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

Series Introduction

The study of the Word of God, and the World of God, empowered by the Spirit of God has proven profoundly transformational in the lives of students and in their ability to transform church and society.

by Gary David Stratton • Senior Editor

Higher education has played a key role in the church’s training of true two-handed warriors since its earliest days. One could argue that the manner in which Jesus trained his apostles was so consistent with first-century rabbinic educational practices that the church was actually established with a ‘school’ at its very heart. And there is little doubt that the church began establishing more formal schools as early as the First Century when Mark the Evangelist and/or his disciples founded the world’s first ‘Christian College’ in the catechetical school connected to the Roman rhetorical university at Alexandria. Soon, this blending of the Spirit-driven early church with the truth-seeking Greco-Roman liberal arts tradition proved a powerful combination.

"One Athanasius against the world, was in fact, one Christian college against their culture." (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
“One Athanasius against the world,” was in fact, “One Christian college against their culture.” (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

College Against Culture

It is difficult to imagine what European civilization might have become without the integrative mindset fostered among the faculty and students of the Alexandrian school, including three of the most influential minds of the Patristic era: Clement, Origen, and Athanasius.  This single educational community provided clear-headed theological reflection and courageous cultural leadership in some of the most significant turning points in early church history.

This was particularly evident in their fourth century battle against the heresy of Arianism. By this time the Alexandrian school had grown into an academic powerhouse with strong secular connections and studies, so much so that Eusebius reports that even nonChristian noblemen entrusted their sons to instruction there. The school became the training ground from which their most famous alumnus, Athanasius, launched his attack against the official Roman endorsement of Arianism. Each time he was rebuffed and even excommunicated at Rome, Athanasius would return to Alexandria for counsel and prayer with the faculty and students of this robust educational community. The common perception that orthodoxy finally prevailed because of Athanasius contra mundum, “One Athanasius against the world,” is far too individualistic an interpretation.  The battle was actually, “One Christian college against their culture.” And the Christian college won.

Over the centuries since, Christian colleges and theological seminaries have often proven significantly more effective than local churches in nurturing faculty and students whose leadership is genuinely transformational. Although God often furthers his kingdom through unschooled saints, a surprising number of the names in the honor-roll of church history are intricately connected to the schools where they studied and/or taught. Martin Luther and the University of Wittenberg; Timothy Dwight and Yale; John Henry Newman and Oxford, Charles G. Finney and Oberlin College; Fr. Michael Scanlon and the Franciscan University of Steubenville; D. L. Moody and A. J. Gordon and the institutions that bear their names to this day, each stand as a monument to the extent and influence of Christian higher education.

The Life of the Mind and the Life of the Spirit

One of the keys to the influence of these learning communities is the surprising degree to which the life of the mind and the life of the Spirit can and often do coexist in these learning communities. Church-related colleges and universities birthed many of the most significant reformation and renewal movements in history, while most reformation and renewal movements have, in turn, spawned colleges themselves. This is particularly event in American higher education where more than half of our first 600 colleges were established by evangelicals. In fact, the broad historic definition of the term evangelical is best applied to movements who hold to both the power of the Holy Spirit to produce new birth and holy lives with the power of the holy scriptures to guide and shape the life and practice of the church.

It is in these renewal schools that the integration of the life of the Spirit and the life of the mind has achieved its greatest synergy. The study of the Word of God, and the World of God, when empowered by the Spirit of God has proven profoundly transformational in the lives of students and in their ability to transform church and society. In other words, they were effective because they were able to train young men and women to become what we have called two-handed warriors. By cultivating both the life of the mind and the life of the Spirit they were able to produce students capable of mastering both faith formation and culture making.

The Troubled History of Maintaining a Two-Handed Approach

John Wesley QuoteThis potential Spirit/Mind synergy is of particular importance to faith-based colleges at the outset of the twenty-first-century. The dawn of the new millennium finds the evangelical College movement emerging from a century of cultural isolation into a remarkable renaissance. Attendance is booming, endowments are up, intellectual respectability is growing, U.S. News and World Report ratings are climbing.  It is quite possible that the twenty-first-century will present the Christian college movement with the opportunity to articulate a distinctively Christian worldview in American society in a manner unparalleled in over one hundred years.

However, the history of American higher education is littered with colleges who have abandoned their lofty ambitions to train two-handed warriors for a decidedly more “one-handed” approach. Burtchaell (1998), Marsden and Longfield (1992), Marsden (1994), Reuben (1996), Benne (2001), Ringenberg (2006), Budde and Wright (2004) have carefully outlined how easily colleges lose their spiritual cutting-edge. Whether Catholic or Protestant, Reformed or Wesleyan, nearly every time a church-founded college or university manages to achieve societal respectability and financial independence they have immediately abandoned their integrative mission. Like prodigal sons, once they “received their inheritance” they have immediately “set off for a distant country where they squandered their wealth” and their ability to train true two-handed warriors. Their graduates go into the world with one hand tied behind their backs to the detriment of their own souls and the culture they create. It turns out that balancing a commitment to the life of the mind and the life of the Spirit even in a Christian college is not so easy as one would suppose.

The Twenty-First Century Challenge

Will the twenty-first-century be any different? Burtchaell’s (1998) chronicling of the demise of nearly every Christian college in American history (including at least two CCCU schools) reads like a modern-day Book of Judges. Knowing that within a few generations of the death of nearly every college’s founding leadership, “the people of God did what was evil in the sight of the LORD and worshipped other Gods” (Judges 3:7) is depressing reading for anyone who has given their life to Christian higher education.

Burtchaell concludes his book with a sobering challenge:

“The failures of the past, so clearly patterned, so foolishly ignored. And so lethally repeated, emerge pretty clearly from these stories. Anyone who requires further imagination to recognize and remedy them is not up to the task of trying again, and better” (p. 851).

Will the leaders of 21st century Christian colleges rise to his challenge? The future of two-handed higher education may very well depend upon it.


In future posts I will explore key movements history of higher education and how their educational philosophy and practices could help 21st century Christian colleges nurture two-handed warriors.

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

 

Notes

Benne, R. (2001). Quality with soul: how six premier colleges and universities keep faith with their religious traditions. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

Budde, M. L, & Wright, J. W. (2004).  Conflicting allegiances: the church-based university in a liberal democratic society . Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press.

Burtchaell, J. T. (1998). The dying of the light: the disengagement of colleges and universities from their Christian churchesGrand Rapids, Mich: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co.

Holmes, A. F. (1975). The idea of a Christian college. Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans.

Marsden, G. M., & Longfield, B. J. (1992). The Secularization of the academy. New York: Oxford University Press.

Marsden, G. M. (1994). The soul of the American university: From protestant establishment to established nonbelief. New York: Oxford University Press.

Newman, J. H. (1852). The idea of a university: Defined and illustrated. London: Longmans, Green & Co.

Reuben, J. A. (1996). The making of the modern university: Intellectual transformation and the marginalization of morality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Ringenberg, W. C. (2006). The Christian college: A history of Protestant higher education in America, 2nd edition. Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Academic.

Scripture and Culture-Making: What Christian Colleges could Learn from Rabbinic Higher Education

Part 3 in series: The Holy Spirit and the Liberal Arts: The Future of ‘Two Handed’ Higher Education
“Today’s Christian teenagers know abundant details about the lives of favorite musicians and television stars or about what it takes to get into a good college, but most are not very clear on who Moses and Jesus were.”
-Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton

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

N.T. Wright concludes The Challenge of Jesus with a challenge of his own to 21st Century Christians:

“The gospel of Jesus points us and indeed urges us to be at the leading edge of the whole culture, articulating in story and music and art and philosophy and education and poetry and politics and theology and even–heaven help us–Biblical studies, a worldview that will mount the historically-rooted Christian challenge to both modernity and postmodernity, leading the way…with joy and humor and gentleness and good judgment and true wisdom. I believe if we face the question, ‘if not now, then when?’ if we are grasped by this vision we may also hear the question, ‘if not us, then who? And if the gospel of Jesus is not the key to this task, then what is?”

Wright’s challenge begs the question whether or not 21st Century Christian colleges hold the gospel of Jesus Christ in as high a regard as the Jewish educators of Jesus’ day held the Torah. Like Greco-Roman higher education, Rabbinic higher education was deeply devoted to the development of the life of the mind in close-knit learning communities.  However, the distinguishing characteristic of Rabbinic Higher Education was not so much its pedagogy as its remarkable devotion to its subject matter–Torah. Whereas Greco-Roman students were expected to master the ever-changing philosophies of their masters, students in Rabbinic higher education strove for mastery of the unchanging word of God. The “words of Torah were essentially divine.  God’s words were part and parcel of God’s essence” (Hirshman, 2009, p. 30).

Faithfulness Before Innovation

This devotion to the word of God resulted in a corresponding commitment to faithfulness versus novelty in Jewish education. “No one was free to choose his own credo or ignore the sage’s mediation in approaching the divine… The way of life was learned, and the worldview the product of particular knowledge and distinctive modes of thinking about and analyzing that knowledge.”  The object of Jewish higher education was “full mastery of God’s word and full understanding of it…” resulting a intimacy with the words of Torah” written on the pages of the heart (Neusner, 1999, p. iii). Education, or more particularly, learning Torah, became “the Jewish religious pursuit par excellence…” (Hirshman, p. 3, 30). In short, they were true two handed warriors.

Jewish boys (and many girls) entered Beit Sefer (primary school) charged with mastering the Torah before the age of thirteen. This mastery often extended to the oral memorization of enormous portions of the Torah, as well as rudimentary reading and writing.  After their bar mitzvah, and the corresponding accountability for obedience to the law, the best students were allowed to go on to  Beit Midrash (secondary school, literally, “study house”), while they learned a trade. The Beit Midrash curriculum added the study of the Writings and the Prophets to that of Torah, and more importantly, Talmud, the art of Rabbinic interpretations comprised of both Midrash—inquiry into the sacred texts, and Mishna, the study of oral law independent of its scriptural basis.

