Crash Goes the Worldview: Why Character Transformation Requires Changing Scripts

Part 4 of:  Hollywood and Higher Education: Teaching Worldview Through the Stories We Live By

If imitation is the highest form of flattery, then we are constantly flattering the people and communities who have transmitted their “scripts” to us… for good or for ill.

by Gary David Stratton • Senior Editor

Crash, 2006 Academy Award-winner for Best Picture, provides a powerful metaphor for why worldview change is so difficult.Crash follows a stellar ensemble cast through multiple story lines, most of which explore deeper and deeper levels of worldview.It is one of my favorite films for helping students explore “memes” and the “inciting events” that evoke worldview transformation journeys. [1]

In 1961, literary critic extraordinaire René Girard first introduced the idea that we borrow most of our desires from other people rather than developing our personal desires from scratch. Girard developed his highly influential concept of memetic borrowing throughout his long career, branching out from literary theory into theology, philosophy, and psychology. (See René Girard: The Greatest Christian Intellectual You Never Heard of.) [2]

Then in 1976, Oxford zoologist Richard Dawkins made the idea of memetic borrowing more palpable when he coined the term meme (short for the Greek root of “imitate”) to convey the idea of a single “unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation”(in the same way that a gene is a unit of biological transmission.)[3] In Dawkins’ memetic theory, memes jump from “brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation” (p. 192). Since Dawkins’ initial publication, the field of Memetics has grown both in influence (it helped birth the idea of “viral marketing”) as well as skepticism as to its value as a theory of cultural evolution.

Staying on Script

The concept of memes is a useful interpretive key for helping for understanding why our worldview is so resistant to change. As memetics proponent Susan Blackmore explains, “Everything that is passed from person to person (by imitation) is a meme. This includes all the words in your vocabulary, the stories you know, the skills and habits you have picked up from others, the games you like to play, the songs you sing and the rules you obey.” [4]

In other words, like actors in a screenplay, we all follow “scripts” provided for us largely from outside of our own self-awareness. (Think of the role of “Tradition” in Fiddler on the Roof.)  If imitation is the highest form of flattery, then we are constantly flattering the individuals and communities who have transmitted their “scripts” to us. Our worldview is so deeply rooted within us that we glide through thousands of “preconditioned” decisions each hour, following the cultural and philosophical scripts provided for us by the stories that have shaped us. We simply do what we do without giving a great deal thought as to why we do it. (See, Casablanca and the Four Levels of Worldview.)

These “scripts” exert such a powerful influence on our daily lives that it normally takes a significant  “crash” to reexamine them. These crashes—unexpected events or decisions, often called “inciting events”–are a common devise in nearly all (good) films, but they are particularly evident in Crash. Writer/Director Paul Haggis predicates Crash on the simple premise that no one in Los Angeles deviates from the script of their daily “commute” without a crash.

In the words of Crash’s narrator, Det. Graham Waters (Don Cheadle):

WATERS: In L.A., nobody touches you. We're always behind
this metal and glass. I think we miss that touch so much,
that we crash into each other, just so we can feel something.  .
 
Officer Dan Ryan’s racially-charged traffic stop ends horrifically for Cameron and Christine Thayer

Officer Ryan’s Scripts

One notable story line traces the interplay between LAPD Officer Dan Ryan (Matt Dillon), and socialite Christine Thayer (Thandie Newton). In one of the film’s early scenes, Officer Ryan gropes Christine in a racially motivated traffic stop.  Later, he heroically risks his own life to save Christine from a burning car.  In each case, he is unreflectively following “scripts” (memes) transmitted to him by the best and the worst of police culture. Only the “crash” of a life-and-death encounter with Christine jolts him into a completely new script of tolerance and understanding.

Ryan’s first “script” is rooted in the story of his father’s relationship with the African-American community. As a young man Ryan watched his father dare to treat his African-American employees with dignity only to lose his business to the city’s affirmative action policies. Now, his father suffers in agony from what Ryan fears is prostate cancer, and the one person standing between him and the specialist he needs is a no-nonsense African-American insurance adjustor named Shaniqua Johnson (Loretta Devine).

RYAN: I'm not asking you to help me. I'm asking that you
do this small thing for a man who lost everything so people
like yourself could reap the benefits. And do you know what
it's gonna cost you? Nothing. Just a flick of your pen.
SHANIQUA: Your father sounds like a good man. And if he'd
come in here today, I probably would've approved this request.
But he didn't come in. You did. And for his sake,
it's a real shame!
[To security guard.] Get him the hell outta my office!
 .
Ryan’s bitterness is no match for Shaniqua’s commitment to company policy

Dan’s frustration creates unstated presuppositions of injustice, anger and retaliation against all blacks that are only reinforced by the worst elements (memes) of LAPD culture. Dan never examines the cultural, philosophical, or mythical basis of his decision. He never asks how his father’s story, and the “racist meme” in LAPD culture shape his actions. He simply acts. With horrific brutality, he uses his power as a police officer to abuse Christine.

Click here to watch scene: Traffic Stop from Hell (Warning – Disturbing content)

In an instant, Christine’s life is shattered. Now part of Officer Ryan’s story of racism has deeply impacted Christine‘s story. His actions fill her with unspeakable anguish. Her personal life disintegrates in anger and confusion. Her relationship with her husband, Hollywood director Cameron Thayer (Terrence Howard) begins to spiral out of control as she begins to act out a “reverse racism script” she barely understands, but which her husband knows all too well.

CAMERON: You need to calm down here.
CHRISTINE: No, what I need is a husband who won't just stand
there while I'm being molested!
CAMERON: They were cops!  They had guns!  Where do you think
you're living, with mommy and daddy in Greenwich?
CHRISTINE: --Go to hell.
 .
An unexpected crash brings Officer Ryan and Christine face-to-face in a fiery wreck

The Crash

Ryan and Christine’s new scripts begin with a crash (literally). Christine’s SUV crashes and flips. Gasoline spills everywhere. She is trapped in a burning car with a malfunctioning seatbelt and no hope of escape. No hope, that is, except Officer Dan Ryan. First to arrive on the scene, Ryan quickly springs into action following the hero script written for him (the meme transmitted to him) by the best of LAPD culture.

Then comes the real crash. Christine and Ryan face each other in an inferno that threatens both their lives.  Christine suddenly recognizes Ryan and responds according to the script provided by the personal, cultural, philosophical presuppositions of her story. Despite the approaching flames, she refuses Officer Ryan’s frantic attempts to help her.

RYAN: Lady! I’m trying to help you!
CHRISTINE: #&$% you!  Not you! Not you! 
Somebody else! Not you!

.

Transformed by their encounter (at least for a moment) Officer Ryan pulls Christine to safety

Momentarily confused, Dan suddenly recognizes Christine, not just what she is, but who she is, that she too has a story separate from his. The screenplay reads, “Ryan looks into her face and sees her pain and humiliation, and knows he was the cause of it.” His worldview begins to shift.

Full of shame, he begins to treat Christine with the dignity and respect he never afforded her in the ill-fated traffic stop. But to no avail. As the flames envelope the car, it is obvious that there is nothing to be done for Christine.  Ryan’s partner begins to pull him to safety before it’s too late. The secret that could ruin Ryan’s life will die with Christine.

Suddenly, against all odds, Ryan completely rejects his racist script (meme) and fully embraces his heroic script. Kicking off his partner he dives back into the burning car, risking his life to save the same woman whose life he so carelessly degraded just a few days earlier.

Against even greater odds, Christine rejects her hatred script and accepts help from the man she has hated with archetypal passion. Her worldview shifts as she accepts his now dignified help and heroic rescue. Everything they thought about one another is changed in an instant; everything they thought about themselves is changing as well. As they weep together in a rescuers embrace both characters hover at the edge of transformation.

Click here to watch Unwanted Rescue scene. (Warning: explicit language.)
CHRISTINE throws one look back over her shoulder –
hate filled with fear and gratitude.
RYAN watches her, equally confused, overwhelmed
and embarrassed by his feelings.

 

As the scene ends it is clear that Ryan and Christine have each entered a new story–a story that will alter their future value and belief system,  personal practices, and decisions. Their scripts (memes) change because they crashed into each other’s stories with sufficient force to jolt them out of their culturally transmitted roles. Christine returns home to reconciliation with Cameron (who has been in his own transformation journey).  Ryan returns home and begins to treat his father with a new tenderness and dignity.

Snowfall in L.A.

Cameron Thayer (Terrence Howard) watches flames rise to meet a once-a-century snowfall

Paul Haggis’ masterpiece, concludes with the most unlikely crash of all—a once-a-century snowfall in Los Angeles. The snow is as unimaginable as a worldview shift.  It is also symbolic. For decades, snowfall has served as a favorite Hollywood metaphor for “something is changing.”

As the audience considers this final image, they are challenged with the questions:“Will we continue gliding through the thousands of “preconditioned” decisions we make each day, or will the “Crash” of this movie cause us to reexamine them deeper levels? Will we dare to change?

And as we rise we see the twisted chaos of the intersection,
the cars and people and the (now freed) Illegals disappearing into the maw of the churning city.
And it starts to snow.
FADE OUT
 .

Next post in the series: It’s a Wonderful Worldview: Frank Capra’s Theistic Masterpiece

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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

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?

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

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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

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Notes

[1] Paul Haggis, Cathy Schulman, Sandra Bullock, Don Cheadle, Matt Dillon, Jennifer Esposito, William Fichtner, and Brendan Fraser. Crash. (Santa Monica, Calif: Lions Gate Entertainment, 2005). All quotations from, Crash. Story by Paul Haggis; Screenplay by Paul Haggis, and Robert Moresco. (Bob Yari Productions, Bull’s Eye Productions, Blackfriar’s Bridge & the Harris Company, 2004).

