Oscar Week 2011: Fresh story ideas a tough sell in Hollywood, by Nicole Sperling

The LA Times: February 20, 2011

The five films competing for original screenplay all had long, difficult paths to the big screen.

Original Screenplays, once the staple of Hollywood's verdant creativity, are in danger of going the way of the Dodo

David Seidler first sparked to the idea of writing a movie about the life of King George VI in 1980. A stutterer himself, he found the real-life narrative of the English monarch’s struggles to overcome a debilitating stammer moving and profoundly relatable, but Seidler understood that it wasn’t going to be easy to see his script turned into a feature film.

First, he had to wait for the Queen Mum to die; he had asked the royal matriarch for her blessing to tell her husband’s story, and she had requested that he wait until after her passing, since the memories of that time were still too painful. And then, the 73-year-old Seidler explains, there was another, possibly even more significant hurdle: “It was the subject matter.
“If I had gone into any executive office in Hollywood to pitch a story about a dead king who stutters, I would have been out of there in 30 seconds,” he said. “They would have thought I was out of my mind.”

Seidler has a point. For years now, the notoriously risk-averse Hollywood studios have been spending their money on the safest bets possible, big-budget projects and potential franchise properties that usually are based on a book, a video game, a toy or even an amusement park ride. It’s a trend that shows no signs of abatement, with Universal working to bring Stretch Armstrong to the screen, while Paramount develops a Magic 8 Ball movie among many other projects that have been co-opted from the toy aisle.

“We used to make toys based on our movies, and now we are making movies based on toys,” said Nina Jacobson, former head of production at Disney who’s now an independent producer. “We used to be the generators of intellectual property, not just recyclers of it.”

It’s a fact that’s helped drive many of the industry’s most highly acclaimed screenwriters — people such as Steven Zaillian (“Schindler’s List”) and Akiva Goldsman (“A Beautiful Mind”) — to devote more of their time to plum writing assignments such as Zaillian’s current work on “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” and Goldsman’s adaptation of Stephen King’s “The Dark Tower,” rather than develop their own ideas.

And it paints a grim picture for many screenwriters hoping to tell original tales…

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Take the Two Handed Warrior Oscar Poll (on right)

Sony Edits Bible Out of Screening of Faith-Based Film ‘Soul Surfer’, by Paul Bond

by Paul Bond in The Hollywood Reporter 2/16/2011

The dust-up illustrates Hollywood’s increasing struggle to appeal to both Christian and mass audiences.

Soul Surfer is one of the most ambitious "faith narrative" films from a major studio, but not without a great deal of ambiguity on the part of Sony

Tom Hamilton prayed for the best but expected the worst. He and his family, all devoted Christians, thought they had lost their bid to keep an overt reference to the Bible in the upcoming film Soul Surfer, based on the true story of Hamilton’s daughter Bethany, who, at age 13, had her arm chewed off by a tiger shark in Kauai but returned to her board to pursue her dream of becoming a pro surfer.

When religious leaders were shown an early version of the Sony movie, set for release in April, the words “Holy Bible” had been digitally removed from the cover of the book in a scene depicting Hamilton reading in a hospital where his daughter was fighting for her life. Hamilton says producer David Zelon, an executive at Mandalay Pictures, had lobbied to tone down the film’s Christianity in an effort to broaden its appeal to non-Christian audiences. But the Hamilton family objected, and when they attended a subsequent screening, they were pleasantly surprised with what they saw.

“I could see the words bright and clear,” Hamilton says.  “I looked at my wife and whispered, ‘Thank you God, they put it back.’ ”

(Zelon declined comment. Says Sony in a statement, “This movie has a strong spiritual core, much like The Blind Side, and while one of the versions tested did have the scene in question, it was never unclear that the book was the Bible.”)

After years of neglecting religious audiences, studios now know that appealing to Christian-values can lead to a $265M box office

The dust-up over Soul Surfer illuminates Hollywood’s increasingly awkward dance with the faith-based community. After years of neglecting religious audiences, studios now know that appealing to the Christian-values set while also bringing in more secular crowds can lead to an across-the-board blockbuster like Blind Side (domestic box office: $256 million).

But flub the combination — by appearing to pander, for example — and the movie doesn’t work for anybody.

Paramount succeeded with the juggling act on the Feb. 11 release of Justin Bieber: Never Say Never. Bieber has said in interviews that he prays twice daily and reads the Bible regularly. [See yesterday’s post Justin Bieber’s Mom Shares Her Sense of God’s Calling on Her Son’s Life.] Although ads on MTV make no mention of the singer’s Christianity, Paramount was also quietly screening the movie for religious leaders before showing it to other demographics. The studio was rewarded with a $30 million opening weekend.

“The movie is good clean fun, and we wanted mothers to understand that,” Paramount co-president of domestic marketing Megan Colligan says of the strategy. “We needed time for that word-of-mouth to spread.”

While downplayed in the film, Justin Bieber's faith didn't keep Paramount's 'Never Say Never' from a $30M opening weekend

Paramount even sent out 100,000 printed spiritual guides touting the movie as “an opportunity to teach our children about the power of hope, prayer, faith and family,” and it distributed clips on GodTube, a religious version of YouTube that boasts 450,000 subscribers.

