The Second Great Awakening: From Rural Revival to National Social Movement

Adapted from the authors’ forthcoming article in the Encyclopedia of Christianity in the United States

More than a century before the New Deal, Public Education, or the Civil Rights movements, the Second Great Awakening fostered a nation-wide “benevolent empire” of care for the poor, freedom for the oppressed and education for all. 

By Gary David Stratton, Professor, Johnson University (TN) and James L. Gorman, Assistant Professor, Johnson University 
Oberlin President, Charles Grandison Finney (1792-1875)
Oberlin President, Charles Grandison Finney (1792-1875)

Generally regarded as a second groundswell of evangelical Protestant religious interest following the Revolutionary War, the Second Great Awakening was more extensive and enduring than the Great Awakening of the 1730s-1740s. The Second Great Awakening began as a rural movement in the 1790’s and achieved notoriety in the Cane Ridge Revival (1801) led by Barton Stone in the south and the Yale College revival (1802) led by Timothy Dwight in the north. The movement was marked by great educational and social reform, culminating in the ministry and Oberlin college presidency of Charles Grandison Finney, who published one of revivalism’s most influential works, Revival Lectures, in 1835.


Kidd (2007) asserts that dividing the early American awakening into two distinct timelines may “obscure the fact that the evangelical movement continued to develop after 1743 and before 1800” (p. xix). No certain or obvious stopping point for the Great Awakening exists; the same is true for the Second Great Awakening. For instance, Scots-Irish Presbyterianism was crucial to the story of evangelicalism’s development during the Revolutionary period and provides a direct link from the colonial Great Awakening to the early-republic Second Great Awakening (Schmidt). Similarly, New Divinity ministers kept Jonathan Edwards’ vision of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit alive in Congregational churches across New England and into New York, while Pietist revivals in Pennsylvania and New Jersey never completely died out. The same could be said for developments among Baptists, Methodists, Anglicans, etc., who each sought the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon their ministries.

Noll (2003) notes that while awakenings may be works of the Holy Spirit, such movements can also be studied as the effect of human 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, religious conviction or social tectonics” (p. 141). By following three key exemplars of the movement, it is possible to sketch out many of the key characteristics of the Second Great Awakening.

Barton Stone and the Cane Ridge Revival (1801)

If one were to mark the “beginning” of the Second Great Awakening, based on criteria of numerical size and geographical extent of awakening, the best starting point would be the “Great Revival in the West” (1797-1805). The leaders were revivalist Presbyterians who followed Jonathan Edwards’ balanced approach to awakening to stoke the fires of awakening through the Revolutionary era who found particularly fertile ground in Kentucky. The rapid expansion of the fledgling nation across the Appalachians created a vast territory with little or no rule of law, where settlers and outlaws often battled to an uneasy seasons of peace, and leaving a spiritual vacuum which revivalists rushed in to fill.

One of the best known of these revivalists was Barton Stone, a “discontented Calvinist” and pastor of two Presbyterian churches in Bourbon County, Kentucky. After witnessing revival in Scottish style “sacramental meetings” in Logan County under the preaching of James McGready (who Stone knew and trusted from his academy days) Stone became convinced that God could grant the gift of faith without an extensive season of “seeking” God. He returned to Bourbon County determined to preach that his men could “believe now, and be saved.” (Alvarez, p. 45)  After growing success in Concord began to attract large crowds, Stone called for a weeklong sacramental meeting at Cane Ridge. The meetings attracted between 10,000 and 20,000 people with many “falling” under the power of the Spirit and coming to faith in a matter of hours (Conkin).

Denominational ties began to lose their meaning in meetings where as many as seven pastors from four denominations were preaching in various parts of the camp simultaneously. Calling themselves simply “Christians,” the movement spread throughout the Ohio and Tennessee Valleys, where Stone eventually joined forces with Alexander Campbell in 1832, forming a denomination with a handshake. Denominational unity (a strong ideal of Jonathan Edwards’ revivalism) and innovation (first modeled by George Whitefield in the Great Awakening) became hallmarks or the Stone-Campbell movement and the entire Second Great Awakening. “The Disciples, Christian Churches, and Churches of Christ founded by these leaders effectively evangelized the Upper South and opening West because they had translated the Christian message into an effective American idiom” (Noll, p. 51).

Timothy Dwight and Yale College

When the faculties at Harvard and Yale rejected the (First) Great Awakening, entrenching these institutions as “Old Light” bastions, “New Light” friends of the awakening were quick to take up the charge in the founding of a flurry of new colleges with a revival bent.  Some New Divinity colleges, such as Dartmouth, and Amherst, were founded directly on Jonathan Edwards’ principles of revival. Others, like Williams, and Rutgers were later captured by followers of Edwards’ educational vision. In the end, nearly all colleges of the era were eventually influenced by the Edwards/Dwight project of integrating revivalism with Scottish Common Sense Realism, in no small degree due to influence of his grandson, Timothy Dwight, who was named to the presidency of Yale in 1795 in a striking Edwardsean takeover of what had once been an “Old Light” institution.