Rabbinic Higher Education

Only the most remarkable secondary students were allowed to go on to the Jewish version of higher education, by obtaining permission to study as a talmid (disciple/student) of a great Rabbi.  Teaching Rabbis made up a “collegium of sages” responsible for applying the law of God in new situations and for passing on the tradition of scriptural interpretation to new students. “Each begins as a disciple of a master, then himself becomes a master to the next generation of disciples, in a long chain of learning” (Neusner, p. iv).

The goal of faithfulness to the word of God drove the master-student relationship and teaching style of the study house. Rabbinic education was consumed with recitation and discussion, not merely because of pedagogical considerations, but also for theological reasons. The Rabbis so reverenced the written words of Scripture, no other texts were considered worthy of study. Rabbinic higher education was an oral culture, perpetrated and preserved by an ongoing high-level discussion that eclipsed even Socratic dialogue in its relentless back and forth nature.

Rabbi Hillel and his Talmidim (Unattributed)

In order to facilitate this dialogue, Talmidim were expected to follow their master night-and-day as they taught their tight-knit band of brothers in the study house, over meals, and in the market place. “Study was a process of unending repetition and ubiquitous recitation that transpired in almost every possible venue” (Chilton, and Neusner, 2005, p. 131-132). A good disciple stuck so close to his teacher that by the end of the day he was literally covered with dust kicked up by his master’s feet (Vander Laan). Through it all, Talmidim strove to attain the prerequisite mastery of Torah, Midrash, and Mishnah necessary to become sages themselves so that they too could join the unbroken chain of faithfulness. (For an outstanding discussion of 1st Century BCE Rabbi Hillel and his application to 21st Century culture making, see, Joseph Telushkin’s, Hillel: If Not Now, When?)

From Studying Scripture to Making Culture

Most importantly for our discussion, the goal of this remarkable devotion to the word of God was not privatized faith, but culture making. Rabbinic education was birthed in the cultural crisis of the Babylonian captivity and is certainly the best human explanation of how Jewish culture survived the Diaspora. While Moses commanded the night and day impartation of Torah to the next generation, leading Torah historian, Wilhelm Bacher, notes that Nehemiah’s reading the Torah before the post-exilic community in Jerusalem was the actual “birthday of ancient Jewish education” (cited in Hirshman, p. 121.) Jewish leaders were painfully aware of their society’s need for leaders soaked in the culture-making power of the word of God. “According to the Rabbinic ideal, all of Israel would be teachers, and ultimately masters, of Torah” (Chilton, p. 46). Only then could Jewish society reflect Torah in justice, charitable acts, gifts of first fruits and sacrifices (Hirshman, p. 19).

When the cultural chips were down, Rabbis had the courage to contrast the culture-making power of the Jewish study house, not with the Greco-Roman education, but with the theatre and circus, “pitting the two against one another on the level of popular culture” (Hirshman, p. 121). In most Roman cities the circus/theater and beit Midrash were within blocks of one another. However, unlike the Romans, Jewish commitment to the word of God led to a stronger emphasis upon education than entertainment. Romans flocked to bread and circus, while Jews gathered to study. The Rabbis were confident that, in the end, their deep culture would triumph over Rome’s shallow culture. The beit Midrash had helped them endure the cultural onslaught of Babylon and Persia. Rome would be no match for them. And while the process took much longer than they could have ever imagined, it was a strategy that stood the test of time.

 

From Deuteronomy to the SAT

Moses with the Ten Commandments (Philippe de Champaigne, 1648, Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia)
Moses with the Ten Commandments (Philippe de Champaigne, 1648, Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia)

It doesn’t take any stretch of the imagination to envision how this principle might apply to twenty-first century educators seeking to develop two-handed warriors fluent in both faith building and culture making. Entrance into Rabbinical higher education required an oral recitation of the entire Torah. Entrance to most Christian colleges today requires little more than an SAT score of 1500.  Entrance to early American liberal arts colleges required a comprehensive grasp of the English Bible. Graduation from most Christian colleges today requires little more than a rudimentary understanding of Scripture. Is it any wonder that pop culture is shaping our students more than their faith?

Whether one is referring to Catholics or Protestants, today’s ‘Christian culture’ is a mile wide and an inch deep. Education is losing out to entertainment at every level. As much as I value the culture-making force of the entertainment industry, the arts nearly always follow the intellectual currents of the day (Hunter, 2010, p. 87-88), and the only intellectual current flowing in pop culture today is a narcissistic, consumer-driven, individualism.

Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton’s research into America youth culture discovered that, “Many teenagers know abundant details about the lives of favorite musicians and television stars or about what it takes to get into a good college, but most are not very clear on who Moses and Jesus were.” As a result, “a strong, visible, salient, or intentional faith is not operating in the foreground of most teenager’s lives.” Their worldview is little more than “moralistic, therapeutic, deism,” or more specifically, “whatever.”

For Protestant and Catholic colleges and universities to be of any value in helping our faith communities resist this pop culture onslaught and grow into vibrant culture-making institutions ourselves we need to return to the wisdom of the Rabbi’s—a rigorous devotion to the word of God. Like Chaim Potok, the sages of the Rabbinic school might dare ask the leaders of today’s Christian colleges, “Do you have faith in the word of God?” Sometimes I’m not so sure. Our curriculum and campus culture certainly don’t appear to reflect that kind of faith. At least not in comparison to the Rabbinic schools.

Yet I suspect that our best hope for prevailing in the struggle for the souls of our colleges and universities may be engaging in a Rabbinic commitment to the mastery of the worldview-forming, character-shaping narratives of Scripture. I am not talking about a lightweight devotional band-aid, but an intellectually challenging and spiritually enriching student-teacher dialogue that dominates our campus culture and captures the hearts minds our students. Anything less may result in a cultural exile from which we will never return.

Chaim Potok gave voice to a more modern expression of this sentiment in his novel, In the Beginning: “If the Torah cannot go out into your world of scholarship and return stronger, then we are all fools and charlatans. I have faith in the Torah. I am not afraid of truth.”

As N.T. Wright challenges us: “If the gospel of Jesus is not the key to this task, then what is?  If not us, then who? If not now, then when?”

 

Next post in the series: With Prayer in the School of Christ: The Liberal Arts and the Knowledge of God.

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To read series from the beginning go to:

The Holy Spirit and the Liberal Arts: Two Handed Higher Education.

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Notes

Wilhelm Bacher, Tradition und Tradenten in den Schulen Palästinas und Babyloniens: Studien und Materialien zur Entstehungsgeschichte des Talmud. (Berlin: W. de Gruyter, 1966).

Bruce Chilton, and Jacob Neusner, “Paul and Gamaliel.” In, Alan J. Avery-Peck, ed. Review of Rabbinic Judaism. (Leiden: Brill, 2005).

Marc G. Hirshman, The stabilization of rabbinic culture, 100 C.E.-350 C.E.: texts on education and their late antique context (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).

James Davidson Hunter, To change the world: the irony, tragedy, and possibility of Christianity in the late modern world. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).

Jacob Neusner, The four stages of rabbinic Judaism (London: Routledge, 1999).

Chaim Potok, In the beginning. (New York: Knopf, 1975).

Christian Smith, and Melinda Lundquist Denton. Soul searching: the religious and spiritual lives of American teenagers. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).

Richard Valantasis, Douglas K. Bleyle, and Dennis C. Haugh, The Gospels and Christian life in history and practice (Lanham, Md: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2009).

Ray Vander Laan, Stephen Sorenson, and Amanda Sorenson. In the dust of the rabbi: 5 faith lessons. (Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 2006). See also, Ray Vander Laan’s excellent website, Followtherabbi.com.

N.T. Wright. The Challenge of Jesus: rediscovering who Jesus was and is. (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 1999.)

Paparazzi in the Hands of an Angry God: The Great Awakening and the Birth of American Celebrity Culture

The Greatest Day in New England History

Think the fiery Puritan who preached America’s most famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of Angry God,” would threaten to dangle celebrities over the pit of hell?  Think again.

by Gary David Stratton • Senior Editor

I’m your biggest fan, I’ll follow you until you love me Papa, paparazzi

—Lyrics from “Paparazzi” as performed by Lady Gaga

The 2004 Red Sox victory parade attracted 68% of the total population of greater Boston.
The streets of Boston course with life as a crowd greater than the city’s total population joins in celebration.

Commerce grinds to a standstill.

Women faint.

Grown men weep.

The governor joins the standing-room-only multitude on Boston Common and declares the festivities, “the greatest day in New England history.”

If that sounds to you like a good description of the victory parade for the 2004 Boston Red Sox who vanquished a 68 year-old ‘Curse of the Bambino” with a World Series championship, you’re not far from the truth.  The Red Sox parade attracted an incredible sixty-eight percent of greater Boston’s population.[1]

However, these words actually describe something even more historic:  the 1740 farewell sermon of British evangelist George Whitefield–an event that drew 135 percent of colonial Boston.  No wonder Harry Stout has calls Whitefield “Anglo-America’s first modern celebrity.”[3]

And Whitefield’s celebrity is no accident. It is the result of a carefully orchestrated public relations tour de force. Whitefield and his publicist, William Seward, worked tirelessly to promote the evangelist’s exploits, writing as many as a hundred personal letters, articles, and journal entries a day to a vast network of leaders and publishers throughout the New World. Incredibly, Whitefield personally wrote or inspired thirty-percent of every work published in America in 1740. By the time he reaches Boston, all of New England is in a fever pitch. Six weeks and 175 sermons later, “virtually every New England inhabitant” has heard Whitefield preach face-to-face.[3]  

Sinners is the Hands of an Angry God

Jonathan Edwards
Jonathan Edwards’ “Faithful Narrative” helped pave the way for Whitefield’s preaching tour.

One hundred miles to the west, fiery preacher Jonathan Edwards waits not with condemnation, but delight.[4] Rather than dangling the “paparazzi” of his day over the pit of hell, Edwards follows media coverage of Whitefield’s every move with growing delight. He even invites the innovative young preacher to fill his famous pulpit in Northampton, Massachusetts.

