The Blind Side is not so much the story of a Christian family who transformed the life of a homeless teenager as much as it is the story of a homeless teenager who transformed the faith of a Christian family
“Wow, I’ve finally met someone who practices but doesn’t preach.” —Sandra Bullock, speaking of Leigh Anne Tuohy, whom Bullock portrayed in her first Oscar-winning performance
In the aftermath of the runaway success of The Blind Side, Hollywood has become more open to Christians’ stories. I don’t mean “Christian” stories, but rather human stories about Christians whose faith has been an element in their facing universal human struggles.
The Blind Side was unlike anything normally accepted by the Church as a “Christian Film.” It is neither an evangelistic message about Leigh Anne Tuohy (Sandra Bullock) witnessing about her faith, nor Michael Oher (Quinton Aaron) coming to faith, nor a missionary appeal for how Christian families should adopt disadvantaged youth, nor a white-washed tale about perfect Christians, living perfect lives, with perfect motives, and everything turning out perfectly.
O, the Humanity!
Instead, it is a very human story about a very human woman whose Christian faith informed and motivated a series of radical decisions that transformed her life, her family, and the young man they adopted. The story is not about her faith, but her faith is clearly part of the story.
This approach works only because The Blind Side wasn’t made like a typical “Christian film.” Although director John Lee Hancock describes himself as a Christian and there are a number of other talented Christians working at Alcon Entertainment who helped guide the project, Hancock made The Blind Side because he thought the story the Tuohys lived was so compelling. Period!
“The fact that the Tuohys are Christians played absolutely no part in me doing it or not doing it…. I mean, let’s be honest, it’s an incredibly charitable act that yields rewards for this family. It would have been an also amazingly charitable act had the Tuohys been atheists. A good deed is a good deed… I thought it was a great story.”
Hancock goes on to explain: “I think that if I set out to do stories based on that (Christianity or even inspiration) then it will probably be like the cart leading the horse… You set out to tell a good story. You don’t do it because there is a deep message involved because the movie is almost always bad when you do that…”
The Future of “Christian” Filmmaking
It is the very humanness of the film that makes it so approachable. Leigh Anne Tuohy is a flawed individual. She is a stubborn control freak, still struggling to stay in control even in the very last scene of the movie. Yet when motivated by her Christian faith Leigh Anne’s flaws propel her to make decisions that few other women would even consider. Her character is complicated (which is why Sandra Bullock won an Academy Award for portraying her), and therefore very compelling. We like her precisely because she represents our highest aspirations and our worst self-sabotaging realities.
Hancock’s approach points toward a compelling future for “Christian” filmmaking in Hollywood — If you live it, they will come (to the theater, that is). Audiences don’t want to watch “Christian” films. They want to see good films about good stories. Compelling stories about real life human beings who overcome tremendous obstacles and who are transformed into better human beings in the process. (See, Casablanca and the Four Levels of Worldview. Crash Goes the Worldview.)
If the story happens to be about someone whose faith informed and motivated their journey then who’s to argue? Their story earned them the right to let their faith be part of the film. (And opened up the “plausibility structure” for audiences accepting that not all Christians are the preachy, bigoted hypocrites so often portrayed by the media.)
In the end, The Blind Side isn’t so much the story of a Christian family who transformed the life of a homeless teenager so much as it is the story of a homeless teenager who transformed the faith of a Christian family: all because one woman made the radical decision to actually live out her faith.
As Sandra Bullock opined about Leigh Anne and the Tuohy family:
“[S]he has no idea the path she’s begun, in terms of adoption and fostering. It’s not been on the forefront of people’s minds. It is on the forefront of my mind every day now when I get up. When I look around I go, ‘Is he, is she, what is their situation?’ And it’s because of this family, and I think what they are going to do for our country in terms of being aware of that is – I don’t think they realize the profound affect that they are going to have…. [Y]ou see this family, they were themselves for no other benefit other than because they wanted to reach out, lend a hand, and had no idea that they would get a son in return… I said, ‘Wow, I’ve finally met someone who practices but doesn’t preach.’ ” (Italics mine.)
In other words, if Christians actually lived better stories then we might have a litany of heroic stories to draw upon and films to make that real people in real theaters actually want to see and A-list actors want to play. Stories about men and women (and teenagers) whose faith motivated and informed their choices to live remarkable lives by making remarkable decisions and overcome remarkable obstacles.
Living a Better Story
Every believer (and not just filmmakers) ought to be asking themselves ‘Am I living the kind of story that, in Donald Miller’s words, “leaves a beautiful feeling even as the credits role”? As Miller discovered in writing his book subtitled How I Learned to Live a Better Story, few Christians are living stories that come remotely close to living out the full implications of their faith.
What story are we writing with our lives? Leigh Anne Tuohy’s story is deeply heroic precisely because her faith motivated her to take action toward the will of God being done on earth as it is in heaven. Will we?
Heaven is looking for heroic stories even more than Hollywood. Will this generation overwhelm the world with stories of very human Christ followers whose faith motivates and informs the heroic lives they live? The world is watching…
Since its initial release seventy-five years ago, Casablanca has grown to become one of the most beloved films in the history of American cinema. Winner of three 1942 Academy Awards in (best picture, best writing, and best director) Casablanca is now recognized by the Writers Guild of America as the greatest screenplay of all time, and by the American Film Institute as the second greatest American movie ever. Even in the high-tech world of Blu-ray players and streaming video, this black-and-white masterpiece remains an enduring favorite with both contemporary audiences and critics alike.
Casablanca also provides a compelling example of the four levels of worldview, and how change at the story level can lead to dramatic change in every level of worldview. Character development (both cinematic and moral) “flows” from the hidden recesses of our life story, where our unexamined presuppositions about reality form a worldview that guides our life in ways we rarely think about in our day-to-day existence. In life and great films, we experience our worldview on four overlapping, but distinguishable levels. 
Four Levels of Worldview
Level 1) Actions and Behaviors: The countless personal decisions and moral judgments we make on a daily basis make up the visible tip of the iceberg of our largely hidden worldview. We glide through thousands of “preconditioned” responses each hour—what to wear, where to live, who to befriend, when to lie, how to speak—simply doing what we do, without ever examining why we do them. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred these decisions predictably emerge from the lower levels of our worldview, usually without any conscious awareness of why we make them.
Level 2) Rule of Life:The next level of our worldview is found in the rules and roles defined for us in the traditions and ‘scripts’ society develops to maintain equilibrium, or the personal strategies developed by us to cope with the difficulties of life. At this level our worldview provides a ‘rule of life” that defines our relationships, and the boundaries and maxims we use to guide our own personal behavior. The clothes we buy, the worship we express, and even the words we use, are dictated by cultural expectations and personal habits far beyond our normal self-awareness.