[2] René Girard, Deceit, Desire and the Novel: Self and Other in Literary Structure (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press). See also, Cynthia Haven’s excellent mini-bio in the Stanford Alumni magazine, “History is a Test: Mankind is Failing it.” See also, Michael Kirwan, Discovering Girard (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 2004), The Girard Reader, James G. Williams, Ed. (New York: Crossroad, 1996),  Mimesis and theory : essays on literature and criticism, 1953-2005 (Stanford University Press, 2008.)

[3] Richard Dawkins, The selfish gene (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976). See also, Robert Aunger, Darwinizing culture: the status of memetics as a science (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000). Kate Distin, The selfish meme: a critical reassessment (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005). Robert Boyd and Peter J. Richerson, The Origin and Evolution of Cultures (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).

[4] Susan J. Blackmore, The meme machine (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 16. “So, for example, whenever you drive on the left (or the right!), eat curry with lager or pizza and coke, whistle the theme tune from Neighbours or even shake hands, you are dealing in memes. Each of these memes has evolved in its own unique way with its own history, but each of them is using your behaviour to get itself copied” (p. 16).

The “Doc Ock” Challenge of Cultural Engagement, by James K. A. Smith

Asking Tough Questions of our Technology

The doctor’s intimate association with his own creation (the octopus-like apparatus) was assumed in order to effect transformation; but the sad result is that the apparatus has changed him. What about us?

by James K. A. Smith, Ph.D. • Desiring the Kingdom*

[I]t is important to heighten our sense of the risks of cultural engagement by recognizing cultural institutions as formative spaces of worship. We might describe this as the “Doc Ock Challenge.”

Doctor_Octopus_2004_film

You may recall the infamous villain of Spiderman lore, particularly in the recent film version of Spiderman. Doctor Otto Octavius, a leading nuclear physicist and inventor, pursues high-level research in atomic physics. In order to push the envelope of that research, he develops a set of four mechanical arms that are resistant to radiation; in addition, they are highly precise, being controlled by a brain-computer interface that taps into Dr. Octavius’s mind through inputs into his central nervous system.

The apparatus straps onto his body, carefully inserting electrodes into his spine and neck, creating an interface with his brain that enables the arms to function as extensions of himself. He is, in a way, immersed in the technology. This enables him to pursue further research, all with the best of intentions.

spider-man-2_12But an experiment with the arms goes terribly wrong: a nuclear explosion fuses the arms to his body, cementing the electrodes into his central nervous system. In addition, the explosion causes the death of his wife, Rosie. Anger begins to overwhelm the doctor, who has now become a permanent, albeit artificial, octopus—“ Doc Ock.” His anger and rage are strangely harnessed by the arms, which seem to have a mind of their own. They speak to him, directing him to villainous actions, which are still justified by laudable ends.

The doctor’s intimate association with his own creation (the octopus-like apparatus) was assumed in order to effect transformation; but the sad result is that the apparatus has changed him. What about us?

  1. At what point does our attachment to cultural practices touch upon our central nervous system, so to speak?
  2. When does our engagement with culture become assimilation to culture?
  3. Is it possible that our laudable goal of transforming culture has unwittingly led, instead, to our transformation into its image, assuming its goals?

 

*Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Cultural Liturgies), Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group, 2009, p. 91-92.

Life on the Fast Track: Spiritually Thriving in High Stress Environments

Part of both Lenten Reflections series and ongoing series Finding God in Hollywood: Soul-Nourishing Practices in a Soul-Deadening World

Contrary to popular belief, the drug of choice in Hollywood (the business world, higher education, and the church) is not cocaine.  It’s adrenaline.

by Gary David Stratton

Stress: The confusion created when one’s mind overrides the body’s basic desire to choke the living daylights out of some jerk who desperately deserves it.

The closer and closer we get to allowing our work to consume us, the faster and faster we move.

A pang of conscience shudders through my body as I drop the helpless mouse into the terrarium with our two juvenile ball pythons. I know snakes need to eat. But this a really rotten deal for the mouse.

My pre-teen sons have no such qualms. They want front-row seats to this Nature Channel style apocalypse. Watching Valentine and Sweetie (yes, the women of the family named them) hunt their elusive prey is precisely why they begged us to buy them in the first place.

But it’s not to be.

You’d think that a tiny mouse suddenly confronted with a pair of hungry snakes would do everything within its power to find a way out the cage. Not so. The moment the mouse sees the snake, he freezes.  Then he exhibits the last behavior you would ever expect—he starts washing himself!

Adrenaline Induced Psychosis

You read that right. Stuck between his adrenal system’s “fight” or “flight” responses, the mouse’s only solution is to do neither. Instead, he tries to comfort himself with soothing behaviors that feel normal–like giving yourself a good lick bath.

What’s worse (or more hilarious, depending upon your point of view), as the adrenaline builds in the mouse’s system he begins to cycle through his behavior in tighter intervals. As the snake moves closer and closer, the mouse begins washing himself faster and faster.

By the time the snake is inches away, the mouse is moving at such a frenetic pace he looks like a DVD on fast-forward. With a climactic SNAP of teeth and coils (and anguished squeaks), the “hunt” is over.

My boys cheer. My daughter wretches. I am silent… I have seen this behavior before. In fact, it is my behavior (and that of nearly every human being I have ever met) in High Stress Environments (HSE).

Creativity, Scholarship, Leadership and Adrenaline

 

Filmmakers, academics, and pastors face incredible pressures, but at least no one expects us to raise the dead. (Raising of Lazarus, Rembrandt, 1630)

Contrary to popular belief, the most commonly abused drug in high stress environments like Hollywood, the Ivy League, and Wall Street is not cocaine: it’s adrenaline.

Like the mouse in our snake terrarium, the closer we get to allowing our work to consume us, the faster and faster we move. As the adrenaline builds in our system we begin to comfort ourselves with the lifelong habits that feel normal and comforting to us. Normal, that is, until the SNAP of teeth and crush of coils engulfs our soul.

I suspect this is the hidden causation behind Hollywood’s abysmal record of drug overdoses, wild-child stars, alcoholism, failed relationship, sketchy ethics, and rampant narcissism. As psychologist Archibald D. Hart warns:

“People who are caught up in the pursuit of excellence are particularly vulnerable to stress-related disorders.” [1]

Scholarship and ministry can be just as bad. A recent study discovered that there is a direct relationship between a successful academic career and an unhappy family life. And, have you seen the numbers on divorce and unhappy children in pastoral families?  Ouch!

Ancient Solutions for a Modern Curse

Before we blame our modern condition (which certainly doesn’t make things any easier) let’s admit that our situation is not as unique as we would like to believe. Our high stress environment is extremely similar to the conditions Jesus of Nazareth learned how to handle over 2,000 years ago.

Like a modern filmmaker, Jesus faced enormous crowds demanding food and spectacle, in full view of national leadership calling for his head.

Like a contemporary academic, Jesus had to balance a rigorous teaching schedule, with scholarly production that was “peer-reviewed” daily by the greatest minds in higher education.

Like a post-modern pastor, Jesus woke long before first light and worked deep into hours of the night comforting, healing, and challenging his followers.

On at least one occasion he was so exhausted he actually fell asleep onboard a small boat in the middle of a thunderstorm!

Yup, Jesus knew a thing or two about stress.

Yet through it all, Jesus was somehow able to develop a remarkably resilient and even tranquil inner life.

While Jesus was often tired enough to sleep through a storm, he refused to allow time alone in prayer to be pushed from his schedule. (Rembrandt, Christ Sleeping in the Storm, 1633)

No matter how close the snake approached, Jesus managed to never succumb to adrenaline induced psychosis. He could not be tricked into performing miracles for his demanding followers. He could not be trapped into unwinnable arguments by his academic foes.

He could not be persuaded to stay when it was time for him to go. He could not be persuaded to go while he still had reason to stay. He could not be run out-of-town even when his life was threatened.

How did he accomplish this amazing feat? By exhibiting the exact opposite behavior of a mouse in a high stress environment. Luke records that “As the news about him spread all the more and greater and greater crowds came to hear him and be healed,” Jesus responded, not with faster and faster work habits, but by “often withdrawing to lonely places to pray” (Luke 5:15-16).

In fact, Luke records no less than ten specific occasions when Jesus pulled away from his demanding schedule to pray in solitude. Jesus did not give in to stress-related behavior because he could not be pushed off his discipline of spending quiet hours alone in prayer and meditation–even if he had to rise early or stay up late to do it.

Defeat Adrenaline and you Defeat the Snake

Jesus’ soul-nourishing practices helped him learn to consistently listen for the voice of his heavenly Father. Over time they acutely tuned his spiritual senses to discern the heavenly direction needed for each day. In solitude he learned the truth that, “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Luke 4:4). It was a lesson that saved him in his greatest hour of need.

Faced with a direct frontal assault from the greatest snake of all–Satan–Jesus was ready. The high stress environment of 40 days in the wilderness provided Satan with the perfect opportunity to consume Jesus.  His attack focused on the normal litany of adrenaline-induced coping mechanisms that had worked so effectively in other leaders.

Instead of comforting himself with food, fame, or power, Jesus’ soul-nourishing practices prepared him to face and defeat the greatest snake of all. (The Temptation on the Mount, Duccio, c. 1309)

But instead of comforting himself with food, fame, or power, the rigor of Jesus’ spiritual disciplines had prepared him to face and defeat his adversary. Jesus had spent half a lifetime preparing for this moment. In secret, he had acquired an arsenal of the right memorized Scripture to parry each ‘fiery dart’ of temptation, and the strength of character to wield that knowledge effectively.

