Hollywood and Higher Education: Worldview and the Stories We Live By

Part one of ongoing series

Raised in a culture dominated by Hollywood storytelling—from Disney to Tarantino—my students often know Hollywood’s stories better than they know their own.

by Gary David Stratton, Ph.D.

A worldview is a commitment, a fundamental orientation of the heart, that can be expressed in a set of presuppositions, or better yet, in a story.
A worldview is a commitment, a fundamental orientation of the heart, that can be expressed in a set of presuppositions, or better yet, in a story.

The concept of worldview first proposed by Immanuel Kant in 1790 has grown to become one of the “central intellectual conceptions in contemporary thought and culture.” [2] After a century of growing influence in continental philosophy, worldview (from the German word weltanschauung) migrated to the U.S. in the late nineteenth-century and gained immediate acceptance in both philosophical inquiry and popular culture. As David Naugle notes in his magisterial Worldview: The History of a Concept, “Few transplanted European notions have enjoyed as much success as Weltanschauung, as a first cousin to ‘philosophy,’ in aptly capturing the intrinsic human aspiration to formulate a worthy view of life” [3]

Over the course of the twentieth-century worldview grew to embody neo-evangelicalism’s attempt to reconstruct intellectually rigorous higher education on both sides of the Reformed-Wesleyan divide. It became foundational not only to teaching the disciplines of philosophy and theology, but the entire larger project of the integration of faith and learning. As Arthur Holmes declares in his highly influential, The Idea of a Christian College:

A world and life view is not the same things as theology… [Theology] looks within, whereas a Christian worldview looks without, at life and thought in other departments and disciplines, in order to see these other things from the standpoint of revelation and as an interrelated whole. Integration is ultimately concerned to see things from a Christian perspective, to penetrate thought with that perspective, to think Christianly. [4]

By the mid-1970’s, freshman worldview courses began to appear in the catalogs of Christian College Consortium (CCC), and Council for Christian Colleges and Universities  (CCCU) schools. [5] James W. Sire’s The Universe Next Door: A Basic World View Catalog (1976) [6] became the gold standard of worldview textbooks. Universe traces Sires’ framework for eight philosophical macro-worldviews—Christian Theism, Deism, Naturalism, Nihilism, Existentialism, New Age, Eastern Pantheistic Monism, Postmodernism, and Islamic Theism [7]—differentiated by their answers to seven key questions regarding, ultimate reality, the physical universe, anthropology, death, epistemology, ethics, and history. In time Sire’s definition of worldview became ipso facto orthodoxy for countless worldview courses:

worldview is a commitment, a fundamental orientation of the heart, that can be expressed as a story or in a set of presuppositions (assumptions which may be true, partially true, or entirely false) which we hold (consciously or subconsciously, consistently or inconsistently) about the basic constitution of reality, and that provides the foundation on which we live and move and have our being. [8]

The Worldview Classroom Disconnect

This emphasis on worldview was good news for the future of American evangelicalism, but often bad news for the faculty assigned to teach these courses. Worldview is a difficult enough philosophical concept for first-year students to grasp. When coupled with the reality that many of the faculty assigned to teach these courses had little or no academic preparation in philosophy, they often worked far better in principle than in practice.

This was the precise situation wherein I found myself as low man on the faculty totem pole at a an evangelical university in the 1990’s.  My first term as a full-time faculty member included  three sections of our newly created first-year worldview course. A previous version of the class had been, in the words of my department chair, “an unmitigated disaster.” It was my job to try to fix it. In a school whose tenure and promotion policies were heavily tied to student evaluations, it was the existential equivalent of having my short-lived academic career pass before my eyes. To say that I spent that summer in prayer and fasting for wisdom as to how to help the course connect with students would be a gross understatement.

Stories articulate, legitimate, support, and modify our worldviews.
Stories articulate, legitimate, support, and modify our worldviews.

Even as a non-philosopher my problem wasn’t so much grasping the course content as much as it was finding connections between those worldview concepts and lives of my students. Effective teaching is the art of taking what students do know and connecting it to what they don’t know. So I spent the summer desperately searching for at least one common experience that nearly all my eighteen-year-old students knew; something I could use to build a bridge that might make worldview concepts come alive for them.