3) Value and Belief System: The rules and roles we follow on a daily basis are normally based upon a presuppositional value and beliefs system that undergird these conventions, (once again, usually sub-consciously.) These principles, doctrines, aphorisms, and symbols are the often unspoken “commanding truths, which define the ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’ of our experience, and accordingly, the good and evil…”  They provide the language and categories by which we unconsciously interpret reality and make sense out of our experiences of our life.
Level 4) Stories and ‘Scriptures’: The deepest level of our worldview is normally found in the stories of our life-shaping personal experiences and our community’s authoritative ‘scriptures’ that form the basis of our principles and strategies for living. The three upper levels are “embedded within narratives that often have overlapping themes and various myths that often reinforce common ideals.”  The personal and corporate stories we live by are self-evidently true to us (even if they are, in fact, hopelessly false). To question them is to question reality itself. 
Constructing a False Worldview
Casablanca provides a beautiful example of all four levels of this process. Originally entitled, “Everyone Meets at Rick’s,” this masterpiece traces the worldview transformation of American expatriate and nightclub owner, Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart). Set against the backdrop of Nazi-controlled but unoccupied north African territories of Vichy France during WWII, the movie opens with a bitter and cynical Rick Blaine making his daily decisions (level 1) out of a fairly consistent rule of life (level 2). He never drinks with customers, never commits to a woman, never takes sides in a political debate, and never intervenes to help others. His narcissistic value and belief system (level 3) leaves little room for anyone but himself, his alcoholism, his business, and his business partner, Sam. His value system (level 3) is clearly expressed in his famous rule of life (level 2), “I stick my neck out for nobody.”
However, as the movie progresses we learn that Rick’s worldview wasn’t always so jaded. In fact, both French prefect Captain Louis Renault (Claude Rains) and Nazi Gestapo Major, Heinrich Strasser (Conrad Veidt) express concern that Rick’s current story might not be his true self. They note that there was once a time when Rick’s value and belief system led him to a rule of life marked by a heroic willingness to sacrificially fight against tyranny even in a losing cause. They don’t want Rick returning to this old rule of life by aiding Czech freedom fighter Victor Lazlo (Paul Henreid) in his attempt to escape Casablanca (and the Nazi) by means of a pair of stolen letters of transit granting the bearers free passage on a flight to neutral Portugal.
What Louis doesn’t know, is that Rick’s current rule of life and value system are driven by a heart-wrenching story (level 4). Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman), a beautiful and enchanting Norwegian once stole Rick’s heart in a whirlwind Paris romance at the outset of WWII.
However, after swearing her undying love, Ilsa abandons Rick just as the German army descends upon Paris. By the time Rick gets to Casablanca Ilsa’s betrayal provides the seething caldron of molten anguish driving Rick’s cynical value system and narcissistic rule of life. Like the city where he dwells in exile, his life is a desert with but one goal: escape.
A Different Story?
This is the story Rick is living when Ilsa turns up in Casablanca as the traveling companion for none other than Victor Lazlo. Confronted anew with heartache of Paris, Rick’s narcissistic behavior only intensifies. Despite his admiration for Lazlo, Rick refuses to help the desperate couple. He stubbornly retains his “I stick my neck for nobody” rule of life even as Ilsa desperately tries to convey a different story than the one driving his current behavior.
Just when Rick’s journey toward the dark side seems complete, something happens that radically changes the interpretation of his entire life story. With the Nazi’s closing in and their every effort to escape Casablanca thwarted, the stolen letters of transit in Rick’s possession are now Isla and Lazlo’s only hope. A desperate Ilsa turns up at Rick’s apartment intent to do anything to obtain them.
Ilsa’s startling admission that she still loves Rick begins to change Rick’s worldview at every level. He now knows that Ilsa left him behind in Paris only because she learned that Lazlo, her husband, was still alive. She was not living a story of a self-centered love betrayed, but rather one of heroic sacrifice. While no one yet realizes it, this new story of a sacrificial love-renewed (level 4) begins to invisibly reenergize Rick’s heroic value system (level 3), displacing his values of narcissism and his “I stick my neck out for nobody” rule of life (level 2).
In the iconic airport scene, Rick’s new worldview based upon his new story suddenly erupts into full view with a startling decision (level 1).
It turns out that Captain Louis Renault was right about Rick all along. The real Rick Blaine is, in fact, a hero. The pain of losing Ilsa had created a false life narrative, but once he knew the real story, his value system and rule of life came back on line. Rick decides to give away his tickets to freedom to Ilsa and her husband (level 1), because he has (re)embraced his rule of life of to fight against tyranny even in a losing cause (level 2), rooted in his rediscovered value of self-sacrificing heroism (level 3), birthed by his true life story (Level 4). By changing the foundational story of Rick’s life from that of a self-centered love-betrayed to a story of an other-centered love renewed, Isla transforms Rick’s values and rule of life as well. He now sticks his neck for everybody, even the husband of the woman he loves.
In the end, the power of Rick’s true story is becomes so compelling it returns Louis to his own true story, values, and rule of life.
One reason why Casablanca resonates so deeply with audiences is our strong identification with Rick. We have all been hurt deeply. We all develop belief systems and strategies to protect ourselves from further pain. We all know what it is like to have those rules of life sabotage our heroic journey. We all know what it is like to be trapped in a life story that hurts everyone around us and yet we are powerless to change. We all want to believe that we are the master of our own fate, freely making our own choices at any given moment, when in reality our unexplored stories, unexamined values, and unexamined rules of life dictate much of our daily decision-making. Sooner or later, everyone meets at Rick’s.
For those who are willing to listen, the deepest longings of our heroic life story may be churning just beneath the surface and well worth the journey of further exploration. Over the course of this ongoing series I hope to help you do exactly that. I’m hoping this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
 Casablanca is currently #25 rating on the IMDB all-time best film list. Michael Curtiz, Julius J. Epstein, Howard Koch, Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, et al. Casablanca (Burbank, CA: Warner Home Video, 1999).
 James Davidson Hunter, To Change the World (Oxford University Press, 2010), 32. To be fair, Hunter considers all four levels to be overlapping elements of “culture,” not worldview. However, this is at least somewhat a matter of semantic disagreement between philosophers (who study worldviews),and sociologists, like Hunter (who study cultures.)
 Hunter, Change, 33.
 What I am calling the ‘Story’ level of worldview is what philosopher James K. A. Smith refers to as the ‘pre-worldview’ level of ‘social Imaginary.’ “The social imaginary’ is an affective, noncognitive understanding of the world. It is described as an imaginary (rather than a theory) because it is fueled by the stuff of the imagination rather than the intellect: it is made up of, and embedded in, stories, narratives, myths, and icons. These visions capture our hearts and imaginations by “lining” our imagination, as it were— providing us with frameworks of “meaning” by which we make sense of our world and our calling in it. An irreducible understanding of the world resides in our intuitive, precognitive grasp of these stories. Desiring the Kingdom (Cultural Liturgies): Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Publishing Group, 2009), p. 68.
