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.)

 

Steve Jobs was a Jerk: Whole Foods’ Founder on the Importance of Emotional and Spiritual Intelligence in the Workplace [Video]

Insightful video interview with Whole Foods Founder, John Mackey, on Inc.com

“Steve Jobs would have been fired from Whole Foods. He did not have emotional intelligence. He was a jerk.” -John Mackey

Video Intro by John Rampton

John Mackey, CEO and founder of Whole Foods
John Mackey, CEO and founder of Whole Foods

According to Psychology Today, “Emotional intelligence is the ability to identify and manage your own emotions and the emotions of others.” This usually involves:

  • emotional awareness, which includes the ability to identify your own emotions as well as those of others;
  • the ability to harness emotions and apply them to tasks such as problem solving;
  • the ability to manage your emotions, such as being able to calm down when you’re upset.

John Mackey, CEO and founder of Whole Foods, talks about why self-awareness matters in business.

If video does not appear below, click Great Leaders Have Emotional and Spiritual Intelligence to get to video at bottom of page.

Published on Inc.com, JAN 14, 2016.

What does the University have to do with Prayer?

Remarks by Gary David Stratton

Given at the Campus House of Prayer Annual Banquet 

The Foundry, Knoxville, TN

October 29, 2015

The University of Tennessee Campus House of Prayer (CHOP) was established in 2009 as a venue for 24/7 prayer, worship and intercession for U.T. students and campus ministers.
Gary and Rhonda Peacock founded the Campus House of Prayer (CHOP) at the University of Tennessee in 2009 as a venue open day and night for U.T. students and campus ministers to pray.

Thank you for that gracious introduction, Bryan. And thank you to Gary and Rhonda, for inviting Sue and I to be with you tonight. When the four us first met in Colorado over seven years ago, I don’t think we could have ever imagined that one-day we’d get to live and minister together in Knoxville.

And let me make something clear: ‘minister’ is exactly what I mean. Don’t let any changes in role and title over the years fool you; Sue and I are campus ministers through and through. We started our careers as Cru staff at the University of Memphis, an experience that nearly kept us from taking another job in Tennessee, [Laughter] and everything we’ve done since has only served the pursuit of our primary calling as ministers to students and those who lead them.

So speaking on prayer to the extended family of the Campus House of Prayer, CHOP, at the University of Tennessee makes perfect sense. And as I prayed at CHOP early this morning, I sensed that I needed to scrap my planned remarks and pave the way for the stories you have heard already tonight and the ones you will hear later by providing an educational rationale for a campus house of prayer.

But first, I want to start with a piece of advice that might lead to some great PR for CHOP. After just a few months of observing the UT community, I believe that the greatest service the Campus House of Prayer could offer the University would be to petition the football program to stop praying before games… [pause] ….and ask that the athletic department move the prayer time to the fourth quarter! [Laughter.]

(Note to those who are not Volunteer football fans: The UT football team–who open every game at Neyland Stadium with public prayer for the 102,422 faithful in attendance–lost four of its first seven games in the 2015 season after leading in the fourth quarter, including narrow losses to eventual CFP tournament teams Alabama and Oklahoma.)

Prayer: An Odd Duck in the Modern University

Let’s admit it, football traditions not withstanding, a House of Prayer on a college campus sounds more than a little out-of-place. Colleges are centers of learning; universities established as institutions devoted to study and to scholarship, not spiritual exercises.

In the second century after Christ, Christian theologian Tertullian famously asked, “What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?” Now the tables are turned, and a better question today might be, “What does U.T. have to do with prayer and prayer with UT?”

Some might argue that the best answer that question is, nothing. Even many Christians may say, “We have so many campus ministries devoted to teaching Biblical truth in a manner worthy of a community of higher learning, why confuse things with a practice that appears amusingly antiquated to many in the university community, and completely delusional to others? Let’s preach the gospel and forget this troubling notion of prayer.”

However, tonight I wish to argue that the real answer to the question, “What does UT have to do with prayer and prayer with UT?” is everything. I believe that is true even for those who have no faith commitment whatsoever. (I will have to leave that argument for another day.) However, it is especially true for those who name the name of Christ. Here’s why.

Prayer in the College of Christ

While Jesus never established a brick and mortar school in the modern sense of the word, the discipleship movement he founded was indistinguishable from first-century Jewish higher education. Itinerating with a rabbi was simply the way you “did” college in Jesus’ day. After a youth spent studying the Torah, only the most remarkable students were allowed to go on to the Jewish version of higher education: obtaining permission to study as a talmid (disciple/student) of a great Rabbi. (See, Rabbinic Higher Education: Culture-Making, The Life of the Mind, and the Word of God.)

Like all Rabbis, Jesus’ curriculum centered on the study of his teachings and interpretations of Torah. Like all Rabbis, Jesus’ pedagogy was highly relational and centered on the creation of a learning community where master and disciples lived in close proximity and forged a friendship.

What distinguished the “College of Christ” from other first-century higher education was Jesus’ unique emphasis on the spiritual discipline of prayer. While prayer was part of all Jewish education, Jesus’ overarching commitment to prayer goes far beyond any Rabbi of his day. [2] Luke records no less that nine occasions when Jesus prayed with and/or modeled prayer for his students. [1] Matthew recalls least twenty-percent of Jesus’ parables and the Sermon on the Mount centered on prayer. John, perhaps Jesus’ favorite student, notes that his teacher devoted nearly half of his “last lecture” (John 13-17) to teaching his students about prayer, and praying together with them.

