With Prayer in the School of Christ: Higher Education and the Knowledge of God, by Gary David Stratton, PhD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Distinctive Practice of Prayer 

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

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

Education and Contemplative Prayer: Abba Intimacy

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

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

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

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

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

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

Education and Answered Prayer: Kingdom Inbreaking 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 The Oxymoron of a Prayerless Christian College

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

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

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

The Desperate Need for a More Experiential Faith

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

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

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

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

.

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

 

See also: 

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


Notes


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So how did they do it?

Liberating Minds for a Life of Leadership

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

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

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

A Deeply Relational Connection

The Seven Liberal Arts

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

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

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

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

The Liberal Arts Today

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Christopher Riley, author of The Hollywood Standard

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

Screenwriter and Author Christopher Riley

Structure chafes.

Structure kills creativity.

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

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

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

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

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

I wonder if they die in pain.

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

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

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

Stories without structure don’t work.

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

They bore.

Here’s why.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Strengthening the general ed curriculum requires a change in faculty roles

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

by James Muyskens in University Business

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inspire at the start

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

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

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

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

Dramatic reversal

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

Continue reading

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

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

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

by Gary David Stratton • Senior Editor

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

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

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

O, the Humanity!

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

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

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

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

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

The Future of “Christian” Filmmaking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Living a Better Story

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

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

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

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

If you live it, they will come!

 

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

See Also:

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

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

Hollywood and Higher Education, by Gary David Stratton

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

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

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

 

Notes:

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

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

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

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

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

by Gary David Stratton • Senior Editor

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

Paradigm Shifts versus Practice Shifts

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

Screen shot 2013-05-02 at 1.37.53 AM

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

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

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

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

Dead Poet Society (DPS) Character Transformations

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

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

Knox Overstreet: For the Love of Chris

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

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

Chris Noel, the Goal of Knox’s Quest

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

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

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

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

Charlie Daulton: The Name is Nuwanda

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

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

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

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

Todd Anderson: O Captain, my Captain!

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

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

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

Visions of a sweaty-toothed madman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

.

 

Next post in series:

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

.
See also:

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

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

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

Crash goes the Worldview: Why Worldview Transformation Requires Changing Scripts

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

by Gary David Stratton • Senior Editor

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

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

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

Worldview Transformation

Gather ye rose buds while ye may…

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

The Welton Worldview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Tradition, honor, discipline, excellence.”

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

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

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

The Keating Worldview

Enter the transformation artist

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

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

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

Make your lives extraordinary!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seeing the world from a new perspective

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

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

Watch desk scene here.

Freedom from Physicalism

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

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

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

And that is where the story really gets interesting!

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

 

See also:

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

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

Crash goes the Worldview: Why Worldview Transformation Requires Changing Scripts

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

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

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

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

Related Posts:

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

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

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

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

 

Notes



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

 

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

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

By changing the foundational story of Rick’s life from that of a self-centered love-betrayed to the story of a other-centered love renewed, Ilsa transforms Rick’s values and rule of life as well. 

by Gary David Stratton • Senior Editor

urlSince its initial release seventy-five years ago, Casablanca has grown to become one of the most beloved films in the history of American cinema. Winner of three 1942 Academy Awards in (best picture, best writing, and best director)  Casablanca is now recognized by the Writers Guild of America as the greatest screenplay of all time, and by the American Film Institute as the second greatest American movie ever.[1] Even in the high-tech world of Blu-ray players and streaming video, this black-and-white masterpiece remains an enduring favorite with both contemporary audiences and critics alike.

Casablanca also provides a compelling example of the four levels of worldview, and how change at the story level can lead to dramatic change in every level of worldview. Character development (both cinematic and moral) “flows” from the hidden recesses of our life story, where our unexamined presuppositions about reality form a worldview that guides our life in ways we rarely think about in our day-to-day existence. In life and great films, we experience our worldview on four overlapping, but distinguishable levels. [2]

Four Levels of Worldview

Level 1) Actions and Behaviors: The countless personal decisions and moral judgments we make on a daily basis make up the visible tip of the iceberg of our largely hidden worldview. We glide through thousands of “preconditioned” responses each hour—what to wear, where to live, who to befriend, when to lie, how to speak—simply doing what we do, without ever examining why we do them. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred these decisions predictably emerge from the lower levels of our worldview, usually without any conscious awareness of why we make them.

