“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.
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!
By linking the choice of new birth with his audience’s choice of a new American identity, British evangelist George Whitefield provided a common American experience that unified diverse colonists who lacked a common identity
By Gary David Stratton, Professor, Johnson University (TN) and James L. Gorman, Assistant Professor, Johnson University
The Great Awakening is the common designation for a Protestant socio-spiritual movement in the American colonies that helped establish the groundwork for much of the nation’s spiritual and national identity. The awakening began among German, Dutch and Scot-Irish immigrants and was greatly influenced by British Methodists and New England Puritans. It culminated in enormous religious gatherings, mass professions of faith, controversial ecstatic experiences, and the overthrow of Old World hierarchies in church and society. While interpretations of the meaning of the Great Awakening divide into numerous schools of thought, “It seems evident that in one way or another, the Great Awakening helped to prepare American society and culture for the Revolution, but of course not in any direct, deliberate, or intentional manner” (Wood, p. 180-181).
An upsurge in revivalist piety began in the middle colonies in the ministries of German-American Dutch-Reformed minister, Theodore Jacobus Frelinghuysen (c. 1691 – c. 1747), and Scots-Irish-American Presbyterian, Gilbert Tennent (1703-1764), as well as among Congregationalist churches in the Connecticut River Valley (Crawford, p. 108). When the Connecticut River Valley revival reached Northamption, MA in 1734, its effect was so dramatic, it prompted the town’s minister, Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) to write what became a bestselling account, entitled, A faithful narrative of the surprising work of God in the conversion of many Souls in Northampton. Considered by many to be America’s greatest theologian, Edwards viewed this outpouring of the Spirit as an acceleration and intensification of the work of the normal Holy Spirit so that as much is “done in a day or two, as at ordinary times […] is done in a year.” (p. 21). Like all Puritans, Edwards held that such “outpourings of the Spirit” were God-granted events to be sought by ministers and their congregations as their only hope for advancing the gospel on earth. As the story of Northampton’s revival spread, ministers and congregations up and down the Atlantic seaboard began praying for similar visitation in their towns.
British evangelist George Whitefield (1714-1770) entered this rarified spiritual atmosphere determined to seize the moment for God’s glory. Whitefield’s adoption of John Wesley’s practice of “field preaching” coupled with his profound dramatic gifts connected him with his audiences in an unprecedented manner. His first trip to America (mostly in Georgia from 1737–1738), followed by his tremendously successful campaign in London, thrust him into popular imagination such that Harry Stout declares him “Anglo-America’s first modern celebrity” (1991, p. x). In preparation for his second American preaching tour (1740-1741), Whitefield fashioned a plan to build on this momentum. The evangelist and his publicist, William Seward, work tirelessly to promote Whitefield’s exploits, writing as many as a hundred personal letters, articles, and journal entries a day to a vast network of leaders and publishers throughout the New World. Incredibly, Whitefield personally wrote or inspired thirty-percent of every printed work published in America in 1740.
By the time he reached Boston, all of New England was in a fever pitch of anticipation. Six weeks and 175 sermons later, virtually every New England inhabitant heard Whitefield preach face-to-face. Scores of professed conversions and great public interest in religion swept the colonies, from Harvard, where young Samuel Adams was deeply affected, to Philadelphia, where Benjamin Franklin and Whitefield became famous friends. In fact, Whitefield’s growing celebrity granted him unparalleled influence in Colonial society. He was able to network with the rich and powerful, target key social causes (especially orphans and African-American education), and take controversial anti-institutional stands on the issues of his day as the first in a long line of public figures whose claim to influence rested on celebrity rather than inherited social status (Stout).
Controversy and Excess
Gilbert Tennent fired what was perhaps the opening salvo of the disestablishment of a the Old World hierarchical view of society in his 1739 sermon, “The Danger of an Unconverted Ministry,” arguing that only ministers who have experienced “the new birth of conversion” should be allowed to preach. While Tennent was immediately and nearly unanimously condemned by the established clergy, Whitefield picked up the theme and began to use it regularly in his 1740-1741 preaching tour, pushing the message deep into the Colonial psyche. Whitefield’s call for religious freedom from the hierarchical structure of denominational leadership and parish loyalties resonated with his colonial audiences.
His life and his message provided some measure of resolution to the growing colonial tensions between the leaders of mercantile economy rooted in individual enterprise versus inherited social power of the socio-political system. This was particularly true in New England, where community leadership was contingent upon denominational church leadership—often making the minister the most powerful leader in town, but also resonated in more religiously tolerant communities such as the Delaware River Valley.
The tension only grew as a growing band of itinerant and uncredentialed Whitefield imitators began “invading” staid parishes preaching Whitefield’s emotional and theatrical revival message. The wildest of these, such as Yale graduate James Davenport (1716–1757), began to give the leaders of the Awakening, known as “New Lights,” more trouble than their enemies. No sooner had Whitefield sailed for England than the enemies of the Awakening (and defenders of the old social order), known as “Old Lights,” launched a counter-offensive to restore the status quo. The faculties of Harvard and Yale denounced both the Awakening in general and Whitefield in particular. Charles Chauncy, Boston’s most influential clergyman (and later president of Harvard), published his Enthusiasm Described and Cautioned Against (1742) as a treatise against the excessive emotional displays of revivals.
Eventually, even Edwards had to speak out against the excesses of the revival. In his Treatise Concerning Religious Affections (1742), Edwards declared Satan the winner of the Awakening due to the New England clergy’s inability to lead their flocks out of wildfire and into love of God and sacrificial love of others. This was perhaps Edwards’ most enduring legacy. While, Faithful Narrative would define the standard expectations for evangelical conversion and firmly establish Edwards as the revival expert with broad readership for his future publications, it was his 1746 publication of Religious Affections (and his 1749 popularization of his views on his more balanced view of revivalism in The Life of David Brainerd) that would lay the groundwork for a profoundly influential evangelical protestant movement in America. Noll (2003) asserts that the Great Awakening “marked the beginning of a distinctly evangelical history” marked by a “consistent pattern of convictions and attitudes that have been maintained over the centuries since” (p. 80, 18-19).
It is not obvious if the exact term, “Great Awakening,” was used before Joseph Tracy in 1842, causing some (Butler, 1982; Lambert, 1999) to assert that the Great Awakening itself was merely the invention of historians. Even those who accept the event at face value often grapple with the meaning of those few short years of American history. Kidd (2007) argues that the division of the dynamic evangelical movement into two distinguishable parts may only “obscure the fact that the evangelical movement continued to develop after 1743 and before 1800” (p. xix). Stout (1977, 1991) argues what while the Awakening itself was more than a historical invention, clearly there was an inventive sense to Whitefield and Seward’s promotional approach (and to some degree Edwards’ rush to publicize the short-lived work of God in Northampton).
Beyond their religious significance, Whitefield’s radical innovations in communication and publicity provided the rhetoric through which republican ideas could be conveyed to an unlettered audience. This style endured, even if the Awakening did not, and became a growing influence in the mode of persuasion of the American Revolution and modern mass communication (Woods, Stout). One school of thought (Heimert, 1966; Mahaffey 2007, 2011) holds that the Awakening’s impact upon the Revolution extended far beyond communication and into the foundational ideas of democracy and nation building, and “provided pre-Revolutionary America with a radical, even democratic, social and political ideology, and evangelical religion embodied, and inspired, a thrust toward American nationalism” (Heimert, viii). By linking the choice of new birth with his audience’s choice of a new American identity, Whitefield provided a common American experience that unified diverse colonists who lacked a common identity. “Without George Whitefield […] American independence would have come much later, if at all” (Mahaffey, 2011, xi).
Gary David Stratton (Ph.D. Biola University) is University Professor of Cultural and Spiritual Formation 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 forthcoming “Encyclopedia of Christianity in the United States” (Rowman and Littlefield, 2015).
Butler, Jon. 1982. “Enthusiasm Described and Decried: The Great Awakening as Interpretive Fictions” Journal of American History: 305-325 Crawford Michael J. 1991. Seasons of Grace: Colonial New England’s Revival Tradition in Its British Context. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. Edwards, Jonathan, and C C. Goen. 1972. The Great Awakening: A Faithful Narrative. the Distinguishing Marks. Some Thoughts Concerning the Revival, Letters Relating to the Revival. New Haven: Yale University Press. Heimert, Alan. 1996. Religion and the American Mind, from the Great Awakening to the Revolution. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. Kidd, Thomas S. 2007. The Great Awakening: the Roots of Evangelical Christianity in Colonial America. New Haven: Yale University Press. Lambert, Frank. 1999. Inventing the “Great Awakening”. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. Mahaffey, Jerome D. 2007. Preaching Politics: The Religious Rhetoric of George Whitefield and the Founding of a New Nation. Waco: Baylor University Press. ________________ 2011. The Accidental Revolutionary: George Whitefield and the Creation of America. Waco, Tex: Baylor University Press. Marsden, George M. 2003. Jonathan Edwards: a Life. New Haven: Yale University Press. Noll, Mark A. 2003. The Rise of Evangelicalism: The Age of Edwards, Whitefield, and the Wesleys. Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press. Stout, Harry S. 1977. “Religion, Communications, and the Ideological Origins of the American Revolution,” William and Mary Quarterly 34: 519-41; reprinted in Butler and Stout, Religion in American History: A Reader 89-108. ___________ .1991. The Divine Dramatist: George Whitefield and the Rise of Modern Evangelicalism. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans. Wood, Gordon. 1997. “Religion and the American Revolution,” in Stout, Harry S., and D. G. Hart. Eds. New Directions in American Religious History. New York: Oxford University Press.