For Jesus prayer and education were inseparable, because education and the knowledge of God are inseparable. Whereas the object of Greek education was to study to ‘know thyself,’ Jesus taught his students that true spiritual life is found in knowing God (John 17:3). This emphasis was consistent with the Rabbinic concept that you could only know someone or something you experienced. Jesus’ learning outcomes demanded that his students encounter God not merely intellectually, but experimentally as well. He taught them to seek this experiential knowledge of God not only through the discipline of study (as important as this might be), but in prayer as well.

1) Education and Contemplative Prayer: Instruction in Abba Intimacy

After years of teaching and modeling prayer, Jesus’ students finally ask their Rabbi, “Lord, teach us to pray.” Jesus’ response would have sounded both disappointingly familiar, and astonishingly radical at the same time.

On one level, “The prayer is thoroughly Jewish “and “could easily have appeared without change in rabbinic literature.” [3] However, another level, the Lord’s Prayer highlights at least two unique aspects of prayer in the College of Christ.

First, in teaching his disciples to address God as Father, Jesus’ rooted the practice of prayer in his desire for his students to experience the intimate love of God. While the fatherhood of God is only inferred in the Torah, it is clearly evident in the Psalms and Prophets, and later rabbinic writings. [4] Jesus drew upon this rabbinic tradition, deepening it in a manner that would have been nearly unthinkable for most Rabbis of his day.

Renowned Near Eastern Studies scholar Joachim Jeremias discovered that “In the literature of Palestinian Judaism no evidence has yet been found of ‘My father,’ being used by an individual as an address to God… We do not have a single example of God being addressed as Abba (my father) in Judaism, but Jesus always addressed God in this way.”[5]

It is an astonishing choice of words. Abba implies a close, personal and familial relationship. “What others thought too intimate in praying to God, Jesus used because of its intimacy.”[6] What’s more, he taught his disciples to do the same. As New Testament scholar Joel Green asserts, Jesus’ teaching on prayer “begins and ends with references to God as the Father of his disciples.”[7]

Prayer was a critical educational practice, because in prayer students encountered genuine knowledge of God the Father. As Singaporean theologian Simon Chan affirms, “Intimacy with God is what characterizes a life of prayer.”[8]

The early Christians followed Jesus’ example so thoroughly that for the first 1200 years of the church, prayer and education were inseparable. In fact, for most of that time if you wanted to learn the great Greco-Roman liberal arts, you had to do it in a community devoted to prayer. As renowned church historian, Jean LeClerq, summarizes, “Hence, there arose a distinctive culture with marked characteristics, contemplative’ in bent, oriented toward spirituality [and] assuming there is no theology without prayer and the establishment of certain [experiential] contact with God.” [9]

How will they know unless someone teaches them?

This past summer I had the honor of addressing many of the top leaders in Christian Higher Education in Canada—presidents, faculty and student life staff. As part of my remarks I led us in a brief centering prayer exercise. Now, there is this wonderful thing that happens regularly in centering prayer known as “the drop.” It is a physical sensation that often accompanies moving from our head to our heart in prayer. Now, I can practice centering prayer for twenty minutes a day for a week and never experience the drop. However, that day the Lord graced us with a nearly universally experienced collective drop that you could literally hear in the transformation of everyone’s breathing patterns.

But was most instructive was when I asked how many of these perhaps most highly educated leaders in the entire nation, “How many of you have ever been taught the art of centering prayer and experienced a drop before?” The answer was significantly less than half the room. Their education had never included instruction in what would have been considered a Freshman 101 lesson in most Christian catechetical schools for over 1200 years. Why? Because there was nothing like a campus house of prayer on their campuses to teach them.

So… “What does UT have to do with prayer and prayer with UT?”

If we are committed to building campus ministries capable of following after the model of the College of Christ by leading student into a life of Abba intimacy, the answer is Everything!

How are UT students ever going to learn to pray, unless as in the College of Christ, someone models a life of prayer so thoroughly that students ask, “Teach us to pray”? Which is exactly what happened to Aaron when he wandered into that CHOP city prayer meeting.

The first reason why UT needs the Campus House of Prayer is to provide a safe place for students and staff from every campus ministry to learn to grow deep in the experiential knowledge of Abba intimacy with God through prayer.

2) Education and Answered Prayer: Evidence of the In-breaking Kingdom

The Lord’s Prayer also reveals second reason why we need a campus house of prayer. Jesus didn’t want his students to merely become prayerful navel gazers, experiencing God in private. He wanted them to experience God breaking into their world. He taught his students how to enter into the coming of the kingdom, not only through faith, repentance, and prayer for “private” experiential knowledge of God, but also to pray for the “public” manifestation of the compassion and power of the Father God of the kingdom.

He therefore instructed them to pray, “Cause your kingdom to come, your will to be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Through the Spirit who was “upon” Jesus, God was exerting his “authority to rule” in order to bring about the will of God upon the earth that the Father intended in the heavens. Jesus’ Spirit-empowered ministry was a sign that the Messianic kingdom of God was breaking in upon the world (cf. Matthew 12:28). Supernatural answers to prayer were the fuel of his outreach and discipleship ministry.

Like CHOPS the prayer tent on UT’s campus, Jesus’ students experienced God as alive and active in the physical world through answered prayer. He modeled, mentored and coached his students into an increasing participation in supernatural answers to prayer. He pressed his students to grow into a confidence that no prayer was too big for God (John 14:13-14; 15:7,16; 16:23-26).  He taught them that certain kinds of spiritual resistance could be overcome only through prayer (Mark 9:29). He assured them that miraculous answers to prayer they experienced in his earthly ministry would continue in the new era of the Spirit (John 14:12). And he taught them that the ministry of the Holy Spirit is given in answer to prayer (Luke 11:13).