With a climactic SNAP of teeth and coils, the hunt is over. Only this time the anguished squeaks come not from the prey, but from the snake.

Learning from the Master

Can ‘normal’ people learn to use this same strategy? Jesus certainly thought so. He wasn’t satisfied with his own ability to thrive in high stress environments. His mission was to teach his followers how to arrange their lives in a such a way that they too could learn to thrive.

But first he first had to teach them why we normally fail…

Next: Story Failure: Why We ‘Lose it’ in High Stress Environments

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Notes:

[1] Hart, Archibald D. 1999. The anxiety cure: you can find emotional tranquillity and wholeness. Nashville, TN: Word Pub.


Story Failure: Why We ‘Lose it’ in High Stress Environments, by Gary David Stratton, PhD

Part of both Lenten Reflections series and ongoing series Finding God in Hollywood: Soul-Nourishing Practices in a Soul-Deadening World

The stories, beliefs and strategies we develop to survive life’s most painful experiences inevitably fail us in high stress environments. The question is, why?

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

“People who are caught up in the pursuit of excellence are particularly vulnerable to stress-related disorders.” – Psychologist Archibald D. Hart

Tabloids love it when  a celebrity ‘lose it’ in public. Nothing sells quite as well a fallen “hero.’ And fortunately for the tabloids, losing it is a common occurrence. In recent years Quentin Tarantino, Billy Bob Thornton, Mel Gibson, Justin Bieber, Brittany Spears, Charlie Sheen, Tom Cruise, Kanye West have each provided ample fodder to guarantee tabloid clicks stay high.

Still, the truth is, sooner or later, everyone loses it. Only most of us don’t have paparazzi stalking us night and day to chronicle our worst moments. What if we did? High stress environments tend to bring out the worst in us, whether you’re a filmmakers, academic, businesswoman, salesman, or church leader. The question is why?

One explanation is the worldview concept of ‘story failure.’ A famous episode from the life of Jesus highlights just how easy it is for even the most earnest spiritual seeker to lose it and why it happens so easily.

 As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”

“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—really only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her. (Luke 10:38-42)

 

A Tale of Two Spiritualities

Mary seizes the opportunity to cherish Jesus’ every word, despite village and sibling pressure to the contrary. (Christ in the House of Mary and Martha, Vermeer, 1655)

Having such a great “celebrity” under your roof is a great honor, but it also carries tremendous responsibility. It places the reputation of the entire village squarely on the shoulders of these two apparently unmarried women. The eyes of every (married) homemaker in town bears down on them to scrutinize the quality of the hospitality they provide.

It is a high stress environment to say the least. And as the “snake” of the dinner hour grew closer and closer, the difference between Mary and Martha’s responses to stress begin to emerge.

Mary immediately seizes the opportunity of having Jesus in her living room. In other settings she would have to defer to the cultural practice of “men only” preferred seating. But they’re in her house now. Mary pushes past the other guests, and plops herself down at her master’s feet. She wants to catch very word that falls from his lips.

Story Failure

Martha is no less committed to Jesus. However, her way of showing her commitment reveals the presence of a profound story failure functioning in her life. We don’t know why an unmarried Martha is running her own household while caring for her younger siblings,[1] but it is a very unusual living situation in the first century Jewish world. It almost certainly involves difficult and painful circumstances. The untimely death of her parents, her husband, and perhaps Mary’s husband as well are all likely explanations.[2] No matter how you cut it, it is not a happy story and it is a story that appears to have shaped her inner life.

We don’t know all the false beliefs and strategies Martha has (unconsciously) constructed on her painful life story, but a few are evident in her words and actions in this passage. (See, Casablanca and the Four Levels of Worldview.) First, we can infer from her accusation that Jesus doesn’t care that her value and belief system seems to include hidden creeds such as: “Nobody cares as much as I do,” or perhaps, “Trust no one but yourself.” Second, we can also infer from her attempt to order Jesus around that her personal rule of life is to always stay in control.  And of course, her society’s ‘scripts’ or memes for how to run a household reinforce some of her worldview. (See, Crash Goes the Worldview: Why Character Transformation Requires Changing Scripts.)

Martha loses it.(Christ in the House of Mary and Martha, Jacopo Robusti Tintoretto, 1580)

This underlying micro-worldview may have helped Martha successfully navigate life in the past, but it fails her altogether in the high stress environment of hosting Israel’s hottest celebrity rabbi. Empowered by her unwavering (and probably unconscious) belief in her life story, Martha starts comforting herself with her preferred coping mechanisms. She knows that the evening is descending into chaos and that no one else cares as much as she does. She knows what must be done and is more than ready to demand obedience to her will. If she could only get her lazy sister’s attention then she could give Mary a piece of her mind and set things right. But her enrapt sister simply won’t take her eyes off that darn rabbi.

Like an adrenaline-charged mouse, her self-comforting behaviors begin winding her soul tighter and tighter with each passing moment.  Luke tells us that all Martha accomplishes with her adrenaline rush is becoming worried and upset. However, those English words simply don’t carry enough weight to adequately describe her internal state. In the original Greek language, the word “worried” carries the idea of being pulled in many different directions at once. Like a loaf of bread thrown into a gaggle of geese, Martha’s soul careens from one concern to the next—the bread, the village busybody’s stare, the soup, her sister’s absence, the tableware, Jesus’ presence, the wine, the disciple’s appetites—until little pieces of her soul begin to tear away.

The word “upset” is even more instructive. It literally means that her “soul is in an uproar.” Anyone who has ever lived in a high stress environment knows exactly what that phrase describes.  It is that feeling of a having an angry toddler or an out of control teenager in your soul. And it is the very state of being that now has Martha squarely in its jaws.

Two Phases of Losing It

It is only a matter of time until they begin to manifest in her relationships. Her anger boils to overflowing until she simply has to act.

In short, Martha loses it …on JESUS!

Even the most fervent filmmaker, professor, or pastor can quickly lose their connection to God in a high stress environment.
Even the most fervent filmmaker, professor, or pastor can quickly lose their connection to God in a high stress environment.

First, she transfers her self-comforting lie—“no one cares as much as I do”—onto Jesus. She pushes her way to the front of the room, not to sit at Jesus feet, but to yell at him. “Don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself?”

Second, she employs her self-comforting take-charge life-strategy to the Lord of the universe. Instead of sitting at Jesus feet and listening to what he has to say, Martha is now the one issuing the orders. “Tell her to come help me!” she commands.

Like everyone who loses it, Martha’s “Adrenaline Induced Psychosis” has only served to bring out the worst in her. Like a high-tempered filmmaker who “loses it” on set, a passive-aggressive academic who sabotages a rival’s tenure review, or the ever-smiling pastor who browbeats his family at home, her soul-deadening strategy has failed the test of thriving in a high stress environment.

We all develop stories we tell ourselves about life, God and others to help us cope with the pain of living in a fallen world. These unconscious narratives form the foundation of a false worldview from which we develop specific strategies to comfort ourselves from past wounds and protect ourselves from further harm.

The bad news is that high stress environments bring these lies and strategies to the surface like silver in the crucible. Veins coursing with adrenaline, our fight or flight reflex kicks in and we compulsively turn to the comfort and/or protect ourself like that mouse in a snake cage.  The results are never good.

The good news is that this same crucible makes our largely unconscious worldview visible. Once we’re aware of the false story we are living we can begin address them in our day-to-day lives. Just listen to your own “self-talk” the next time you’re in a high stress environment and you will begin to piece together some of the false story you are living. (More on this in future posts.)

A Prescription for Adrenaline Induced Psychosis

The better news it that it is possible to follow Jesus into a way of life that exposes these lies and strategies before they destroy us. We can develop a personalized plan of spiritual disciplines to help identify, replace the specific lies with truth, and our unique self-defeating strategies with new life-giving ones. (More on this later as well.)

Through personalized soul-nourishing spiritual practices, we can learn to live a better story.

Through personalized soul-nourishing spiritual practices, we can learn to live a better story. Such practices renew our minds, transform our hearts, and better align our worldview with God’s great story of love and redemption.

Like Jesus, we can even arm ourselves with an arsenal of specific Scriptural truths and character-strengthening practices that prepare us to parry the fiery darts of the evil one, and overcome the specific temptations where we are most vulnerable.

Some of the most foundational truths of the worldview shift  everyone requires to thrive spiritually in a high stress environment are found in Jesus’ response to Mary’s “losing it’ episode. One one level they are specific to Martha’s particular lies and strategies. On another level, they apply to all of us.

The first truth is that God is not angry at us when we ‘lose it.” Instead, he is full of compassion. He begins his response with the double use of her name—“Martha, Martha”—a cultural idiom for endearment. It is certainly not the reaction Martha anticipated.  In fact, his gentle touch completely disarms her. Suddenly becoming self-aware of the scene she is causing in front of the very people she is trying to impress, (trust me, I’ve been there), her indignation drains from her face like a deflated balloon.

For the first time Martha looks into Jesus’ eyes. Instead of finding the anger/compliance response her take-charge strategy has produced in the past, she finds something altogether different. Jesus meets her bullying with unadulterated compassion.

He has been ready for this moment. He knows her story better then she does.  With a knowing smile, Jesus shakes his head at his zealous follower and replies:

“You are worried and upset about so many things. But only one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen what is better and it will not be taken away from her.”