Like his grandfather, preaching was central to Dwight’s approach to preparing the way for spiritual awakening and presidential sermons were the core of the college curriculum.  Dwight preached twice each Sunday in mandatory college church services: a morning sermon addressed to a doctrinal topic, and an afternoon discourse on more practical and experiential applications of faith, using scripture and Common Sense Realism (Thomas Reid and John Witherspoon) to defend his theology. Still, revival eluded Dwight for his first seven years at Yale, as students commitment to ‘French infidel philosophy’ often exceeded those committed to Christian faith.

It wasn’t until students who had been touched by revivals in the rural churches of the Connecticut River Valley instituted a Jonathan Edwards’ style concert of prayer–a weekly meeting of “united and fervent prayer that God might pour out his Spirit upon the college”–that the Second Great Awakening finally came to Yale. By the end of the summer term, no less than eighty out of 230 students had been “hopefully converted to God and admitted to the college church, thirty-five of which became preachers of the gospel.

Yale experienced three further revivals under Dwight and these outpourings of the Spirit became a welcomed and promoted aspect of the president’s educational program. When students petitioned to cancel classes in a season of spiritual awakening, Dwight refused and instead carefully guided them back to a biblical holism committed to fostering the life of the Spirit in the day-to-day life of the college; an approach that eventually spread to many if not most of America’s colleges.

Under Dwight’s presidency Yale College grew into the largest and most influential college in the Americas and so that higher education became a hallmark of the Second Great Awakening. At one point 35 of the 150 college presidents in the United States were graduates of Dwight’s Yale. Marsden notes that Dwight’s emphasis upon “revival and moral philosophy, were the chief collegiate supplements to traditions of regulated worship…” and laid the foundation for nearly a century of academic ascendancy that “may be called with justice the great age of Christian higher education in the history of the country” (p. 58).

Noll notes that Dwight and these “revival colleges” were instrumental in effecting a “surprising intellectual synthesis” of evangelicalism and common-sense moral reasoning that dominated the nation’s thinking and led to the remarkable “Christianization” of American society (Noll, 2005, p. 9).

Charles Grandison Finney

Regarded as the father of modern revivalism, Charles G. Finney was the human catalyst for some of the most impressive urban revivals in United States history and in the process created the methodology for virtually all evangelists who followed. In 1821 he was converted in the early stages of the Second Great Awakening and left his law studies with the declaration, “I have a retainer from the Lord.” After brief theological training, the local Presbytery licensed Finney as an itinerant home missionary in upstate New York. Bright, athletic, unusually tall, and musically gifted, his theatrical preaching drew enthusiastic crowds and produced numerous converts. The largely “New School Presbyterian” New York Presbytery embraced these measures and published a pamphlet of his revival efforts in the tradition of Jonathan Edwards’ Faithful Narrative.

Finney considered himself a theological descendant of Jonathan Edwards’ revivalism. However, his highly volunteeristic theology of conversion led him to reject Calvinistic views and preach “man’s duty to change his own heart.” Rather than pressing his audience to begin the long process of seeking a salvation granted only by God, Finney called sinners to make an instantaneous decision to repent and believe. His view of conversion as a “free decision” led him to adopt and popularize a highly “democratic practice” of evangelism known as New Measures (Smith, 2007, 2-8), including dramatic and colloquial preaching, an extensive time of singing before preaching, the inclusion of women as leaders, the use of an anxious seat (precursor to the altar call), the use of celebrity, novelty, and story to persuade, and public prayer meetings for God to pour out his Spirit upon particular sinners.

In 1830 Finney moved his efforts into urban settings with a tremendous success in a great revival in Rochester, NY that is still regarded as “the greatest revival in American history” (Cross, p. 13). The experience launched Finney into national prominence, and after accepting brief pastorates in New York and Boston, he eventually settled at Oberlin College (OH) as a faculty member and later president. It was during this era that Finney delivered and published his wildly popular Revival Lectures, one of the most widely read books in American religious history. Rather than instructing evangelicals to wait passively for God to send revival, Finney’s great confidence in God’s willingness to grant the awakening gift of the Spirit in answer to prayer led him to declare, “A revival is no more a miracle than a crop of wheat.”

William G. McLoughlin’s interpretation that Finney was asserting that revivals were ‘worked up’ while Edwards believed revivals were ‘prayed down’ (p. 11) misses Finney’s remarkable emphasis upon prayer and the sophisticated nuance of divine and human interaction in both revivalists’ theologies. Still, it seems a fitting epitaph for much evangelism after Finney when “revival meetings” became standard practice in virtually every Christian denomination in the United States and beyond.

