Toward a Deep Blue Ocean: Forging a Robust Spiritual Development Stage-Theory, by Gary David Stratton

This paper was originally delivered at the 2012 Society of Vineyard Scholars in Minneapolis, MN. 

Jonathan Edwards placed the blame for Satan’s victory in the First Great Awakening on the failure of the stage-theory used by the pastors of his day. Are Blue Ocean churches in danger of a similar gaffe?

By Gary David Stratton, PhD • Bethel University

The great New England divine Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) penned perhaps his greatest work, A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections,[1] in the aftermath of one of the more remarkable religious events in American history—the (First) Great Awakening (1740-1741). By the time he wrote Affections Edwards was already known as the chief apologist for an outpouring of the Spirit that had resulted as much as a quarter of the total population of New England professing conversion to Christ (See, Paparazzi in the Hands of an Angry God). Yet, in a tellingly autobiographical passage, Edwards opens Affections with the declaration that the real winner of the Great Awakening was Satan.

“I have seen the devil prevail… against… the late great revival of religion in New England, so happy and promising in its beginning.”[2]

What is interesting for our discussion today is where Edwards placed the blame for this Satanic victory: the failure of the stage-theory used by all New England pastors to guide seekers from initial stirrings to genuine conversion and spiritual maturity. This Puritan “morphology of conversion” comprised of seven distinct stages [3] was the centerpiece for nearly all preaching and spiritual counsel in New England.[4] Despite one of the most remarkable outpourings of the Spirit in history, resulting in tremendous spiritual hunger, enormous crowds, and multiplied professions of faith, Edwards believed that the Puritan stage-theory “sevenfold veil of prejudice” had actually left the church in New England in worse shape than it had been before this “mighty pouring out of the Spirit of God.” (More on why later.)

My remarks today deal with the stage-theory in use by a new generation of Christian leaders—also based in New England—who are seeking God for another society-wide spiritual awakening among, not among biblically literate Puritans, but post-Christian urban skeptics. I invoke the thoughts of Jonathan Edwards in hopes of highlighting just how crucial this conversation might prove for the future of faith in America. For as Edwards painfully discovered in the Great Awakening, whether they realize it or not, every Christian leader shapes their ministry and the lives of their followers from within the framework of an assumed spiritual stage-theory. The critical question is whether or not a given Christian leader’s stage-theory is thoroughly examined and up to the challenge of guiding individuals, congregations, and even society-wide movements spiritual maturity. As in Edwards’ day, developing such a stage-theory will require a collaborative project of careful intellectual, theological, and practical reflection, of which this paper is little more than a preliminary remark.


One of the more unique and influential “identities” surfacing in the Vineyard movement over the past decade has been “Blue Ocean”[5] churches seeking to apply M. Scott Peck’s four-stages of spiritual development to church practice. Peck’s paradigm first applied to the local church by Dave Schmelzer and Charles Park in the Cambridge (MA) Vineyard Christian Fellowship[6] and chronicled in Schmelzer’s 2008 book Not the Religious Type[7]  significantly shaped, not only the Cambridge Vineyard’s cultural engagement and rapid growth in a highly secularized and radically “unchurched” city, but also the growing Blue Ocean movement as a whole.

Unfortunately, as easy to understand and helpful as Peck’s four-stage model might be, its incomplete and oversimplified summary of developmental psychology, coupled with its disconnection from theological and spiritual direction paradigms not only limits its usefulness for guiding congregants into spiritual maturity, in time it could even prove as dangerous as the Puritan morphology scheme.

In this paper I will briefly explore Peck’s framework and the strengths of its Blue Ocean application in reaching skeptical secular communities, as well as the dilemmas of this paradigm stemming from weaknesses in Peck’s foundational model. I will then offer preliminary starting points for developing a more robust development theory based in a broader understanding of stage-theory and theological reflection.


The seminal work for most Blue Ocean faith development stage-theory conversations is M. Scott Peck’s 1993 book Further Along the Road Less Traveled.[8] Schmelzer describes his debt to Peck in chapter entitled, “How M. Scott Peck Saved My Life,”[9] and anyone who doubts that Peck is king in these discussions need only read the ongoing conversation on the Blue Ocean platform blog Not the Religious Type[10] to disabuse themselves of this notion.

A Four-Stage Model of Faith Development

Peck describes Stage One in faith development as “Chaotic/Antisocial” (simplified to “Criminal” by Schmelzer).[11] It is the state of lawlessness “absent of spirituality” into which all human beings are born and which 20% of the American adult population never surpasses.[12]

Peck’s Stage Two is “Formal/Institutional” (Schmelzer “Rules-based”):[13] a phase perfected by prisons, the military, and more importantly, the church. “Indeed, most churchgoers fall into stage 2.”[14] It is a stage marked by “rigorous adherence to the letter of the law” and the forms of religion.[15]

Peck’s Stage Three is known as “Skeptic/Individual” (Schmelzer, “Rebellious.”)[16] It is a transitional phase of religious doubt accompanied by inquisitiveness in other areas of life that marks adolescence for most Americans.[17]

Peck’s labels his most mature phase, Stage Four as “Mystical/Communal” (Schmelzer keeps the word “Mystical”).[18] While the content of Stage Four faith may look similar to Stage 2, the engagement is more nuanced and based upon the underlying principles of the “Spirit of the Law” rather than a rules-based system. [19]

A Fruitful Approach to Church Planting Among Young Urban Skeptics

Peck’s four-stage system has proven an ideal paradigm for churches seeking to reach skeptical university-educated adults in secularized urban settings.[20] Peck provides a marvelous structure for interpreting the spiritual journey of most highly intelligent and liberally educated Americans, such as Stanford grads (like Schmelzer and Park) and MIT/Harvard grads (like the Cambridge residents Schmelzer and Park are trying to reach).[21] By definition “Blue Ocean” leaders are seeking to reach Stage 3 skeptical/individual rebellious populations,[22] not by building Stage 3 formal/institutional rule-based churches, but rather by fostering Stage 4 mystical/communal churches.[23] Furthermore, Peck’s Mystical Stage 4 lines up extremely well with another key Vineyard and Blue Ocean value: John Wimber’s adaptation of Fuller Seminary professor Paul Hiebert’s[24] “centered-set” versus “bounded-set” thinking.[25] (See, Schmelzer on Centered-set thinking.)


Unfortunately, the very simplicity that makes Peck’s paradigm so easy to communicate and apply to church-planting strategies also makes it extremely shallow. While Peck admits his debt to the work of other developmental psychologists[26], he consciously “refines” more complex schemes of spiritual growth into four stages based mostly upon his own personal spiritual journey and adult counseling practice.[27] And there lies the rub. Some elements Peck leaves out of his developmental psychology are nearly as important as his stage-theory itself.  Allow me to briefly survey three gaps in Peck’s thinking, and suggest three ways that a deeper commitment to understanding and applying developmental/educational psychology to church practice might lead to a deeper blue ocean.

Peck’s Toxic View of Stage 1 Childhood Faith and Children’s Ministry

First, it seems to me that a deep blue ocean stage-theory would require a more robust understanding of children’s faith development than Peck’s scheme offers. By limiting his stage-theory to his personal and professional experience with adults, Peck unintentionally skews his Stage 1 toward its most toxic form. While there is clearly something defective in the maturity level of any adult still trapped in Stage 1; a child in Stage 1 is simply being a child. Age-appropriate Stage 1 children are clearly not “absent of spirituality” as Peck asserts.[28] So despite its value for guiding church planting among skeptical adults, Peck’s theory is often confusing for parents (and those ministering to children) seeking to build the faith of the next generation.[29]

Peck’s Missing Stage 2 “Constructive Social Hedonism” and Evangelizing Youth

Second, a deeper blue ocean stage-theory would need to develop a more robust understanding of the relationship between the “Constructive Social Hedonism” of Mythic-Literal Faith and adolescent evangelism.  Peck’s age-skewed paradigm virtually ignores the key transitional phase from childish faith to adult faith in adolescence.[30] This actual “Stage 2” is the critical phase in which children begin to transfer their experiences with the key adults in their life onto God. They begin to tell the master stories for themselves as they assimilate the beliefs and behaviors of their faith community (or non-faith community) into their own life patterns; albeit with a great deal of age-appropriate wooden literalism and a “what’s in it for me?” perspective.[31] Stage 2 is a crucial season of “Constructive Social Hedonism” wherein the community provides the rationale for why entering into this type of faith is in the best interest of the individual.[32]