I’m your biggest fan, I’ll follow you until you love me Papa, paparazzi
—Lyrics from “Paparazzi” as performed by Lady Gaga
The streets of Boston course with life as a crowd greater than the city’s total population joins in celebration.
Commerce grinds to a standstill.
Grown men weep.
The governor joins the standing-room-only multitude on Boston Common and declares the festivities, “the greatest day in New England history.”
If that sounds to you like a good description of the victory parade for the 2004 Boston Red Sox who vanquished a 68 year-old ‘Curse of the Bambino” with a World Series championship, you’re not far from the truth. The Red Sox parade attracted an incredible sixty-eight percent of greater Boston’s population.
However, these words actually describe something even more historic: the 1740 farewell sermon of British evangelist George Whitefield–an event that drew 135 percent of colonial Boston. No wonder Harry Stout has calls Whitefield “Anglo-America’s first modern celebrity.”
And Whitefield’s celebrity is no accident. It is the result of a carefully orchestrated public relations tour de force. Whitefield and his publicist, William Seward, worked tirelessly to promote the evangelist’s exploits, writing as many as a hundred personal letters, articles, and journal entries a day to a vast network of leaders and publishers throughout the New World. Incredibly, Whitefield personally wrote or inspired thirty-percent of every work published in America in 1740. By the time he reaches Boston, all of New England is in a fever pitch. Six weeks and 175 sermons later, “virtually every New England inhabitant” has heard Whitefield preach face-to-face.
Sinners is the Hands of an Angry God
One hundred miles to the west, fiery preacher Jonathan Edwards waits not with condemnation, but delight. Rather than dangling the “paparazzi” of his day over the pit of hell, Edwards follows media coverage of Whitefield’s every move with growing delight. He even invites the innovative young preacher to fill his famous pulpit in Northampton, Massachusetts.
Edwards helped start this media sensation in the first place. His autobiographical Faithful Narrative  was an international best seller for nearly three years before Whitefield’s preaching tour, making Edwards a towering public figure in his own right. He has helped stoke a deep hunger for spiritual awakening throughout the colonies; a hunger now filled by Whitefield’s flamboyant preaching and growing celebrity.
While many Christians today decry our shallow media-driven celebrity culture, leaders of the Great Awakening recognized that capture society’s imagination with spiritual realities required media-driven celebrity. And capture it they did. By year’s end, perhaps as much as fifteen-percent of the population of the American colonies professes conversion to Christ in one of the most transformative social movements in American history.
Edwards and Whitefield helped birth not only one of the most transformative cultural movements in America history—the First Great Awakening—they also helped launch America’s celebrity culture. Twenty-first-century culture-makers seeking to birth society-wide transformation on the level of the Great Awakening would be wise to pay careful attention to the lessons Edwards and Whitefield learned in using celebrity for the glory of God.
Celebrity is perhaps the most coveted and least understood concept in contemporary culture. While the billion-dollar celebrity industry seems to grind out a new subject for fifteen-minutes of fame nearly every fifteen minutes, the scholarly community (and the church) has scrambled just to stay current. Recent scholarship has produced many claims to the title of “America’s first celebrity,” ranging from John James Audubon (c. 1826) to Walt Whitman (c. 1850), Buffalo Bill Cody (c. 1885), Douglas Fairbanks (c. 1920), and Ernest Hemingway (c. 1925). Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield certainly precede each of these contenders, but were they true celebrities? The answer is, perhaps, yes and no.
Celebrity as Star
If one takes the perspective that celebrity is a purely modern invention, then obviously Edwards and Whitefield can’t be celebrities. Many scholars find a strong enough connection between celebrity and modern media to assert that “there is no such thing as celebrity prior to the beginning of the twentieth century.” This school of thought is strongly rooted in film studies and the rise of the Hollywood star-making business. Before 1910, the motion picture industry sold story. However, studio executives soon realized that what they were actually selling was stars—men and women who moviegoers liked and personally identified with beyond the quality of their performance.
For instance, producer Brian Grazer chose the little known TV star Tom Hanks over hundreds of famous actors vying for the lead in Splash (1983), not because Hanks was the most talented, but because audience testing proved he was the most likable. Soon Hanks joined the pantheon of Jimmy Stewart, Cary Grant, John Wayne, Harrison Ford, et cetera—actors America loved not for how they played their role, but simply for who they were.
Hollywood intuited what academic research later demonstrated: people personally identify not merely with the hero of the story, but also with the actor playing the hero in the story. Media-generated personal identification evoked a public hunger for access to the private lives of stars. In small-town America, everyone wanted to know the gossip, slander, triumphs, tragedies of the in crowd. But in the emerging global village, the most popular kids are found on the big screen.
Aided by the media-driven celebrity industry, stars quickly became what Richard Schickel calls “intimate strangers.” People wanted to know these stars and be connected to them personally. Graeme Turner asserts that we can actually “map the precise moment a public figure becomes a celebrity”: when their “private lives attract greater public interest than their professional lives.”
It wasn’t long before stars began to realize that they had become a commodity to be marketed and traded, not only by studio heads, but also by their own publicity people. Within a few short years, the public relations and celebrity gossip industries were born. Soon Paparazzi was a household word.
Since Edwards and Whitefield were dead for over a hundred years before the first Hollywood stars were born, it is hard to see how they are celebrities in this limited sense of the word.
Celebrity as Hero
However, other scholars adopt a broader understanding of celebrity, one that seems to better fit Edwards and Whitefield. These scholars root their understanding of celebrity in the Latin words for “fame” (celebritas) and “being famous” (celebrer) and in Western society’s desire to “celebrate” greatness.  Human beings need heroes to emulate.
Both the Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian traditions developed strong “hero-making” story cultures. We tell the stories of heroes such as Hercules, Achilles, Odysseus, Perseus, Jason, Atalanta, David, Elijah, Esther, Mary, Paul, and Peter because they embody the virtues valued in our culture.
Yet for cultural heroes to serve as public role models, they need to be both virtuous and known. A virtuous man or woman whose story goes untold simply can’t be emulated. Therefore, the desire to be great and the desire to be famous are not necessarily mutually exclusive. As Paul boldly declares, “Follow me as I follow Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1).
Perhaps it is more helpful to follow Daniel Boorstin’s distinction between a genuine celebrity and what he calls a “pseudo-celebrity.” Pseudo celebrities, as the Hollywood school of thought asserts, are differentiated mainly by the “trivia of personality,” whereas true celebrities are heroes who are distinguished by their achievements, virtues, and character. Edwards and Whitefield appear to fit this second type. Although there is no universal consensus, celebrity studies seem to point to four distinct stages in the creation of a genuine celebrity: (1) A defining incident or accomplishment makes someone a “hero”; (2) some kind of identification with the hero’s character sparks admiration and a desire to connect with the hero; (3) intentionality by the hero (or someone acting on behalf of the hero) meets public desire for a greater connection by providing access to their “story” and their life; and, (4) the public’s identification with the hero exerts influence in other people’s lives that shapes their behavior.
Edwards’s celebrity clearly fits this pattern.
(1) Edwards’s public story begins with a clear defining incident—a powerful revival among the youth in his church results in the conversion of 300 people, a quarter of the town’s population, transforming youth culture in Northampton. Soon there is “scarcely any in the town, old or young, left unconcerned about the great things of the eternal world [. . . .] The work of conversion was carried on in a most astonishing man¬ner [. . .] and the number of true saints multiplied [. . . until] the town seemed to be full of the presence of God.”
(2) These events spark a profound identification, not only in America, but across the English-speaking world. Edwards’s church became “the talk of New England” and famous British cleric Isaac Watts declared, “We have not heard of anything like it since the Reformation, nor since the first days of the apostles.” What minister (or Christian) would not want this to happen in their church? People wanted to know more.
(3) Edwards responds to this interest with acute intentionality. He publishes A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising work of God in the Conversion of many Souls in Northampton, and Neighbouring Towns and Villages of the County of Hampshire, in the Province of the Massachusetts-Bay in New England. It becomes an international best seller reprinted at least ten times in three languages before Edwards’s death and over fifty times since.
(4) Faithful Narrative provides Edwards with the influence and “international audience for which he longed.” More than any other published statement, Faithful Narrative would “define the standard expectations for evangelical conversion” and firmly establish Edwards as the “revival expert” with broad readership for his future publications on the Awakening. For over a century, it serves as a nearly canonical corpus for New England revivalism. More dramatically, it opens the door for interest in Edwards’s more scholarly works so that Edwards eventually comes to be known as “America’s greatest theologian.”
Notice the key role that intentionality plays in Edwards’s celebrity. Without his providing the story, there is no story, and therefore, no celebrity. Without Edwards’s providing a personal account of the revival—an incident he did not “cause,” but which spread to his church from the surrounding villages—this “towering intellectual figure” could very well have remained unknown and unread.
Whitefield as Heroic Celebrity
Whitefield’s celebrity also appears to fit this four-stage cycle as well.
(1) Whitefield’s first trip to America (mostly in Georgia from 1737–1738), followed by his tremendously successful campaign in London, creates an international incident that introduces him into popular imagination. Whitefield’s adoption of John Wesley’s practice of “field preaching” (versus preaching inside churches) coupled with his profound dramatic gifts and unusual anointing create a sensation. His sermons are some of the most compelling theater of his generation, recasting “biblical history in a theatrical key.”
(2) Whitefield’s preaching generates tremendous public identification. Theater is all but unknown in America, and Whitefield’s dramatic performances (in comparison to the logical treatises offered by most New England pastors) connect in an unprecedented way. People love Whitefield. They flock to hear him preach. They relish his willingness to take on the (ancestral hierarchical) establishment. They can’t get enough of him. Newspapers normally committed to business and political news are filled with accounts of his success.