Finney’s emphasis on the filling of the Holy Spirit as the key to perfectionistic holiness evidenced in self-sacrificing love for the lost, the disadvantaged, and the oppressed became the impetus for his version of the Second Great Awakening’s vision to create a “benevolent empire” of “good government, Christian education, temperance reform, relief for the poor and the abolition of slavery” (T. L. Smith, p. 60-61).

Oberlin was one of the first colleges in the nation to admit blacks and women as students in full standing and the clear leader for the anti-slavery movement in the mid-west. Due to the enduring popularity of Finney’s Memoirs and Revival Lectures, his influence upon revivalist evangelicalism eventually rivaled and even eclipsed that of Jonathan Edwards. Noll contends,

“[A] good case can be made that Finney should be ranked with Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, and Andrew Carnegie […] as one of the most important public figures in nineteenth-century America” (Noll, 2002, p. 176).


While it is as difficult to find a clear ending point to the Second Great Awakening as it is to find a clear beginning, its impact was felt deep into the nineteenth-century and beyond. More than a century before the New Deal, Public Education, or the Civil Rights movements, the Second Great Awakening fostered a nation-wide “benevolent empire” of care for the poor, freedom for the oppressed and education for all

Religiously, the awakening left enduring practices of concerted prayer, revival/camp meetings, anxious seats/altar calls, new measures, that still influence nearly every evangelical Protestant denomination today. Theologically, the Second Great Awakening marked the end what Guelzo calls one hundred years of “theological bungee-jumping” between God and human roles in conversion, so that gradually and in increments the idea of gradually seeking salvation was replaced by immediate conversion.

Politically, it is difficult to miss the connection to the democratization of American society and the democratization of the church. However, the direction of that influence is difficult to measure. Globally, the Second Great Awakening birthed the beginning of a massive evangelical missionary movement, first to the Native American communities and eventually to foreign missions. Culturally, the awakening contributed to a sense of national cohesion at a time of profound social change, but most likely also fueled a sense of manifest destiny that deeply wounded the very Native American populations the revivalists most wanted to evangelize.

Gary David Stratton (Ph.D. Biola University) is University Professor of  Spiritual Formation and Cultural Engagement and Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at Johnson University (TN). James L. Gorman (Ph.D. Baylor University) is Assistant Professor of History at Johnson University. Based upon Stratton and Gorman’s “The Great Awakening [1730s to 1740s]” in the “Encyclopedia of Christianity in the United States” (Rowman and Littlefield, 2016).

See also

The Great Awakening: From British Revival to American Revolution

Revival and Moral Philosophy:  A Puritan Vision for American Higher Education

Do America’s Colleges Need ‘Revival’?

What does the University of Tennessee have to do with Prayer?


Alvarez, Carmelo, and David N. Williams. 2012. The Stone-Campbell Movement: a Global History. St. Louis: Chalice Press.

Conkin, Paul Keith. 1990. Cane Ridge: America’s Pentecost (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Cross, Whitney R. 1950. The Burned-over District; the Social and Intellectual History of Enthusiastic Religion in Western New York, 1800-1850. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Finney, Charles G. 1960. Lectures on Revivals of Religion. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Guelzo, Allen. C. 1997. An Heir or a Rebel? Charles Grandison Finney and the New England Theology. Journal of the Early Republic. 17: 61-94.

Kidd, Thomas. 2007. The Great Awakening: The Roots of Evangelical Christianity in Colonial America. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.

Marsden, George M. 1994. The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief. New York: Oxford University Press.

McLoughlin, William G. 1978. Revivals, Awakenings, and Reform: An Essay on Religion and Social Change in America, 1607–1977. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Noll, Mark A. 2005. America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (New York: Oxford University Press.

Noll, Mark A. 2010. A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada. Grand Rapids, Mich: W.B. Eerdmans..

Schmidt, Leigh Eric. 2001. Holy Fairs: Scotland and the Making of American Revivalism, 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

Smith, Ted A. 2007. The New Measures: a Theological History of Democratic Practice. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Smith, Timothy L. 1980. Revivalism and Social Reform: American Protestantism on the Eve of the Civil War. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Williams, David Newell. 1979. “The Theology of the Great Revival in the West as Seen Through the Life and Thought of Barton Warren Stone” (Ph.D. Dissertation, Vanderbilt University.)

Yale Makes Works of Jonathan Edwards Available for Free, by Jonathan Merritt

The release of Edwards’ work is more than a historical contribution. It comes at a moment of renewed interest in the preacher, especially among conservative evangelicals. 

by Jonathan Merritt 

Jonathan_Edwards-240x240The collected works of Jonathan Edwards, the 18th-century preacher and one of America’s most famous theologians, are now available for download thanks to Logos Bible Software. But for those who don’t want to cough up $1,289.95 to purchase them, there’s good news: The Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale Divinity School lets you view them online for free.

