagan Ireland to Christianity. Mostly true: When Patrick arrived in Ireland in c. 433 there were few if any known churches. When he died c. 461 his followers (and other missionaries) had established as many as 700 churches in more than 30 of Ireland’s 150 tribes.

2) Patrick drove away every snake in Ireland. Myth: There were never many snakes in Ireland. However, God did use Patrick to perform many other miracles in order to demonstrate the power of the Gospel over and against the dark powers of the druids.

3) Patrick and his followers saved the great texts of Greco-Roman civilization from distruction. True: As popularized by Thomas Cahill’s best-selling How the Irish Saved Civilization, most of the texts of classical antiquity were preserved in Celtic missionary communities during continental Europe’s darkest ages.

4) Patrick made the Shamrock a grand symbol of Ireland. True: He used the three-leafed plant to teach the doctrine of the Trinity.

5) Patrick invented green beer. Myth: But Patrick probably would have liked it. Beer and mead were the favorite drinks of the Celts and many monasteries became known for their excellent breweries. (I’m not sure what he would have made of green milkshakes.)

Patrick’s Greatest Achievement: Missionally Focused Liberal Arts

Ironically, while these achievements, both real and imagined, have made Patrick one of the most popular saints of the modern world, he is rarely credited with what was arguably his greatest achievement: the reshaping of monasticism into a missionally-focused liberal arts education movement.

Let me explain.

The liberal arts and the Christian faith were not immediately on the best speaking terms. While the classically trained apostle Paul treated philosophers in Athens as fellow truth-seekers (Acts 17), Greco-Roman philosophy and philosophers were as likely to be viewed as enemies of the gospel as anything else (1 Cor. 1:20; Col. 2:8). Many early Christian apologists used their liberal arts education to refute much of the Greek philosophy of their persecutors, the end result was often an entrenched anti-intellectualism in the church. Jean LeClercq notes that the general pattern for much of the era was that of “studies undertaken, and then, not precisely scorned, but renounced and transcended for the kingdom of God.”[3]

Following Constantine’s reforms (313 CE) churches began to formalize the catechumenal schools (children and teens) they had founded under persecution and established catechetical schools (college age) often attached to Roman rhetorical schools. Perhaps the most notable of which was the catechetical school and religious community was established by Augustine of Hippo (354-430) in the early years of the fifth-century. Trained in the finest higher education of his day—he held one of the most prestigious academic positions in the Latin world as a professor of rhetoric for the imperial court at Milan—Augustine’s philosophy of education formed the foundation not only for post-Rome Christendom, but in Christian Education and Instruction of the Uninstructed for the rise of catechetical schools and monasteries throughout the region.[4] Most importantly, Augustine found at least a “measure of compatibility” between Christian and classical thought in training priests and teachers. He devoted several sections of Christian Education to the liberal arts and even began (but never finished) a complete treatise devoted to the liberal arts.[5]

Saint Patrick’s Missional Educational Revolution

As the church grew in influence among the educated classes the commonalities of Greco-Roman liberal arts education, and Jesus’ more Rabbinic higher education model eventually led to the church subsuming the liberal arts academy into its larger project. Their common goals of truth-seeking and leadership training coupled with their nearly identical discipleship-based pedagogy helped calm the once stormy relationship. However, it was only after the fall of the Rome that Greco-Roman culture and its techniques of instruction were “woven into the texture of Christian Education in the middle ages.”[6] And the leader who helped initiate this revolution is none other than Saint Patrick.

Patrick’s mission to Ireland helped reshape monasticism into missionally-focused liberal arts education movement. Patrick arrived in Ireland not as a solo missionary, but as the head of a liberal arts embracing religious community comprised of masters and disciples.  Their methodology was the highly relational educational approach they had inherited from the monastic movement, now turned to a missional purpose.

Patrick’s relational approach to the life of the mind was crucial to his missional success. After making contact with the heads of various Celtic tribes, he sought permission to establish a community on the outskirts of the village. A grammar school where Celts were taught to read was one of the first projects in each village, instilling a love of learning where Christianity and the liberal arts were each held in high honor. The native Celts were then invited to take part in discussions, classes, artistic, and agricultural projects. Invariably this relational intellectualism slowly won the village to faith and a local Celtic church was established.[7]

Culture-making–contextualization, education, social justice, and the arts–were all key elements of Patrick’s mission. Patrick was very familiar with Celtic customs, and language due to his time spent as a slave in Ireland in his youth. He sought to redeem Celtic art and worship rather than eradicate them. He created what we now know as the “Celtic Cross” by superimposing the sun—once an object of worship—onto the traditional Roman cross, and recalibrated the use of bonfires in pagan worship by using them to celebrate Easter. Not surprisingly, Patrick was one of the first vocal opponents of slavery in church history. The Irish slave trade was virtually abolished in Ireland wherever Patrick established a church. Devastating social practices such as revenge murder and inter-tribal warfare were also greatly reduced.

Like all monasticism, the life of the mind was eclipsed only by devotion to the life of the Spirit. Prayer played a particularly critical role in Celtic learning communities. The strength of Patrick’s prayer life was legendary and his followers became known for their commitment to praying all 150 Psalms everyday. The strong Trinitarian elements of Saint Patrick’s Shield/Breastplate Prayer attest to the rich theological life of the mind that undergirded the prayer life of the movement.[8] Students learned to pray because prayer was “theology on fire” where they could experience the love of God, and learn to see God’s love set loose in the world. (See, With Prayer in the School of Christ.) Like Patrick, the graduates of his liberal arts learning community were fearless in asking the Spirit of God to intervene in the world in supernatural ways. And God answered those prayers with miracles, signs, and wonders far beyond anything the Druids could muster.

This Celtic synthesis Spirit, Mind, and Art in a communal approach to missions was nearly irresistible in its power.He was a true two-handed warrior,” who established a vast and vital community of Christ followers in a genuinely pagan nation in less than a single lifetime. His schools were so effective at training leaders that he was able to ordain over 1,000 Celtic priests. The Celtic spiritual awakening continued after Patrick’s death as Spirit-empowered missional learning communities under Colomba (521-597) and Augustine of Canterbury (597-604) converted most of Scotland and the English peoples. (Augustine was even warned by the Pope not to get too big a head due to all the miracles God had performed through him.)

In the process of winning the British Isles to faith, Patrick and his spiritual descendants succeeded in saving the liberal arts tradition as well. LeClercq chronicles howduring the long period when invasions were devastating Europe, Latin culture was preserved primarily in England.”  While invaders plundered and destroyed many classical texts, Celtic Christians gathered and preserved as many extant manuscripts from antiquity as they could.  And it was from England that missionaries carried Latin culture, books and learning back to a large part of the Continent.[9] God used Patrick to save the Irish and the Irish saved Western civilization.

Is it possible that Patrick’s missional approach to Christian liberal arts education might help save the future of American civilization as well?

How Patrick’s Missional Liberal Arts Education Might Save Civilization …Again!

Anyone following the work of the National Study of Youth and Religion (NSYR) knows that we need saving.While over three quarters of America’s youth identify their religious faith as “Christian,” virtually none of them actually follow Christ in any meaningful way. Last night I fell asleep reading Kenda Creasy Dean’s analysis of the NSYR data entitled Almost Christian: What the faith of our Teenagers is Telling the American Church[10]. I woke this morning with a single thought going through my head, “We’re in trouble.”

Indeed, if Dean is only half right, then the Christian faith in American is in serious trouble. Building upon the previous NSYR publications of Christian Smith, Melissa Lundquist DentonPatricia Snell and others, Dean warns that:

“American young people are unwittingly being formed into an imposter faith that poses as Christianity, but that in fact lacks the holy desire and missional clarity necessary for Christian discipleship…”[11]

What was so interesting to me in light of Patrick’s life is Dean’s assessment that it is precisely this lack of “missional clarity” that is so devastating the next generation of American believers. The Moralistic Therapeutic Deism[12] that defines the faith of America’s youth is “the unholy residue of a church that has lost its missional imagination.”[13] One of her proposed solutions for rescuing genuine Christianity from its imposter faith is to recapture that imagination.

Patrick and the Christian liberal arts community he founded were defined by their missional imagination.To Patrick, both the church and school existed to “live my life for God so as to teach these peoples.” He was driven by the zeal of Christ and the love of neighbor to direct his life—his relationships, his study, his teaching, and his prayers—in such a way as to make a difference in the world. Are we?

I would argue that for the Christian liberal arts College of the 21st Century to be of any use to God and to the world we must recapture our missional imagination as well. I do not mean by this “mission trips” (although such trips have their place), I mean “thinking missionally” about our mission as Christian colleges. Building upon the missiological thinking of Leslie Newbigin, Andrew F. Walls, Lamin Sanneh and contemporary “missional church” advocates such as Alan Hirsch, Dean asserts: “The point of God’s incarnation was mission, the sending of God-as-love into creation… created the template for church’s missional way of life.”[14] Genuinely Christian communities exist not for themselves, but for the world. Embracing God’s mission to the world is the “litmus test” for determining whether a Christian is really a Christian and a community is really Christian. [15]

If colleges are genuine Christian learning communities then aren’t we subject to this missional litmus test as well? Patrick certainly thought so.

Thinking MissionallyAbout Higher Education 

How might we do this? At the danger of losing the principle in the midst of flawed practices, let me suggest four ways that missional thinking might help transform our colleges into better world-changing institutions and more deeply transform our students in the process.

1) Think now! Nearly all Christian colleges express their “mission statement” in future-oriented language concerning what our graduates will eventually do someday. How odd this language would have sounded to Patrick.

Patrick’s relational intellectualism and liberal arts based apprenticeship-oriented pedagogy moved the “mission” of his educational community from the future to the present. Making a difference in the world was something faculty and students did together as part and parcel of their shared educational experience. Without detracting from the preparatory nature of higher education nor giving way to knee-jerk activism that too often serves largely out of a sense of guilt or self-congratulation, one way to reenergize our schools and our over-entertained and profoundly bored students would be for faculty to invite students into missional communities seeking to use their expertise to make a difference in the world now.

I like the way Gabe Lyons describes the hunger for the next generation of Christians to live out their calling beyond the walls of the church:

Brokenness exists within each channel of culture… We are called to find things that are broken and affect them in some positive way… Put simply, the next Christians recognize their responsibility not only to build up the church but also to build up society to the glory of God. From genetic scientists to artists, businesspeople to educators, these Christians are letting their gifts flood the world from the place they feel called to work. They have a keen eye to sense what is missing, broken, or corrupted and are courageous enough to respond.[16]

In other words, they need psychologists to help psychology students, philosophers to help philosophy students, economists to help economy students use their calling to missionally better the world now.

2) Think relationally! One of Kendra Dean’s primary findings is the profound lack of adults willing to dig in and do the messy work of helping students “translate” their faith from professed story to experienced story. Adults who will engage students in “catechetical conversations” that evoke what Walter Brueggeman calls a language of ‘transformative imagination.’[17] Students rarely get to transformation alone. “(T)heir faith is the legacy of communities that have invested time, energy, and love in them.”[18] If not us, who? If not now, when?

3) Think strategically! Business as usual will not cut it. If faculty, staff and executives are to lead students in the process of missional education then something has to change. For instance, schools might consider augmenting their stand-alone missions trips and/or service projects[19] by creating positions that serve faculty in the development of service-learning components in their courses and/or designing missional opportunities based upon faculty passions and talents. Faculty senates could redefine faculty tenure and promotion policies in such a way that peer-reviewed scholarly writing is coupled with student-shared scholarly engagement in culture. College executives could release strategic resources (i.e. funding) for visionary programming, conversations, and staffing.