(3) In preparation for his second American preaching tour (1740-1741), Whitefield demonstrates unusual intentionality in managing his celebrity. He fashions a clearly defined and “audacious” plan to build on his momentum and transform his revival movement into “an international event with himself at the center.” He and his publicists unleash a barrage of publicity employing careful use of social networking and mass media. People are able to “personally” connect with him through him publishing his personal journals and maintaining a grueling schedule of personal appearances.
(4) Whitefield’s growing celebrity soon grants him unparalleled influence. He is able to network with the rich and powerful, target key social causes (especially orphans and African American education), and take controversial anti-institutional stands on the issues of his day (unconverted ministers). Whitefield becomes “the first in a long line of public figures whose claims to influence would rest on celebrity [. . .] rather than birth, breeding, or institutional fiat.”
Like with Edwards, it is difficult to miss the critical role intentionality plays in Whitefield’s celebrity. His use of William Seward’s immense talent as a public relations officer is critical to his success. He certainly would have connected with people without it, but he could never have attracted such remarkable crowds without the tireless efforts of Seward and his network of advance men. As Stout asserts:
“Where other influential preachers. . . wrote learned treatises and preached in meetinghouses. . . to audiences totaling in the thousands. . . Whitefield wrote best-selling journals and drew audiences that must be totaled in the millions. . . For comparison one must look to an electronic age and. . . movie stars.”
Both Edwards and Whitefield appear to fit the criteria of heroic celebrities. Without the celebrity account provided by Edwards’s Faithful Narrative, it is entirely possible that America would not have been primed for Whitefield’s publicity and preaching. From a human perspective, it is not unreasonable to claim that Edwards and Whitefield’s efforts helped initiate America’s first celebrity culture, and that celebrity culture in turn helped birth the First Great Awakening. Mark A. Noll, arguably the most influential historian in our contemporary understanding of the First Great Awakening, notes that although revival can be viewed as the result of a movement of the Holy Spirit, it can also be interpreted as an effect of human agency and 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.”
The leaders of the First Great Awakening were young men of great natural gifts who preached, wrote, promoted, and built institutions with unusual force. Their actions mattered, regardless of their motivations or by what power they were energized. This in no way minimizes the Holy Spirit’s role in the First Great Awakening. Something truly remarkable occurred in this movement that no amount of human effort has ever been able to recreate (although not for lack of trying). However, it does emphasize that the Holy Spirit worked though human leaders who made wise use of the means at their proposal, including their celebrity.
Edwards himself came to embrace the importance of human leadership in the Awakening. One of his central contributions to religious self-understanding was his refusal to accept an either/or dichotomy between divine and human impulses. His first work in the midst of the Great Awakening, Some thoughts concerning the present revival of religion (1741), was an urgent appeal for human leaders to promote the work of God by wise and strenuous efforts.
His first major publication in the aftermath of the Great Awakening, A treatise regarding religious affections (1746), was in many ways his “second thoughts about the first great awakening.” Edwards claimed that Satan won a great victory in the Awakening because human leaders failed to embrace their God-appointed role in directing such a powerful “pouring out of the Spirit of God.”
Edwards and Whitefield were not leaders who shirked their human responsibility. Their model points toward a possible future for leaders seeking to become “adept shapers of culture” in the twenty-first century. However, before we can directly apply the principles they employed in the eighteenth century to our contemporary setting, we must first account for a factor with which Edwards and Whitefield never had to contend: contemporary pseudo celebrity culture.
The Rise of Pseudo Celebrity
The problem with the celebrity cycle is that it is essentially value neutral. The process that makes someone a heroic celebrity is essentially the same as the process that makes someone a pseudo celebrity. As the Hollywood school of thought contends, something went seriously awry with celebrity in the early twentieth century. It is as if somewhere we decided that if you can’t be a true hero without also achieving fame, why bother with virtue at all? Contemporary media makes it all too easy to skip heroism and jump straight to the stardom of a pseudo celebrity who is “well-known only for being well-known.”
In pseudo celebrity, the inciting incident moves from important to trivial (and/or contrived); intentionality moves from important to critical; and identification moves from character to personality. The pseudo celebrity “develops their capacity for fame, not by achieving great things, but by differentiating their own personality from those of their competitors in the public arena.”
Dry Erase Girl
A good example of this phenomena is found in the “dry erase girl” resignation hoax. This meme serves as a great example of how the four-stage cycle can be applied to the creation of pseudo celebrities.
(1) On the morning of August 10, The Chive, a relatively unknown Web site, creates an incident by posting a series of pictures under the banner: “Girl quits her job on dry erase board, emails entire office.” The hilarious photos, received from “a person who works with [. . .] Jenny,” chronicle a young worker’s struggle with her boss’s sexual harassment, her subsequent resignation, and the outing of her boss’s odd Internet viewing habits.
(2) By the afternoon of August 10, the public’s identification with Jenny’s plight makes the story is an instant Internet sensation. The photos “soared to the top of Google and Twitter trends, and a group of Facebook pages popped up to honor” the brave underling. Who wouldn’t root for this perky persecuted worker and her “heroic” actions? People were dying to connect with Jenny and know more of her life and future.
(3) The role of intentionality becomes obvious on August 11, when the Web site TechCrunch reveals that it was all a publicity stunt. “Jenny-the-Dry-Erase-Girl” is really Elyse Porterfield, a struggling young actress hired by The Chive to perpetrate the hoax.
(4) By the evening of August 11, Porterfield and The Chive editor have garnished sufficient influence to be interviewed by CBS News Entertainment to discuss their successful creation of the hoax. Thirty-six hours after the first posting, The Chive and Porterfield are hot properties. Could an acting role be far behind? (And of course, I’m pulling for Porterfield. She is so darn likable.)
In less than two twenty-four-hour news cycles a hoax is: (1) perpetrated, (2) debunked, and (3) milked for enough publicity to become national news and achieve celebrity status. Porterfield is the paramount pseudo celebrity created via what Boorstin calls a “pseudo-event fabricated by the media and evaluated in terms of the scale and effectiveness of their media visibility.”
Pseudo Celebrity and Cultural Currency
Notice, however, how the final stage of influence is still very much intact. In fact, the defining characteristic of the contemporary pseudo celebrity culture is the shallow but powerful nature of the identification it engenders. Pseudo celebrity endorsements are both effective and pervasive, because these superstars are integral parts of our lives and intimately tied to our greatest hopes and fears.
In a culture devoid of meaning and relationship, the pseudo celebrity system offers powerful images to direct our lives. Media outlets create an “illusion of accessibility and relationship.” In a society hungering for close personal relationships, the pseudo celebrity system delivers pseudo-relationships with people we feel connected to but have never met. When Lady Gaga sings, “I’m your biggest fan, I’ll follow you until you love me,” she is eerily describing the zeitgeist of paparazzi culture. Through pseudo celebrity culture, we perpetrate a new American mythology: not the maxim that strong character, hard work, and perseverance will eventually lead to success and happiness, but rather be in the right place at the right time, with the right YouTube video and you too can be famous. The underlying story behind pseudo celebrity becomes: it could happen to me.
Not everyone can be a hero, but anyone can be famous. Accomplishments might put someone in a position to be noticed by the media, but only the intentional courting of the public eye can produce an ongoing celebrity. This is the underlying secret of our pseudo celebrity culture: it’s all about the Benjamins. Celebrities are needed to drive the economy, sell the products, and fill the airtime so as to generate advertising dollars to sell even more products. Pseudo celebrities are the ultimate wedding of consumer culture and democratic aspirations. In a society cynical about truth, and without a clear sense of common good informing our ethical decisions, the pseudo celebrity system guarantees that even if I don’t know how to live a meaningful life, at least I’ll know how to dress.
On Being a Twenty-first Century Heroic Celebrity (and Not a Pseudo Celebrity)
Does this trivialization of celebrity mean that twenty-first-century culture-makers should eschew all celebrity and start dangling our own paparazzi over the pit of hell? Perhaps. But if the realm of celebrity is stripped of every true hero, all that remains will be pseudo celebrities. And a world without public heroism is a profoundly unbiblical idea. Without contemporary additions to the Hebrews 11 hall of fame, how can we expect a new generation to “Remember your leaders [. . . .] Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith”? (Heb. 13:7). If we don’t have heroic celebrities who are broadly famous in our culture, then haven’t we lost our culture already? To put a twist on Edmund Burke’s oft-quoted aphorism: “All that is necessary for pseudo celebrity to triumph is for heroic celebrities to do nothing.”
Still, some might argue: yes, we need heroes, but shouldn’t we leave hero-making to God? You would certainly think so if you read evangelical devotional literature. Even thoughtful historians often help perpetrate the myth that the Holy Spirit alone drew the giant crowds that followed the saintly Whitefield, as if he wanted only to be left alone with his Bible. Consider Stephen Mansfield’s hagiographic account:
“What could explain the crowds, always the crowds? It must be simply the grace of God and his decision to use a slight, squint-eyed boy to change lives.”
My point is not that the supernatural impact of Whitefield’s ministry is difficult to account for except by the grace of God (more on this later), only that Whitefield carefully cultivated and judiciously utilized his celebrity for the glory of God. Why should twenty-first-century leaders be any different? Moses was “more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth” yet he wrote books that celebrated his own heroism (Numbers 12:3). Nehemiah certainly wasn’t shy in trumpeting his own accomplishments. And David commissioned the telling of the heroic story of Ruth in order to clear up a public relations problem in his (Gentile) heritage. Yet Moses, David, Ruth, Nehemiah, Whitefield, and Edwards possessed at least three further traits that define their heroic celebrity and which might help mitigate against contemporary pseudo celebrity.