This is the second truth Jesus wants Martha (and us) to grasp–no one can take away your connection to God, but you. Like Curly’s advise to Billy Crystal in City Slickers, only one thing is really necessary. Do whatever it takes to stay connected to Jesus—those practices that help you live your life “sitting at his feet and listening to what he says.”—and everything else will take care of itself.

Double-Knowledge. The Two Steps Forward

This means than learning to thrive in high stress environments involves at least two different processes.

First, we need to discover which spiritual disciplines best help us stay connected to God in the midst of the battle. This is a very personalized process involving a great deal of trial and error (and, yes, failure.)  We’ll come back to this theme later.

Second, we need to go on the journey of discovering WHY we keep blowing up and self-sabotaging.  Spiritual directors through the centuries have discerned what they came to call the principle of double-knowledge: We can only know God as well as we know ourselves, but we can only know ourselves as well as we know God. I know that sounds like a Catch-22. But believe me, it’s not. Like the right and the left pedals of a bicycle we need to keep pumping both sides of this process to get anywhere.   Only as we get to know God and his love will will begin to understand our own story better. And only as we come to know our own story better, will we become more open to the love of God.

Next Week:
Casablanca and the Transforming Love of God
See Also
Fight Club: Why Our Unreliable Narrator is Always Getting Us Into Trouble
 The Volcano in Your Backyard: The Micro-Worldview of a Honeymoon from Hell

 


[1] Martha is always mentioned first, so she is most likely the older of the two. It was their younger brother Lazarus who Jesus raised from the dead (John 11).

[2] It is also possible that Martha and Mary’s singleness is deliberate. Scholars note that a Jewish apocalyptic sect known as the Essenes (who may have helped train John the Baptist) had a strong presence in Bethany and encouraged celibacy. Mary, Martha, and Lazarus could have been older members of this community rather than younger widows and/or orphans. Still, if their singleness is intentional, that makes it highly unusual and stressful in its own way as well.

 

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Jonathan Edwards Goes to Movies: What Story Structure Teaches Us About Religious Affections

Part IV of 2017 Lenten Series: Why Lent is a More Like Moana than Monty Python
The inciting event presents the hero with a decision: Shall I continue in the relative comfort of my business-as-usual life, or risk pursuing a new and more dangerous goal?

by Gary David Stratton 

Something in Erin Brokovich compels her to radically devote herself to the townspeople of Hinkley, even at the expense of her own children.
Something in Erin Brokovich compels her to radically devote herself to the townspeople of Hinkley.

If by some miracle of time-travel you could suddenly transport 18th Century theologian Jonathan Edwards into the audience of your local cineplex tonight, he might very well declare the entire motion picture industry a work of witchcraft! (And he may very well be right.) Yet, a careful reading of America’s greatest theologian’s most important work, A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections, reveals insight into both the craft of screenwriting and the purpose of Lent. Both point to the importance of paying attention to “inciting events.”

The Inciting Event

Whether in real life or a work of fiction, most stories begin with a hero[1] pursuing largely self-centered goals designed to help them survive in their current circumstances. In Gladiator (2000) Maximus just wants to go home to his family and farm. In Star Wars (1977) Luke Skywalker desires only to get off the planet to be with his friends at school. Erin Brockovich (2000) seeks nothing more than a salaried job to feed her kids. Each lacks both the understanding and the desire to pursue anything beyond the struggles of their day-to-day life.

Then something happens; something screenwriters refer to as the inciting event. Suddenly, a new and bigger story crashes in upon the hero’s carefully constructed world. As John Truby notes in The Anatomy of Story, “At the beginning of the story, when weakness and need are being established, the hero is typically paralyzed in some way. You need some kind of event to jump-start the hero out of his paralysis and force him to act.”[2] Luke accidentally triggers a hidden distress video in the memory of a droid. Erin Brokovich discovers that Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) is poisoning Hinkley’s small town water supply.  Caesar unexpectedly commissions Maximus as protector of Rome in order to re-establish a true Republic. In each case, the inciting event presents the hero with a decision: Shall I continue in the relative comfort of my business-as-usual life or risk pursuing a new and more dangerous goal?

The entire story turns when (and only when) the hero makes this difficult choice. In fact, we don’t even have a story without such a decision. For instance, in The Blind Side (2009) hundreds of “Christian” parents drove past homeless teenager Michael Oher one cold November evening. Any one of them could have stopped to help. Only one did. Everyone faced the same event, yet only Leigh Anne Tuohy was incited by it. We tell her story because she acted.[3] This is why most screenwriters refer to the hero’s decision to act in response to the inciting event as plot point one.  Why? Because without that decision you don’t have a plot. You don’t have a story at all.

Affections

This is where Edwards’ thought becomes helpful. According to Edwards, our soul is composed of two primary parts: our mind (including both our perceptions and our understanding of those perceptions), and our heart. Our heart is that aspect of our inner being that attracts us toward some people, ideas, or actions and repels us from other people, ideas, and actions.

When our heart’s attraction towards a particular person, idea, or action is particularly strong, Edwards labels these powerful inclinations as our affections. To Edwards, affections are “the moving springs in all the affairs of life, which engage men in all their pursuits; and especially in all affairs wherein they are earnestly engaged, and which they pursue with vigour.”[4] They are the hidden internal reasons why we choose to love some people and not others, to believe some ideas and not others, and take some actions but not others.

Victory in hand, Maximus just wants to go home to family and farm, until Caesar's inciting event changes everything.
With victory for the empire in hand, Maximus just wants to go home to family and farm . . . until Caesar’s inciting event changes everything.

This makes our affections an extremely important element of any great story. When the hero answers their story question in the affirmative it reveals something deeper in the their soul than any casual observer could notice. Something in Erin Brokovich (compassion? justice?) compels her to radically devote herself to the townspeople of Hinkley, even at the expense of her children (for whom she originally took the job.) Something in Maximus (duty? nobility?) drives him to accept Caesar’s commission, even though it means delaying a comfortable retirement with his wife and son.

Something in the inciting event reveals the hero’s genuine affections. While this single experience never completely transforms the hero–numerous temptations to give up or turn back will come later–something in the inciting event causes them to take their first step of their journey away from a mere longing for comfort and convenience and into something deeper. They want something more and are willing to take action to pursue it.

Awakening or Transformation?

This motivating drive could be an affection that was always present, but “woke up” only when confronted with the inciting event. For instance, in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, Bilbo’s inciting event is an unexpected party of singing Dwarves inviting him to join their quest:

“As they sang the hobbit felt the love of beautiful things made by hands and by cunning and by magic moving through him, a fierce and jealous love, the desire of the hearts of the dwarves. Then something Tookish woke up inside him, and he wished to go and see the great mountains, and hear the pine-trees and the waterfalls, and explore the caves, and wear a sword instead of a walking-stick.”[5]

It takes a bit no longer for him to act, but soon he is running down the road without so much as a handkerchief in his pocket.

Other times, something in the inciting event itself changes the hero’s heart. For instance, in Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), a chance encounter with an alien spacecraft implants Roy Neary with both vivid images of The Devils Tower in Wyoming as well as the insatiable desire to go there.[6] In Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 epic The Ten Commandments, God not only incites Moses to return to Egypt to free his people, he transforms Moses’ affections (and even his appearance) as well.[7]  Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus in Acts 9, is perhaps the ultimate inciting event in the New Testament. His zeal for God is both revealed and transformed by the voice from heaven.

In both inciting event types the hero is confronted with a choice before the story can even begin. As über screenwriting guru Robert McKee declares:

“True character is revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure – the greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation, the truer the choice to the character’s essential nature.”

Obviously, the inciting event is only the beginning of this revelation and transformation, but it is crucial to writing (and living) a great story.

We Are What We Do

This is where Edwards’ thought becomes interesting not only for screenwriters, but for anyone seeking to deepen their relationship with God. Edwards rejects the commonly held notion that our affections and our will are two separate components of our inner being, so that our affections might want one thing, but our will chooses another. Not so, says America’s greatest theologian. “Such seems to be our nature, and such the laws of the union of soul and body, that there never is in any case whatsoever, any lively and vigorous exercise of the inclination, without some effect upon the body…”[8] In other words, while we often profess belief in one direction and act in another, or feel we ought to act one way and then do the opposite, our actions alone reveal the true affections of our heart and mind. We do what we love.

Edwards therefore insists that genuine faith . .

“[C]onsists, in a great measure, in vigorous and lively actings of the inclination and will of the soul, or the fervent exercises of the heart. That religion which God requires, and will accept, does not consist in weak, dull, and lifeless wishes, raising us but a little above a state of indifference. God, in his word, greatly insists upon it, that we be in good earnest, fervent in spirit, and our hearts vigorously engaged.”[9]

Lenten Examination

"Then something Tookish woke up inside him..."
“Then something Tookish woke up inside him…”

This is why Lent can be so transformative. The season is designed to help us examine the gap between our professed faith and our lived belief, between our creed and our lifestyle, between the things we tell ourselves we are passionate about and our true motivations revealed by our actions. Jesus instructed his followers, “You will know them by their fruits.”[10] And Edwards reminds us that Jesus viewed most important fruit as a love of God expressed in sacrificial service on behalf of others. “This is my command that you love one another as I have loved you… For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give us life for others.”[11]

The practice of (and not the mere tip of the cap to) sacrificial service reveals the presence of the greatest and highest affection of all: love of God and others for God’s sake. Why? Because much of what passes for religion seems motivated by little more than a self-centered desire to survive in our current circumstances. However, the decision to give up your life in sacrificial service of others is rarely motivated by anything except genuine spiritual affections. In essence, Edwards is saying, if you want to see who the true heroes are around you, don’t look for the most religious, or the most famous, or the most published. Look for those who love

Lent then is a season for honestly asking myself if I might be missing inciting events to love and serve that are happening all around me: a homeless teenager who needs shelter, a town that needs an advocate, a political system that needs reforming, a social injustice that needs a champion. Perhaps they are more than the mere random events. They could be God’s call to wake up and enter our true story. Our true affections are revealed only in our responses to these inciting events that dare us to ask: Shall I continue in the relative comfort of my business-as-usual life or risk pursuing a new and more dangerous goal?