“Fiddler on the Roof (1971) is one of the most beloved dramas of the stage and screen.  On Broadway (1964), Fiddler was the first musical to surpass 3,000 performances. It won nine Tony Awards, including Best Musical. The Hollywood version (1971) lost the Academy Award Best Picture nod to the more cutting-edge The French Connection, but still managed a box office of over 365 million dollars (adjusted for inflation), making it the 9th highest grossing musical of all time. After four Broadway revivals, three London runs, and countless high school and community theatre performances, Fiddler became one of the more influential cultural works of the late twentieth-century.
The film also provides a beautiful illustration of the adaptability of worldview at the upper levels: 1) Actions/Decisions and 2) Rules of Life/Culture.Fiddler chronicles the life of a small Jewish community seeking to maintain their cultural balance (like a fiddler on the roof) in the Gentile-dominated Czarist Russian village of Anatevka. The story’s protagonist, Tevye, is a poor dairy farmer seeking to scratch out a meager existence with his wife Golde. It is a task made all the more difficult by the fact that God has blessed them, not with economically viable and socially valuable sons, but five daughters.
(1) the visible Actions and Behaviors of our day-to-day decisions, and
(2) the Rules and Roles of personal strategies and cultural conventions that form the ‘scripts’ we follow in most of our decisions without ever thinking about—as well as the resiliency of worldview at its deepest levels
(3) the Beliefs and Values that form the and presuppositional principles of our belief system, and especially
(4) the foundationalStories and Myths that form the authoritative “scriptures” for both the macro-worldview of the society we live in, as well as our more personalized micro-worldview (See, Casablanca and the Four Levels of Worldview.)
From the four-level construct perspective, Tevye’s worldview is a set of stories from the foundational Scriptures of The Torah (the“Holy Book” or “Good book” in Tevye’s language) of how God has revealed himself and his law to his people Israel (Level 4), from which generations of Rabbinic scholarship have drawn key theological beliefs and ethical values (Level 3), from which synagogue and societal leaders have constructed cultural conventions and rules for daily life (Level 2), from which the residents of Anatevka live out their faith in their daily behaviors and moral judgments (Level 1).
Some of Anatevka’s strongest cultural conventions surround the roles and rules surrounding the institution of marriage. Over the course of the film, Tevye’s three daughter’s confront him with more and more counter-cultural views of marriage, which in turn drives Tevye to explore his worldview at deeper and deeper levels. When using Fiddler to teach worldview, I use six scenes to trace the transformation of the upper levels of Tevye’s worldview, and his ultimate resistance to change at his worldview’s deepest level (Scene times in parenthesis are from the downloadable ITunes version.)
Scene One: Tradition! The first scene (1:40–12:00 on ITunes version of Fiddler) introduces the protagonist, Tevye, and the cultural conventions that govern his daily decisions through the song, Tradition.
I ask the class to use the four-level worldview construct to organize the elements of Tevye’s worldview described in the film. Students easily pick out see the rules, conventions and role conformity that govern the social relationships of his culture (Level 2), and that this culture is based upon the authoritative story of the Torah (Level 4). It normally takes them a little longer to flesh out the principles (theology and philosophy) that undergird the conventions. They also quickly see that many of Tevye’s assumptions are unexamined.
Tevye:Because of our traditions, we've kept our
balance for many, many years. Here in Anatevka,
we have traditions for everything... You may ask,
"How did this tradition get started?" I'll tell
you! [pause] I don't know. But it's a tradition...
and because of our traditions... Every one
of us knows who he is and what God expects him
Scene Two: Tevye and Golde’s Worldview Construct of Marriage. In the second scene (1:04:09–1:07:30) Tevye informs Golde that he has successfully arranged a marriage for their oldest daughter, Tzeitel. What’s more, the groom is the richest widower in the village, Lazar Wolf.
I ask students to watch the clip and to use the four-level construct to flesh out Tevye and Golde’s worldview in regards to marriage. It normally takes a bit of prodding to help them see that what they view Tevye’s actions in arranging the marriage (Level 1) as virtuous and in the best interest of Tzeitel, because the father is in the best position to arrange a marriage (Level 2), because marriage is essentially a business/social contract (Level 3), based upon the village’s “story” that happiness is tied to increasing one’s prosperity and social standing (Level 4).
3) A Non-Traditional View of Marriage
Scene Three: Tzeitel and Motel’s Conflicting Worldview Construct of Marriage. In scene 3 (1:07:30 –1:14:42), Tzeitel & Motel (Leonard Frey) object to Tevye’s decision (Level 1), precisely because they disagree with Tevye’s belief that marriage is primarily a business arrangement. They believe that marriage is best based upon romantic love (Level 3), and therefore propose a different convention for arranging a marriage—a pledge between lovers (Level 2). After all, while the father is in the best position to make a successful business arrangement, the couple is in a better position to arrange a marriage based on love. For Tevye, a pledge is well outside the plausibility structures of his worldview.
Tevye: They gave each other a pledge? Unheard of... absurd!
They gave each other a pledge? Unthinkable!
However, Motel is a good negotiator. While his own worldview provides romantic love as the basis for his pledge to Tzeitel, he ultimately appeals to the Anatevka’s prosperity/happiness myth (Level 4) to try to convince his would-be father-in-law:
Tevye: You are just a poor tailor!
Motel: That's true, Reb Tevye, but even a poor tailor
is entitled to some happiness! [He places his arm around
Tzeitel.] I promise you, Tevye, your daughter will not starve.
While it often takes awhile, students are normally able parse out the these worldview levels (although I often have to point out level four.) What is really interesting is helping them examine Tevye’s reasoning in allowing Tzeitel & Motel to wed. Students are normally able to discern that Tevye’s worldview has not actually changed as much as it appears. “Papa” is still making the decision based on his daughter happiness (Level 1). While he is breaking with convention to allow the couple’s pledge to stand (Level 2), he is not really buying their notion of romantic love (Level 3) as its basis. To him marriage is still a business arrangement (Level 3), and he approves only once he is convinced that Motel is capable of giving his daughter enough financial security to satisfy the village prosperity myth (Level 4).
4) Pushing the Boundaries
Scene Four: Hodel and Perchik’s Conflicting Worldview Construct of Marriage: In scene four (1:57:23 – 2:03:53), Tevye’s second daughter, Hodel, and her love interest, Perchik (Paul Michael Glaser), escalate the worldview conflict. Hodel and Perchik also believe that marriage should be based primarily on the principle of romantic love (Level 3). However they further break with village conventions by choosing to become engaged without consulting their parents (Level 2). They ask only for Tevye’s blessing (not permission)—a blessing Tevye is not anxious to grant.