4) Think big! Dean concludes her book with a note of hope. Students want to be part of something bigger than they are, something that really makes a difference in the world.  The real problem “may simply be that Christianity—or what passes for Christianity…—does not merit a primary commitment.”[20] A vision for preserving comfortable Christian subculture simply isn’t big enough to capture the imagination of a sensation-craving, but meaning-starved generation.  They want to change the world. A culture of video-games and CGI action movies has trained them to think in only two categories: “Go big or go home.” Will 21st Century Christian higher education rise to the challenge?

Patrick was over 45 years old, well past the life expectancy of his day, when he launched his mission to Ireland. His vision was enormous, maybe even foolhardy. It was also transformative. Patrick redirected the liberal arts learning communities of his day from their purely interior focused purpose to one that was truly missional.  In doing so he actually strengthened their spiritual vitality, and their intellectual firepower rather than diminishing it.

He also changed the world. If we followed Patrick’s example of missional liberal arts, perhaps we could change our world as well.

So, today whether you’re drinking a green beer, throwing back a Shamrock shake, or just wearing something green, thank God for Saint Patrick—one of the coolest Saints in history, and just maybe the future of missional Christian higher education.

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Next: Do America’s Colleges (and Churches) Need ‘Revival’? The Liberal Arts and the Great Awakening  

See Also:

Shield’s Up! Saint Patrick’s Amazing Prayer of Spiritual Warfare

The Holy Spirit and the Liberal Arts: The Future of ‘Two Handed’ Higher Education

The Greco-Roman Liberal Arts: Education with Friendship and Heart

Rabbinic Higher Education: The Life of the Mind and the Word of God 

With Prayer in the School of Christ: The Liberal Arts and the Knowledge of God


[1] A Letter to the Soldiers at Coroticus, in The Confession of Saint Patrick, John Skinner, Translator (New York: Doubleday, 1998), p. 2-3.

[2] Perhaps only St. Nicholas and St. Valentine rank higher on the hipness chart.

[3] The love of learning and the desire for God: A study of monastic culture, 3rd Edition (New York: Fordham University Press, 2007), p. 12.

[4] J. Van Engen, Christianity and the University: The Medieval and Reformation Legacies. In J. Carpenter (Ed.), Making Higher Education Christian (Grand Rapids, MI: Christian University Press, 1987), p. 20.

[5] Cited in Alan Cobban, The medieval universities: their development and organization (London: Methuen & Co, 1975), p. 10.

[6] Ibid., p. 3.

[7] While somewhat simplistic and overstated, George Hunter’s The Celtic Way of Evangelism is a highly inspirational account of Patrick’s methodology.

[8] Or at least the prayer tradition he established. It difficult to know for certain if Patrick actually wrote the prayer personally or if it grew out of the Celtic prayer community.

[9] The love of learning, p. 38.

[10] Oxford Press, 2010.

[11] Italics mine, p. 6.

[12] Smith and Denton’s summary description of the faith of most American youth in the NYRS research. (See, “An Interview an Interview with Kenda Creasy Dean,” coming 3/23/2011.)

[13] Italics mine, p. 104.

[14] Ibid., p. 91

[15] Ibid, p. 90.  Dean notes that the missional “litmus test” argument was first proposed by Karl Barth in Church Dogmatics IV.3b (Edinborough: T&T Clark, 1962), 875.

[16] The next Christians: The good news about the end of Christian America (New York: Doubleday Religion, 2010), p. 120.

[17] Cited in Dean, p. 126.

[18] Almost Christian, p. 194.

[19] Often largely divorced from students’ academic experience and virtually identical to programs offered by high school youth groups.

[20] Almost Christian, p. 193.

 

With Prayer in the School of Christ: Higher Education and the Knowledge of God

Part 4 in series: The Holy Spirit and the Liberal Arts: The Future of ‘Two Handed’ Higher Education

Through the supernatural intimacy of Abba prayer and the supernatural power of Kingdom prayer the distinctive outcome of the graduates of the school of Christ was their experiential knowledge of God.

by Gary David Stratton, Ph.D. • Senior Editor

“The disciples had been with Christ, and seen Him pray.  They had learnt to understand something of the connection between His wondrous life in public, and His secret life of prayer…  And so they came to Him with the request, ‘Lord, teach us to pray.”

-Andrew Murray, With Christ in the School of Prayer, 1895 [1]

Jesus invested over half of his last lecture praying with his disciples and teaching on prayer (‘The Gospel of John,’ 2003)

While Jesus of Nazareth never established a brick and mortar school in the modern sense of the word, the discipleship movement he founded was a collegial learning community indistinguishable from other forms of first-century higher education.[2]  Like Greco-Roman Liberal Arts Education, Jesus sought to lead his disciples into liberating truth. He told his students, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free” (John 8:32).  Like Jewish Rabbinic educationRabbi Yeshua’s “curriculum” centered on the discipline of studying his teachings and interpretations of Torah. John, one of his closest friends, records that he taught his students, “If you hold to my teaching, then you are truly my disciples” (John 8:31).

Like both the liberal arts and rabbinic tradition, Jesus reserved his most intimate apprenticeship for leaders in training. Mark tells us that, “He appointed twelve—designating them apostles–that they might be with him, and that he might send them out to preach” (3:14). His pedagogy was highly relational and centered on the creation of a learning community where master and disciples lived in close proximity to one another and forged a friendship. (John 15:13-15).

The Distinctive Practice of Prayer 

What distinguished the School of Christ from other first-century higher education was Jesus’ unique emphasis on the discipline of prayer. Luke records no less that nine specific occasions when Jesus prayed with and/or modeled prayer for his students (3:21; 5:16; 6:12; 9:18,28; 10:17-21; 11:1; 22:39-46; 23:34,36). At least twenty-percent of Jesus’ parables and a significant portion of the “Sermon on the Mount” (Matt 6:5-15) centered on prayer. Jesus devoted nearly half of his “last lecture” (John 13-17) to teaching his students about prayer (John 14:13-14; 15:7,16; 16:23-26) and praying together with his students (John 17:1-26). While prayer was part of all Jewish education, this overarching commitment to prayer goes far beyond any Rabbi of his day.[3]

For Jesus prayer and education were inseparable, because education and the knowledge of God are inseparable. Jesus taught his students that true spiritual life is found in knowing God (John 17:3). This emphasis was consistent with the Hebraic concept that to know is to experience. Whereas the object of the Greek education was to ‘know thyself’–the desired outcome of Hebrew education was the knowledge of God.[4] Jesus’ learning outcomes demanded that his students encounter God not merely intellectually, but experientially as well. This experiential knowledge of God was to be sought not only through the discipline of study (as important as this might be), but in prayer as well. Through prayer, Jesus’ students experienced God both as Father and as King.

Education and Contemplative Prayer: Abba Intimacy

Jesus modeled a lifestyle of intimate prayer right up to the end (The Garden of Gethsemane, 'The Passion of the Christ,' 2005)
Jesus modeled a life of intimate prayer right up to the end. (‘The Passion of the Christ,’ 2005)

The Lord’s Prayer grew directly out of Jesus’ practice of regularly praying together as a learning community, and illustrates at least two elements of Jesus’ “experiential” approach to knowing God. After years of teaching and modeling prayer, Jesus’ students finally ask their Rabbi, “Lord, teach us to pray.” Jesus’ responds with a teaching we have come to know as “The Lord’s Prayer.” Like Jesus’ other educational practices, the Lord’s Prayer builds upon the the Rabbinic prayer tradition in order to recast it in bold new directions. The core components of the Lord’s Prayer would be very familiar to Jesus’ students. On one level, “The prayer is thoroughly Jewish”[6] and “could easily have appeared without change in Rabbinic literature.”[7] However, another level, the Lord’s Prayer highlights at least two unique aspects of prayer in the school of Christ.[8]

First, in teaching his disciples to address God as Abba, Jesus’ rooted the practice of prayer in his desire for his students to know the extravagant love of God the Father. While the fatherhood of God is absent from the Torah, it is clearly evident in the Psalms and Prophets, and later Rabbinic writings.[9] Jesus drew upon this Rabbinic tradition, deepening it in a manner that would have been nearly unthinkable for most Rabbis of his day. This emphasis runs throughout his teachings, and is particularly evident in his approach to prayer.[10]

In this brief prayer, Jesus initiates his students into an intimate address of God as Father that must have been as breathtaking as it was formative. Renowned Near Eastern Studies scholar Joachim Jeremias discovered that “In the literature of Palestinian Judaism no evidence has yet been found of ‘My father,’ being used by an individual as an address to God… We do not have a single example of God being addressed as Abba in Judaism, but Jesus always addressed God in this way in his prayers.”[11]

It is an astonishing choice of words. Abba implies a close, personal and familial relationship. To “address God in such a colloquial way, with such intimacy, is hardly known in the Judaism of Jesus’ time… What others thought too intimate in praying to God, Jesus used because of its intimacy.”[12] What’s more, he taught his disciples to do the same. As New Testament scholar Joel Green asserts, Jesus’ teaching on prayer “begins and ends with references to God as the Father of his disciples.”[13]

Prayer was a critical educational practice, because in prayer students encountered genuine knowledge of God the Father. After the giving of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, this experiential intimacy with the Father became even more pronounced for Jesus’ students (Romans 8:15; Galations 4:6). As Singaporean theologian Simon Chan affirms, “Intimacy with God is what characterizes a life of prayer.”[24]

Education and Answered Prayer: Kingdom Inbreaking 

Jesus prays in public for the demonstration of kingdom power he has already obtained in private prayer (The Raising of Lazarus, ‘The Gospel of John,’ 2003)

Second, Jesus’ educational emphasis on prayer was intricately connected to his students experiencing the kingdom of God breaking into the world. Jesus’ central public teaching was his pronouncement that the much anticipated kingdom of God—“God’s reign redemptively at work among men”—was at hand, [17] so it is not surprising that the first three petitions of the Lord’s Prayer carry tremendous eschatological weight.

To ask that the Father’s name be hallowed, that his kingdom come, and that his will be done on earth as it is heaven are three different ways of asking the same thing.[14] “The God whom the disciples are taught to address with the name ‘my own dear Father’ (abba) is besought to reveal himself as Father once and for all at the end of time. The eschatological thrust of the petition is clear.”[15] “By addressing God as Father, and instructing his disciples to do likewise, Jesus renews and reframes the prophetic vision” for his students.[16] They were to repent and trust the Father who had created and sustained Israel as his kingdom was breaking into the this present evil age, in such a way that God’s name would be hallowed, and his will done on the earth as it is in heaven

Jesus taught his students how to enter into the coming of the kingdom, not only through faith, repentance, and prayer for “private” experiential knowledge of God, but also to pray for the “public” manifestation of the compassion and power of the Father God of the kingdom. Jesus’ Spirit-empowered ministry was a sign that the Messianic kingdom of God was breaking in upon the world (cf. Matthew 12:28).[19] He rarely proclaimed the gospel of the kingdom without also demonstrating the kingdom rule of God through miraculous answers to prayer (cf. Matthew 9:35-10:1).[18] Jesus believed that in fulfillment to the prophet Isaiah’ prophecies, the Spirit of the Lord was upon him not only to preach the gospel to the poor, but also “to proclaim release for the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind” (Is 61:1-2; Luke 4:18-19). Through the Spirit who was “upon” Jesus, God was exerting his “authority to rule” in order to bring about the will of God upon the earth that the Father intended in the heavens.[20]

Through answered prayer Jesus’ students experienced God as alive and active in the physical world. He modeled, mentored and coached his students into an increasing participation in supernatural answers to prayer. Jesus used answered prayer both to build the faith of his students (Luke 7:11; John 14:11); and to test their level of faith (Matthew 14:16).  He pressed his students to grow into a confidence that no prayer was too big for God (John 14:13-14; 15:7,16; 16:23-26).  He taught them that certain kinds of spiritual resistance could be overcome only through prayer (Mark 9:29). He assured them that miraculous answers to prayer they experienced in his earthly ministry would continue in the new era of the Spirit (John 14:12).