No one enters Skeptic/individual faith directly from Chaotic/antisocial faith. We need a stop in Formal/Institutional rule-based faith to get there, and the only way to make that stop is through the exploratory transitional phase of “Constructive Social Hedonism.” By skipping this stage, Peck omits the need to “evangelize” young adults (not out of) but into Formal/Institutional Rules-based faith.[33] Attempts to create “Blue Ocean” faith in adolescents (and delayed adolescents in their 20’s and 30’s) without first guiding them through some sort of “Stage 2” catechism can and will create significant misunderstanding among parents, children, and young adults themselves.[34]

Kohlberg’s “Regressive Hedonism” and Adult Lifespan Development

Third, a deeper Blue Ocean stage theory would develop a more robust understanding of “Regressive Hedonism” and age-appropriate Mystical/Communal Post-conventional faith. Peck’s truncated scheme misses an important parallel between the exploration done in early adolescence and the exploration done in later adolescence.[35] Lawrence Kohlberg’s stage-theory of moral development highlights this omission. Kohlberg uses a scheme of three primary phases—pre-conventional, conventional, and post-conventional—but also emphasizes the important transitions between the major stages.  This scheme enables Kohlberg to note the parallels in the transitional phase between pre-conventional and conventional faith, Stage 2 “Constructive Hedonism,” and the Skeptic/individual transitional phase between conventional faith and post-conventional faith. He calls this phase 4.2 or “Regressive Hedonism,” because many if not most young adults who are rebelling against Formal/institutional faith are normally more motivated by hedonism and freedom from rules than by an actual pursuit of Mystical post-conventional faith.

This approach fits with the broad educational psychology paradigm pioneered by Piaget—assimilation, accommodation, disequilibrium. Development stage-theory insists that we gradually move through cycles of embracing systems (stage 3), doubting them (stage 4), and reengaging them at a deeper more principled level of understanding (Stage 5) in various areas of our lives over the course of our lifetime. People who do finally arrive at Mystical/Communal Post-Conventional faith in most areas of their life, do not so until after they turn 40 or even 50 years of age. We can point young adults toward mystical/communal post-conventional faith, but we dare not allow them to believe that they have achieved it in their twenties or thirties.[36]


Filling in these gaps and others like them will make for a much more robust Blue Ocean stage theory.[37] However, it will not fix the primary dilemma in Peck’s paradigm: the simple fact that it is a content/value neutral scheme. Like all contemporary developmental/educational psychology systems there is nothing uniquely Christian about it. As Peck points out himself, the faith of Buddhists, Muslims, and Presbyterians develop more or less through the same cognitive stages. As someone’s ability to reason abstractly increases[38], they progress along Peck’s “stages of faith.”[39] While this is certainly an important aspect of reaching intelligent and highly educated adult learners, it misses some important connections to historic Christian spiritual formation paradigms and connections to the key Vineyard doctrine the gospel of the kingdom. Allow me to suggest three preliminary starting points for developing a deeper blue ocean theology.

The Gospel of the Kingdom and Mature Faith

First, it seems to me that a deep Blue Ocean stage theory would need to develop a more robust understanding of the relationship between Jesus’ preaching of the kingdom of God and the “heart difference” between Formal/Institutional Conventional Rules-Based Faith and Mystical/Communal Post-conventional Principle-based faith. For instance, if you somewhat artificially overlay stage-theory onto Jesus’ proclamation of the gospel of the kingdom as expressed in the Sermon on the Mount, the usefulness of stage-theory becomes immediately obvious. Jesus’ call for a kingdom righteousness that “surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law”[40] is very much a contrast between Stage 3 Formal/institutional (rules-based conventional faith) versus and Stage 4 Mystical/communal principle-based post-conventional faith. Every teaching couplet comprises a statement from each category:

  • Statement 1: “You have heard it said: Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, etc. (Stage 3: Formal/Institutional rules-based conventional faith).
  • Statement 2: “But I tell you, do not hate, do not lust, etc.” (Stage 5: Mystical/communal principle-based post-conventional faith.)[41]

This seems to make at least one element of stage-theory crucial for preaching the gospel of the kingdom, not only to young urban educated skeptic, but to everyone everywhere. It is not merely a matter of intellectual development. It is a matter of spiritual apprehension directly related to entrance into the kingdom. It is a principle so simple children can grasp it, yet so complex it requires a lifetime to master. A deeper blue ocean stage-theory can and must explore the crucial role of discerning between stage 3 and stage 5 minds and hearts of Christ followers on their journey to spiritual maturity.

Jonathan Edwards Emphasis Upon the Fruit of “Disinterested Love”

Second, it seems to me that a deep Blue Ocean stage theory would need to develop a more robust understanding of Jonathan Edwards views on religious affections and “disinterested love” as the highest stage of spiritual development. While Edwards rejected the Puritan’s strict seven-stage morphology, he still believed that it was possible to guide seekers through predictable pitfalls of immature faith into genuine maturity. What Edwards found so deadly in the Puritan system was its focus upon external actions, spiritual activities, and physical manifestations that could easily be counterfeited by the devil rather than upon the inner transformation made possible only by the work of the Spirit.[42]

For Edwards, “True religion, in great part, consists in the affections” [43]—meaning the heart’s[44] inclination toward God and away from the world and even one’s own interests.  While the beauty of Edwards’ thought is much too complex to unpack here, the bottom line is that he believed he had found the holy grail of genuine spiritual transformation: what he called “disinterested love”—what Bernard would call “love of God for God’s sake” (see section below)—which manifests itself in a Christlike love for others. Whatever a deep blue ocean stage-theory might look like, the final stage must cannot be limited to a contentless Mystical/Communal faith in anything. It must be a faith marked by a love of God for God’s sake, that manifests itself in selfless love for other believers, the poor, and even enemies.

Bernard of Clairvaux’s Phases of Loving God and the Dark Night of the Soul

Finally, it seems to me that a deep Blue Ocean stage-theory would need to develop a more robust understanding of historic spiritual formation paradigms such as the stage-theory utilized by Bernard of Clairvaux, John of the Cross, and Teresa of Avilla. Twelfth-century spiritual director, Bernard of Clairvaux envisioned the true Christian’s spiritual journey progressing through three primary stages—1) Love of self for self’s sake, 2) Love of God for self’s sake, 3) Love of God for God’s sake.[45] Bernard’s scheme fits nicely with Edwards’ highest level, but is simpler than Edwards’ exhaustive shotgun approach.

Bernard’s approach also provides a framework for better understanding the critical stage of faith John of the Cross first labeled as “the dark night of the soul” as the transitional stage from “Love of God for self’s sake” to “Love of God for God’s sake.”[46] It is a stage of “Deconstructive Individual Asceticism” that purifies of the soul of the innate idolatry of “Love of God for Self’s Sake” present in all Formal/Institutional faith. A deep Blue Ocean stage-theory can and should train believers to expect repeated visits to the dark night of the soul on their journey to truly Christian Mystical/Communal faith—love of God for God’s sake. [47] A fully developed spiritual development stage-theory might like something like the following diagram.


Jonathan Edwards’ challenge to revise the failed “stage-theory” of his day is as pertinent to the pastors and scholars of the Society of Vineyard Scholars today as it was to the pastors of colonial New England. Fortunately for America, Edwards challenge did not fall upon deaf ears. So many “New Divinity” pastors adopted his approach that they were able to help birth a Second Great Awakening (1800-1865) that moved beyond a short-lived flowering of spiritual interest into a decades-long movement of personal and cultural transformation.

So the question remains: will the Vineyard in general and the Blue Ocean movement in particular rise to his challenge? No stage-theory system is perfect, but one that has proved as fruitful as Peck’s is worth improving. While this paper has been merely exploratory, my hope is that it will help foster an ongoing conversation in the Blue Ocean movement and among all Vineyard churches toward the end of developing a robust paradigm for understanding the stages of spiritual development rooted in a deep understanding of developmental psychology, kingdom theology, and historical spiritual direction paradigms. As Edwards declared:

“Till this be done, it may be expected that great revivals of religion will be but of short continuance; (and) there is but little good to be expected of all our” efforts.[48]

See also


[1] Edwards, Jonathan. 1959. Religious affections. New Haven: Yale University Press. Originally, Edwards, Jonathan. 1746. A treatise concerning religious affections, in three parts; Part I. Concerning the nature of the affections, and their importance in religion. Part II. Shewing what are no certain signs that religious affections are gracious, or that they are not. Part III. Shewing what are distinguishing signs of truly gracious and holy affections. Boston: Printed for S. Kneeland and T. Green.