Any screenwriter could tell you that.

Next: The Volcano in Your Backyard: Micro-Worldviews and the Honeymoon from Hell

 


[1] Or, ‘Main Character,’ as some main characters are clearly not heroic.

[2] 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller (p. 276). Faber & Faber. Kindle Edition. (2008-10-14).

[3] This is not to say that sometimes a hero requires numerous inciting events to jar them into action. For instance, Luke learning that a beautiful princess needs rescue, that his father was really a Jedi fighter pilot, or even that a Jedi master needs his help, isn’t enough to overcome his earth-bound (er, Tatooine-bound) inertia. It is only after imperial Stormtroopers kill his aunt and uncle that he finally decides to go with Obi-wan to Alderaan and, “Learn the ways of the force like my father.”

[4] Edwards, Jonathan (1745) A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections (In Three Parts) (Kindle Edition, 2011) Locations 332-333.

[5] The Fellowship of the Ring (Boston: Mariner books, 2012), p. 83. (Italics mine.)

[6] This same alien transformation motif is also subtly evident in Spielberg’s more famous E. T. The Extra-Terrestrial  (1982).

[7] Actually, in this nearly four-hour long epic, one could argue that Moses transformation is the midpoint of the film. However, in the biblical account, Moses’ encounter with THWH at the burning bush is clearly the inciting event for his personal journey at the Exodus itself.

[8] Affections, 270-271.

[9] Ibid., 297-300.

[10] Matthew 7:16

[11] John 15:12, Mark 10:45

Emmy Magazine’s Interview with Kurt Schemper, Korey Scott Pollard, and Gary David Stratton

SERIES INTRO: Soul-Nourishing Practices in a Soul-Deadening World

“The entertainment industry is no different than any other place with lonely people searching for gladness.”  -Emmy Award-winning producer, Kurt Schemper

by Gary David Stratton, PhD • Senior Editor

Emmy Magazine isn’t the most likely place for insight into spiritual formation.

“A writer for Emmy magazine is on the phone for you.” At first I thought our PR director was pulling my leg. College professors don’t get calls from Emmy magazine, even if they are moonlighting as the Executive Director of a community of Christian entertainment industry professionals seeking to train and equip storytellers to enter mainstream Hollywood.  Act One had been in existence for over a decade and even though we had graduates writing, producing, and directing on numerous TV shows and more than a few feature films, no entertainment industry press had ever called our offices before.

Kurt Schemper changed all that.  A producer for A&E’s critically acclaimed reality program, Intervention, Kurt had just become the first Act One graduate to win a prime time Emmy Award. The writer on the phone, Libby Slate, was fascinated by Kurt’s connection to a Hollywood Christian community. But, what really impressed her was how the Act One community had lived out our faith by rallying to aid former staff member Rosario Rodriguez after her gang-related shooting while walking in the tawny L.A. neighborhood Libby called home. (Read story here.)

Libby wanted to know if Emmy could do an article highlighting Kurt and Act One’s unique mission in Hollywood.  Kurt and I readily agreed, and director Korey Scott Pollard (House, Grey’s Anatomy, Monk, Nashville, Rizzoli and Isles, Lie to Me, The Middle, Jack Ryan) signed on to represent the Act One faculty perspective.

Kurt posing with his new hardware.

As Kurt, Korey and I prepared for our interview, Korey pushed for us to be ‘really ready’ to express exactly what we wanted to say. Our conversations turned to how difficult it is to thrive spiritually in Hollywood, and interviewer Libby Slate graciously picked up on this theme.

In the course of our conversations Kurt mentioned that one of his college professors at Judson College encouraged him to pursue his calling to Hollywood by quoting Frederick Buechner:

“The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

Kurt’s response was, “My deep gladness is Jesus. The entertainment industry is no different than any other place with lonely people searching for gladness.”

The idea of finding “deep gladness” in Hollywood really resonated with me, especially as I contemplated what a “soul-deadening” place Hollywood can be for many industry insiders. So in my interview, I told Emmy, “We’ve found that the spirituality taught by Jesus is an ideal starting place for guiding industry professionals on a soul-nourishing spiritual journey.”

That language resonated with Emmy readers as well, and soon opened doors all over Hollywood. Now it leads to this new series entitled, “Soul-nourishing Practices for a Soul-deadening world: Finding the Voice of Your Own Gladness in Hollywood and Beyond.”

My hope is that these posts will help filmmakers, educators and other culture makers find their own “deep gladness” through the soul-nurturing practices Jesus taught his first followers over 20 centuries ago. Not mere religious practices targeted at greater self-righteousness, but spiritual practices targeted at nurturing a deeper connection to God.

We officially launched the series earlier, but today I thought you might want to read the original Emmy article. (I couldn’t figure out how to post it directly, so you’ll have to download the article as a pdf.)  Enjoy!

Click to download Emmy Magazine Article PDF

 

NEXT:  Connecting to the Life of God in Hollywood, the Ivy League, and Beyond – Soul-Nourishing Practices in a Soul-Deadening World

Give it a Rest! by Keith Kettenring, PhD

It is in the place of relational intimacy with the Father (like Jesus has) that true rest is experienced and lived.

by Keith Kettenring, PhD • Homestead Retreat House

There are probably few things we do more poorly than relaxing.  When they try, workaholics feel guilty, controllers get anxious, the lazy get bored, fun-lovers become disillusioned, the responsible get uncomfortable and the diligent feel awkward. We’ve got to make it happen; if we don’t who will? We’d rather burn out than rust out. We’ve got to be proactive, hard-working, productive, energetic, and busy. How in the world can we relax when there’s so much to do?

I’m using the word relax. But Jesus, in Matthew 11:28, uses the word “rest.” His word is superior and more satisfactory since it goes to the core of our being – our souls (“you shall find rest for your souls”). Relaxing is primarily a physical thing which humans try to make happen through their own efforts. Rest is an inner serenity, a calm trust that is realized even in the midst of outer turmoil. True rest, Jesus tells us, is a gift given to those who are with Him, accept His yoke, and learn from Him. Therefore, we can experience rest no matter our circumstances, our energy levels, or our productivity.

I’d like to focus on finding rest by “taking his yoke” as an exploration as to why we have such a hard time resting (or relaxing). Typically when a Bible teacher gets to the “yoke” he or she begins explaining what a yoke in Jesus’ day may have looked like and concluding that we, too, are connected (“yoked”) to Jesus so that He guides our lives and shares our burdens. That’s all well and good as far as it goes. Yet there may be something richer and deeper here into which Jesus is inviting us when he says, “take my yoke upon you.” We will find real rest in this richer and deeper place.

Pause a while on the word “my” that Jesus used in designating this yoke. Could it be that Jesus is inviting us into the same intimate relationship he has with the Father? First, he explains that certain truths are hidden from the wise and clever but not to the childlike (11:25-26). Then, he opens the door for us to get a glimpse of his relationship of experiencing life with the Father as the context for helping us understand “his” yoke (11:27). Now, is the perfect time to offer those willing to accept it (the childlike) the invitation to take hold of (enter and embrace fully) the intimate relationship that he has with the Father that He now wants us to share with him. In other words, “my yoke” is the kind of yoke he has with the Father, a yoke that connects them in loving intimacy. Astonishing! You and I are invited to possess an intimate relationship with the Father similar to what Jesus has with Him.

Are you facing turmoil? Are you weighed down by genuine concerns? Are you exhausted from trying to make your marriage, family, job, or ministry work? Are you carrying burdens that are crushing you? Take hold of Jesus’ “yoke,” put it on and learn what it is to be intimate with your Father. Within this deepening intimacy with the Father you will discover fresh ways to manage life’s burdens and weariness.

Does the prospect of intimacy with the Father like Jesus has stir something deep within you? Is that kind of intimacy something your heart and soul longs for? Does the prospect of genuine rest in connection with your Father resonate in your soul? Come to Jesus…his relationship with the Father can be your relationship with the Father…and find rest.

See also:  

 

 

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.

The Ride: Connecting to God in Hollywood, the Ivy League, and Beyond

Part 2 in series Finding God in Hollywood: Soul-Nourishing Practices in a Soul-Deadening World

Horseback riding is not a mode of transportation from one physical locale to another. It is a mode of transportation from one spiritual state to another.  And so are the classic spiritual disciplines.

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

Micaiah with ‘Maryland’: The crankiest and best horse in the Equestrian Center’s stable

As I write this, I am watching my daughter, Micaiah, take a riding lesson at the Equestrian Center in Burbank, CA. The Equestrian Center is, uh, shall we say, “oddly out of place” in urban Los Angeles. On my right, traffic on the Golden State Freeway (“the” 5, as we say here in L.A.) zooms by at 65+ miles per hour. On my left, horses plod around a riding circle at, well, a lot less than 65 miles per hour. What gives?

Why would anyone invest so much time and money striving to master such an outdated mode of transportation? It takes years to painstakingly advance through learning to walk, trot, cantor, gallop, jump, dressage, etc. Then, once you do achieve riding excellence, your top speed is still only a fraction of that of the traffic whizzing by. My daughter shovels, “stuff,” to earn her lessons, but most riders shell out enough cash to cover monthly payments on a luxury car. I mean, if your goal is to get from Pasadena to Hollywood, then this horseback riding thing is a total waste of time. Just buy a Jag and get on with it.