Christian media — which includes influential websites, radio and TV hosts and even local ministers — has proven incredibly powerful when mobilized behind certain projects. Disney insiders, for instance, credit the Christian audience for the slow box-office build of its inspirational Secretariat, which opened to only $12.7 million but grinded out nearly $60 million domestically. But some projects that capture the religious crowd fail to cross over into the mainstream.

That power is causing producers to obsess over seemingly minor details. In Soul Surfer, which stars Dennis Quaid and Helen Hunt as Bethany Hamilton’s parents, country singer Carrie Underwood plays a spiritual mentor to a tight-knit community of Christian surfers. In a scene in which Underwood’s character quotes scripture, some were fine with the verse but didn’t want her to acknowledge that it came from the Bible.

“Can you imagine if a character said, ‘Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country,’ but they acted like it was their own, like it didn’t come from President Kennedy?” Hamilton asks. “This would have been the same thing. So they relented on that point.”

Dennis Quaid, AnnaSophia Robb, and Helen Hunt, star in the remarkable story of world-class surfer Bethany Hamilton's recovery from a near-fatal shark attack.

Sony is no stranger to courting the faithful. Its Affirm Films label has had success producing Christian movies that were made on a shoestring budget, like the Kirk Cameron starrer Fireproof, which cost just $500,000 and earned $33 million domestically. Sony also had a hand in Facing the Giants, which was made for a measly $100,000 and returned $10 million domestically. Both rode a wave of positive word-of-mouth among churchgoers and pleas of support from conservative talk-radio hosts.

But Soul Surfer is a much bigger bet. The poster and the trailer of the movie pitch it as an inspirational sports story for the masses — which it definitely is. But there’s no hint of the Christian faith that Bethany says was crucial to her recovery and athletic comeback.

In this regard, the marketing is similar to Disney’s sports-themed Secretariat and Remember the Titans, both of which included religious elements and were pitched separately to the faithful and secular sets. On Fox’s The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the studio went as far as to tell Christian leaders that the resurrection of Aslan the lion represented Jesus Christ, even as others involved in the project were telling certain demographics that it did not.

In the case of another upcoming film that is striving to be Christian-friendly — the indie drama Doonby, starring John Schneider and Robert Davi — a scene showing too much cleavage was digitally altered to make it appear that the actress, Jenn Gotzon, was wearing…

Continue reading in The Hollywood Reporter

Pseudo Servant Leadership and Pseudo Celebrity: Manipulating the Paradox of Power

Part of ongoing series: Paparazzi in the Hands of an Angry God: Servant Leadership in an Age of Self-Promotion.

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A leader is best when people barely know that he exists, not so good when others obey and acclaim him; worst when they despise him. Fail to honor people, they fail to honor you.

-Lao-Tzu, China, c. 550 BC

Lao Tzu first described the Paradox of Power 2500 years before Lady Gaga

“Servant.” “Leader.”  Few words in the English language seem more mutually exclusive. Leaders give orders. Servants take them.  Leaders have followers. Servants have masters.  Leaders are powerful. Servants are powerless.  Everyone wants to be a leader. Everyone wants to have a servant.

But are they really so opposite?

In his classic novel, Journey to the East, Herman Hesse tells the story of a band of travelers sojourning across the south of Europe. Their journey is sponsored by a religious order that has provided them with not only all of the necessary equipment but also a rather unobtrusive servant by the name of Leo.  The trip goes well.  They make good progress.  They become good friends.  On the road and around the fire, there seems to be magic about the group.

Then one day Leo disappears. No one is particularly concerned.  After all, he was only a servant.  Soon, however, cracks begin to appear in the fragile bond that holds the group together.  Tasks go undone.  Emotions fray.  Soon the music around the campfire is replaced by stony silence.  When no one is able to repair the damage, the group simply breaks up.  Unable to continue the journey for lack of leadership, the narrator of the story, one of the travelers, decides to join the religious order that sponsored the journey.  He returns to the order’s headquarters to begin his initiation.

There he finds Leo and discovers that their servant is actually the leader of the entire order. Upon reflection, the narrator realizes that Leo had really been their leader all along.   He was the source of the magic in their group.   Yet, if he had asserted his position as leader of the order, the group probably would have rejected him outright.  However, by seeking to meet their needs the group had willingly made him their leader without even realizing it.  By becoming their servant he had become their leader, not by position, but by influence.  Character had triumphed over authority:  service over position.[1]

This is the paradox of power that has troubled mankind since the days of Lao-Tzu. There is something in the very nature of leadership that implies service.  True leaders, those who people follow because they want to not because they have to, always begin with and return to the needs of their followers.  As James MacGregor Burns states in his monumental work, Leadership: “The ultimate test of practical leadership is the realization of intended, real change that meets people’s enduring needs.”[2]

3D films are proof that Hollywood understands the Paradox of Power: meet the customer's need for a unique in-theater experience and they'll vote for your movie with their wallet.

Leadership is essentially a transaction. Followers give their leaders power in exchange for service. We simply will not follow someone who does not meet our needs.

The American political system bears testimony to this.  We call our elected officials “Public Servants.”  If they serve us well, we re-elect them.  If they serve us poorly, we elect others in their place.

Business practice bears this out well. Companies who serve their customers well are highly rewarded with return business and referrals.  Companies that do not meet the needs of their clients soon find themselves filing for bankruptcy.

Hollywood creatives are painfully aware of this process. The best screenplay ever written won’t last a week in theatres if it fails to touch a chord in the hearts, minds, or funny bones of a significant audience.