[2] Ibid, 5,6

[3] Some pastors added up to three more stages and some used as few as five stages.

[4] Bloesch, Donald. 2000. The Holy Spirit: Works & gifts. Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 106-110. See also, Gerstner, J. H. (1995). Jonathan Edwards, evangelist. Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 12.

[5] “Blue” in both the popular political sense of “red state” Republican/conservative versus “blue state” Democratic/liberal sense, and the blue ocean “untapped market” sense of Kim, W. Chan and Mauborgne, Renee. 2005. Blue Ocean Strategy: How to Create Uncontested Market Space and Make the Competition Irrelevant. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

[6] (now Greater Boston)

[7] Schmelzer, Dave. Not the Religious Type: Confessions of a Turncoat Atheist. Carol Stream, Ill.: SaltRiver, 2008.

[8] Peck, M. Scott. 1993. Further along the road less traveled: the unending journey toward spiritual growth: the edited lectures. New York: Simon & Schuster, 120-145, 230-248.

[9] Schmelzer, Chapter 3, 17-27.

[10] Not the Religious Type website,

[11] Schmelzer, 18.

[12] Peck, 238. Adults often move out of this stage only by a sudden and dramatic “conversion” to a sub-cultural system of externally prescribed rules and roles in order to escape the personal chaos of their Stage 1 life. See, Ibid., 123..

[13] Schmelzer, 19.

[14] Peck, 123.

[15] Ibid., 238. Stage 2 people are extremely resistant to changes in or challenges to any religious system that brings order to their lives.

[16] Peck, 125; Schmelzer, 20.

[17] Peck, 238-240.

[18] Peck, 124; Schmelzer, 23.

[19] Peck, 238-240.

[20] As Schmelzer has stated repeatedly, this is the only purpose for which he intended its use: “the bottom line is not about this stage-theory stuff, no matter how helpful or insightful it might be,” the bigger story is about encountering God (27).

[21] Interestingly, Danish Christian existentialist philosopher Søren Kierkegaard uses a similar paradigm to describe the faith development of intellectuals. Kierkegaard’s Aesthetic stage roughly corresponds to Peck’s “Chaotic/Antisocial” Stage 1 faith. His Ethical stage roughly approximates Peck’s “Formal/Institutional” Stage 2. Kierkegaard Religious stage is an ongoing integration of the Aesthetic and the Ethical into what Peck would call “Mystical/communal” faith. Blue Ocean devotees who function out of a sense of “arriving” at Mystical/communal post-conventional faith are in for a rude awakening as the Lord leads them into the next cycle of deeper maturity. See, Kierkegaard, Søren, and Alastair Hannay. 1992. Either/or: a fragment of life. London, England: Penguin Books, 475-590. Special thanks to Caleb Maskel for reminding me that one of my former (Wheaton) college professors, C. Stephan Evans, had been using Kierkegaard’s stages to describe the intellectual’s faith journey since the 1970’s.  See, Evans, C. Stephen. 2009. Kierkegaard: an introduction. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 68-137.

[22] In both the “new customer” and “red state” meaning of the word.

[23] For an outstanding expression of this vision, see Charles Park’s 2007 National Vineyard Conference address “The Vineyard and the Urban Challenge,” available at .

[24] Hiebert, Paul. (1994). “The Category of Christian in the Mission Task,” in Anthropological Reflections on Missiological Issues. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 107-136. See also, J.I. Packer’s tracing of Hiebert’s influence on Wimber in a chapter entitled, “The Intellectual,” in David Pytches, ed. 1998. John Wimber: his influence and legacy. Guildford, Surrey: Eagle.

[25] See, Not the religious type, vii, 37-50. For a great treatment of Hiebert’s influence on Wimber (and its problems), see McAnnally-Linz, Ryan. “The Problem of the Contested Center.” Paper delivered to the Society of Vineyard Scholars, 2010.

[26] He specifically mentions Piaget, Erickson, Kohlberg, and Fowler, 119.

[27] Also, his private counseling practice, and his interactions with Christian churches.Peck, 119-121.

[28] In fact, Jesus seems to indicate the exact opposite in highlighting something exemplary in children’s faith. Matthew 11:25; 18:3; 19:14; 21:15.

[29] One of the major struggles one hears expressed in the Blue Ocean circles is the complications created by parents/pastors raising second-generation Blue Ocean children with an eye on Peck’s scheme.

[30] Fowler, James W. 1981. Stages of faith: the psychology of human development and the quest for meaning. San Francisco: Harper & Row.

[31] Fowler, 52-57.

[32] As Richard Rohr observes, without the strong sense of self that is created by joining and internalizing the values of a rule-based community, we live “very warped and defeated” lives. Rohr, Richard. 2011. Falling upward: a spirituality for the two halves of life. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 26.

[33] Or, dishonestly fails to admit that the professed Mystical/communal values of Blue Ocean churches actually function as a Formal/Institutional Rules for young adults in the movement.

[34] For a great treatment of how Skepticism has become the new Institutional/formal rules for the Millennial generation, see, Friesen, Mike. 2012. “Are Millennials Creating a New Religion?” Retrieved 4/6/2012 from

[35] An omission that can lead to misunderstanding and arrogance among stage-theory devotees.

[36] Anyone who has worked with undergrads and twenty-somethings in Blue Ocean settings knows exactly how important a teaching point this can be. This is not to pick on Blue Ocean twenty-somethings as unique. Anyone who has hung out with emerging/emergent church leaders will note some of the same semi-hedonistic arrogance masquerading as thoughtful deconstruction and engagement. But I digress…

[37] And I am deliberately omitting concerns that Peck’s model lionizes creative/entrepreneurial personality types (such as church planters) who are hard-wired to continually test boundaries, rather than more late-adopter personality types, who are hard-wired to stay within boundaries, so that being “edgy” is equated with “spiritual maturity.”

[38] Both by brain maturation and education.

[39] And Fowler’s and Kohlberg’s, etc.

[40] Matthew 5:20 (All verses in NIV)

[41] Matthew 5:27

[42] Affections, 255.

[43] Affections, 237.

[44] Heart, soul, and will are roughly synonymous terms in Edwards’ vocabulary.

[45] Bernard of Clairvaux. 1978 (originally 1153). On Loving God. trans. Jean Leclerq and Henri Rochais, 1978. Kalamazoo, MI: Cisterian Publications.

[46] John of the Cross, and E. Allison Peers. 1990 (originally 1586). Dark night of the soul. Grand Rapids, Mich: Christian Classics Ethereal Library.

[47] Note: When I teach this framework in retreats/workshops with pastors, faculty, and leaders in Christian higher education, over one half of attendees identify “the dark night of the soul” as the best descriptor of where they currently fall in these 5 phases of faith. This is not surprising in that one-third to one-half of the Psalter are laments, written to process and worship dark nights of the soul. What is surprising is how the triumphalism of American Christianity wars against the acknowledgement of the importance of this crucial stage in Christian maturity. Few pastor/leaders can recall ever being taught to ‘lament’ in public or private worship, nor even hearing a public worship song written in a minor key.

[48] Affections, 7.

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

Classic wisdom from a great TV Writer and a classy Man of God

Antagonism between Christianity and a Hollywood establishment is part of the rift between Christianity and much of popular culture itself. But the roots of the conflict go much deeper.

by Ron Austin

Note: Ron Austin wrote for the original Mission: Impossible TV series, as well as many other successful shows and was a key intellectual architect in the shaping of the Act One screenwriting program in Hollywood. This article is a revised version of an address to an Act One conference held at Hollywood Presbyterian Church nearly a decade ago. His wisdom seems as timely now as it was then.

There has always been a Christian presence in Hollywood. In the so-called golden age, the thirties and forties, a Christian sensibility was clearly evident in the films of John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, and Frank Capra—to name only the most prominent examples. There were also stars whose professional personae reflected spiritual values, such as Irene Dunne and Loretta Young. I once had the pleasure of introducing my late friend, Father Ellwood “Bud” Kieser, to an audience as “the best known Catholic priest in Hollywood since Bing Crosby.” Bud liked that. Crosby and others such as Pat O’Brien had that kind of positive image.

Austin wrote for the original 'Mission: Impossible' TV series, long before Tom Cruise and J.J. Abrams came along.
Austin wrote for the original ‘Mission: Impossible’ TV series, long before Tom Cruise and J.J. Abrams came along.

