The Ride: Connecting to God in Hollywood, the Ivy League, and Beyond

Part 2 in series Finding God in Hollywood: Soul-Nourishing Practices in a Soul-Deadening World

Horseback riding is not a mode of transportation from one physical locale to another. It is a mode of transportation from one spiritual state to another.  And so are the classic spiritual disciplines.

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

Micaiah with ‘Maryland’: The crankiest and best horse in the Equestrian Center’s stable

As I write this, I am watching my daughter, Micaiah, take a riding lesson at the Equestrian Center in Burbank, CA. The Equestrian Center is, uh, shall we say, “oddly out of place” in urban Los Angeles. On my right, traffic on the Golden State Freeway (“the” 5, as we say here in L.A.) zooms by at 65+ miles per hour. On my left, horses plod around a riding circle at, well, a lot less than 65 miles per hour. What gives?

Why would anyone invest so much time and money striving to master such an outdated mode of transportation? It takes years to painstakingly advance through learning to walk, trot, cantor, gallop, jump, dressage, etc. Then, once you do achieve riding excellence, your top speed is still only a fraction of that of the traffic whizzing by. My daughter shovels, “stuff,” to earn her lessons, but most riders shell out enough cash to cover monthly payments on a luxury car. I mean, if your goal is to get from Pasadena to Hollywood, then this horseback riding thing is a total waste of time. Just buy a Jag and get on with it.

Yet if you think of horseback riding as something designed to get you somewhere on your busy schedule then you are missing the entire point. Horseback riding is not a mode of transportation from one physical locale to another. It is a mode of transportation from one spiritual state to another. The disciplines of learning to ride cleanse the rider of the soul-deadening effects of modern life and “re-center” their soul in a calmer, deeper place. My actress-singer daughter says it’s “rejuvenating.” Seeing the light and energy in her eyes after each time she rides, I believe her.

Spiritual Disciplines

Now at first glance, striving to master 2,000 year-old spiritual disciplines seems even more irrelevant than learning to ride a horse. I mean, at least horseback riding might help you land a role, or inspire a screenplay. What earthly good does it do to invest the time and energy it takes to master practices like prayer, meditation, fasting, Torah-study, or Psalm-singing? Sure, prayer can come in handy when you’re facing an audition, pitch meeting, or financing appointment. But this kind of “spiritual discipline” is practiced by everyone in Hollywood (even the staunchest atheists), and probably has about as much utilitarian value as wearing your lucky pair of socks.  Prep for your meeting, pay for some good coaching, and get on with it.

Yet, if you think of the spiritual disciplines only as something to get you somewhere in your career, you are missing the entire point. Spiritual disciplines are not tools for getting you from failure to success. They are pathways for keeping you alive spiritually in the constantly shifting landscape of success and failure that is Hollywood.

The Soul-Deadening Worlds of Power

The overarching characteristic of the Ivy League (and Hollywood) is what Schmelzer calls, “Grim drivenness.

Actor/Comedienne/Writer Susan Isaacs once challenged a crowd of aspiring entertainment industry students, “Would you accept God’s call to Hollywood if you knew that you would only have three successful years out of a thirty-year career?” Most wouldn’t, yet that is about the average for those who ‘make it’ here.  The spiritual disciplines are the means by which someone survives and even thrives, not only in the three years when they’re a hot property, but in the other twenty-seven as well.

Make no mistake, the competitive nature of all centers of power–Hollywood, the Ivy League, Wall Street, Washington, D.C., etc.–nearly always creates a soul-deadening culture. Former Yale Professor Henri Nouwen warned, “Our society is… a dangerous network of domination and manipulation in which we can easily get entangled and lose our soul.”[1] Dave Schmelzer, principal at Blue Ocean, Inc. in Cambridge, MA asserts the overarching characteristic of his Ivy League community is what he calls, “Grim drivenness.”  Dave adds, “These are the brightest and most talented people in the world, and the very drivenness that got them this far in a highly competitive environment prevents them from ever really enjoying the fruit of their success. There is always another rung to climb on the ladder of success.”[2] Sounds a lot like Hollywood to me!

Yokes that Bring Our Souls Rest

Spiritual disciplines counteract this soul-deadening effect by nourishing the soul of the practitioner and re-centering the filmmaker, professor, stockbroker, and/or congressman in a calmer, deeper place. Prayer, meditation, study, etc. are means by which we deepen our connection to others and to God. Nearly everyone working in a pressure-filled environment can benefit from practicing them—from Zen Buddhist’s like Laker’s coach Phil Jackson, to Scientologists like Tom Cruise.

However, the spiritual disciplines play a particularly meaningful role in the Judeao-Christian tradition. They are part of what early Rabbis referred to as their yoke—the teachings and spiritual practices each Rabbi used to guide their students into a deeper relationship with God.[3] Like learning to ride a horse, the study of Torah—the principal spiritual discipline in rabbinic education—demanded the utmost commitment to move from one level of expertise to the next. Yet, the promise of a life centered in God and his ways made the effort worthwhile. (See, Rabbinic Higher Education.)

Connecting to the Life of God

Jesus of Nazareth built upon this rabbinic tradition to shape his own version of spiritual formation. Jesus told his first followers, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me… and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:29). He taught his disciples to pray, study, build community, and serve not to earn religious brownie points, but to form a deep attachment to God—to ‘rest’ in him. Like vines on a branch, Jesus promised his followers that if they would focus upon staying connected to the life of God, then the life of God would flow into them and bear fruit in everything they do (John 15:1-8). The spiritual disciplines are one of the key means by which we maintain that connection. (See, With Prayer in the School of Christ.)