Edwards helped start this media sensation in the first place. His autobiographical Faithful Narrative [5] was an international best seller for nearly three years before Whitefield’s preaching tour, making Edwards a towering public figure in his own right. He has helped stoke a deep hunger for spiritual awakening throughout the colonies; a hunger now filled by Whitefield’s flamboyant preaching and growing celebrity.[6]

While many Christians today decry our shallow media-driven celebrity culture, leaders of the Great Awakening recognized that capture society’s imagination with spiritual realities required media-driven celebrity. And capture it they did. By year’s end, perhaps as much as fifteen-percent of the population of the American colonies professes conversion to Christ in one of the most transformative social movements in American history.

Edwards and Whitefield helped birth not only one of the most transformative cultural movements in America history—the First Great Awakening—they also helped launch America’s celebrity culture. Twenty-first-century culture-makers seeking to birth society-wide transformation on the level of the Great Awakening would be wise to pay careful attention to the lessons Edwards and Whitefield learned in using celebrity for the glory of God.

Celebrity

Celebrity is perhaps the most coveted and least understood concept in contemporary culture. While the billion-dollar celebrity industry seems to grind out a new subject for fifteen-minutes of fame nearly every fifteen minutes, the scholarly community (and the church) has scrambled just to stay current. Recent scholarship has produced many claims to the title of “America’s first celebrity,” ranging from John James Audubon (c. 1826) to Walt Whitman (c. 1850), Buffalo Bill Cody (c. 1885), Douglas Fairbanks (c. 1920), and Ernest Hemingway (c. 1925).[7] Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield certainly precede each of these contenders, but were they true celebrities? The answer is, perhaps, yes and no.

Celebrity as Star

If one takes the perspective that celebrity is a purely modern invention, then obviously Edwards and Whitefield can’t be celebrities. Many scholars find a strong enough connection between celebrity and modern media to assert that “there is no such thing as celebrity prior to the beginning of the twentieth century.”[8] This school of thought is strongly rooted in film studies and the rise of the Hollywood star-making business. Before 1910, the motion picture industry sold story. However, studio executives soon realized that what they were actually selling was stars—men and women who moviegoers liked and personally identified with beyond the quality of their performance.[9]

Splash
Little known TV star Tom Hanks won the lead for Splash (1983) over hundreds of famous actors because he was the more ‘likable.’

For instance, producer Brian Grazer chose the little known TV star Tom Hanks over hundreds of famous actors vying for the lead in Splash (1983), not because Hanks was the most talented, but because audience testing proved he was the most likable.[10] Soon Hanks joined the pantheon of Jimmy Stewart, Cary Grant, John Wayne, Harrison Ford, et cetera—actors America loved not for how they played their role, but simply for who they were.[11]

Hollywood intuited what academic research later demonstrated: people personally identify not merely with the hero of the story, but also with the actor playing the hero in the story.  Media-generated personal identification evoked a public hunger for access to the private lives of stars. In small-town America, everyone wanted to know the gossip, slander, triumphs, tragedies of the  in crowd. But in the emerging global village, the most popular kids are found on the big screen.

Aided by the media-driven celebrity industry, stars quickly became what Richard Schickel calls “intimate strangers.” People wanted to know these stars and be connected to them personally. Graeme Turner asserts that we can actually “map the precise moment a public figure becomes a celebrity”: when their “private lives attract greater public interest than their professional lives.”[12]

It wasn’t long before stars began to realize that they had become a commodity to be marketed and traded, not only by studio heads, but also by their own publicity people. Within a few short years, the public relations and celebrity gossip industries were born.[13] Soon Paparazzi was a household word. 

Since Edwards and Whitefield were dead for over a hundred years before the first Hollywood stars were born, it is hard to see how they are celebrities in this limited sense of the word.

Celebrity as Hero

However, other scholars adopt a broader understanding of celebrity, one that seems to better fit Edwards and Whitefield. These scholars root their understanding of celebrity in the Latin words for “fame” (celebritas) and “being famous” (celebrer) and in Western society’s desire to “celebrate” greatness. [14] Human beings need heroes to emulate.

Both the Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian traditions developed strong “hero-making” story cultures. We tell the stories of heroes such as Hercules, Achilles, Odysseus, Perseus, Jason, Atalanta, David, Elijah, Esther, Mary, Paul, and Peter because they embody the virtues valued in our culture.

Yet for cultural heroes to serve as public role models, they need to be both virtuous and known. A virtuous man or woman whose story goes untold simply can’t be emulated. Therefore, the desire to be great and the desire to be famous are not necessarily mutually exclusive. As Paul boldly declares, “Follow me as I follow Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1).[15]

Perhaps it is more helpful to follow Daniel Boorstin’s distinction between a genuine celebrity and what he calls a “pseudo-celebrity.”[16] Pseudo celebrities, as the Hollywood school of thought asserts, are differentiated mainly by the “trivia of personality,” whereas true celebrities are heroes who are distinguished by their achievements, virtues, and character.[17] Edwards and Whitefield appear to fit this second type. Although there is no universal consensus, celebrity studies seem to point to four distinct stages in the creation of a genuine celebrity: (1) A defining incident or accomplishment makes someone a “hero”; (2) some kind of identification with the hero’s character sparks admiration and a desire to connect with the hero; (3) intentionality by the hero (or someone acting on behalf of the hero) meets public desire for a greater connection by providing access to their “story” and their life; and, (4) the public’s identification with the hero exerts influence in other people’s lives that shapes their behavior.[18]

Heroic Celebrity

Edwards’s celebrity clearly fits this pattern.

(1) Edwards’s public story begins with a clear defining incident—a powerful revival among the youth in his church results in the conversion of 300 people, a quarter of the town’s population, transforming youth culture in Northampton.[19] Soon there is “scarcely any in the town, old or young, left unconcerned about the great things of the eternal world [. . . .] The work of conversion was carried on in a most astonishing man¬ner [. . .] and the number of true saints multiplied [. . . until] the town seemed to be full of the presence of God.”[20]

(2) These events spark a profound identification, not only in America, but across the English-speaking world. Edwards’s church became “the talk of New England” and famous British cleric Isaac Watts declared, “We have not heard of anything like it since the Reformation, nor since the first days of the apostles.”[21] What minister (or Christian) would not want this to happen in their church? People wanted to know more.

(3) Edwards responds to this interest with acute intentionality. He publishes A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising work of God in the Conversion of many Souls in Northampton, and Neighbouring Towns and Villages of the County of Hampshire, in the Province of the Massachusetts-Bay in New England. It becomes an international best seller reprinted at least ten times in three languages before Edwards’s death and over fifty times since.[22]

(4) Faithful Narrative provides Edwards with the influence and “international audience for which he longed.”[23] More than any other published statement, Faithful Narrative would “define the standard expectations for evangelical conversion”[24] and firmly establish Edwards as the “revival expert” with broad readership for his future publications on the Awakening. For over a century, it serves as a nearly canonical corpus for New England revivalism. More dramatically, it opens the door for interest in Edwards’s more scholarly works so that Edwards eventually comes to be known as “America’s greatest theologian.”[25]

Notice the key role that intentionality plays in Edwards’s celebrity. Without his providing the story, there is no story, and therefore, no celebrity. Without Edwards’s providing a personal account of the revival—an incident he did not “cause,” but which spread to his church from the surrounding villages[26]—this “towering intellectual figure” could very well have remained unknown and unread.[27]

Whitefield as Heroic Celebrity

George Whitefield’s 1740 farewell sermon drew 135% of the total population of greater Boston.

Whitefield’s celebrity also appears to fit this four-stage cycle as well.

(1) Whitefield’s first trip to America (mostly in Georgia from 1737–1738), followed by his tremendously successful campaign in London, creates an international incident that introduces him into popular imagination. Whitefield’s adoption of John Wesley’s practice of “field preaching” (versus preaching inside churches) coupled with his profound dramatic gifts and unusual anointing create a sensation. His sermons are some of the most compelling theater of his generation, recasting “biblical history in a theatrical key.”[28]

(2) Whitefield’s preaching generates tremendous public identification. Theater is all but unknown in America, and Whitefield’s dramatic performances (in comparison to the logical treatises offered by most New England pastors) connect in an unprecedented way. People love Whitefield. They flock to hear him preach. They relish his willingness to take on the (ancestral hierarchical) establishment. They can’t get enough of him. Newspapers normally committed to business and political news are filled with accounts of his success.

(3) In preparation for his second American preaching tour (1740-1741), Whitefield demonstrates unusual intentionality in managing his celebrity. He fashions a clearly defined and “audacious” plan to build on his momentum and transform his revival movement into “an international event with himself at the center.”[29] He and his publicists unleash a barrage of publicity employing careful use of social networking and mass media. People are able to “personally” connect with him through him publishing his personal journals and maintaining a grueling schedule of personal appearances.[30]

(4) Whitefield’s growing celebrity soon grants him unparalleled influence. He is able to network with the rich and powerful, target key social causes (especially orphans and African American education), and take controversial anti-institutional stands on the issues of his day (unconverted ministers). Whitefield becomes “the first in a long line of public figures whose claims to influence would rest on celebrity [. . .] rather than birth, breeding, or institutional fiat.”[31]

Like with Edwards, it is difficult to miss the critical role intentionality plays in Whitefield’s celebrity. His use of William Seward’s immense talent as a public relations officer is critical to his success. He certainly would have connected with people without it, but he could never have attracted such remarkable crowds without the tireless efforts of Seward and his network of advance men. As Stout asserts:

“Where other influential preachers. . . wrote learned treatises and preached in meetinghouses. . . to audiences totaling in the thousands. . . Whitefield wrote best-selling journals and drew audiences that must be totaled in the millions. . .  For comparison one must look to an electronic age and. . . movie stars.”[32]

Heroic Leadership

Both Edwards and Whitefield appear to fit the criteria of heroic celebrities. Without the celebrity account provided by Edwards’s Faithful Narrative, it is entirely possible that America would not have been primed for Whitefield’s publicity and preaching. From a human perspective, it is not unreasonable to claim that Edwards and Whitefield’s efforts helped initiate America’s first celebrity culture, and that celebrity culture in turn helped birth the First Great Awakening.[33] Mark A. Noll, arguably the most influential historian in our contemporary understanding of the First Great Awakening, notes that although revival can be viewed as the result of a movement of the Holy Spirit, it can also be interpreted as an effect of human agency and leadership:

“By taking note of the agents who, whether perceived as servants of God or merely adept shapers of culture, historical explanation adds the sphere of human responsibility to realms of theological principle.”[34]

The leaders of the First Great Awakening were young men of great natural gifts who preached, wrote, promoted, and built institutions with unusual force. Their actions mattered, regardless of their motivations or by what power they were energized. This in no way minimizes the Holy Spirit’s role in the First Great Awakening. Something truly remarkable occurred in this movement that no amount of human effort has ever been able to recreate (although not for lack of trying). However, it does emphasize that the Holy Spirit worked though human leaders who made wise use of the means at their proposal, including their celebrity.