Yet if you think of horseback riding as something designed to get you somewhere on your busy schedule then you are missing the entire point. Horseback riding is not a mode of transportation from one physical locale to another. It is a mode of transportation from one spiritual state to another. The disciplines of learning to ride cleanse the rider of the soul-deadening effects of modern life and “re-center” their soul in a calmer, deeper place. My actress-singer daughter says it’s “rejuvenating.” Seeing the light and energy in her eyes after each time she rides, I believe her.

Spiritual Disciplines

Now at first glance, striving to master 2,000 year-old spiritual disciplines seems even more irrelevant than learning to ride a horse. I mean, at least horseback riding might help you land a role, or inspire a screenplay. What earthly good does it do to invest the time and energy it takes to master practices like prayer, meditation, fasting, Torah-study, or Psalm-singing? Sure, prayer can come in handy when you’re facing an audition, pitch meeting, or financing appointment. But this kind of “spiritual discipline” is practiced by everyone in Hollywood (even the staunchest atheists), and probably has about as much utilitarian value as wearing your lucky pair of socks.  Prep for your meeting, pay for some good coaching, and get on with it.

Yet, if you think of the spiritual disciplines only as something to get you somewhere in your career, you are missing the entire point. Spiritual disciplines are not tools for getting you from failure to success. They are pathways for keeping you alive spiritually in the constantly shifting landscape of success and failure that is Hollywood.

The Soul-Deadening Worlds of Power

The overarching characteristic of the Ivy League (and Hollywood) is what Schmelzer calls, “Grim drivenness.

Actor/Comedienne/Writer Susan Isaacs once challenged a crowd of aspiring entertainment industry students, “Would you accept God’s call to Hollywood if you knew that you would only have three successful years out of a thirty-year career?” Most wouldn’t, yet that is about the average for those who ‘make it’ here.  The spiritual disciplines are the means by which someone survives and even thrives, not only in the three years when they’re a hot property, but in the other twenty-seven as well.

Make no mistake, the competitive nature of all centers of power–Hollywood, the Ivy League, Wall Street, Washington, D.C., etc.–nearly always creates a soul-deadening culture. Former Yale Professor Henri Nouwen warned, “Our society is… a dangerous network of domination and manipulation in which we can easily get entangled and lose our soul.”[1] Dave Schmelzer, principal at Blue Ocean, Inc. in Cambridge, MA asserts the overarching characteristic of his Ivy League community is what he calls, “Grim drivenness.”  Dave adds, “These are the brightest and most talented people in the world, and the very drivenness that got them this far in a highly competitive environment prevents them from ever really enjoying the fruit of their success. There is always another rung to climb on the ladder of success.”[2] Sounds a lot like Hollywood to me!

Yokes that Bring Our Souls Rest

Spiritual disciplines counteract this soul-deadening effect by nourishing the soul of the practitioner and re-centering the filmmaker, professor, stockbroker, and/or congressman in a calmer, deeper place. Prayer, meditation, study, etc. are means by which we deepen our connection to others and to God. Nearly everyone working in a pressure-filled environment can benefit from practicing them—from Zen Buddhist’s like Laker’s coach Phil Jackson, to Scientologists like Tom Cruise.

However, the spiritual disciplines play a particularly meaningful role in the Judeao-Christian tradition. They are part of what early Rabbis referred to as their yoke—the teachings and spiritual practices each Rabbi used to guide their students into a deeper relationship with God.[3] Like learning to ride a horse, the study of Torah—the principal spiritual discipline in rabbinic education—demanded the utmost commitment to move from one level of expertise to the next. Yet, the promise of a life centered in God and his ways made the effort worthwhile. (See, Rabbinic Higher Education.)

Connecting to the Life of God

Jesus of Nazareth built upon this rabbinic tradition to shape his own version of spiritual formation. Jesus told his first followers, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me… and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:29). He taught his disciples to pray, study, build community, and serve not to earn religious brownie points, but to form a deep attachment to God—to ‘rest’ in him. Like vines on a branch, Jesus promised his followers that if they would focus upon staying connected to the life of God, then the life of God would flow into them and bear fruit in everything they do (John 15:1-8). The spiritual disciplines are one of the key means by which we maintain that connection. (See, With Prayer in the School of Christ.)

USC philosophy professor, Dallas Willard, has worked tirelessly over the last few decades to describe how Christian spiritual formation can and should help us maintain our connection to the life and the love of God in the Academy, Hollywood, and beyond. He states:

“God’s desire for us is that we should live in him. He sends us the Way to himself.  That shows us, in his heart of hearts, what God is really like–indeed, what reality is really like. In its deepest nature and meaning our universe is a community of boundless and totally competent love.”

Personalizing the Process

Like horseback riding, staying connected to the life and love of God is not a one-size-fits-all process. It has taken Micaiah years to find the right stable, the right trainer, the right horse (the crankiest, but “best” in the stable), and the right sub-disciplines to learn to ride in a way that maximizes the ‘gladness’ riding brings her soul. The same is true for those seeking to cultivate a relationship with God. The disciplines that help one person are often torture for another. The key for some is sitting quietly in a beautiful sanctuary, for others it is walking in the beauty of nature, for some connection to God is found among books in a quiet library, for still another it is best found amidst music is a raucous worship service.

The point of spiritual discipline is not to perform some cookie-cutter religious ritual to make God like you better, but rather to find the pathways that best help your soul connect to the God who already loves you infinitely, ultimately, and unconditionally.

In the following weeks I will explore a number of the key concepts and disciplines that have been most helpful to a variety of leaders in Hollywood, the Ivy League, and beyond in living a soul-nourishing life in a soul-deadening world.  My hope is that we can help you create your own individualized set of spiritual disciplines that help you stay connected to the life and love of God even in the most pressurized situations.

Of course there is another way: the way of giving in to a soul-deadness. Will we? Or will we follow my daughter’s example and embrace an “outdated” approach to life, that in the end is the only one capable of transporting us where we really want to go—to the very heart of God.

Let’s ride!

..

Next post in series: Life on the Fast Track: Spiritually Thriving in High Stress Environments 

 

See also

Emmy Magazine Article Featuring Emmy-winning Producer Kurt Schemper, Director Korey Scott Pollard, and Gary David Stratton

Why Lent is a lot Like Surfing

Spiritual formation book recommendations:

The Practice of the Presence of God, by Brother Lawrence

Sacred Rhythms, by Ruth Haley Barton

Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, by Adele Alberg Calhoun

The Organic God, by Margaret Feinberg

The Celebration of Discipline, by Richard Foster

Invitation to a Journey, by Robert Mulholland

The Way of the Heart, by Henri Nouwen

The Life You’ve Always Wanted, by John Ortberg

Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, by Peter Scazzero

The Good and Beautiful Life, by James Bryan Smith

Sacred Pathways, by Gary Thomas

The Spirit of the Disciplines, by Dallas Willard

 


[1] The Way of the Heart (New York: Random House, 1981), p. 9.

[2] At least in the Ivy League it is possible to get tenure!

[3] M. Maher (1975). ‘Take my yoke upon you’ (Matt. xi. 29). New Testament Studies, 22, pp 97-103

 

Ash Wednesday Logic: Why Lent is a More Like Moana than Monty Python

The surfer doesn’t create the waves, but her canoe puts her in a position to catch their energy. 

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

Don’t you think it’s a little odd to give up something for Lent in order to worship a Savior who told us to remember him by eating carbs and drinking alcohol?”

That’s the question a brilliant young writer confronted me with after an intense conversation covering Ash Wednesday, Lent, fasting, and dieting (there is a difference, right?).

To her, fasting made about as much sense as the head-bonking monks in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” whose unspoken motto appears to be: “Painfulness is next to godliness.”

She had a point. We find the head-bonking monks so funny precisely because we know that the extreme asceticism of the Middle ages, no matter how sincere, was profoundly flawed.

But are all ascetic practices flawed? She suspected they were. I desperately tried to offer an alternative perspective.

After talking it through for nearly an hour, I finally gave her the best answer I could: fasting is more like Moana than Monty Python. 

Let me explain…

A Brief History of Lent

For centuries the imposition of ashes on “Ash Wednesday” has served as a symbolic entrance into the Lenten season of repentance

Fasting for 40 days before Easter was originally established as a time of spiritual preparation for new converts to Christianity before they were all baptized together each Easter. However, in 325 AD, The Council of Nicea made Lent an official season of fasting for the entire church to prepare to receive the new members.

This was normally practiced as eating only one meal per day for the entire 40 days.[1] (Note: While many modern Catholics give up something for Lent, the Vatican only prescribes Ash Wednesday and Good Friday as official fast days.)

In the ensuing centuries many Christ-followers found Lent a helpful practice in their walk with God. Fasting is often connected with repentance in Scripture. Using fasting and repentance to help “Prepare the way” for the Lord” in one’s heart for the celebration of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection can be a very helpful and instructive practice.

Entering this season of repentance through imposition of ashes on one’s forehead on “Ash Wednesday” can create a strong connection to the Biblical practice of repenting in sackcloth and ashes.  (Traditionally, the ashes are made from palm fronds from the previous year’s Palm Sunday to remind us of how quickly our cries of, “Hosanna” can turn to “Crucify him!”) Skipping a meal, a favorite food, or favorite activity can help underscore our words of repentance with our bodies.  Our “hunger” allows us to more closely identify with Jesus’ missional commitments, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work” (John 4:34).