USC philosophy professor, Dallas Willard, has worked tirelessly over the last few decades to describe how Christian spiritual formation can and should help us maintain our connection to the life and the love of God in the Academy, Hollywood, and beyond. He states:

“God’s desire for us is that we should live in him. He sends us the Way to himself.  That shows us, in his heart of hearts, what God is really like–indeed, what reality is really like. In its deepest nature and meaning our universe is a community of boundless and totally competent love.”

Personalizing the Process

Like horseback riding, staying connected to the life and love of God is not a one-size-fits-all process. It has taken Micaiah years to find the right stable, the right trainer, the right horse (the crankiest, but “best” in the stable), and the right sub-disciplines to learn to ride in a way that maximizes the ‘gladness’ riding brings her soul. The same is true for those seeking to cultivate a relationship with God. The disciplines that help one person are often torture for another. The key for some is sitting quietly in a beautiful sanctuary, for others it is walking in the beauty of nature, for some connection to God is found among books in a quiet library, for still another it is best found amidst music is a raucous worship service.

The point of spiritual discipline is not to perform some cookie-cutter religious ritual to make God like you better, but rather to find the pathways that best help your soul connect to the God who already loves you infinitely, ultimately, and unconditionally.

In the following weeks I will explore a number of the key concepts and disciplines that have been most helpful to a variety of leaders in Hollywood, the Ivy League, and beyond in living a soul-nourishing life in a soul-deadening world.  My hope is that we can help you create your own individualized set of spiritual disciplines that help you stay connected to the life and love of God even in the most pressurized situations.

Of course there is another way: the way of giving in to a soul-deadness. Will we? Or will we follow my daughter’s example and embrace an “outdated” approach to life, that in the end is the only one capable of transporting us where we really want to go—to the very heart of God.

Let’s ride!

..

Next post in series: Life on the Fast Track: Spiritually Thriving in High Stress Environments 

 

See also

Emmy Magazine Article Featuring Emmy-winning Producer Kurt Schemper, Director Korey Scott Pollard, and Gary David Stratton

Why Lent is a lot Like Surfing

Spiritual formation book recommendations:

The Practice of the Presence of God, by Brother Lawrence

Sacred Rhythms, by Ruth Haley Barton

Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, by Adele Alberg Calhoun

The Organic God, by Margaret Feinberg

The Celebration of Discipline, by Richard Foster

Invitation to a Journey, by Robert Mulholland

The Way of the Heart, by Henri Nouwen

The Life You’ve Always Wanted, by John Ortberg

Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, by Peter Scazzero

The Good and Beautiful Life, by James Bryan Smith

Sacred Pathways, by Gary Thomas

The Spirit of the Disciplines, by Dallas Willard

 


[1] The Way of the Heart (New York: Random House, 1981), p. 9.

[2] At least in the Ivy League it is possible to get tenure!

[3] M. Maher (1975). ‘Take my yoke upon you’ (Matt. xi. 29). New Testament Studies, 22, pp 97-103

 

Ash Wednesday Logic: Why Lent is a More Like Moana than Monty Python

The surfer doesn’t create the waves, but her canoe puts her in a position to catch their energy. 

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

Don’t you think it’s a little odd to give up something for Lent in order to worship a Savior who told us to remember him by eating carbs and drinking alcohol?”

That’s the question a brilliant young writer confronted me with after an intense conversation covering Ash Wednesday, Lent, fasting, and dieting (there is a difference, right?).

To her, fasting made about as much sense as the head-bonking monks in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” whose unspoken motto appears to be: “Painfulness is next to godliness.”

She had a point. We find the head-bonking monks so funny precisely because we know that the extreme asceticism of the Middle ages, no matter how sincere, was profoundly flawed.

But are all ascetic practices flawed? She suspected they were. I desperately tried to offer an alternative perspective.

After talking it through for nearly an hour, I finally gave her the best answer I could: fasting is more like Moana than Monty Python. 

Let me explain…

A Brief History of Lent

For centuries the imposition of ashes on “Ash Wednesday” has served as a symbolic entrance into the Lenten season of repentance

Fasting for 40 days before Easter was originally established as a time of spiritual preparation for new converts to Christianity before they were all baptized together each Easter. However, in 325 AD, The Council of Nicea made Lent an official season of fasting for the entire church to prepare to receive the new members.

This was normally practiced as eating only one meal per day for the entire 40 days.[1] (Note: While many modern Catholics give up something for Lent, the Vatican only prescribes Ash Wednesday and Good Friday as official fast days.)

In the ensuing centuries many Christ-followers found Lent a helpful practice in their walk with God. Fasting is often connected with repentance in Scripture. Using fasting and repentance to help “Prepare the way” for the Lord” in one’s heart for the celebration of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection can be a very helpful and instructive practice.

Entering this season of repentance through imposition of ashes on one’s forehead on “Ash Wednesday” can create a strong connection to the Biblical practice of repenting in sackcloth and ashes.  (Traditionally, the ashes are made from palm fronds from the previous year’s Palm Sunday to remind us of how quickly our cries of, “Hosanna” can turn to “Crucify him!”) Skipping a meal, a favorite food, or favorite activity can help underscore our words of repentance with our bodies.  Our “hunger” allows us to more closely identify with Jesus’ missional commitments, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work” (John 4:34).