Edwards himself came to embrace the importance of human leadership in the Awakening. One of his central contributions to religious self-understanding was his refusal to accept an either/or dichotomy between divine and human impulses. His first work in the midst of the Great Awakening, Some thoughts concerning the present revival of religion (1741), was an urgent appeal for human leaders to promote the work of God by wise and strenuous efforts.[35]

His first major publication in the aftermath of the Great Awakening, A treatise regarding religious affections (1746), was in many ways his “second thoughts about the first great awakening.”[36] Edwards claimed that Satan won a great victory in the Awakening because human leaders failed to embrace their God-appointed role in directing such a powerful “pouring out of the Spirit of God.”[37]

Edwards and Whitefield were not leaders who shirked their human responsibility. Their model points toward a possible future for leaders seeking to become “adept shapers of culture” in the twenty-first century. However, before we can directly apply the principles they employed in the eighteenth century to our contemporary setting, we must first account for a factor with which Edwards and Whitefield never had to contend: contemporary pseudo celebrity culture.

The Rise of Pseudo Celebrity

Paris Hilton provides ample proof that celebrity sells

The problem with the celebrity cycle is that it is essentially value neutral. The process that makes someone a heroic celebrity is essentially the same as the process that makes someone a pseudo celebrity. As the Hollywood school of thought contends, something went seriously awry with celebrity in the early twentieth century. It is as if somewhere we decided that if you can’t be a true hero without also achieving fame, why bother with virtue at all? Contemporary media makes it all too easy to skip heroism and jump straight to the stardom of a pseudo celebrity who is “well-known only for being well-known.”[38]

In pseudo celebrity, the inciting incident moves from important to trivial (and/or contrived); intentionality moves from important to critical; and identification moves from character to personality. 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.”[39]

Dry Erase Girl

A good example of this phenomena is found in the “dry erase girl” resignation hoax. This meme serves as a great example of how the four-stage cycle can be applied to the creation of pseudo celebrities.

(1) On the morning of August 10, The Chive, a relatively unknown Web site, creates an incident by posting a series of pictures under the banner: “Girl quits her job on dry erase board, emails entire office.” The hilarious photos, received from “a person who works with [. . .] Jenny,” chronicle a young worker’s struggle with her boss’s sexual harassment, her subsequent resignation, and the outing of her boss’s odd Internet viewing habits.

(2) By the afternoon of August 10, the public’s identification with Jenny’s plight makes the story is an instant Internet sensation. The photos “soared to the top of Google and Twitter trends, and a group of Facebook pages popped up to honor” the brave underling.[40] Who wouldn’t root for this perky persecuted worker and her “heroic” actions? People were dying to connect with Jenny and know more of her life and future.

One day wonder ‘Dry Erase Jenny’ (aka, Elyse Porterfield)

(3) The role of intentionality becomes obvious on August 11, when the Web site TechCrunch reveals that it was all a publicity stunt. “Jenny-the-Dry-Erase-Girl” is really Elyse Porterfield, a struggling young actress hired by The Chive to perpetrate the hoax.[41]

(4) By the evening of August 11, Porterfield and The Chive editor have garnished sufficient influence to be interviewed by CBS News Entertainment to discuss their successful creation of the hoax. Thirty-six hours after the first posting, The Chive and Porterfield are hot properties. Could an acting role be far behind? (And of course, I’m pulling for Porterfield. She is so darn likable.)[42]

In less than two twenty-four-hour news cycles a hoax is: (1) perpetrated, (2) debunked, and (3) milked for enough publicity to become national news and achieve celebrity status. Porterfield is the paramount pseudo celebrity created via what Boorstin calls a “pseudo-event fabricated by the media and evaluated in terms of the scale and effectiveness of their media visibility.”[43]

Pseudo Celebrity and Cultural Currency

Notice, however, how the final stage of influence is still very much intact. In fact, the defining characteristic of the contemporary pseudo celebrity culture is the shallow but powerful nature of the identification it engenders. Pseudo celebrity endorsements are both effective and pervasive, because these superstars are integral parts of our lives and intimately tied to our greatest hopes and fears.

In a culture devoid of meaning and relationship, the pseudo celebrity system offers powerful images to direct our lives. Media outlets create an “illusion of accessibility and relationship.”[44] 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.[45] When Lady Gaga sings, “I’m your biggest fan, I’ll follow you until you love me,” she is eerily describing the zeitgeist of paparazzi culture. Through pseudo celebrity culture, we perpetrate a new American mythology: not the maxim that strong character, hard work, and perseverance will eventually lead to success and happiness, but rather be in the right place at the right time, with the right YouTube video and you too can be famous. The underlying story behind pseudo celebrity becomes: it could happen to me.

Not everyone can be a hero, but anyone can be famous. Accomplishments might put someone in a position to be noticed by the media, but only the intentional courting of the public eye can produce an ongoing celebrity. This is the underlying secret of our pseudo celebrity culture: it’s all about the Benjamins. Celebrities are needed to drive the economy, sell the products, and fill the airtime so as to generate advertising dollars to sell even more products. Pseudo celebrities are the ultimate wedding of consumer culture and democratic aspirations.[46] In a society cynical about truth, and without a clear sense of common good informing our ethical decisions, the pseudo celebrity system guarantees that even if I don’t know how to live a meaningful life, at least I’ll know how to dress.

On Being a Twenty-first Century Heroic Celebrity (and Not a Pseudo Celebrity)

Moses was “more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth” yet he wrote books that celebrated his own heroism

Does this trivialization of celebrity mean that twenty-first-century culture-makers should eschew all celebrity and start dangling our own paparazzi over the pit of hell? Perhaps. But if the realm of celebrity is stripped of every true hero, all that remains will be pseudo celebrities. And a world without public heroism is a profoundly unbiblical idea. Without contemporary additions to the Hebrews 11 hall of fame, how can we expect a new generation to “Remember your leaders [. . . .] Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith”? (Heb. 13:7). If we don’t have heroic celebrities who are broadly famous in our culture, then haven’t we lost our culture already? To put a twist on Edmund Burke’s oft-quoted aphorism: “All that is necessary for pseudo celebrity to triumph is for heroic celebrities to do nothing.”[47]

Still, some might argue: yes, we need heroes, but shouldn’t we leave hero-making to God? You would certainly think so if you read evangelical devotional literature. Even thoughtful historians often help perpetrate the myth that the Holy Spirit alone drew the giant crowds that followed the saintly Whitefield, as if he wanted only to be left alone with his Bible. Consider Stephen Mansfield’s hagiographic account:

“What could explain the crowds, always the crowds? It must be simply the grace of God and his decision to use a slight, squint-eyed boy to change lives.”[48]

My point is not that the supernatural impact of Whitefield’s ministry is difficult to account for except by the grace of God (more on this later), only that Whitefield carefully cultivated and judiciously utilized his celebrity for the glory of God. Why should twenty-first-century leaders be any different? Moses was “more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth” yet he wrote books that celebrated his own heroism (Numbers 12:3). Nehemiah certainly wasn’t shy in trumpeting his own accomplishments. And David commissioned the telling of the heroic story of Ruth in order to clear up a public relations problem in his (Gentile) heritage. Yet Moses, David, Ruth, Nehemiah, Whitefield, and Edwards possessed at least three further traits that define their heroic celebrity and which might help mitigate against contemporary pseudo celebrity.

The Compelling Authenticity of a Life Well Lived

Edwards and Whitefield were men of remarkable integrity. Edwards was no pseudo celebrity scholar. He was the real thing. He was devoted to the calling of his craft, often spending thirteen hours a day in his study. Nor was he a public figure who wilted in private. He developed a profound contemplative prayer life, forged a beautiful marriage, and stayed deeply involved in the lives of his eleven children.

Although Whitefield never achieved Edwards’s “depth in his thinking about culture,”[49] he began each day reading his Greek New Testament and returned to finish his master’s degree at Oxford after already achieving much of his fame. He worked tirelessly to improve as an orator (and actor). More importantly, he was a man of profound personal and financial integrity. He raised staggering amounts of money while maintaining a Spartan lifestyle that bordered on asceticism.[50] Both leaders escaped moral scandal despite determined enemies and years in the public eye.[51]

This is not to say that these men were perfect; they both freely admitted their mistakes and misjudgments in their own writings. Whitefield wrote, “Alas! Alas! In how many things have I judged acted wrong. I have been too rash and hasty in [judging the] character, both of places and persons. . . I have used a style too apostolical . . . been too bitter in my zeal . . . and published to soon and too explicitly. . . By these things I have hurt the blessed cause I would defend.”[52]  But rather than repelling followers, such authenticity drew men and women to his celebrity. In short, they were actually men who could be admired; they were heroic celebrities who might be emulated.