Then, after their remarkable “graduation” ceremony from the School of Christ at Pentecost (we give students diplomas, he gave them the Holy Spirit), Jesus’ students continued to advance the kingdom of God by praying for power of the Spirit to be released in supernatural answers to prayer (Acts 4:30-31); and witnessed spiritual awakening after spiritual awakening that demonstrated that the kingdom of God was indeed breaking into the world. (Romans 15:9; 1 Corinthians 2:4).

Prayer preceded the first outpouring of Holy Spirit in Jerusalem (Acts 1-2), and the second (Acts 4:31-5:11). Prayer was integral the spiritual awakenings in Samaria (Acts 10-11) and Antioch (Acts 13:1-3).

Prayer for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit was the genesis of Paul’s great revival in Ephesus (Acts 19), where Paul adopted and adapted the best practices of Greco-Roman higher education by teaching in the lecture hall of Tyrannous until, “All the Jews and all the Greeks in all the Roman province of Asia heard the word of the Lord” (Acts 19:10).

And that is not the inflated spin doctoring of Paul’s PR team. It is the inspired word of God. One can only begin to imagine what might happen if prayer for the outpouring of the Spirit on UT’s campus might lead to all the students and all the non-students in province of East Tennessee hearing the word of the Lord.

Which is why, as the CHOP website so eloquently expresses, “Historically, the great movements of God have been predicated by movements of prayer. On campus at the University of Tennessee there is a space that strives to lay this foundation of prayer. We call it the CHOP, the Campus House of Prayer. It is a melting pot where students of different denominations and backgrounds unify to seek God and catalyze a movement for Christ.”

This has been Sue and my experience on each of the fours campuses where we have witnessed spiritual awakening. In each case it began with a dedication group of students and adults becoming a house of prayer for all nations in their intercessions for the kingdom of God to break into their world by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Whether it started with a group of students who prayed from 5:30 to 7:30 each morning, a campus ministry team who fasted together for forty days, or a mother who cried out day and night for over 17 years for God to move on the campus where her son would one day attend, God granted the outpouring of the Holy Spirit to those daring to take Jesus at his word and pray.

But one does not have to wait until a season of spiritual awakening to live out the teaching of the college of Christ. Sue and I have become deeply committed to teaching people to become “Two-Handed Warriors” for the Harvest. Men and women of God committed to both the life of the mind and the life of the Spirit, to both faith-building and culture-making—intellectuals, artists, ministers, philanthropists, and leaders in ever facet of society from the local church to global relief agencies, the Silicon Valley to the Mayo Clinic, Wall Street to Main Street, Hollywood to the Ivy League.

Whether that’s a screenwriter who turns to prayer in a time of desperate need only to rise and write an Academy Award-winning screenplay, a scientist whose research project had failed, but turned to God who granted her Nobel Prize-winning scientific discovery that took her decades to prove in the laboratory, or a UT student who turned to God when an engineering simulation proved impossible like Bryan, or a group of UT campus ministers who are called to tackle racism head on like Matthew described. These men and women are true two-handed warriors following the example set by Jesus in the School of Christ.

Through both the intimacy of “Abba prayer” and the supernatural power of “Kingdom prayer” the distinctive outcome of the graduates of the College of Christ was their experiential knowledge of God. Even in the midst of tremendous pressures of leadership, nothing could distract Jesus’ alumni from devoting themselves to the two key disciplines he had carefully cultivated within them. When pressed with tremendous ministry and service demands they pressed back, “We must devote ourselves to prayer and the ministry of the word.” (Acts 6:4). His graduates not only knew about God and his word, they had experienced the Father God of the kingdom.

3) CHOP: Leading UT Students into a More Experiential Faith

It has been forty-five years since J.I. Packer warned the church, “One can know a great deal about God without much knowledge of him.”[10] Today, we may be danger of producing students who possess neither. If Christian Smith and Kenda Creasy Dean’s sobering research on the sorry spiritual state of today’s Christian students is to be believed, we are facing a generation who knows neither the Scriptures nor the power of God. (Matthew 22:9) and are therefore bored out of their minds. And who can blame them.

The church has managed to take a spiritually intimate and supernaturally powerful faith and made it about as compelling as, “whatever.” [11] Contemporary Christianity offers little of the “personal relationship with Jesus” students were promised when they made their profession of faith and virtually no power whatsoever.

In a generation hungering for intimacy at an unprecedented level, can we offer students pathways to encounter the Father’s transforming love? In a generation flocking to supernatural movies, television shows, and video games, can our campus ministries help students experience the kingdom of God breaking into the world in ways that defy all natural explanation?

Jesus would say we can, but only if we summon the courage to fill our outreach and our discipleship ministries with prayer. A recommitment to a biblical worldview will never be enough to rescue a generation from “moralistic, therapeutic, deism.” [11] They need the experiential knowledge of God. We need to be able to offer students the power of answered prayer to break through the insipid deism of a materialistic worldview. We need to be able to offer students the intimacy of reflective prayer to encounter the love of the Father and evoke genuine love of God in return.  Half measures won’t cut it.

“What on earth does prayer have to do with UT and UT with Prayer?” Nothing?

Everything?

You decide.

As for me, I can only throw my lot behind Gary, Rhonda and CHOP and cry out,

“Lord, teach us to pray!”

 

© Gary David Stratton 2015

Notes

[1] Luke 3:21; 5:16; 6:12; 9:18,28; 10:17-21; 11:1; 22:39-46; 23:34,36.

[2] George W. E. Nickelsburg, Ancient Judaism and Christian origins: diversity, continuity and transformation. (Minneapolis, Minn: Fortress, 2003). See Also, Gary David Stratton. 2014. “Rabbinic Higher Education: Culture-Making, The Life of the Mind, and the Word of God,” Two Handed Warriors, http://wp.me/p1TN9X-2R.