From a worldview perspective, the scene is absolutely fascinating. Tevye’s reason for allowing their engagement to stand reaches well beyond the village’s prosperity/happiness myth and into the authoritative worldview stories of the Torah (Level 4).
Tevye: On the other hand, our old ways were once new,
weren't they? ... On the other hand, they decided without
parents, without a matchmaker!... On the other hand,
did Adam and Eve have a matchmaker ?... Well, yes, they did.
And it seems these two have the same Matchmaker!
By reorienting his worldview around a new principle of love (Level 3) derived from a new insight into the authoritative story from Scripture (Level 4), Tevye is able to embrace a counter-cultural convention for marriage. He is undergoing a significant paradigm shift. Students can nearly always connect with this transformation and “get” the worldview transformation issues.
5) Tevye and Golde’s Worldview Shift
Scene Five: Tevye and Golde’s Paradigm Shift: Scene five (2:03:53—2:09:05) is a touching portrayal of Tevye seeking to apply (Level 1) his new understanding of love (Levels 2-4) to his own marriage. He asks Golde a question made possible now only by the new probability structures of his transformed worldview: “Do you love me?”
This revolutionary question evokes a wonderful interchange on the true meaning of marriage, complete with a back and forth exchange between Golde’s conventional understanding and Tevye’s deeper counter-conventional challenge inspired by their daughters. It concludes with a paradigm shift on Golde’s part as well.
Tevye: Then you love me?
Golde: I suppose I do
Tevye: And I suppose I love you too
Both: It change a thing, but even so, after 25 years
it's nice to know.
I normally need only ask students to watch the clip and tell me what is going on, to evoke a spirited conversation. They nearly always get the point. It DOES change a thing. It changes everything. Their new worldview of marriage changes the plausibility structure of their of their daily decisions. Ultimately, it will transform their marriage.
6) A Bridge Too Far
Scene Six: Tevye and Golde’s Rejection of Chava and Fyedka’s Marriage. The final scene in Tevye’s worldview journey is not nearly as heartening. The scene details Tevye and Golde’s rejection of their youngest daughter, Chava, due to her marriage to a Gentile, Fyedka (Ray Lovelock). I normally show the first part of the scene (2:22:00 – 2:25:33)—Chava’s love for Fyedka and Tevye’s disapproval and stop the film. I then ask the class to use the four-level construct to try to predict how Tevye will respond.
Once they have made their prediction(s), I show the rest of the scene (2:25:34 – 2:35:35). It is a gut wrenching depiction of a man who has come to the foundations of his worldview and found (much to his dismay) that there is no room for further reinterpretation. There is no story that will save his relationship with his daughter. She is dead to him.
Chava: Papa, I beg you to accept us.
Tevye: Accept them? How can I accept them?
Can I deny everything I believe in? ON the other hand,
can I deny my own daughter? On the other hand,
how can I turn my back on my faith, my people.
If I try to bend that far... I’ll break.
On the other hand... NO... there is no other hand!
NO, CHAVA!! NO! NO!! NO!!!
I normally let the scene play all the way through Chava’s desolate tears. When I turn up the lights, the room is very quiet. I normally need only ask, “What do you think?” to evoke a highly emotional conversation. I try to force them to think through why Tevye reached the limits of accommodation possible in his worldview. (With A classroom of adult learners this often brings up some of their own painful family and personal experiences with interfaith marriage.)
In the end, most students reject Tevye’s rejection of Chava. I push them hard to discern what it is in their worldview (romantic, sentimental, relativistic, Western, democratic, pluralistic, postmodern, individualism) that reacts so negatively to Tevye’s moral judgment. When I am feeling particularly antagonistic, I often ask them, “Would it make any difference if the story was set in Israel around 1000 BC and Fyedka was a Canaanite?” (That really gets things going.)
After a spirited discussion I ask students if they know the limits of accommodation in their own worldview? How do we know when cross from accommodation to assimilation? I suspect the only way is to be certain of the foundational stories of our own worldview.
Like Tevye, the stories of Scripture provide for us, not only fertile soil for nurturing reinterpretations of our philosophy and culture for a new generation, but also foundational bedrock for grounding the story of our own life in the mind of God.
Crash, 2006 Academy Award-winner for Best Picture, provides a powerful metaphor for why worldview change is so difficult.Crash follows a stellar ensemble cast through multiple story lines, most of which explore deeper and deeper levels of worldview.It is one of my favorite films for helping students explore “memes” and the “inciting events” that evoke worldview transformation journeys. 
In 1961, literary critic extraordinaire René Girard first introduced the idea that we borrow most of our desires from other people rather than developing our personal desires from scratch. Girard developed his highly influential concept of memetic borrowing throughout his long career, branching out from literary theory into theology, philosophy, and psychology. (See René Girard: The Greatest Christian Intellectual You Never Heard of.) 
Then in 1976, Oxford zoologist Richard Dawkins made the idea of memetic borrowing more palpable when he coined the term meme (short for the Greek root of “imitate”) to convey the idea of a single “unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation”(in the same way that a gene is a unit of biological transmission.) In Dawkins’ memetic theory, memes jump from “brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation” (p. 192). Since Dawkins’ initial publication, the field of Memetics has grown both in influence (it helped birth the idea of “viral marketing”) as well as skepticism as to its value as a theory of cultural evolution.
Staying on Script
The concept of memes is a useful interpretive key for helping for understanding why our worldview is so resistant to change. As memetics proponent Susan Blackmore explains, “Everything that is passed from person to person (by imitation) is a meme. This includes all the words in your vocabulary, the stories you know, the skills and habits you have picked up from others, the games you like to play, the songs you sing and the rules you obey.” 
In other words, like actors in a screenplay, we all follow “scripts” provided for us largely from outside of our own self-awareness. (Think of the role of “Tradition” in Fiddler on the Roof.) If imitation is the highest form of flattery, then we are constantly flattering the individuals and communities who have transmitted their “scripts” to us. Our worldview is so deeply rooted within us that we glide through thousands of “preconditioned” decisions each hour, following the cultural and philosophical scripts provided for us by the stories that have shaped us. We simply do what we do without giving a great deal thought as to why we do it. (See, Casablanca and the Four Levels of Worldview.)
These “scripts” exert such a powerful influence on our daily lives that it normally takes a significant “crash” to reexamine them. These crashes—unexpected events or decisions, often called “inciting events”–are a common devise in nearly all (good) films, but they are particularly evident in Crash. Writer/Director Paul Haggis predicates Crash on the simple premise that no one in Los Angeles deviates from the script of their daily “commute” without a crash.