Faith communities are subject to this paradox as well. People join churches and follow various teachers and rabbis because they sense their needs are being met.  They “vote” for their favorite spiritual leader with their attendance, their giving and (in the burgeoning religious marketplace) their buying.  Churches that truly meet the needs of their congregations grow large and prosperous.  Their pastors become famous.  Their methods and teaching become models for others.

In a celebrity-driven culture, the Tweet is becoming the most powerful voting booth on earth.

But is this all there is to servant leadership? If so, then anyone can do it.  Just give people what they want and you’re a leader.  But are you?  Really?  Is the ability to attract a following by promising and (sometimes) delivering what people want all there is to transformational leadership? If it is, then we are in real trouble.

The paradox of power is the exact process that “pseudo celebrities” currently use to manipulate public opinion for their own purposes. (See, Paparazzi in the Hands of an Angry God.) “The pseudo celebrity “develops their capacity for fame, not by achieving great things, but by differentiating their own personality from those of their competitors in the public arena.”[3]

Rather than serving as heroic celebrities who actually meet the needs of others through self-sacrificing service, pseudo celebrities prey upon the perception that they are meeting the needs of their followers when their real goal is to meet their own needs to sell more product, enhance their fame, etc. As I stated in the Paparazzi post, In a society hungering for close personal relationships, the pseudo celebrity system delivers pseudo-relationships with people we feel connected to but have never met.” Media outlets create the illusion of accessibility and relationship we crave, without actually delivering the goods. With enough Twitter chatter anyone can be a cultural leader.  Why bother to actually accomplish anything for my “followers”?

High-flying Bernie Madoff carefully managed the (false) image that he was serving his clients

Best-selling business author Jim Collins warns that this pseudo celebrity approach to leadership is a cancerous growth on the future of transformative leadership in America, from the pulpit to the boardroom. Pseudo celebrities are not only “famous for being famous,” they are paid for being famous, and revered for being famous regardless of their providing any actual value to the lives of others or the organizations they lead. They score “covers of magazines, bestselling autobiographies, massive compensation packages—despite the fact that their long-term results failed to measure up.”

Collins prophecies: “If we allow the celebrity rock-star model of leadership to triumph, we will see the decline of corporations and institutions of all types… These leaders were ambitious for themselves, and they succeeded admirably on this score, but they failed utterly in the task of creating an enduring great company. Smart people instinctively understand the dangers of entrusting our future to self-serving leaders who use our institutions… whether in the corporate or social sectors… to advance their own interests.”[4]

Jim Collins: "If we allow the celebrity rock-star model of leadership to triumph, we will see the decline of corporations and institutions of all types."

But are we really so smart? The rampant tragic decline of American business, banking, government, education, church and media enterprises stems largely from the ascendancy of self-centered pseudo celebrity leaders. Like Israel during the reign of Saul, self-centered leadership wears the crown, while Davidic servant leadership is banished from the halls of power.

Can we learn to discern the difference between pseudo celebrity leadership and heroic servant leadership? I believe we can. In fact, I believe that Jesus of Nazareth provides both clear teaching regarding servant leadership and a compelling example of living it out.

Continue reading next post in series: LOST Lessons of Servant Leadership

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Notes


[1] I am deeply indebted to the late Robert Greenleaf for not only helping me reassess my high school hatred of Herman Hesse, but also for providing the foundation of my overall understanding of how servant leadership functions in the business world. See, Robert K. Greenleaf, Servant leadership: a journey into the nature of legitimate power and greatness (New York: Paulist Press, 1977). See also, Don M. Frick, Robert K. Greenleaf: a life of servant leadership (San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler, 2004); Larry C. Spears, Reflections on leadership: how Robert K. Greenleaf’s theory of Servant-leadership influenced today’s top management thinkers (New York: J. Wiley, 1995); Mark A. Wells, Servant leadership: a theological analysis of Robert K. Greenleaf’s concept of human transformation (PhD Thesis: Baylor University, 2004).
[2] James MacGregor Burns,  Leadership (New York:  Harper and Row, 1978), p. 461.
[3] Chris Rojek, Celebrity: Critical Concepts in Sociology (London, UK: Routledge, 2010), 16, 52.
[4] Jim Collins, “The Misguided Mix-up of Celebrity and Leadership.” http://www.jimcollins.com/article_topics/articles/the-misguided-mixup.html

Conservative Blogs Love Gervais Golden Globes Elite Bashing Humor

From The Hollywood Reporter

With insulting humor directed at celebrities and at the event itself, Golden Globes host Ricky Gervais may not have impressed many of the attendees, but he scored with one demographic: political conservatives.

Delighted at the sight of Gervais belittling Hollywood elitists who they maintain do likewise to them regularly, the right-wing blogosphere lit up with positive reviews, even while more traditional media was critical of Sunday’s telecast.

Had Gervais “been as relentless in ripping apart Sarah Palin, her young children, Jesus Christ or George W. Bush, today the comedian would be celebrated as ‘edgy’ and ‘courageous’,” noted John Nolte, editor of the website Big Hollywood.

Instead, the Washington Post said Gervais “crashed” and theNew York Times said he was “merciless” and in “bad form.”Philip Berk, president of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, said some of the things Gervais said “were totally unacceptable.”

Nolte, though, likened Gervais’ jabs at various actors and the HFPA as a much-needed “sucker punch” leveled against elite bullies who do likewise to middle America on a routine basis.