After their remarkable “graduation” ceremony from the School of Christ at Pentecost, Jesus’ students continued to advance the kingdom of God by praying for power of the Spirit to be released in supernatural answers to prayer (Acts 4:30-31); and built others’ faith in the kingdom of God by answers to prayer that demonstrated that the kingdom (rulership) of God was indeed breaking into the world. (Romans 15:9; 1 Corinthians 2:4).

Through both the intimacy of “Abba Prayer” and the supernatural power of “Kingdom prayer” the distinctive outcome of the graduates of the school of Christ was their experiential knowledge of God. Even in the midst of tremendous pressures of leadership, nothing could distract Jesus’ alumni from devoting themselves to the two key disciplines he had carefully cultivated within them: a very Rabbinic commitment to the ministry of the word, and a profoundly experiential life of prayer (Acts 6:4).  [21] His graduates not only knew about God and his word, they had experienced the Father God of the kingdom.

 The Oxymoron of a Prayerless Christian College

“My house shall be called a house of prayer!” (The cleansing of the temple, ‘The Gospel of John,’ 2003)

What would Jesus make of the experiential prayer practices of twenty-first century colleges and universities, especially those espousing to be “Christian”? I can’t say for sure, but it is difficult to escape the persistent image of a certain carpenter’s willingness to use a whip of cords to overturn (tuition) tables. Is it really that far fetched to imagine Jesus charging contemporary Christian higher education with the indictment, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you are making it a robbers’ den.”

If we’re honest, the thought of re-integrating prayer into our learning communities sounds almost as impossible as it does absurd. There are countless historical factors (the East-West Schism, the Enlightenment, the German university model, etc.) and practical considerations (accreditation, curriculum, measurement, etc.) for how and why prayer is not currently part and parcel with higher education in the tradition of Jesus.  But are they good enough reasons not to try? Like us, Jesus could have settled for contemporary educational models relying solely upon the study of the Scriptures and Liberal Arts. He didn’t. Will we? If we are truly seeking to develop two-handed warriors distinguished by a commitment to both the life of the mind and the life of the Spirit, the issue could be life or death.

The Desperate Need for a More Experiential Faith

It has been forty years since J.I. Packer warned the church, “One can know a great deal about God without much knowledge of him.” [22] Today, we may be danger of producing students who possess neither. If Christian Smith and Kenda Creasy Dean’s sobering research on the sorry spiritual state of today’s youth is to be believed, we are facing a generation of students who know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God. (Matthew 22:9) and are therefore bored out of their minds. And who can blame them.

We have managed to take a spiritually intimate and supernaturally powerful approach to education and made it about as compelling as a “whatever.”  [23] Contemporary Christianity offers little of the “personal relationship with Jesus” students were promised in their youth groups and virtually no power whatsoever.  In a generation hungering for intimacy (especially parental intimacy) at an unprecedented level, can Christian higher education offer students pathways to encounter the Father’s transforming love? In a generation flocking to supernatural movies, television shows, and video games, can Christian higher education help students experience the kingdom of God breaking into the world in ways that defy all natural explanation?

Jesus would say that we can, but only if we summon the courage to cultivate educational communities of prayer. A recommitment to biblical literacy alone will never be enough to rescue a generation from “moralistic, therapeutic, deism.” [23] They need the experiential knowledge of God. We need to be able to offer students the power of answered prayer to break through the insipid deism of a materialistic worldview. We need to be able to offer students the intimacy of reflective prayer to encounter the love of the Father and evoke genuine love of God in return.  Half measures won’t cut it.

What on earth does prayer have to do with higher education? Nothing?  Everything?  You decide. As for me, I can only cry out, “Lord, teach us to pray!”

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Next post in the series: Saint Patrick and the Liberal Arts: The Missional Future of Christian Higher Education

 

See also: 

The Lord’s Prayer as a Paradigm of Christian Prayer, by N.T. Wright


Notes


[1] Murray, Andrew. 2007. With Christ in the School of Prayer. (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 2007).  Originally published in 1895, Murray’s work is a classic text for those seeking to grasp Jesus’ educational emphasis upon prayer.

[2] I am deeply indebted to Michael J. Wilkins for much of my understanding of the similarity between discipleship in the schools of Jesus, the Rabbis, and the Greeks.  The concept of disciple in Matthew’s Gospel as reflected in the use of the term mathetes. (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 1988); Following the master: a biblical theology of discipleship. (Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 1992); Discipleship in the Ancient World and Matthew’s Gospel(Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker, 1995).

[3] George W. E. Nickelsburg, Ancient Judaism and Christian origins: diversity, continuity and transformation. (Minneapolis, Minn: Fortress, 2003).

[4] Marvin R. Wilson, Our father Abraham: Jewish roots of the Christian faith. (Grand Rapids, Mich: W.B. Eerdmans, 1989), p. 288.

[5] The Lord’s Prayer is most likely a shortened version of the Shemoneh Esreh, eighteen benedictions every post-exilic Jew prayed nearly every day (also known as the Amidah.) Shortened forms like the one Jesus offers his disciples were normally used when there wasn’t time to recite all eighteen stanzas. For instance, Rabbi Eliezer, a contemporary of Jesus, taught an abbreviated version of the Shemoneh Esreh very similar to Rabbi Jesus: “May your will be done in heaven above, grant peace of mind to those who fear you [on earth] below, and do what seems best to you. Blessed are you, O LORD, who answers prayer.” David Bivin, “Prayers for Emergencies,” Jerusalem Perspective 37 (Mar./Apr. 1992), 1-17.

[6] Wilson, Our Father Abraham, p. 118.

[7] Samuel Sandmel, Judaism and Christian Beginnings (Oxford University Press, 1978), p. 358.

[8] Bradford H. Young, The Jewish Background of the Lord’s Prayer (Austin, TX: Center for Judaic-Christian Studies, 1984).

[9] Psalms 2:7; 89:26; Isaiah 9:6; Isaiah 63:16; 64:8; Jeremiah 3:4,19; Malachi 3:10. See, N. T. Wright, Jesus and the victory of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996), 265. See also, Scot McKnight, A new vision for Israel: the teachings of Jesus in national context (Grand Rapids, Mich: W.B. Eerdmans, 1999), p. 62-63.

[10] See The Parable of the Prodigal Son, Luke 15:11-32. Also, Darrell L. Bock, Luke 9:51-24:53. Baker exegetical commentary on the New Testament, 3B (Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Books, 2007), p. 1062.

[11] Joachim Jeremias, The Prayers of Jesus (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1978), p. 57. The assertion is as true today as it was when when Jeremias first made it.

[12] James D.G. Dunn, The Evidence for Jesus (Philadelphia, Penn: Westminster, 1985), p. 21. See also Dunn, The partings of the ways: between Christianity and Judaism and their significance for the character of Christianity. (London: SCM Press, 1991), p. 170ff.

[13] Joel B. Green, The theology of the gospel of Luke. New Testament theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), p. 111.

[14] James D. G. Dunn, The Christ and the spirit: collected essays of James D. G. Dunn. 2, Pneumatology. (Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans. 1998), p. 137-8; R. P. Menzies, The development of early Christian pneumatology (Sheffield, U.K.: Sheffield Academic, 1991), p. 184n

[15] John P. Meier, A marginal Jew: rethinking the historical Jesus. Anchor Bible reference library (New Haven, Conn: Yale University Press, 2009), p. 297. See also, Scot McKnight, A new vision for Israel: the teachings of Jesus in national context (Grand Rapids, Mich: W.B. Eerdmans, 1999), p. 62-64.

[16] Marianne Meye Thompson, The promise of the Father: Jesus and God in the New Testament (Louisville, Ky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000), 73-75.

[17] George Eldon Ladd, A theology of the New Testament. (Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans, 1974), p. 108.

[18] Wilkins, Following the Master, p. 114-117.

[19] Colin Brown, Spirit, The Holy Spirit. In C. Brown, (Ed.), The New international dictionary of New Testament theology, 3 (Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 1978),p. 696; Edward J. Woods, The ‘finger of God’ and pneumatology in Luke-Acts. Journal for the study of the New Testament, 205. (Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 2001), p. 153-4.

[20] Ladd, Theology of NT, p. 18

[21] David Michael Crump, Jesus the intercessor: Prayer and Christology in Luke-Acts (PhD Dissertation: University of Aberdeen, 1988).

[22] Knowing God (London: Evangelical Press, 1970), p. 16.

[23] Christian Smith, and Melinda Lundquist Denton. Soul searching: the religious and spiritual lives of American teenagers. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005). Kenda Creasy Dean, Almost Christian: what the faith of our teenagers is telling the American church (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).

[24] Simon Chan, Spiritual theology: a systematic study of the Christian life. Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 1998), p. 132.

Scripture and Culture-Making: What Christian Colleges could Learn from Rabbinic Higher Education

Part 3 in series: The Holy Spirit and the Liberal Arts: The Future of ‘Two Handed’ Higher Education
“Today’s Christian teenagers know abundant details about the lives of favorite musicians and television stars or about what it takes to get into a good college, but most are not very clear on who Moses and Jesus were.”
-Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton

by Gary David Stratton, Ph.D. • Senior Editor

N.T. Wright concludes The Challenge of Jesus with a challenge of his own to 21st Century Christians:

“The gospel of Jesus points us and indeed urges us to be at the leading edge of the whole culture, articulating in story and music and art and philosophy and education and poetry and politics and theology and even–heaven help us–Biblical studies, a worldview that will mount the historically-rooted Christian challenge to both modernity and postmodernity, leading the way…with joy and humor and gentleness and good judgment and true wisdom. I believe if we face the question, ‘if not now, then when?’ if we are grasped by this vision we may also hear the question, ‘if not us, then who? And if the gospel of Jesus is not the key to this task, then what is?”

Wright’s challenge begs the question whether or not 21st Century Christian colleges hold the gospel of Jesus Christ in as high a regard as the Jewish educators of Jesus’ day held the Torah. Like Greco-Roman higher education, Rabbinic higher education was deeply devoted to the development of the life of the mind in close-knit learning communities.  However, the distinguishing characteristic of Rabbinic Higher Education was not so much its pedagogy as its remarkable devotion to its subject matter–Torah. Whereas Greco-Roman students were expected to master the ever-changing philosophies of their masters, students in Rabbinic higher education strove for mastery of the unchanging word of God. The “words of Torah were essentially divine.  God’s words were part and parcel of God’s essence” (Hirshman, 2009, p. 30).

