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, even if they are moonlighting as the Executive Director of a community of Christian entertainment industry professionals seeking to train and equip storytellers to enter mainstream Hollywood.  Act One had been in existence for over a decade and even though we had graduates writing, producing, and directing on numerous TV shows and more than a few feature films, no entertainment industry press had ever called our offices before.

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

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

Kurt posing with his new hardware.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click to download Emmy Magazine Article PDF

 

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

Give it a Rest! by Keith Kettenring, PhD

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

by Keith Kettenring, PhD • Homestead Retreat House

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

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

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

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

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

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

See also:  

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let me explain…

A Brief History of Lent

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

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

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

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

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

Lenten Warfare

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

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

John Wesley helped advance a balanced perspective on Lent

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

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

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

Dallas Willard and the Spiritual Formation Movement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Catch the Wave

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

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

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

A Personal Note

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

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

Alcohol, Carbs, and the Presence of God

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

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

The Ocean is Calling!

 

See also

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

 


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Antecedents

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

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

Barton Stone and the Cane Ridge Revival (1801)

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

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

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

Timothy Dwight and Yale College

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charles Grandison Finney

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Outcomes

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

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

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

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

See also

The Great Awakening: From British Revival to American Revolution

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

Do America’s Colleges Need ‘Revival’?

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

References

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

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

Cross, Whitney R. 1950. The Burned-over District; the Social and Intellectual History of Enthusiastic Religion in Western New York, 1800-1850. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Finney, Charles G. 1960. Lectures on Revivals of Religion. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Guelzo, Allen. C. 1997. An Heir or a Rebel? Charles Grandison Finney and the New England Theology. Journal of the Early Republic. 17: 61-94.

Kidd, Thomas. 2007. The Great Awakening: The Roots of Evangelical Christianity in Colonial America. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.

Marsden, George M. 1994. The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief. New York: Oxford University Press.

McLoughlin, William G. 1978. Revivals, Awakenings, and Reform: An Essay on Religion and Social Change in America, 1607–1977. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Noll, Mark A. 2005. America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (New York: Oxford University Press.

Noll, Mark A. 2010. A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada. Grand Rapids, Mich: W.B. Eerdmans..

Schmidt, Leigh Eric. 2001. Holy Fairs: Scotland and the Making of American Revivalism, 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

Smith, Ted A. 2007. The New Measures: a Theological History of Democratic Practice. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Smith, Timothy L. 1980. Revivalism and Social Reform: American Protestantism on the Eve of the Civil War. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Williams, David Newell. 1979. “The Theology of the Great Revival in the West as Seen Through the Life and Thought of Barton Warren Stone” (Ph.D. Dissertation, Vanderbilt University.)

Martin Scorsese’s Silence, and Our Strange New Evangelical America, by Rebecca K. Reynolds

It is terrifically hard to wait at the foot of the mountain for the Word of the Lord. Will we wait in the dangerous silence for who He truly is, or slowly grow desperate enough to worship a golden calf?

Christovao Ferreira (c. 1580-1650, played here by Liam Neeson) was iconic to believers at the time. Your denomination’s equivalent might be N.T. Wright, Billy Graham, John Piper, or Francis Chan—but whoever that hero is, Ferreira was this sort of leader. He was so solid, so certain, so strong that every young priest knew that he would not sell out for any reason.

by Rebecca K. Reynolds

Andrew Peterson’s, Silence of God

When I first heard Andrew Peterson’s song “The Silence of God,” I was stunned. It was so bare. I wondered if it was even heretical…

I’ve since read thoughts by theologians about the growth value of long spans in which God leaves us in silence, but if I remember correctly, the first time I ever encountered someone wrestling with the concept wasn’t in a book, but in Andrew’s song.

He was the first person I heard admit, “I can’t hear God’s voice right now, and that’s terrible and it’s scary.”