In the words of Crash’s narrator, Det. Graham Waters (Don Cheadle):
WATERS: In L.A., nobody touches you. We're always behind
this metal and glass. I think we miss that touch so much,
that we crash into each other, just so we can feel something. .
Officer Ryan’s Scripts
One notable story line traces the interplay between LAPD Officer Dan Ryan (Matt Dillon), and socialite Christine Thayer (Thandie Newton). In one of the film’s early scenes, Officer Ryan gropes Christine in a racially motivated traffic stop. Later, he heroically risks his own life to save Christine from a burning car. In each case, he is unreflectively following “scripts” (memes) transmitted to him by the best and the worst of police culture. Only the “crash” of a life-and-death encounter with Christine jolts him into a completely new script of tolerance and understanding.
Ryan’s first “script” is rooted in the story of his father’s relationship with the African-American community. As a young man Ryan watched his father dare to treat his African-American employees with dignity only to lose his business to the city’s affirmative action policies. Now, his father suffers in agony from what Ryan fears is prostate cancer, and the one person standing between him and the specialist he needs is a no-nonsense African-American insurance adjustor named Shaniqua Johnson (Loretta Devine).
RYAN: I'm not asking you to help me. I'm asking that you
do this small thing for a man who lost everything so people
like yourself could reap the benefits. And do you know what
it's gonna cost you? Nothing. Just a flick of your pen.
SHANIQUA: Your father sounds like a good man. And if he'd
come in here today, I probably would've approved this request.
But he didn't come in. You did. And for his sake,
it's a real shame!
[To security guard.] Get him the hell outta my office!
Dan’s frustration creates unstated presuppositions of injustice, anger and retaliation against all blacks that are only reinforced by the worst elements (memes) of LAPD culture. Dan never examines the cultural, philosophical, or mythical basis of his decision. He never asks how his father’s story, and the “racist meme” in LAPD culture shape his actions. He simply acts. With horrific brutality, he uses his power as a police officer to abuse Christine.
In an instant, Christine’s life is shattered. Now part of Officer Ryan’s story of racism has deeply impacted Christine‘s story. His actions fill her with unspeakable anguish. Her personal life disintegrates in anger and confusion. Her relationship with her husband, Hollywood director Cameron Thayer (Terrence Howard) begins to spiral out of control as she begins to act out a “reverse racism script” she barely understands, but which her husband knows all too well.
CAMERON: You need to calm down here.
CHRISTINE: No, what I need is a husband who won't just stand
there while I'm being molested!
CAMERON: They were cops! They had guns! Where do you think
you're living, with mommy and daddy in Greenwich?
CHRISTINE: --Go to hell.
Ryan and Christine’s new scripts begin with a crash (literally). Christine’s SUV crashes and flips. Gasoline spills everywhere. She is trapped in a burning car with a malfunctioning seatbelt and no hope of escape. No hope, that is, except Officer Dan Ryan. First to arrive on the scene, Ryan quickly springs into action following the hero script written for him (the meme transmitted to him) by the best of LAPD culture.
Then comes the real crash. Christine and Ryan face each other in an inferno that threatens both their lives. Christine suddenly recognizes Ryan and responds according to the script provided by the personal, cultural, philosophical presuppositions of her story. Despite the approaching flames, she refuses Officer Ryan’s frantic attempts to help her.
RYAN: Lady! I’m trying to help you!
CHRISTINE: #&$% you! Not you! Not you!
Somebody else! Not you!
Momentarily confused, Dan suddenly recognizes Christine, not just what she is, but who she is, that she too has a story separate from his. The screenplay reads, “Ryan looks into her face and sees her pain and humiliation, and knows he was the cause of it.” His worldview begins to shift.
Full of shame, he begins to treat Christine with the dignity and respect he never afforded her in the ill-fated traffic stop. But to no avail. As the flames envelope the car, it is obvious that there is nothing to be done for Christine. Ryan’s partner begins to pull him to safety before it’s too late. The secret that could ruin Ryan’s life will die with Christine.
Suddenly, against all odds, Ryan completely rejects his racist script (meme) and fully embraces his heroic script. Kicking off his partner he dives back into the burning car, risking his life to save the same woman whose life he so carelessly degraded just a few days earlier.
Against even greater odds, Christine rejects her hatred script and accepts help from the man she has hated with archetypal passion. Her worldview shifts as she accepts his now dignified help and heroic rescue. Everything they thought about one another is changed in an instant; everything they thought about themselves is changing as well. As they weep together in a rescuers embrace both characters hover at the edge of transformation.
CHRISTINE throws one look back over her shoulder –
hate filled with fear and gratitude.
RYAN watches her, equally confused, overwhelmed
and embarrassed by his feelings.
As the scene ends it is clear that Ryan and Christine have each entered a new story–a story that will alter their future value and belief system, personal practices, and decisions. Their scripts (memes) change because they crashed into each other’s stories with sufficient force to jolt them out of their culturally transmitted roles. Christine returns home to reconciliation with Cameron (who has been in his own transformation journey). Ryan returns home and begins to treat his father with a new tenderness and dignity.
Snowfall in L.A.
Paul Haggis’ masterpiece, concludes with the most unlikely crash of all—a once-a-century snowfall in Los Angeles. The snow is as unimaginable as a worldview shift. It is also symbolic. For decades, snowfall has served as a favorite Hollywood metaphor for “something is changing.”
As the audience considers this final image, they are challenged with the questions:“Will we continue gliding through the thousands of “preconditioned” decisions we make each day, or will the “Crash” of this movie cause us to reexamine them deeper levels? Will we dare to change?”
And as we rise we see the twisted chaos of the intersection,
the cars and people and the (now freed) Illegals disappearing into the maw of the churning city.
And it starts to snow.
 Paul Haggis, Cathy Schulman, Sandra Bullock, Don Cheadle, Matt Dillon, Jennifer Esposito, William Fichtner, and Brendan Fraser. Crash. (Santa Monica, Calif: Lions Gate Entertainment, 2005). All quotations from, Crash. Story by Paul Haggis; Screenplay by Paul Haggis, and Robert Moresco. (Bob Yari Productions, Bull’s Eye Productions, Blackfriar’s Bridge & the Harris Company, 2004).
 Susan J. Blackmore, The meme machine (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 16. “So, for example, whenever you drive on the left (or the right!), eat curry with lager or pizza and coke, whistle the theme tune from Neighbours or even shake hands, you are dealing in memes. Each of these memes has evolved in its own unique way with its own history, but each of them is using your behaviour to get itself copied” (p. 16).
Stress: The confusion created when one’s mind overrides the body’s basic desire to choke the living daylights out of some jerk who desperately deserves it.
A pang of conscience shudders through my body as I drop the helpless mouse into the terrarium with our two juvenile ball pythons. I know snakes need to eat. But this a really rotten deal for the mouse.