Faithfulness Before Innovation

This devotion to the word of God resulted in a corresponding commitment to faithfulness versus novelty in Jewish education. “No one was free to choose his own credo or ignore the sage’s mediation in approaching the divine… The way of life was learned, and the worldview the product of particular knowledge and distinctive modes of thinking about and analyzing that knowledge.”  The object of Jewish higher education was “full mastery of God’s word and full understanding of it…” resulting a intimacy with the words of Torah” written on the pages of the heart (Neusner, 1999, p. iii). Education, or more particularly, learning Torah, became “the Jewish religious pursuit par excellence…” (Hirshman, p. 3, 30). In short, they were true two handed warriors.

Jewish boys (and many girls) entered Beit Sefer (primary school) charged with mastering the Torah before the age of thirteen. This mastery often extended to the oral memorization of enormous portions of the Torah, as well as rudimentary reading and writing.  After their bar mitzvah, and the corresponding accountability for obedience to the law, the best students were allowed to go on to  Beit Midrash (secondary school, literally, “study house”), while they learned a trade. The Beit Midrash curriculum added the study of the Writings and the Prophets to that of Torah, and more importantly, Talmud, the art of Rabbinic interpretations comprised of both Midrash—inquiry into the sacred texts, and Mishna, the study of oral law independent of its scriptural basis.

Rabbinic Higher Education

Only the most remarkable secondary students were allowed to go on to the Jewish version of higher education, by obtaining permission to study as a talmid (disciple/student) of a great Rabbi.  Teaching Rabbis made up a “collegium of sages” responsible for applying the law of God in new situations and for passing on the tradition of scriptural interpretation to new students. “Each begins as a disciple of a master, then himself becomes a master to the next generation of disciples, in a long chain of learning” (Neusner, p. iv).

The goal of faithfulness to the word of God drove the master-student relationship and teaching style of the study house. Rabbinic education was consumed with recitation and discussion, not merely because of pedagogical considerations, but also for theological reasons. The Rabbis so reverenced the written words of Scripture, no other texts were considered worthy of study. Rabbinic higher education was an oral culture, perpetrated and preserved by an ongoing high-level discussion that eclipsed even Socratic dialogue in its relentless back and forth nature.

Rabbi Hillel and his Talmidim (Unattributed)

In order to facilitate this dialogue, Talmidim were expected to follow their master night-and-day as they taught their tight-knit band of brothers in the study house, over meals, and in the market place. “Study was a process of unending repetition and ubiquitous recitation that transpired in almost every possible venue” (Chilton, and Neusner, 2005, p. 131-132). A good disciple stuck so close to his teacher that by the end of the day he was literally covered with dust kicked up by his master’s feet (Vander Laan). Through it all, Talmidim strove to attain the prerequisite mastery of Torah, Midrash, and Mishnah necessary to become sages themselves so that they too could join the unbroken chain of faithfulness. (For an outstanding discussion of 1st Century BCE Rabbi Hillel and his application to 21st Century culture making, see, Joseph Telushkin’s, Hillel: If Not Now, When?)

From Studying Scripture to Making Culture

Most importantly for our discussion, the goal of this remarkable devotion to the word of God was not privatized faith, but culture making. Rabbinic education was birthed in the cultural crisis of the Babylonian captivity and is certainly the best human explanation of how Jewish culture survived the Diaspora. While Moses commanded the night and day impartation of Torah to the next generation, leading Torah historian, Wilhelm Bacher, notes that Nehemiah’s reading the Torah before the post-exilic community in Jerusalem was the actual “birthday of ancient Jewish education” (cited in Hirshman, p. 121.) Jewish leaders were painfully aware of their society’s need for leaders soaked in the culture-making power of the word of God. “According to the Rabbinic ideal, all of Israel would be teachers, and ultimately masters, of Torah” (Chilton, p. 46). Only then could Jewish society reflect Torah in justice, charitable acts, gifts of first fruits and sacrifices (Hirshman, p. 19).

When the cultural chips were down, Rabbis had the courage to contrast the culture-making power of the Jewish study house, not with the Greco-Roman education, but with the theatre and circus, “pitting the two against one another on the level of popular culture” (Hirshman, p. 121). In most Roman cities the circus/theater and beit Midrash were within blocks of one another. However, unlike the Romans, Jewish commitment to the word of God led to a stronger emphasis upon education than entertainment. Romans flocked to bread and circus, while Jews gathered to study. The Rabbis were confident that, in the end, their deep culture would triumph over Rome’s shallow culture. The beit Midrash had helped them endure the cultural onslaught of Babylon and Persia. Rome would be no match for them. And while the process took much longer than they could have ever imagined, it was a strategy that stood the test of time.

 

From Deuteronomy to the SAT

Moses with the Ten Commandments (Philippe de Champaigne, 1648, Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia)
Moses with the Ten Commandments (Philippe de Champaigne, 1648, Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia)

It doesn’t take any stretch of the imagination to envision how this principle might apply to twenty-first century educators seeking to develop two-handed warriors fluent in both faith building and culture making. Entrance into Rabbinical higher education required an oral recitation of the entire Torah. Entrance to most Christian colleges today requires little more than an SAT score of 1500.  Entrance to early American liberal arts colleges required a comprehensive grasp of the English Bible. Graduation from most Christian colleges today requires little more than a rudimentary understanding of Scripture. Is it any wonder that pop culture is shaping our students more than their faith?

Whether one is referring to Catholics or Protestants, today’s ‘Christian culture’ is a mile wide and an inch deep. Education is losing out to entertainment at every level. As much as I value the culture-making force of the entertainment industry, the arts nearly always follow the intellectual currents of the day (Hunter, 2010, p. 87-88), and the only intellectual current flowing in pop culture today is a narcissistic, consumer-driven, individualism.

Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton’s research into America youth culture discovered that, “Many teenagers know abundant details about the lives of favorite musicians and television stars or about what it takes to get into a good college, but most are not very clear on who Moses and Jesus were.” As a result, “a strong, visible, salient, or intentional faith is not operating in the foreground of most teenager’s lives.” Their worldview is little more than “moralistic, therapeutic, deism,” or more specifically, “whatever.”

For Protestant and Catholic colleges and universities to be of any value in helping our faith communities resist this pop culture onslaught and grow into vibrant culture-making institutions ourselves we need to return to the wisdom of the Rabbi’s—a rigorous devotion to the word of God. Like Chaim Potok, the sages of the Rabbinic school might dare ask the leaders of today’s Christian colleges, “Do you have faith in the word of God?” Sometimes I’m not so sure. Our curriculum and campus culture certainly don’t appear to reflect that kind of faith. At least not in comparison to the Rabbinic schools.

Yet I suspect that our best hope for prevailing in the struggle for the souls of our colleges and universities may be engaging in a Rabbinic commitment to the mastery of the worldview-forming, character-shaping narratives of Scripture. I am not talking about a lightweight devotional band-aid, but an intellectually challenging and spiritually enriching student-teacher dialogue that dominates our campus culture and captures the hearts minds our students. Anything less may result in a cultural exile from which we will never return.

Chaim Potok gave voice to a more modern expression of this sentiment in his novel, In the Beginning: “If the Torah cannot go out into your world of scholarship and return stronger, then we are all fools and charlatans. I have faith in the Torah. I am not afraid of truth.”

As N.T. Wright challenges us: “If the gospel of Jesus is not the key to this task, then what is?  If not us, then who? If not now, then when?”

 

Next post in the series: With Prayer in the School of Christ: The Liberal Arts and the Knowledge of God.

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To read series from the beginning go to:

The Holy Spirit and the Liberal Arts: Two Handed Higher Education.

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Notes

Wilhelm Bacher, Tradition und Tradenten in den Schulen Palästinas und Babyloniens: Studien und Materialien zur Entstehungsgeschichte des Talmud. (Berlin: W. de Gruyter, 1966).

Bruce Chilton, and Jacob Neusner, “Paul and Gamaliel.” In, Alan J. Avery-Peck, ed. Review of Rabbinic Judaism. (Leiden: Brill, 2005).

Marc G. Hirshman, The stabilization of rabbinic culture, 100 C.E.-350 C.E.: texts on education and their late antique context (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).

James Davidson Hunter, To change the world: the irony, tragedy, and possibility of Christianity in the late modern world. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).

Jacob Neusner, The four stages of rabbinic Judaism (London: Routledge, 1999).

Chaim Potok, In the beginning. (New York: Knopf, 1975).

Christian Smith, and Melinda Lundquist Denton. Soul searching: the religious and spiritual lives of American teenagers. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).

Richard Valantasis, Douglas K. Bleyle, and Dennis C. Haugh, The Gospels and Christian life in history and practice (Lanham, Md: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2009).

Ray Vander Laan, Stephen Sorenson, and Amanda Sorenson. In the dust of the rabbi: 5 faith lessons. (Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 2006). See also, Ray Vander Laan’s excellent website, Followtherabbi.com.

N.T. Wright. The Challenge of Jesus: rediscovering who Jesus was and is. (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 1999.)

The Greco-Roman Liberal Arts: When Students were more than just Numbers

Part 2 of Series: The Holy Spirit and the Liberal Arts: The Future of ‘Two Handed’ Higher Education

The liberal arts vision of flooding society with a steady stream of virtuous, truth-seeking leaders has fallen on hard times, but Plato and Aristotle would remind us that educating the mind without cultivating the heart is no education at all. 

by Gary David Stratton, Ph.D. • Senior Editor

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Plato and Aristotle in Raphael’s “Philosophy” (c. 1510)

The goal of educating two-handed warriors—men and women committed to both the life of the mind and the life of the Spirit—is really nothing new. Much of the best of Western society is based upon a classical liberal arts approach to education that is far more “two-handed” than most colleges and universities today. Founded in the fifth-century BC, the liberal arts tradition grew out of the Greco-Roman ideal of developing the life of the mind in a soul-nurturing relational environment. In fact, a popular aphorism commonly attributed to Aristotle accurately captures the spirit of the liberal arts tradition: “Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.”

So how did they do it?

Liberating Minds for a Life of Leadership

Bruce M. Kimball (1986, 2002) discerns two distinct streams in the liberal arts traditions—the philosophical and the oratorical. 1) The Greek philosophical tradition was consumed with the pursuit of truth. It was birthed in the life and teachings of Socrates, as recorded by Plato (c. 427-347 BCE) and refined by Aristotle. In the philosophical tradition the liberal arts function as “liberating arts” in that they were designed to “free the mind from traditional beliefs accepted uncritically.” Their aim is to examine “our opinions and values to see whether or not they are really true and good” (Hoeckley, 2002b, p. 1).

2) The Roman oratorical tradition focused more on leadership development. It’s founder, Cicero (c. 106-43 BCE), never lost sight of his dream that education was about “training citizens to be leaders of society” (Taylor, 2001, p. 1).  In the oratorical tradition studying the “liberal arts” meant that students were “liberated” from the pragmatic concerns of merely learning a trade. They were learning to think, so that they could lead their culture toward the good, the beautiful, and the true.

The two streams developed in tension with one other and eventually converged in the Middle Ages with the establishment of a curriculum rooted in the Trivium—Grammar, Rhetoric, Dialectic, and the Quadrivium—Arithmetic, Music, Geometry, and Astronomy (Cobban, 1975, p. 10; Hoeckley, 2002a, p. 1).

A Deeply Relational Connection

The Seven Liberal Arts

More importantly for our discussion, both traditions fostered highly collegial learning environments that were “spiritual,” at least in a relational sense.