Level 2) Rule of Life: The next level of our worldview is found in the rules and roles defined for us in the traditions and ‘scripts’ society develops to maintain equilibrium, or the personal strategies developed by us to cope with the difficulties of life. At this level our worldview provides a ‘rule of life” that defines our relationships, and the boundaries and maxims we use to guide our own personal behavior.  The clothes we buy, the worship we express, and even the words we use, are dictated by cultural expectations and personal habits far beyond our normal self-awareness.

The countless decisions we make each day are but the visible tip of the iceberg of our largely hidden worldview.
The countless decisions we make each day are but the visible tip of the iceberg of our largely hidden worldview.

3) Value and Belief System: The rules and roles we follow on a daily basis are normally based upon a presuppositional value and beliefs system that undergird these conventions, (once again, usually sub-consciously.) These principles, doctrines, aphorisms, and symbols are the often unspoken “commanding truths, which define the ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’ of our experience, and accordingly, the good and evil…” [3] They provide the language and categories by which we unconsciously interpret reality and make sense out of our experiences of our life.

Level 4) Stories and ‘Scriptures’: The deepest level of our worldview is normally found in the stories of our life-shaping personal experiences and our community’s authoritative ‘scriptures’ that form the basis of our principles and strategies for living. The three upper levels are “embedded within narratives that often have overlapping themes and various myths that often reinforce common ideals.” [4] The personal and corporate stories we live by are self-evidently true to us (even if they are, in fact, hopelessly false). To question them is to question reality itself. [5]

Constructing a False Worldview

At first glance Rick seems the model narcissist, longing only to catch the only plane out of Casablanca while sticking his neck out for nobody.
At first glance Rick seems the model narcissist, longing only to catch the last plane out of Casablanca while sticking his neck out for nobody.

Casablanca provides a beautiful example of all four levels of this process. Originally entitled, “Everyone Meets at Rick’s,” this masterpiece traces the worldview transformation of American expatriate and nightclub owner, Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart). Set against the backdrop of Nazi-controlled but unoccupied north African territories of Vichy France during WWII, the movie opens with a bitter and cynical Rick Blaine making his daily decisions (level 1) out of a fairly consistent rule of life (level 2).  He never drinks with customers, never commits to a woman, never takes sides in a political debate, and never intervenes to help others. His narcissistic value and belief system (level 3) leaves little room for anyone but himself, his alcoholism, his business, and his business partner, Sam.  His value system (level 3) is clearly expressed in his famous rule of life (level 2), “I stick my neck out for nobody.”

Captain Louis Renault is the first to recognize a deeper story rumbling beneath Rick's cynical shell
Captain Louis Renault is the first to recognize a deeper story rumbling beneath Rick’s cynical shell

However, as the movie progresses we learn that Rick’s worldview wasn’t always so jaded.  In fact, both French prefect Captain Louis Renault (Claude Rains) and Nazi Gestapo Major, Heinrich Strasser (Conrad Veidt) express concern that Rick’s current story might not be his true self. They note that there was once a time when Rick’s value and belief system led him to a rule of life marked by a heroic willingness to sacrificially fight against tyranny even in a losing cause. They don’t want Rick returning to this old rule of life by aiding Czech freedom fighter Victor Lazlo (Paul Henreid) in his attempt to escape Casablanca (and the Nazi) by means of a pair of stolen letters of transit granting the bearers free passage on a flight to neutral Portugal.