Twenty-first-century culture-makers must strive for the same excellence in craft and character. Pseudo celebrity culture has bred cynicism regarding all celebrities. Americans crave authenticity but expect duplicity. We are looking for our heroes to fall, and the celebrity media industry is only too happy to pounce when they do. Those who would aspire to heroic celebrity must be absolutely certain that they are up to the task. Although pseudo celebrities sometimes become heroes over the course of time, heroic celebrities can become pseudo celebrities overnight. Ted Haggard became a national celebrity, not through his accomplishment of building one of the most influential churches in America, nor by his position as President of the National Council of Evangelicals; he became a household name by reason of his infidelity.

The bar is high, but authenticity is achievable even in an age of pseudo celebrity

This calls for a ruthless commitment to the compelling authenticity of a life well lived. Scholars, ministers, businesspeople, musicians, politicians, filmmakers, artists, actors, and publishers had best count the cost before they dare enter the world of heroic celebrity. They need a radical commitment to master both their craft at a world-class level and the spiritual disciplines, marriage, family, and relational habits required to shape their character toward the fruit of the Spirit.

Great artists, scholars, businesspeople, and ministers are not formed in a day. Great marriages, families, and friendships are forged with great intentionality. Heroic character cannot be instantly formed by sheer force of will, but the ongoing practice of key spiritual disciplines put us in a position to receive the transforming grace of God and be “incrementally changed toward inward Christlikeness.”[53]

This also calls for a countercultural commitment on the part of thoughtful media leaders and public relations specialists to work against the forces of pseudo celebrity. In addition to Edwards and Whitefield, leaders of the First Great Awakening included not only one of the pioneers of publicity and public relations (William Seward), but also three of the key forerunners in modern mass communication: John Lewis, Thomas Prince, and William McCulloch.[54] They were determined to use the power of the media to promote spiritual awakening through Edwards and Whitefield’s celebrity. Twenty-first-century media leaders must seek for the true heroes in our society and make certain their stories are told. They must also do everything within their power to insure that those they promote as celebrities are in fact heroes.

The Courageous Ambition of Genuine Humility

Genuine humility sometimes appears arrogant (David and Goliath by Jason Engle)

Edwards and Whitefield were also men of tremendous ambition to glorify God in the world. Early in his life, Edwards determined, “I will do whatsoever I think to be most to God’s glory [. . . ]” However, Edwards’s humility didn’t prevent him from developing a ruthless ambition to serve the coming of God’s kingdom throughout the world. He continued: “[. . .] and my own good, profit and pleasure to do whatever I think to be my duty [. . .] for the good and advantage of mankind.”[55]

Edwards saw no conflict in these two aspirations, having also resolved to throw off anything smacking of “gratification of pride, or vanity,”[56] and he lived his life to maximally steward the gifts God had entrusted to him by establishing himself as a renowned intellectual force for good.[57]

Whitefield too was a man possessed of a deep passion for the glory of God with a corresponding repudiation of self-glory. Yet, he also held to a keen sense of the importance of his impact upon the world. Certainly, the hierarchical worldview of Edwards and Whitefield’s day helped them seize those opportunities in ways that our current pseudo celebrity, democratic, level-playing-field worldview does not.[58] They were encouraged to aspire to become “great men” from their youth, and their respective Yale and Oxford educations only reinforced the idea that they were God’s elite. They did not need to be asked to step forward as celebrities. They knew it was a responsibility entrusted to them by God and correspondingly seized the day.

Not so today. The cynicism of pseudo celebrity when combined with tireless assaults upon anyone who dares stick their heads above the democratic crowd has had a devastating impact on moral leadership. True heroes step back from the public limelight while pseudo celebrities push themselves forward. Those who do not possess true character and accomplishment manipulate the media for their own celebrity, whereas those who possess some modicum of humility shrink back. True heroes fear not only their own ego, but also the potential humiliation involved in having a target painted on their back. For instance, it is now a right of passage for nearly all intellectual, cultural, and spiritual leaders to have multiple Web sites devoted to their demise.

Overcoming our contemporary aversion to principled heroism will call for the courageous ambition of genuine humility on the part of twenty-first-century cultural leaders. Like Saul’s army before Goliath, unbelief sometimes looks a lot like humility. Genuine humility, on the other hand, sometimes appears arrogant. While lifelong soldiers cowered in fear, David was willing to push past his brother’s stinging accusation, “I know how conceited you are” in order to seize the heroic challenge (1 Sam. 17:28ff). Twenty-first-century culture-makers who wish to wisely use celebrity for the glory of God will also need to regularly weather the pseudo celebrity culture’s challenge of “Who do you think you are?” in order to stand as heroic celebrities.

Tina Fey as Sarah Palin: A morality tale on the danger of losing control of your public perception

This will also require careful partnerships with thoughtful public relations professionals and new media experts.[59] As media expert Phil Cook, exclaims, “If you don’t control your perception” and “the story that surrounds you [. . .] you’ll live the rest of your life at the mercy of those who will.”[60]

One need only look at James Monaco refers to persons who come to the public eye but fail to control their public image as “Quasars.” They are at the mercy of the media’s construction of their image, and that construction is nearly always bad.the “Tina Fey effect” in the last presidential election for a warning against the dangers of losing control of your own image.[61] Unlike the leaders of the Great Awakening, today’s leaders have allowed our culture’s perception of spirituality to drift at the mercy of the mass media’s construction. Oprah and Richard Dawkins have done more to shape mass media’s conception of faith (or lack thereof) than countless pastors and other spiritual leaders. Only by drawing upon the savvy leadership of the best public relations experts, journalists, filmmakers, television creators, and new-media mavens is there any real chance of reversing this trend.

The Unmistakable Stamp of Divine Exaltation

Joseph Accused by Potiphar’s Wife at the midpoint of his descent into greatness (Rembrandt)

In the end, Edwards and Whitefield’s lives bore the unmistakable stamp of divine exaltation. Their personal lives and vocational success simply defied all human explanation. Although self-exaltation may lead to pseudo celebrity, there is a type of exaltation only God can bestow. As the psalmist declares, “It is God who judges: He brings one down, he exalts another” (Ps. 75:7).

Celebrity did not bring David in from the shepherd field, release Joseph from prison, nor fill Mary’s womb with divine offspring. They were men and women who followed the biblical injunction: “Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time” (1 Pet. 5:6).

Each hero waited in relative obscurity—growing in character while mastering the disciplines of their craft—waiting for the moment chosen by the God whose eyes “range throughout the earth seeking to strengthen those whose hearts are fully committed to him” (2 Chron. 16:9).[62]

For some, like Daniel and Esther, this call came at a relatively young age. For many others, like Moses and Anna, the call came much later. In either case, these biblical figures were ready when their moment arrived.

Whether short or long, God used their time in secret preparation to forge in them the strength of character to support the weight of their calling. Edwards and Whitefield were men of similar character. When the divine moment came—in the 1734-1734 revival in Edwards’s church and the 1739 revival under Whitefield’s itinerant preaching—these two principal leaders of the First Great Awakening knew what to do. Once exalted by God to a place of celebrity, they were ready to bear the responsibilities it demanded and steward their celebrity for the glory of God. In doing so, they helped spark one of the most socially transformative movements in American history. W

ill the twenty-first-century be any different? We may never know how many potentially dynamic cultural leaders will be lured by the siren song of pseudo celebrity, impatiently squandering their youth seeking fame instead of steadily building the craft and character required for their divine moment. Still, we must do everything within our power to help foster spiritual depth as well as professional excellence. In an age hungering for the depth of genuine authenticity to counteract the shallowness of pseudo celebrity, waiting for God’s timing could make all the difference.

The Greatest Day in World History?

C.S. Lewis’ Edwardsean commitment to scholarship and popular culture landed him on the cover of Time

Will we see again the equivalent of the crowds that thronged Boston Common for Whitefield’s farewell sermon? Perhaps not. But if we do, that crowd will more likely gather in movie houses worldwide and/or at a massive Web cast than a single venue. A twenty-first-century equivalent of Whitefield is more likely a cutting-edge filmmaker, actor, or television producer than a traditional evangelist.

A twenty-first-century equivalent of Edwards might take the form of a C. S. Lewis, the Oxford scholar who built upon his prestigious position through popular writings and radio broadcasts that gave him a celebrity—the cover of Time magazine for The Screwtape Letters—that made his complex moral and theological arguments beloved reading for a generation of children and adults.  Either manifestation would certainly be a great day for the world as we know it.

In a media-saturated age marked by both an unhealthy appetite for pseudo celebrity and a deep cynicism toward heroism, it would be hard to find a better tonic than the courage and authenticity of Edwards and Whitefield, heroic celebrities unafraid to utilize their fame for the glory of God.

The thought that we can sit on the sidelines and call down judgment upon today’s celebrity culture may be as dangerous as it is naive. We are 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. And if all else fails, we can always dangle a few paparazzi over the fires of hell. Or, better yet, we can follow Whitefield’s example and hire them.  

Article adapted from version in print and online versions of  The Other Journal.  

For Responses to See:

Hollywood Responds to Paparazzi in the Hands of an Angry God Higher Education Responses to Paparazzi in the Hands of an Angry God

Icons of Heroic Celebrity: TV Writer Chris Easterly Guest Posts on Paparazzi in the Hands of an Angry God

 

Notes


[1] The 2004 Red Sox victory parade attracted an estimated 3 million out of 4.4 million in greater Boston (68 percent), whereas Whitefield’s farewell sermon drew 23,000 from of the city population of 17,000 (135 percent). Whitefield’s more modest estimate was 20,000 (118 percent). Mark A. Noll, The Rise of Evangelicalism: The Age of Edwards, Whitefield, and the Wesleys (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press Academic, 2003), 79.

[2] Harry S. Stout, The Divine Dramatist: George Whitefield and the Rise of Modern Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991), x.

[3] Stout, Divine Dramatist, 90; Frank Lambert, Pedlar in Divinity: George Whitefield and the Transatlantic Revivals, 1737-1770 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994), 128; Arnold Dallimore, George Whitefield: The Life and Times of the Great Evangelist of the Eighteenth-century Revival (Westchester, IL: Cornerstone Books, 1979), 527; and Harry S. Stout, “Whitefield, George,” Dictionary of Christianity in America, ed. Daniel G. Reid (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1990), 1252.