The Compelling Authenticity of a Life Well Lived
Edwards and Whitefield were men of remarkable integrity. Edwards was no pseudo celebrity scholar. He was the real thing. He was devoted to the calling of his craft, often spending thirteen hours a day in his study. Nor was he a public figure who wilted in private. He developed a profound contemplative prayer life, forged a beautiful marriage, and stayed deeply involved in the lives of his eleven children.
Although Whitefield never achieved Edwards’s “depth in his thinking about culture,” he began each day reading his Greek New Testament and returned to finish his master’s degree at Oxford after already achieving much of his fame. He worked tirelessly to improve as an orator (and actor). More importantly, he was a man of profound personal and financial integrity. He raised staggering amounts of money while maintaining a Spartan lifestyle that bordered on asceticism. Both leaders escaped moral scandal despite determined enemies and years in the public eye.
This is not to say that these men were perfect; they both freely admitted their mistakes and misjudgments in their own writings. Whitefield wrote, “Alas! Alas! In how many things have I judged acted wrong. I have been too rash and hasty in [judging the] character, both of places and persons. . . I have used a style too apostolical . . . been too bitter in my zeal . . . and published to soon and too explicitly. . . By these things I have hurt the blessed cause I would defend.” But rather than repelling followers, such authenticity drew men and women to his celebrity. In short, they were actually men who could be admired; they were heroic celebrities who might be emulated.
Twenty-first-century culture-makers must strive for the same excellence in craft and character. Pseudo celebrity culture has bred cynicism regarding all celebrities. Americans crave authenticity but expect duplicity. We are looking for our heroes to fall, and the celebrity media industry is only too happy to pounce when they do. Those who would aspire to heroic celebrity must be absolutely certain that they are up to the task. Although pseudo celebrities sometimes become heroes over the course of time, heroic celebrities can become pseudo celebrities overnight. Ted Haggard became a national celebrity, not through his accomplishment of building one of the most influential churches in America, nor by his position as President of the National Council of Evangelicals; he became a household name by reason of his infidelity.
This calls for a ruthless commitment to the compelling authenticity of a life well lived. Scholars, ministers, businesspeople, musicians, politicians, filmmakers, artists, actors, and publishers had best count the cost before they dare enter the world of heroic celebrity. They need a radical commitment to master both their craft at a world-class level and the spiritual disciplines, marriage, family, and relational habits required to shape their character toward the fruit of the Spirit.
Great artists, scholars, businesspeople, and ministers are not formed in a day. Great marriages, families, and friendships are forged with great intentionality. Heroic character cannot be instantly formed by sheer force of will, but the ongoing practice of key spiritual disciplines put us in a position to receive the transforming grace of God and be “incrementally changed toward inward Christlikeness.”
This also calls for a countercultural commitment on the part of thoughtful media leaders and public relations specialists to work against the forces of pseudo celebrity. In addition to Edwards and Whitefield, leaders of the First Great Awakening included not only one of the pioneers of publicity and public relations (William Seward), but also three of the key forerunners in modern mass communication: John Lewis, Thomas Prince, and William McCulloch. They were determined to use the power of the media to promote spiritual awakening through Edwards and Whitefield’s celebrity. Twenty-first-century media leaders must seek for the true heroes in our society and make certain their stories are told. They must also do everything within their power to insure that those they promote as celebrities are in fact heroes.
The Courageous Ambition of Genuine Humility
Edwards and Whitefield were also men of tremendous ambition to glorify God in the world. Early in his life, Edwards determined, “I will do whatsoever I think to be most to God’s glory [. . . ]” However, Edwards’s humility didn’t prevent him from developing a ruthless ambition to serve the coming of God’s kingdom throughout the world. He continued: “[. . .] and my own good, profit and pleasure to do whatever I think to be my duty [. . .] for the good and advantage of mankind.”
Edwards saw no conflict in these two aspirations, having also resolved to throw off anything smacking of “gratification of pride, or vanity,” and he lived his life to maximally steward the gifts God had entrusted to him by establishing himself as a renowned intellectual force for good.
Whitefield too was a man possessed of a deep passion for the glory of God with a corresponding repudiation of self-glory. Yet, he also held to a keen sense of the importance of his impact upon the world. Certainly, the hierarchical worldview of Edwards and Whitefield’s day helped them seize those opportunities in ways that our current pseudo celebrity, democratic, level-playing-field worldview does not. They were encouraged to aspire to become “great men” from their youth, and their respective Yale and Oxford educations only reinforced the idea that they were God’s elite. They did not need to be asked to step forward as celebrities. They knew it was a responsibility entrusted to them by God and correspondingly seized the day.
Not so today. The cynicism of pseudo celebrity when combined with tireless assaults upon anyone who dares stick their heads above the democratic crowd has had a devastating impact on moral leadership. True heroes step back from the public limelight while pseudo celebrities push themselves forward. Those who do not possess true character and accomplishment manipulate the media for their own celebrity, whereas those who possess some modicum of humility shrink back. True heroes fear not only their own ego, but also the potential humiliation involved in having a target painted on their back. For instance, it is now a right of passage for nearly all intellectual, cultural, and spiritual leaders to have multiple Web sites devoted to their demise.
Overcoming our contemporary aversion to principled heroism will call for the courageous ambition of genuine humility on the part of twenty-first-century cultural leaders. Like Saul’s army before Goliath, unbelief sometimes looks a lot like humility. Genuine humility, on the other hand, sometimes appears arrogant. While lifelong soldiers cowered in fear, David was willing to push past his brother’s stinging accusation, “I know how conceited you are” in order to seize the heroic challenge (1 Sam. 17:28ff). Twenty-first-century culture-makers who wish to wisely use celebrity for the glory of God will also need to regularly weather the pseudo celebrity culture’s challenge of “Who do you think you are?” in order to stand as heroic celebrities.
This will also require careful partnerships with thoughtful public relations professionals and new media experts. As media expert Phil Cook, exclaims, “If you don’t control your perception” and “the story that surrounds you [. . .] you’ll live the rest of your life at the mercy of those who will.”
One need only look at James Monaco refers to persons who come to the public eye but fail to control their public image as “Quasars.” They are at the mercy of the media’s construction of their image, and that construction is nearly always bad.the “Tina Fey effect” in the last presidential election for a warning against the dangers of losing control of your own image. Unlike the leaders of the Great Awakening, today’s leaders have allowed our culture’s perception of spirituality to drift at the mercy of the mass media’s construction. Oprah and Richard Dawkins have done more to shape mass media’s conception of faith (or lack thereof) than countless pastors and other spiritual leaders. Only by drawing upon the savvy leadership of the best public relations experts, journalists, filmmakers, television creators, and new-media mavens is there any real chance of reversing this trend.
The Unmistakable Stamp of Divine Exaltation
In the end, Edwards and Whitefield’s lives bore the unmistakable stamp of divine exaltation. Their personal lives and vocational success simply defied all human explanation. Although self-exaltation may lead to pseudo celebrity, there is a type of exaltation only God can bestow. As the psalmist declares, “It is God who judges: He brings one down, he exalts another” (Ps. 75:7).
Celebrity did not bring David in from the shepherd field, release Joseph from prison, nor fill Mary’s womb with divine offspring. They were men and women who followed the biblical injunction: “Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time” (1 Pet. 5:6).
Each hero waited in relative obscurity—growing in character while mastering the disciplines of their craft—waiting for the moment chosen by the God whose eyes “range throughout the earth seeking to strengthen those whose hearts are fully committed to him” (2 Chron. 16:9).
For some, like Daniel and Esther, this call came at a relatively young age. For many others, like Moses and Anna, the call came much later. In either case, these biblical figures were ready when their moment arrived.
Whether short or long, God used their time in secret preparation to forge in them the strength of character to support the weight of their calling. Edwards and Whitefield were men of similar character. When the divine moment came—in the 1734-1734 revival in Edwards’s church and the 1739 revival under Whitefield’s itinerant preaching—these two principal leaders of the First Great Awakening knew what to do. Once exalted by God to a place of celebrity, they were ready to bear the responsibilities it demanded and steward their celebrity for the glory of God. In doing so, they helped spark one of the most socially transformative movements in American history. W
ill the twenty-first-century be any different? We may never know how many potentially dynamic cultural leaders will be lured by the siren song of pseudo celebrity, impatiently squandering their youth seeking fame instead of steadily building the craft and character required for their divine moment. Still, we must do everything within our power to help foster spiritual depth as well as professional excellence. In an age hungering for the depth of genuine authenticity to counteract the shallowness of pseudo celebrity, waiting for God’s timing could make all the difference.
The Greatest Day in World History?
Will we see again the equivalent of the crowds that thronged Boston Common for Whitefield’s farewell sermon? Perhaps not. But if we do, that crowd will more likely gather in movie houses worldwide and/or at a massive Web cast than a single venue. A twenty-first-century equivalent of Whitefield is more likely a cutting-edge filmmaker, actor, or television producer than a traditional evangelist.
A twenty-first-century equivalent of Edwards might take the form of a C. S. Lewis, the Oxford scholar who built upon his prestigious position through popular writings and radio broadcasts that gave him a celebrity—the cover of Time magazine for The Screwtape Letters—that made his complex moral and theological arguments beloved reading for a generation of children and adults. Either manifestation would certainly be a great day for the world as we know it.