Movie Clip 1: Captain Louis Renault Accuses Rick of a Deeper Story

The beautiful and enchanting Ilsa Lund stole Rick’s heart in a whirlwind Paris romance Paris only to break it as the German tanks rolled into Paris.
The beautiful and enchanting Ilsa Lund stole Rick’s heart in a whirlwind Paris romance Paris only to break it as the German tanks rolled into Paris.

What Louis doesn’t know, is that Rick’s current rule of life and value system are driven by a heart-wrenching story (level 4). Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman), a beautiful and enchanting Norwegian once stole Rick’s heart in a whirlwind Paris romance at the outset of WWII.

Movie Clip 2: Paris

However, after swearing her undying love, Ilsa abandons Rick just as the German army descends upon Paris. By the time Rick gets to Casablanca Ilsa’s betrayal provides the seething caldron of molten anguish driving Rick’s cynical value system and narcissistic rule of life. Like the city where he dwells in exile, his life is a desert with but one goal: escape.

A Different Story?

A guy standing on a station platform in the rain with a comical look on his face, because his insides had been kicked out.
A guy standing on a station platform in the rain with a comical look on his face, because his insides had been kicked out.

This is the story Rick is living when Ilsa turns up in Casablanca as the traveling companion for none other than Victor Lazlo. Confronted anew with heartache of Paris, Rick’s narcissistic behavior only intensifies. Despite his admiration for Lazlo, Rick refuses to help the desperate couple. He stubbornly retains his “I stick my neck for nobody” rule of life even as Ilsa desperately tries to convey a different story than the one driving his current behavior.

Movie Clip 3: Ilsa Tries to Explain Her Story

Just when Rick’s journey toward the dark side seems complete, something happens that radically changes the interpretation of his entire life story. With the Nazi’s closing in and their every effort to escape Casablanca thwarted, the stolen letters of transit in Rick’s possession are now Isla and Lazlo’s only hope. A desperate Ilsa turns up at Rick’s apartment intent to do anything to obtain them.

Movie Clip 4: Midnight at Rick’s apartment

Ilsa’s startling admission begins to change Rick’s worldview at every level.
Ilsa’s startling admission begins to change Rick’s worldview at every level.

Ilsa’s startling admission that she still loves Rick begins to change Rick’s worldview at every level. He now knows that Ilsa left him behind in Paris only because she learned that Lazlo, her husband, was still alive. She was not living a story of a self-centered love betrayed, but rather one of heroic sacrifice. While no one yet realizes it, this new story of a sacrificial love-renewed (level 4) begins to invisibly reenergize Rick’s heroic value system (level 3), displacing his values of narcissism and his “I stick my neck out for nobody” rule of life (level 2).

In the iconic airport scene, Rick’s new worldview based upon his new story suddenly erupts into full view with a startling decision (level 1).

Clip 5: Rick and Ilsa at the Airport

Change the Story, Change the World

At the airport, Rick's new story empowers him to not only give up his ticket to freedom, but Ilsa as well.
At the airport, Rick’s new story empowers him to not only give up his ticket to freedom, but Ilsa as well.

It turns out that Captain Louis Renault was right about Rick all along. The real Rick Blaine is, in fact, a hero. The pain of losing Ilsa had created a false life narrative, but once he knew the real story, his value system and rule of life came back on line. Rick decides to give away his tickets to freedom to Ilsa and her husband (level 1), because he has (re)embraced his rule of life of to fight against tyranny even in a losing cause (level 2), rooted in his rediscovered value of self-sacrificing heroism (level 3), birthed by his true life story (Level 4). By changing the foundational story of Rick’s life from that of a self-centered love-betrayed to a story of an other-centered love renewed, Isla transforms Rick’s values and rule of life as well. He now sticks his neck for everybody, even the husband of the woman he loves.

In the end, the power of Rick’s true story is becomes so compelling it returns Louis to his own true story, values, and rule of life.

Movie clip 6: A beautiful friendship

Everyone Meets at Rick’s

url-1
“This could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” In the end, even Louis is caught up in Rick’s heroic transformation.