We settle in for some relaxing entertainment at the movies or in front of the TV only to receive an “out-of-nowhere sucker punch aimed at our identity, faith or country. You former Law and Order fans know especially of what I speak,” Nolte blogged.

“And so last night Gervais gave the entertainment industry a little taste of what that sucker punch feels like.”

At Pajamas Media, a conservative and libertarian news organization, CEO Roger Simon wrote that Gervais “has been roundly attacked for being rude to practically everyone, including the HFPA, whose event it was. Problem is: he was right, particularly about the HFPA.”

The U.K’s right-leaning Daily Mail weighed in via a lengthy, positive analysis of Gervais’ performance that was headlined: “Bravo, Ricky Gervais! A risque’ attack on self-loving Tinseltown.”

“The flock didn’t know what to do because it had never encountered such risky mockery,” author Quentin Letts wrote, praising Gervais for his rebellious performance.

“Hollywood and its power brokers hate a rebel. It is a place of groupthink and almost terminal political correctness.”

On Sunday night Gervais, a native of the U.K., earned himself a cult following around the world, Letts opined, as “the man who went to Hollywood and told them what a bunch of self-regarding boobies they are.”

Letts ends his piece with this observation: “Gervais dished up home truths to a Californian showbiz crowd which has long taken itself far too seriously. He did what jesters have done since the days of Shakespeare and before: He held up a mirror to the mighty.”

For response, see: Ricky Gervais, the Golden Globes, Atheism and Sentimental Hogwash

Also in The Hollywood Reporter

Michael Warren, Legendary TV Writer and Producer, Shares His Greatest Influences

With over 250 episodes over 11 seasons, Happy Days exerted tremendous cultural influence and helped birth the career of filmmaker Ron Howard (right bottom)

Prolific  writer, producer, and show creator, Michael Warren, helped shape some of the most influential television programming of a generation (Family Matters, Two of a Kind, Step by Step, Perfect Strangers, Happy Days, etc.).

However, like all Two Handed Warriors, Michael’s journey toward reimagining faith and culture wasn’t accomplished alone.

I asked Michael: “Who are writers, artists, filmmakers, poets, musicians, films, books, plays, TV shows, or any other cultural artifact who have deeply influenced you and will always stick with you.”

Then I only gave him fifteen minutes to complete his list, just so we cold get it “unedited.” (Part of an ongoing series of the “Fab 15” influencers who influenced the influencers of culture.)

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Here is Michael’s list of greatest influences in his own life.

Robert Bolt

The groundbreaking story of the middle class African-American Winslow family and their super annoying neighbor, Steven Urkel, ran for over 190 episodes.

Ian Thomas, The Saving Life of Christ

C. S. Lewis

John Milton

The Dick Van Dyke Show

David Lean’s Films (All of them!)

Garry Marshall

David McCullough

Star Wars (because it showed me the impact a single film could have on changing people’s worldview.)

Akira Kurosawa

Michelangelo

Patrick Duffy and Suzanne Somers anchored Step by Step through 160 episodes.

Buckminster Fuller

Billy Graham

Renoir

The Apostle Paul

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What’s on your “Fab 15″ list?

Caveat: Your list must be comprised of culural artifacts readers woud have access to, so you can’t include your Mom, or some other leader who had a personal impact on you.

Make your list in no more than fifteen minutes and send it to us!
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Michael Warren Trivia: Did you know that Michael has often served as an elder in his home (mega) church and has led numerous service trips across the globe?

Sheryl J. Anderson, TV Writer and Novelist: Authors Who Influenced Me

Sheryl J. Anderson: Prolific Television Writer and Novelist

Seeking to reimagine faith and culture inevitably makes you a reader: a multi-post on on the “Fab 15” Author lists of Two Handed Warriors.

Sheryl J. Anderson, television writer (CharmedFlash Gordon, Dave’s World) and novelist (Killer HeelsKiller CocktailKiller Riff) offers her unique take on the 15 authors who have most deeply influenced her life.

Read Sheryl’s list and let us know yours.

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Sheryl J. Anderson’s “Fab 15”

Martin Luther

Ray Bradbury

Dorothy Parker

Harlan Ellison

William Goldman

Jorge Luis Borges

Arthur Miller

Tennessee Williams

Thorne Smith

Agatha Christie

Stephen King

Peter Straub

E.B. White

The first book in Sheryl's Molly Forrester Mysteries series

Lucy Boston

Robert Bolt

What’s are your “Fab 15”?

“Fab 15″ Rules: List fifteen authors, fiction or nonfiction, including poets, playwrights, and screenwriters, who have influenced you and will always stick with you.

Make your list in no more than fifteen minutes!
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Sheryl J. Anderson Trivia: Did you know that Sheryl has also written  mini-dramas for church theatre and worship services?  Check out: The Twelve Plays of Christmas: Original Christian Dramas, A Message in a Minute: More Lighthearted Minidramas for Churches.

Top Blog Posts of 2010: Casablanca and the Four Levels of Worldview

Casablanca-posterI thought it might be a good idea to end 2010 by revisiting my most popular posts of the past year. According to Word Press the most popular post of the year was Casablanca and the Four Levels of Worldview (updated and improved in 2013.)  It evoked a solid conversation with screenwriting experts, Jim HullKey Payton, and Stanley D. Williams. Frankly, they kinda schooled me on my understanding of screenwriting, complete with a two-hour personal tutorial from Key Payton (who has agreed to do a guest post in the new year.)  Still, it was fascinating to see how concepts I “reverse-engineered” from Academy Award-winning films in order to teach worldvew were helpful to real live screenwriters.