The colonial preacher was instrumental in America’s Great Awakening and is known for fiery sermons such as “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” The 26-volume collection, “The Works of Jonathan Edwards,” comprises more than 10,000 sermons, articles and letters that were indexed from 1953 to 2008.

“Edwards is widely recognized as one of the most important American thinkers and religious figures and as a major figure in the history of Christian thought,” said Kenneth Minkema, executive director of Yale’s Jonathan Edwards Center. “Publication of his works is important for providing resources for those, such as students, who wish to learn for the first time about his influences, thought and legacies.”

The release of Edwards’ work is more than a historical contribution. It comes at a moment of renewed interest in the preacher, especially among conservative evangelicals and “New Calvinists,” mostly evangelicals who are acolytes of Edwards’ brand of Calvinist theology.

According to Minkema, there are more than 4,000 books, articles, dissertations and other writings on Edwards, and they are increasing in frequency.


See Also

Jonathan Edwards in a New Light, by Pulitzer Prize Winner Marilynne Robinson

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

Revival and Moral Philosophy: A Puritan Vision for American Higher Education

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

Do America’s Colleges Need ‘Revival’?


Jonathan-Merritt_avatar_1385618070-96x96Jonathan Merritt is senior columnist for Religion News Service, America’s largest provider of news about religion and spirituality.  He has published more than 1000 articles in respected outlets such as USA Today, The Atlantic, National Journal,Christianity TodayThe Washington Post, and Jonathan is author of Jesus is Better Than You Imagined and A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars. His first book, Green Like God: Unlocking the Divine Plan for Our Planet.

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

Part one of ongoing series

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

by Gary David Stratton, Ph.D.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Worldview Classroom Disconnect

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

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

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

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

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

The Power of World-interpreting Story

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

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

The Power of Personality-Shaping Story 

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

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

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

As Hollywood story guru, Robert McKee argues:

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

The Intertwining Stories in Macro and Micro Worldviews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Continuing Story

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

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

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

Next Posts in Series:

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

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

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


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

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

[3] Naugle, Worldview, 62.

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

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

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

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

[8] Sire, Universe, 20.

[9] Naugle, Worldview, 297.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[19] McAdams, Stories, 37.

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


Is Jesus Still Surrounded by Too Many Men? By Cathleen Falsani

Why is Margaret Feinberg the most influential young woman leader in evangelicalism you’ve never heard of?

Cathleen Falsani and Margaret Feinberg are two of my favorite authors and bloggers. Last week they tag-teamed for a thought-provoking article on the future of female leadership in evangelicalism. I came away more determined than ever to seek to be part of the solution not the problem. Why?  I’ve seen too much waste of God-given gifts and talents in the church.

Today we interviewed a faculty candidate to teach communication in ministry for our department. The candidate was a gifted teacher who not only possesses all the requisite communication and theological degrees, they’re also an award-winning speaker, as well as a former TV anchor and talk show host.

The only thing lacking on their CV was extensive preaching experience. Why? Her local church will only allow her to do the announcements!

We recommended her for the job anyway. We don’t want our students to miss the privilege of being instructed by such a gifted and anointed teacher–a privilege the congregants in her own church may never know. Personally, I think that’s a crime against the kingdom of God.

You may disagree, but I highly recommend that you wrestle with the issue as Cathleen and Margaret explore it their interview.

May their tribe increase!


Jesus is Still Surrounded By Too Many Men

By in the Huffington Post.

Pop quiz: Name three women leaders in evangelical Christianity.

Not including women known primarily as partner to their better-known husbands. And just to make it interesting, let’s say they have to be under age 60.

Stumped? Don’t feel too badly. You’re not alone.

Back in 2005 when Time magazine published its list of the “25 Most Influential Evangelicals,” only four women made the cut — and just two without their husbands. Of the two solo women, Diane Knippers and Joyce Meyer, only Meyer is involved in actual church leadership.

But Meyer turned 68 earlier this month, and Knippers (then president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy), died of cancer shortly after the Time designation.

From the outside, the evangelical Christian world, insomuch as it is identified by its “celebrities,” looks like Jesus’ good ol’ boys club: decidedly male and predominantly white.

In the words of the R&B group 702, “Where my girls at?”

Enter Margaret Feinberg

Since she began her writing career in 2001, Margaret Feinberg, 37, has written more than two dozen books, including the critically acclaimed “The Organic God,” “The Sacred Echo” and “Scouting the Divine.” She is a sought-after speaker for gatherings of young evangelicals including Catalyst, Thrive and Creation Festival.

In 2005, Charisma magazine listed her among the 30 Christian leaders under 40 who represent “the future of the American church.”

She’s probably the most influential young woman leader in evangelicalism you’ve never heard of…

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