My pre-teen sons have no such qualms. They want front-row seats to this Nature Channel style apocalypse. Watching Valentine and Sweetie (yes, the women of the family named them) hunt their elusive prey is precisely why they begged us to buy them in the first place.
But it’s not to be.
You’d think that a tiny mouse suddenly confronted with a pair of hungry snakes would do everything within its power to find a way out the cage. Not so. The moment the mouse sees the snake, he freezes. Then he exhibits the last behavior you would ever expect—he starts washing himself!
Adrenaline Induced Psychosis
You read that right. Stuck between his adrenal system’s “fight” or “flight” responses, the mouse’s only solution is to do neither. Instead, he tries to comfort himself with soothing behaviors that feel normal–like giving yourself a good lick bath.
What’s worse (or more hilarious, depending upon your point of view), as the adrenaline builds in the mouse’s system he begins to cycle through his behavior in tighter intervals. As the snake moves closer and closer, the mouse begins washing himself faster and faster.
By the time the snake is inches away, the mouse is moving at such a frenetic pace he looks like a DVD on fast-forward. With a climactic SNAP of teeth and coils (and anguished squeaks), the “hunt” is over.
My boys cheer. My daughter wretches. I am silent… I have seen this behavior before. In fact, it is my behavior (and that of nearly every human being I have ever met) in High Stress Environments (HSE).
Creativity, Scholarship, Leadership and Adrenaline
Contrary to popular belief, the most commonly abused drug in high stress environments like Hollywood, the Ivy League, and Wall Street is not cocaine: it’s adrenaline.
Like the mouse in our snake terrarium, the closer we get to allowing our work to consume us, the faster and faster we move. As the adrenaline builds in our system we begin to comfort ourselves with the lifelong habits that feel normal and comforting to us. Normal, that is, until the SNAP of teeth and crush of coils engulfs our soul.
I suspect this is the hidden causation behind Hollywood’s abysmal record of drug overdoses, wild-child stars, alcoholism, failed relationship, sketchy ethics, and rampant narcissism. As psychologist Archibald D. Hart warns:
“People who are caught up in the pursuit of excellence are particularly vulnerable to stress-related disorders.” 
Scholarship and ministry can be just as bad. A recent study discovered that there is a direct relationship between a successful academic career and an unhappy family life. And, have you seen the numbers on divorce and unhappy children in pastoral families? Ouch!
Ancient Solutions for a Modern Curse
Before we blame our modern condition (which certainly doesn’t make things any easier) let’s admit that our situation is not as unique as we would like to believe. Our high stress environment is extremely similar to the conditions Jesus of Nazareth learned how to handle over 2,000 years ago.
Like a modern filmmaker, Jesus faced enormous crowds demanding food and spectacle, in full view of national leadership calling for his head.
Like a contemporary academic, Jesus had to balance a rigorous teaching schedule, with scholarly production that was “peer-reviewed” daily by the greatest minds in higher education.
Like a post-modern pastor, Jesus woke long before first light and worked deep into hours of the night comforting, healing, and challenging his followers.
On at least one occasion he was so exhausted he actually fell asleep onboard a small boat in the middle of a thunderstorm!
Yup, Jesus knew a thing or two about stress.
Yet through it all, Jesus was somehow able to develop a remarkably resilient and even tranquil inner life.
No matter how close the snake approached, Jesus managed to never succumb to adrenaline induced psychosis. He could not be tricked into performing miracles for his demanding followers. He could not be trapped into unwinnable arguments by his academic foes.
He could not be persuaded to stay when it was time for him to go. He could not be persuaded to go while he still had reason to stay. He could not be run out-of-town even when his life was threatened.
How did he accomplish this amazing feat? By exhibiting the exact opposite behavior of a mouse in a high stress environment. Luke records that “As the news about him spread all the more and greater and greater crowds came to hear him and be healed,” Jesus responded, not with faster and faster work habits, but by “often withdrawing to lonely places to pray” (Luke 5:15-16).
In fact, Luke records no less than ten specific occasions when Jesus pulled away from his demanding schedule to pray in solitude. Jesus did not give in to stress-related behavior because he could not be pushed off his discipline of spending quiet hours alone in prayer and meditation–even if he had to rise early or stay up late to do it.
Defeat Adrenaline and you Defeat the Snake
Jesus’ soul-nourishing practices helped him learn to consistently listen for the voice of his heavenly Father. Over time they acutely tuned his spiritual senses to discern the heavenly direction needed for each day. In solitude he learned the truth that, “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Luke 4:4). It was a lesson that saved him in his greatest hour of need.
Faced with a direct frontal assault from the greatest snake of all–Satan–Jesus was ready. The high stress environment of 40 days in the wilderness provided Satan with the perfect opportunity to consume Jesus. His attack focused on the normal litany of adrenaline-induced coping mechanisms that had worked so effectively in other leaders.
But instead of comforting himself with food, fame, or power, the rigor of Jesus’ spiritual disciplines had prepared him to face and defeat his adversary. Jesus had spent half a lifetime preparing for this moment. In secret, he had acquired an arsenal of the right memorized Scripture to parry each ‘fiery dart’ of temptation, and the strength of character to wield that knowledge effectively.
With a climactic SNAP of teeth and coils, the hunt is over. Only this time the anguished squeaks come not from the prey, but from the snake.
Learning from the Master
Can ‘normal’ people learn to use this same strategy? Jesus certainly thought so. He wasn’t satisfied with his own ability to thrive in high stress environments. His mission was to teach his followers how to arrange their lives in a such a way that they too could learn to thrive.
But first he first had to teach them why we normally fail…
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 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.” 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. 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.
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.” 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.
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.”
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. 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. 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…” 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.”
This is why Lent can be so transformative. The season is designed to help us examine the gap between ourprofessed faithand our lived belief, between ourcreedand our lifestyle, between the things we tell ourselves we arepassionateabout and our true motivationsrevealed by our actions. Jesus instructed his followers, “You will know them by their fruits.”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.”
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?
 Or, ‘Main Character,’ as some main characters are clearly not heroic.
22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller (p. 276). Faber & Faber. Kindle Edition. (2008-10-14).
 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.”
 Edwards, Jonathan (1745) A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections (In Three Parts) (Kindle Edition, 2011) Locations 332-333.
The Fellowship of the Ring (Boston: Mariner books, 2012), p. 83. (Italics mine.)
 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.
“A writer for Emmy magazine is on the phone for you.” At first I thought our PR director was pulling my leg. College professors don’t get calls from Emmy magazine, even if they are moonlighting as the Executive Director of a community of Christian entertainment industry professionals seeking to train and equip storytellers to enter mainstream Hollywood. Act One had been in existence for over a decade and even though we had graduates writing, producing, and directing on numerous TV shows and more than a few feature films, no entertainment industry press had ever called our offices before.