[3] Marvin R. Wilson, Our father Abraham: Jewish roots of the Christian faith. (Grand Rapids, Mich: W.B. Eerdmans, 1989), p. 118, see also. p. 288. David Bivin, “Prayers for Emergencies,” Jerusalem Perspective 37 (Mar./Apr. 1992), 1-17. Samuel Sandmel, Judaism and Christian Beginnings (Oxford University Press, 1978), p. 358. Bradford H. Young, The Jewish Background of the Lord’s Prayer (Austin, TX: Center for Judaic-Christian Studies, 1984).

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

[5] Joachim Jeremias, The Prayers of Jesus (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1978), p. 57.

[6] James D.G. Dunn, The Evidence for Jesus (Philadelphia, Penn: Westminster, 1985), p. 21.

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

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

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

[10] Knowing God (London: Evangelical Press, first published in 1970), p. 16.

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

[12] Smith, and Denton, p. 2.

 

Thirty Favorite Christmas Movies and TV Specials

We compiled our list from Stratton family favorites and suggestions from the Two Handed Warrior community. Did we miss your favorite?

by Gary & Sue Stratton

If the stable teaches us anything it’s that you can’t always judge a Christmas classic by its humble beginning. The highest-rated Christmas movie of all time, It’s a Wonderful Life, was known as Frank Capra’s greatest failure until countless TV reruns brought it back to life.  CBS executives nearly killed the most-watched Christmas special of all time, A Charlie Brown Christmas, because they feared it was too ‘sacred.’  With a worldwide audience of over 2 billion, the BBC calls Jesus (1979)  “the most watched movie” of all time, yet most Americans have never heard of it. The most-watched opera in television history, Amahl and the Night Visitors, may never recover its audience after a tiff between composer Gian Carlo Menotti and NBC kept it off the air for over three decades.

So Sue and I put together our own list of favorites in hopes of inspiring your search for true greatness. Some are well-known. Some are secret treasures. We categorized the films/shows between those with a more-or-less ‘sacred’ view of Christmas (focused more on the birth of Jesus), and ‘secular’ offerings (focused more on Santa Claus). Then we listed them chronologically within each group.

We hope they inspire as much holiday cheer in your household as they do in ours.

Merry Christmas!

Gary & Sue

 

GREAT Films with a More (or Less) ‘Sacred’ View of Christmas

A Christmas staple Menotti's 'Amahl and the Night Visitors' is worth finding in a local live performance or the original video
The most viewed opera in TV history, Menotti’s powerful ‘Amahl and the Night Visitors’ is well worth the search to find it

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) Frank Capra’s masterpiece is not just a great Christmas movie, both the WGA  and AMI list it as one of the twenty best films ever made.

Amahl and the Night Visitors (1951) Gian Carlo Menotti’s most popular opera was originally written for NBC as a one-hour Christmas Eve TV broadcast. Find a local live performance if you can, but the hilarious and inspiring original is also available on DVD.

Charlie Brown Christmas (1965) Charles Schultz’s enduring glimpse at Charlie Brown’s search for the true meaning of Christmas. CBS feared it was ‘too sacred’ for prime time.

The Nativity (1987)  This Hanna-Barbera Greatest Adventures of the Bible video is hard to find, but worth it for your kids. We found a couple of YouTube links, but, uh …they might be bootleg.

The Nativity Story (2006) Not everything you’d hope it would be, but does a marvelous job of capturing the incredible faith (and sacrifice) of Mary and Joseph.

 

GREAT Films with a ‘Sacred’ View of Christmas as Part of  a Larger Movie

078nativity
Zeffirelli’s Juliet (Olivia Hussey) makes a breathtaking Mary in Jesus of Nazareth

Ben-Hur (1959) At least one wise man continues his search for Jesus as Charlton Heston’s title character strives to put his life back together after profound betrayal. Also, on the AMI list of best films ever made. As an added plus, that chariot scene can really get you in the mood to face Christmas traffic.

The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) Jean Negulesco directed this understated and haunting Nativity sequence.

Jesus of Nazareth (1977) Franco Zeffirelli’s masterful TV mini-series. Incredibly complex and textured. Get Episode 1 for the Nativity scene.

Jesus (1979) A clear and compelling account of the birth of Christ from the Gospel of Luke. Our normally chatty group of friends didn’t speak for a full hour after watching it together.

The Gospel According to Matthew (1996) The Visual Bible‘s straightforward retelling of the birth of Christ from Matthew’s perspective. Watching Luke (Jesus, 1979) and Matthew’s narrative back-to-back creates a marvelous disequilibrium. Throw in the prologue from The Gospel of John (2003), with LOST’s Henry Ian Cusick as Jesus, to complete a remarkable Christmas trifecta.

 

GOOD Movies with a ‘Sacred’ View of Christmas

Bill Murray at his comedic best
Bill Murray at his comedic best

A Christmas Carol (1951) When you hear them singing The Most Wonderful Time of the Year in the Mall, you know it’s time for “scary ghost stories.”  You don’t get any scarier than the original adaptation of this “Dickens Horror Picture Show.”

Scrooged (1988) A snide and cynical take on Dickens tale with the inimitable Bill Murray as Scrooge himself.

The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)  Kermit, Miss Piggy, Gonzo, and the gang in an offbeat, but faithful retelling of Dickens’ classic.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005) Okay, it’s cheating a bit, but there is a Christ figure, and a Christmas, and presents, and everything. Just don’t let the White Witch hear you talking about it.

Silver Bells (2013) When a scuffle with the ref at his son’s basketball game lands an ambitious television sportscaster in serious trouble he finally encounters the true meaning of Christmas.  Act One graduate Andrea Gyertson Nasfell‘s third Christmas movie, after Christmas with a Capital C (2011) and Christmas Angel (2012), not to mention her 2014 hit Mom’s Night Out.