Toward that end, I found this very cool chart laying out a construct to the four levels of worldview (not sure where it came from, so if anyone has seen it before, please let me know.) It calls only the central/core level “worldview,” but it lays out the elements of all four levels very clearly and concisely.  I’d love to know if you find it more helpful (or less) that the simplistic chart I’ve been using.

My (lame) first attempt at charting the four levels of worldview.

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A Cool Four Circle Version of the Construct I Found.

So… which is more helpful?

Gary

The Golden Globes, Ricky Gervais’ Atheism and Sentimental Hogwash: It’s a Wonderful Life, Part 1

 

 

 

 

 

Golden Globes Host, Ricky Gervais “And thank you to God. For making me an atheist.”

Golden Globes host Ricky Gervais’s atheism joke and his holiday message in the Wall Street Journal, Why I’m An Atheist,” provide a perfect backdrop for examining one of the best attempts to defend Theism in Hollywood history–It’s a Wonderful Life.

Hollywood legend Frank Capra made It’s a Wonderful Life specifically to “combat a modern trend toward atheism,”[1] which certainly appears to make Gervais his ideal target audience. Yet, Capra’s approach to combatting atheism was in no way as simplistic as one would expect. It’s a Wonderful Life is not only one of the best Christmas movies of all time, it is also a remarkable example of using worldview conflict to construct a compelling story… and live a wonderful life. Students seeking to understand worldview and filmmakers seeking to make culture-influencing movies would be wise to pay careful attention.

Ironically, much like its main character, George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart), It’s a Wonderful Life entered midlife as an apparent failure.[2] Before its release, Capra believed it to be his greatest film. However, after a disappointing box office, and a complete shut out at the Oscars,[3] Liberty Films didn’t even bother to renew the copyright for “Capra’s masterpiece” when it expired in 1974. This lapse in judgment proved to be precisely the angelic intervention It’s a Wonderful Life needed. Television networks turned to the now public domain film to fill their desperate need for cheap programming in the slow holiday season. Soon “a whole new generation of movie-lovers discovered and fell in love with the previously-obscure release.” [4] Capra had the last laugh when the film grew to become a beloved classic, now regarded as one of the best films ever made. (It is currently #20 on the prestigious AFI’s Top 100 Movies of All Time list.)

#20 on the American Film Academy's Top 100 All Time Movies

Much of the greatness of It’s a Wonderful Life stems from Capra’s deliberate use of worldview conflict in the film. (Don’t worry, I won’t ruin your Christmas buzz with a bunch of philosophical mumbo-jumbo, but this first part is important). When philosophers speak of a “worldview” they actually mean more than one thing:[5] micro worldviews and macro worldviews.

At the micro level, a worldview is a description of the stories that shape the principles that support the conventions that an individual uses to make their daily decisions. (See, Casablanca and the Four Levels of Worldview). The problem is, nobody’s worldview is actually “personal.” While we each have unique experiences that form the backbone of the “story of our life,” we interpret these experiences through the stories transmitted to us by our larger cultures.[6] (See, Crash Goes the Worldview). Our personal worldview rests within concentric circles of larger and larger worldviews. In other words, (1) my (micro) worldview rests mostly within, (2) my family’s (slightly less micro) worldview, which rests mostly within (3) my sub-culture’s (even less micro) worldview, and (4) my current society’s (more macro) worldview, and (5) my historic civilization’s (macro) worldview.

While it is a gross oversimplification, you could say that the history of Western civilization has been comprised of the interplay of two key macro worldviews: what I will call physicalism and idealism.

Radical Physicalist, Carl Sagan, "The Universe is all there is and all there will ever be."

Physicalism is a macro worldview that roots our understanding of reality in the physical world. [7] Physicalism starts with what you can see, feel, touch, and taste as the only “really real” things in the world.[8] If you can measure something’s length, weigh its mass, or quantify it in some way, then it is a reliable source of knowledge.

The worldview of physicalism can best symbolized by a BOX, because in physicalism the “closed system” of the material universe is pretty much all you can rely on. You can extrapolate from sense perceptions of the visible universe to a “spiritual” world, but every effect in the physical universe owes its existence to a cause within the physical universe. This makes physicalism perfect for scientific experimentation. A laboratory technician wouldn’t be able to maintain a proper relationship between experimental variables if they had to account for factors from outside the physical universe messing with their data.  As cosmologist and former host of Cosmos (PBS) put so eloquently, “The universe is all there is and all that there will ever be.”

Ricky Gervais’ Wall Street Journal essay is a beautiful example of using physicalism to defend atheism. Ricky explained the rationale for his lack of faith by asserting, “I don’t believe in God because there is absolutely no scientific evidence for his existence and from what I’ve heard the very definition is a logical impossibility in this known universe… (Science) bases its conclusions and beliefs on hard evidence…” By “hard” evidence, Ricky means things you can touch, taste, see, and measure.  If there is no “hard” physicalist evidence for God, then he won’t believe it. It is a common position for modern physicalists (more below.)

Idealist Immanuel Kant, "All human knowledge begins with intuitions..."