[4] George M. Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003), 202.

[5] Jonathan Edwards and C. C. Goen, A faithful narrative of the surprising work of God in the conversion of many Souls in Northampton, and neighbouring towns and villages of the County of Hampshire, in the Province of the Massachusetts-Bay in New England. The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 4: The Great Awakening (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1972).

[6] Marsden, Jonathan Edwards, 137.

[7] Richard Rhodes, John James Audubon: The Making of an American (New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf. Blake, 2004); David Haven, Walt Whitman and the Culture of American Celebrity (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006); Joy S. Kasson, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West: Celebrity, Memory, and Popular History (New York, NY: Hill and Wang, 2000); Richard Schickel, Douglas Fairbanks: The First Celebrity (London, UK: Elm Tree Books, 1976); Leonard J. Leff, Hemingway and His Conspirators: Hollywood, Scribners, and the Making of American Celebrity Culture (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1997). Other proposed contenders include: Adah Isaacs Menken (c. 1855), see Renée M. Sentilles, Performing Menken: Adah Isaacs Menken and the Birth of American Celebrity (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003); Gertrude Stein (c. 1900), see Karen Leick, Gertrude Stein and the Making of an American Celebrity (New York, NY: Routledge, 2009); and Charles Lindbergh (c. 1940), see Randy Roberts and David Welky, Charles A. Lindbergh: The Power and Peril of Celebrity, 1927-1941 (Maplecrest, NY: Brandywine Press, 2003).

[8] Richard Schickel, Intimate Strangers: The Culture of Celebrity (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1985), 21.

[9] Richard DeCordova, Picture Personalities: The Emergence of the Star System in America (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1990).

[10] Malcolm Gladwell, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (New York, NY: Little, Brown and Co, 2005), 45.

[11] There are some who believe that Hollywood’s star-making days are over and are now being replaced by the experience-making of stadium theaters, 3-D glasses, concept movies, and CGI. Given the blockbuster opening weekend ($35 million) of the low-tech but star-studded The Expendables (2010), I suspect this argument will grow even more heated.

[12] See Schickel, Intimate Strangers; and Graeme Turner, Understanding Celebrity (Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE, 2004), 3, 8.

[13] Turner, Understanding Celebrity, 10.

[14] Leo Braudy, The Frenzy of Renown: Fame & its History (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1986).

[15] See also 2 Thessalonians 3:7-9. All references are from the New International Version.

[16] Daniel J. Boorstin, The Image, or, What Happened to the American Dream (London, UK: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1861), 58; and Daniel J. Boorstin, “From Hero to Celebrity: The Human Pseudo-event,” in David Marshall, The Celebrity Culture Reader (New York, NY: Routledge, 2006), 72-90.

[17] Turner, 65.

[18] These “stages” do not always occur chronologically.

[19] Marsden, Jonathan Edwards, 155, 160.

[20] Edwards, Faithful Narrative, 11-14.

[21] Marsden, Jonathan Edwards, 161; and cited in Jonathan Edwards and C. C. Goen, The Great Awakening, 36.

[22] C. C. Goen, The Great Awakening, 90-92

[23] Marsden, Jonathan Edwards, 171.

[24] Noll, Rise of Evangelicalism, 80.

[25] Robert W. Jenson, America’s Theologian: A Recommendation of Jonathan Edwards (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1988), x. See also, Joseph A. Conforti, Jonathan Edwards: Religious Tradition & American Culture (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1995); Douglas A. Sweeney and Allen C. Guelzo, The New England Theology: From Jonathan Edwards to Edwards Amasa Park (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006).

[26] Michael J. Crawford chronicles that between 1712-1732 the Connecticut River Valley alone experienced as many as fifteen revivals before the first of two “outpourings” in Edwards’s Northampton, Massachusetts, church (1734-1736, 1740-1742). See, Seasons of Grace: Colonial New England’s Revival Tradition in Its British Context (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1991), 108. To his credit, Edwards’s own account mentioned “nearly every church in Western Massachusetts and twenty in Connecticut.” See Marsden, Jonathan Edwards, 162.

[27] Harry S. Stout, The New England Soul: Preaching and Religious Culture in Colonial New England (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1986), 228.

[28] Stout, Divine Dramatist, 95

[29] Ibid., 87.

[30] Marsden, Jonathan Edwards, 200.

[31] Stout, Divine Dramatist, xiv.

[32] Ibid., xiii. Italics mine.

[33] For more insight into the use of media, publicity, et cetera in the First Great Awakening see Frank Lambert, Inventing the “Great Awakening” (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999); Harry S. Stout, “Religion, Communications, and the Ideological Origins of the American Revolution” The William and Mary Quarterly: A Magazine of Early American History 34 (1977): 519-541; and Michael J. Crawford, Seasons of Grace, 13ff.

[34] Noll, Rise of Evangelicalism, 141.

[35] Jonathan Edwards and C. C. Goen, Some thoughts concerning the present revival of religion in New England and the way in which it ought to be acknowledged and promoted. The works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 4: The Great Awakening (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1972).

[36] Gary David Stratton, “Jonathan Edwards’ (1703-1758) Theology of Spiritual Awakening and Spiritual Formation Leadership in Higher Education” (PhD diss., Talbot School of Theology, 2009), 59. See also Gary D. Stratton, “Jonathan Edwards’ Treatise Concerning Religious Affections and Gerald McDermott’s Seeing God,” Christian Education Journal 3 (2006) and Samuel S. Storms, Signs of the Spirit: An Interpretation of Jonathan Edwards’ Religious Affections (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2007).

[37] Jonathan Edwards, John Edwin Smith, and Perry Miller, A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections, in three parts. The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 2 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1959), 5-7.

[38] Boorstin, The Image, 58.

[39] Turner, Understanding Celebrity, 55.

[40] Helen A.S. Popkin, “Suckers! Why you fell for ‘Dry Erase Board Girl.’” msnbc.com, August 12, 2010, accessed August 14, 2010.

[41] Alexia Tsotsis, “Confirmed: HOPA Dry Erase Girl Is a Hoax, Identity Revealed,” TechCrunch, August 11, 2010, accessed August 11, 2010.

[42] Shira Lazar, “Elyse Porterfield, HOPA Dry Erase Girl Exclusive Interview [Video],” CBS News, August 11, 2010, accessed August 11, 2010. [43] Boorstin, The Image, 57.

[44] Richard Dyer and Paul McDonald, Stars (London, UK: BFI, 2007), 17.

[45] Chris Rojek, Celebrity: Critical Concepts in Sociology (London, UK: Routledge, 2010), 16, 52.

[46] Marshall, Celebrity and Power, 10. See also Leo Lowenthal, Communication in Society. Studies on Authoritarianism 3, False Prophets (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1997).

[47] Burke probably never used the precise phrase, “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing,” but rather, “When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall one by one [. . .]” Daniel E. Ritchie, Edmund Burke: Appraisals and Applications (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1990), xiii.

[48] Stephen Mansfield, Forgotten Founding Father: The Heroic Legacy of George Whitefield (Nashville, TN: Highland Books/Cumberland House, 2001), 64.

[49] Noll, Rise of Evangelicalism, 108.

[50] Stout, Divine Dramatist, 122-123.

[51] This is not to minimize the doctrinal and methodological controversies that only added to their fame. See Stout, Divine Dramatist, 123.

[52] George Whitefield and Robert Backhouse, The Journals of George Whitefield (London, UK: Hodder & Stoughton, 1993), 144. See also Dallimore, Whitefield, 333-354.

[53] Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2002), 82

[54] Noll, Rise of Evangelicalism, 143-144.

[55] Jonathan Edwards and George S. Claghorn, Letters and Personal Writings (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998), 755.

[56] Ibid., 753-4

[57] Marsden, Jonathan Edwards, 134

[58] Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989).

[59] James Monaco, Celebrity: The Media as Image Makers, And, In Order of Their Celebrity (New York, NY: Dell, 1978).

[60] Phil Cook, Branding Faith, Why Some Churches and Nonprofits Impact Culture and Others Don’t (Ventura, CA: Regal, 2008), 10, 49.

[61] Edward Rothstein, “The Power of Political Pratfalls,” New York Times, October 12, 2008. See also, David Carr and Brian Stelter, “Campaigns in a Web 2.0 World,” New York Times, November 2, 2008.

[62] See also 1 Samuel 13:14; 16:7.

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

Part 3 of 3-part series on It’s a Wonderful Life: Click here for Part 1.

Capra’s Christmas story came into my life just when I needed it most.

by Gary David Stratton • Senior Editor

In the fantasy tale Crow and Weasel,  Badger declares: “If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away where they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive.”[1]  It’s a Wonderful Life has been just such a story for me.

George Bailey experiences his personal “triumphal entry” into Bedford Falls

Sue and I were spending Christmas Eve far from family and friends, holed up in a downtown hotel in Kansas City, MO on one of the coldest nights on record. We had just made some of the most momentous decisions of our life. We would not return to China where we had thought we would spend our entire careers. We would not accept a prestigious internship that may have launched my career, but would have kept Sue and I apart for nearly a year. Instead, we would devote our lives to serving God as missionaries, not to a foreign country, but to a generation—young intellectuals, artists, and leaders who would shape the world for good.

To say that it was an idealistic decision is a gross understatement. We were going, “All in” to pursue a dream of cultural transformation that was hard to articulate without sounding crazy. Many friends, family members, bosses, and mentors simply didn’t understand. Frankly, we weren’t we sure we understood. Yet we were certain we were following God’s leading (at least as certain as two doubting idealists living in a physicalist culture can be.) So we talked our idealistic talk over a marvelous dinner in a famous KC steakhouse, prayed our idealistic prayers, and climbed into bed.