 

GREAT Films with a “Secular” View of Christmas

A Christmas Story ( ) somehow manages to hit the mark with holiday perfection
A Christmas Story (1983) somehow manages to hit the mark with holiday perfection

Miracle on 34th Street (1947) Classic, “Do you believe in something you can’t prove” premise.  Many remakes, none come close to the original.

White Christmas (1954) Not much Jesus (or Santa), but a wonderful tale of friendship and loyalty. We watch it every year as it chokes us up every time.

A Christmas Story (1983) I don’t know why we all get such a kick out of this admittedly B movie.  A pitch-perfect coming-of-age story surrounding the hopes and fears of a nine-year-old boy. Just don’t shoot your eye out.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1996) and How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000) Both the television classic and Jim Carrey’s (over the top) psycho-drama-remake are well worth an evening. “I’m feeling!”

Elf (2003) Perhaps  Will Ferrell’s best movie. The story of Buddy the Elf is an irresistible recasting of the Santa story.  Zooey Deschanel‘s sterling role doesn’t hurt one bit.

 

GOOD Films with ‘Secular’ View of Christmas

Tim Allen featured in Bill O'Reilly's new book, Killing Santa
Tim Allen to be featured in Bill O’Reilly’s new book, Killing Santa?

Christmas in Connecticut (1945) A New York food writer’s personal brand as the perfect housewife is in danger of being exposed as a sham when her boss invites a returning war hero for a traditional family Christmas at her home in Connecticut. Only one problem, she doesn’t have a home in Connecticut.

Christmas Vacation (1989) Didn’t get enough of Chevy Chase on Community? This is the movie for you. The Griswold family’s big Christmas turns out to be “nuts’?

Home Alone (1990) A zany battle against the world’s least scary criminals. It made the list this year because so many THW conversation partners mentioned how the strangely moving church scene (which wasn’t even part of the original script) added much needed gravitas to the moral premise of a very silly movie.

Prancer (1989) A bittersweet, but poignant tale of loss and redemption. One girl’s desperate faith changes her life and her father.

The Santa Clause (1994) Can you be drafted into the ranks of Father Christmas? Apparently, yes. Tim Allen’s best role since Home Improvement.

 

GREAT Films set During the Christmas Season (but, uh, not all are kid-friendly)

If you like Christmas RomComs, but hate the Hallmark Channel, While you were Sleeping is for you
If you love Christmas RomComs, but hate the Hallmark Channel, While you were Sleeping is for you

While You Were Sleeping (1995) A touching and laugh-out-loud funny tale for anyone who ever cherished a secret love (or faced a Christmas alone). Might be Sandra Bullock’s best role before The Blind Side.

Die Hard (1988)  Police Officer John McClain thwarts a ring of Euro-terrorists who crash a corporate Christmas party. Bruce Willis is his smarmy best, but Alan Rickman as Hans Gruber almost steals the show… and the dough.

Family Man (2000)  Turns the “what if” premise of It’s a Wonderful Life on its head. With Don Cheadle as an angel on the edge, and some of the best acting of (Madam Secretary)  Tea Leoni and Nicholas Cage‘s and careers. Sue and I watch it every year and ponder our own “what if?”

Joyeux Noel (‘Merry Christmas’ in French, 2005) The remarkable true story of the WWI Christmas truce. German, French, and Scottish soldiers lay down their arms for a day of celebration and wind up friends with the ‘enemy’ on the opposite side of a brutal war.  A powerful expression of both the spirit of Christmas and the power of friendship. (Subtitles.)

Children of Men (2006) Alfonso Cuarón’s masterpiece confronts us with a tale of a miraculously pregnant unwed mother and her reluctant protector set amidst the most horrific violence an empire can throw at them: in short, a stark retelling of the Christmas story.

.

See also:

It’s a Wonderful Life and the Courage to Live (and Create Art) Idealistically

Alfonso Cuarón’s ‘Children of Men’ (2006): A Stark Retelling of the Christmas Story

Are Doomsday Approaches to the Loss of Faith Among Millennials Accurate? by RJS

The percentage of young people with a strong Protestant identity, and the percentage who regularly practice their faith publicly and privately has barely budged over the past forty years. 

By RJS in Musings on Science and Theology

Emerging AdulthoodHeadlines scream … Ex-Christians, Young Adults Leaving the Faith, A Generation of Dropouts, Quitting Church, the Rise of the Nones. We are on the verge of a crisis with faith and the faithful in retreat. Could we be the last Christian generation? We must rally the troops, cut our losses, and tackle the problem.

Jonathan P. Hill, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Calvin College recently published a short book Emerging Adulthood and Faith that explores the change (or absence of change) in the religious faith of young adults, the so-called generation Y or Millennials who were born roughly from 1980-2000. Much has been written of late decrying the loss of a generation, with the explicit or implicit assumption that the experience and trajectory of Millennials is unique.

But do we have such a catastrophic problem?

Hill, like many other sociologists, argues that we need to take a closer look at hard data. Only then will we make good decisions for the right reasons. Bluntly: We need the facts. Hill’s book is a valuable fact-based resource for anyone involved in church leadership, from lead pastor to youth pastor to elder. Less than a hundred pages and very readable.

First, we need to frame the problem.

At any given moment, age differences between people can be the result of what demographers refer to as age, period, and cohort effects. (p. 7)

Some changes depend on stage of life. In many respects those who are 20 today reflect the same trends and attitudes as those who were 20 in the 50’s, 70’s and 90’s. For instance the elderly pray more than the young. In 1983 42% of those 18-29 reported daily prayer compared with 68% of those 70 and above. In 2012 the numbers were 39% and 71%. This isn’t a generational change; it depends more significantly on biological age and stage of life.