Idealism is a worldview that roots our understanding of reality in the world of ideas, values, spirits, and/or gods. Idealism starts with what you cannot see, touch, taste, see or feel as the only “really real” things in the world. You can’t weigh a pound of love, or measure a mile of justice, or put a soul in a beaker, yet idealists view these intuited unseen ideals as what really matters. As Immanuel Kant asserted, “All human knowledge begins with intuitions, proceeds from thence to concepts, and ends with ideas.”

The worldview of idealism is best symbolized by a CIRCLE. Normally this circle surrounds the box of the physical universe, because in idealism the physical universe exists within the broader field of unseen realities.[9] This makes idealism perfect for, say, artists and lovers. Everyone “knows” that beauty and love are what make life worth living, even if you can’t quantify them. To reduce love to mere chemical reactions, or art to the properties of sculptor’s materials is neither romantic, inspiring, nor “real.”

Idealists look beyond the hard realities of the physical world and point to something they view as much more “real.” When the Beatles sing, “All you need is love,” or Jean Valjean declares in  Les Miserables, “To love another person is to see the face of God,” they are giving voice to an idealist worldview. They are not appealing to hard physical evidence, but to an ideal so intuitively true they need no “proof.” When Jefferson wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” or MLK declared, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” they were appealing to something beyond the physical world and calling others toward it.

The struggle between these two worldviews is at least as old as the study of philosophy. Plato (and later Augustine and Kant) advocated for idealism, while Aristotle (and later Aquinas and Hume) sided with physicalism.  Neither side has ever scored a decisive victory, yet the philosophical underpinnings of each era of Western history can often be described by the relationship between the two at a given cultural moment.

George Bailey: The young idealist years

For over 2000 years, Muslims, Jews, and Christians used both Idealism and Physicalism to support their faith. For Christians, the Hebraic worldview Jesus inherited from his Jewish heritage was more or less free from the dualism of having to choose between these two sources of knowledge. Truth was found both in the invisible God and in his visible creation. Faith-building and culture-making were therefore two sides of the same coin.

However, as the early church became less and less Jewish and more and more Greek, dualism began to plague the church. Idealism held the upper hand in ancient Greco-Roman society and nearly overwhelmed early Christianity with a radical form of Idealism known as Gnosticism. Augustine and other key thinkers restored sanity through a more moderate form of Idealism that helped salvage Christianity when the Roman empire fell. Physicalism began to gain serious traction in Middle Ages when both Muslims and Christians (such as Aquinas) began to use Aristotle’s physicalist philosophy to defend their faith. While increasingly disconnected by the “either-or” dualism of Greek thought, both idealism and physicalism remained key elements of both a God-centered view of the world as well as a number of attempts to support atheism.

Unfortunately, the Enlightenment gave birth to a “pervasive and astringent skepticism” that began to “dissolve” both Physicalism and Idealism (and any hope of reconnecting them.) [10] Physicalists lost confidence first in their sense perceptions, and then in their ability to extrapolate from the physical world into the spiritual. Idealists began to doubt that their own thoughts and intuitions were anything more than their own inventions (or the inventions of their community) so that there was no spiritual world “out there” only my own ideas and perspectives “in here.”

Mr. Potter: "Sentimental hogwash!"

Skepticism quickly demoted Idealism to the ranks of second class truth, enthroning a weakened and highly dualistic form of Physicalism at the center of Western society. When a modern Westerner says that something is objectively true, we mean that it is true from a Physicalist perspective. It is something that can be verified with the physical senses. By contrast, when we say that something is subjectively true we mean that it is “merely” an ideal that an individual subject (person) holds to be true, but which cannot be physically verified, and is therefore a second class citizen in the world of truth. Idealist (subjective) knowledge has been assigned to the back of the bus as “private” knowledge. While physicalist (objective) knowledge is driving the bus of “public” knowledge.

Whether he realizes it or not, this is exactly why Ricky Gervais, like many physicalist moderns, has to so much trouble with Theism–it simply doesn’t make any sense from his starting point of skeptical physicalism. When Gervais exclaims, “People who believe in God don’t need proof of his existence, and they certainly don’t want evidence to the contrary,” he is giving voice to an extremely common view of faith.  These damnable believers are appealing to knowledge derived from outside the realm of physical verifiability. Gervais continues, “Why don’t I believe in God? No, no no, why do YOU believe in God? Surely the burden of proof is on the believer.” And he’s right, of course, at least from a skeptical physicalist perspective.  Which is precisely the problem. He’s right back to where he started.

He’s began with the position that you can only trust your physical senses, and ended up right thinking that anyone who believes in something you can’t access with your physical senses is crazy. As Gervais explains, “I don’t think there is a god, but belief in him does no harm. If it helps you in any way, then that’s fine with me.” In skeptical physicalist thinking, ideals might be personally helpful to some, but as truth-claims they are “Sentimental Hogwash!

George Bailey ponders his failure at Gervais's ideals, "It’s knowing that I try to do the right thing. That I lived a good life."

However, even Gervais has to resort to idealism to defend his philosophy for actually living his life. The same skeptical physicalism that can be so helpful in a laboratory, can be an extremely unsatisfying way of life. As James Davidson Hunter explains, “radical skeptisicm leading to radical nihilism is, of course, rare… for the simple reason that it is unlivable.”  Gervais resorts to a very idealist perspective for his life: “My reward is here and now. It’s knowing that I try to do the right thing. That I lived a good life.”