Then, just as all seemed lost, I woke one morning with a blinding realization. While my students had been raised in a vast kaleidoscope of denominational churches, listened to uniquely personalized tastes in music, and watched a bewildering array of highly niched television shows, they all watched the same feature films. I had my answer: It was Hollywood!  I had exactly what I wanted—a way to connect worldview concepts to something my students already knew (and thereby save my academic career). Within a semester my department chair had exactly what he wanted—the course went from one of the lowest rated in the university to one of the highest.

The Power of World-interpreting Story

One of the primary reasons Hollywood proved to be such an effective tool for exploring worldview with my students is that worldviews are often best expressed as stories. My students accepted this as a self-evident starting point, but it is not always instantly obvious to the academy. While philosophers and theologians are likely to express their own worldview as a set of propositions, doctrines, or values it is just as critical to understand worldview as the stories we live by.

These world-interpreting stories provide a “foundation or governing platform upon which people think, interpret and know.” [9] Whether one views a worldview as the tapestry out of which we weave our interpretation of the “strings of experience,” [10] the picture on the box of the jigsaw puzzle that shows us where all the pieces of life should go,[11] or “a conceptual scheme by which we consciously or unconsciously place or fit everything we believe and by which we interpret and judge reality,”[12] it is stories that articulate, legitimate, support, and modify our worldviews. [13]

The Power of Personality-Shaping Story 

We make ourselves by subconsciously composing a continually evolving “heroic story of self” that forms the foundation of our identity.
We make ourselves by subconsciously composing a continually evolving “heroic story of self” that forms the foundation of our identity.

What I quickly discovered was that story served not only as the foundation of the philosophical macro-worldviews of societies and civilizations, they were also the primary basis for the psychological micro-worldviews out of which my individual students constructed their identities. Narrative psychology recognizes storytelling as the fundamental way in which human beings package our ideas and express ourselves. We do not so much discover ourselves through story so much as we make ourselves by subconsciously composing a continually evolving “heroic story of self” that forms much of our identity. As Dan P. McAdams, the father of narrative psychology asserts, “If you want to know me, then you must know my story, for my story defines who I am. And if I want to know myself, to gain insight into the meaning of my own life, then I, too, must come to know my own story.” [14]

Novelists and other creatives often capture this story-based idea of personal worldview in more poetic terms. Sue Monk Kid explains in her memoir, The Dance of the Dissident Daughter, “In a way humans are not made of skin and bone as much as we’re made of stories.”[15]  In Barry Lopez’s children’s classic, Crow tells Weasel, “The stories people tell have a way of  taking care of them.”[1] And in Patrick Rothfuss’s novel, The Name of the Wind, Bass tells the Chronicler, “It’s like everyone tells a story about themselves inside their own head. Always. All the time. We build ourselves out of that story. That story makes you what you are.” [16]  (See: Black Hawk Down: No One Asks to be a Hero… or Do They?)

As Hollywood story guru, Robert McKee argues:

(A)ll fine films, novels, and plays… give the audience a fresh model of life empowered with affective meaning… Our appetite for story is a reflection of the profound human need to grasp the pattern of living, not merely as an intellectual exercise, but within a personal, emotional experience. In the words of playwright Jen Anouilh, ‘Fiction gives life its form.'[17]

The Intertwining Stories in Macro and Micro Worldviews

The stories we create influence the stories of other people, those stories give rise to still others.
Fiction give life its form.

Of course there is a complicated relationship between the stories of our personal micro-worldviews and those of the corporate macro-worldviews that surround us. The raw materials for constructing our own life story are found not only our personal experiences, but also in the stories passed down to us by our families, churches, teachers, writers, and filmmakers.