Some changes depend on period – historical shifts, cultural transformations that cut across generations. These events have a significant event on everyone alive at the time, both old and young. The reformation was a historical shift; the great depression and World War II are other examples.

Other changes are generational or cohort effects. These can be significant, but it is important to separate them from effects depending on stage of life and from larger cultural transformations. Bad information will lead to bad responses.

Second, we need to consider the source. There is power in stories, but anecdotal data will only deliver part of the picture. Individual stories always focus down to a specific social context and experience.

Good social science allows us to take a step back from our own experiences, providing data that can give us glimpses of powerful social forces we would otherwise be blinded to. These forces are the background to our lives, though we are often unaware of their influence. Social science can help us see these contexts. (p. 10)

It is important to consider both stories and survey data. In his book Hill focuses on survey data to consider three big issues: the religious identity of young people, the influence of higher education, and the influence of science on faith. He doesn’t disregard stories, but looks at the data that provide a larger context for the individual stories.

Is the religious identity of young adults changing?

Certainly the data tell us that “somewhere between 50 and 70 percent of teenagers who were regularly in church on Sunday morning are no longer attending by their early twenties.” (p. 15) In fact, the drop in attendance begins at ages younger than 15 and levels out around 18 or 19. But much of this is a trend based on biological age. This isn’t a cohort or generational effect. About 12-13 percent of 18-29 year olds attend a Protestant church every week, a number that has been remarkably steady for the last forty years! Similarly about 42% of 18-29 year olds pray at least daily – a number that has been remarkably steady for the last forty years. There has been a significant change with the rise of “nones,” but this comes from those who were less committed to begin with. There has been a significant drop in those who attend services occasionally or who pray occasionally and a concomitant rise in those who never attend and never pray.

At least among Protestants, every concerned parent and pastor should know this: The percentage of young people with a strong Protestant identity, and the percentage who regularly practice their faith publicly and privately has barely budged over the past forty years. They are in your churches, youth groups, and Bible studies. Yes, something has been happening at the margins, but the center has held. (p. 20)

To me this suggests that we don’t need massive institutional transformations. We need to continue engaging people, families, young and old, in strong Christian community.

There is no evidence that Millennials are “drastically different from previous generations” except that those loosely affiliated with religious identity are now willing to drop it altogether. There is little social advantage to maintaining this kind of religious identity.

100_1449 dsIs secular college education a threat to faith?

Bluntly, the answer is no, but there is a generational element to this one.

While stories of individual faith loss are real and deserve our attention, there is little evidence of widespread disaffection from the faith as a result of secular higher education. (p. 29)

When college graduates are compared to the general population a different trend appears.

College graduates are actually more likely to practice their faith and say it is important in their daily life. They are no more likely to disaffiliate from a religious faith, although they do appear more likely to shy away from exclusivist claims about the Bible and more prone to switch to a mainline Protestant denomination. (p. 30)

Hill digs deeper and compares those with and without a college education, controlling for religious affiliation as younger teenagers. In the past college education did have an influence on secularization, but this isn’t true for the millennials. At last a distinction, but it isn’t negative.

Overall college graduation has a positive correlation with regular participation in a church, perhaps because college graduates have more faith in institutions than those who have never attended college.

Hill also finds that evangelical colleges and universities are doing a good job of nurturing faith. “On every measure of religious practice and identity, individuals attending evangelical Protestant colleges decline considerably less than their counterparts at other schools.” (p. 50) For example, at evangelical Protestant schools 73% of students who prayed regularly continue to do so, a number that drops to 56% at public schools.  This probably results both from the curricular and social environment of the schools and from the family commitments and support experienced by these students.

Does education in science drive young people from the faith?

Again the aggregate answer is no. Surprisingly, education in science in general and evolution in particular seems to have little effect on faith commitments.  (As a science professor I cringe at this one – student form their views on “touchy” issues based on things other than the evidence.) And certainly there are plenty of stories of people struggling with these issues and changing their views. Hill doesn’t disregard or discount these (after all, the NSYR survey indicated that some 40 percent of young people with creationist views in 2002-3 did change their views by 2007-8, whether they go to college or not). But science education seems to have a minor influence one positions most people take.

People come to accept or reject evolution not as a result of pouring over the details and evidence, but as a symbolic gesture to indicate to others where they belong in the socio-political landscape. This requires understanding that religious beliefs, and beliefs about other contentious public issues, are intertwined with identity and social relationships. Formal science education, for most young people, is unlikely to change this. (p. 57)

Those who enter college with particular views concerning evolutionary biology are likely to retain them throughout the experience. The more tightly these views are coupled to social identity, the more tightly they will be held by most. This can be a wrenching experience for some who do find their views changing – to conflict with their social community, but it isn’t a widespread crisis for the church.

 

Why do doomsday scenarios carry such appeal?

Hill suggests three reasons:

First, our own social experience strongly colors how we frame the problem and interpret the data, yet our personal experience can frequently be an unreliable guide.” (p. 61)

There is a distortion in perception that arises from the ways we receive data. Personal stories are powerful and true, but the ones that “stick” are the stories from the margins, not the mainstream. Hill points out that many Americans feel that violent crime is up while the data shows that homicide, for example, is markedly down since 1990 and at about the same level as the 1950’s. “All violent crime has been declining, yet public perception of crime—largely filtered through mass media and politicians—is systematically in error.” (p. 61-62) The stories told in the Christian community carry the same kind of bias.

Second, generating crises in the Church can be an efficient and effective way to mobilize the faithful to action. (p. 62)

Sociological study of social movements can identify techniques that succeed in building a community.