Later, the countercultural generation of the late sixties and seventies evinced suspicion of all institutions, especially of organized (that is to say, traditional) religion. The dissatisfied and rebellious baby boomers eventually became, and to some extent remain, dominant in Hollywood. Though now they are the establishment, they retain much of their anti-authoritarian posture.

To speak, as many do, of an antagonism between Christianity and a Hollywood establishment is misleading. As I see it, the rift that emerged in those years reveals tensions between Christianity and much of popular culture itself. Hollywood has unquestionably played a role, but the roots of the conflict go deeper.

While Hollywood ‘s subculture has become more open to spiritual values during the last decade, it bears a residual suspicion of religion in general and of Christianity in particular. Many Christians working or trying to work in the entertainment industry encounter some degree of prejudice. Based on personal experience over a half-century in Hollywood, I have theories about the sources of this conflict. Since I’m not a historian or a sociologist, to explain, I must employ the skills I’ve acquired during my years in what we locals call, with revealing provinciality, “the industry.”

I’m going to frame this problem by recasting it as a dramatic conflict between two characters, a Christian and a Hollywood skeptic. Reverting to my previous roles, I’ll treat the conflict as if I were a screenwriting teacher or a producer helping a writer to develop a script.

Two Views of Story

At the outset, we must recognize a built-in tension not unrelated to the story itself.  Since the age of classical Greek theater, there have been two tendencies in drama: the Platonic and the Aristotelian. (I call them tendencies because these are not strict categories.) The Platonic tendency, which is attractive to religious people, prefers drama to be a kind of model for behavior or guide to morals. As such, Platonic drama tends to be more ideal than real. Good is represented by the protagonist, and evil, or something akin to evil, by the antagonist. This useful, time-honored approach has produced some of Hollywood ‘s best films. Ford and Capra, for example, often presented idealized heroes who struggled against corrupt villains. The Western genre is rooted in such mythic characterizations.

The other tendency, dominant in modern drama since Ibsen, Shaw, and Chekhov, has a different goal. It may offer some moral instruction, but its primary aim is to achieve what Aristotle called catharsis, a purgation of emotions. This more subjective process leads us into our own inner conflicts. Such a drama allows us, through the relative safety of art, to explore our own fears and desires. Through our identification with the characters, this process purges our hidden, primal feelings, or at least brings them forth so that we might confront them. At its best, this purgation leads to insight, but it does not necessarily offer a clear moral message.

Christians have tended to be more comfortable with Platonic dramas. You often hear religious commentators criticize what seem to them excesses of the Aristotelian tendency: “Why do you want us to see such ugly things?” they ask. Or, “Why do you have to use such bad language?” They are asking, not unreasonably, for a story that presents a model of good behavior, particularly for a young audience. What they don’t understand is that Aristotelian drama needs to confront us with the ugly and unpleasant if it is to take us to those dark places requiring purgation.

As we can see, the two tendencies are often in conflict.

Two Views of Story

Austin was a key intellectual architect in the shaping of the Act One Program

In the story I’m sketching now—of the rise of antipathy between the Christian and the secularist in Hollywood —the approach I propose is Aristotelian. I’m not going to offer a tale in which the Christian embodies virtue and the secularist corruption. I want real characters who will provoke us to explore our own inner lives. If we were to develop our story fully, these characters might each make good decisions and bad ones, behave honorably and deplorably. But we won’t get that far, at least not here.

In the initial stage of character development, our task is to allow the characters to grow, and so we must proceed without too much prior judgment. We don’t know where these characters are going to lead us.

As a producer or teacher, I try to guide scriptwriters toward the deepest levels of conflict in their stories, which means probing the unresolved tensions within each character. Writers know this process to be long, difficult, and painful, and I’ll abbreviate it here. In developing a character, a writer must first ask what the character wants, which usually has to do with what the writer wants. Much here depends on the writer’s capacity for self awareness. The process should eventually reach the point where the writer courageously addresses the deepest fears of the characters, which are closely related to his or her own concerns.

In a well-written script that deals with two characters in conflict, the story will explore more than the clash between the goals and desires of the characters, but will offer a more profound confrontation. A mature scriptwriter will look more deeply, working to figure out what each character finds in the other that is somehow missing in himself, what weakness or uncertainty. Usually it’s an unresolved inner conflict that, when triggered, is then projected onto the adversary. I call this mirroring.

Mirroring forms the basis of many classic genres. Take romantic comedy, for example (not farce, mind you, but comedy involving real character conflict). Our hero, though attracted to the heroine, finds himself troubled when faced with feminine traits like tenderness and sensitivity that are missing, or at least repressed, in himself. The man, confounded by having to grapple with this mirror of his missing traits, asks himself in ultimate frustration, “What does she want?” Or sometimes, “What do women want?” That he never fully grasps this provides the basis for comedy. Conversely, the woman, also sensing something missing, usually asks at some point, “Why doesn’t he understand how I feel?” because the man in a romantic comedy seldom does. These gender conflicts may be stereotypical, but they illustrate the process by which each character projects his or her inner conflict onto the other. This mirrored “battle of the sexes” has had audiences laughing since Aristophanes’ day, if not before.

Two Main Characters

I want to use the idea of mirroring to explore our two characters, the Christian and the Hollywood secularist. By a secularist, I mean someone who has not grown up in a religious tradition or (as is quite common in Hollywood) has rejected religion. I do not mean someone of another religious faith. In present-day Hollywood, the secularist is unlikely to hold an opposing ideology or even a fully coherent philosophy. Rather than creating a debate, I want to understand the source of the hostility between these characters. To do so, I must first explore the inner conflicts of each, which the characters project onto each other.

The Christian, I suspect from personal experience, will have at least two largely unresolved conflicts. From a historical point of view, these conflicts come out of the confrontation between Christianity and the Enlightenment that produced modern culture. Hollywood , in many ways, is the embodiment of the best and worst of modernity, both its freedom and its irresponsibility. I seldom defend Hollywood , but I will do so here on the basis of two of its ideals, personal freedom and inclusion, which I consider the gifts of modernity. These two principles, valued to the point of being absolute goods by the secularist, produce inescapable inner conflicts for the Christian. This is ironic since, however misapplied, these two ideals arise from the Christian gospel.

The concept of personal freedom is largely derived from the Judeo-Christian ideas of free will and the God-given dignity of the individual. For Christians, the Incarnation gives us our ultimate dignity, revealing the human as created in the image of God. Nonetheless, freedom presents us with a conflict. Our idea of freedom and its legitimate use differs from the secularist’s. For the Christian, freedom is not an absolute good in itself. Rather, freedom of intellect and conscience is a means of coming to the truth, a truth embodied by Jesus and expounded in the Gospels. As Christians, once we encounter that truth, we see that it has requirements, even commandments. It makes demands on us that may in fact limit the use of our freedom. We don’t have the liberty to create our own world. We discover truth; we don’t invent it. And once we discover it, we are bound by the limits it reveals.

This produces conflict, inwardly and in society. I’m not speaking abstractly: I often see this conflict acted out by aspiring Christian writers. Many feel restricted and inhibited, even afraid of their own freedom. They fear that freedom will lead them to areas that they would rather not explore, or possibly even to condemnation by their church. This anxiety prevents them from exploring those places that involve risk. As a result, there is, in our Christian character, a button to be pushed. We have a fear of misusing our freedom, and perhaps a deeper fear of exploring the dark places in ourselves. We know that we can use our faith as a defense against the harsher aspects of reality to which we feel vulnerable. All this plays into the secularist’s stereotype of believers as repressed, provincial, and inhibited people, afraid to confront the whole of life and hiding inside the church. As unfair as this caricature is, it hits a sore spot, touching on our inner fear and producing defensiveness and antagonism.

The Christian’s other unresolved inner conflict relates to the question of inclusion. In the West, the ideal of inclusion has been enshrined as an absolute good nearly as reverently as freedom. At the contemporary table, everyone is invited, and any hint of elitism or segregation is anathema. Society is hardly consistent in achieving this goal, but the effort is persistent. Again ironically, the compassionate inclusion of outsiders, of strangers and sinners, has its foundation in the scriptures and is at the heart of Christianity.

But this passionate secularist stance brings another Christian inner conflict to the surface. In the first place, we’re not moral relativists. To us, inclusion doesn’t mean condoning every behavior. For that matter, we don’t even believe that all religions or moral views are equal. We are capable of great respect for other faith traditions, but we don’t weigh them equal with the truth we receive from Christ. This is the hard truth of the matter, and we have to face it. Our necessary stubbornness on this question puts a high wall between secularists and ourselves.