At a very early age we begin to form our own identity by identifying with the heroes of the stories we hear.  Screenwriter Christopher Vogel rejoins, “Stories invite us to invest part of our personal identity in the Hero for the short duration of the experience. In a sense we become the Hero for a while. We project ourselves into the Hero’s psyche and see the world through her eyes.”[18] (See, the “Hero We Deserve” speech from The Dark Knight) The power of these heroic (or non-heroic) stories is nearly impossible to overstate, and difficult to separate from the world around us. As McAdams’ research demonstrates:

“The stories we create influence the stories of other people, those stories give rise to still others, and soon we find meaning and connection within a web of story making and story living… [W]e help to create the world we live in, at the same time that it is creating us.” [19]

Disney to Tarantino
We help to create the world we live in, at the same time that it is creating us.
We help to create the world we live in, at the same time that it is creating us.

Perhaps this is why I found Academy award-winning films [20] such a perfect vehicle for exploring the stories my students live by. Raised in a culture dominated by Hollywood storytelling—from the Disney Channel to Quentin Tarantino—my students often know Hollywood’s stories better than they know their own (and much better than they know epistemology.) By helping them grasp the worldview-shaping forces in the stories of their Hollywood heroes it became relatively easy for them to gain a reference point for exploring both the macro-worldviews that have influenced them, as well as the micro-worldview of the story of their own life.

If Hollywood provides us with much of the raw material of the stories we live by, why not return the favor? By teaching students to reverse engineer films using Hollywood’s approach to story structure, they quickly learned the structure their own life story so they could see the recurring patterns in the complicated web of meaning connecting their micro-worldview with the macro-worldviews around them. By teaching them Hollywood’s approach to heroic character development they learned to better cooperate with the story their divine author was crafting in the development of their own heroic character.

A Continuing Story

Raised in a culture dominated by Hollywood storytelling—from the Disney Channel to Quentin Tarantino—my students often know Hollywood's stories better than they know their own
Raised in a culture dominated by Hollywood storytelling—from the Disney Channel to Quentin Tarantino—my students often know Hollywood’s stories better than they know their own.

Fifteen years, over sixty worldview classes, and nearly 2,500 students later, I consider this unusual guidance from God to use films to explore the stories my students live by as one of the greatest answers to prayer in my professional life. I have used academy award-winning cinema to teach worldview to elite liberal arts students, über conservative Bible College students, pragmatic adult learners, and seasoned Hollywood film students and professionals. Nearly without exception the use of film has greatly heightened students’ grasp of the subtle nuance of worldview.

Along the way I have learned a things or two about both using film to teach worldview and using worldview to create films as well. Over the course of the next year, I will try to keep an ongoing series going relating some of the most useful insights I’ve had to date.

Next Posts in Series:

Casablanca and the Four Levels of Worldview: Why Everyone Meets at Rick’s

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

Deep Culture Impact: Is an Academy Award a Reliable Indicator of a Truly Great Film?


[1] Barry H. Lopez, Crow and Weasel (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1900), 60.

[2] David K. Naugle, Worldview: The History of a Concept (Grand Rapids, MI: W. B. Eerdmans, 2002), 66.

[3] Naugle, Worldview, 62.

[4] Arthur P. Holmes, The Idea of a Christian College (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 59-60.

[5] And later schools in the Association of Biblical Higher Education (ABHE) and the Association of Christian Schools International (ACSI).

[6] James W. Sire The Universe Next Door, 5th Edition (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009).

[7] Postmodernism was added to the 4th edition (2004), and Islamic Theism to the 5th Edition (2009).

[8] Sire, Universe, 20.

[9] Naugle, Worldview, 297.

[10] Robert A. Harris, The Integration of Faith and Learning: A Worldview Approach (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2004), 78.

[11] Mark P. Cosgrove, Foundations of Christian Thought: Faith, Learning, and the Christian Worldview (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2006), 19, 20, 24.

[12] Ronald H. Nash, Worldviews in Conflict: Choosing Christianity in a World of Ideas (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992), 16.

[13] N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 116.

[14] Dan P. McAdams, The Stories We Live By: Personal Myths and the Making of the Self (New York: Guilford Press, 1997), 11.

[15] Sue Monk Kidd, The Dance of the Dissident Daughter (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1996), 72.

[16] Patrick Rothfuss, The Name of the Wind  (New York: DAW Books, 2007), 111.

[17] Christopher Vogler. The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, 3rd Edition. (Studio City, CA: Michael Wiese Productions, 2007), 30.