Lenten Warfare

However, the practice of Lent also has a dark side in church history. As the human tendency toward hyper-control began to infiltrate the church, the practice of Lent became more and more prescribed and restrictive with each passing year. By the Middle Ages the compulsory practice of Lent had become genuinely oppressive, not unlike Monty Python’s head-bonking monks. With the advent of the Reformation, Protestant leaders began to distance themselves from the practice.

Martin Luther saw nothing wrong with Lent in theory, but feared that most Lenten fasting had become dead compulsory religious ritual aimed at earning God’s favor that amounted to “fasting to Satan instead of a fasting unto holiness.” Ulrich Zwingli and later John Calvin were just as rough. They all but outlawed what they called the “gross delusion” of the “superstitious observance of Lent.”

John Wesley helped advance a balanced perspective on Lent

Soon, Lent-keeping became a shibboleth defining which side of the Reformation you were on. Take ashes and the “Anti-Lent” crowd called you an enemy of the gospel. Refuse them, and the “Pro-Lent” gang condemned you to hell.

John Wesley, founder of the Methodist church, was perhaps the first Protestant to swing the pendulum back toward a more balanced approach. Wesley broke with the Church of England’s ban on Lent by listing it among his approved fast days of the Church. In fact,  he thought it was “deplorable” that many Methodists neglected such fasting.

Wesleyan Methodist churches eventually reinstated Lent as an official church practice. Anglicans, Lutherans, and later Presbyterians also eventually reinstated Lent as well (which probably caused Zwingli and Calvin to roll over their graves.)

Dallas Willard and the Spiritual Formation Movement

In recent years, Lent has enjoyed something of a revival among younger Christians, especially those influenced by the contemporary spiritual formation movement. Dallas Willard, Richard Foster, James Houston, and a growing chorus of “Willard for Dummies”[2] advocates are helping contemporary Christians recapture the positive elements of “spiritual discipline” in general, and Lent in particular.

We indirectly participate in our own transformation through the spiritual disciplines.

Willard warns that Protestantism’s emphasis upon grace all too often draws believers into the heresy of passivism. A proper understanding of grace rightly emphasizes our inability to “earn” our own salvation. However, passivism mistakenly emphasizes our inability to play a role in our own transformation (The Renovation of the Heart, p. 82). Fasting in general, and Lenten fasting in particular can help counteract this passive, “I’ll wait around for God to change me,” approach to faith.

While we are saved by faith through grace alone (Eph. 2:8-9), we are transformed by the “interactive presence” of the Holy Spirit in our lives (p. 23). God could transform us instantly and unilaterally, but he has chosen to transform us largely by working with us (p. 10). We participate in our own transformation indirectly by shaping of our thoughts and feelings through the rigorous and skillful application of spiritual discipline  (p. 248).

In other words, while we cannot instantly or immediately transform our character by sheer force of will, we can will to practice the kind of disciplines that put us in a place where God’s grace can transform us into the image of Christ.

This is why Lent can be both used and abused. To practice Lent out of sense of compulsion—say, fearing that God will smite me if I eat chocolate—or in hopes of earning brownie points with God for my good behavior, are both anathema to the the gospel of Christ and the true spirit of the disciplines.

However, to give up something for Lent in hopes of using your body (your whole being) to express your prayer of repentance can be very powerful.  It can put you in a position to better cooperate with the movements of the Spirit in your own soul. And, of course, if we also “take up” a spiritual discipline for Lent—say, Scripture meditation or centering prayer—then we are in a position to catch even more of God’s grace.

Catch the Wave

Just as a surfboard (or canoe) helps a surfer catch the power of a wave, Lent can help someone ‘catch’ the grace of God.

This is where Moana comes in. Just like in Disney’s Moana, the surfer doesn’t create the wave, but her board (or canoe) helps her to catch the energy provided by the ocean. In the same way, a spiritual discipline (such as a Lenten fast) doesn’t create the transforming power of God, but it does help us to catch it.

The spiritual discipline of fasting creates a space of faith that God is only too glad to fill. When practiced in this way, the spiritual discipline of Lent helps people “catch the wave” of God’s ever-available power. (For ideas, see The Lent Project, sponsored by Biola University’s Institute for Spiritual Formation.)

A Personal Note

That’s the way it has worked for me. I didn’t grow up in a tradition that emphasized Lent. Yet for some reason, As a young Christ follower, Lent just seemed like a good idea to prepare my heart for Easter by following Christ into a 40-day fast. Since I wanted my fast to be ‘to’ Christ and not just ‘from’ something, I decided to give up television and use the time I freed for prayer and bible reading.

It turned out to be a profound spiritual experience. I discovered that God’s power and presence had been fully available to me, but night-after-night I had not been available to him.  Once I began using the time previously devoted to mindless entertainment to seek him, I began to catch the supernatural resources that had always been at my disposal. [3] The spiritual discipline of Lent became a surfboard God used to propel me forward in my faith. I’ve since witnessed corporate Lenten fasts impact entire churches and academic communities.

Alcohol, Carbs, and the Presence of God

And that is why Lent is more like Moana’s majestic wave riding than the Monty Python monks pointless head-bonking.

So, Arielle, there’s my answer. Enjoy the blessings of God found in food, drink, carbs, and the arts.  “Whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (1Cor 10:31). But sometimes an intense season of spiritual discipline such as Lent is just what we need to re-examine our heart and catch the wave of Christ’s ever-present help.

The Ocean is Calling!

 

See also

Connecting to God in Hollywood, the Ivy League, and Beyond, by Gary David Stratton
What is Spiritual Formation? by Dallas Willard
Sabbath as Spiritual Warfare, by Richard Beck
The Spiritual Lives of Christian College Students, by Todd W. Hall

 


[1] Okay, the official Lenten season from Ash Wednesday to Easter is actually 46 days. Why? Because Medieval church leaders decided that fasting on Sunday (a Christian ‘feast’ day) was hypocritical. They deducted the six Sunday’s of Lent from the season of repentance, making Lent an awkward 46 days long. This has always seemed more like a loophole than an actual spiritual discipline to me. I normally just fast the whole 46 days, but having a break once a week can be nice and even help prevent legalism from creeping in.

[2] John Ortberg’s self-professed job description.

[3] Don’t take this as a slam on TV viewing in general. I still love television and many of my friends and students work in the TV industry. I think moderate viewing of excellent shows can be a very helpful spiritual discipline. In fact, my DVR and streaming services have helped me nearly eliminate the kind of mindless channel-surfing that often thwarted my early spiritual development. Since then I have given up Facebook or Social Media, as these tend to be my major time wasters in my current lifestyle.

The Second Great Awakening: From Rural Revival to National Social Movement

Adapted from the authors’ forthcoming article in the Encyclopedia of Christianity in the United States

More than a century before the New Deal, Public Education, or the Civil Rights movements, the Second Great Awakening fostered a nation-wide “benevolent empire” of care for the poor, freedom for the oppressed and education for all. 

By Gary David Stratton, Professor, Johnson University (TN) and James L. Gorman, Assistant Professor, Johnson University 
Oberlin President, Charles Grandison Finney (1792-1875)
Oberlin President, Charles Grandison Finney (1792-1875)

Generally regarded as a second groundswell of evangelical Protestant religious interest following the Revolutionary War, the Second Great Awakening was more extensive and enduring than the Great Awakening of the 1730s-1740s. The Second Great Awakening began as a rural movement in the 1790’s and achieved notoriety in the Cane Ridge Revival (1801) led by Barton Stone in the south and the Yale College revival (1802) led by Timothy Dwight in the north. The movement was marked by great educational and social reform, culminating in the ministry and Oberlin college presidency of Charles Grandison Finney, who published one of revivalism’s most influential works, Revival Lectures, in 1835.

Antecedents

Kidd (2007) asserts that dividing the early American awakening into two distinct timelines may “obscure the fact that the evangelical movement continued to develop after 1743 and before 1800” (p. xix). No certain or obvious stopping point for the Great Awakening exists; the same is true for the Second Great Awakening. For instance, Scots-Irish Presbyterianism was crucial to the story of evangelicalism’s development during the Revolutionary period and provides a direct link from the colonial Great Awakening to the early-republic Second Great Awakening (Schmidt). Similarly, New Divinity ministers kept Jonathan Edwards’ vision of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit alive in Congregational churches across New England and into New York, while Pietist revivals in Pennsylvania and New Jersey never completely died out. The same could be said for developments among Baptists, Methodists, Anglicans, etc., who each sought the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon their ministries.

Noll (2003) notes that while awakenings may be works of the Holy Spirit, such movements can also be studied as the effect of human leadership. “By taking note of the agents who, whether perceived as servants of God or merely adept shapers of culture, historical explanation adds the sphere of human responsibility to realms of theological principle, religious conviction or social tectonics” (p. 141). By following three key exemplars of the movement, it is possible to sketch out many of the key characteristics of the Second Great Awakening.

Barton Stone and the Cane Ridge Revival (1801)

If one were to mark the “beginning” of the Second Great Awakening, based on criteria of numerical size and geographical extent of awakening, the best starting point would be the “Great Revival in the West” (1797-1805). The leaders were revivalist Presbyterians who followed Jonathan Edwards’ balanced approach to awakening to stoke the fires of awakening through the Revolutionary era who found particularly fertile ground in Kentucky. The rapid expansion of the fledgling nation across the Appalachians created a vast territory with little or no rule of law, where settlers and outlaws often battled to an uneasy seasons of peace, and leaving a spiritual vacuum which revivalists rushed in to fill.