We ask ourselves regretfully whether we must always be walled off from others. Or worse, we wonder if we are using our religious identity to keep a wall between ourselves and others. We’re not always sure, and at times we have to make difficult decisions. Again we find ourselves vulnerable to stereotype, this time of the small-minded, judgmental Christian. We may protest that this is unfair, but there is some truth in it. We Christians are, in too many ways, a divided people. We are also inclined to divide others into categories: good and bad, saved and damned. Within my own denomination, I often hear the question, “Well, what kind of a Catholic is he?” To be accepted, you need to perform a kind of ideological lodge handshake.

We have to be truthful. From the secular point of view, we are often a spectacle of division. This perception makes many of us uneasy, and it should, because we are called to be healers more than judges. We fear, however, that there is some truth in this perception, and again it makes us defensive. The walls that we would like to tear down become higher.

A Skeptical P.O.V.

Now that I have sketched the Christian character, let me turn to the Hollywood skeptic. Our secularist has his personal reasons for being critical of Christianity, still the most influential and hence intrusive religion in our society. But what are his unresolved conflicts? I’m going to explore just two.

To understand the first requires some historical perspective. When I was a young man in Hollywood some fifty years ago, religion in general and Christianity in particular weren’t so much denigrated as ignored. They were considered intellectually obsolete. I was a devout nonbeliever then and didn’t convert until my middle years. I was very much an adherent of the “progressive” culture of Hollywood in the forties, a time when strong ideological convictions about the direction of history were prevalent. There were, in other words, powerful rivals of Christianity that offered hope and even claimed some prophetic insight as to the future of humanity.

Left-wing politics were popular in Hollywood , including some undigested Marxism and other more benign forms of utopianism. The engine of history was to be driven by science and technology, and a perfected world was just around the corner. It may seem strange to the younger generation that such transparently naïve beliefs were once so prevalent, but they were. They’re not prevalent anymore. Nor does the promise of sexual liberation hold its previous appeal. In the 1940s, wealthy and successful people in Hollywood might go to their psychoanalysts almost daily, convinced that the Freudian liberation of the ego from the id would solve their problems. Later, in the sixties, a conviction prevailed that if we could just rid ourselves of sexual inhibitions, a new utopia would emerge.

Today, these rival pseudo-religions have failed, and Hollywood is at the center of the crisis of modernity. That is to say, a crisis of disbelief. This is not simply a turning away from traditional religion. That happened a generation ago. The modern crisis comes from the loss of belief in the alternatives to religious faith. There is a lot of noise in Hollywood about politics, particularly of the ultra-liberal variety, but what I hear in that noise is the clamor of those who would drown out their despair. With a handful of idealistic exceptions, few in Hollywood believe any longer that politics can answer the frailties of the human condition. The less the belief, the more the noise.

And this is the secularist’s first unresolved conflict. It is revealed whenever he confronts anyone with a strong belief system. Any person who has a passionate faith that endows him or her with confidence or hope in the future will push this button. This secular character is needled by an ongoing crisis of disbelief in the same way that the Christian is needled by an unresolved ambivalence toward personal freedom. The secularist’s problem is what to do with the freedom that he’s made an absolute good. Does freedom point to anything beyond itself? Does it mean anything? Does it lead anywhere? Simply to encounter a person who has a confident and coherent belief in a reality beyond individual will triggers a great deal of anxiety and antagonism in the modern skeptic.

The other emotional trigger for the secular character goes to his most crucial conflict: the cross. The belief that suffering has meaning, whether or not we comprehend it, is for the nonbeliever the most objectionable of Christian tenets. Chateaubriand said that the genius of Christianity was in its use and transformation of suffering. The path of Jesus requires faith that there is redemption in suffering. It is the path we must take if we are to follow Jesus through Good Friday to the Easter Resurrection. Suffering is at the heart of our Christian identity. For the secularist, deprived of the structure of belief, suffering is something to be avoided at all costs.

At times, however, the secularist senses that all this running from suffering is futile. Worse still, he fears that he may be running from a path of salvation. If only he could stop running and turn around. Even a momentary consideration of this possibility can produce great anxiety and confusion. It’s terrible to fear that the thing you’ve spent your life running from, once confronted, could have answered your life’s most important questions. This unresolved fear produces antagonism toward the Christian, and in reaction, the secularist paints the Christian as a masochist, even a sadist, clearly no fun at all.

The Beginning of an Ending

In an Aristotelian work, these mutual provocations, arising from the unreconciled conflicts within two characters, point us toward a possible story. I would hope that this particular story might reach a level where the conflicts could be better understood and might even induce compassion. I’m not sure where our story is going to go, but maybe this character analysis suggests an ending, or the beginning of an ending.

If this script is to have any significance, it needs to move toward mutual acceptance. One of the characters must move the story forward by taking the initiative and reaching out to the other, and I think it must be the Christian. The secularist, even with the best of intentions, lacks a strong motivation to do so. The confident humanist of the past, simply out of good will, might have made a move toward reconciliation. He might have felt that the Christian could be liberated by the historical forces in which the humanist had such strong faith. But given today’s prevailing skepticism, there’s little in the present-day secularist’s outlook to motivate him to act beyond self interest or self defense. It will be up to the Christian to risk lowering his defenses, admitting his uncertainties, and opening himself to the secularist’s mirrored fears. He must do this without an agenda, without preaching, and without trying to win. If he can truly make himself one with his secular adversary, he will necessarily begin to face his own inner struggles.

Some interesting drama might result. Roles might be reversed, and both characters might be illuminated. The best realized ending would be when the Christian begins to see Jesus in the other, the Jesus in both of them—the same Jesus who is suffering within each of us. This ending might provide real hope for both characters.

For many readers of this journal, the character I’ve been calling the Christian is we ourselves. And if this story has worked, it will provoke some questions for us. For one, are we free and courageous enough to open ourselves to the suffering of our non-believing adversary? Doing so requires confronting our own unresolved inner conflicts, and perhaps much more.

I think the creative process requires that we do this if we are to write honest scripts and make good films. But, whether or not we’re making films, this is what Jesus and the Gospels ask of us.


Ron_AustinRon Austin, a Hollywood writer and producer for over fifty years, is a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science, and the Directors Guild. A former member of the board of directors of the Writers Guild of America, he is the recipient of a Guild award for lifetime achievement award. He is a founding member of Catholics in Media as well as the Chairman of the Windhover Forum, a non-profit Catholic educational foundation. Ron is a Fellow at the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology and author of “In a New Light: Spirituality and the Media Arts” (2006) and “Peregrino: A Pilgrim Journey into Catholic Mexico”  (2010). His essays on the relationship of faith and the media arts are in the anthologies Behind the Screen and Things of Heaven and Earth, and his autobiographical account of Christian-Jewish relationships in Hollywood, Star Crossed, will be published by Eerdmans early next year. (Source: DSPT website.)

Read the original in Image JournalIssue #43 • Fall 2004 (Used by permission.)

Visit Ron Austin as Image Artist of the Month for October ’06 


See Also:

The Future of Faith-Based Filmmaking: Series Introduction

Christian Movie Establishment versus Blue Like Jazz

Why Story Structure Matters: Even if you don’t want it to

Christians in Hollywood: A Treatment, by Mission Impossible Writer

Opening Doors for Others: An Interview with Writer-Director Brian Bird




Waiting on the Sun, by Patrick Wood

Answering God’s faith-building call

By Patrick Wood

Called to Hollywood? It wasn’t that I had a difficult time believing Dr. Stratton had, in fact, received such a command from the Lord. His ability to hear from God—an area I hoped to grow in myself as a young grad student—is what drew me to pursue a mentoring relationship with him in the first place. But why then? He was already over 40 years old at the time and had a family to think about. Not to mention that he was well reputed in his community as a man of integrity, wisdom, and knowledge in his work as an accomplished academic and spiritual leader. For years he’d been serving in Christian higher education as a university administrator, professor, and conference speaker.

So naturally, the news that he would be leaving this small Minnesota community for Los Angeles made for a surprise.

Gary, as he preferred to be called, was sipping an iced mocha while telling me about this strange westward call. Some years ago, during a time of prayer, he had sensed God’s own desire to impact the mainstream media and film industry with His light and love. At first, this seemed merely to be a burden of prayer—a responsibility that could of course be assumed anywhere. But as the experienced intercessor and his wife Sue spent more time listening to God, they were the first to be surprised. They were being prepared to impact Hollywood beyond the simplicity of praying from a distance.