[18] Robert McKee, Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting (New York: Regan Books, 1997), 12.

[19] McAdams, Stories, 37.

[20] Actually, I started out by using only Academy Award-winning films, but have since altered my criteria for what makes a true culture making film. See, Deep Culture Impact:  Why an Oscar isn’t a Reliable Indicator of a Truly Great Film.


Relationships, Theology and Suffering: How College Students Grow Spiritually

Part 5 of series The Spiritual Lives of Christian College Students. The fifth and final reflection on the spirituality of students attending Christian colleges based upon Todd’s national research project, informed by Spiritual Transformation Inventory (STI) data from over 5,000 students attending CCCU and ABHE colleges and universities.

by Todd W. Hall, PhD

We asked students across the United States to rate how various aspects of the school environment and programs impacted their spiritual development, ranging from very negative to very positive.

The top three growth facilitators were peer relationships, working through suffering and Bible/theology classes. This and numerous findings from both studies highlight the centrality of relationships and a biblical worldview for spiritual development. This suggests that we need to communicate a theological framework for growing through relationships, and for the role of suffering in spiritual growth. In addition, we need to develop a relational environment that will help students process their suffering in a growth-producing way.

Worldview Formation and Spiritual Growth

This is a stage when students begin put together the theological pieces of a Christian worldview. A junior I interviewed, who I’ll call Steve, talked about how he views his whole faith differently as a result of his Bible/theology classes at national known Christian University.

“[There were] all these things that I guess I didn’t think about before and didn’t really know existed from my faith in middle school and high school, before attending a Christian College,” he said. “So I would get in the Word but there was no theological understanding of piecing things together from Scripture. … I just feel like there has been this whole transformation of the way I view God and Christ and even my relationship with him.”

A Christian worldview, however, must transcend our head knowledge and permeate our souls. Research clearly indicates that a biblical worldview, morality and character become real in one’s life through close relationships, one of which is our relationship with God. Close human relationships, particularly with authority figures, are also crucial to help students see what it looks like in real life to live out integrity, a biblical worldview and, most of all, love.

The Role of Suffering in Spiritual Growth

Crises and trials are common in the loves of most college students. Over half the sample reported experiencing a crisis in the past year. When asked to describe their crises in an open-ended format, the most frequently reported crises included loss of relationship, relationship stresses and health concerns. We also asked students to describe their most difficult spiritual struggles, and the top three they reported were relational conflict, busyness and lust/sex/pornography.

Processing suffering was a key catalyst of spiritual growth, because it often gives students access to deep places in their soul that move them away from God — places we would not otherwise know existed. Trials shake up their negative gut-level expectations of God and other important people in our lives. Working through trials, however, always occurs in the context of relationships and community.

The Role of Relationships and Authoritative Communities in Spiritual Growth

The challenge for this stage is to navigate relationships with God and process of solidifying one’s identity and learning how to love.  A group of scholars recently developed the idea of “authoritative communities” as the kind of community that is necessary for human development. These are communities that provide structure (e.g., morality is embedded in the community) and love and warmth. These communities have an idea, even if implicit, of what it means to be a good person, and the leaders provide love to the younger members in order to help them become good people.

At its best, this is what a Christian College community can and should strive to be. College students, like all of us, are loved into loving. I think I speak for the Christian College administration, faculty and staff in saying that we are on a journey to try to do this better than we ever have before.


Today’s College Students Fit one of Five Spirituality Types, by Todd W. Hall, PhD

Part 4 of series The Spiritual Lives of Christian College Students. The fourth of five reflections on the spirituality of students attending Christian colleges based upon Todd’s national research project, informed by Spiritual Transformation Inventory (STI) data from over 5,000 students attending CCCU and ABHE colleges and universities.

by Todd W. Hall, PhD

There is no “one size fits all” spiritual growth plan. Every student has unique needs. While colleges and universities cannot tailor spiritual growth programs for every individual, they can start to identify groups of students with different needs.

The Spiritual Transformation Inventory (STI) and the national data from this project help us move in this direction. We found five different types or groups in terms of their pattern of scores on the 22 scales. This suggests that we need to identify these groups so that we can tailor spiritual formation plans to their needs.