One reason why Casablanca resonates so deeply with audiences is our strong identification with Rick. We have all been hurt deeply. We all develop belief systems and strategies to protect ourselves from further pain. We all know what it is like to have those rules of life sabotage our heroic journey. We all know what it is like to be trapped in a life story that hurts everyone around us and yet we are powerless to change.  We all want to believe that we are the master of our own fate, freely making our own choices at any given moment, when in reality our unexplored stories, unexamined values, and unexamined rules of life dictate much of our daily decision-making. Sooner or later, everyone meets at Rick’s.

For those who are willing to listen, the deepest longings of our heroic life story may be churning just beneath the surface and well worth the journey of further exploration. Over the course of this ongoing series I hope to help you do exactly that. I’m hoping this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Next posts in series:

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

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

See also:

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

Crash goes the Worldview: Why Worldview Transformation Requires Changing Scripts

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

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

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

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

 

Related Posts:

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

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

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

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

 

 

Notes

[1] Casablanca is currently #25 rating on the IMDB all-time best film list. Michael Curtiz, Julius J. Epstein, Howard Koch, Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, et al. Casablanca (Burbank, CA: Warner Home Video, 1999).

[2] Followers of Arthur F. Holmes’ will notice that I am using his categories for evaluating ethical decisions.  See, Ethics: approaching moral decisions. Contours of Christian philosophy (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2007), 52-80. See also, Lawrence Kohlberg, The Development of Children’s Orientations Toward a Moral Order (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press); Carol Gilligan, In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press); and, James W. Fowler, Stages of Faith: the Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1981).

[3] James Davidson Hunter, To Change the World (Oxford University Press, 2010), 32. To be fair, Hunter considers all four levels to be overlapping elements of “culture,” not worldview. However, this is at least somewhat a matter of semantic disagreement between philosophers (who study worldviews),and sociologists, like Hunter (who study cultures.)

[4] Hunter, Change, 33.

[5] What I am calling the ‘Story’ level of worldview is what philosopher James K. A. Smith refers to as the ‘pre-worldview’ level of ‘social Imaginary.’  “The social imaginary’ is an affective, noncognitive understanding of the world. It is described as an imaginary (rather than a theory) because it is fueled by the stuff of the imagination rather than the intellect: it is made up of, and embedded in, stories, narratives, myths, and icons. These visions capture our hearts and imaginations by “lining” our imagination, as it were— providing us with frameworks of “meaning” by which we make sense of our world and our calling in it. An irreducible understanding of the world resides in our intuitive, precognitive grasp of these stories. Desiring the Kingdom (Cultural Liturgies): Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Publishing Group, 2009), p. 68.

 

 

Fiddler on the Roof: Worldview Change and the Foundational Power of Story

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

“Without our traditions, our lives would be as shaky as… a fiddler on the roof!” -Tevye

by Gary David Stratton • Senior Editor

Fiddler-Movie-Poster-200x300Fiddler on the Roof (1971) is one of the most beloved dramas of the stage and screen. [1] On Broadway (1964), Fiddler was the first musical to surpass 3,000 performances. It won nine Tony Awards, including Best Musical.  The Hollywood version (1971) lost the Academy Award Best Picture nod to the more cutting-edge The French Connection, but still managed a box office of over 365 million dollars (adjusted for inflation), making it the 9th highest grossing musical of all time.[2] After four Broadway revivals, three London runs, and countless high school and community theatre performances, Fiddler became one of the more influential cultural works of the late twentieth-century.

The film also provides a beautiful illustration of  the adaptability of worldview at the upper levels: 1) Actions/Decisions and 2) Rules of Life/Culture. Fiddler chronicles the life of a small Jewish community seeking to maintain their cultural balance (like a fiddler on the roof) in the Gentile-dominated Czarist Russian village of Anatevka. The story’s protagonist, Tevye, is a poor dairy farmer seeking to scratch out a meager existence with his wife Golde. It is a task made all the more difficult by the fact that God has blessed them, not with economically viable and socially valuable sons, but five daughters.