What they heard that day went something like this: At a time the Lord would specify, Gary and Sue would be instructed to relocate from the snowy outskirts of Minneapolis to “the Hills” of Los Angeles for the express purpose of training “two-handed warriors”, as he called them—those who’d become salt and light in the mainstream media and arts. On the one hand, these individuals would become proficient in fostering faith and transforming lives for God’s kingdom. And with the other, they’d demonstrate excellence in acting, screenwriting, or various other aspects of film production—also to God’s glory. But while the Lord, the Invisible One, spoke to the Strattons, so did their visible circumstances.

How on earth would a Midwestern baby boomer, with a family of six and zero connections or credentials in this notoriously competitive industry, transition from a safe academic career? Gary didn’t pretend to know. Only God could forge a path through a sea like that. So until further notice, his work in the university, speaking engagements, and the demands of family life would have to be enough.

On that mysterious note, we finished our coffee and went our separate ways…

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Why Won’t Christian Men Date Women in Their Church? by Christy Krumm

It’s not that he’s just not that into you; it’s that the church is just not that into being human.


“I’ve only gone out with a couple of girls at church, and I won’t do it anymore,” says Luke*, a 40-year-old Christian man living in Southern California. “At this point, I’m happily resigned to not ask a girl out at church ever again.” As a single Christian woman, this isn’t exactly what I wanted to hear.

I’ve been attending Christian churches for a substantial chunk of my life, and it stands to reason that I’ve often thought I might meet my future husband there. It would be easier than meeting him at a bar, or a gym, or my workplace, wouldn’t it? At least at church I can presume that the men I’m surrounded by share my faith, and that we have similar beliefs and values in common.

However, as the years have passed by, the dates I’ve had with men at church have been rather few and far between. And I’m not the only woman who has found this to be true.

On a mission to find out why, I talked informally with a group of men from churches in New York City, and Los Angeles to chat about the pursuit of love, about Christian dating, and about why on earth they don’t want to date women who go to their church. Their answers were rather complex and revealed a whole host of issues I never would have considered. 

Here is a little snapshot of what I learned from them over an evening of pizza and beer.

It’s not that he’s just not that into you; it’s that the church is just not that into being human. (New Line Cinema, 2009)

Reason #1: They’re worried about their reputations. 

From a man’s perspective, pursuing women in that scenario is often a no-win situation. As Alex explained, if a guy were to attend a church for five years, and only pursue one girl per year, some might see that as being wimpy and tell him he needs to step it up, be more of a man! (This sounds somewhat familiar, doesn’t it?)

And as Alex points out, on the other hand, there’s always going to be that group of people who think, “‘That ‘Tom’ guy has had five girlfriends here at church—don’t go near him!'” In the meantime, “the fact that Tom has been at the church for over five years is completely ignored, and he is suddenly seen as a villain.”

Reason #2: Rather than giving them more options, dating girls at church actually gives them fewer options.

Here’s why…

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Mobile Faith: The Leading Spiritual iPhone Apps, by Jane R. Johnson

Seek sources of inspiration and solace from divine technology

by Jane R. Johnson

Technology makes our lives much easier in a variety of ways. Today our phones help us shop, locate the best deals, budget our finances, and stay on top of the latest news. However, technology can help on a much deeper level as well, by helping us explore our personal growth with spiritual and self-help apps. The following list of leading spiritual apps can help you exercise a little self love by putting you in touch with your spiritual needs:

1. Meditator ($2.99)

Try a few rounds of Om the next time you’re stressed out due to an anxiety-ridden day on the job—just Zen out by launching the Mediator app. You can set the timer to whatever length of meditation time you prefer, and choose one of four natural, ambient soundscapes designed to enhance your natural breathing, meditation, and relaxation moment.

2. Live Happy ($0.99)

This totally blissful smart phone app was featured in both The New York Times and SELF Magazine for its positive benefits, as well as on websites like iVillage, VitalJuice and Live Happy is a happiness app that guides users through a set of scientifically-proven, mood-boosting daily activities scientifically proven to chase away negative thoughts and boost your long term joy and mental health. Tap into the secret of self-confidence as Live Happy helps enhance your quality of life each time you use it.

3. Gratitude Journal – Your Positive Thoughts ($0.99)

John Tesh featured this app on his show and couldn’t say enough good things. The Gratitude Journal app challenges users to record five things you are grateful for each day of your life for one month. The idea is that the more you surround yourself with positivity—the more positive your overall perception of life and mental health will be. In addition to text entries, the Gratitude Journal app lets you snap and upload photo entries to accompany your daily recordings or just as sources of positive inspiration.

4. iBlue Sky ($9.99)

The iBlue Sky app is lets users create digital mind maps, or diagrams that represent words, ideas, tasks, or other items linked to and arranged around a central key word or theme. When we’re always on the go, it’s difficult to really spend time concentrating and developing our ideas and dreams. With iBlue Sky, you can jot down your thoughts whenever they spring to mind, and explore them more deeply later to help interpret your dreams, understand your pattern behaviors, and improve yourself.

5. Bible Verse of the Day ($0.99)

The Bible Verse of the Day app delivers a different Bible verse to your smart phone every day for your spiritual growth and spiritual learning. Regardless of if you’re on the bus, at your desk, or on your lunch break, you can attend to your Christian spiritual development and search over 100 versions of the Bible until you find a verse that fits your mood or situation.


Jane Johnson is a writer for GoingCellular, a popular site that provides cell phone related news, commentary, reviews on popular providers and service like WiFi calling.

Are Christians Writing “Edgy” for the Wrong Reasons? by Jeff Goins

Good art tests boundaries. It always has. We artists just need to check our motives (and egos) before we endeavor to create it.

A Conversation with Randy Elrod’s: Why Christians Are Creating More “Edgy” Art, and C.J. Darlington’s, “Writing edgy… for all the wrong reasons.

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Sometimes in our quest to usher art in to the world, we artists can cross the line. Certain projects involving urine and crucifixes come immediately to mind as potential candidates.

But what about the importance of uncensored expression? What is a creative to do in this distracted world where sometimes shock value is the only thing that grabs an audience’s attention?

As a person of faith — and a writer — I am constantly struggling with these questions.

Edgy art isn’t enough

Christian author C.J. Darlington wrote an interesting post about this, entitled, “Writing edgy… for all the wrong reasons.” In it, she raises a good point — for Christians and non-Christians alike — calling us writers to check our motives before writing something that is edgy, controversial, or contentious.

I’ve been known to write a provocative article or two in my time (see: “A letter to the Affluent Church“). Once you see a maelstrom of comments flooding in over something you wrote that touched a nerve, it’s hard to stop. The attention is addictive, which can be extremely dangerous.

In her post, Darlington addresses this:

In the last couple of years I’ve noticed a trend in Christian fiction. More and more aspiring authors desire to write edgy fiction. And by edgy I mean pushing the envelope of what has generally been considered acceptable in novels regarding violence, sex, language, etc.

Now I’m all for writing real. I want my characters and situations to be true to life. I don’t want to write about saints. But somewhere there’s a line, and I admit, it’s a gray one. Personally, I think it comes down to motives. Why do we want to write edgy? Is it to shock? To do it because we can?

An alternative to controversy

There is, of course,  an alternative to creating edgy art just because you can:honesty. Some creatives, in their search for understanding and meaning, are creating art that is honest. It just happens to be provocative.

I am completely in favor of work that challenges and pushes our thinking, that calls our core beliefs into question and causes us to dig deeper into what we think we know.

We need more of that kind of writing in this world (and in Christianity).

Photo credit: Frederic Bisson (Creative Commons)

What good art does

Good art tests boundaries. It always has. We artists just need to check our motives (and egos) before we endeavor to create it.

Ultimately, we all want our work to matter. We want our creations to count. And the only way to do that is to approach our crafts with honesty and integrity. To write what is true even when it offends.

There’s nothing wrong with writing edgy, and there’s nothing wrong with writing not edgy. What is wrong — especially for a person of faith — is to write something that isn’t true to your deepest convictions and core beliefs. True to who you are and what you stand for. Denying that creative impulse would be a tragedy.

So whether dark or cheery, we all need to write words that are honest. Anything else would be writing for the wrong reasons, indeed.

Do you write edgy just because you can, or because you hope it will make a difference? Share in the comments.