It’s enough to drive a man crazy
It’ll break a man’s faith
It’s enough to make him wonder
If he’s been sane
When he’s bleating for comfort
From Thy staff and Thy rod
And the heavens’ only answer
Is the silence of God
And it’ll shake a man’s timbers
When he loses his heart
When he has to remember
What broke him apart
And this yoke may be easy
But this burden is not
And the crying fields are frozen
By the silence of God

If a man has got to listen
To the voices of the mob
Who are reeling in the throes
Of all the happiness they’ve got
When they tell you all their troubles
Have been nailed up to that cross
What about the times when even
Followers get lost
‘Cause we all get lost sometimes

If you know this song, you know these last stanzas don’t finish it off. But even hearing this much, I felt a strange sort of relief wash over me. Until he verbalized it, I hadn’t realized that all those years of religious-speak, all those appeals for God to “show up” had made me feel pressure to find continual signs of His engagement.

I didn’t realize how badly I needed to hear someone I trusted say, “When God is silent–and that’s often enough for me to write a song about it–I feel disappointed and lost.”

Martin Scorsese’s, Silence

Martin Scorsese’s film, Silence, was another one of those moments for me. Among other things, this is a film about faith attempting to survive long expanses of Divine quiet. The film reveals how we expect God to show up, how He does show up instead, and the human weaknesses that appear in the massive gaps between those two realities.

 

Japanese believer’s martyred for their refusal to renounce their faith for the expediency of any earthly allegiance.

Unlike Christian movies in which God provides some sort of “I have arrived” moment– God does not show up here with a new pickup truck, a much-desired pregnancy, or a restored marriage. The God of this film lets His children wrestle with years of suffering in relative silence. Because of this, we watch people who are trying to obey Him strain and grieve–desperate for confirmation during impossible times.

There are so many angles to this film, but I’m just going to focus on the one most personal to me in this post: the traumatic impact of an older follower of Christ who abandons his pure faith.

The film opens describing the work of Christovao Ferreira, a legendary Jesuit priest who has spent 15 years attempting to evangelize Japan. Ferreira was iconic to believers at the time. Your denomination’s equivalent might be N.T. Wright, Billy Graham, John Piper, or Francis Chan—but whoever that hero is, Ferreira was this sort of leader. He was so solid, so certain, so strong that every young priest knew that he would not sell out for any reason.

When news hits Portugal that Ferreira has apostasized, Rodrigues and a fellow priest believe the news is a dirty rumor. So, the two leave home to scour Japan in an attempt to dispel the disheartening story. It is a dangerous mission, likely to lead to death, but the two young men are idealistic and devoted, and they know how important it is to to the global church reclaim Ferreira’s reputation.

After arriving in Japan, the two young priests grieve to see believers tortured and slaughtered. As they experience emotional and spiritual torment, they stumble; they fail. But over and again, they rise up again in their faith to try to follow God once more.

When Rodrigues is captured by Japanese officials, his opponents try to break his faith repeatedly. The young priests heart crumbles, and he wavers on insanity, but he continues to hold fast. At last, the Japanese leaders bring his suffering to a climax — a meeting with Ferreira.

In this meeting, Rodrigues finds that Ferreira has truly apostasized. His hero is now a Buddhist, writing a book about the great lie of Christianity. His former hero begins to discourage Rodrigues from his own belief, arguing against the gospel and its ability to saturate Japan.

Ferreira urges Rodrigues to give up his faith, to compromise, to conform. Rodrigues is devastated, but he holds fast.

The Japanese could kill Rodrigues, but for strategic purposes, they want him to abandon his faith instead. So, they place Rodrigues in a holding cell where he can hear the gasps and wails of other believers being tortured. He is told that these Christians will be persecuted until Rodrigues denies his faith.

As he praying for strength and wisdom, he finds words of praise carved into his cell wall. Laudate Eum (Praise Him). He runs his fingers into the grooves and appeals desperately to the Lord for courage and fortitude. At this moment, Ferreira enters the cell and explains to Rodrigues that those praises were carved by himself before his denial of the faith.

Silence-05846_R-1.jpg
Ferreira urges Rodrigues to see how selfish it is to maintain an idealistic belief that causes others to suffer as he builds a case for joining with the leaders of the world out of love of the masses.