Lenten Warfare

However, the practice of Lent also has a dark side in church history. As the human tendency toward hyper-control began to infiltrate the church, the practice of Lent became more and more prescribed and restrictive with each passing year. By the Middle Ages the compulsory practice of Lent had become genuinely oppressive, not unlike Monty Python’s head-bonking monks. With the advent of the Reformation, Protestant leaders began to distance themselves from the practice.

Martin Luther saw nothing wrong with Lent in theory, but feared that most Lenten fasting had become dead compulsory religious ritual aimed at earning God’s favor that amounted to “fasting to Satan instead of a fasting unto holiness.” Ulrich Zwingli and later John Calvin were just as rough. They all but outlawed what they called the “gross delusion” of the “superstitious observance of Lent.”

John Wesley helped advance a balanced perspective on Lent

Soon, Lent-keeping became a shibboleth defining which side of the Reformation you were on. Take ashes and the “Anti-Lent” crowd called you an enemy of the gospel. Refuse them, and the “Pro-Lent” gang condemned you to hell.

John Wesley, founder of the Methodist church, was perhaps the first Protestant to swing the pendulum back toward a more balanced approach. Wesley broke with the Church of England’s ban on Lent by listing it among his approved fast days of the Church. In fact,  he thought it was “deplorable” that many Methodists neglected such fasting.

Wesleyan Methodist churches eventually reinstated Lent as an official church practice. Anglicans, Lutherans, and later Presbyterians also eventually reinstated Lent as well (which probably caused Zwingli and Calvin to roll over their graves.)

Dallas Willard and the Spiritual Formation Movement

In recent years, Lent has enjoyed something of a revival among younger Christians, especially those influenced by the contemporary spiritual formation movement. Dallas Willard, Richard Foster, James Houston, and a growing chorus of “Willard for Dummies”[2] advocates are helping contemporary Christians recapture the positive elements of “spiritual discipline” in general, and Lent in particular.

We indirectly participate in our own transformation through the spiritual disciplines.

Willard warns that Protestantism’s emphasis upon grace all too often draws believers into the heresy of passivism. A proper understanding of grace rightly emphasizes our inability to “earn” our own salvation. However, passivism mistakenly emphasizes our inability to play a role in our own transformation (The Renovation of the Heart, p. 82). Fasting in general, and Lenten fasting in particular can help counteract this passive, “I’ll wait around for God to change me,” approach to faith.

While we are saved by faith through grace alone (Eph. 2:8-9), we are transformed by the “interactive presence” of the Holy Spirit in our lives (p. 23). God could transform us instantly and unilaterally, but he has chosen to transform us largely by working with us (p. 10). We participate in our own transformation indirectly by shaping of our thoughts and feelings through the rigorous and skillful application of spiritual discipline  (p. 248).

In other words, while we cannot instantly or immediately transform our character by sheer force of will, we can will to practice the kind of disciplines that put us in a place where God’s grace can transform us into the image of Christ.

This is why Lent can be both used and abused. To practice Lent out of sense of compulsion—say, fearing that God will smite me if I eat chocolate—or in hopes of earning brownie points with God for my good behavior, are both anathema to the the gospel of Christ and the true spirit of the disciplines.

However, to give up something for Lent in hopes of using your body (your whole being) to express your prayer of repentance can be very powerful.  It can put you in a position to better cooperate with the movements of the Spirit in your own soul. And, of course, if we also “take up” a spiritual discipline for Lent—say, Scripture meditation or centering prayer—then we are in a position to catch even more of God’s grace.

Catch the Wave

Just as a surfboard (or canoe) helps a surfer catch the power of a wave, Lent can help someone ‘catch’ the grace of God.

This is where Moana comes in. Just like in Disney’s Moana, the surfer doesn’t create the wave, but her board (or canoe) helps her to catch the energy provided by the ocean. In the same way, a spiritual discipline (such as a Lenten fast) doesn’t create the transforming power of God, but it does help us to catch it.

The spiritual discipline of fasting creates a space of faith that God is only too glad to fill. When practiced in this way, the spiritual discipline of Lent helps people “catch the wave” of God’s ever-available power. (For ideas, see The Lent Project, sponsored by Biola University’s Institute for Spiritual Formation.)

A Personal Note

That’s the way it has worked for me. I didn’t grow up in a tradition that emphasized Lent. Yet for some reason, As a young Christ follower, Lent just seemed like a good idea to prepare my heart for Easter by following Christ into a 40-day fast. Since I wanted my fast to be ‘to’ Christ and not just ‘from’ something, I decided to give up television and use the time I freed for prayer and bible reading.

It turned out to be a profound spiritual experience. I discovered that God’s power and presence had been fully available to me, but night-after-night I had not been available to him.  Once I began using the time previously devoted to mindless entertainment to seek him, I began to catch the supernatural resources that had always been at my disposal. [3] The spiritual discipline of Lent became a surfboard God used to propel me forward in my faith. I’ve since witnessed corporate Lenten fasts impact entire churches and academic communities.

Alcohol, Carbs, and the Presence of God

And that is why Lent is more like Moana’s majestic wave riding than the Monty Python monks pointless head-bonking.