Called to Hollywood? Act One Screenwriting and Producing Programs Application Deadlines Approaching

The premier training program for filmmakers of faith pursuing careers in mainstream Hollywood


“Act One’s Producing Program understands that apprenticeship is vital in Hollywood. Students are exposed to working producers and executives not only in the classroom, but through hands-on internships as well. If you’re looking for an immersive learning experience, go through the Producing Program!”

– Dan Lin, Act One Faculty and Producer of Sherlock HolmesTerminator Salvation and The Gangster Squad

Are you serious about becoming a better filmmaker? A better writer or producer? Then spend this summer with the premier training program for Christians pursuing a career in mainstream Hollywood.

Located in the heart of Hollywood, Act One offers a variety of programs and services designed to develop artistry, professionalism, meaning and Christian Spirituality — all while fostering connection to, and fellowship with, a vibrant community within the entertainment industry.

Act One graduates include the Emmy Award-winning producer of Intervention (A&E), producing and creative staff for films such as The Blind SideThe Book of Eli, and 2012 Academy Award winner The Artist, as well as writers for shows such as The Unit (CBS), Justified (FX), Leverage (TNT), and Hawaii Five-O (CBS).



Through mentoring and workshops, Act One provides writers with a strong foundational understanding of the entertainment industry, the art and ethics of storytelling, and the realities of living a life of faith in Hollywood. A mentored spiritual formation group experience galvanizes a life of faith while students master the business and craft of storytelling for the global audience. Courses range from 1 week to 14 months and are taught by industry professionals who literally step off studio lots to teach.

This June, Act One is launching their first online screenwriting program, as well as their summer writing workshop.


The Workshop is a series of intensive lectures and workshops focused on the craft of screenwriting, coupled with rigorous writing exercises and individualized weekly feedback on your work from a Hollywood professional. The Workshop kicks off with an allinclusive retreat in the beautiful hills of Malibu, CA, setting you in the midst of Hollywood screenwriters, producers, and executives who will engage you in high-level discussions on film, story, faith and contemporary culture. Classes then move to Hollywood and are taught by top-level, working writers and producers who often step off the studio lots to come teach at Act One. Curriculum includes classes and assignments on structure, character, dialogue, writing for television, the spiritual journey of a writer, screenings, Q&A sessions with filmmakers, and much more.

Program Dates:

  • Kick-Off Retreat: June 11th – June 15th, 2012 (Monday through Friday, 9am to 9pm. All-inclusive and overnight)
  • Saturday Workshops: June 16th – August 25th, 2012 (Classes are held on Saturdays from 9am to 5pm)

Click for more information



Act One provides a strong foundational understanding of the entertainment industry and real-world experience through interships, workshops, and networking. A mentored spiritual formation group experience galvanizes a life of faith while students master the business and craft of filmmaking for the global audience. Courses range from 2 weeks to 14 months and are taught by industry professionals who literally step off studio lots to teach.

This June, Act One offers a summer long program complete with an industry internship.


Dip your toe in the water or dive right in, as this summer program is the foundation for launching your career.
The Workshop is a series of intensive lectures, discussions and Q&As designed to offer a comprehensive overview of everything a producer or executive needs to know to fast track their career. We kick things off in the beautiful hills of Malibu, CA with an all inclusive, 5-day Retreat that is filled with foundational classes on story, the intersection of faith & film, and the spiritual journey of a Christian in the entertainment industry. For the rest of the summer, classes are held on Saturdays in Hollywood and are taught by top producers and executives working in the industry. Curriculum includes film-finance, creative development, production, marketing, distribution and exhibition.

The Workshop is supplemented with an entertainment-industry Internship at a production company, agency, marketing firm, television network or film studio. Internships are tailored to your career goals and can range from five days a week to just one.

Program Dates:

  • Kick-Off Retreat: June 11th – June 15th, 2012 (Monday through Friday, 9am to 9pm. All-inclusive and overnight)
  • Saturday Workshops: June 16th – August 25th, 2012 (Classes are held on Saturdays from 9am to 5pm)
  • Internship: Throughout the summer – anywhere from 1 to 5 days a week, depending on student’s availability

Click for more information


 “Every great production starts with the writer. Writers who are interested in the craft of writing should start with Act One!”
– Ralph Winter, Act One Faculty, Executive Producer, WolverineX-Men, and Fantastic Four



Can Anything Good Come from Hollywood? Acton Institute Interview with Senior Editor Gary David Stratton

How shalom, common good and prosperity can come from an unlikely place.

by Mindy and Jon Hirst

Today we share an interview with Dr. Gary David Stratton, PhD, Chairman of the Christian Ministries Department at Bethel University, Senior Editor at, a Catalyst at Basileia Hollywood, and Director of the Hollywood Bezalel Initiative. You can follow Gary on Twitter@GaryDStratton.

What happens when you mix Hollywood, the local church and academia? Few would imagine such a concoction, but that amazing mix of influences is what makes up Gary Stratton’s world. As university professor turned Hollywood mentor and consummate advocate for the local church in Hollywood, Gary is On Call in Culture in a fascinating place. When we asked him what he would say if someone at a party asked him what he does, he laughed and gave a humorous response, “I am a college professor that uses the academy to support my Hollywood habit.”

Gary first moved to Hollywood to serve as Executive Director of Act One, a nonprofit that trains Christians to be On Call in Culture in the world of Hollywood. He described Act One’s role this way, “It is a dynamic community of filmmakers who are serious about four things; becoming great artists, and excellent professionals, while creating meaningful film and television by the power of the Holy Spirit!”

While at Act One, Gary and his wife Sue (also a college professor) realized that too many filmmakers of faith were failing to make it in Hollywood, not because they didn’t have the talent, character and calling required for the industry, but because they didn’t have the spiritual and financial support they needed to make the lengthy and arduous transition from amateur filmmakers to professionals who can support themselves in the industry.

Gary and Sue are now helping foster three new projects to help meet these needs: First, to help young artists and intellectuals interact and find the counsel they need to “re-imagine” faith and culture for a new generation, they created an online community

Second, Gary and Sue are teaming with David and Anita Ruis, Don Williams and a swarm of Millennial leaders to plant a next-generation-focused church in the heart of Hollywood. Basileia Hollywood is a community of faith where young artists, professionals, and non-profit leaders can find the spiritual and relational support they need to survive and even thrive in the entertainment industry while helping meet the needs of the poor and oppressed in the city. Stratton says, “Our motto is: ‘We Come Together Because We Can’t Make it Alone.” (See, How Millennials Who Gave Up on Church are Redefining Faith and Re-engaging Community.)

Third, Gary and Sue helped establish the Hollywood “Bezalel Initiative.” Named after the first Holy Spirit anointed artist and teacher in the Bible (Exodus 35:30-34), Bezalel is a think tank of filmmakers, educators, and philanthropists, seeking new ways to identify, train, mentor, and fund young filmmakers of faith at younger and younger ages. Stratton says, “We want to help find, train, and fund high school filmmakers to get into the best film schools in the world, as well as help college and twenty-something filmmakers get the mentoring and patronage they need to create their first projects.”

For instance, a group of Act One graduates won this years’ Doritos one million dollar prize for the best commercial Super Bowl (Sling Baby). Gary gave the church a challenge:

“While it is exciting they won, the Frito Lay corporation shouldn’t be the only place young Christian filmmakers can go to get a million dollars to support their development as artists. We should be able to find that patronage in the church. Some of the best art in history was created when the church was serious about patronage—so that artists will have the time and resources to make art instead of working at Starbucks and pursuing their calling in their spare time.”

Stratton says, “We are trying to identify what it looks like to grow from an amateur, to a professional, to an industry leader in Hollywood; find the barriers that people face when going from step to step; and then create infrastructure to help people make those transitions.”

Gary shared how many Christians are now acting, directing or participating in the creation of the television and movies that we consume. But that doesn’t mean we will have more Christian movies and television shows. Instead Gary talked about how Christians make a difference in subtle ways in the mainstream entertainment industry. For instance, Act One graduates are now winning Emmy Awards and writing for some of the top television shows, and were involved in helping bring The Blind Side, The Book of Eli, and 2012 Academy Award winner, The Artist, to the big screen. Stratton exhorts, “There is nothing wrong with making ‘Christian Films,’ for the church community, we just need to be realistic that such efforts won’t help us be salt and light in a secular society. We can’t sell ourselves short in our belief that the Holy Spirit can empower us to make some of the greatest films, television shows, web series, and video games in the world, and be good citizens and loving neighbors in the industry in the process.”