It is a hellish scene of betrayal and temptation. Ferreira urges Rodrigues to see how selfish it is to maintain an idealistic belief that causes others to suffer. He urges Rodrigues to see that apostasy is altruistic. He builds a case for joining with the leaders of the world out of love of the masses.

Of all the torment Rodrigues endures, this betrayal of a former hero is the worst. This man who had once led him in steadfast belief is now leading him to abandon it. It is more than Rodrigues can bear.

Abandoned by Our Heroes

As I sat in the theater watching all of this, I was blown away. The timing was more than a little ironic.

Just a few moments before watching this film, I had been talking with a friend about how distraught we have felt this past year. So many people my age feel abandoned by our own older faith heroes. In dire national circumstances, we have watched several of our evangelical heroes abandon the ideals they have taught us–urging us to make alliances with forces hostile to our faith.

They have told us that this is loving. They have told us to do this for the good of the people.

Values they once encouraged us to embrace in the face of all opposition have now been discarded for what they now claim to be a greater cause. They mock us for being too committed to impractical standards. They tell us to wake up, to open our eyes, to give up our old, innocent way of looking at the world.

But before our very eyes, some of these men seem to have changed into different sorts of beings. We recognize their faces, but we no longer recognize their hearts. Their language is different, soured, horrifying. They twist the stories of our Scripture to suit their new causes.

Watching this has taken our knees out from under us.

I’m not going to get more specific than that, nor am I going to dig into what happens in the end of the film here. But I will say that this movie (among other things) helped me to understand why the last few months have broken my heart so deeply. Watching my heroes conform to the ideals of the world has been too much for my heart to bear.

These men ask us to “leave well enough alone” and move on. But we aren’t sulking. We aren’t pouting. We feel like we have watched people we trusted and imitated trample on the gospel. And we feel like they have called out and asked us to do the same.

So many people claim to know exactly what God is doing these days, but I will tell you the truth. I don’t. My perceptions might be all wrong…

Time will tell, I suppose.

I do know that I’m profoundly disappointed in some of my old heroes. I know that I no longer recognize our strange, new evangelical America. And even though scores of people around me believe that I am too sensitive, I think it is right to be disappointed. Watching your heroes distort truth is no small thing. God holds leaders to a higher standard because heroes falling creates aftershocks that can trickle through an entire generation of young believers.

Waiting on a Silent God

A huge lightning bolt of God’s appearance didn’t show up at the end of this film, but I left the theater feeling like I felt when I first heard Andrew Peterson’s lyric. I walked away affirmed that it was not wrong to be sincere, not wrong to be sad, and that it was even okay to sit alone in the quiet and wait for an honest manifestation of God’s presence instead of letting immediate needs force me to rush in to claim what He isn’t and what He hasn’t done.

God’s name is holy, even when He seems silent. In those expanses, I do not want to use it in vain. It is terrifically hard to wait at the foot of the mountain for the Word of the Lord, but I would rather wait in the dangerous quiet for what He truly is than grow desperate enough to worship a golden calf.

There’s a statue of Jesus
On a monestary knoll
In the hills of Kentucky
All quiet and cold
And He’s kneeling in the garden
Silent as a stone
And all His friends are sleeping
And He’s weeping all alone

And the man of all sorrows
He never forgot
What sorrow is carried
By the hearts that He bought
So when the questions dissolve
Into the silence of God

The aching may remain
But the the breaking does not
The aching may remain
But the the breaking does not
In the holy, lonesome echo
Of the silence of God

(Andrew Peterson)

 

Read the complete article

 

See Also:

Andrew Garfield on the Ignatian journey that led him through ‘Silence’ and into the love of Christ

2016 Movies and TV Reflect Americans’ Changing Relationship with Faith, by Alissa Wilkinson

Andrew Garfield on the Ignatian journey that led him through ‘Silence’ and into the love of Christ

“What was really easy was falling in love with this person, was falling in love with Jesus Christ. That was the most surprising thing.” -Andrew Garfield

The experience of falling in love with Jesus was most surprising, perhaps, because Garfield, like many people, came to the Exercises asking for something else…

Read the complete article in America