Enter It’s a Wonderful Life

Mindlessly, I flipped on the TV. A black and white image of two constellations talking to each other slowly materialized on the screen. Why we didn’t change channels I’ll never know, but slowly the magic of Frank Capra’s film drew us in. Instantly we identified with George and Mary Bailey and their struggle to live out their idealism in a world that seemed determined to beat it out of them. We were transfixed. It was our story. Here was a couple who kept taking punch after punch on the chin, but also kept pursuing their idealistic dream for the benefit of others, all the while wondering they were actually making any difference at all.

It was a holy moment. We wondered aloud if God wasn’t somehow using Capra’s story to communicate something of the kind of life our decisions would lead to. Boy, were we ever right.  Since that cold Kansas City night our long and winding journey from Big Ten universities, to Christian schools, to the Ivy League, and now Hollywood has proven to be even more of a challenge than we could have ever imagined. And when things have been their darkest, we have returned to the story of It’s a Wonderful Life again and again.

I know it is a bit melodramatic, but I’m not sure we would have made it this far without George Bailey’s example of self-sacrificing idealism vindicated by God’s direct intervention in the physicalist world. George and Mary Bailey were true two-handed warriors. Watching how their small idealistic decisions added up to the profound cultural influence fills my heart with strength to do the right thing on a day-to-day basis.  And in our darkest hours, just knowing that there is a God and his angels and a great cloud of witnesses looking on, helps us pray, “Lord, help me live again.”

So what lessons can modern day two handed warriors draw from Capra’s tale.  Let me propose three.

Don’t lose your idealist nerve.

The first lesson is just for filmmakers aspiring to both culture-making and faith-building, and it is this: Don’t lose your idealist nerve. By rooting his film in present-day America (at least it was present-day in 1946), Capra went against the trend of his day to express a theistic worldview only in “Bible films.” By portraying a clear and unmistakable (if comic) divine intervention, Capra went against the trend of his day to limit modern-day religious faith to the private subjective realm.[2] (See, Capra’s Saga of a Depressed Idealist.)

In an era when “magical” intervention in the physical world was established as a Hollywood staple, divine intervention is nearly completely missing. This is not to say that filmmakers of faith should never set their films in a physicalist worldview, or resort to a historical, fantasy, and even horror genres to convey their themes,[3] only that Capra’s courage to root George Bailey’s idealism in the radical repudiation of skeptical physicalism through the supernatural in-breaking of God is what is so desperately lacking in today’s films.  If filmmakers of faith won’t make divinely supernatural films, who will?

Certainly this kind of two-handed filmmaking will require remarkable wisdom and audacity. Wisdom, because physicalist Hollywood will automatically categorize any film with a supernatural element as “Fantasy.” (In fact, AFI now lists It’s a Wonderful Life as a “Fantasy Film.”) Physicalist (especially nihilist) films are held in such high honor in this town that nearly everything else is often viewed as “sentimental hogwash” (except when it is time to balance the budget.)  Making films that are both excellent and idealist and even theistic will be an incredible challenge, but I believe it can be done, because it has been done. Gladiator is a recent idealist example, even if it was a period piece.[4]

The truly audacious thing will be if someone follows Capra’s lead and manages to make a critically-acclaimed and commercially-viable theistic idealist film set it in present-day America. It will have to be a spectacular, genre-bending effort, but as Flannery O’Conner put so eloquently:

“When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal ways of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock—to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.”[5]

It will take the kind of courage Capra demonstrated in making Wonderful Life, and like Capra, it might take years for such courage to be vindicated on the earth, or in heaven. But is that any reason not to try?

In my life journey, I NEEDED a story like Capra’s “more than food to stay alive.” I don’t think I’m alone. But who will make the films that will sustain the next generation of two-handed warriors?  Only filmmakers like Capra with the courage to live idealistically. Is that you?

Don’t rely on Idealism alone

The second lesson I’d like to draw from Capra’s classic is for those of us–like Ricky Gervais–who are stuck between idealism we intuit to be “true” and physicalism we face with our senses everyday. (See, Ricky Gervais and Sentimental Hogwash.) Let’s be honest, some of us are way too idealistic.  We ground our faith in the unseen realm in such a way that our faith is little more than an existential and/or postmodern personal preference. Then, when someone criticizes or critiques our faith with data from the world of sense perceptions we defensively label them an “enemy of the faith.”  Perhaps they are. But isn’t it more likely that they are simply a skeptical physicalist waiting for us to provide a demonstration of the in-breaking of the idealist world into this “present evil age.” Maybe they aren’t rejecting our faith so much as the shallow level of experience we’re basing it on.

Jesus never asked his followers to judge the truth-claims of his message based upon “pie-in-the-sky bye-and-bye” idealism. He asked them to base it upon the ideals of the kingdom of God breaking into the physical world through the “miracles” of supernatural answers to prayer (John 14:12).

Until Christ followers live lives marked by supernatural power and sacrificial love, I’m afraid that the Ricky Gervais’s of the world are going to have a very hard time taking our truth claims very seriously. Roman Emperor Julian despised the Christ followers of his day, yet he could no escape the reality of their faith in their lives when he confided in a friend:

“…the kindness of Christians to strangers, their care for the burial of their dead, and the sobriety of their lifestyle has done the most to advance their cause… these impious Galileans support our poor in addition to their own… outdoing us in good deeds while we ourselves are disgraced by laziness.”[6]

Sounds like a perfect description of George and Mary Bailey to me. Yet, I mean no disrespect when I say that many of the “media leader Christians” I encounter today remind me more of Mr. Potter than George Bailey. In their preoccupation with wealth and political power, their lives and their careers seem just as dominated by “me, me, me” as any other (nihilistic) physicalist. Is it any wonder that the Ricky Gervais’s of the world have a hard time believing the message we preach?

Co-labor with God

The third lesson I’d like to draw from It’s a Wonderful Life is for all two-handed warriors—whether you labor in the Ivy League, Hollywood, Wall Street, or Main Street—Don’t allow the story of skeptical physicalism to deter you from seeking to co-labor with God in the in-breaking of his kingdom in the world. Follow George Bailey’s lead and grow a pair. We might just live to see our work transform our own culture every bit as much George and Mary’s self-sacrificing idealism transformed Bedford Falls.  But even if we never see the full result of our idealistic actions on earth, we must live our lives the way we will wish we had lived them on that day when we finally will see our life from God’s perspective—because someday we will.

It’s highly unlikely we’ll ever get a George Bailey-esque  ‘advance screening’ of our life’s work. Yet Paul of Tarsus assures us that we will “all appear before the viewing seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad” (2 Corinthians 5:10). To be a true two handed warrior is to live for that heavenly red carpet affair, more than for its pale imitation at the Kodak theatre each year.

That day is the one when we want the Lord himself (and not some mere angel) to declare, “Well done, you good and faithful servant! You’ve really had a wonderful life.”

Merry Christmas!

Gary & Sue Stratton

Next: Bungee-Jumping to Eternity: The Existential Angst of Dead Poets Society

See also:

Hollywood and Higher Education: Teaching Worldview Through Academy Award-winning Films

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

Fiddler on the Roof: Worldview Change and the Journey to Life-Interpreting Story

Crash goes the Worldview: Why Worldview Transformation Requires Changing Scripts

It’s a Wonderful Worldview: Frank Capra’s Theistic Masterpiece

 

 

Notes

[1] Barry Holstun Lopez, Crow and Weasel (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1990).

[2] Look for a future post on the fascinating relationship between worldview and film genre.

[3] Such as Academy Award nominees, The Robe (1953), and The Ten Commandments (1956), and Oscar-winner Ben-Hur (1959).

[4] Look for a future post on Gladiator.

[5] Flannery O’Connor, Robert Fitzgerald, and Sally Fitzgerald, Mystery and Manners (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1961). Italics mine.

[6] Julian Caesar, “Letter to Arsacius,” Based in part on the translation of Edward J. Chinnock, A Few Notes on Julian and a Translation of His Public Letters (London: David Nutt, 1901) pp. 75-78 as quoted in D. Brendan Nagle and Stanley M. Burstein, The Ancient World: Readings in Social and Cultural History (Englewood Cliffs, NJ; Prentice Hall, 1995) pp. 314-315. Introduction and e-text copyright 2005 by David W. Koeller timemaster@thenagain.info. All rights reserved.

Capra’s Tale of a Depressed Idealist: It’s a Wonderful Life, Part 2, by Gary David Stratton, PhD

Part 6 of: Hollywood & Higher Education: Teaching Worldview Through the Stories We Live By

From a worldview perspective, George is asking God–who has never been more than an otherworldly ideal to him–to directly intervene in his physicalist world.

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

The depressed idealist at home: “You call this a happy home? Why do we have to have all these kids?”

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) provides a wonderful expression of the complicated interplay between the macro-worlviews of Physicalism and Idealism as life-interpreting stories in the life of its main character, George Bailey. At the outset of the film George is caught in the vice between these two warring worldviews. He is an idealist at heart, anxious for freedom from the physicalism of running the family business where his father is trapped “spending all your life trying to figure out how to save three cents on a length of pipe.”  However, after his father’s untimely death, his own idealistic commitment to save the Bailey Building and Loan locks George into an ongoing struggle between these two powerful worldviews. Day after day he labors in the physicalist world of dollars and cents, while steadfastly maintaining his idealistic commitment to honesty, compassion, and justice.

George is a typical modern in that he simply cannot resolve the tension between physicalism and idealism. While the intuited ideals passed to him by his family’s worldview are strong enough to shape his own life, the dualistic skepticism imparted to him by his broader culture is dissolving his confidence that his ideals are actually making any difference in the physical world. Even a lifelong romance with his ever-ebullient wife Mary (Donna Reed) isn’t enough to stem George’s growing angst.

Physicalism at its worst

It is important to recognize how Capra sets up the conflict between George Bailey and the main opposing character, Mr. Potter: “the wealthiest man in town.” Potter (Lionel Barrymore) is the very incarnation of physicalism in its most devastating form—nihilism. To him, there is no meaning in his universe save his own will to dominate others through the power of his wealth.  Early in the film, George contrasts his father’s idealist view of human beings with Potter’s nihilistic perspective:

George: People were human beings to him, but to you, 
 a warped frustrated old man, they're cattle.
.