So, Arielle, there’s my answer. Enjoy the blessings of God found in food, drink, carbs, and the arts.  “Whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (1Cor 10:31). But sometimes an intense season of spiritual discipline such as Lent is just what we need to re-examine our heart and catch the wave of Christ’s ever-present help.

The Ocean is Calling!

 

See also

Connecting to God in Hollywood, the Ivy League, and Beyond, by Gary David Stratton
What is Spiritual Formation? by Dallas Willard
Sabbath as Spiritual Warfare, by Richard Beck
The Spiritual Lives of Christian College Students, by Todd W. Hall

 


[1] Okay, the official Lenten season from Ash Wednesday to Easter is actually 46 days. Why? Because Medieval church leaders decided that fasting on Sunday (a Christian ‘feast’ day) was hypocritical. They deducted the six Sunday’s of Lent from the season of repentance, making Lent an awkward 46 days long. This has always seemed more like a loophole than an actual spiritual discipline to me. I normally just fast the whole 46 days, but having a break once a week can be nice and even help prevent legalism from creeping in.

[2] John Ortberg’s self-professed job description.

[3] Don’t take this as a slam on TV viewing in general. I still love television and many of my friends and students work in the TV industry. I think moderate viewing of excellent shows can be a very helpful spiritual discipline. In fact, my DVR and streaming services have helped me nearly eliminate the kind of mindless channel-surfing that often thwarted my early spiritual development. Since then I have given up Facebook or Social Media, as these tend to be my major time wasters in my current lifestyle.

Why Lent is a lot like Surfing

Part of Lenten Series: You Are What You Do (and Eat): Spiritual Formation in Everyday Life  (See also, Finding God in Hollywood: Soul-Nourishing Practices in a Soul-Deadening World

The surfer doesn’t create the waves, but her board puts her in a position to catch their energy. In the same way, spiritual disciplines don’t create the transforming power of God, but they do put us in a position to catch it. 

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

At first glance, fasting makes about as much sense as the head-bonking monks in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.”

This morning over breakfast, a brilliant young writer confronted my wife and I with a disturbing question. After an intense conversation covering Ash Wednesday, Lent, fasting, and dieting (there is a difference, right?), she wrinkled her brow and exclaimed:

Don’t you think it’s a little odd to give up something for Lent in order to worship a Savior who told us to remember him by eating carbs and drinking alcohol?”

Uh…? Good question.

At first glance fasting makes about as much sense as the head-bonking monks in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” Their unspoken motto appears to be: “Painfulness is next to godliness.” (Which, I think is why we find them so funny. Somehow we know that the extreme asceticism of the Middle ages, no matter how sincere, was profoundly flawed.)

But after talking it through for nearly an hour, I finally gave here the best answer I could: Fasting is a lot like surfing.  Let me explain…

A Brief History of Lent

For centuries the impartation of ashes on “Ash Wednesday” has served as a symbolic entrance into the Lenten season of repentance

Fasting for 40 days before Easter was originally established as a time of spiritual preparation for new converts to Christianity before they were baptized together each Easter. However, in 325 AD, The Council of Nicea made Lent an official season of fasting for the entire church to prepare to receive the new members. This was normally practiced as eating only one meal per day for the entire 40 days.[1] (Note: While many modern Catholics give up something for Lent, the Vatican only prescribes Ash Wednesday and Good Friday as official fast days.)

In the ensuing centuries many Christ followers found Lent a helpful practice in their walk with God. Fasting is often connected with repentance in Scripture. Using fasting and repentance to help “Prepare the way” for the Lord” in one’s heart for the celebration of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection can be a very helpful and instructive practice. Entering this season of repentance through impartation of ashes on one’s forehead on “Ash Wednesday” can create a strong connection to the Biblical practice of repenting in sackcloth and ashes.  Skipping a meal, a favorite food, or favorite activity can help underscore our words of repentance with our bodies.

Lenten Warfare

However, the practice of Lent also has a dark side in church history. As the human tendency toward hyper-control began to infiltrate the church, the practice of Lent became more and more prescribed and restrictive with each passing year. By the Middle Ages the compulsory practice of Lent had become so oppressive Protestant leaders began to reject it altogether.  Martin Luther saw nothing wrong with Lent in theory, but feared that most Lenten fasting had become dead compulsory religious ritual aimed at earning God’s favor that amounted to “fasting to Satan instead of a fasting unto holiness.” Ulrich Zingli and later John Calvin were just as rough. They all but outlawed what they called the “gross delusion” of the “superstitious observance of Lent.”

John Wesley helped advance a balanced perspective on Lent

Soon, Lent-keeping became a shibboleth defining which side of the Reformation you were on. Take ashes and the “Anti-Lent” crowd called you an enemy of the gospel. Refuse them, and the “Pro-Lent” gang condemned you to hell.

John Wesley, founder of the Methodist church, was perhaps the first Protestant to swing the pendulum back toward a sane balance. Wesley broke with the Church of England’s ban on Lent by listing it among his approved fast days of the Church. In fact,  he thought it was “deplorable” that many Methodists neglected such fasting. Wesleyan Methodist churches eventually reinstated Lent as an official church practice. Anglicans, Lutherans, and later Presbyterians also eventually reinstated Lent, which may have caused Luther and Calvin to roll over their graves.