Education and what we would call “discipleship” were virtually synonymous. Michael J. Wilkins (1992) notes that the master-disciple relationship was the key to education in the Greco-Roman world. “We find an early relationship between the noun mathetes (disciple) and the verb ‘to learn’” (p. 72). Philosophers and orators alike attracted students and/or were hired by parents or city-states to train young men in apprenticeship-like relationships (p. 73).

Socrates specifically rejected the Sophists’ more distant and “academic” student-teacher relationships, branding them educational mercenaries with little or no concern for the souls of their students. The Socratic method of instruction necessitated intimate relationships in tight-knit learning community (p. 74). Socrates and his student, Plato, called their disciples “friends,” precisely because they “wanted a relationship that was characterized by shared community” (p. 75).

Aristotle’s experience with Socrates and Plato led him to assert that virtue and friendship are the inseparable foundations of education. He believed that it is impossible for a student to learn from a teacher who is not also his friend (Kraut, 2005). The relationship between virtue and discipleship was so critical that the “imitation of the conduct of a human master became a significant feature of a disciple of a great master… and involved a commitment that affected the follower’s entire life” (Wilkins, p. 77, 76).

The Liberal Arts Today

It really isn’t all that difficult to imagine what Socrates would make of the distant, academic, and often mercenary approach to education that dominates twenty-first-century colleges and universities. While numerous historical, economic, and pragmatic factors led to most twentieth-century American colleges gradually abandoning the liberal arts tradition of friendship and virtue (even in many liberal arts colleges), the impact has been devastating.

The liberal arts vision of flooding society with a steady stream of virtuous, truth-seeking leaders has fallen on hard times. Julie Reuben’s (1996) The Making of the Modern University traces the tragic decline of relationally-based moral education and the corresponding decline in morality in American society. It is a difficult thesis to refute.

Whereas Plato and Aristotle interacted with their students as friends, the depersonalized modern university student is often little more than a number. No relationship means no moral transformation, at least not for the good.

Perhaps its time to consider going back to the future. It seems highly unlikely that twenty-first-century educators will ever be to cultivate two-handed warriors without a radical reexamination of the student-teacher relationship. Whatever the twenty-first century higher education might look like, whether on residential campuses or online communities, we cannot assemble two-handed warriors in educational assembly lines. They need to be nurtured in tight-knit learning communities.

The Greco-Roman tradition provided an algorithm that has really never been improved upon—the deeper the student-teacher connection, the deeper the impact. Whether you are teaching students to pursue truth, and/or developing them as cultural leaders, relationship is key. Smaller is better. Apprenticeship is ideal. Mentoring is life or death.

After all, 2500 years of transformational education can’t be all wrong,

Next post in the series, click: Rabbinic Higher Education.

 

Notes
Cobban, Alan (1975). The medieval universities: their development and organization. London: Methuen.

Hoeckley, Christian (2002a). “Introduction to Bruce Kimball’s, Interpreting the liberal arts: four lectures on the history and historiography of the liberal arts.” The Gaede Institute for the Liberal Arts, Westmont College, Santa Barbara, CA.

Hoeckley, Christian (2002b). “The Liberal Arts Traditions and Christian Higher Education: A Brief Guide.” The Gaede Institute for the Liberal Arts, Westmont College, Santa Barbara, CA.

Kimball, Bruce A.  (1986). Orators and philosophers:  a history of the idea of liberal education.  New York:  Teachers College.

Kimball, Bruce A. (2002). Interpreting the liberal arts: four lectures on the history and historiography of the liberal arts. The Gaede Institute for the Liberal Arts, Westmont College, Santa Barbara, CA.

Kraut, Richard. “Aristotle’s Ethics.” The Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy. Edward N. Zalta (ed.), http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2005/entries/aristotle-ethics/

Reuben, Julie (1996). The making of the modern university: intellectual transformation and the marginalization of morality. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Taylor, James E. (2002). “Christian Liberal Learning.” Summer 2002 Faculty Workshop, Westmont College, Santa Barbara, CA.

Wilkins, Michael J. (1992). Following the master: a biblical theology of discipleship. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1992.

The Holy Spirit and the Liberal Arts: The Future of Two-Handed Higher Education

Series Introduction

The study of the Word of God, and the World of God, empowered by the Spirit of God has proven profoundly transformational in the lives of students and in their ability to transform church and society.

by Gary David Stratton • Senior Editor

Higher education has played a key role in the church’s training of true two-handed warriors since its earliest days. One could argue that the manner in which Jesus trained his apostles was so consistent with first-century rabbinic educational practices that the church was actually established with a ‘school’ at its very heart. And there is little doubt that the church began establishing more formal schools as early as the First Century when Mark the Evangelist and/or his disciples founded the world’s first ‘Christian College’ in the catechetical school connected to the Roman rhetorical university at Alexandria. Soon, this blending of the Spirit-driven early church with the truth-seeking Greco-Roman liberal arts tradition proved a powerful combination.

"One Athanasius against the world, was in fact, one Christian college against their culture." (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
“One Athanasius against the world,” was in fact, “One Christian college against their culture.” (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

College Against Culture

It is difficult to imagine what European civilization might have become without the integrative mindset fostered among the faculty and students of the Alexandrian school, including three of the most influential minds of the Patristic era: Clement, Origen, and Athanasius.  This single educational community provided clear-headed theological reflection and courageous cultural leadership in some of the most significant turning points in early church history.

This was particularly evident in their fourth century battle against the heresy of Arianism. By this time the Alexandrian school had grown into an academic powerhouse with strong secular connections and studies, so much so that Eusebius reports that even nonChristian noblemen entrusted their sons to instruction there. The school became the training ground from which their most famous alumnus, Athanasius, launched his attack against the official Roman endorsement of Arianism. Each time he was rebuffed and even excommunicated at Rome, Athanasius would return to Alexandria for counsel and prayer with the faculty and students of this robust educational community. The common perception that orthodoxy finally prevailed because of Athanasius contra mundum, “One Athanasius against the world,” is far too individualistic an interpretation.  The battle was actually, “One Christian college against their culture.” And the Christian college won.

Over the centuries since, Christian colleges and theological seminaries have often proven significantly more effective than local churches in nurturing faculty and students whose leadership is genuinely transformational. Although God often furthers his kingdom through unschooled saints, a surprising number of the names in the honor-roll of church history are intricately connected to the schools where they studied and/or taught. Martin Luther and the University of Wittenberg; Timothy Dwight and Yale; John Henry Newman and Oxford, Charles G. Finney and Oberlin College; Fr. Michael Scanlon and the Franciscan University of Steubenville; D. L. Moody and A. J. Gordon and the institutions that bear their names to this day, each stand as a monument to the extent and influence of Christian higher education.

The Life of the Mind and the Life of the Spirit

One of the keys to the influence of these learning communities is the surprising degree to which the life of the mind and the life of the Spirit can and often do coexist in these learning communities. Church-related colleges and universities birthed many of the most significant reformation and renewal movements in history, while most reformation and renewal movements have, in turn, spawned colleges themselves. This is particularly event in American higher education where more than half of our first 600 colleges were established by evangelicals. In fact, the broad historic definition of the term evangelical is best applied to movements who hold to both the power of the Holy Spirit to produce new birth and holy lives with the power of the holy scriptures to guide and shape the life and practice of the church.

It is in these renewal schools that the integration of the life of the Spirit and the life of the mind has achieved its greatest synergy. The study of the Word of God, and the World of God, when empowered by the Spirit of God has proven profoundly transformational in the lives of students and in their ability to transform church and society. In other words, they were effective because they were able to train young men and women to become what we have called two-handed warriors. By cultivating both the life of the mind and the life of the Spirit they were able to produce students capable of mastering both faith formation and culture making.

The Troubled History of Maintaining a Two-Handed Approach

John Wesley QuoteThis potential Spirit/Mind synergy is of particular importance to faith-based colleges at the outset of the twenty-first-century. The dawn of the new millennium finds the evangelical College movement emerging from a century of cultural isolation into a remarkable renaissance. Attendance is booming, endowments are up, intellectual respectability is growing, U.S. News and World Report ratings are climbing.  It is quite possible that the twenty-first-century will present the Christian college movement with the opportunity to articulate a distinctively Christian worldview in American society in a manner unparalleled in over one hundred years.

However, the history of American higher education is littered with colleges who have abandoned their lofty ambitions to train two-handed warriors for a decidedly more “one-handed” approach. Burtchaell (1998), Marsden and Longfield (1992), Marsden (1994), Reuben (1996), Benne (2001), Ringenberg (2006), Budde and Wright (2004) have carefully outlined how easily colleges lose their spiritual cutting-edge. Whether Catholic or Protestant, Reformed or Wesleyan, nearly every time a church-founded college or university manages to achieve societal respectability and financial independence they have immediately abandoned their integrative mission. Like prodigal sons, once they “received their inheritance” they have immediately “set off for a distant country where they squandered their wealth” and their ability to train true two-handed warriors. Their graduates go into the world with one hand tied behind their backs to the detriment of their own souls and the culture they create. It turns out that balancing a commitment to the life of the mind and the life of the Spirit even in a Christian college is not so easy as one would suppose.

The Twenty-First Century Challenge

Will the twenty-first-century be any different? Burtchaell’s (1998) chronicling of the demise of nearly every Christian college in American history (including at least two CCCU schools) reads like a modern-day Book of Judges. Knowing that within a few generations of the death of nearly every college’s founding leadership, “the people of God did what was evil in the sight of the LORD and worshipped other Gods” (Judges 3:7) is depressing reading for anyone who has given their life to Christian higher education.

Burtchaell concludes his book with a sobering challenge:

“The failures of the past, so clearly patterned, so foolishly ignored. And so lethally repeated, emerge pretty clearly from these stories. Anyone who requires further imagination to recognize and remedy them is not up to the task of trying again, and better” (p. 851).

Will the leaders of 21st century Christian colleges rise to his challenge? The future of two-handed higher education may very well depend upon it.


In future posts I will explore key movements history of higher education and how their educational philosophy and practices could help 21st century Christian colleges nurture two-handed warriors.

Next: The Greco-Roman Liberal Arts: Education with Friendship and Heart

 

Notes

Benne, R. (2001). Quality with soul: how six premier colleges and universities keep faith with their religious traditions. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

Budde, M. L, & Wright, J. W. (2004).  Conflicting allegiances: the church-based university in a liberal democratic society . Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press.

Burtchaell, J. T. (1998). The dying of the light: the disengagement of colleges and universities from their Christian churchesGrand Rapids, Mich: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co.

Holmes, A. F. (1975). The idea of a Christian college. Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans.

Marsden, G. M., & Longfield, B. J. (1992). The Secularization of the academy. New York: Oxford University Press.

Marsden, G. M. (1994). The soul of the American university: From protestant establishment to established nonbelief. New York: Oxford University Press.

Newman, J. H. (1852). The idea of a university: Defined and illustrated. London: Longmans, Green & Co.

Reuben, J. A. (1996). The making of the modern university: Intellectual transformation and the marginalization of morality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Ringenberg, W. C. (2006). The Christian college: A history of Protestant higher education in America, 2nd edition. Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Academic.

Screenwriting 101: Why the Story Structure Aerodynamics Matter, by Christopher Riley

The first of a five-part series on the laws of screenwriting aerodynamics: Whether you’re writing your first or fiftieth screenplay

The magic of flying isn’t the laws of aerodynamics any more than the magic of cinema is the principles of film structure. But those laws and those principles make the magic possible, enabling mere mortals to harness the power of flight.

by Christopher Riley, author of The Hollywood Standard

Beginning screenwriters hate structure. My students inevitably inform me of such predictable certainties as…

Screenwriter and Author Christopher Riley

Structure chafes.