One of the best known of these revivalists was Barton Stone, a “discontented Calvinist” and pastor of two Presbyterian churches in Bourbon County, Kentucky. After witnessing revival in Scottish style “sacramental meetings” in Logan County under the preaching of James McGready (who Stone knew and trusted from his academy days) Stone became convinced that God could grant the gift of faith without an extensive season of “seeking” God. He returned to Bourbon County determined to preach that his men could “believe now, and be saved.” (Alvarez, p. 45)  After growing success in Concord began to attract large crowds, Stone called for a weeklong sacramental meeting at Cane Ridge. The meetings attracted between 10,000 and 20,000 people with many “falling” under the power of the Spirit and coming to faith in a matter of hours (Conkin).

Denominational ties began to lose their meaning in meetings where as many as seven pastors from four denominations were preaching in various parts of the camp simultaneously. Calling themselves simply “Christians,” the movement spread throughout the Ohio and Tennessee Valleys, where Stone eventually joined forces with Alexander Campbell in 1832, forming a denomination with a handshake. Denominational unity (a strong ideal of Jonathan Edwards’ revivalism) and innovation (first modeled by George Whitefield in the Great Awakening) became hallmarks or the Stone-Campbell movement and the entire Second Great Awakening. “The Disciples, Christian Churches, and Churches of Christ founded by these leaders effectively evangelized the Upper South and opening West because they had translated the Christian message into an effective American idiom” (Noll, p. 51).

Timothy Dwight and Yale College

When the faculties at Harvard and Yale rejected the (First) Great Awakening, entrenching these institutions as “Old Light” bastions, “New Light” friends of the awakening were quick to take up the charge in the founding of a flurry of new colleges with a revival bent.  Some New Divinity colleges, such as Dartmouth, and Amherst, were founded directly on Jonathan Edwards’ principles of revival. Others, like Williams, and Rutgers were later captured by followers of Edwards’ educational vision. In the end, nearly all colleges of the era were eventually influenced by the Edwards/Dwight project of integrating revivalism with Scottish Common Sense Realism, in no small degree due to influence of his grandson, Timothy Dwight, who was named to the presidency of Yale in 1795 in a striking Edwardsean takeover of what had once been an “Old Light” institution.

Like his grandfather, preaching was central to Dwight’s approach to preparing the way for spiritual awakening and presidential sermons were the core of the college curriculum.  Dwight preached twice each Sunday in mandatory college church services: a morning sermon addressed to a doctrinal topic, and an afternoon discourse on more practical and experiential applications of faith, using scripture and Common Sense Realism (Thomas Reid and John Witherspoon) to defend his theology. Still, revival eluded Dwight for his first seven years at Yale, as students commitment to ‘French infidel philosophy’ often exceeded those committed to Christian faith.

It wasn’t until students who had been touched by revivals in the rural churches of the Connecticut River Valley instituted a Jonathan Edwards’ style concert of prayer–a weekly meeting of “united and fervent prayer that God might pour out his Spirit upon the college”–that the Second Great Awakening finally came to Yale. By the end of the summer term, no less than eighty out of 230 students had been “hopefully converted to God and admitted to the college church, thirty-five of which became preachers of the gospel.

Yale experienced three further revivals under Dwight and these outpourings of the Spirit became a welcomed and promoted aspect of the president’s educational program. When students petitioned to cancel classes in a season of spiritual awakening, Dwight refused and instead carefully guided them back to a biblical holism committed to fostering the life of the Spirit in the day-to-day life of the college; an approach that eventually spread to many if not most of America’s colleges.

Under Dwight’s presidency Yale College grew into the largest and most influential college in the Americas and so that higher education became a hallmark of the Second Great Awakening. At one point 35 of the 150 college presidents in the United States were graduates of Dwight’s Yale. Marsden notes that Dwight’s emphasis upon “revival and moral philosophy, were the chief collegiate supplements to traditions of regulated worship…” and laid the foundation for nearly a century of academic ascendancy that “may be called with justice the great age of Christian higher education in the history of the country” (p. 58).

Noll notes that Dwight and these “revival colleges” were instrumental in effecting a “surprising intellectual synthesis” of evangelicalism and common-sense moral reasoning that dominated the nation’s thinking and led to the remarkable “Christianization” of American society (Noll, 2005, p. 9).

Charles Grandison Finney

Regarded as the father of modern revivalism, Charles G. Finney was the human catalyst for some of the most impressive urban revivals in United States history and in the process created the methodology for virtually all evangelists who followed. In 1821 he was converted in the early stages of the Second Great Awakening and left his law studies with the declaration, “I have a retainer from the Lord.” After brief theological training, the local Presbytery licensed Finney as an itinerant home missionary in upstate New York. Bright, athletic, unusually tall, and musically gifted, his theatrical preaching drew enthusiastic crowds and produced numerous converts. The largely “New School Presbyterian” New York Presbytery embraced these measures and published a pamphlet of his revival efforts in the tradition of Jonathan Edwards’ Faithful Narrative.

Finney considered himself a theological descendant of Jonathan Edwards’ revivalism. However, his highly volunteeristic theology of conversion led him to reject Calvinistic views and preach “man’s duty to change his own heart.” Rather than pressing his audience to begin the long process of seeking a salvation granted only by God, Finney called sinners to make an instantaneous decision to repent and believe. His view of conversion as a “free decision” led him to adopt and popularize a highly “democratic practice” of evangelism known as New Measures (Smith, 2007, 2-8), including dramatic and colloquial preaching, an extensive time of singing before preaching, the inclusion of women as leaders, the use of an anxious seat (precursor to the altar call), the use of celebrity, novelty, and story to persuade, and public prayer meetings for God to pour out his Spirit upon particular sinners.

In 1830 Finney moved his efforts into urban settings with a tremendous success in a great revival in Rochester, NY that is still regarded as “the greatest revival in American history” (Cross, p. 13). The experience launched Finney into national prominence, and after accepting brief pastorates in New York and Boston, he eventually settled at Oberlin College (OH) as a faculty member and later president. It was during this era that Finney delivered and published his wildly popular Revival Lectures, one of the most widely read books in American religious history. Rather than instructing evangelicals to wait passively for God to send revival, Finney’s great confidence in God’s willingness to grant the awakening gift of the Spirit in answer to prayer led him to declare, “A revival is no more a miracle than a crop of wheat.”

William G. McLoughlin’s interpretation that Finney was asserting that revivals were ‘worked up’ while Edwards believed revivals were ‘prayed down’ (p. 11) misses Finney’s remarkable emphasis upon prayer and the sophisticated nuance of divine and human interaction in both revivalists’ theologies. Still, it seems a fitting epitaph for much evangelism after Finney when “revival meetings” became standard practice in virtually every Christian denomination in the United States and beyond.

Finney’s emphasis on the filling of the Holy Spirit as the key to perfectionistic holiness evidenced in self-sacrificing love for the lost, the disadvantaged, and the oppressed became the impetus for his version of the Second Great Awakening’s vision to create a “benevolent empire” of “good government, Christian education, temperance reform, relief for the poor and the abolition of slavery” (T. L. Smith, p. 60-61).

Oberlin was one of the first colleges in the nation to admit blacks and women as students in full standing and the clear leader for the anti-slavery movement in the mid-west. Due to the enduring popularity of Finney’s Memoirs and Revival Lectures, his influence upon revivalist evangelicalism eventually rivaled and even eclipsed that of Jonathan Edwards. Noll contends,

“[A] good case can be made that Finney should be ranked with Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, and Andrew Carnegie […] as one of the most important public figures in nineteenth-century America” (Noll, 2002, p. 176).

Outcomes

While it is as difficult to find a clear ending point to the Second Great Awakening as it is to find a clear beginning, its impact was felt deep into the nineteenth-century and beyond. More than a century before the New Deal, Public Education, or the Civil Rights movements, the Second Great Awakening fostered a nation-wide “benevolent empire” of care for the poor, freedom for the oppressed and education for all

Religiously, the awakening left enduring practices of concerted prayer, revival/camp meetings, anxious seats/altar calls, new measures, that still influence nearly every evangelical Protestant denomination today. Theologically, the Second Great Awakening marked the end what Guelzo calls one hundred years of “theological bungee-jumping” between God and human roles in conversion, so that gradually and in increments the idea of gradually seeking salvation was replaced by immediate conversion.

Politically, it is difficult to miss the connection to the democratization of American society and the democratization of the church. However, the direction of that influence is difficult to measure. Globally, the Second Great Awakening birthed the beginning of a massive evangelical missionary movement, first to the Native American communities and eventually to foreign missions. Culturally, the awakening contributed to a sense of national cohesion at a time of profound social change, but most likely also fueled a sense of manifest destiny that deeply wounded the very Native American populations the revivalists most wanted to evangelize.

Gary David Stratton (Ph.D. Biola University) is University Professor of  Spiritual Formation and Cultural Engagement and Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at Johnson University (TN). James L. Gorman (Ph.D. Baylor University) is Assistant Professor of History at Johnson University. Based upon Stratton and Gorman’s “The Great Awakening [1730s to 1740s]” in the “Encyclopedia of Christianity in the United States” (Rowman and Littlefield, 2016).

See also

The Great Awakening: From British Revival to American Revolution

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

Do America’s Colleges Need ‘Revival’?

What does the University of Tennessee have to do with Prayer?

References

Alvarez, Carmelo, and David N. Williams. 2012. The Stone-Campbell Movement: a Global History. St. Louis: Chalice Press.

Conkin, Paul Keith. 1990. Cane Ridge: America’s Pentecost (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

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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

The object of Jewish higher education was full mastery of God’s word and full understanding of it.

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.)