Tevye (Topoland Golde’s (Norma Crane) three oldest daughters—Tzeitel (Rosalind Harris), Hodel (Michele Marsh), and Chava (Neva Small)—provide the storyline that so clearly illustrates all four levels of worldview:

(1) the visible Actions and Behaviors of our day-to-day decisions, and

(2) the Rules and Roles of personal strategies and cultural conventions that form the ‘scripts’ we follow in most of our decisions without ever thinking about—as well as the resiliency of worldview at its deepest levels

(3) the Beliefs and Values that form the and presuppositional principles of our belief system, and especially

(4) the foundational Stories and Myths that form the authoritative “scriptures” for both the macro-worldview of the society we live in, as well as our more personalized micro-worldview (See, Casablanca and the Four Levels of Worldview.)

Screen shot 2013-05-02 at 1.37.53 AMFrom the four-level construct perspective, Tevye’s worldview is a set of stories from the foundational Scriptures of The Torah (the “Holy Book” or “Good book” in Tevye’s language) of how God has revealed himself and his law to his people Israel (Level 4), from which generations of Rabbinic scholarship have drawn key theological beliefs and ethical values (Level 3), from which synagogue and societal leaders have constructed cultural conventions and rules for daily life (Level 2), from which the residents of Anatevka live out their faith in their daily behaviors and moral judgments (Level 1).

Matchmaker, Matchmaker

Some of Anatevka’s strongest cultural conventions surround the roles and rules surrounding the institution of marriage. Over the course of the film, Tevye’s three daughter’s confront him with more and more counter-cultural views of marriage, which in turn drives Tevye to explore his worldview at deeper and deeper levels. When using Fiddler to teach worldview, I use six scenes to trace the transformation of the upper levels of Tevye’s worldview, and his ultimate resistance to change at his worldview’s deepest level (Scene times in parenthesis are from the downloadable ITunes version.)

1) Tradition!

Tradition! Tevye and the cultural rules/conventions (Level 2), theological principles (Level 3), and authoritative story, Torah (Level 4), that undergird his life (Level 1).

Scene One: Tradition! The first scene (1:40–12:00 on ITunes version of Fiddler) introduces the protagonist, Tevye, and the cultural conventions that govern his daily decisions through the song, Tradition.

I ask the class to use the four-level worldview construct to organize the elements of Tevye’s worldview described in the film. Students easily pick out see the rules, conventions and role conformity that govern the social relationships of his culture (Level 2), and that this culture is based upon the authoritative story of the Torah (Level 4). It normally takes them a little longer to flesh out the principles (theology and philosophy) that undergird the conventions. They also quickly see that many of Tevye’s assumptions are unexamined.

Tevye: Because of our traditions, we've kept our 
balance for many, many years. Here in Anatevka, 
we have traditions for everything... You may ask, 
"How did this tradition get started?" I'll tell 
you! [pause] I don't know. But it's a tradition... 
and because of our traditions... Every one 
of us knows who he is and what God expects him 
to do.

See movie clip of various roles here.

2) Traditional Marriage Culture

Golde and Yente the matchmaker arrange the marriage, before Tevye seals the deal with Lazar Wolf

Scene Two: Tevye and Golde’s Worldview Construct of Marriage. In the second scene (1:04:09–1:07:30) Tevye informs Golde that he has successfully arranged a marriage for their oldest daughter, Tzeitel. What’s more, the groom is the richest widower in the village, Lazar Wolf.

I ask students to watch the clip and to use the four-level construct to flesh out Tevye and Golde’s worldview in regards to marriage. It normally takes a bit of prodding to help them see that what they view Tevye’s actions in arranging the marriage (Level 1) as virtuous and in the best interest of Tzeitel, because the father is in the best position to arrange a marriage (Level 2), because marriage is essentially a business/social contract (Level 3), based upon the village’s “story” that happiness is tied to increasing one’s prosperity and social standing (Level 4).