Which is, of course, exactly what George Bailey is striving for in It’s a Wonderful Life. Like Gervais, George Bailey only wants to live a good life here and now. However, like most of us in the postmodern world, the crushing realities of skeptical physicalism are squeezing the life out of our weakened idealism.

Like George Bailey and Ricky Gervais, we all eventually find ourselves wondering: Is there a reward for knowing and trying to do the right thing? (Either in heaven or on earth) Or, is it all a waste of time? Like Gervaise, we simply cannot reconcile belief in God with the ideals of truth and honesty we strive for. Like George Bailey, we simply cannot reconcile the ideals for which we live with the harsh realities of our day-to-day existence. Caught in the vice between nihilistic physicalism and sentimental idealism there seems to be nowhere to turn.  Which is, of course, exactly where Capra wants us.

Next is Series: Frank Capra’s Hollywood Christmas Tale of a Depressed Idealist

 

 

Notes


[1] Stephen Cox, It’s a Wonderful Life: A Memory Book (Nashville, Tenn: Cumberland House, 2003), p. 27.

[2] Frank Capra, Frances Goodrich, James Stewart, Donna Reed, et al, It’s a Wonderful Life (Hollywood, Calif: Paramount Home Entertainment, 2006).

[3] Failing to win even a single Oscar despite nominations in the five categories

[4] James Berardinelli, ReelMovies.net.

[5] Or rather, two ways of looking at the same thing.

[6] These society-wide macro worldviews exert a tremendous influence on our daily lives, even when we aren’t aware of them.

[7] How we know things, or “epistemology.”

[8] James W. Sire identifies nine macro worldviews currently influencing Western culture: predominantly physicalist worldviews, such as Naturalism, Nihilism, and Post-modernism; Predominantly idealist worldviews such as, Christian Theism, Islamic Theism and Eastern Pantheistic Monism, and hybrids, such as Existentialism, Deism, and the New Age movement. The Universe Next Door: A Basic World View Catalog (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2009).

[9] In worldviews such as Monism, the circle actually subsumes the box.

[10] See James Davidson Hunter’s masterful take on “dissolution” in To change the world: the irony, tragedy, and possibility of Christianity in the late modern world. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 205-210.

Icons of Heroic Celebrity: Thoughts on Paparazzi in the Hands of an Angry God, by TV Writer Chris Easterly

Television writer Chris Easterly (Unnatural History, Past LifeThe Shunning) guest posts on the relationship between heroic celebrity and sainthood.  (See, Paparazzi in the Hands of an Angry God: Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield and the Birth of American Celebrity Culture.)

Holding out for a hero for the rest of the night,

Gary

——-

Chris’ teleplay is based on the 1997 novel by New York Times best-selling author Beverly Lewis

Hey Gary,

Sorry it took so long to reply.  I was in North Carolina this past week on the set of a movie I wrote for the Hallmark Channel. It’s a very thought-provoking article and it was a pleasure to read.  Thanks for asking me to weigh in!  My thoughts are below:

To me, one of the most interesting ideas your article raises is the concept of intentionality. Edwards and Whitefield actively promoted their own celebrity.  As you note about Edwards, “Without him providing the story, there is no story, and therefore, no celebrity.”  These men were intentional about creating and using their celebrity for the glory of God, and their actions mattered.

This seems counterintuitive to a traditional understanding of the Christian call to deny one’s self. But your examination of Edwards and Whitefield’s public relations efforts suggests an intriguing idea: Perhaps a Christian utilizing media to promote his own celebrity is not a contradiction, especially in the media-driven 21st century. It’s arguably an example of Jesus’ command to be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” A Christian who acquires celebrity is not necessarily a bad thing.

A rough analogy might be the historical use of icons in prayer.  The Christian doesn’t worship the image itself, but rather they prayerfully use the icon as a means to help them focus on God.  For instance, a person may have a picture of Mother Theresa hanging on the wall, but they don’t worship Mother Theresa.  Rather, her image inspires them to be more Christ-like.  When viewed from that perspective, a “Christian celebrity” can be an important means to draw the attention of both others toward God.

That said, of course, a Christian’s foray into celebrity is fraught with certain perils.

Kim Kardashian’s picture might serve as a Worship Icon for some, but only as a pseudo-celebrity

One obvious danger (especially in our media age) is the temptation to achieve fame quickly, without sacrifice or virtue. That’s why your distinction between true heroic celebrity and pseudo-celebrity is so important.

Another challenge for the Christian celebrity is that some consumers simply hunger for “junk food” media and don’t want to be challenged by heroic celebrity. It’s easier (and more pleasant) to absorb the latest tabloid headline about Kim Kardashian’s sex life than it is to consider a story about Saddleback pastor Rick Warren’s efforts to fight AIDS in Africa.  The Kardashian story doesn’t force a person to examine his fellow human’s suffering and, by inference, his own responsibility to help alleviate that suffering.

Rick and Kay Warren’s efforts to fight AIDS in Africa makes them Icons of heroic celebrity

A third challenge has to do with a Christian’s true motivation for acquiring celebrity. Your article mentions Christians “who would aspire to public celebrity.”  For a Christian, this aspiration cannot be for its own sake.  It comes down to the question: Does a Christian truly want to use their celebrity for the glory of God or do they simply crave the affirmation and attention that they imagine celebrity will bring them?  To answer this question honestly requires maturity and a well-developed understanding of one’s self and faith, which Edwards and Whitefield seemed to possess.  As you point out, both Edwards and Whitefield were more prepared to responsibly handle their celebrity than others may have been, and perhaps that’s why God bestowed it upon them.