Structure kills creativity.

Structure is for paint-by-the-numbers hacks, mindless, slavish screenwriting hordes laboring in the sweatshops of Snyder, Aristotle, and McKee.

Structure is a four-letter word. Count ‘em. Str-uc-tu-re. Four toxic letters that spell death to art.

So let’s not talk about structure. Let’s talk about hummingbirds, or, better yet, airplanes.

I wonder if airplane designers debate whether the laws of aerodynamics matter. If they entertain the notion of casting aside those outmoded, restrictive physical laws that mandate things like thrust and lift, and that result in a dull sameness among aircraft, each with some form of motor and wing.

I wonder if any of those free-thinking designers build flying machines without regard for the rigid and stultifying laws of aerodynamics, build them in bright colors and novel, bulbous shapes without wings, without motors, then wrap silk scarves around their necks and take their machines to the skies.

I wonder if they die in pain.

The good news: no one dies when a screenwriter defies the principles of screenplay structure. What terrible thing does happen? The story loses its way. The audience loses interest. The film bombs.

I have no interest in propounding rules for rules’ sake. I’m a screenwriter. I aspire to create films that explore and expand the boundaries of cinema in all its forms. If I could craft a story with no structure, or with some radically new structure heretofore unknown to humankind, I’d love to do it and take home the Nobel in Screenwriting.

But I don’t want to commit the cardinal sin of the would-be entertainer, boring the audience. And I must tell you that having read thousands of scripts, and watched many, many films, and worked with hundreds of students on their stories, and written an award-winning European film, and written scripts for Hollywood studios, and written scripts for the Web, I’ve made this observation.

Stories without structure don’t work.

They don’t sustain audience interest from beginning to end.

They bore.

Here’s why.

Screenwriting Laws of Aerodynamics
Houston, we have a problem. ‘Structure is the rope that pulls the audience through the story.’ -Ron Howard, Apollo 13 Director

A movie is a delicate thing, typically consumed by a viewer in one sitting, dependent on a story that constantly moves forward, upping the emotional ante, riveting us in our plush seats. Without a sound structure capable of grabbing audience interest at the start and holding it until the end, a two-hour film collapses under its own weight. It sags in the middle. It fails to provide the setups and payoffs, the emotional ups and downs, that create a cinema experience that satisfies.

We know this from observing films that work, the same way we know about the laws of aerodynamics by observing planes that fly. That’s where Aristotle got his material. He didn’t make it up. He wasn’t a structure czar. He was a scientist. He observed the stories that worked best and then described what he saw. Same with Robert McKee and Chris Vogler and Syd Field. Same with Blake Snyder. They observed the common structural characteristics of stories that manage to hold audience interest all the way to the end, which is the most fundamental definition of what it means to entertain. Then they described the principles that shape those stories. And despite the variances in terminology and details, their descriptions are remarkably similar.That shouldn’t surprise us. They all looked at the same thing.

Dummies and Ropes
Chris wrote the book on screenplay formatting… literally!

Screenwriter Akiva Goldsman has described structure as being like the clothing dummy used by the fashion designer. It always looks the same. If you don’t understand the shape of the clothing dummy, which is the shape of the human body, you’re not going to make clothes that any humans can wear. You might congratulate yourself on your innovation, having sewn a pair of pants that are all puff sleeve, but you’re not going to clothe anyone.

Director Ron Howard offers his own elegant definition. Structure, he says, is the rope that pulls the audience through the story. It’s the one-thing-leads-to-the-next, the-answer-to-one-question-raises-an-even-more-compelling-question quality of films that makes us want to stick around and find out what happens next. And so it is.

Look closely at successful films that appear to defy the principles of story construction and you’ll see that in fact they conform. Memento is a hummingbird of a story, appearing to defy gravity even as it obeys the aerodynamics of story structure. You’ve got a beginning, ingeniously built of stuff that happens last chronologically, and this beginning, as in all good film beginnings, is where we meet and begin to root for the main character. It’s where we’re introduced to the world of the story. It’s where we discover what the situation is, what problem our hero faces, and what he wants.

Three Acts are Three Acts
Falling with style. Whether he’d admit it or not, he discovered that structure by gut, because he’s a gifted filmmaker and storyteller.

How could it possibly be otherwise? You have a middle, where the main character pursues a plan to get what he wants, where he tries his best against all obstacles to reach his goal. And you’ve got a decisive, cataclysmic ending, even though it’s built of stuff that actually happens first chronologically.

That’s three acts, structure at its simplest and most irreducible. Want four acts? Split the middle act into two. Five acts? Split the second act into thirds. Have as many acts as you like, only don’t tell your producer or studio executive, because that’s not the language they speak.

Now you don’t necessarily need to study film structure or even believe it exists in order to make a film that works. It’s true. This is because you don’t have to understand structure in an explicit way to write or make a well-structured film. Some storytellers simply know structure implicitly, the way some people always know which way is north.

We Need a Compass
‘Memento’ is a hummingbird of a story, appearing to defy gravity even as it obeys the aerodynamics of story structure. It flies because its structure, not in spite of it.

I think that for most of us, however, an explicit mastery of the principles of structure saves weeks and months of wandering in the jungle without a compass. It certainly makes it easier to describe our stories to other Hollywood professionals, nearly all of whom speak the language of structure. But, to be fair, I have to tell you about the case I know in which a writer-director of a high-profile film publicly announced that he’d disregarded the whole three-act structure conceit and simply shot his movie. I saw this infidel’s movie in his presence at a Writers Guild screening in Beverly Hills.

The thing worked beautifully. It wasn’t boring. It didn’t collapse under its own weight. It grabbed my attention at the beginning and held it all the way to the end. Which seems to contradict everything I’ve just told you. Except…

In the Q&A following the screening, the filmmaker described the first, bloated, four-hour cut of his film, and the months of sitting in the editing room sifting through his story, discovering his movie, which ultimately came in at around two hours and had a classical three-act structure. Whether he’d admit it or not, he discovered that structure by gut, because he’s a gifted filmmaker and storyteller. He felt his way to it in the darkness of the editing bay. He might have saved himself some of those months in post, and he might have saved his investors some of the dollars he spent shooting scenes he didn’t need, if he’d discovered his structure at the writing stage.

The hummingbird doesn’t need to know how he flies. But to hedge your bets, just in case you’re more human than hummingbird, I say read up on the observations of Aristotle, Field, McKee, and Snyder before you take to the air. The magic of flying isn’t the laws of aerodynamics any more than the magic of cinema is the principles of film structure. But those laws and those principles make the magic possible, enabling mere mortals to harness the power of flight.

Next Post in Series: Screenwriting 101: A Step by Step Guide to Achieving the Impossible – Steps 1-3, by Christopher Riley

 

Christopher Riley is the author of The Hollywood Standard: The Complete and Authoritative Guide to Script Format and Style.  He wrote the German-language courtroom thriller After the Truth with his wife and writing partner Kathleen Riley, and executive produced the provocative web series Bump+. This article originally appeared on www.blakesnyder.com. Used by permission.

Strengthening the general ed curriculum requires a change in faculty roles

Many of the weaknesses of today’s universities can be traced back to the widespread failure of faculty to inspire and motivate in the first weeks of the freshman year.

by James Muyskens in University Business

James Muyskens is a professor at the Graduate Center, CUNY, and former president of CUNY Queens College.

No institution can be better than its faculty. An institution can be better than its president, its football team, its library and its food service—but if the faculty are weak, the institution is weak.

We are in an exciting time for faculty in that their roles are expanding with new opportunities in online education, MOOCs, service learning and the increasing need for lifelong learning.

Indeed we are in the era of “learning by all means.” Our knowledge society requires continual learning and relearning, and the course content must be delivered by all means.

The weakest link in the expanding instructional continuum—where we are least successful—is in general education and freshman introductory courses. The general education curriculum orients students to college and lets students know that they are no longer in high school.

The daunting goal of a general education curriculum is to inspire students and have them experience the joy of learning. Its aim is provide students with the tools to learn how to learn, to follow and generate arguments, to witness the serendipity of discovery and the rigors of confirming a hypothesis.

If successful, it will inculcate respect for the rules of evidence, foster rigorous skepticism, and set students on a lifelong course of seeking truth and uprooting falsehoods. In our rapidly changing times, meeting the goals of general education has become especially urgent and challenging.

Inspire at the start

In the past, students who were not inspired and challenged by general education courses still persevered, believing that a college degree was essential to upward mobility and a good life. Today’s students drop out. Increasingly, they come from the lowest socioeconomic quintiles and don’t have the luxury of lingering in college.

Soon they are saddled with debt, harbor doubts about the worthiness of the pursuit, and succumb to a painful awareness of the odds against their realizing the American dream in contemporary America.

While there are notable and encouraging general education success stories, the overall picture across the U.S. is not good—as borne out by the high number of college dropouts, the low graduation rates and extended time to completion, and the well-documented concerns that our graduates do not know how to think critically or how to write persuasively.

Of course, there are many other factors that contribute to these dismal results. But many of them can be traced back to the widespread failure to inspire and motivate in the first weeks of the freshman year—a key task of general education.

Dramatic reversal

To turn this around, we must radically change our thinking not only about the roles of faculty who teach general education courses, but also who among our instructors should be assigned to teach these classes….

Continue reading

The Blind Side Leading the Blind: Better Faith-Based Filmmaking by Living Better Stories

Part of ongoing series: Hollywood and Higher Education: Teaching Worldview Thru the Stories We Live By (See also,  The Future of Faith-Based Filmmaking)

The Blind Side is not so much the story of a Christian family who transformed the life of a homeless teenager as much as it is the story of a homeless teenager who transformed the faith of a Christian family

by Gary David Stratton • Senior Editor

“Wow, I’ve finally met someone who practices but doesn’t preach.” —Sandra Bullock, speaking of Leigh Anne Tuohy, whom Bullock portrayed in her first Oscar-winning performance

blind-side-poster-0In the aftermath of the runaway success of The Blind Side, Hollywood has become more open to Christians’ stories. I don’t mean “Christian” stories, but rather human stories about Christians whose faith has been an element in their facing universal human struggles.

The Blind Side was unlike anything normally accepted by the Church as a “Christian Film.” It is neither an evangelistic message about Leigh Anne Tuohy (Sandra Bullock) witnessing about her faith, nor Michael Oher  (Quinton Aaron) coming to faith, nor a missionary appeal for how Christian families should adopt disadvantaged youth, nor a white-washed tale about perfect Christians, living perfect lives, with perfect motives, and everything turning out perfectly.

O, the Humanity!

Sandra Bullock as the highly flawed and genuinely Christian, Leigh Anne Tuohy.

Instead, it is a very human story about a very human woman whose Christian faith informed and motivated a series of radical decisions that transformed her life, her family, and the young man they adopted.  The story is not about her faith, but her faith is clearly part of the story.

This approach works only because The Blind Side wasn’t made like a typical “Christian film.” Although director John Lee Hancock describes himself as a Christian and there are a number of other talented Christians working at Alcon Entertainment who helped guide the project, Hancock made The Blind Side because he thought the story the Tuohys lived was so compelling. Period!

“The fact that the Tuohys are Christians played absolutely no part in me doing it or not doing it…. I mean, let’s be honest, it’s an incredibly charitable act that yields rewards for this family. It would have been an also amazingly charitable act had the Tuohys been atheists. A good deed is a good deed… I thought it was a great story.”