To Potter, men like Peter and George Bailey and their “so called ideals” are simply poor businessmen unwilling to dominate those around them for self-gain. Their idealism is nothing but “sentimental hogwash!”

George the idealist is able to smell out and resist Potter’s financial temptations

Potter will stop at nothing to get his hands on the Building and Loan—coercion, intimidation, seduction.  Yet, nothing succeeds. As a “steadfast main character,” George holds onto his ideals despite of the growing physical proof that his ideals have failed him.

The film’s defining moment arrives when George’s business partner, Uncle Billy, loses a $8,000 bank deposit. (Actually, Potter steals it.) Crushed between the physicalist realities of “bankruptcy and scandal and prison.” George chooses the idealist value of self-sacrifice and takes the blame for the shortfall. Finally surrendering to Potter’s domination, George asks his wealthy enemy for a loan.  Seizing the moment, Potter not only refuses to help, he swears out a warrant for George’s arrest. But before he does, he trashes George’s entire life story in a devastating radical physicalist appraisal of the failure of George’s ideals:

Potter: You once called me a warped, frustrated old man. 
What are you but a warped, frustrated, young man? 
A miserable little clerk, crawling in here on your hands 
and knees and begging for help. No securities––no stocks––
no bonds––nothing but a miserable little $500 
equity in a life insurance policy. [laughs] 
You're worth more dead than alive.
 .
George the depressed idealist pleads with Potter for his financial life.

With nowhere else to turn, George makes the ultimate Idealist leap and turns to the one person in Bedford Falls he hopes might be more powerful than Mr. Potter: God. For the first time we see that George’s ideals are rooted not just in his family’s story, but in the broader Christian story of a theistic worldview.  While he is “not a praying man,” George reaches out to the God whose story undergirds the ideals he lives by.

Idealism Breaking In

Don’t miss the courage of how Capra sets up the solution to George Bailey’s dilemma. From a worldview perspective, George is asking for the God–who has never been more than an otherworldly ideal to him–to intervene in the physicalist world.  He is not asking for strength and courage to live out his ideals through this dark hour (as noble and important as such a prayer might be), he is asking God to reach into the physical universe and change it. He is asking God to reach out of the circle of heaven and break into the box of the earth.

With nowhere else to turn, George prays for divine intervention

George’s prayer is the very essence of Biblical theism wherein idealism and physicalism are reconnected and redeemed. George is not asking for the subjective private truth of his ideals to prevail, he is asking for objective public proof that God is alive and active in the world. In the pre-dualistic language of Jesus, he is asking for a God to exert his rulership on the earth so that “his will is done on ( the physicalist) earth as it is in (idealist) heaven.”

What’s more, Capra has insured that the audience already knows what George doesn’t: God is listening! The movie opens, not only with George’s prayer, but also the countless prayers of his family and friends flooding heaven with petitions on his behalf. While the corny constellation graphics are a bit over the top and his human-turned-angel theology flawed, Capra makes certain that audience knows that the world he has constructed in his film is inhabited not merely by physical human beings, but God, and angels, and human souls.

It is NOT a merely a physicalist world. It is an idealist one as well. They are interconnected. When a despondent George drives to the bridge to end his own miserable failure of an idealistic life, the world of ideals breaks into the physical world in the person of one very star-crossed angel–Clarence.

Clarence: You've been given a great gift, George -- 
A chance to see what the world would be like without you.
 .
God’s inbreaking? Clarence Oddbody, Angel Second Class

Needless to say, the rest of the film is slow and certain vindication of George’s idealist worldview in the physicalist world of sense perception. One-by-one, Clarence reinterprets George’s idealistic decisions on an even deeper level than George ever imagined.  George was just trying to the “right” thing. As it turns out, he was also doing the “world-changing” thing. Not only is God willing to break into the physical world by his actions; George Bailey is changing the outcome of the physical universe in the direction of the will of God by his own idealistic actions.

Capra’s vision expresses the heart and soul of Christian theistic idealism: the possibility of the knowledge of God being manifest not only in the private realm of subjective knowledge, but also in the public world of sense perception. Jesus taught his disciple to pray for the “public” manifestation of the compassion and power of God, because “through answered prayer Jesus’ students experienced God as alive and active in the physical world.” He not only proclaimed the reality of the unseen (idealist) kingdom of God, he demonstrated its reality in the (physicalist) world through supernatural answers to prayer. (See, With Prayer in the School of Christ.)

Divine “in-breaking” is a key element of  Capra’s film. Just as people could “know” that the kingdom of God was “breaking into” the kingdoms of this world through supernatural answers to prayer in Jesus’ ministry, George Bailey (and vicariously, Capra’s audience) “knows” (in Hebraic language, understands by experience) that God has broken into his world. Just as Jesus called for his followers to bet their lives on the “unseen” ideals of the kingdom on the basis of the “seen” supernatural interventions of God (John 14:11), so George Bailey reaffirms his commitment to his unseen ideals because of God’s physical intervention in his life. As Clarence concludes:

Clarence: You see George, you've really had a wonderful life. 
Don't you see what a mistake it would be to just throw it away?
 .
George’s second prayer is the movie’s transforming moment

Capra’s moral premise is clear: despite strong physical evidence to the contrary, living in the light of idealism is “a wonderful life,” because those ideals are rooted in God himself. It is worth being an idealist even in a world dominated by physicalism, because as important as the physical world is, it is not all there is. They are interconnected in ways that George’s dualism (and skeptical hold upon his idealism) prevented him from ever imagining.  [1]

Next: It’s a Wonderful Life #3: The Courage to Live (and Create Art) Idealistically

.

Notes

[1] I am fairly confident that, like most artists, Capra intuited these worldview issues and expressed them in his art far beyond what he could have explained philosophically. For more insight into the concept of a “moral premise,” see, Stanley D. Williams, The Moral Premise: Harnessing Virtue & Vice for Box Office Success (Studio City, CA: Michael Wiese Productions, 2006).

It’s a Wonderful Life: Frank Capra’s Worldview Masterpiece

Part 5 of:  Hollywood and Higher Education: Teaching Worldview Through the Stories We Live By

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?

by Gary David Stratton • Senior Editor

“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.” – Ricky Gervais

Ricky Gervais’s God jokes as host of  the last two Golden Globe Awards and his Wall Street Journal essay, “Why I’m An Atheist” provide perfect backdrops for examining one of Hollywood’s most famous attempts to defend Theism–It’s a Wonderful Life.  (Plus, it is one of my All-Time Favorite Christmas Movies.)

Hollywood legend Frank Capra made It’s a Wonderful Life specifically to, in his words, “combat a modern trend toward atheism.” [1] This certainly appears to make Gervais his ideal target audience. Yet, Capra’s approach to combating 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.

Currently #20 on the presitigious American Film Academy's Top 100 All Time Movies
Currently #20 on the prestigious American Film Academy’s Top 100 All Time Movies

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 (i.e. “free”) film to fill their desperate need for cheap programming in the slow holiday season. Soon “a whole new generation of movie-lovers 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 by the American Film Institute as one of the 20 best films ever made.

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: micro-worldviews and macro-worldviews.[5]

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 micro-worldview rests within concentric circles of larger and larger macro-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.

The ‘Box’ of Physicalism

Legendary 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. As cosmologist and the original host of Cosmos (PBS) put so eloquently, “The universe is all there is and all that there will ever be.”

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.  A medical researcher who used ‘angelic intervention’ as a factor in studying the effects of an antibiotic on staph infections would be laughed out of the scientific community. Good experiments require the “closed box” provided by physicalism.

Ricky Gervais’ Wall Street Journal essay is a beautiful example of using the logic of scientific physicalism to defend a broader philosophical proposition-namely 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.)

The ‘Circle’ of Idealism

Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) the transcendental idealist: "All human knowledge begins with intuitions, proceeds from thence to concepts, and ends with ideas.”
Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) the transcendental idealist: “All human knowledge begins with intuitions, proceeds from thence to concepts, and ends with ideas.”

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 truth claims beyond the physical world and calling others toward them as ultimate realities.

A 2500-Year War

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 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.

The Rise of Radical Skepticism

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.”

To skeptical Physicalists like Mr. Potter, the Idealistic world is nothing but, “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 thought. 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–something that an individual subject (person) holds to be true, but which cannot be physically verified. Ideals are therefore second class citizens 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.

A Comedian’s Circular (Logic) Dilemma

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.  Those 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 begins with the presupposition that your physical senses are the only thing you can only trust, and ends 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 guide how he actually lives 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 skepticism leading to radical nihilism is, of course, rare… for the simple reason that it is unlivable.”  Even Gervais resorts to very Idealist and Intuitive (and therefore unprovable) concepts of ‘right’ and ‘good’ in order to direct 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.”

Enter George Bailey

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 vise between nihilistic physicalism and sentimental idealism there seems to be nowhere to turn.  Which is, of course, exactly where Capra wants us.

Next: Capra’s Tale of a Depressed Idealist, It’s a Wonderful Life, Part 2

See also

Hollywood and Higher Education: Teaching Worldview Through Academy Award-winning Films

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

Fiddler on the Roof: Worldview Change and the Journey to Life-Interpreting Story

Bungee-Jumping to Eternity: The Existential Angst of Dead Poets Society

Deep Culture: Is Winning an Oscar a Reliable Indicator of a Truly Great Film?

If you Live it, They Will Come: The Blind Side and Better Faith-Based Filmmaking

.

Related Posts

Using Zombie Movies to Teach Politics, by Daniel W. Drezner

The Joker Is Satan, and So Are We: René Girard and The Dark Knight, by Charles Bellinger

Echoes of René Girard in the Films of Martin Scorsese: Scapegoats and Redemption on Shutter Island, by Cari Myers

Hitchcock and the Scapegoat: René Girard, Violence and Victimization in The Wrong Man, by David Humbert

.

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.

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.