In a media-saturated age marked by both an unhealthy appetite for pseudo celebrity and a deep cynicism toward heroism, it would be hard to find a better tonic than the courage and authenticity of Edwards and Whitefield, heroic celebrities unafraid to utilize their fame for the glory of God.
The thought that we can sit on the sidelines and call down judgment upon today’s celebrity culture may be as dangerous as it is naive. We are called to be missionaries in a media-driven culture. Wishing it weren’t so won’t make that fact go away. To impact our image-driven generation for the kingdom of God will require entering the fray prayerfully, thoughtfully, and with great excellence. And if all else fails, we can always dangle a few paparazzi over the fires of hell. Or, better yet, we can follow Whitefield’s example and hire them.
 The 2004 Red Sox victory parade attracted an estimated 3 million out of 4.4 million in greater Boston (68 percent), whereas Whitefield’s farewell sermon drew 23,000 from of the city population of 17,000 (135 percent). Whitefield’s more modest estimate was 20,000 (118 percent). Mark A. Noll, The Rise of Evangelicalism: The Age of Edwards, Whitefield, and the Wesleys (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press Academic, 2003), 79.
 Harry S. Stout, The Divine Dramatist: George Whitefield and the Rise of Modern Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991), x.
 Stout, Divine Dramatist, 90; Frank Lambert, Pedlar in Divinity: George Whitefield and the Transatlantic Revivals, 1737-1770 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994), 128; Arnold Dallimore, George Whitefield: The Life and Times of the Great Evangelist of the Eighteenth-century Revival (Westchester, IL: Cornerstone Books, 1979), 527; and Harry S. Stout, “Whitefield, George,” Dictionary of Christianity in America, ed. Daniel G. Reid (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1990), 1252.
 George M. Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003), 202.
 Jonathan Edwards and C. C. Goen, A faithful narrative of the surprising work of God in the conversion of many Souls in Northampton, and neighbouring towns and villages of the County of Hampshire, in the Province of the Massachusetts-Bay in New England. The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 4: The Great Awakening (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1972).
 Richard Rhodes, John James Audubon: The Making of an American (New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf. Blake, 2004); David Haven, Walt Whitman and the Culture of American Celebrity (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006); Joy S. Kasson, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West: Celebrity, Memory, and Popular History (New York, NY: Hill and Wang, 2000); Richard Schickel, Douglas Fairbanks: The First Celebrity (London, UK: Elm Tree Books, 1976); Leonard J. Leff, Hemingway and His Conspirators: Hollywood, Scribners, and the Making of American Celebrity Culture (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1997). Other proposed contenders include: Adah Isaacs Menken (c. 1855), see Renée M. Sentilles, Performing Menken: Adah Isaacs Menken and the Birth of American Celebrity (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003); Gertrude Stein (c. 1900), see Karen Leick, Gertrude Stein and the Making of an American Celebrity (New York, NY: Routledge, 2009); and Charles Lindbergh (c. 1940), see Randy Roberts and David Welky, Charles A. Lindbergh: The Power and Peril of Celebrity, 1927-1941 (Maplecrest, NY: Brandywine Press, 2003).
 Richard Schickel, Intimate Strangers: The Culture of Celebrity (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1985), 21.
 Richard DeCordova, Picture Personalities: The Emergence of the Star System in America (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1990).
 Malcolm Gladwell, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (New York, NY: Little, Brown and Co, 2005), 45.
 There are some who believe that Hollywood’s star-making days are over and are now being replaced by the experience-making of stadium theaters, 3-D glasses, concept movies, and CGI. Given the blockbuster opening weekend ($35 million) of the low-tech but star-studded The Expendables (2010), I suspect this argument will grow even more heated.
 See Schickel, Intimate Strangers; and Graeme Turner, Understanding Celebrity (Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE, 2004), 3, 8.
 Leo Braudy, The Frenzy of Renown: Fame & its History (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1986).
 See also 2 Thessalonians 3:7-9. All references are from the New International Version.
 Daniel J. Boorstin, The Image, or, What Happened to the American Dream (London, UK: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1861), 58; and Daniel J. Boorstin, “From Hero to Celebrity: The Human Pseudo-event,” in David Marshall, The Celebrity Culture Reader (New York, NY: Routledge, 2006), 72-90.
 Robert W. Jenson, America’s Theologian: A Recommendation of Jonathan Edwards (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1988), x. See also, Joseph A. Conforti, Jonathan Edwards: Religious Tradition & American Culture (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1995); Douglas A. Sweeney and Allen C. Guelzo, The New England Theology: From Jonathan Edwards to Edwards Amasa Park (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006).
 Michael J. Crawford chronicles that between 1712-1732 the Connecticut River Valley alone experienced as many as fifteen revivals before the first of two “outpourings” in Edwards’s Northampton, Massachusetts, church (1734-1736, 1740-1742). See, Seasons of Grace: Colonial New England’s Revival Tradition in Its British Context (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1991), 108. To his credit, Edwards’s own account mentioned “nearly every church in Western Massachusetts and twenty in Connecticut.” See Marsden, Jonathan Edwards, 162.
 Harry S. Stout, The New England Soul: Preaching and Religious Culture in Colonial New England (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1986), 228.
 For more insight into the use of media, publicity, et cetera in the First Great Awakening see Frank Lambert, Inventing the “Great Awakening” (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999); Harry S. Stout, “Religion, Communications, and the Ideological Origins of the American Revolution” The William and Mary Quarterly: A Magazine of Early American History 34 (1977): 519-541; and Michael J. Crawford, Seasons of Grace, 13ff.
 Jonathan Edwards and C. C. Goen, Some thoughts concerning the present revival of religion in New England and the way in which it ought to be acknowledged and promoted. The works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 4: The Great Awakening (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1972).
 Gary David Stratton, “Jonathan Edwards’ (1703-1758) Theology of Spiritual Awakening and Spiritual Formation Leadership in Higher Education” (PhD diss., Talbot School of Theology, 2009), 59. See also Gary D. Stratton, “Jonathan Edwards’ Treatise Concerning Religious Affections and Gerald McDermott’s Seeing God,” Christian Education Journal 3 (2006) and Samuel S. Storms, Signs of the Spirit: An Interpretation of Jonathan Edwards’ Religious Affections (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2007).
 Jonathan Edwards, John Edwin Smith, and Perry Miller, A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections, in three parts. The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 2 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1959), 5-7.
 Richard Dyer and Paul McDonald, Stars (London, UK: BFI, 2007), 17.
 Chris Rojek, Celebrity: Critical Concepts in Sociology (London, UK: Routledge, 2010), 16, 52.
 Marshall, Celebrity and Power, 10. See also Leo Lowenthal, Communication in Society. Studies on Authoritarianism 3, False Prophets (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1997).
 Burke probably never used the precise phrase, “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing,” but rather, “When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall one by one [. . .]” Daniel E. Ritchie, Edmund Burke: Appraisals and Applications (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1990), xiii.
 Stephen Mansfield, Forgotten Founding Father: The Heroic Legacy of George Whitefield (Nashville, TN: Highland Books/Cumberland House, 2001), 64.
There is a kind of loneliness that lodges itself in the psyche and never fully leaves, a loneliness most anguishing not in solitude but in companionship and amid the crowd. If solitude fertilizes the imagination, loneliness vacuums it of vitality and sands the baseboards of the spirit with the scratchy restlessness of longing — for connection, for communion, for escape. And yet it is out of this restlessness that so many great works of art are born.
In the late summer of 1928, a month before the publication of Orlandosubverted stereotypes and revolutionized culture, 44-year-old Woolf found herself grappling once more with the yin-yang of loneliness and creation. In a diary entry penned at Monk’s House — the countryside cottage she and her husband had bought in Sussex a decade earlier, where she crafted some of her most beloved works — she writes:
Often down here I have entered into a sanctuary … of great agony once; and always some terror; so afraid one is of loneliness; of seeing to the bottom of the vessel. That is one of the experiences I have had here in some Augusts; and got then to a consciousness of what I call “reality”: a thing I see before me: something abstract; but residing in the downs or sky; beside which nothing matters; in which I shall rest and continue to exist. Reality I call it. And I fancy sometimes this is the most necessary thing to me: that which I seek. But who knows — once one takes a pen and writes? How difficult not to go making “reality” this and that, whereas it is one thing. Now perhaps this is my gift: this perhaps is what distinguishes me from other people: I think it may be rare to have so acute a sense of something like that — but again, who knows? I would like to express it too.
The following fall, thirteen days before the publication of A Room of One’s Own — that ultimate paean to the relationship between loneliness and creative vitality — Woolf revisits the subject in her diary, contemplating the strange ways in which we deny or confer validity upon our loneliness…
Maria Popova is a reader, writer, interestingness hunter-gatherer, and curious mind at large, who writes for WiredUK, The Atlantic,The New York Times, and Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab, among others. She is also an am an MIT Futures of Entertainment Fellow.
What exactly is creativity? So many of us assume that creativity is something we had as a child but we lost, or something allocated to rarified individuals that we can only admire from afar.
But science has shown that, in many ways, we are all wired to create. The key is recognizing that creativity is multifaceted—on the level of the brain, personality, and the creative process—and can be displayed in many different ways, from the deeply personal experience of uncovering a new idea or experience to expressing ourselves through words, photos, fashion, and other everyday creations, to the work of renowned artists that transcends the ages.
Neuroscientists who study creativity have found that creativity does not involve a single brain region or even a single side of the brain, as the “right brain” myth of creativity suggests; instead, it draws on the whole brain. This complex process consists of many interacting cognitive systems (both conscious and unconscious) and emotions, with different brain regions recruited to handle each task and to work together as a team to get the job done.