Hancock goes on to explain: “I think that if I set out to do stories based on that (Christianity or even inspiration) then it will probably be like the cart leading the horse… You set out to tell a good story. You don’t do it because there is a deep message involved because the movie is almost always bad when you do that…”[1]

The Future of “Christian” Filmmaking

garydavidstratton-2
Michael Oher is a most unlikely hero in the most unlikely “Christian” film in recent memory.

It is the very humanness of the film that makes it so approachable. Leigh Anne Tuohy is a flawed individual. She is a stubborn control freak, still struggling to stay in control even in the very last scene of the movie.  Yet when motivated by her Christian faith Leigh Anne’s  flaws propel her to make decisions that few other women would even consider.  Her character is complicated (which is why Sandra Bullock won an Academy Award for portraying her), and therefore very compelling. We like her precisely because she represents our highest aspirations and our worst self-sabotaging realities.

Hancock’s approach points toward a compelling future for “Christian” filmmaking in Hollywood — If you live it, they will come (to the theater, that is). Audiences don’t want to watch “Christian” films. They want to see good films about good stories. Compelling stories about real life human beings who overcome tremendous obstacles and who are transformed into better human beings in the process.  (See, Casablanca and the Four Levels of WorldviewCrash Goes the Worldview.)

If the story happens to be about someone whose faith informed and motivated their journey then who’s to argue? Their story earned them the right to let their faith be part of the film. (And opened up the “plausibility structure” for audiences accepting that not all Christians are the preachy, bigoted hypocrites so often portrayed by the media.)

In the end, The Blind Side isn’t so much the story of a Christian family who transformed the life of a homeless teenager so much as it is the story of a homeless teenager who transformed the faith of a Christian family: all because one woman made the radical decision to actually live out her faith.

As Sandra Bullock opined about Leigh Anne and the Tuohy family:

“[S]he has no idea the path she’s begun, in terms of adoption and fostering. It’s not been on the forefront of people’s minds. It is on the forefront of my mind every day now when I get up. When I look around I go, ‘Is he, is she, what is their situation?’ And it’s because of this family, and I think what they are going to do for our country in terms of being aware of that is – I don’t think they realize the profound affect that they are going to have…. [Y]ou see this family, they were themselves for no other benefit other than because they wanted to reach out, lend a hand, and had no idea that they would get a son in return… I said, ‘Wow, I’ve finally met someone who practices but doesn’t preach.’ ” (Italics mine.)[2]

In other words, if Christians actually lived better stories then we might have a litany of heroic stories to draw upon and films to make that real people in real theaters actually want to see and A-list actors want to play. Stories about men and women (and teenagers) whose faith motivated and informed their choices to live remarkable lives by making remarkable decisions and overcome remarkable obstacles.

Living a Better Story

If more Christians actually lived compelling stories then we might have a litany of heroic movies.

Every believer (and not just filmmakers) ought to be asking themselves ‘Am I living the kind of story that, in Donald Miller’s words, “leaves a beautiful feeling even as the credits role”? As Miller discovered in writing his book subtitled How I Learned to Live a Better Story, few Christians are living stories that come remotely close to living out the full implications of their faith.

What story are we writing with our lives? Leigh Anne Tuohy’s story is deeply heroic precisely because her faith motivated her to take action toward the will of God being done on earth as it is in heaven. Will we?

Heaven is looking for heroic stories even more than Hollywood. Will this generation overwhelm the world with stories of very human Christ followers whose faith motivates and informs the heroic lives they live?  The world is watching…

If you live it, they will come!

 

Next post in series: Current Films by Act One Graduates Reveal Strange Dichotomy in Box Office Mojo’s ‘Christian Movie’ Category, by Gary David Stratton

See Also:

Conversations On The Blind Side – Sandra Bullock and Leigh Anne Tuohy Go One-On-One, by Rebecca Murray

Michael Oher and Tuohy Family Celebrate Super Bowl Victory (ABC)

Hollywood and Higher Education, by Gary David Stratton

Why Story Structure Matters: Even if you don’t want it to, by Christopher Riley

Opening Doors for Others: An Interview with Writer-Director Brian Bird, by Gary David Stratton

Christians in Hollywood: A Mission Impossible Writer Offers a Treatment, by Ron Austin

 

Notes:

[1] Interview: ‘The Blind Side’ Director John Lee Hancock, Michelle A. Vu

[2] Bullock Quotations from:  Sandra Bullock and Tim McGraw Discuss ‘The Blind Side’ 

Ideas Have Consequences: The Power and Limits of Existentialism, Dead Poets Society 2

Part 9 of series:  Hollywood and Higher Education: Teaching Worldview Thru the Stories We Live By

“No matter what anyone tells you, words and ideas can change the world.”   -Mr. Keating (Robin Williams)

by Gary David Stratton • Senior Editor

gal-dps-cast-jpgThe main characters of Dead Poets Society (1989) provide a perfect opportunity to observe, not only the remarkable skill of no less than three young actors (Ethan HawkeRobert Sean LeonardJosh Charles) on their way to Hollywood greatness, but also a profound illustration the various array of practice shifts involved in the worldview of Existentialism  (See, Bungee-Jumping to Eternity: The Existential Angst of Dead Poets Society).

Paradigm Shifts versus Practice Shifts

A worldview is a lot like an iceberg in at least two important ways: First, only their uppermost levels are visible to the naked eye.  Second, that visible tip is not the even close to the most dangerous part of an iceberg or a worldview. It is that proverbial 90% lurking beneath the waterline that can sink your ship… and maybe even cost you your life.

Screen shot 2013-05-02 at 1.37.53 AM

You cannot “see” the strategies, values, or stories guiding a person or society. Unless they are reflected in actions, words, or “cultural artifacts”—art, architecture, literature, technology, institutions, etc.—ideas remain hidden under the surface. Like mounting pressure on tectonic plates, no one knows how much power is really stored up until the ground begins to shake.

Many anthropologists, therefore, make a distinction between “paradigm shifts” and “practice shifts.” A paradigm shift is change in the unseen world of ideas of an individual or society, while a practice shift is a change in actual behavior. For instance, in Casablanca, we had no idea what a profound paradigm shift Rick was experiencing until the moment we saw his practice shift in putting Ilsa on the plane with Victor. Or in Fiddler on the Roof, it was impossible to know if Tevye had actually shifted his paradigm for marriage from a business contract to a romantic covenant, until he applied his daughters’ paradigm in his own practices by asking Golda, “Do you love me?”

The critical moment that ultimately leads Keating’s students from paradigm shift to practice shift

The relationship between invisible paradigm shifts and visible practice shifts is a critical element of all good filmmaking. Whether it is Luke Skywalker turning off his targeting computer, because he has finally put his faith in “The Force,” or George Bailey asking God to make him live again, because he has finally reinterpreted his life as “wonderful,” the clearer the connection between a main character’s paradigm shift and their practice shift, the better.

Dead Poet Society (DPS) Character Transformations

Dead Poets Society offers the unusual pleasure of following the transformation arc of multiple characters, four of who get their own complete storylines. And while their paradigm shifts are similar, their practice shifts are radically different.

While Mr. Keating implores his students that “words and ideas can change the world,” it is Knox Overstreet who gives voice to the counter-balancing truth, “I’ve got to do something!” And do something is exactly what the young DPS members set out to do.

Knox Overstreet: For the Love of Chris

For Knox Overstreet applying Mr. Keating’s worldview to his own life story begins with the inciting event of Chris Noel (Alexandra Powers) coming into his life. What begins as obligatory dinner at the home family friends—the Danbury’s—turns into the beginning of an epic adventure. The Danbury’s football star son, Chet, is dating cheerleader Chris whom Knox decides is “the most beautiful girl I have ever seen in my entire life.”

Instead of accepting the script written for him by his family and school, he invokes “Carpe Diem!” in his headlong pursuit of the girl of his dreams. The new plausibility structures of his new worldview open up the possibility of engaging in behaviors that would have been unthinkable just a few weeks earlier.  He sneaks off campus to see Chris.  He writes poetry about her.

Chris Noel, the Goal of Knox’s Quest

Finally the internal pressure of his newfound love and newly expanded worldview reach a boiling point. Standing by the phone with the entire DPS watching, he rewrites his life story from the Welton/family worldview to his newly chosen existentialism in a single moment:

Knox: She’s going to hate me. The Danbury’s will hate me. My parents will kill me. (Looking at the group.) All right, God damn it. (Inserts coins.) Carpe diem!

Once committed—the “midpoint” of his story arc—there is no turning back for Knox. He kisses Chris at a party, reads her poetry at her school, and just when all hope seems lost, he wins a date and the heart of his true love.

Mr. Keating’s teaching has shifted his paradigm in such a way that his practice shifts with it. Knox rejects his Welton/family story that social structures must be followed and embraces a new story where he is free to think for himself and find his own meaning for his day-to-day existence. The ideas found in Mr. Keating’s Existentialism have serious consequences for Knox. His life is clearly changed and enriched from the experience.

Charlie Daulton: The Name is Nuwanda

Charlie Daulton’s (Gale Hansen) life story, on the other hand, isn’t so much transformed by Mr. Keating’s worldview as it is confirmed. As the film’s steadfast character, Charlie really doesn’t change much at all. He is a charming rebellious hedonist at the beginning of the film, and a charming and even more rebellious hedonist at the end. From bringing pornography, and later girls to DPS meetings, interrupting a school assembly with a phone call from God (also about girls), to painting a virility symbol on his chest and adopting the name “Nuwanda,” Mr. Keating’s Existentialism functions primarily to free Charlie to act on impulses he had previously restrained.

Mr. Keating attempts to reign in Charlie’s character with the warning: “Sucking the marrow out of life doesn’t mean choking on the bone. There’s a time for daring and there’s a time for caution, and a wise man understands which is called for.”  Yet he never really succeeds in actually transforming Charlie’s girl obsessed life story.

On a more positive note, his new worldview also helps Charlie to stand against external pressure. He is perhaps the first Dead Poet to “get” Mr. Keating’s courtyard marching lesson on conformity when he tells his teacher, “I’m exercising the right not to walk.” In the end, Charlie alone is the only Dead Poet willing to endure both paddling and expulsion without ratting out his friends or betraying his teacher.

While Mr. Keating’s worldview doesn’t really change the direction of Charlie’s life, it does help strengthen his character. While not exactly a heroic character, his exposure to existentialism certainly hasn’t hurt his life.

Todd Anderson: O Captain, my Captain!

Perhaps the most moving transformation in the film is that of Todd Anderson. At the start of the film, Todd’s identity is buried so deeply in that of the Welton/Family worldview, he functions merely as a sub-plot of his older brother’s story.  Something inside him is so stirred by Mr. Keating’s message that he writes “Seize the Day” in bold writing in his notebook.  Then we watch as the Welton/Family story wins out and he crumbles the paper and tosses it in the waste basket.

But Mr. Keating is not finished with Todd yet. When Todd refuses to even admit that he has written a poem to be read aloud in class, Mr. Keating steps in:

Keating: “Mr. Anderson thinks that everything inside of him is worthless and embarrassing. Isn’t that right, Todd. Isn’t that your worst fear?  Well, I think you’re wrong. I think you have something inside of you that is worth a great deal.”