We asked Gary to share about what being On Call in Culture meant to him. He focused on the idea of connections,

Sling Baby Super Bowl ad won top honors for team of Act One Alumni: A million dollars from Frito Lay is great, but where is the patronage of the church to support our young artists?

“Being On Call means connecting things that sadly have not been connected for at least a generation. The church has been very insular. Training in the church has focused on training people to serve in the church. A leader in the church is defined as someone who is investing in church programs.

If you are in a culture war mentality then you build the walls high. The world is every bit as much in the Church as it is in the culture. We need a more Jeremiah 29 approach, where people are functioning for the Shalom, common good and prosperity of the cities where we have been carried into exile. Christians either ignore or curse Hollywood. But God wants us to bless it. Like Joseph in Egypt, Esther in Susa, and Daniel in Babylon, God is calling us to be faithfully present, and pray for the welfare of our city.”

Dr. James Hunter describes that faithful presence in To Change the World and it is a powerful way to define being On Call in Culture. Gary believes that our daily actions should create culture rather than react to it. He spoke about the Christian’s role in forming culture, “The best part of Andy Crouch’s book [Culture-Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling] is that we need to be about making culture rather than transforming culture. Transforming culture can become derivative rather than original.”

Gary uses the example of Bezalel in the Old Testament (Exodus 31) to illustrate. Bezalel was filled with the Spirit for artistic craftsmanship and for creating a teaching community. Gary explains, “Your heroes control your culture. We have not celebrated that the Spirit of God was in the artist who worked on the temple. Bezalel and the guys working under him were culture makers. They weren’t trying to redeem Egyptian culture or the culture of Canaan. They were making culture. They were starting with the theological premise and creating things with goodness, beauty and truth and bringing the presence of God into that broader community.”

He explains how the root of the word culture is “cult” worship and that anthropologists realized that what a given society worshiped is what shaped the entire society. The foundational stories (i.e. their creation myth) are what shape the culture. “The church just abdicated that; arguably since the Reformation. Kuyper was a good example of someone trying to push back against that.”

So are you open to being On Call in Culture in places like Hollywood? How are you and your faith community supporting artists who have the gifts and talents to make quality TV and movies? Maybe a good place to start is by connecting with Act One!

Continue reading on Acton Insitute Website



Millennial Data Love Debate: Why We Keep Arguing Over the Data We Discover

Are Millennials more influenced by advertising than previous generations, or less influenced? Depends on the data we love the most.

by David Kinnaman

Millennials (or Gen Y, or Mosaics) have caused a lot of new study and discussion. I was reading this morning about their media use and response to advertising. One analyst claims in AdAge that Mosaics are the least likely to be influenced by television advertising. However, in a MediaPost article, another observer strongly refutes this claim. In fact, she describes her efforts as “myth busting.”

Two observations struck me:

First, the AdAge article confirms some things we have been learning at Barna Group about teens and young adults: today’s young adults are media blenders. They use terrestrial radio and digital radio. They view television plus Internet videos. They consume digital music and purchase vinyl records. They are increasingly comfortable with multiple forms of input: digital and analog. Most of us assume that next-gen adults are only comfortable in the digital domain, but their “blending” means that communication with and to this generation is more complex, especially because this broad menu of inputs makes them increasingly distracted.

Second, these articles reminded me of the controversy that many statistics generate, especially within the Christian community. It seems that data love debate. (Yes, that’s grammatically correct. “Data” are plural; “datum” is singular.) In most arenas of culture — media, the economy, retailing, healthcare, government, and so on — there is a debate about what is really true. The same thing happens with Christian statistics: there are different sources of information about the world of faith, but when these sources conflict, we often resort to impugning the motives and methods of others.

I believe we should have good, healthy debate about data — their accuracy and meaning. The more important the decisions we are making, the more crucial it is that we get our data right. But, from my standpoint, in the Christian community we too often resort to the wrong spirit of “myth busting” on the work of our brothers and sisters.

I predict that the debate over data will increase in the next decade. There are more of us doing research about Christianity and faith. The threshold to enter the “research” field is as low as ever (hello, survey monkey). And the world is changing very quickly, so we need insight to make sense of the change.

My suggestion: we need to work very hard at finding constructive, Jesus-like ways of debating data.

What’s your best idea how we might do this?


See also:  How Millennials Who Gave Up on Church are Redefining Faith and Re-engaging Community.


Leading in a Dysfunctional System, by Todd W. Hall, PhD

Understanding your own underlying connection strategies can make or break survival in a dysfunctional working environment

by Todd W. Hall, PhD

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Recently, I met with a manager I’ve been working with who is working in a very dysfunctional system. Two executives are in a political battle for the area in which she works and she is caught in the middle of the conflict. Several of her colleagues are rude, disrespectful, and explosive. Her direct reports are becoming disillusioned by projects stalling out due to the political turf wars. Work feels like a land mine; she never knows when something will blow up and so, naturally, she is constantly on guard. This is decreasing her effectiveness and leaving her feeling bitter and burned out.

Chances are you have experienced working in some capacity in a dysfunctional system. After all, every system is dysfunctional to some extent. I have worked in systems like this and have worked with many leaders trying to survive chaotic systems. Leading in a system like this can start to eat away at your soul.

While there are many things outside of our control, there are six practical strategies (among others) you can focus on to make a positive impact and prevent burnout. In this blog, I’ll discuss the first practical strategy. In the next five entries in this series, I’ll discuss the other five strategies.

Practical Strategy #1: Understand your own connection strategies. There are three common strategies most of us use to manage our sense of connection with others. These strategies stem from how we connected with important authority figures in our lives. These experiences become “connection filters” that influence our gut level perceptions of relational experiences, particularly with authority figures such as leaders, and groups. The challenging thing is that this filtering process happens outside our conscious awareness in real time. There is a substantial body of research suggesting that our connection filters operate with groups and leaders with whom we work. Understanding your typical connection strategies can help you navigate a dysfunctional system. The three most common connection strategies are:

– a secure strategy promotes: 1) a balance between connection and autonomy–or the ability to inhabit your true self, 2) perspective, and 3) flexibility in responding.

– an anxious strategy promotes fear and anxiety that groups and leaders will not be consistently available for connection. When this is operating, you expect and look for leaders and groups you work with to do a bait and switch. So you are always on guard, and this creates a self-fulfilling prophecy to some extent.

– a distant strategy promotes a lack of awareness of your own and others’ emotions. When this is operating, leaders feel like they’re the only reliable people on the planet, and so they dismiss others in numerous ways. When people on your team feel dismissed, they will shut down to what you have to offer, and true dialogue comes to a screeching halt.

Which strategy kicks in for you when the system gets particularly crazy? (Keep in mind that you may use different strategies with different people). If it’s one of the insecure ones (anxious or distant), here are two practices you can do to help:

1. Reflect on what experiences contribute to your strategy, and spend some time trying to separate your filters (based on your past experiences) from the system’s dysfunction.

2. Then look for ways you can change the cycle of your perceptions by taking some risks. If you’re anxious, try to give others and yourself more space and seek out support outside of work to help you manage your anxiety. If you’re distant, try to tune into your own and others’ emotions, and focus on hearing others’ perspectives before responding.

Reflect: What is your primary connection strategy and how do you see it operating in dysfunctional systems?

Next Post in series: Staying Above the Fray: Leading in a Dysfunctional System, Part 2: by Todd W. Hall, PhD

What Will Smith’s Personal Script Consultant Can Teach You About Story

Moral Premise Workshop: 21 Secrets to Successful #Story Structure for Motion Picture and Novels, by Stanley Williams

The Greenhouse Arts and Media is pleased to present an incredible one day seminar 21 Secrets to Successful Story Structure for Motion Picture and Novels led by author and story consultant, Dr. Stanley Williams.

Dr. Williams is an author, filmmaker, screenwriter, story consultant, publisher and distributor. Stan authored The Moral Premise: Harnessing Virtue and Vice for Box Office Success, released in 2006. He is frequently asked to consult on major motion picture projects.

Most notably, he has worked with Will Smith as a story and script consultant for The Karate KidAfter Earth (1 & 2)Hancock 2Men in Black 3The City That Sailed, and other unannounced projects.

This seminar is for anyone –screenwriters, novelists, filmmakers, producers, and more — interested in creating successful stories that sell and connect with an audience!

When: May 12, 2012 – 9am-5pm
Where: First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood
Cost: $150

For more information and to register click HERE.