Dallas Willard and the Spiritual Formation Movement

In recent years, Lent has enjoyed something of a revival among younger Christians, especially by those influenced by the contemporary spiritual formation movement. Dallas Willard, Richard Foster, James Houston, and a growing chorus of “Willard for Dummies”[2] advocates help contemporary Christians recapture the positive elements of all “spiritual discipline,” and Lent in particular.

We indirectly participate in our own transformation through the spiritual disciplines.

Willard warns that Protestantism’s emphasis upon grace all too often draws believers into the heresy of passivism. Grace rightly emphasizes our inability to “earn” our own salvation. However, passivism mistakenly emphasizes our inability to take part in our own transformation at all (The Renovation of the Heart, p. 82). Fasting in general, and Lenten fasting in particular can help counteract this passive “I’ll wait around for God to change me” approach to faith.

While we are “saved” through faith by grace alone, we are transformed by the “interactive presence” of the Holy Spirit in our lives (p. 23). God could transform us instantly and unilaterally, but he has chosen to transform us largely by working with us (p. 10). We participate in our own transformation indirectly by shaping of our thoughts and feelings through the rigorous and skillful application of spiritual discipline  (p. 248).  In other words, while we cannot be instantly or immediately transformed by sheer force of will, we can will to practice the disciplines that put us in a place where God’s grace can transform us into the image of Christ.

This is why Lent can be both used and abused. To practice Lent out of sense of compulsion—fearing that God will smite me if I eat chocolate–or in hopes of earning brownie points with God for good behavior, are both anathema to the true spirit of the disciplines.  However, to give up something for Lent in hopes of using your body (your whole being) to express your prayer of repentance can be very powerful.  It can put you in a position to better cooperate with the movements of the Spirit in your own soul.

Catch the Wave

Just as a board helps a surfer catch the power of a wave, Lent can help someone ‘catch’ the grace of God.

This brought me to the realization that spiritual disciplines are a lot like surfboards. The surfer doesn’t create the wave, but her board helps her to catch the energy provided by the ocean. In the same way, a spiritual discipline (such as a Lenten fast) doesn’t create the transforming power of God, but it does help us to catch it.  The spiritual discipline of fasting creates a space of faith that God is only to glad to fill. The spiritual discipline of Lent helps many people to “catch the wave” of God’s ever-available power.

That’s the way it has worked for me. I didn’t grow up in a tradition that emphasized Lent. Yet for some reason, As a young Christ follower, Lent just seemed like a good idea to prepare my heart for Easter by following Christ into a 40-day fast. Since I wanted my fast to be ‘to’ Christ and not just ‘from’ something, I decided to give up television and use the time I freed for prayer and bible reading.

It turned out to be a profound spiritual experience. I discovered that God’s power and presence had been fully available to me, but night-after-night I had not been available to him.  Once I began using the time previously devoted to mindless entertainment to seek him, I began to catch the supernatural resources that had always been at my disposal. [3] The spiritual discipline of Lent became a surfboard God used to propel me forward in my faith.

Alcohol, Carbs, and the Presence of God

So, Arielle, there’s my answer. Enjoy the blessings of God found in food, drink, carbs, and the arts.  “Whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (1Cor 10:31). But sometimes an intense season of spiritual discipline such as Lent is just what we need to re-examine our heart and catch the wave of Christ’s ever-present help.

Surfs Up!

Next:  You Are What You Eat (and Do): Why You Might Not Want to Give Up Chocolate For Lent

 


[1] Okay, actually Lent is actually 46 days. Why? Medieval church leaders decided that fasting on the feast day of Sunday was a hypocrisy and deducted the six Sunday’s of Lent from the season of repentance, making Lent 46 days long. This has always seemed more like a loophole than an actual spiritual discipline to me. I normally just fast the whole 46 days.

[2] John Ortberg’s self-professed job description.

[3] Don’t take this as a slam on TV viewing in general. I still love television and many of my friends and students work in the TV industry. I think moderate viewing of excellent shows can be a very helpful spiritual discipline. In fact, Tivo and Hulu have helped me nearly eliminate the kind of mindless channel surfing that so thwarted my early spiritual development.

What is Spiritual Formation? by Dallas Willard, PhD

Part of Lenten Series: You Are What You Do (and Eat): Spiritual Formation in Everyday Life 

“We have multitudes of professing Christians who well may be ready to die, but obviously are not ready to live.” -Dallas Willard

Dallas Willard served as a Professor in the School of Philosophy at the University of Southern California for over 35 years. He exerted tremendous influence in the areas of epistemology, the philosophy of mind and of logic, and the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl. However, it is Willard’s writings in the field of religion that may prove to be his greatest legacy.

Willard has also become one of the world’s leading voices in a renewed understanding of spiritual formation. His Hearing God (1984)[1], and The Spirit of the Disciplines (1988), helped launch the modern Protestant spiritual formation movement. Subsequent publications have only deepened his impact. The Divine Conspiracy (1998) was selected as a Christianity Today “Book of the Year.” Renovation of the Heart (2002) received Christianity Today’s Book Award in the category of Spirituality. The Great Omission (2006) received a Christianity Today annual Book Award in the Christian Living category.

His final new book, Knowing Christ Today (2009), contained Willard’s lifetime of reflection on the connection between spiritual formation and philosophy. I believe it will prove to be his most influential work.