Visions of a sweaty-toothed madman

In perhaps the film’s most moving scene, Mr. Keating writes Walt Whitman’s adage on the blackboard—“I sound my barbaric YAWP over the rooftops of the world”—and demands that Todd YAWP! Suddenly the paradigm shift that has been lurking beneath the surface of Todd’s life breaks into the open in his “sweaty-tooth madman” speech.

Todd: Truth like-like a blanket that always leaves your feet cold… Y-You push it, stretch it, it’ll never be enough. You kick at it, beat it, it’ll never cover any of us. From the moment we enter crying t-to the moment we leave dying, it’ll just cover your face as you wail and cry and scream.

Keating: [long pause then class applauds] Don’t you forget this.

He never does. In the climactic final scene it is Todd who finds his voice in leading the Dead Poets in their final act of heroism. As the bagpipe music closes on a freeze frame of the boys standing on their desks, you FEEL the incredible power of existentialism to free these young men from the bondage of the gravity of Physicalism and send them soaring into the invisible world of Ideals.

Todd is the first one on his feet, er, desk, in a final DPS salute to their “Captain”

O, if that was all there was to the story. But there is another major character, and it is his story that points us to the second similarity between worldviews and icebergs—what you don’t see is what is most likely to kill you.  Was there something lurking just beneath the waterline of the iceberg of existentialism that ultimately led to Neil’s tragic Titanic ending?

If so… was Mr. Keating at least somewhat responsible for Neil’s death?

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Next post in series:

The Blind Side Leading the Blind: Better Faith-Based Filmmaking through Better Stories 

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See also:

Hollywood and Higher Education: Teaching Worldview Through Academy Award-winning Films

Casablanca and the Four Levels of Worldview: Why Everyone Meets at Rick’s 

Fiddler on the Roof: Worldview Change and the Journey to Life-Interpreting Story

Crash goes the Worldview: Why Worldview Transformation Requires Changing Scripts

It’s a Wonderful Worldview: Frank Capra’s Theistic Masterpiece

If you Live it, They Will Come: The Blind Side and Better Faith-Based Filmmaking

 

 

Bungee-Jumping to Eternity: The Existential Angst of Dead Poets Society

Part of ongoing series:  Hollywood and Higher Education: Teaching Worldview Thru the Stories We Live By

“Carpe Diem!  Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.” -Mr. Keating (Robin Williams)

by Gary David Stratton • Senior Editor

posterDead Poets Society, 1989 Oscar winner for best original screenplay, boasts an impressive Hollywood lineage. In addition to the best screenplay win for Tom Schulman,  Dead Poets earned a best director nomination for Peter Weir, a best actor nomination for Robin Williams. It also helped launch the careers of Oscar-nominated actor Ethan Hawke (Training Day, Before Sunset), as well as Emmy-nominated actors Robert Sean Leonard (House), and Josh Charles (The Good Wife). Not bad for a small budget film few imagined would grow into culture-shaping cinema.

It is also one of the best films ever made on the vocation of teaching. I rarely meet any teacher, professor, or youth minister who wasn’t deeply moved by their first encounter with Dead Poets Society.  It deftly touches a nerve for anyone entrusted with the thrilling, yet delicate art of shaping young lives.

Mr. Keating’s brief sojourn at the fictional Welton Academy captures both the highest hopes and greatest fears of anyone who has ever stood in front of a classroom. As it turns out, worldview formation is as dangerous as it is fulfilling. Which brings me to my real point.

Worldview Transformation

Gather ye rose buds while ye may…

Dead Poets is also a tremendous film for anyone interested in the art of worldview formation in film and in life. First, it illustrates the power of mentors, texts, and communities in shaping worldview. Second, it gives soaring testimony to the power of Existentialism in the quest to escape the gravity of Physicalism into the intoxicating heights of Idealism.  Finally, it provides a troubling warning as to the power of nihilism to crush the dreams of the unsuspecting idealist. (For and explanation of Physicalism versus Idealism, see, It’s a Wonderful Worldview: Frank Capra’s Theistic Masterpiece.)

The Welton Worldview

Both in movies and real life, worldview change never comes easily. Human beings are insanely committed to maintaining the societal traditions and personal strategies we’ve carefully developed for managing our lives, even and especially when those strategies are counter-productive. Dead Poets does a wonderful job of detailing how good teachers expose the counter-productive flaws in their students’ worldview. And no worldview seems quite so flawed as that of the mythical Welton academy in which Dead Poets Society is set..

As a highly traditional 1950’s college preparatory academy, Welton is rooted in what appears to be a highly Physicalist (if somewhat religiously Deistic) worldview. (For and explanation of the four levels see, Casablanca and the Four Levels of Worldview.)  In other words, the hard, pragmatic realities of the physical world are the only things that are “really real” at Welton.

The underlying story of Welton Academy is financial success, not personal exploration

Level 4—Story/Basis: The underlying story of Welton is success, or more specifically, the financial success and social status available to those who get into prestigious schools in order to gain entry into prestigious careers.

Todd Anderson’s (Ethan Hawke) disengaged parents may forget what they got him for his last birthday, but they know they want for his life–Valedictorian honors and a National Merit scholarship like his older brother. (Hint: The Welton Academy Yearbook is a great source for keeping characters straight.)

Neil Perry’s (Robert Sean Leonard) helicopter father may not listen to his son’s desires to write for the school newspaper (or become an actor), but he already has his son’s life planned out for him whether he likes it or not:

“You’re going to Harvard and becoming a doctor.”

Level 3—Values/Principles: Welton faculty and administration oblige their moneyed parents by creating an academy rooted in the values of “tradition, honor, discipline, excellence.” They celebrate “the light of knowledge” with religious trappings and a strong classical sense of morality, giving Welton a rather Deistic slant. All we really know about this distant God is that he doesn’t want girls at “Helton” distracting the “boys” (not men) from their studies. (The Welton Academy Yearbook is a great source for keeping characters straight.)

“Tradition, honor, discipline, excellence.”

Level 2 — Strategies/Culture: Accordingly, Welton’s academic culture is devoted to a highly traditional curriculum, and educational methodology.  We are offered brief glimpses into the strict world of “normal” Welton classrooms marked by rote memorization of Greek, Biology, and Calculus.

These are not the kind of classrooms a creative personality would cherish, but that’s just fine with most Welton students. They are just going through the motions doing whatever is necessary in order to gain parental approval and Ivy League admission.

Level 1—Action/Behavior: By the end of Act 1, it is clear that while Welton students may not particularly like the school, enjoy belittling its values, and despise their parent’s transference of their success stories upon their lives, they still go along with the flow in overall daily decisions.

The Keating Worldview

Enter the transformation artist

All this changes when the students enter the classroom of Welton’s newest teacher—Mr. Keating (Robin Williams). Like a character in Plato’s cave analogy, Keating has broken free of the bondage of Welton’s limited perspective, and returned to enlighten students still chained to the wall of shadows. Like Morpheus in The Matrix, Keating is determined to “free the minds” of his students in order to help them enter a larger, richer world of the liberal arts.

It is a beautiful story of how great teachers foster worldview change in their students. Keating employs a dizzying teaching arsenal of texts (Walt Whitman, etc.), music (The 1812 Overture), mentorship (“O Captain, my Captain”), learning exercises (standing on desk), challenge (“A sweaty-toothed madman”), and community (The Dead Poets Society) to captivate his students’ imaginations. While at first his classroom is merely, “Weird, but different,” it gradually becomes the focal point of their universe.

The worldview Mr. Keating wants his students to address is robust form of romantic Existentialism, rooted in Physicalism, yet rejecting its pragmatic pessimism.

Make your lives extraordinary!

Level 4—Story/Basis: Walt Whitman and the other romantic poets teach us that even though Physicalism may be scientifically true in that “we are all food for worms,” we can strive to make meaning out of our own brief lives by our own choices and values. Keating’s story is a radical rebellion against both Nihilistic Physicalism that insists that life has no meaning, and the Deism of Welton that insists we live only for the morality and stories of others.  Mr. Keating is not so much interested in his students’ embracing their parents’ story of financial/social success as he is that they live their own story.

Keating: We are food for worms, lads. Believe or not, each and every one of us in this room is going to stop breathing, turn cold, and die… Peruse some of the faces of the past (Welton students) …Did they wait until it was too late to make from their lives even one iota of what they were capable. Because you see, gentlemen, these boys are now fertilizing daffodils. But if you listen real close, you can hear them whisper their legacy to you: (whispered) ‘Carpe Diem! …Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.”

Level 3—Values/Principles: Beyond the walls of the physical universe Keating points his students to the Idealistic realm of beauty, love, and meaning that eludes those trapped in the Physicalist worldview. Naturalistic Physicalism would tell us that the universe is a “box” limited by space and time, and accessible only through the physical senses. Our hearts tell us a different story.  There is something more to life than what we can touch, taste, hear, see, and smell.  Poetry points the way to this larger world of values, that can’t be measured “scientifically” like a “length of pipe”[1] nor explained with graphs like J. Evans Pritchard, Ph.D.

Keating then tells his students to rip out the entire introduction to their poetry textbook and has them “huddle up” to hear the real meaning of poetry (and life.)

Keating: We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. Now, medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary for sustaining life, but poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.”

This speech is a stunning description of Existential Idealism in its purest Romantic form. And it will not be the last.

Seeing the world from a new perspective

Level 2—Strategies/Culture: Keating’s goal is for his students to stop mimicing and reciting the words of others, and “find your own voice,” and “Learn to think for yourselves again.”

On top of his desk, he gets them to consider life from a new perspective. In the courtyard, he gets them to fall into the trap of walking in conformity to the life of those around us. On the soccer field, he inspires them to reach their full potential.

Watch desk scene here.

Freedom from Physicalism

As I said above, it is liberal arts education at its finest. He is using the arts to liberate his students from seeing life only from their own tradition and preconceptions. (See, The Greco-Roman Liberal Arts.) It is a breathtaking and soul stirring tour de force his students find nearly iresistible.

Slowly, Keating’s students begin to break free from the suffocating gravity of a Physicalist worldview, in order to embrace the broader Idealistic world he has opened up for them….

Level 1—Action/Behavioral: Of course, the movie only gets going once some of the boys actually start acting on Mr. Keating’s worldview.

And that is where the story really gets interesting!

Next: Ideas Have Consequences: The Power and the Limits of Existentialism, Dead Poets Society, Part 2

 

See also:

Hollywood and Higher Education: Teaching Worldview Through the Stories We Live By

Casablanca and the Four Levels of Worldview: Why Everyone Meets at Rick’s 

Crash goes the Worldview: Why Worldview Transformation Requires Changing Scripts

It’s a Wonderful Worldview: Frank Capra’s Theistic Masterpiece

Bungee-Jumping to Eternity: The Existential Angst of Dead Poets Society

Deep Culture: Is Winning an Oscar a Reliable Indicator of a Truly Great Film?

The Blind Side leading the Blind: Better Faith-Based Filmmaking through Better Stories

Related Posts:

Using Zombie Movies to Teach Politics, by Daniel W. Drezner

The Joker Is Satan, and So Are We: René Girard and The Dark Knight, by Charles Bellinger

Echoes of René Girard in the Films of Martin Scorsese: Scapegoats and Redemption on ‘Shutter Island,’ by Cari Myers

Hitchcock and the Scapegoat: René Girard, Violence and Victimization in The Wrong Man, by David Humbert

 

Notes



[1] Perhaps an allusion to George Bailey’s objection to his father’s commitment to the Building and Loan in “It’s a Wonderful Life.”