3) A Non-Traditional View of Marriage

Tzeitel and Motel make a counter-cultural pledge, but reason for permission from solid business logic

Scene Three: Tzeitel and Motel’s Conflicting Worldview Construct of Marriage. In scene 3 (1:07:30 –1:14:42), Tzeitel & Motel (Leonard Frey) object to Tevye’s decision (Level 1), precisely because they disagree with Tevye’s belief that marriage is primarily a business arrangement. They believe that marriage is best based upon romantic love (Level 3), and therefore propose a different convention for arranging a marriage—a pledge between lovers (Level 2). After all, while the father is in the best position to make a successful business arrangement, the couple is in a better position to arrange a marriage based on love. For Tevye, a pledge is well outside the plausibility structures of his worldview.

Tevye: They gave each other a pledge? Unheard of... absurd!
They gave each other a pledge?  Unthinkable!

 

However, Motel is a good negotiator. While his own worldview provides romantic love as the basis for his pledge to Tzeitel, he ultimately appeals to the Anatevka’s prosperity/happiness myth (Level 4) to try to convince his would-be father-in-law:

Tevye: You are just a poor tailor!
Motel: That's true, Reb Tevye, but even a poor tailor
is entitled to some happiness! [He places his arm around
Tzeitel.] I promise you, Tevye, your daughter will not starve.

 

(View clip of Tevye’s final decision here.)

While it often takes awhile, students are normally able parse out the these worldview levels (although I often have to point out level four.)  What is really interesting is helping them examine Tevye’s reasoning in allowing Tzeitel & Motel to wed. Students are normally able to discern that Tevye’s worldview has not actually changed as much as it appears. “Papa” is still making the decision based on his daughter happiness (Level 1). While he is breaking with convention to allow the couple’s pledge to stand (Level 2), he is not really buying their notion of romantic love (Level 3) as its basis. To him marriage is still a business arrangement (Level 3), and he approves only once he is convinced that Motel is capable of giving his daughter enough financial security to satisfy the village prosperity myth (Level 4).

4) Pushing the Boundaries

Hodel and Perchik ask only for Tevye’s blessing of their love-based engagement forcing Papa to delve into the story level Torah of his worldview

Scene Four: Hodel and Perchik’s Conflicting Worldview Construct of Marriage: In scene four (1:57:23 – 2:03:53), Tevye’s second daughter, Hodel, and her love interest, Perchik (Paul Michael Glaser), escalate the worldview conflict. Hodel and Perchik also believe that marriage should be based primarily on the principle of romantic love (Level 3). However they further break with village conventions by choosing to become engaged without consulting their parents (Level 2). They ask only for Tevye’s blessing (not permission)—a blessing Tevye is not anxious to grant.

From a worldview perspective, the scene is absolutely fascinating. Tevye’s reason for allowing their engagement to stand reaches well beyond the village’s prosperity/happiness myth and into the authoritative worldview stories of the Torah (Level 4).

Tevye:  On the other hand, our old ways were once new,
weren't they? ... On the other hand, they decided without
parents, without a matchmaker!... On the other hand,
did Adam and Eve have a matchmaker ?... Well, yes, they did.
 And it seems these two have the same Matchmaker!

 

By reorienting his worldview around a new principle of love (Level 3) derived from a new insight into the authoritative story from Scripture (Level 4), Tevye is able to embrace a counter-cultural convention for marriage. He is undergoing a significant paradigm shift. Students can nearly always connect with this transformation and “get” the worldview transformation issues.[2]

5) Tevye and Golde’s Worldview Shift

Their daughters’ counter-cultural challenge causes Tevye and Golda to reinterpret their own marriage around the principle of love

Scene Five: Tevye and Golde’s Paradigm Shift: Scene five (2:03:53—2:09:05) is a touching portrayal of Tevye seeking to apply (Level 1) his new understanding of love (Levels 2-4) to his own marriage. He asks Golde a question made possible now only by the new probability structures of his transformed worldview: “Do you love me?”