Willard’s writing, lecturing, and counsel have greatly influenced my own understanding of spirituality. Key concepts in Renovation of the Heart help shape the framework of my dissertation thesis and even merit a special appendix comparing and contrasting Willard and America’s most famous spiritual formation book: A Treatise on Religious Affections by Jonathan Edwards. (More in future posts.)

In the selection below, Willard, introduces the topic, “What is Spiritual Formation,” with concepts that I will build upon in future posts. Enjoy.


Spiritual Formation in Christ: A Perspective on What it is and How it Might be Done

by Dallas Willard on Dwillard.org

“… until Christ be formed in you.” (Gal. 4:19)

“Spiritual formation” is a phrase that has recently rocketed onto the lips and into the ears of Protestant Christians with an abruptness that is bound to make a thoughtful person uneasy. If it is really so important, not to mention essential, then why is it so recent? It must be just another passing fad in Protestant religiosity, increasingly self-conscious and threatened about “not meeting the needs of the people.” And, really, isn’t spiritual formation just a little too Catholic to be quite right?

We could forget the phrase “Spiritual formation,” but the fact and need would still be there to be dealt with. The spiritual side of the human being, Christian and non-Christian alike, develops into the reality which it becomes, for good or ill. Everyone receives spiritual formation, just as everyone gets an education. The only question is whether it is a good one or a bad one. We need to take a conscious, intentional hand in the developmental process. We need to understand what the formation of the human spirit is, and how it can best be done as Christ would have it done. This is an indispensable aspect of developing a psychology that is adequate to human life.

The reason for the recent abrupt emergence of the terminology into religious life is, I believe, a growing suspicion or realization that we have not done well with the reality and the need. We have counted on preaching, teaching, and knowledge or information to form faith in the hearer, and have counted on faith to form the inner life and outward behavior of the Christian. But, for whatever reason, this strategy has not turned out well. The result is that we have multitudes of professing Christians who well may be ready to die, but obviously are not ready to live, and can hardly get along with themselves, much less with others…

Continue Reading

Next: Jonathan Edwards Goes to Movies: What Story Structure Teaches Us About Religious Affections and Lent

.

——-

[1] Originally published as In Search of Guidance.

You Are What You Eat (and Do): Why You Might Not Want to Give Up Chocolate For Lent

Part of Lenten Series: You Are What You Do (and Eat): Spiritual Formation in Everyday Life 

At first glance, the concept of Embodied Cognition looks more like a whackadoodle academic program than serious research. But could it be scientific evidence for an ancient Christian practice?

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

Tom Bartlett reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education (below) that eating chocolate and other sweets can actually make you a sweeter person.

In one experiment, the researchers gave 58 undergraduates either a Hershey’s Kiss or an Altoids Tangerine Sour. Posttreat, those who had eaten a Kiss rated themselves as feeling more agreeable than those who had sucked an Altoid.

That’s not terribly shocking. Maybe chocolate puts people in a slightly better mood. Fine.

What’s harder to wrap my head around is an experiment that linked a fondness for sweet foods with a willingness to help others. First, the 108 participants (undergrads again) filled out a survey in which they rated how much they liked salty, sour, and sweet foods.

They were then asked whether they would be willing to help dispose of sandbags. The question isn’t as random as it sounds: There had been a flood in the area, and millions of sandbags needed to be removed. The way the question was framed, the participants might reasonably have believed that they were committing to help out with the cleanup.

Here’s what Robinson found: People who liked sweet foods were more likely to volunteer to remove sandbags. They were metaphorically sweet people who loved actual sweets.

kids eating candyAt first glance, this concept of Embodied Cognition looks more like some new whackadoodle academic program than serious research. But could it be scientific evidence for an ancient Christian practice?

Late USC professor Dallas Willard and other spiritual formation experts, note that most of what we call “character” consists in what our bodies are “at the ready” to do in specific situations. This means that our inclinations towards evil literally inhabit our body—our tongue, our eyes, our hands, our stomachs, etc.—in such a way that genuine Christlikeness is very much connected to the retraining our bodies for good (Renovation of the Heart, 159, 162, 166).

Willard asserted that no matter how badly we might wish to follow Christ, we cannot transform ourselves by sheer force of our will. We may know that loving our neighbor is Christ’s ideal and even wish to obey, but that desire alone is usually not enough to keep us from, say, speaking in anger when our neighbor’s dog ruins our freshly seeded lawn. If that ‘neighbor’ is a family member with whom we have often engaged in escalating war of words, we might even hear words coming out of our mouth that we vowed we would never say again just a few moments earlier. This embodiment of our sin all but guarantees that “little can be done in the moment of need to help one do the good thing Jesus commands” (90-94).

We are very much like an obese man who is suddenly offered a one million dollar price if he can finish a marathon in under four hours. No matter how badly he wants the money, he simply cannot roll out of bed the next morning and claim his prize. It is physically impossible. However, if this man is willing to devote himself to disciplining his body to a progressively intensive regimen of a careful diet, walking, and finally running, it is well within his ability to one day become the kind of person who can travel 26.21875 miles in less than four hours.