But this raises another interesting question: the distinction between intentionally generating celebrity in an effort to glorify God, or simply recognizing and utilizing it if it happens to be bestowed upon you. It’s kind of like the old chicken-egg question.  Which came first?  The celebrity itself, which gives the Christian a platform to promote his worldview?  Or the intentional effort to generate the celebrity in hopes that it will provide that platform?

Your article does a great job of raising these kinds of questions, which is an invaluable step toward creating a dialogue among Christian culture-makers.  This dialogue is crucial in helping Christians negotiate the tension between being faithful and being a celebrity.

Chris Easterly

Writer, UNNATURAL HISTORY (CN, 2010) and THE SHUNNING (Hallmark, 2011).

Related links:

Influence Versus Popularity on Twitter: Kim Kardashian Case Study

Twitter stunned KimKardashian earns $10k per tweet

RickWarren Among Forbes’20 Most Influential Twitter Celebrities

Rick and Kay Warren Host World AIDS Day

Hollywood Responds to “Paparazzi in the Hands of an Angry God”

The goal of Two Handed Warriors is to foster an ongoing conversation seeking to redefine, re-envision, and then reconstruct the relationship between faith and culture.

Toward that end, I am posting a few responses to Paparazzi in the Hands of an Angry God from leaders in the Hollywood community in hope it might spur others to join the conversation. (Tomorrow, I will post responses from leaders in educational community.)

They begin with the most congratulatory and move on to the most critical, which is of course where all conversations get interesting.

They raise some important questions both those who build faith and those who create culture, and more importantly, for those who do both.

Read Paparazzi and the thoughts below and then jump into the conversation,

Gary

———-

I am no historian, theologian, philosopher, or qualified cultural critic, but your article hit a cord with me.  The whole idea of celebrity, pseudo or otherwise, is a fundamental dilemma for our culture in general and certainly for Christians in particular.  Well done!

David McFadzean
Writer, producer, and partner in Wind Dancer Films; Executive producer, Home Improvement (ABC), What Women Want (2000)

————

Great article! Well done.  I wish this were still the case today: “Yet for a cultural hero to be a public role model, they need to be both virtuous and famous.”

John David Ware
Founder and President
168 Film Project
Burbank, CA

Great article. You cannot help but be humbled by the life of Edwards and Whitefield.

We are indeed…”called to be missionaries in a media‐driven culture. Wishing it weren’t so won’t make that fact go away. To impact our image‐driven generation for the kingdom of God will require entering the fray prayerfully, thoughtfully, and with great excellence.”

My great fear is that we may not now have men who have the humility and virtue needed to be used by God in the way He used Edwards and Whitefield.

I hope you consider composing a shorter version of this call for use in more popular Christian publications (for the less scholarly of us readers).

Michael Warren
Executive producer: Family Matters, Step by Step; Associate producer: Happy Days, The Partridge Family.

———

I very much enjoyed your paper about Edwards and Whitefield and the notoriety they experienced.

I was just looking for a bit more differentiation between God-given celebrity and human-driven celebrity.  I just know of too many young Christian actors and writers out here who dream of being famous so they can be used of God, when it’s actually the opposite – letting themselves be used of God might lead to recognition.

I think the threads are all there, but I was looking for a paragraph or so on the last page that made those clear.  Your example of C.S. Lewis was well-chosen.  This was a man who would have very much preferred his solitude and small circle of friends, but responded humbly when the attention came.  Edwards and Whitefield had to have been similar in their approach to obeying God, wherever He led.

Jack Gilbert
Writing Program Resident Faculty
Act One: Hollywood Above the Line

Read more responses and join the discussion at: Paparazzi n the Hands of an Angry God

Using Worldview to Create Academy Award-winning Films (Series Introduction)

Striving to attain mastery as a Two Handed Warrior occasionally results in some very enjoyable if unintended consequences. Learning to “reverse engineer” Academy Award-winning films in order to teach worldview (see Teaching Worldview Through Film) somehow led to my inadvertently developing a unique skill-set for analyzing how filmmakers create Academy Award-winning films.

A true script consultant, such as Linda Seger or Key F. Payton, has read thousands of screenplays and can instantly recognize a myriad of factors that might improve an unfinished script.  I, on the other hand, hate reading screenplays, and often can’t tell the difference between snappy dialogue and good scenery.

However, in the kingdom of the blind the one eyed man is king. Since few (if any) script consultants are trained in worldview thinking, I can sometimes help screenwriters and creative executives in story development in a way that others can’t.  The highly intuitive use of worldview often employed by Academy Award-winning filmmakers in their character-transformation arcs is often clearer to me (the amateur) than it is to more broadly trained experts.

Guiding my students’ understanding of worldview in the classroom and serving as story consultant in Hollywood have become some of the most enjoyable aspects of my journey toward becoming a two handed warrior. Helping screenwriters, producers, directors, and creative executives “see” and clarify the worldview journey in their film is a very gratifying experience.

So while I would never claim to be an expert, I hope that this ongoing discussion of the relationship between worldview and story will be as helpful to filmmakers as it is to educators.

Who knows, it might even help a two-handed filmmaker win an Academy Award someday.

Now, that would be a very intended consequence,

Gary

Next Post in Series: Worldview and the Power of Story