Elites must work on generating an interpretational framework that identifies a specific problem, then identifies the source(s) of the problem, and finally provides a potential solution in the form of collective action. Further, the entire interpretational framework must align with existing grievances in recruits, otherwise collective action will fail. The temptation, then, will be for leaders in the Church to frame concerns about the next generation of Christians in such a way as to result in action by the rank and file, even if these interpretations are not entirely accurate. (p. 62, emphasis added)

Grabbing onto a crisis works to build a cohesive following.

Last, there is a fairly large gap between the ideal concept of Christian faithfulness and the “lived religion” of ordinary
believers. (p. 62)

There is a tendency to idealize the past and see the current trends as a significant deviation. One thing the longitudinal studies show is that this is not really the case. While there is a clear generational loss of youth from the Catholic church the same cannot be said for Protestants, particularly “evangelical” Protestants. Beyond these longitudinal studies, there is a temptation to believe that the current state is the result of a serious religious decline and the historical evidence (although sketchy) doesn’t really support this. A so-called “Christian” nation didn’t necessarily mean deeper, or more wide-spread, devotion.

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Does this outline of emerging adults surprise you?

Where should leaders in the church be concentrating effort to maintain a nurturing environment (i.e. a disciple making environment)?

Religious ‘nones’ are not only growing, they’re becoming more secular, by Michael Lipka

Religiously unaffiliated Americans are younger, on average, than the general public to begin with, and the youngest adults in the group – that is, those who have entered adulthood in the last several years – are even less religious than “nones” overall.

By  for the Pew Research Center

hc9utReligious “nones” are not only growing as a share of the U.S. population, but they are becoming more secular over time by a variety of measures, a fact that also is helping to make the U.S. public overall somewhat less religious, according to surveys done as part of our Religious Landscape Study.

The “nones,” a category that includes people who self-identify as atheists or agnostics, as well as those who say their religion is “nothing in particular,” now make up 23% of U.S. adults, up from 16% in 2007. But there is more to the story. To begin with, this group is not uniformly nonreligious. Most of them say they believe in God, and about a third say religion is at least somewhat important in their lives.

At the same time, between the Pew Research Center’s two Religious Landscape Studies – conducted in 2007 and 2014 – we also see consistent evidence that the “nones” are becoming less religious. For example, the share of religious “nones” who say they believe in God, while still a majority, has fallen from 70% to 61% over that seven-year period. Only 27% of “nones” are absolutely certain about God’s existence, down from 36% in 2007. And fully a third of religiously unaffiliated Americans (33%) now say they do not believe in God, up 11 percentage points over that time.

Similar trends are seen on some other key measures of religious engagement. The share of religious “nones” who say they seldom or never pray has risen by 6 points in recent years, and now stands at 62%. And a bigger proportion of the unaffiliated now say religion is not important in their lives (65%) than said this in 2007 (57%).

Data from the survey can be combined with U.S. population figures to estimate the total number of what might be thought of as “nonreligious” Americans at 36.1 million in 2014. (These are adults who are not affiliated with a religious group and who also say religion is not important in their lives.) As of 2007, there were only 21 million “nonreligious” adults who fit this description.

The question of why the “nones” are growing less religious does not have a simple answer. But just as is the case for why “nones” are growing as a share of the U.S. public, generational replacement appears to be playing a role. Religiously unaffiliated Americans are younger, on average, than the general public to begin with, and the youngest adults in the group – that is, those who have entered adulthood in the last several years – are even less religious than “nones” overall.

Fully seven-in-ten of these youngest Millennials (born between 1990 and 1996) with no religious affiliation say religion is not important in their lives. A similar share (70%) also say they seldom or never pray and 42% say they do not believe in God, all bigger percentages than among religious “nones” as a whole.

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World-Renowned Painter Makoto Fujimura Appointed Director of Fuller Seminary’s Brehm Center

“I hope to be a catalyst for innovation in the future of seminary education, integrating the best of the arts into the church, seeing cities as classrooms for that integration, and helping the church to become the leading practitioner of culture care.” —Mako Fujimura

by Fuller Theological Seminary

Fuller-Theological-Seminary-New-Brehm-Center-for-Worship-Theology-and-the-Arts-Driector-Makoto-FujimuraFuller Theological Seminary is pleased to announce that Makoto (“Mako”) Fujimura will join the seminary as director of the Brehm Center for Worship, Theology, and the Arts. Fujimura’s appointment, effective September 1, 2015, follows a yearlong international search process. Master painter Mako Fujimura is a respected leader in the conversation between Christian faith and art. A devoted believer, world-renowned artist, and cultural influencer, his leadership has had a profound impact around the world.

Fujimura is the craftsperson of a movement toward renewal called “culture care.” This magnum opus work, his alternative to “culture wars,” is born from the integration of his work as an artist and his commitment to his Christian faith. He says it is worship that integrates all of his endeavors, acting as the heartbeat of a legacy that dovetails beautifully with the task before Fuller and with the original vision of the Brehm Center.

“I am filled with gratitude and joy at the rich opportunity I have to welcome Mako as the new director of the Brehm Center for Worship, Theology, and the Arts,” says Fuller President Mark Labberton. “This role ‘shaping culture shapers,’ as Bill and Dee Brehm noted in the early days of their vision, is key for Fuller, and Mako beautifully fulfills our commitment to innovation, collaboration, faithfulness, fruitful risk-taking, and courageous creativity. Bill has always said of the brainstorming process: ‘start with the universe!’ The appointment of Makoto Fujimura to the directorship of the center that bears the Brehm name lives up to that robust challenge.”