This idea of becoming the kind of person who loves God and his neighbor with her whole heart is central to Willard’s thought. To Willard spiritual transformation is achieved as we cooperate with the power of God within us by directing our bodies and minds to practice certain time-honored spiritual disciplines. “Disciplines are activities that are in our power and that enable us to do what we cannot do by direct effort. We cannot transform our ideas and images, or even the information we have or our thought processes, into Christlikeness by direct effort. But we can do things—adopt certain practices—that, indirectly, will increasingly have that effect.” (113)

Christian Spiritual Formation is therefore a matter of recognizing and replacing in ourselves idea systems and practices of evil with the idea systems and practices of the kingdom of God embodied and taught by Jesus—filling our minds with the images, ideas, and information that filled the mind of Jesus, and occupying our bodies with those activities and practices that filled his schedule.

If I occupy my mind and body with the disciplines of mediating upon Christ’s words of love and forgiveness towards me, memorizing his command to love my neighbor (or my enemy), praying for the well-being of my enemies, and perhaps even secretly serving them with no thought of reward (perhaps by secretly tending to their lawn), it is highly likely that the next time I call upon my body to hold my tongue (what a wonderfully embodied term), my body will throw off its embodied sin and obey my will.  I have become the type of person who blesses others in moments of stress where I may have cursed in the past.

Which brings me back to Tom Bartlett’s Chronicle article below. I am not making a spiritual formation case for eating sweets (which some research says may lead to a life of crime.) What I am saying is that our bodies are an integral part of our spiritual formation. Compare some of the findings of Embodied Cognition to Willard’s thought and ponder whether or not such research may very well be onto something important…

…Or at least give you a good excuse not to give up chocolate for Lent.

Next:  What is Spiritual Formation, by Dallas Willard

 

The Sweet Kisses of Embodied Cognition

People who liked sweet foods were more likely to volunteer to remove sandbags. They were metaphorically sweet people who loved actual sweets.

by  • The Chronicle of Higher Education

Best lollipopsI wandered into a session on embodied cognition at last week’s Society for Personality and Social Psychology conference, and I walked away thinking what I heard can’t possibly be true.

I mean, it just can’t be. Can it?

Research on embodied cognition—the idea, basically, that the body strongly influences the mind in multiple ways we’re not aware of (though not everyone agrees with that definition)—is a fairly new field, and in the last few years it has produced a number of head-scratching results. For instance, there’s the 2009 study that seems to show that people holding heavy clipboards are more likely to disagree with weak arguments than people holding light clipboards. Or the study, also published in 2009, that found that people gripping a warm cup of coffee judged others as having a “warm” personality.

In the session I saw, the presentation, by Michael D. Robinson, a professor of psychology at North Dakota State University, was on his research suggesting a strong connection between acting sweet and eating sweets. Between cupcakes and kindness.

Some of his research got attention when it was first published, in 2011, but I was struck again by what it would mean if it turned out to be true.

In one experiment, the researchers gave 58 undergraduates either a Hershey’s Kiss or an Altoids Tangerine Sour. Posttreat, those who had eaten a Kiss rated themselves as feeling more agreeable than those who had sucked an Altoid.

That’s not terribly shocking. Maybe chocolate puts people in a slightly better mood. Fine.

What’s harder to wrap my head around is an experiment that linked a fondness for sweet foods with a willingness to help others. First, the 108 participants (undergrads again) filled out a survey in which they rated how much they liked salty, sour, and sweet foods.

They were then asked whether they would be willing to help dispose of sandbags. The question isn’t as random as it sounds: There had been a flood in the area, and millions of sandbags needed to be removed. The way the question was framed, the participants might reasonably have believed that they were committing to help out with the cleanup.

Here’s what Robinson found: People who liked sweet foods were more likely to volunteer to remove sandbags. They were metaphorically sweet people who loved actual sweets.

And the finding hits on one of the underlying ideas of embodied cognition—that is, that the metaphors we toss around are grounded in more concrete, physiological truths. Warm things make you physically and psychologically warmer. Cold things make you feel more alienated. Sweet things make you sweeter, and liking sweet things means you behave more sweetly.

Continue reading

See Also: The Feast of Fasting: Why Practicing Lent is a lot like Surfing

 

Two Handed Warriors at Eight Months

Reflections on the Relaunch of Two Handed Warriors

Dear Two Handed Warrior Community,

When Sue and I first launched Two Handed Warriors eight months ago we never could have imagined how many people would connect with our theme. All we had was a deep conviction that an unnecessary dichotomy between faith and culture has plagues both the quality of life and overall effectiveness of an entire generation of leaders.

Leaders adept at culture-making—whether in Hollywood or the Ivy League—are rarely trained in the disciplines of faith-building; whereas leaders with strengths in faith-building—whether in a local congregation or an international relief agency–are rarely trained in the art of culture-making.

It is a dichotomy that not only creates glaring blind spots in our leadership (and personal lives), it also robs us of a vibrant conversation with other leaders from whom we have the most to learn.

We launched Two Handed Warriors in hopes that it would inspire an ongoing conversation among educators, filmmakers, business and spiritual leaders devoted to gaining expertise in BOTH faith-building and culture-making. Our hope was that (in time) such a conversation might help birth a movement of intellectuals, artists, leaders, and philanthropists who could redefine faith and culture for an entire generation.

Our hunch was that such a movement of experts in such diverse fields could be unified by developing a common “school of thought” centered on a deeper understanding of “the stories we live by” at the deepest level of our societal and personal worldviews. Or at least that story was one place where filmmakers and college professors, musicians and CEOs, scientists and pastors could meet as equals and develop a common language for tackling the reintegration of faith and culture in their own lives and in the organizations they lead.