The discovery of the “default network” of the brain—the part of the brain at work when we are not purposefully engaged in other tasks—is one of the most important recent discoveries in neuroscience. The default network enables us to construct personal meaning from our experiences, imagine other perspectives and scenarios, comprehend stories, and reflect on mental and emotional states—both our own and those of others. It should come as no surprise then that the activity of this network—as we like to call it, the “imagination network”—also informs our most creative ideas.
The “executive attention” network of the brain is also crucial to creativity, however. Executive control processes support creative thinking by helping us deliberately plan future actions, remember to use various creative tactics, keep track of which strategies we’ve already tried, and reject the most obvious ideas. They also help us focus our imagination, blocking out external distractions and allowing us to tune into our inner experiences.
When we generate new ideas, these networks—along with the salience network, which is responsible for motivation—engage in a complex dance. Researchers have observed this cognitive tango in action through the brain scans of people engaged in their personal creative processes. Initially, their brain states resemble a state of flow or complete absorption in the task. The imagination and salience networks are highly active, while the more focused executive domain is relatively quiet. However, as creative people further hone and refine their work, the executive attention network becomes increasingly more active.
Creative people are particularly good at exercising flexibility in activating and deactivating these brain networks that in most people tend to be at odds with each other. In doing so, they’re able to juggle seemingly contradictory modes of thought—cognitive and emotional, deliberate and spontaneous. Even on a neurological level, creativity is messy.
So, what can we do to augment this cognitive flexibility? In our book, Wired to Create, we explore how to develop creativity as a habit, a way of life, and a style of engaging with the world. We present many paradoxes—mindfulness and mind wandering, openness and sensitivity, solitude and collaboration, play and seriousness, and intuition and reason—that contribute to the creative process. We encourage people to embrace their paradoxes and complexities and open up to a deeper level of self-understanding and self-expression. It is precisely this ability to hold the self in all of its dimensional beauty that is the very core of creative achievement and creative fulfillment.
Here are the some of the habits of mind we recommend to foster more creativity in your life.
1. Imaginative play
Observing children in imaginative play reveals a wellspring of natural-born creativity. When engaged in pretend play, children take on multiple perspectives and playfully manipulate emotions and ideas.
As adults, cultivating a childlike sense of play can revolutionize the way we work.
Research shows that hybrid forms of work and play may actually provide the most optimal context for learning and creativity, for both children and adults, and that play and intrinsic joy are intimately connected, creating a synergy that naturally leads to greater inspiration, effort, and creative growth.
Passion often stems from an experience or a relationship that moved us somehow and can lead to inspiration. It is often the emotional fuel that starts one down a creative path, but it’s only a start. People who fulfill their creative dreams over the long haul balance the excitement about the future with realistic strategies for getting closer to their goals; inspiration with hard work; and dreaming with doing.
When someone advises you to “Follow your passion,” use caution: aside from being one of the most common clichés out there, it’s not very helpful advice. You must look for passion that is in harmony with your authentic self and is compatible with your other activities. Passion to prove yourself to others will probably not result in creativity, as it relies on your avoiding challenges that would otherwise lead to growth. So, while you should be open to what inspires you, don’t follow passion blindly. Make sure it truly resonates with you and your skills.
Creative people know, despite what their parents and teachers might have told them, that daydreaming is anything but a waste of time. A review of the latest science of daydreaming has shown that mind wandering offers very personal rewards, including creative incubation, self-awareness, future planning, reflection on the meaning of one’s experiences, and even compassion.
Idle though it may seem, the act of mind wandering is often anything but mindless; it can lead to improvements in creative thinking. So, the next time you’re working hard on a creative project or work assignment that requires intense focus and creative chops, try taking a five-minute daydreaming break every hour. Try engaging in a simple activity that will allow your mind to wander, like walking, doodling, or cleaning, and see how it affects your ideas and thinking.
The metaphorical “room of one’s own” is a basic need for many creative people. Now, science has reinforced what the work habits of countless artists have demonstrated: Time for solitary reflection truly feeds the creative mind.
Neuroscientists have discovered that solitary, inwardly focused reflection employs a different brain network than outwardly focused attention. When our mental focus is directed towards the outside world, the executive attention network is activated, while the imagination network is typically suppressed. This is why our best ideas don’t tend to arise when our attention is fully engaged on the outside world.
It’s important to make time for solitude, to give yourself space to reflect, make new connections, and find meaning. Unfortunately, solitude is widely undervalued in society, leading many people to shy away from alone time. We tend to view time spent alone as time wasted or as an indication of an antisocial or melancholy personality. But the ability to enjoy and make productive use of our own company can trigger creativity by helping us tap into our thoughts and our own inner worlds. So, don’t avoid it…embrace it!
Intuition arises from unconscious, or spontaneous, information-processing systems, and it plays an important role in how we think, reason, create, and behave socially. Over the past thirty years, cognitive scientists have made huge strides in demystifying the power of the unconscious mind, leading to the recognition of a dual-process theory of human cognition—or the “fast and slow brain” theory. Intuition is part of the fast brain system.
The fast brain is structurally more sophisticated than the slow brain. It helps us assimilate new information into our existing knowledge structures, and aids us in complex pattern recognition and in making unconventional connections that lead to more original ideas and solutions. The fast brain plays the largest role when generating creative ideas, while the more deliberate slow brain play a larger role when exploring those ideas and playing around with them, to determine their uses and applications. Both the fast brain and slow brain have a role to play.
6. Openness to experience
Openness to experience—the drive for cognitive exploration of one’s inner and outer worlds—is the single strongest and most consistent personality trait that predicts creative achievement. Openness can be intellectual, characterized by a searching for truth and the drive to engage with ideas; aesthetic, characterized by the drive to explore fantasy and art and experience emotional absorption in beauty; or affective, characterized by exploring the depths of human emotion.
Research has found that the desire to learn and discover seems to have significantly more bearing on the quality of creative work than intellect alone. So, if you want to boost your creativity, try out a new creative outlet or a totally different medium of expression, or take a new route home from work, or seek out a new group of people with different interests or values that you might learn from. Openness to new experiences can help increase your integrative complexity—the capacity to recognize new patterns and find links among seemingly unrelated pieces of information.
While the capacity to observe the present moment without distraction or judgment is a vital skill for anyone who seeks joy and fulfillment in life, it’s particularly important for creative thinkers.
A large body of research has associated mindfulness—both as a practice and as a personality trait—with many cognitive and psychological benefits like improved task concentration and sustained attention, empathy and compassion, introspection, self-regulation, enhanced memory and improved learning, and positive affect and emotional wellbeing. Many of these are central to creativity.
However, for optimum cognitive flexibility and creativity, it’s best to achieve a balance of mindfulness and mind wandering. Some forms of mindfulness may actually work against creativity—specifically, those that encourage one to let go of thinking rather than accepting thoughts in a more open manner. Interestingly, open-monitoring meditation, which emphasizes tuning into one’s subjective experience, has been found to increase both the activation and the functional connectivity of the imagination network. So, try practicing an open-monitoring or nondirective form of meditation, and allow for constructive mind-wandering while also boosting attention.
If we think of creativity as “connecting the dots” in some way, then sensitive people—those who have a heightened sensitivity to their surroundings and also an intensified experience of sensory input, like for sound, lighting, and scent—experience a world in which there are both more dots and more opportunities for connection.
Sensitivity can be both a blessing and a curse—leading to a greater intensity of experience as well as emotional overwhelm. Journalist Andrea Bartz wrote in Psychology Today that “those who learn to dial down the relentless swooping and cresting of emotion that is the almost invariable accompaniment to extreme sensitivity are able to transform raw perception into keen perceptiveness.”
So, rather than trying to harden yourself, you may want to harness your sensitivity into artistic expression.
9. Turning adversity to advantage
Experiences of loss, struggle, suffering, and defeat can be powerful catalysts for personal growth, creativity, and deep transformation. It is often through suffering that we learn compassion, from loss that we learn understanding, and from overcoming struggles that we come to discover our own strength and beauty.
Adverse events can force us to reexamine our beliefs and life projects, and therein lie their power and creative potential. After the experience of adversity, the mind is actively dismantling old belief systems that no longer hold up and creating new structures of meaning and identity. To make meaning of difficult experiences, try expressive writing, which research has found can lessen symptoms of post-traumatic stress and depression, while improving some cognitive functions, like working memory.
Interestingly, research has also found that extreme positive events—in particular, those that evoke feelings of awe, wonder, inspiration, and connection to something greater than the self—can also encourage creativity. Positive emotions build a person’s psychological resources, broadening attention, inspiring new thoughts and behaviors, and stimulating creative thinking. So, if you’re looking for a creative boost, treat all of life’s meaningful moments—the good and the bad—as potential sources of inspiration and motivation.
10. Thinking differently
Creative people are united by their unwillingness to abide by conventional ways of thinking and doing things. In choosing to do things differently, they accept the possibility of uncertainty and failure—but it is precisely this risk that opens up the possibility of true innovation.
The secret to creative greatness appears to be doing things differently even when that means failing. Especially during idea-generation phases, trial-and-error is essential for innovation. Dean Keith Simonton, who studies creativity, found that the quality of creative ideas is a positive function of quantity: The more ideas creators generate, the greater chances they will produce an eventual masterpiece. Doing things differently means you will probably do things badly or wrong; so expect that and don’t let caution get in the way of creativity.
Will following all of these routes to creativity mean you will become a creative genius? Not necessarily. But, when the artist is alive in any person, whatever his kind of work may be, he becomes an inventive, searching, daring, self-expressive creature. If we learn to embrace our own messy, creative selves, we give others permission to do the same. We help create a world that is more welcoming of the creative spirit, and we make it possible to find a greater connection with others and with ourselves in the process.