Fuller-Theological-Seminary-New-Brehm-Center-for-Worship-Theology-and-the-Arts-Driector-Makoto-Fujimura-speaking“Our relationship with Mako,” says Nate Risdon, Brehm Center program director, “has been one of mutual admiration for nearly 10 years: his lectures, work, and writings have inspired much of our work to date. To have Mako serve as our director brings an amazing convergence that will energize and magnify the movement of ‘culture care.’”

Fujimura will be a “vision director” for Fuller’s Brehm Center, working directly with President Labberton toward a “robust, imaginative experience for Fuller students,” says Fujimura. “My goal for all of us is to experience our God as the author of beauty. My studio is where I experience the presence of my calling the most, and is also where I can offer an integrated experience to others.” Through his studio practice he has mentored many, written several books, and had significant conversation with the church and the world. Fujimura says, “This Fuller appointment is intended to amplify those connections to share with many more.”

Culture Shaper

Fujimura argues for the importance of creating and conserving beauty as antidote to cultural brokenness by asserting a need for cultural “generativity” in public life. Beauty is vital to “soul care,” he believes, offering a vision of the power of artistic generosity to inspire, edify, and heal the church and culture. (See his speech on culture care at the National Press Club.) Fujimura’s book Culture Care is a support volume to the personal gatherings and international speaking engagements in which he shares that vision with like-minded artists, supporters, and creatives…

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Why Evangelical Films Fail, by Peter J. Leithart

Evangelicalism is a word religion. I’m a big fan of words, but even talking pictures aren’t fundamentally about words. Evangelical films over-explain, over-talk. They don’t trust the images to do the work.

by Peter J. Leithart • First Things 

Opening nationwide October 16th
Opening nationwide October 16th

I went to a screening of Woodlawn last Saturday. Directed by Birmingham brothers Jon and Andrew Erwin, the film tells the true story of revival among the players on the football team at Woodlawn High School in Birmingham during a racially tense period of the 1970s.

The film focuses on Tony Nathan, the tailback who takes the position from a white teammate and becomes a star. The real-life Tony Nathan went on to play at Alabama and for the Miami Dolphins.

It’s a moving story, with some high-pitched emotional scenes. The acting is good, especially Jon Voight as Bear Bryant, Nic Bishop as Woodlawn’s coach, Tandy Gerelds, and Caleb Castille who plays Nathan in his first film. Technically, Evangelical films have come a long way.

The large crowd at the screening cheered when Woodlawn scored a winning touchdown, shouted when Tony Nathan dodged a tackle, laughed at the punch lines. It was a very into-it crowd.

Yet I came away from the film dissatisfied, as I do from many films by Evangelicals. I think there are a number of reasons for that dissatisfaction, but at base the problem is theological (ain’t it always)…

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Also

Watch the ‘Woodlawn‘ trailer

The Blind Side Leading the Blind: Better Faith-Based Filmmaking through Better Stories, by Gary David Stratton

Why Most “Christian” Movies Suck, by Brennan Smith

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

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

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

Parker Palmer’s Spectacular Commencement Address on the Six Pillars of the Wholehearted Life, by Maria Popova

“Take everything that’s bright and beautiful in you and introduce it to the shadow side of yourself… When you are able to say, ‘I am … my shadow as well as my light,’ the shadow’s power is put in service of the good.”  -Parker Palmer

by Maria Popova • BrainPickings

parker_palmer_streamIn 1974, the Tibetan Buddhist teacher and Oxford alumnus Chögyam Trungpa founded Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado — a most unusual and emboldening not-for-profit educational institution named after the eleventh-century Indian Buddhist sage Naropa and intended as a 100-year experiment of combining the best methodologies of Western scholarship with the most timeless tenets of Eastern wisdom, fusing academic and experiential learning with contemplative practice. Under the auspices of its Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, founded by Allen Ginsberg, the university hosted a number of lectures and readings by such luminaries as John Cage, William S. Burroughs, and Jack Kerouac himself, for all of whom Buddhism was a major influence.

In 2015, Naropa University awarded its first-ever honorary degree of Doctor of Contemplative Education to author, educator, and Center for Courage & Renewal founder Parker Palmer — one of the most luminous and hope-giving minds of our time, whose beautiful writings on inner wholeness and the art of letting your soul speak spring from a spirit of embodied poetics. In May of 2015, he took the podium before the university’s graduating class and delivered one ofthe greatest commencement addresses of all time — a beam of shimmering wisdom illuminating the six pillars of a meaningful human existence, experience-tested and honestly earned in the course of a long life fully lived.

Annotated highlights below — please enjoy.

In his first piece of advice, Palmer calls for living with wholeheartedness, inherent to which — as Seth Godin has memorably argued — is an active surrender to vulnerability. Echoing Donald Barthelme’s exquisite case for the art of not-knowing, he urges:

Be reckless when it comes to affairs of the heart.

[…]

What I really mean … is be passionate, fall madly in love with life. Be passionate about some part of the natural and/or human worlds and take risks on its behalf, no matter how vulnerable they make you. No one ever died saying, “I’m sure glad for the self-centered, self-serving and self-protective life I lived.”

Offer yourself to the world — your energies, your gifts, your visions, your heart — with open-hearted generosity. But understand that when you live that way you will soon learn how little you know and how easy it is to fail.

To grow in love and service, you — I, all of us — must value ignorance as much as knowledge and failure as much as success… Clinging to what you already know and do well is the path to an unlived life. So, cultivate beginner’s mind, walk straight into your not-knowing, and take the risk of failing and falling again and again, then getting up again and again to learn — that’s the path to a life lived large, in service of love, truth, and justice.

Palmer’s second point of counsel speaks to the difficult art of living with opposing truths and channels his longtime advocacy for inner wholeness

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