Type 1 – Secure and Engaged (21.4 percent of the sample) students are quite spiritually mature for this stage. This group was highly secure in their sense of connection to God and highly spiritually engaged in practices and community. We need to further strengthen these mature students and encourage them towardleadership.

Type 2 – Distant yet Engaged (15.2 percent). These students report a distant connection with God, and were moderately engaged in spiritual practices and community. We need to help this group develop relationships in which they feel seen and known to address their distant connection to God.

Type 3 – Moderate Security and Engagement (25 percent). This group reported an average degree of security with God and spiritual engagement. We need to help these students find their strengths.

Type 4 – Anxious and Disengaged (27.2 percent).  This group was highly insecure in their connection to God (mainly anxious) and moderately low in their spiritual engagement. This group needs help with developing what attachment theory calls a “secure base”; that is, a deep, gut-level sense that caregivers are consistently responsive to their emotional and relational needs.

Type 5 – Insecure and Disengaged (11.2 percent). This group was highly insecure (both distant and anxious connection to God) and very low in their engagement in practices and community. This group is the most spiritually immature, and represents a high-risk group for emotional problems and dropout. We need to proactively identify these students and begin mentoring them at the beginning of their freshman year.

Knowing that our student spirituality is not monolithic but varied, we can better develop relationships, classroom approaches, co-curricular and even curricular programming that better meets the unique needs of each and every student.

Next:  Relationships, Theology and Suffering: How Students Grow Spiritually


Christian College Seniors Report Lower Spiritual Vitality than Freshman, by Todd W. Hall, PhD

The third of five reflections on The Spiritual Lives of Christian College Students based upon Todd’s national research project, including Spiritual Transformation Inventory data from over 5,000 students attending CCCU and ABHE colleges and universities.

by Todd W. Hall, PhD

On national data collected at one point in time, we found that seniors scored lower than freshmen on 19 of the 22 measures.

When we look at how students’ spirituality changes over time, many of the indicators of spiritual development went down over time, but some went up. For example, scores trended worse on the frequency of spiritual disciplines, the centrality of faith and an anxious connection to God, but better on an overall sense of spiritual well-being. On national data collected at one point in time, we found that seniors scored lower than freshmen on 19 of the 22 measures.

How do we make sense of this? When we look at this in the context of brain development and “emerging adulthood,” I think this is probably a normal developmental trajectory. The brain goes through a massive reorganization between the ages of 12 and 18, and this continues into the early 20s. Parallel to these brain changes, students’ identity, sense of self, and worldview all go through an extensive reorganization during this period as well. With all this brain and identity reorganization, it makes sense that this is a time of spiritual instability.

Jeffrey Arnett captured a developmental phenomenon that has been growing for the past 50 years with the concept of “emerging adulthood,” roughly the age span of 18 to 29. Emerging adults tend to feel somewhat like a kid, and somewhat like an adult, but not fully like either one.
In this stage, students are at a spiritual crossroads: They are figuring out what kind of person they want to be, what kind of people they want to travel life with and what kind of work they want to do. They are also figuring out what role they want God to play in their lives. This leads them to travel many pathways in a short period of time. This means that manifestations of their spirituality will often go down.

Decreases on some indicators of spiritual development during the college years actually reflect a deepening of one’s faith.

It may be, however, that decreases on some indicators of spiritual development during the college years actually reflect a deepening of one’s faith. This is a period that often requires a certain deconstruction of one’s identity, sense of self, and worldview in order to build the foundation for an adult identity and a more mature spirituality.

In light of this, I suspect that as we interview seniors in the current study we are conducting, we will find evidence that their spirituality is deeper than that of freshmen, even though they report lower scores than freshmen on self-report measures. This will help us better understand spiritual development during emerging adulthood.