Scott Barry Kaufman, Ph.D., is Scientific Director of The Imagination Institute in the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania. Carolyn Gregoire is a Senior Writer at the Huffington Post, where she reports on psychology, neuroscience and mental health.
“The power of ‘the Eye of the Heart,’ which produces insight, is vastly superior to the power of thought, which produces opinions,” the great British economic theorist and philosopher E.F. Schumacher wrote in his 1973 meditation on how we know what we know. He was responding to the Persian poet and philosopher Rumi who, seven centuries earlier, extolled “the eye of the heart” as seventy-fold more seeing than the “sensible eyes” of the intellect. To the intellectually ambitious, this might sound like a squishy notion — or a line best left to The Little Prince. But as contemporary scientists continue to shed light on how our emotions affect our susceptibility to disease, it is becoming increasingly clear that our emotional lives are equipped with a special and non-negligible kind of bodily and cognitive intelligence.
The nature of that intelligence and how we can harness its power is what Martha Nussbaum, whom I continue to consider the most compelling and effective philosopher of our time, examines in her magnificent 2001 book Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions (public library). Titled after Proust’s conception of the emotions as “geologic upheavals of thought,” Nussbaum’s treatise offers a lucid counterpoint to the old idea that our emotions are merely animal energies or primal impulses wholly separate from our cognition. Instead, she argues that they are a centerpiece of moral philosophy and that any substantive theory of ethics necessitates a substantive understanding of the emotions.
A lot is at stake in the decision to view emotions in this way, as intelligent responses to the perception of value. If emotions are suffused with intelligence and discernment, and if they contain in themselves an awareness of value or importance, they cannot, for example, easily be sidelined in accounts of ethical judgment, as so often they have been in the history of philosophy. Instead of viewing morality as a system of principles to be grasped by the detached intellect, and emotions as motivations that either support or subvert our choice to act according to principle, we will have to consider emotions as part and parcel of the system of ethical reasoning. We cannot plausibly omit them, once we acknowledge that emotions include in their content judgments that can be true or false, and good or bad guides to ethical choice. We will have to grapple with the messy material of grief and love, anger and fear, and the role these tumultuous experiences play in thought about the good and the just.
Emotions are not just the fuel that powers the psychological mechanism of a reasoning creature, they are parts, highly complex and messy parts, of this creature’s reasoning itself.
One of Nussbaum’s central points is that the complex cognitive structure of the emotions has a narrative form — that is, the stories we tell ourselves about who we are and what we feel shape our emotional and ethical reality, which of course is the great psychological function of literature and the reason why art can function as a form of therapy. What emerges is an intelligent manifesto for including the storytelling arts in moral philosophy.
Headlines scream … Ex-Christians, Young Adults Leaving the Faith, A Generation of Dropouts, Quitting Church, the Rise of the Nones. We are on the verge of a crisis with faith and the faithful in retreat. Could we be the last Christian generation? We must rally the troops, cut our losses, and tackle the problem.
Jonathan P. Hill, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Calvin College recently published a short book Emerging Adulthood and Faith that explores the change (or absence of change) in the religious faith of young adults, the so-called generation Y or Millennials who were born roughly from 1980-2000. Much has been written of late decrying the loss of a generation, with the explicit or implicit assumption that the experience and trajectory of Millennials is unique.
But do we have such a catastrophic problem?
Hill, like many other sociologists, argues that we need to take a closer look at hard data. Only then will we make good decisions for the right reasons. Bluntly: We need the facts. Hill’s book is a valuable fact-based resource for anyone involved in church leadership, from lead pastor to youth pastor to elder. Less than a hundred pages and very readable.
First, we need to frame the problem.
At any given moment, age differences between people can be the result of what demographers refer to as age, period, and cohort effects. (p. 7)
Some changes depend on stage of life. In many respects those who are 20 today reflect the same trends and attitudes as those who were 20 in the 50’s, 70’s and 90’s. For instance the elderly pray more than the young. In 1983 42% of those 18-29 reported daily prayer compared with 68% of those 70 and above. In 2012 the numbers were 39% and 71%. This isn’t a generational change; it depends more significantly on biological age and stage of life.
Some changes depend on period – historical shifts, cultural transformations that cut across generations. These events have a significant event on everyone alive at the time, both old and young. The reformation was a historical shift; the great depression and World War II are other examples.
Other changes are generational or cohort effects. These can be significant, but it is important to separate them from effects depending on stage of life and from larger cultural transformations. Bad information will lead to bad responses.
Second, we need to consider the source. There is power in stories, but anecdotal data will only deliver part of the picture. Individual stories always focus down to a specific social context and experience.
Good social science allows us to take a step back from our own experiences, providing data that can give us glimpses of powerful social forces we would otherwise be blinded to. These forces are the background to our lives, though we are often unaware of their influence. Social science can help us see these contexts. (p. 10)
It is important to consider both stories and survey data. In his book Hill focuses on survey data to consider three big issues: the religious identity of young people, the influence of higher education, and the influence of science on faith. He doesn’t disregard stories, but looks at the data that provide a larger context for the individual stories.
Is the religious identity of young adults changing?
Certainly the data tell us that “somewhere between 50 and 70 percent of teenagers who were regularly in church on Sunday morning are no longer attending by their early twenties.” (p. 15) In fact, the drop in attendance begins at ages younger than 15 and levels out around 18 or 19. But much of this is a trend based on biological age. This isn’t a cohort or generational effect. About 12-13 percent of 18-29 year olds attend a Protestant church every week, a number that has been remarkably steady for the last forty years! Similarly about 42% of 18-29 year olds pray at least daily – a number that has been remarkably steady for the last forty years. There has been a significant change with the rise of “nones,” but this comes from those who were less committed to begin with. There has been a significant drop in those who attend services occasionally or who pray occasionally and a concomitant rise in those who never attend and never pray.
At least among Protestants, every concerned parent and pastor should know this: The percentage of young people with a strong Protestant identity, and the percentage who regularly practice their faith publicly and privately has barely budged over the past forty years. They are in your churches, youth groups, and Bible studies. Yes, something has been happening at the margins, but the center has held. (p. 20)
To me this suggests that we don’t need massive institutional transformations. We need to continue engaging people, families, young and old, in strong Christian community.
There is no evidence that Millennials are “drastically different from previous generations” except that those loosely affiliated with religious identity are now willing to drop it altogether. There is little social advantage to maintaining this kind of religious identity.
Is secular college education a threat to faith?
Bluntly, the answer is no, but there is a generational element to this one.
While stories of individual faith loss are real and deserve our attention, there is little evidence of widespread disaffection from the faith as a result of secular higher education. (p. 29)
When college graduates are compared to the general population a different trend appears.
College graduates are actually more likely to practice their faith and say it is important in their daily life. They are no more likely to disaffiliate from a religious faith, although they do appear more likely to shy away from exclusivist claims about the Bible and more prone to switch to a mainline Protestant denomination. (p. 30)
Hill digs deeper and compares those with and without a college education, controlling for religious affiliation as younger teenagers. In the past college education did have an influence on secularization, but this isn’t true for the millennials. At last a distinction, but it isn’t negative.
Overall college graduation has a positive correlation with regular participation in a church, perhaps because college graduates have more faith in institutions than those who have never attended college.
Hill also finds that evangelical colleges and universities are doing a good job of nurturing faith. “On every measure of religious practice and identity, individuals attending evangelical Protestant colleges decline considerably less than their counterparts at other schools.” (p. 50) For example, at evangelical Protestant schools 73% of students who prayed regularly continue to do so, a number that drops to 56% at public schools. This probably results both from the curricular and social environment of the schools and from the family commitments and support experienced by these students.
Does education in science drive young people from the faith?
Again the aggregate answer is no. Surprisingly, education in science in general and evolution in particular seems to have little effect on faith commitments. (As a science professor I cringe at this one – student form their views on “touchy” issues based on things other than the evidence.) And certainly there are plenty of stories of people struggling with these issues and changing their views. Hill doesn’t disregard or discount these (after all, the NSYR survey indicated that some 40 percent of young people with creationist views in 2002-3 did change their views by 2007-8, whether they go to college or not). But science education seems to have a minor influence one positions most people take.
People come to accept or reject evolution not as a result of pouring over the details and evidence, but as a symbolic gesture to indicate to others where they belong in the socio-political landscape. This requires understanding that religious beliefs, and beliefs about other contentious public issues, are intertwined with identity and social relationships. Formal science education, for most young people, is unlikely to change this. (p. 57)
Those who enter college with particular views concerning evolutionary biology are likely to retain them throughout the experience. The more tightly these views are coupled to social identity, the more tightly they will be held by most. This can be a wrenching experience for some who do find their views changing – to conflict with their social community, but it isn’t a widespread crisis for the church.
Why do doomsday scenarios carry such appeal?
Hill suggests three reasons:
“First, our own social experience strongly colors how we frame the problem and interpret the data, yet our personal experience can frequently be an unreliable guide.” (p. 61)
There is a distortion in perception that arises from the ways we receive data. Personal stories are powerful and true, but the ones that “stick” are the stories from the margins, not the mainstream. Hill points out that many Americans feel that violent crime is up while the data shows that homicide, for example, is markedly down since 1990 and at about the same level as the 1950’s. “All violent crime has been declining, yet public perception of crime—largely filtered through mass media and politicians—is systematically in error.” (p. 61-62) The stories told in the Christian community carry the same kind of bias.
Second, generating crises in the Church can be an efficient and effective way to mobilize the faithful to action. (p. 62)
Sociological study of social movements can identify techniques that succeed in building a community.
Elites must work on generating an interpretational framework that identifies a specific problem, then identifies the source(s) of the problem, and finally provides a potential solution in the form of collective action. Further, the entire interpretational framework must align with existing grievances in recruits, otherwise collective action will fail. The temptation, then, will be for leaders in the Church to frame concerns about the next generation of Christians in such a way as to result in action by the rank and file, even if these interpretations are not entirely accurate. (p. 62, emphasis added)
Grabbing onto a crisis works to build a cohesive following.
Last, there is a fairly large gap between the ideal concept of Christian faithfulness and the “lived religion” of ordinary believers. (p. 62)
There is a tendency to idealize the past and see the current trends as a significant deviation. One thing the longitudinal studies show is that this is not really the case. While there is a clear generational loss of youth from the Catholic church the same cannot be said for Protestants, particularly “evangelical” Protestants. Beyond these longitudinal studies, there is a temptation to believe that the current state is the result of a serious religious decline and the historical evidence (although sketchy) doesn’t really support this. A so-called “Christian” nation didn’t necessarily mean deeper, or more wide-spread, devotion.
Religiously unaffiliated Americans are younger, on average, than the general public to begin with, and the youngest adults in the group – that is, those who have entered adulthood in the last several years – are even less religious than “nones” overall.
Religious “nones” are not only growing as a share of the U.S. population, but they are becoming more secular over time by a variety of measures, a fact that also is helping to make the U.S. public overall somewhat less religious, according to surveys done as part of our Religious Landscape Study.
The “nones,” a category that includes people who self-identify as atheists or agnostics, as well as those who say their religion is “nothing in particular,” now make up 23% of U.S. adults, up from 16% in 2007. But there is more to the story. To begin with, this group is not uniformly nonreligious. Most of them say they believe in God, and about a third say religion is at least somewhat important in their lives.
At the same time, between the Pew Research Center’s two Religious Landscape Studies – conducted in 2007 and 2014 – we also see consistent evidence that the “nones” are becoming less religious. For example, the share of religious “nones” who say they believe in God, while still a majority, has fallen from 70% to 61% over that seven-year period. Only 27% of “nones” are absolutely certain about God’s existence, down from 36% in 2007. And fully a third of religiously unaffiliated Americans (33%) now say they do not believe in God, up 11 percentage points over that time.
Similar trends are seen on some other key measures of religious engagement. The share of religious “nones” who say they seldom or never pray has risen by 6 points in recent years, and now stands at 62%. And a bigger proportion of the unaffiliated now say religion is not important in their lives (65%) than said this in 2007 (57%).
Data from the survey can be combined with U.S. population figures to estimate the total number of what might be thought of as “nonreligious” Americans at 36.1 million in 2014. (These are adults who are not affiliated with a religious group and who also say religion is not important in their lives.) As of 2007, there were only 21 million “nonreligious” adults who fit this description.
The question of why the “nones” are growing less religious does not have a simple answer. But just as is the case for why “nones” are growing as a share of the U.S. public, generational replacement appears to be playing a role. Religiously unaffiliated Americans are younger, on average, than the general public to begin with, and the youngest adults in the group – that is, those who have entered adulthood in the last several years – are even less religious than “nones” overall.
Fully seven-in-ten of these youngest Millennials (born between 1990 and 1996) with no religious affiliation say religion is not important in their lives. A similar share (70%) also say they seldom or never pray and 42% say they do not believe in God, all bigger percentages than among religious “nones” as a whole.
“Today,” said Ted Cruz when the Supreme Court’s same-sex marriage decision came down, “is some of the darkest 24 hours in our nation’s history.” Which is quite a claim, as that history includes the Battle of Antietam. Some evangelical leaders pronounced it “the downfall of America” (Tony Perkins) and a “nose dive off of the moral diving board into the cesspool of humanity” (Franklin Graham) — a mental image I wish I could unthink.
Suffice it to say that conservative Christians have been lately pondering their relationship to American culture. And not just those who are hysterical for a living. When the court rejected traditional sexual ethics as a permissible basis for laws defining marriage, many conservative believers felt a cultural milestone had been reached.
It had once been plausible — though not necessarily accurate — for conservative Christians to regard themselves as part of a “moral majority” in which traditional Judeo-Christian views were broadly shared. That is no longer minimally credible on issues of the family and sexual ethics. And the change in self-perception among some believers has been jarring.
The blockbuster Selma actor with unflinching faith has a fresh vision for Christianity in film
“I would be lying if I said it wasn’t disappointing [not to be nominated for an Academy Award for his work in Selma.] Not least because it’s Dr. King, and I personally just want to see him celebrated in every way possible, and, of course, the film is an extension of that.” -David Oyelowo
A lot of what you need to know about David Oyelowo can be gleaned from a brief, viral, almost instantly GIF-able clip from the 2015 Academy Awards.
On the heels of John Legend and Common’s rousing, staggering performance of Selma’s “Glory,” the cameras panned the Oscar crowd, who had leapt to their feet as one in spontaneous, rapturous applause.
The adulation was richly deserved,but one man stuck out in particular: Oyelowo, who starred in Selma as Martin Luther King Jr. He was seated near the front, suited in a smartly tailored, Cabernet-red tuxedo (which would land him at the top of Esquire’s list of best-dressed men of the Oscars the following morning), applauding while tears ran freely down his cheeks.
Even in our age of 24/7 celebrity coverage, in which a Google image search can turn up photos of Gwyneth Paltrow expressing every candid emotion known to man, the moment seemed purely human and vulnerable. The Oscars almost didn’t deserve it.
The reason the moment was so indicative of Oyelowo (pronunciation: O-yellow-wo), is that,in person, it is exactly how he comes across. He is put together, but authentic—impeccably collected and utterly personable.
Oyelowo is becoming well-known for his ability to play other people, but it’s almost as astonishing just how easily he inhabits his own skin.
Parting the Red Carpet
Oyelowo’s presence at the Oscars was notable for another reason. For most of the awards season, his blistering Selma performance was widely expected to net him the Oscar for Best Actor, so it was a bit of a scandal when he wasn’t even nominated (Neil Patrick Harris even mocked the Academy for the snub during his hosting gig).
“I would be lying if I said it wasn’t disappointing,” Oyelowo says, with refreshing candor. “Not least because it’s Dr. King, and I personally just want to see him celebrated in every way possible, and, of course, the film is an extension of that…”
The combination of desiring something with inextinguishable intensity and pursuing it with steadfast doggedness is perhaps the single common thread in the lives of those we most admire as luminaries of enduring genius.
Margaret Mead extolled the value of “spiritual and mental ancestors” in how we form our identity — those people to whom we aren’t related but whose values we try to cultivate in ourselves; role models we seek out not from our immediate genetic pool but from the pool of culture the surrounds us, past and present. Seneca saw in reading, one of the oldest and most reliable ways to identify and contact these cultural ancestors, a way of being adopted into the “households of the noblest intellects.” And what better time to meet such admirable models of personhood than in childhood, that fertile seedbed for the flowering of values and identity?
Collected here are thirteen wonderful picture-books celebrating such worthwhile “spiritual and mental ancestors.” It is, of course, an incomplete reading list, yet it is a deliberate one — a great many such books exist, but few feature the trifecta of wonderfulness: a cultural icon notable for his or her lasting contribution to humanity beyond mere fame; an intelligent and nuanced life-story lovingly told; and beautiful, imaginative illustrations rewarding in their own right. Please enjoy.
“It’s a film that is not easily boxed into what has now become known as ‘faith-based,’” Oyelowo said. “Often, [in] films that have a faith element to them, the writing is sometimes substandard; they’re very heavy-handed from a [proselytizing] point of view.”
At times, it seems like religious films have become an entitlement program for former A-list actors who are low on work. September’s 90 Minutes in Heavennabbed Kate Bosworth, of early-aughts Blue Crush fame, and Hayden Christensen, who hasn’t done many big projects since he played baby Darth Vader in the last Star Wars reboots. Nicolas Cage joined the beloved-by-teens star Chad Michael Murray in Left Behind last fall. Exodus: Gods and Kings crammed in wasted speaking roles for Sigourney Weaver and John Turturro, and Heaven Is for Real featured Thomas Haden Church from Sideways and George of the Jungle.
Captive, however, is no retirement scheme. The film features David Oyelowo and Kate Mara, two actors near the top of their game: In 2014, he was nominated for a Golden Globe, and she an Emmy. The movie definitely has religious themes; it’s based on the true story of Ashley Smith, a single mother from Georgia who was taken hostage by a convict, Brian Nichols, after he escaped from jail and went on a shooting rampage. The two spend a night locked in her apartment, sometimes in conflict, sometimes talking about the meaning of life. By the end of the film, she has sworn off her addiction to meth, and he has effectively decided to turn himself in. As the real-life Ashley Smith said in an interview, “I honestly, that night, gave God every bit of me … God wanted me to lay down my garbage before him so he could turn it into something beautiful.”
At first glance, this would seem like a perfect movie to make for Christian America. But in interviews, both Oyelowo and the film’s screenwriter, Brian Bird, swore off the term “faith-based film.”
“It’s a film that is not easily boxed into what has now become known as ‘faith-based,’” Oyelowo said. “Often, [in] films that have a faith element to them, the writing is sometimes substandard; they’re very heavy-handed from a [proselytizing] point of view.”
Bird agreed. “There is sort of a faith-based filmmaking ghetto—a lot of the films are not up to par,” he said. “But people are so hungry for them that they’ll go plunk down their $10 for them and watch them. Our goal with Captive was to make a real movie.”