Kurt Schemper changed all that. A producer for A&E’s critically acclaimed reality program, Intervention, Kurt had just become the first Act One graduate to win a prime time Emmy Award. The writer on the phone, Libby Slate, was fascinated by Kurt’s connection to a Hollywood Christian community. But, what really impressed her was how the Act One community had lived out our faith by rallying to aid former staff member Rosario Rodriguez after her gang-related shooting while walking in the tawny L.A. neighborhood Libby called home. (Read story here.)
Libby wanted to know if Emmy could do an article highlighting Kurt and Act One’s unique mission in Hollywood. Kurt and I readily agreed, and director Korey Scott Pollard (House, Grey’s Anatomy, Monk, Nashville, Rizzoli and Isles, Lie to Me, The Middle, Jack Ryan) signed on to represent the Act One faculty perspective.
As Kurt, Korey and I prepared for our interview, Korey pushed for us to be ‘really ready’ to express exactly what we wanted to say. Our conversations turned to how difficult it is to thrive spiritually in Hollywood, and interviewer Libby Slate graciously picked up on this theme.
In the course of our conversations Kurt mentioned that one of his college professors at Judson College encouraged him to pursue his calling to Hollywood by quoting Frederick Buechner:
“The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”
Kurt’s response was, “My deep gladness is Jesus. The entertainment industry is no different than any other place with lonely people searching for gladness.”
The idea of finding “deep gladness” in Hollywood really resonated with me, especially as I contemplated what a “soul-deadening” place Hollywood can be for many industry insiders. So in my interview, I told Emmy, “We’ve found that the spirituality taught by Jesus is an ideal starting place for guiding industry professionals on a soul-nourishing spiritual journey.”
That language resonated with Emmy readers as well, and soon opened doors all over Hollywood. Now it leads to this new series entitled, “Soul-nourishing Practices for a Soul-deadening world: Finding the Voice of Your Own Gladness in Hollywood and Beyond.”
My hope is that these posts will help filmmakers, educators and other culture makers find their own “deep gladness” through the soul-nurturing practices Jesus taught his first followers over 20 centuries ago. Not mere religious practices targeted at greater self-righteousness, but spiritual practices targeted at nurturing a deeper connection to God.
We officially launched the series earlier, but today I thought you might want to read the original Emmy article. (I couldn’t figure out how to post it directly, so you’ll have to download the article as a pdf.) Enjoy!
“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
‘Grace Enough’ by Brendan Busse in America
People make the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola for a variety of reasons. Preparing to play a featured role in a Martin Scorsese film is not one you hear often, but it’s probably not the worst reason. Men and women often make retreats to find some clarity about who they are or who they’re called to be. I suppose it was so for Andrew Garfield when he asked America’s James Martin, S.J., to guide him through the Exercises as he prepared to play the lead role in Mr. Scorsese’s new film, “Silence.”
Father Martin was hesitant at first. But Garfield was looking for something. Or someone. And that’s not a bad reason at all. In the end, it was enough for Jim. And more than enough for God.
Andrew Garfield was, for lack of a better word, successful in the Exercises. “There were so many things in the Exercises that changed me and transformed me, that showed me who I was…and where I believe God wants me to be,” he told me. That’s about as good a retreat outcome as one can hope for. And his success should not surprise us.
His training as an actor prepared him well for the dynamics of Ignatian prayer, whereby one imagines oneself within a series of biblical scenes in order to attain “interior knowledge” of God and to articulate that knowledge in a life of compassionate action and generous service. What was more surprising, what surprises him still, was falling in love.
When I asked what stood out in the Exercises, he fixed his eyes vaguely on a point in the near distance, wandering off into a place of memory. Then, as if the question had brought him back into the experience itself, he smiled widely and said: “What was really easy was falling in love with this person, was falling in love with Jesus Christ. That was the most surprising thing.”
He fell silent at the thought of it, clearly moved to emotion. He clutched his chest, just below the sternum, somewhere between his gut and his heart, and what he said next came out through bursts of laughter: “God! That was the most remarkable thing—falling in love, and how easy it was to fall in love with Jesus.”
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…
From Sausage Party to Silence, it was a banner year for religion onscreen.
by Alissa Wilkinson in Vox @firstname.lastname@example.org
I started 2016 as chief film critic at Christianity Today and ended it on staff here at Vox. Religion and pop culture has been my beat for a long while. So it’s not surprising I spot it around every corner.
But even by my heightened radar’s standards, 2016 feels like a banner year for onscreen treatments of religion. I don’t mean what we’ve come to consider “Christian movies,” though there were a few of those, most notably the moderately commercially successful God’s Not Dead 2 and the crashing box office failure Ben-Hur (executive produced, by the way, by Mark Burnett of The Apprentice). “Christian films” are made for a sizable but still niche market and bent to the tastes of that segment: biblical or inspirational tales, or (in the case of the God’s Not Dead franchise) legends of the culture wars. They’re meant to preach to — or shore up — the choir.
“Christian movies” had their most recent heyday in 2014 and 2015 and seem to be tapering off, at least in terms of box office returns. But 2016 belonged to a different kind of onscreen religion, aimed at mainstream audiences. In 2016, films and TV shows that portrayed religion — organized or not — were less interested in preaching or caricaturing and more in exploring how faith and (especially) doubt fit into the frameworks of people’s lives today.
Religion showed up onscreen in everything from dark, gritty dramas to dirty animated fables
2016 started with the Coen brothers’ Hail, Caesar, a comedy about competing ideologies (Hollywood capitalism, Marxism, and Christian faith) that is explicitly modeled on a passion play.
And now the year is ending with Martin Scorsese’s Silence, perhaps the most stirring, perceptive film about belief and doubt in decades.
In A Quiet Passion (which played at festivals in 2016 and will open in theaters next year), Terence Davies uses Emily Dickinson’s life to plumb the space that might best be described as believing unbelief. The Witch artfully poses a conflict between stringent Puritan faith and witchcraft in colonial New England. Knight of Cups positioned its narrator on the road to faith (modeled explicitly on both tarot and Pilgrim’s Progress). The documentary The Illinois Parables reads the complicated matter of religion and historical conflict into the landscape of Illinois. In Queen of Katwe, a Christian missionary brings opportunity to illiterate children in the slums he came from.
Beyoncé’s magnum opus Lemonade explicitly drew on religious imagery in its proclamation of freedom for its creator and women like her. The Innocents, like Silence, grapples with faith cracked by doubt in the face of unthinkable violence to the bodies of the devout — in this case, the brutal rape of nuns.
That Christianity is the organized belief system of interest in most of these projects isn’t surprising. They’re mostly American productions, and Christianity is still the dominant religion practiced in America — though I suspect that onscreen organized religion will expand in the next few years to include a higher number of serious treatments of Judaism, Islam, and other religions.