On the one hand, THW has exceeded our wildest dreams. Readership has outstripped anything Sue and I could have imagined. On the other hand, THW still has a long way to go in fostering the kind of conversation we envisioned.

Toward that end we are going to try a few new strategies in this next year.

First, we’ll be hosting a series of face-to-face conversations among key leaders in variety of settings–Entertainment, Education, Ministry, etc.–to help better understand the unique issues facing leaders in each setting and (Lord willing) foster the kind of relationships required for a deeper ongoing conversation. (The next step will be cross-pollination meetings between leaders in different contexts.)

Second, we are going to accept some graciously offered help in upping our social media game. These experts tell us that we are seriously under utilizing Twitter and Facebook and have a very time-consuming email system. Please be patient with us as we try new things and let us now if they are helpful (or not).  The goal is to build community, not annoy people.

Third, we are officially asking for help. We need to solidify our team of writers, editors, photographers, graphic designers, event planners, administrators, etc.  If you have the time and talent we have the need. We’ve got some exciting new pieces and projects in the works, but with my sabbatical coming to an end, we need HELP bringing the website to print and peer group gatherings to reality!

Finally, we want to say thank you to everyone who helped get us this far. We never would have made it without the generous help of so many dear friends. We’d like to give special thanks to Margaret Feinberg, Scot McKnight, Mike Friesen, Dale Kuehne, Dave Schmelzer, Lem Usita, Cheryl McKay Price, Cathleen Falsani, Lauren Hunter, Dean Batali, Sheryl Anderson, Phil and Kathleen Cooke, Erik Lokkesmoe, Jessica Rieder, Michael Warren, Monica Macer, Kurt Schemper, Kevin Chesley, Korey Scott Pollard, John David Ware, Jenn Gotzon, Chris Armstrong, Ashley Arielle, Adam Caress, Dennis Ingolfsland, David Kinnaman, Jay Barnes, Ralph Enloe, McCoy Tyner, Chris Fletcher, Neal and Laurie Barton, Todd Burns, Chris Easterly, Jeremy Story, Bret McCracken, Brian Bird, Ken Minkema, Rich Gathro, Peter Kapsner, Ray and Wendy Hanson, Craig Case, David McFadzean, Dallas Willard, Chuck Swindoll, John Ortberg, Tim and Char Savaloja, Lisa Whittle, Michael Hyatt, Randy Elrod, Ian Collings, Ken Stewart, Dale Schlafer, Dave Warn, Jeremy Story, Mark Russell, Amy Larson, Ben and Rochelle, Jake and Erin, Mario and Kathy, Bill Diggins, Brent Kanyok, Carol Shell Harris, Dave Warn, Doug Clark, Kelly Erickson, Drason Anderson, Keri Lowe, Scott Smith, Steve and Diane Dunkle , John and Laurie Bruns, Wes Wilmer, Wesley Tullis, William Bergeron, René Delgado, Stanley D. Williams, Shun Lee Fong, Jaeson Ma, Jim and Karen Covell, Rodney Stark, Dean Smith, Amanda Llewellyn, Bren and Melissa Smith, Kait Stratton, Ron Jesberg, Brent Kanyok, Randy Elrod, Deborah Arca Mooney, Libby Slate, Jack Gilbert, David Medders, Gabe Lyons and the entire Q Ideas team.

May your tribe increase!

Please let us know if you’re sensing a calling to pitch in.

Grace and great mercy,

Gary and Sue

 

For more info on Two Handed Warriors, see:  You Shall Not Pass! The Supernatural Power of Two Handed Warfare

 

Two Handed Warrior Books of the Decade, by Gary & Sue Stratton

Inspired by Margaret Feinberg’s list of 10 beautiful books of the decade in yesterday’s post, Sue and I put our heads together over dinner at Outback and came up with our own twenty (popular) books on the two themes of Two Handed Warriors—Culture Making and Faith Building. (Hey, there’s two of us, so we get ten each, right?) Of course, a few were written before the 2000’s, but we didn’t get around to reading them until this decade. Read our lists and let us know what we missed. It drove us crazy leaving out so many great books.

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Culture Making and the Arts

  1. Walking On Water (1980) Madeline L’Engle
  2. The Love of Learning and the Desire for God (1988) Jean Leclerq
  3. The Courage to Teach (1997) Parker Palmer
  4. The Dying of the Light (1998) James T. Burtchaell
  5. Divided by Faith (2001) Michael O. Emerson & Christian Smith
  6. Imagine (2001) Steve Turner
  7. The Rise of Evangelicalism (2003) Mark Noll
  8. Culture Making (2008) Andy Crouch
  9. Outliers (2008) Malcolm Gladwell
  10. To Change the World (2010) James Davidson Hunter

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Faith Building and Spiritual Formation

  1. The Renovation of the Heart (2002) Dallas Willard
  2. Blue Like Jazz (2003) Donald Miller
  3. Repenting of Religion (2004) Greg Boyd
  4. The Jesus Creed (2005) Scot McKnight
  5. Emotionally Healthy Spirituality (2006) Pete Scazzero
  6. unChristian (2007) David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons
  7. Kingdom Triangle (2007) J.P. Moreland
  8. A Credible Witness (2008) Brenda Salter McNeil
  9. Not the Religious Type (2008) David Schmelzer
  10. Surprised by Hope (2008) NT Wright

What’s on your list?

Gary & Sue