Next: College Students tend to fit one of Five Spirituality “Types”

Christian College Students are Secure but Unpracticed Spiritually

Part 2 of series The Spiritual Lives of Christian College Students. The second of five reflections on the spirituality of students attending Christian colleges based upon Todd’s national research project, including Spiritual Transformation Inventory data from over 5,000 students attending CCCU and ABHE colleges and universities.

by Todd W. Hall, PhD

Our study of over 3,000 students from nearly 40 Christian colleges across the United States and Canada indicates that:

Christian college students feel a secure relational connection to God, experience a strong sense of meaning and are developing a Christian perspective on life, and yet they are low on practicing spiritual disciplines.

On the one hand, this sense of secure connection to God, meaning and Christian perspective is noteworthy good news. Despite the instability and struggles of this stage, the breakdown of the family and increasing rates of emotional problems among children and college students, students attending Christian colleges have a secure connection with God, which is the foundation for spiritual development.

On the other hand, the data tells us that students at Christian colleges are generally not practicing their faith in a substantial way. Why might this be? It may be partly due to busyness, which was the most frequently reported struggle. It may also be that students feel that spiritual input is built into their environment so they don’t need to be intentional about it — as one student, who I’ll call Jim, described to me in an interview.

“Even when you have a bad day, you are going to Bible classes, you’re going to chapel, you’re all around your Christian friends and your days look so similar,” he said. “It just seems like it’s easier to kind of coast internally, spiritually, and in my heart. Whereas being at home or being out of the environment, I have to get into the Word for the strength of the Word and that is why I have to go and be with the Lord every morning.”

In general, I think we need a better understanding of how to (1) help students be intentional about their spiritual growth and (2) continue the process of owning their faith. This characteristic may also relate to the second reflection: students’ developmental stage and how that impacts spiritual transformation over time. To the extent that students are focused on trying on new identities in love, work and faith, spiritual practices may go by the wayside.

Next: College Seniors Report Lower Spiritual Vitality than Freshman

Tough Questions for Christian Colleges: The End of the (Evangelical) World As We Know It, by Richard Flory

Richard Flory, one of my very bright former colleagues at a stalwart CCCU school, is currently associate research professor of sociology and senior research associate at the University of Southern California’s Center for Religion and Civic Culture.

In the aftermath of the Rob Bell universalism controversy Richard is asking some very tough questions confronting leaders of the Christian College movement about the future of Christian Higher Education in the midst of dramatic worldview shift among younger evangelicals.

I’m interested in everyone’s take on this, but especially CCCU and ABHE leaders in particular.  What are your thoughts?

The End of the (Evangelical) World As We Know It

USC Associate Professor Richard Flory

Several recent reports suggest that the evangelical Christian world, as we have come to know it over the last 30 years, may be changing forever…

(R)eports of younger evangelicals suggest that they have a distinctly different perspective than their elders on such issues as gay identity and marriage, the environment, how to address poverty and other social justice issues. As writers for the New York Times and TransMissions have reported, they are even, apparently, arguing against a traditional conception of hell.

While it is not exactly clear the extent to which these beliefs are really a part of the worldview of younger evangelicals, or how they may translate into different forms of social action, they do suggest that important changes are unfolding within a important sector of American society…

There are several angles that reporters might pursue, starting with whether the theological reorientation of charismatic leaders like Rob Bell really represents a broad trend within evangelicalism (or are they getting attention because they’re savvy about self-promotion and the usefulness of pushing their opponents’ buttons).

Further, reporters need to ask not only how many younger evangelicals there are who support a more progressive interpretation of the Gospel, but what influence they might actually have on politics and culture.

For example, what might these changes mean for key evangelical institutions such as churches, colleges and seminaries? John Thune and Mike Huckabee, two potential Republican presidential candidates, are products of evangelical schools. Will these institutions support changes in scriptural interpretation and social ethics, or will they maintain their traditional role of working to keep young evangelicals within the range of acceptable beliefs and practices?

…Ultimately, only time will tell. But in the meantime, there are many lines of inquiry that reporters can pursue to help us understand whether and how younger evangelicals represent new wine in old wineskins. Or whether they are just the same vintage in a shiny new bottle.

Your Thoughts?

Richard is the co-author of Growing Up in America: The Power of Race in the Lives of Teens (Stanford, 2010) and Finding Faith: The Spiritual Quest of the Post-Boomer Generation (Rutgers, 2008).

Read Richard’s entire article on USC’s website.