Still, attentive moviegoers could have caught Under the Shadow, a stellar Iranian political horror film, which borrows on concepts from Islamic folklore to explore the fallout from the Iran-Iraq War. And Tikkun, an Israeli horror film, navigated the complexities of bodies and souls in contemporary Orthodox Judaism.
Meanwhile, on TV, Rectify (about guilt, forgiveness, and redemption in small-town America) and The Americans (about religion as a competitor to nationalist ideologies) topped critics’ lists, while The Path and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt looked at the complicated reasons people enter, leave, remain in, and recover from oppressive systems of belief.
For a pretty goofy show, Lucifer featured a surprisingly nuanced account of evil and fate, while on Daredevil, Matt Murdock’s Catholicism is a central part of his character. Preachertook as its starting point the conflation of pastorly authority and possession by something evil. On bothJane the Virgin and The Jim Gaffigan Show, Catholic faith is also part of characters’ identities and influences the decisions they make.
This isn’t even an exhaustive list — that would be impossible to compile — and leaves out a lot of what’s happening in genres like horror and in independent and niche film. But as close watchers of the industry can attest, these certainly constitute an observable uptick in religiously oriented content for mainstream audiences.
Religion is part of characters’ identities in 2016, but not their only defining feature
It’s too early in this groundswell to sort out exactly why or how this happened in 2016. It can’t really be attributed to the US election — most of these movies and shows were finished or in development before the race even took shape. But there are some commonalities worth noting.
One notable trend is a growing interest in taking religious belief to be part of, but not the entirety of, a character’s identity. In other words, religious characters are growing more complex.
Religion has at times operated as a negative character-defining trait in onscreen stories: Sometimes the religious character’s faith is played off as just a quirk or an outright flaw, a writing shorthand for being bad, weak, hypocritical, or strange. (Think of Angela in the early seasons of The Office, Shirley Bennett on Community, or Vice President Sally Langston on Scandal.) But Rectify, The Americans, Daredevil, Jane the Virgin, The Night Of, Transparent, and The Jim Gaffigan Show, among others, all have characters who are religious, but who say and do lots of things that aren’t explicitly tied to their faith. They aren’t trotted on to be the token clergy or judgy friend; they’re just people who go to church and believe in God, and also have other interests, views, and friends. Their faith is one among many defining traits, but one that is ever-present (as opposed to, for instance, Agent Dana Scully on The X-Files, whose Catholicism seemed to crop up only when it suited the story).
These sorts of characters can be hard to write for a mainstream audience, because fleshing them out often requires personal experience that busts up easy stereotypes. A sort of prototypical religious character, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip’s Harriet Hayes, was based on creator Aaron Sorkin’s real-life ex-girlfriend, the outspoken Christian Kristin Chenoweth; another Sorkin character, the very Catholic President Jed Bartlet from West Wing, also belongs to this category. We especially see this in TV — most writers’ rooms aren’t noted for their diversity, and sometimes religion has been pretty one-note on screen. And flatly written secondary characters have a way of standing out more starkly in TV’s longform storytelling.
But perhaps recognizing that a myopic view of religious people results in underwritten characters, many shows have developed the sense that, as with gender or race, a character’s religion is part of their identity, one in a series of overlapping layers. A white Southerner’s Christianity looks different from that of a Catholic comedian living in New York City or a black marketing executive in Southern California. Not all Muslims look like they do on Homeland. Religious people look, sound, and act differently from one another. Their political and social views may differ. Even if they belong to an organized religion, the way they express and live that faith is unique.
In her film The Innocents, French director Anne Fontaine elected to dramatize a spectrum of faith in characters that on first blush look very much alike: a group of Polish nuns who, during World War II, are raped by a group of passing Russian soldiers. When the film begins, a French Red Cross doctor (who is an avowed atheist, a fact that does not change throughout the film) is called to the convent, where she discovers that many of the nuns are in advanced stages of pregnancy.
It’s tempting to see a convent full of nuns as a homogeneous group: all Polish women, living together, having taken the same vows, following the same rituals together every day, professing the same belief, experiencing the same violence. But The Innocents recognizes that women have individual responses to severe trauma, and their responses are complex and different from one another. It’s a remarkable exploration of shades of belief and doubt rooted in the different ways that different people internalize and express faith.
Some religious storylines incorporate the supernatural, to great effect
Another striking trend in onscreen religion showed up in two places in 2016: Jeff Nichols’s film Midnight Special and the Hulu TV series The Path, something echoed in the HBO drama The Leftovers (which aired the final episodes of its second season in December 2015 and will premiere its third season in 2017)…
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.
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.
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.
Gary & Sue
GREAT Films with a More (or Less) ‘Sacred’ View of Christmas
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 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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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)
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.)
The blockbuster Selma actor with unflinching faith has a fresh vision for Christianity in film
“I would be lying if I said it wasn’t disappointing [not to be nominated for an Academy Award for his work in Selma.] Not least because it’s Dr. King, and I personally just want to see him celebrated in every way possible, and, of course, the film is an extension of that.” -David Oyelowo
A lot of what you need to know about David Oyelowo can be gleaned from a brief, viral, almost instantly GIF-able clip from the 2015 Academy Awards.
On the heels of John Legend and Common’s rousing, staggering performance of Selma’s “Glory,” the cameras panned the Oscar crowd, who had leapt to their feet as one in spontaneous, rapturous applause.
The adulation was richly deserved,but one man stuck out in particular: Oyelowo, who starred in Selma as Martin Luther King Jr. He was seated near the front, suited in a smartly tailored, Cabernet-red tuxedo (which would land him at the top of Esquire’s list of best-dressed men of the Oscars the following morning), applauding while tears ran freely down his cheeks.
Even in our age of 24/7 celebrity coverage, in which a Google image search can turn up photos of Gwyneth Paltrow expressing every candid emotion known to man, the moment seemed purely human and vulnerable. The Oscars almost didn’t deserve it.
The reason the moment was so indicative of Oyelowo (pronunciation: O-yellow-wo), is that,in person, it is exactly how he comes across. He is put together, but authentic—impeccably collected and utterly personable.
Oyelowo is becoming well-known for his ability to play other people, but it’s almost as astonishing just how easily he inhabits his own skin.
Parting the Red Carpet
Oyelowo’s presence at the Oscars was notable for another reason. For most of the awards season, his blistering Selma performance was widely expected to net him the Oscar for Best Actor, so it was a bit of a scandal when he wasn’t even nominated (Neil Patrick Harris even mocked the Academy for the snub during his hosting gig).
“I would be lying if I said it wasn’t disappointing,” Oyelowo says, with refreshing candor. “Not least because it’s Dr. King, and I personally just want to see him celebrated in every way possible, and, of course, the film is an extension of that…”