This revolutionary question evokes a wonderful interchange on the true meaning of marriage, complete with a back and forth exchange between Golde’s conventional understanding and Tevye’s deeper counter-conventional challenge inspired by their daughters. It concludes with a paradigm shift on Golde’s part as well.

Tevye: Then you love me?
Golde: I suppose I do
Tevye: And I suppose I love you too
Both: It change a thing, but even so, after 25 years
it's nice to know.

 

I normally need only ask students to watch the clip and tell me what is going on, to evoke a spirited conversation. They nearly always get the point. It DOES change a thing. It changes everything. Their new worldview of marriage changes the plausibility structure of their of their daily decisions. Ultimately, it will transform their marriage.

6) A Bridge Too Far

There is no other hand! Tevye’s worldview bends at the upper levels, but does not break at the root.

Scene Six: Tevye and Golde’s Rejection of Chava and Fyedka’s Marriage. The final scene in Tevye’s worldview journey is not nearly as heartening.[4] The scene details Tevye and Golde’s rejection of their youngest daughter, Chava, due to her marriage to a Gentile, Fyedka (Ray Lovelock). I normally show the first part of the scene (2:22:00 – 2:25:33)—Chava’s love for Fyedka and Tevye’s disapproval and stop the film. I then ask the class to use the four-level construct to try to predict how Tevye will respond.

Once they have made their prediction(s), I show the rest of the scene (2:25:34 – 2:35:35). It is a gut wrenching depiction of a man who has come to the foundations of his worldview and found (much to his dismay) that there is no room for further reinterpretation. There is no story that will save his relationship with his daughter. She is dead to him.

Chava: Papa, I beg you to accept us.
Tevye: Accept them? How can I accept them?
Can I deny everything I believe in? ON the other hand,
can I deny my own daughter?  On the other hand,
how can I turn my back on my faith, my people.
If I try to bend that far... I’ll break.
On the other hand... NO... there is no other hand!
NO, CHAVA!! NO! NO!! NO!!!

 

I normally let the scene play all the way through Chava’s desolate tears. When I turn up the lights, the room is very quiet. I normally need only ask, “What do you think?” to evoke a highly emotional conversation. I try to force them to think through why Tevye reached the limits of accommodation possible in his worldview. (With A classroom of adult learners this often brings up some of their own painful family and personal experiences with interfaith marriage.)

Tradition helps us keep our balance, but it is Story that points the way forward

In the end, most students reject Tevye’s rejection of Chava. I push them hard to discern what it is in their worldview (romantic, sentimental, relativistic, Western, democratic, pluralistic, postmodern, individualism) that reacts so negatively to Tevye’s moral judgment. When I am feeling particularly antagonistic, I often ask them, “Would it make any difference if the story was set in Israel around 1000 BC and Fyedka was a Canaanite?”  (That really gets things going.)

After a spirited discussion I ask students if they know the limits of accommodation in their own worldview? How do we know when cross from accommodation to assimilation?  I suspect the only way is to be certain of the foundational stories of our own worldview.

Like Tevye, the stories of Scripture provide for us, not only fertile soil for nurturing reinterpretations of our philosophy and culture for a new generation, but also foundational bedrock for grounding the story of our own life in the mind of God.

Next: Crash goes the Worldview: Why Worldview Transformation Requires Changing Scripts

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 

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

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

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

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

 

Related Posts:

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

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

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

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

 

Notes


[1] Norman Jewison, Topol, Norma Crane and Leonard Frey, Fiddler on the Roof (MGM Home Entertainment, 2004.

[2] http://www.the-numbers.com/market/Genres/Musical.php

[3] This conversation is even more interesting when the class includes at least one student from a culture of arranged marriages.

[4] In fact, it is so troubling to some students that I sometimes I skip it and end with the Do You Love Me discussion.

 

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.

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.  Not even when you’re a professor moonlighting as the Executive Director of Act One, a community of Christian entertainment industry professionals seeking to train and equip storytellers to enter mainstream Hollywood.  Even though we had graduates writing, producing, and directing on numerous TV shows and more than a few feature films, the 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: