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

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

by Gary David Stratton 

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

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

The Inciting Event

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

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

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

Affections

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

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

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

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

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

Awakening or Transformation?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We Are What We Do

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

Edwards therefore insists that genuine faith . .

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

Lenten Examination

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

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

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

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

Any screenwriter could tell you that.

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

 


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[8] Affections, 270-271.

[9] Ibid., 297-300.

[10] Matthew 7:16

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

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

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

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

by Gary David Stratton, PhD • Senior Editor

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

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

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

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

Kurt posing with his new hardware.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click to download Emmy Magazine Article PDF

 

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

Give it a Rest! by Keith Kettenring, PhD

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

by Keith Kettenring, PhD • Homestead Retreat House

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

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

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

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

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

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

See also:  

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spiritual Disciplines

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

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

The Soul-Deadening Worlds of Power

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

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

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

Yokes that Bring Our Souls Rest

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

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

Connecting to the Life of God

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

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

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

Personalizing the Process

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

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

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

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

Let’s ride!

..

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

 

See also

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

Why Lent is a lot Like Surfing

Spiritual formation book recommendations:

The Practice of the Presence of God, by Brother Lawrence

Sacred Rhythms, by Ruth Haley Barton

Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, by Adele Alberg Calhoun

The Organic God, by Margaret Feinberg

The Celebration of Discipline, by Richard Foster

Invitation to a Journey, by Robert Mulholland

The Way of the Heart, by Henri Nouwen

The Life You’ve Always Wanted, by John Ortberg

Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, by Peter Scazzero

The Good and Beautiful Life, by James Bryan Smith

Sacred Pathways, by Gary Thomas

The Spirit of the Disciplines, by Dallas Willard

 


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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let me explain…

A Brief History of Lent

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

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

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

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

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

Lenten Warfare

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

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

John Wesley helped advance a balanced perspective on Lent

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

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

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

Dallas Willard and the Spiritual Formation Movement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Catch the Wave

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

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

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

A Personal Note

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

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

Alcohol, Carbs, and the Presence of God

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

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

The Ocean is Calling!

 

See also

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

 


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

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

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

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

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

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

Read the complete article in America

The College Chapel: Puritan Relic or Campus Hot Spot?

How the integration of revival and moral philosophy in the college chapel helped lead to what Mark. A. Noll calls “the great age of Christian higher education.”

Part of ongoing series: The Holy Spirit and the Liberal Arts

If James K. A. Smith is correct in asserting that Jesus establishes particular ‘hot spots of sacramentality’ and endues them with a special sense of God’s presence, then the Christian college chapel must become the campus hot spot once again.

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

Alumni Memorial Chapel, Johnson University (established 1893)
Alumni Memorial Chapel, Johnson University (established 1893)

Campus worship services convened in a literal college chapel building and/or a figurative chapel program remain one of the most distinctive and symbolic methodologies in the history of American Christian higher education. Rooted in the British Puritan understanding of the college as a vehicle for the ongoing reformation and revival of church and society, chapel services are as old as the nations’ first college (Harvard, 1626) and endure today in most overtly Christian colleges and universities, as well as in many denominationally affiliated schools. Often the symbolic center of controversy over changes in the soul of a given college or university,[i] college chapels serve as significant campus ethos-shaping institutions—especially where chapel architecture and/or compulsory attendance dominate the campus landscape and schedule.[ii] Even as contemporary Christian colleges and universities struggle for an adequate theology of worship in a learning community, chapel programs and their staff serve as hubs for most co-curricular spiritual formation and service-learning opportunities on campus.

The Origins of the College Chapel Program

Puritan Liberal Education and Revivalism The British Puritan penchant for Christian higher learning crossed the Atlantic with the first pilgrims so that George M. Marsden regards the Puritan founding of Harvard College just six years after their first settlement in the New World as “one of the remarkable facts of American history.”[iii] Following the model of Emmanuel College, Cambridge—the hotbed of English Puritanism—and the writings of Jonathan Edwards, early American colleges integrated a classic liberal arts education in the classroom with Puritan revivalistic worship services in a college church,[iv] consistent with how Puritans “combined highly intellectual theology with intense piety.”[v] (See, Revival and Moral Philosophy: A Puritan Vision for Higher Education.)

True to the Protestant doctrine of Sola Scriptura and revivalism’s commitment to preaching as the primary means of conversion and grace, colleges preserved a time and place for students to sit under the biblical preaching of the college president. Compulsory attendance at two Sunday worship services (open to the public) and daily preaching and/or prayer services for the college community was central to the Puritan conception of higher education, and became the standard for Harvard, Yale, and the vast majority of American colleges that followed them. Since these services normally took place in a college chapel building (often the most architecturally dominant and symbolically significant structure on campus), they inevitably became known as chapel services.

The College Church and the Preaching President

When a college had an especially eloquent president—such as Timothy Dwight at Yale (1795–1817), Francis Wayland at Brown (1827-1855), Charles G. Finney (1852–1875) at Oberlin, or John McLean at Princeton (1854-1888)—“the effect on the students could be electric.”[vi] Yet, while most of college presidents were clergyman,[vii] few were remarkable preachers. The success of the chapel program often demanded largely upon periodic religious revivals among the students lest chapel preaching fall upon hard hearts and deaf ears. [viii] This only increased the influence of revivalism on Protestant Christian education, especially in the aftermath of the First Great Awakening, when the founding of numerous revival oriented colleges—such as Dartmouth, Princeton, and Brown—eventually led to the explosion of more than five-hundred revival colleges across the American frontier during the Second Great Awakening (1790-1840).[ix] (See, Do America’s Colleges Need ‘Revival’?)

Apologetics and Common Sense Realism

At the turn of the nineteenth-century, the challenge of European radical skepticism [x] led to a dynamic connection between revival colleges and the philosophical worldview of Scottish Common Sense Realism.[xi] Apologetic sermons on moral philosophy joined revivalism as the focal points of the college chapel program. Marsden notes that, “…these two programs, the revival and moral philosophy, were the chief collegiate supplements to traditions of regulated worship…”[xii] and laid the foundation for nearly a century of academic ascendancy that “may be called with justice the great age of Christian higher education in the history of the country.”[xiii]

Chapel services remained so integrally identified with American higher education that compulsory chapel attendance continued in virtually all colleges—even state universities—late into the nineteenth-century. [xiv] Today, many if not most historically denominational colleges maintain college chapel buildings, worship services, and chapel staff who aid students in spiritual formation as well as service-learning opportunities in the local community and global village. 

The College Chapel Program and the Soul of the American University

Secularization and the Demise of Compulsory Chapel Programs As the most visible symbol of faith on campus the college chapel has often served as a lighting rod in the well-chronicled tension between the educational and spiritual missions of Christian colleges. Since the post antebellum demise of the revival college movement (sometimes called the old-time college) only a handful of American colleges and universities have been able to overcome the forces of secularization and maintain their uniquely Christian soul.

Some scholars emphasize the demise of compulsory college chapel programs as a unique development in the transition from Revival College to Modern University. [xv] They point to the elimination of compulsory chapel at Harvard (1886) and Yale (1926) as key marking points in the forty-year secularization of the American academy.[xvi]

Other researchers emphasize the continuity of anti-spirituality pressures facing Christian colleges since Harvard’s faculty rejected the First Great Awakening in 1741.[xvii] They see growing pressure against chapel programs in contemporary Christian colleges as part of an ongoing pattern in the history of Christian higher education.

Managing the Tensions of Worship in a Learning Community

Both sides of this debate recognize that the dualism of post-Enlightenment conceptions of knowledge create a nearly inevitable force against the life of the Spirit in colleges committed to the life of the mind.[xviii] Today’s colleges chapel programs face increasing faculty pressure to become more denominationally-diverse, historically-rooted, and intellectually-challenging, even as post-modern, consumer-oriented, doctrine-phobic students demand more experientially-based, relationally-connected, and individually-catered worship experiences.[xix] Managing these pressures has led to two primary approaches to chapel in Christian colleges.

Chapel as an Educational Essential

Many colleges view their Chapel education programs as an educational essential of a Christian college—not unlike the general studies courses in a college’s core curriculum. As the Gordon College (MA) website states, “Because Chapel and Convocation programs are viewed as an integral component of a Gordon education, regular attendance is required for graduation, much like other non credit-bearing elements of the Gordon experience…”[xx] Similar to the Puritan college church, chapel services serve the broader educational mission of integrating highly intellectual pursuits with intense personal piety.[xxi] Chapel services are required of most students and held in a large often symbolically enriched worship space and at a protected time in the college schedule.[xxii]

Ideally, such chapel programs serve as a corporate spiritual discipline that both symbolically and educationally tie together the entire Christian college experience so that chapel is “foundational for university-wide commitment to integrate faith, learning, and living across campus.” [xxiii] However, just as in historic revival colleges, weak preaching and programming can quickly lead to student dissatisfaction, complaints, and misbehavior from the captive audience.[xxiv]

Chapel as a Student Service

Others colleges employ a model that views chapel services as one student service among many—not unlike other voluntary co-curricular activities. These chapel services are often (although not always) invested with the time, space, personnel, and financial support required to remain ethos-shaping forces on campus, but not because attendance is enforced.[xxv] As the Bethel University (MN) website declares, “Chapel is the heart and soul of spiritual life on the Bethel campus. Chapel attendance is not required, but we believe it’s a vital part of building community and learning about our shared faith.”[xxvi] Students may choose to voluntarily attend worship services to help them worship God in everything they do, but these colleges believe that such heart practices are best-pursued voluntarily.[xxvii]

Ideally, such an approach enhances the worship experience for all who take part and reduces the need to police student attendance and behavior. Practically, the threat of a conspicuously empty chapel often leads to tailoring worship to the tastes of the majority of undergraduate students and subsequently to great faculty and minority student dissatisfaction. The student services model is nearly always the first step towards to end of a vital college chapel program.[xxviii] they often start strong in the first decade after attendance is no longer taken, only to gradually dwindle to a small percentage of the campus.  Julie Reuben notes that once ‘critical mass’ is lost, college administrations often discover there is no going back from the ‘disaster’ of a voluntary chapel.[xxix]

The Heritage of the College Chapel

Two Theological Poles of Worship While modern Christian colleges have yet to develop a widespread theology capable of managing these tensions at the level of the Puritan model, [xxx] both sides in the debate agree that chapel programs should be a time when at very least a sizable majority of the college community gathers together to celebrate their common faith in meaningful expressions of corporate worship, learn the central tenants of the Christian faith, and consider together how to live out their faith throughout their campus community, scholarship, personal lives, and future calling.

Protestant theologies of worship have consistently emphasized that all of life and not just sacred times and places are potentially acts of worship. Commitment to the life of the mind required to forge a genuinely Christian worldview can make “the classroom as a chapel, scholarship as devotion,” so that, “Christianity at the base of the curriculum and suffusing all studies (is) the essence of Christian education.” [xxxi] However the affirmation that all of life can be worship need not discount our need for worship services that train our hearts and minds to worship and provides a means of grace by which the Spirit forms our soul in unique and intense ways. As James K. A. Smith asserts, “Jesus seems to establish particular hot spots of sacramentality and . . . endues them with a special sense of presence,”[xxxii] and there is little doubt that a Christian college chapel service should certainly be one of these hot spots.

Back to the Future

These two poles of worship guided the Puritans in their integration of a liberal education in the classroom and revival in the college chapel precisely because the renewing power of the presence of the Holy Spirit in the chapel is the best defense against hard hearts and deaf ears and in the classroom. Perhaps it is not surprising that both voluntary student-service chapel programs and compulsory educational-essential programs work best in seasons of religious awakening,[xxxiii] nor that both types of chapel programs benefited from the last season of spiritual awakening on American college campuses (1995).[xxxiv] As the contemporary Christian college movement continues to develop deeper theologies of worship in learning communities there is reason to hope that such intentionality could lead them back to the future of a second “great age of Christian higher education.”[xxxv]

Adapted from, Gary David Stratton. 2015. “The College Chapel,” in George Thomas Kurian and Mark A. Lamport, eds. Encyclopedia of Christian Education, Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littleton Academic Press of America.

 

See Also:

With Prayer in the School of Christ

 

Notes [i] Widespread use word soul to describe the essence of uniquely Christian higher education was initiated by George M. Marsden in 1992 in his essay, “The Soul of the American University: A Historical Overview,” in The Secularization of the Academy, ed. George M. Marsden and Bradley Longfield (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992). It was followed by Marsden, The Soul of the American University (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), Robert Benne, Quality with Soul: How Six Premier Colleges and Universities Keep Faith with Their Religious Traditions. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), Stephen T. Beers, The Soul of a Christian University: a Field Guide for Educators. (Abilene, Tex: Abilene Christian University Press, 2008), and others. [ii] Benne, Quality with Soul, 11-12, 193-14, 213-14. [iii] Marsden, The Soul of the American University, 33. [iv] William C. Ringenberg, The Christian College: A History of Protestant Higher Education in America (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006), 38. [v] George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 44. [vi] Ibid. 64. [vii] In 1840 eighty-percent of all college presidents at overtly Christian colleges were clergyman, as well as nearly sixty-percent of state college presidents. Marsden, Soul of the American University, 81. [viii] Mark A. Noll, Rise of Evangelicalism: the Age of Edwards, Whitefield, and the Wesleys (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 53-60. Italics mine. [ix] George M. Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life (New Haven: Yale University Press), 499. George M. Marsden and Bruce Longfield The Secularization of the Academy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 8-9. [x] Particularly David Hume and Voltaire. [xi] First proposed by Thomas Reid and developed by Princeton president Thomas Witherspoon, where Timothy Dwight studied. Mark A. Noll, America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 93-113. Also, Noll, “The revolution, the Enlightenment, and Christian higher education in the early republic,” in Making Higher Education Christian, eds. Joel Carpenter and Kenneth Shipps (Grand Rapids: Christian University Press, 1987), 58-64. [xii]  Marsden, Soul of the American University, 58. [xiii] Noll, “The revolution, the Enlightenment, and Christian higher education,” 64. [xiv] Ringenberg, The Christian College, 2003, 80-82. [xv] Such as Ringenberg’s The Christian College; Marsden’s The Soul of the American University; and Julie A. Reuben’s The Making of the Modern University: Intellectual Transformation and the Marginalization of Morality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996). [xvi] Reuben, Modern University, 119-122; Marsden, Soul of the University, 21. [xvii] Such as, James T. Burtchaell, The Dying of the Light: the Disengagement of Colleges and Universities from their Christian Churches. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1998), Michael L. Budde and John Wesley Wright, Conflicting Allegiances: the Church-based University in a Liberal Democratic society (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2004), and Benne, Quality with Soul. [xviii] Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture, 7-10. [xix] A youth group worldview described as “Moral Therapeutic Deism” by, Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching: the Religious and Spiritual lives of American Teenagers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005). Also, Kendra Kreasy Dean, Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling Us about the American Church (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010.) [xx] “Chapel Attendance Policy,” Gordon College Website, 2013-04-15. http://www.gordon.edu/page.cfm?iPageID=474 [xxi] Marsden, Fundamentalism, 44. [xxii] Benne highlights non-denominational Wheaton College and Baptist affiliated Baylor University as examples where this model currently appears to be working. Quality with Soul, 150. [xxiii] David S. Dockery, Renewing Minds: Serving Church and Society Through Christian Higher Education (Nashville, TN: Broadman, 2007), 108. Dockery is president of Union University, an educational-essential chapel school. [xxiv]Burtchaell, The Dying of the Light, 232, 320. [xxv] Benne, Quality with Soul, 49. [xxvi] “Worship/Chapel at Bethel,” Bethel University Website, http://cas.bethel.edu/campus-ministries/worship/chapel, 2013-04-15. [xxvii] Benne highlights Calvin College (Christian Reformed), Valparaiso University (Lutheran), and the University of Notre Dame (Catholic) as examples where this model appears to be attracting a critical mass of students, at least to Sunday services. Quality with Soul, 145-149, 160-165. [xxviii] Benne calls this the third college chapel model: institutions whose voluntary chapel programs are marked by very low attendance and without a designated chapel hour in the college schedule, Quality with Soul, 49. [xxix] Modern University, 123-124. [xxx] See David S. Dockery’s discussion of the lack of thorough theology in Renewing Minds, 124-137. Encouraging starts towards such a theology are found in, Duane Liftin, Conceiving the Christian College (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 2004), Cary Balzer and Rod Reed. Building a Culture of Faith: University-wide Partnerships for Spiritual Formation (Abilene, TX: Abilene Christian University Press, 2012), and James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009)and Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013). [xxxi] James Bratt, as quoted in ed. Paul John Dovre, The Future of Religious Colleges: the Proceedings of the Harvard Conference on the Future of Religious Colleges, October 6-7, 2000 (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Pub, 2002), 203. This “all of life can become worship” perspective is also prominent at many schools with required chapel. [xxxii] Desiring the Kingdom, 149. [xxxiii] Ringenberg notes this revival effect compulsory chapel programs, Christian College, 62ff, and Reuben in voluntary chapel schools, Modern University, 119. [xxxiv] In the 1995 campus awakening voluntary attendance at Hope College chapel jumped from a handful of students to nearly 90% of the student body, and student satisfaction with Gordon College’s compulsory chapel program jumped from less than 50% to over 90% in a single year. James C. Kennedy and Caroline Joyce Simon, Can hope endure?: a Historical Case Study in Christian Higher Education. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 188-195. Lyle W. Dorsett Timothy K. Beougher, Accounts of a Campus Revival: 1995 (Wheaton, IL: Harold Shaw, 1995), 139-170. [xxxv] Noll, “The revolution, the Enlightenment, and Christian higher education,” 64. R. Judson Carlberg, “The Evangelical Vision: From Fundamentalist Isolation to Respected Voice,” in The Future of Religious Colleges, ed.Paul John Dovre, 231.

References

Balzer, Cary and Rod Reed. Building a Culture of Faith: University-wide Partnerships for Spiritual Formation. Abilene, TX: Abilene Christian University Press, 2012.

Beers, Stephen T. The Soul of a Christian University: a Field Guide for Educators. Abilene, Tex: Abilene Christian University Press, 2008.

Bennie, Robert. Quality with Soul: How Six Premier Colleges and Universities Keep Faith with Their Religious Traditions. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001.

Budde, Michael L. and John Wesley Wright, Conflicting Allegiances: the Church-based University in a Liberal Democratic society. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2004).

Burtchaell, James T. The Dying of the Light: the Disengagement of Colleges and Universities from their Christian Churches. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1998.

Carlberg,  R. Judson. “The Evangelical Vision: From Fundamentalist Isolation to Respected Voice,” in The Future of Religious Colleges, ed. Paul John Dovre. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 2002.

Dean, Kendra Kreasy. Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling Us about the American Church, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010.

Dockery,  David S. Renewing Minds: Serving Church and Society Through Christian Higher Education. Nashville, TN: Broadman, 2007.

Dorsett, Lyle W. and Timothy K. Beougher. Accounts of a Campus Revival: 1995. Wheaton, IL: Harold Shaw, 1995.

Dovre, Paul J. The Future of Religious Colleges: the Proceedings of the Harvard Conference on the Future of Religious Colleges, October 6-7, 2000. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 2002.

Kennedy, James C. and Caroline Joyce Simon, Can Hope Endure?: A Historical Case Study in Christian Higher Education. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans. Liftin, Duane. Conceiving the Christian College. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 2004.

Marsden, George M. “The Soul of the American University: A Historical Overview,” in The Secularization of the Academy, ed. George M. Marsden and Bradley Longfield. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

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

__________. Jonathan Edwards: A Life. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003.

__________. Fundamentalism and American Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Noll, Mark A. “The revolution, the Enlightenment, and Christian higher education in the early republic,” in Making Higher Education Christian, eds. Joel Carpenter and Kenneth Shipps. Grand Rapids: Christian University Press, 1987.

__________. America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

__________. The Rise of Evangelicalism: the Age of Edwards, Whitefield, and the Wesleys. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003.

Reuben, Julie A. The Making of the Modern University: Intellectual Transformation and the Marginalization of Morality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Ringenberg, William C. The Christian College: A History of Protestant Higher Education in America. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2006.

Smith, Christian and Melinda Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching: the Religious and Spiritual lives of American Teenagers. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Smith, James K. A. Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009.

__________.  Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013.

Jesus and the Dispossessed, by Justin Phillips

(AP Photo/David Goldman)
(AP Photo/David Goldman)

“Very few African-American Christians would consider themselves to be evangelical, because for many the term often implies a white racist.” – Marquez Ball

By  in The Other Journal

At the Republican National Convention, Senator Lindsey Graham noted the shifting national demographics and commented, “We’re not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term.”1

Graham said this at the 2012 convention.

Hundreds of pieces will be published as a postmortem on those Americans, particularly evangelicals, who supported Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election. Robert P. Jones has recently referred to them as “nostalgia voters . . . culturally and economically disaffected voters that are anxious to hold on to a white conservative Christian culture that’s passing from the scene.”

Rod Dreher says this bloc holds the paradoxical view that the future is rightfully theirs and that the space for them in the United States is shrinking. This “dispossession,” as Dreher calls it, is “psychologically traumatic to certain whites who expected the world to work in a different way—a way that favored them.”2 Trump and his ilk offer a temporary balm to the damaged psyche of the dispossessed by making them feel good about who they are (i.e., real Americans) and what they could be (i.e., great again), all of which is tied directly to who they are not (i.e., immigrants, Muslims, etc.).

Marquez Ball further complicates things by suggesting that the term evangelical evokes racist undertones, saying, “Very few African American Christians would consider themselves to be evangelical, because for many the term often implies a white racist. . . . The 2016 presidential campaign of Donald Trump is challenging white evangelicals to prove that evangelical is not a code word for ‘white racist.’” As Michael Horton says, “many who call themselves evangelicals today find their ultimate loyalty in preserving or regaining a lost socio-political and cultural, perhaps even racial, hegemony.”3 Both Ball and Horton identify the significant baggage of the term evangelical, now reinforced by those who support Trump’s candidacy, which is simply an undercurrent of what evangelicalism has always been in America. If white evangelicals wish to be reconciled with people of color, then they should confess precisely how they have been possessed by something other than the faith they proclaim, irrespective of the repercussions that will befall the penitent and their structures of power.

Continue reading

I’m a Christian and I Hate Christian Movies, by Alissa Wilkinson

Part of ongoing series: The Future of Faith-Based Filmmaking

Some of the most popular faith-based movies today aren’t just sub-par entertainment — they’re anti-Christian.

by Alissa Wilkinson

We need more depictions of complicated, interesting Christian characters and media that explores difficult, complicated matters of belief. GND2 is anything but.
We need more depictions of complicated, interesting Christian characters and media that explores difficult, complicated matters of belief. GND2 is neither.

It’s a frustrating time to love movies and God. As a lifelong evangelical and a Christian film critic, I’m constantly alerted to the next faith-based movie. You know, your near-death experience drama, your Kirk Cameron vehicles, your God’s Not Dead franchise (see “part two” in theaters this week!) — “Christian films. Which, for someone who turns to movies for a dose of culture, often look like a pile of cheap cash-ins that make me break out in hives.

Hollywood’s definition of the “faith audience” boils down to churchgoers, often Evangelical Protestants, well enough off to afford a night at the movies, interested in inspirational Biblical adaptations and movies about heaven, family, and genial, good neighbors, and highly critical of any sexuality or bad language. If you’re not devout, you probably miss these movies entirely. But they’re a big business: in the last three years, low-budget Christian-themed films have earned over $445 million at the US box office.

A lot of these are basically well-intentioned kitsch, innocuous in the manner of a lousy conventional rom-com or inept indie drama. But they can be worse than that. I can excuse (or ignore) a poorly made movie. But some of the most popular faith-based movies today aren’t just sub-par entertainment — they’re anti-Christian.

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Alissa Wilkinson is critic at large for Christianity Today, an assistant professor of English and humanities at The King’s College in New York City, and usually a pretty sunny cinematic omnivore. Follow her weeks-late TV tweets and exhausted festival updates at @alissamarie.

See Also

Current Films by Act One Graduates Reveal Strange Dichotomy in Box Office Mojo’s ‘Christian Movie’ Category

Why Evangelical Films Fail, by Peter J. Leithart

The Future of Faith in Film? Youth and Evangelicals Outstrip All Other Movie-going Audiences, by David Kinnaman

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

Saint Patrick and the Missional Future of Christian Higher Education

Part 5 in series: The Holy Spirit and the Liberal Arts: The Future of ‘Two Handed’ Higher Education

The patron saint of Ireland is rarely credited with what was perhaps his greatest achievement.

by Gary David Stratton, PhD • Senior Editor

“I am driven by the zeal of God, Christ’s truth has roused me. I speak out too for love of my neighbors who are my only sons; for them I gave up my home country, my parents and even pushing my own life to the brink of death. If I have any worth, it is to live my life for God so as to teach these peoples; even though some of them still look down on me.”

–Saint Patrick

Saint Patrick is credited with numerous extraordinary feats, both legendary and mythical. In fact, the myth and the man are so intertwined, it is often difficult to tell fact from fiction. Can you name which of the following common beliefs about the patron saint of Ireland are true and which are myths?

1) Patrick converted pagan Ireland to Christianity. Mostly true: When Patrick arrived in Ireland in c. 433 there were few if any known churches. When he died c. 461 his followers (and other missionaries) had established as many as 700 churches in more than 30 of Ireland’s 150 tribes.

2) Patrick drove away every snake in Ireland. Myth: There were never many snakes in Ireland. However, God did use Patrick to perform many other miracles in order to demonstrate the power of the Gospel over and against the dark powers of the druids.

3) Patrick and his followers saved the great texts of Greco-Roman civilization from distruction. True: As popularized by Thomas Cahill’s best-selling How the Irish Saved Civilization, most of the texts of classical antiquity were preserved in Celtic missionary communities during continental Europe’s darkest ages.

4) Patrick made the Shamrock a grand symbol of Ireland. True: He used the three-leafed plant to teach the doctrine of the Trinity.

5) Patrick invented green beer. Myth: But Patrick probably would have liked it. Beer and mead were the favorite drinks of the Celts and many monasteries became known for their excellent breweries. (I’m not sure what he would have made of green milkshakes.)

Patrick’s Greatest Achievement: Missionally Focused Liberal Arts

Ironically, while these achievements, both real and imagined, have made Patrick one of the most popular saints of the modern world, he is rarely credited with what was arguably his greatest achievement: the reshaping of monasticism into a missionally-focused liberal arts education movement.

Let me explain.

The liberal arts and the Christian faith were not immediately on the best speaking terms. While the classically trained apostle Paul treated philosophers in Athens as fellow truth-seekers (Acts 17), Greco-Roman philosophy and philosophers were as likely to be viewed as enemies of the gospel as anything else (1 Cor. 1:20; Col. 2:8). Many early Christian apologists used their liberal arts education to refute much of the Greek philosophy of their persecutors, the end result was often an entrenched anti-intellectualism in the church. Jean LeClercq notes that the general pattern for much of the era was that of “studies undertaken, and then, not precisely scorned, but renounced and transcended for the kingdom of God.”[3]

Following Constantine’s reforms (313 CE) churches began to formalize the catechumenal schools (children and teens) they had founded under persecution and established catechetical schools (college age) often attached to Roman rhetorical schools. Perhaps the most notable of which was the catechetical school and religious community was established by Augustine of Hippo (354-430) in the early years of the fifth-century. Trained in the finest higher education of his day—he held one of the most prestigious academic positions in the Latin world as a professor of rhetoric for the imperial court at Milan—Augustine’s philosophy of education formed the foundation not only for post-Rome Christendom, but in Christian Education and Instruction of the Uninstructed for the rise of catechetical schools and monasteries throughout the region.[4] Most importantly, Augustine found at least a “measure of compatibility” between Christian and classical thought in training priests and teachers. He devoted several sections of Christian Education to the liberal arts and even began (but never finished) a complete treatise devoted to the liberal arts.[5]

Saint Patrick’s Missional Educational Revolution

As the church grew in influence among the educated classes the commonalities of Greco-Roman liberal arts education, and Jesus’ more Rabbinic higher education model eventually led to the church subsuming the liberal arts academy into its larger project. Their common goals of truth-seeking and leadership training coupled with their nearly identical discipleship-based pedagogy helped calm the once stormy relationship. However, it was only after the fall of the Rome that Greco-Roman culture and its techniques of instruction were “woven into the texture of Christian Education in the middle ages.”[6] And the leader who helped initiate this revolution is none other than Saint Patrick.

Patrick’s mission to Ireland helped reshape monasticism into missionally-focused liberal arts education movement. Patrick arrived in Ireland not as a solo missionary, but as the head of a liberal arts embracing religious community comprised of masters and disciples.  Their methodology was the highly relational educational approach they had inherited from the monastic movement, now turned to a missional purpose.

Patrick’s relational approach to the life of the mind was crucial to his missional success. After making contact with the heads of various Celtic tribes, he sought permission to establish a community on the outskirts of the village. A grammar school where Celts were taught to read was one of the first projects in each village, instilling a love of learning where Christianity and the liberal arts were each held in high honor. The native Celts were then invited to take part in discussions, classes, artistic, and agricultural projects. Invariably this relational intellectualism slowly won the village to faith and a local Celtic church was established.[7]

Culture-making–contextualization, education, social justice, and the arts–were all key elements of Patrick’s mission. Patrick was very familiar with Celtic customs, and language due to his time spent as a slave in Ireland in his youth. He sought to redeem Celtic art and worship rather than eradicate them. He created what we now know as the “Celtic Cross” by superimposing the sun—once an object of worship—onto the traditional Roman cross, and recalibrated the use of bonfires in pagan worship by using them to celebrate Easter. Not surprisingly, Patrick was one of the first vocal opponents of slavery in church history. The Irish slave trade was virtually abolished in Ireland wherever Patrick established a church. Devastating social practices such as revenge murder and inter-tribal warfare were also greatly reduced.

Like all monasticism, the life of the mind was eclipsed only by devotion to the life of the Spirit. Prayer played a particularly critical role in Celtic learning communities. The strength of Patrick’s prayer life was legendary and his followers became known for their commitment to praying all 150 Psalms everyday. The strong Trinitarian elements of Saint Patrick’s Shield/Breastplate Prayer attest to the rich theological life of the mind that undergirded the prayer life of the movement.[8] Students learned to pray because prayer was “theology on fire” where they could experience the love of God, and learn to see God’s love set loose in the world. (See, With Prayer in the School of Christ.) Like Patrick, the graduates of his liberal arts learning community were fearless in asking the Spirit of God to intervene in the world in supernatural ways. And God answered those prayers with miracles, signs, and wonders far beyond anything the Druids could muster.

This Celtic synthesis Spirit, Mind, and Art in a communal approach to missions was nearly irresistible in its power.He was a true two-handed warrior,” who established a vast and vital community of Christ followers in a genuinely pagan nation in less than a single lifetime. His schools were so effective at training leaders that he was able to ordain over 1,000 Celtic priests. The Celtic spiritual awakening continued after Patrick’s death as Spirit-empowered missional learning communities under Colomba (521-597) and Augustine of Canterbury (597-604) converted most of Scotland and the English peoples. (Augustine was even warned by the Pope not to get too big a head due to all the miracles God had performed through him.)

In the process of winning the British Isles to faith, Patrick and his spiritual descendants succeeded in saving the liberal arts tradition as well. LeClercq chronicles howduring the long period when invasions were devastating Europe, Latin culture was preserved primarily in England.”  While invaders plundered and destroyed many classical texts, Celtic Christians gathered and preserved as many extant manuscripts from antiquity as they could.  And it was from England that missionaries carried Latin culture, books and learning back to a large part of the Continent.[9] God used Patrick to save the Irish and the Irish saved Western civilization.

Is it possible that Patrick’s missional approach to Christian liberal arts education might help save the future of American civilization as well?

How Patrick’s Missional Liberal Arts Education Might Save Civilization …Again!

Anyone following the work of the National Study of Youth and Religion (NSYR) knows that we need saving.While over three quarters of America’s youth identify their religious faith as “Christian,” virtually none of them actually follow Christ in any meaningful way. Last night I fell asleep reading Kenda Creasy Dean’s analysis of the NSYR data entitled Almost Christian: What the faith of our Teenagers is Telling the American Church[10]. I woke this morning with a single thought going through my head, “We’re in trouble.”

Indeed, if Dean is only half right, then the Christian faith in American is in serious trouble. Building upon the previous NSYR publications of Christian Smith, Melissa Lundquist DentonPatricia Snell and others, Dean warns that:

“American young people are unwittingly being formed into an imposter faith that poses as Christianity, but that in fact lacks the holy desire and missional clarity necessary for Christian discipleship…”[11]

What was so interesting to me in light of Patrick’s life is Dean’s assessment that it is precisely this lack of “missional clarity” that is so devastating the next generation of American believers. The Moralistic Therapeutic Deism[12] that defines the faith of America’s youth is “the unholy residue of a church that has lost its missional imagination.”[13] One of her proposed solutions for rescuing genuine Christianity from its imposter faith is to recapture that imagination.

Patrick and the Christian liberal arts community he founded were defined by their missional imagination.To Patrick, both the church and school existed to “live my life for God so as to teach these peoples.” He was driven by the zeal of Christ and the love of neighbor to direct his life—his relationships, his study, his teaching, and his prayers—in such a way as to make a difference in the world. Are we?

I would argue that for the Christian liberal arts College of the 21st Century to be of any use to God and to the world we must recapture our missional imagination as well. I do not mean by this “mission trips” (although such trips have their place), I mean “thinking missionally” about our mission as Christian colleges. Building upon the missiological thinking of Leslie Newbigin, Andrew F. Walls, Lamin Sanneh and contemporary “missional church” advocates such as Alan Hirsch, Dean asserts: “The point of God’s incarnation was mission, the sending of God-as-love into creation… created the template for church’s missional way of life.”[14] Genuinely Christian communities exist not for themselves, but for the world. Embracing God’s mission to the world is the “litmus test” for determining whether a Christian is really a Christian and a community is really Christian. [15]

If colleges are genuine Christian learning communities then aren’t we subject to this missional litmus test as well? Patrick certainly thought so.

Thinking MissionallyAbout Higher Education 

How might we do this? At the danger of losing the principle in the midst of flawed practices, let me suggest four ways that missional thinking might help transform our colleges into better world-changing institutions and more deeply transform our students in the process.

1) Think now! Nearly all Christian colleges express their “mission statement” in future-oriented language concerning what our graduates will eventually do someday. How odd this language would have sounded to Patrick.

Patrick’s relational intellectualism and liberal arts based apprenticeship-oriented pedagogy moved the “mission” of his educational community from the future to the present. Making a difference in the world was something faculty and students did together as part and parcel of their shared educational experience. Without detracting from the preparatory nature of higher education nor giving way to knee-jerk activism that too often serves largely out of a sense of guilt or self-congratulation, one way to reenergize our schools and our over-entertained and profoundly bored students would be for faculty to invite students into missional communities seeking to use their expertise to make a difference in the world now.

I like the way Gabe Lyons describes the hunger for the next generation of Christians to live out their calling beyond the walls of the church:

Brokenness exists within each channel of culture… We are called to find things that are broken and affect them in some positive way… Put simply, the next Christians recognize their responsibility not only to build up the church but also to build up society to the glory of God. From genetic scientists to artists, businesspeople to educators, these Christians are letting their gifts flood the world from the place they feel called to work. They have a keen eye to sense what is missing, broken, or corrupted and are courageous enough to respond.[16]

In other words, they need psychologists to help psychology students, philosophers to help philosophy students, economists to help economy students use their calling to missionally better the world now.

2) Think relationally! One of Kendra Dean’s primary findings is the profound lack of adults willing to dig in and do the messy work of helping students “translate” their faith from professed story to experienced story. Adults who will engage students in “catechetical conversations” that evoke what Walter Brueggeman calls a language of ‘transformative imagination.’[17] Students rarely get to transformation alone. “(T)heir faith is the legacy of communities that have invested time, energy, and love in them.”[18] If not us, who? If not now, when?

3) Think strategically! Business as usual will not cut it. If faculty, staff and executives are to lead students in the process of missional education then something has to change. For instance, schools might consider augmenting their stand-alone missions trips and/or service projects[19] by creating positions that serve faculty in the development of service-learning components in their courses and/or designing missional opportunities based upon faculty passions and talents. Faculty senates could redefine faculty tenure and promotion policies in such a way that peer-reviewed scholarly writing is coupled with student-shared scholarly engagement in culture. College executives could release strategic resources (i.e. funding) for visionary programming, conversations, and staffing.

4) Think big! Dean concludes her book with a note of hope. Students want to be part of something bigger than they are, something that really makes a difference in the world.  The real problem “may simply be that Christianity—or what passes for Christianity…—does not merit a primary commitment.”[20] A vision for preserving comfortable Christian subculture simply isn’t big enough to capture the imagination of a sensation-craving, but meaning-starved generation.  They want to change the world. A culture of video-games and CGI action movies has trained them to think in only two categories: “Go big or go home.” Will 21st Century Christian higher education rise to the challenge?

Patrick was over 45 years old, well past the life expectancy of his day, when he launched his mission to Ireland. His vision was enormous, maybe even foolhardy. It was also transformative. Patrick redirected the liberal arts learning communities of his day from their purely interior focused purpose to one that was truly missional.  In doing so he actually strengthened their spiritual vitality, and their intellectual firepower rather than diminishing it.

He also changed the world. If we followed Patrick’s example of missional liberal arts, perhaps we could change our world as well.

So, today whether you’re drinking a green beer, throwing back a Shamrock shake, or just wearing something green, thank God for Saint Patrick—one of the coolest Saints in history, and just maybe the future of missional Christian higher education.

.

Next: Do America’s Colleges (and Churches) Need ‘Revival’? The Liberal Arts and the Great Awakening  

See Also:

Shield’s Up! Saint Patrick’s Amazing Prayer of Spiritual Warfare

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

The Greco-Roman Liberal Arts: Education with Friendship and Heart

Rabbinic Higher Education: The Life of the Mind and the Word of God 

With Prayer in the School of Christ: The Liberal Arts and the Knowledge of God


[1] A Letter to the Soldiers at Coroticus, in The Confession of Saint Patrick, John Skinner, Translator (New York: Doubleday, 1998), p. 2-3.

[2] Perhaps only St. Nicholas and St. Valentine rank higher on the hipness chart.

[3] The love of learning and the desire for God: A study of monastic culture, 3rd Edition (New York: Fordham University Press, 2007), p. 12.

[4] J. Van Engen, Christianity and the University: The Medieval and Reformation Legacies. In J. Carpenter (Ed.), Making Higher Education Christian (Grand Rapids, MI: Christian University Press, 1987), p. 20.

[5] Cited in Alan Cobban, The medieval universities: their development and organization (London: Methuen & Co, 1975), p. 10.

[6] Ibid., p. 3.

[7] While somewhat simplistic and overstated, George Hunter’s The Celtic Way of Evangelism is a highly inspirational account of Patrick’s methodology.

[8] Or at least the prayer tradition he established. It difficult to know for certain if Patrick actually wrote the prayer personally or if it grew out of the Celtic prayer community.

[9] The love of learning, p. 38.

[10] Oxford Press, 2010.

[11] Italics mine, p. 6.

[12] Smith and Denton’s summary description of the faith of most American youth in the NYRS research. (See, “An Interview an Interview with Kenda Creasy Dean,” coming 3/23/2011.)

[13] Italics mine, p. 104.

[14] Ibid., p. 91

[15] Ibid, p. 90.  Dean notes that the missional “litmus test” argument was first proposed by Karl Barth in Church Dogmatics IV.3b (Edinborough: T&T Clark, 1962), 875.

[16] The next Christians: The good news about the end of Christian America (New York: Doubleday Religion, 2010), p. 120.

[17] Cited in Dean, p. 126.

[18] Almost Christian, p. 194.

[19] Often largely divorced from students’ academic experience and virtually identical to programs offered by high school youth groups.

[20] Almost Christian, p. 193.

 

Why Lent is a lot like Surfing

Part of Lenten Series: You Are What You Do (and Eat): Spiritual Formation in Everyday Life  (See also, Finding God in Hollywood: Soul-Nourishing Practices in a Soul-Deadening World

The surfer doesn’t create the waves, but her board puts her in a position to catch their energy. In the same way, spiritual disciplines don’t create the transforming power of God, but they do put us in a position to catch it. 

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

At first glance, fasting makes about as much sense as the head-bonking monks in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.”

This morning over breakfast, a brilliant young writer confronted my wife and I with a disturbing question. After an intense conversation covering Ash Wednesday, Lent, fasting, and dieting (there is a difference, right?), she wrinkled her brow and exclaimed:

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

Uh…? Good question.

At first glance fasting makes about as much sense as the head-bonking monks in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” Their unspoken motto appears to be: “Painfulness is next to godliness.” (Which, I think is why we find them so funny. Somehow we know that the extreme asceticism of the Middle ages, no matter how sincere, was profoundly flawed.)

But after talking it through for nearly an hour, I finally gave here the best answer I could: Fasting is a lot like surfing.  Let me explain…

A Brief History of Lent

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

Fasting for 40 days before Easter was originally established as a time of spiritual preparation for new converts to Christianity before they were baptized together each Easter. However, in 325 AD, The Council of Nicea made Lent an official season of fasting for the entire church to prepare to receive the new members. This was normally practiced as eating only one meal per day for the entire 40 days.[1] (Note: While many modern Catholics give up something for Lent, the Vatican only prescribes Ash Wednesday and Good Friday as official fast days.)

In the ensuing centuries many Christ followers found Lent a helpful practice in their walk with God. Fasting is often connected with repentance in Scripture. Using fasting and repentance to help “Prepare the way” for the Lord” in one’s heart for the celebration of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection can be a very helpful and instructive practice. Entering this season of repentance through impartation of ashes on one’s forehead on “Ash Wednesday” can create a strong connection to the Biblical practice of repenting in sackcloth and ashes.  Skipping a meal, a favorite food, or favorite activity can help underscore our words of repentance with our bodies.

Lenten Warfare

However, the practice of Lent also has a dark side in church history. As the human tendency toward hyper-control began to infiltrate the church, the practice of Lent became more and more prescribed and restrictive with each passing year. By the Middle Ages the compulsory practice of Lent had become so oppressive Protestant leaders began to reject it altogether.  Martin Luther saw nothing wrong with Lent in theory, but feared that most Lenten fasting had become dead compulsory religious ritual aimed at earning God’s favor that amounted to “fasting to Satan instead of a fasting unto holiness.” Ulrich Zingli and later John Calvin were just as rough. They all but outlawed what they called the “gross delusion” of the “superstitious observance of Lent.”

John Wesley helped advance a balanced perspective on Lent

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

John Wesley, founder of the Methodist church, was perhaps the first Protestant to swing the pendulum back toward a sane balance. Wesley broke with the Church of England’s ban on Lent by listing it among his approved fast days of the Church. In fact,  he thought it was “deplorable” that many Methodists neglected such fasting. Wesleyan Methodist churches eventually reinstated Lent as an official church practice. Anglicans, Lutherans, and later Presbyterians also eventually reinstated Lent, which may have caused Luther and Calvin to roll over their graves.

Dallas Willard and the Spiritual Formation Movement

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

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

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

While we are “saved” through faith by grace alone, we are transformed by the “interactive presence” of the Holy Spirit in our lives (p. 23). God could transform us instantly and unilaterally, but he has chosen to transform us largely by working with us (p. 10). We participate in our own transformation indirectly by shaping of our thoughts and feelings through the rigorous and skillful application of spiritual discipline  (p. 248).  In other words, while we cannot be instantly or immediately transformed by sheer force of will, we can will to practice the disciplines that put us in a place where God’s grace can transform us into the image of Christ.

This is why Lent can be both used and abused. To practice Lent out of sense of compulsion—fearing that God will smite me if I eat chocolate–or in hopes of earning brownie points with God for good behavior, are both anathema to the true spirit of the disciplines.  However, to give up something for Lent in hopes of using your body (your whole being) to express your prayer of repentance can be very powerful.  It can put you in a position to better cooperate with the movements of the Spirit in your own soul.

Catch the Wave

Just as a board helps a surfer catch the power of a wave, Lent can help someone ‘catch’ the grace of God.

This brought me to the realization that spiritual disciplines are a lot like surfboards. The surfer doesn’t create the wave, but her board helps her to catch the energy provided by the ocean. In the same way, a spiritual discipline (such as a Lenten fast) doesn’t create the transforming power of God, but it does help us to catch it.  The spiritual discipline of fasting creates a space of faith that God is only to glad to fill. The spiritual discipline of Lent helps many people to “catch the wave” of God’s ever-available power.

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

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

Alcohol, Carbs, and the Presence of God

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

Surfs Up!

Next:  You Are What You Eat (and Do): Why You Might Not Want to Give Up Chocolate For Lent

 


[1] Okay, actually Lent is actually 46 days. Why? Medieval church leaders decided that fasting on the feast day of Sunday was a hypocrisy and deducted the six Sunday’s of Lent from the season of repentance, making Lent 46 days long. This has always seemed more like a loophole than an actual spiritual discipline to me. I normally just fast the whole 46 days.

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

[3] Don’t take this as a slam on TV viewing in general. I still love television and many of my friends and students work in the TV industry. I think moderate viewing of excellent shows can be a very helpful spiritual discipline. In fact, Tivo and Hulu have helped me nearly eliminate the kind of mindless channel surfing that so thwarted my early spiritual development.

Unity and Reconciliation in Bizarro World: Johnson University Black History Month Celebration with Efrem Smith and Gary David Stratton

Johnson University’s kickoff to Black History month provided black and white perspectives on Unity and Reconciliation in the body of Christ from Efrem Smith, CEO & President at World Impact, and Gary David Stratton, Johnson University’s Dean of Arts and Sciences

Efrem Smith, President and CEO, World Impact, Inc.
Efrem Smith, President and CEO, World Impact, Inc.

Efrem’s personal and professional story paints a compelling picture of an urban church leader of deep faith who has managed leaders and budgets, transforming people and ministry wherever he has served. His track record in leading Christian Community Development efforts, serving as a Pastor, Church Planter and leader of the Pacific Southwest Conference of the Evangelical Covenant Church, have prepared him for this moment. Throughout his career, Efrem has had a passion for the urban poor, theological education, and training indigenous leaders for service in the Kingdom.

Serving as founding pastor of The Sanctuary Covenant Church, a multi-ethnic church in Minneapolis, MN, Efrem also co-founded and was President for The Sanctuary Community Development Corporation.  As an itinerant speaker and preacher with Kingdom Building Ministries and the Evangelical Covenant Church, he has been a keynote speaker for such events as Athletes in Action, Campus Crusade for Christ, Youth Specialties, Compassion International, Thrive and CHIC. He is the author of Raising Up Young Heroes, The Hip Hop Church, and Jump. Efrem’s latest book, The Post-Black and Post-White Church, was released in August of 2012.

Efrem is a graduate of Saint John’s University and Luther Theological Seminary and a doctoral student at Fuller Theological Seminary. He and his wife Donecia, along with their two children, Jeada and Mireya, live in the San Francisco Bay Area. Efrem has received many awards such as the Role Model Award from the Hennepin County Community Coalition and the Community Service Award from Saint John’s University.

For more information about Efrem, visit his website and blog. (If video feeds are down, click: http://livestream.com/accounts/2746937/events/4294386)

Advancers of the Kingdom in Bizarro World (2/2/2016)

Efrem Smith, CEO & President at World Impact, Inc.

(Efrem’s message starts at 25:00 minutes.)

 

The Power of Meeting with Jesus (2/3/2016)

Efrem Smith, CEO & President at World Impact, Inc. 

(Efrem’s message starts at 8:30 minutes.)

 

Jesus’ Final Request: Porch Lights, Laments, and Listening in Love (2/4/2016 Communion Service)

Gary David Stratton, PhD, Dean of Arts and Sciences, Johnson University 

(Gary’s message starts at 19:25 minutes.)