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Why would anyone invest so much time and money striving to master such an outdated mode of transportation?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


Millennials and Lent: An Unlikely Pairing, by David Kinnaman

Part of Lenten series Spiritual Formation in Everyday Life 

Millennials are by far the least likely age group to be aware of Lent—but, interestingly, they are more likely than average to say they are planning to fast.  

by David Kinnaman • President, The Barna Group

ash-wednesdayEvery year, beginning on Ash Wednesday and ending on Easter Sunday, millions of people celebrate the 40 days of Lent by giving up—fasting from—certain foods or activities. It’s a practice with a rich history among many Christian traditions. But how likely are believers today to participate in Lenten disciplines—and, if they do choose to fast, what are they fasting from?

The majority of adults (72%) are aware of the Christian tradition of giving something up for Lent. Even among non-Christians, awareness of Lent is at about the same level (70%). Yet in spite of this widespread awareness of the season, only 17% of all adults—roughly one-fifth of those who know about the season—have practiced Lenten fasting in the last three years. The same number (17%) plan to give something up for Lent again this year.

Not surprisingly, practicing Catholics are among the most likely to have participated in Lent, with just over two-thirds (65%) saying they have celebrated the fast in the past three years. But many Protestants have also adopted the habit: one in six practicing Protestants (15%) say they have fasted for Lent in the past three years, and about the same number (16%) say they plan to fast this year.

Each younger generation of Americans is less likely to know about Lent. Millennials, the youngest adult generation, are by far the least likely age group to be aware of Lent (57%)—but, interestingly, they are more likely than average to say they are planning to fast in 2014 (20% compared to 17% among all adults). By contrast, eight out of 10 Boomers (80%) are aware of Lent, but only 10% are planning to give something up this year. Those in the oldest generation, the Elders, are most likely to know about Lent (82%) and most likely to celebrate it, with one-quarter (26%) planning to fast in 2014.

Among those who plan to celebrate Lent this year, the most common abstentions include food or drink, such as chocolate (30%), meat (28%), sugar (28%), soda drinks (26%), alcohol (24%), fruit (14%) and butter or cream (11%). Although less common, many Americans who fast for Lent are planning to abstain from technology or entertainment. This includes curtailing use of social networks (16%), smartphones (13%), television (11%), video games (10%), movies (9%) and the Internet (9%). Activities that were mentioned by fewer than 2% of respondents include sex, smoking and swearing.  Unsurprisingly, Millennials are the population segments most likely to fast from technology.

What the Research Means
Roxanne Stone, a vice president at Barna Group and general editor of the FRAMES series, points out that the data belies established stereotypes about Millennials and traditions, “The conventional wisdom says younger people are anti-tradition—that young Christians rebel against rituals they may deem ’empty’ or antiquated. However, the data shows Millennial Christians express distinctive interest in this ancient discipline—even more so than among their parents’ generation.

“The ability for people to adapt this practice to daily habits such as television, social media, video games and other modern ‘idols’ is likely part of Lent’s current appeal,” Stone says. “It’s a tradition that can connect a contemporary believer to a very ancient and rich faith history, while still feeling applicable to the realities of modern life.

“This connection is an important one for church leaders to note: the more rituals and belief practices can be made pertinent—that is, can be shown to have a depth beyond mere tradition—the more likely today’s Christians are to see their validity and to engage them. Young Christians have come of age in a time when everything feels up in the air; when the newest thing is old in just a few days. The ancient practices of the Christian faith may hold a counter-cultural appeal to many Christians, including Millennials, as they seek to find a sense of rootedness in such a shifting cultural context.”

Read Complete Lenten Research


Why I am Giving Up Prayer for Lent, by Margaret Feinberg

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

When Lent began, I struggled to pray three word prayers. I’d count words. Oops! And realized I’d added a fourth or fifth. As the days rolled into weeks, three word prayers became more natural. But now I’m finding that my prayers are becoming one word. Not out of force or effort but this natural expression to God.

by Margaret Feinberg 

I’ve been thinking a lot about Lent this year and wondering how best to walk through the next seven weeks. I know people who are giving up Twitter, chocolate, and a long list of self-indulgent or addictive activities and foods.

As I’ve reflected, I’ve decided to give up prayer for Lent.

Okay, maybe not all prayer, but lengthy prayers in my personal time with God.

I recently heard a sermon by our friend, Jay, which highlighted the importance of praying simple but potent prayers. As I’ve been mulling over this concept, I realize how mindless I’ve become in my own prayer life. Yes, I feel free to express every desire, whim, ache and need to God–which is a good thing!–except that at times my prayers sound like a gushing four-year-old who talks in an eternal run on sentence. I realize that over time I’ve been increasingly unspecific and inattentive in my prayer life.

That’s why I’m giving up prayer for Lent. Or at least long prayers. For the next 40 days, I’m committed to only offering God three word prayers.

Help me Lord. Heal oh Jesus. Give grace abundant. Grant strength now. Thank you, God.

I’m hopeful the discipline will help me be more thoughtful in my prayer, more strategic in the things I ask God, more focused on Jesus, more ready to listen, more prepared to unleash heartfelt worship and gratitude on Easter morning.

Since I began this journey, I’ve found myself becoming more focused in prayer life, more sensitive to God’s presence, and more aware of my dependence.

But over the last week something new has been happening and I didn’t notice it at first.

When Lent began, I struggled to pray three word prayers. I’d count words. Oops! And realized I’d added a fourth or fifth. As the days rolled into weeks, three word prayers became more natural. But now I’m finding that my prayers are becoming one word. Not out of force or effort but this natural expression to God.

This morning I’ve been praying some friends who are facing a challenge in their relationship. I know they’re talking about the issue sometime today diving into the messiness of hurt, pain, and miscommunication all with a hope of healing and restoration. My prayers for them began as three words. But slowly rolled into two then one. Heal. Restore. Reconcile. Understanding. Compassion. Grace. With each word, I naturally pause as the fullness of the word is heartfelt and passionate yet peaceful.

The single word is a petition, a request, a prayer. One that I offer with the full confidence that God hears and that God will answer.

My prayer life is far more simple than it’s ever been yet somehow feels more effective, more intentional, more potent.

Next: The Soul Killing Problem of Bad Art, by Ashley Arielle

Visit Margaret’s Award-winning website. Used by author’s permission. Photo credit



How Men Changed Their Mind about Women in Ministry, by Scot McKnight

Ongoing Series: Culture Making Bloggers you should know

Scot McKnight, award-winning author and blogger

Scot McKnight’s award-winning blog, Jesus Creed, has become a highly influential interchange of ideas regarding the future of faith in America. Scot is the Karl A. Olsson Professor in Religious Studies at North Park University (Chicago, Illinois) and a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. Dr. McKnight obtained his Ph.D. at the University of Nottingham, and is the author of more than thirty books, including the award-winning The Jesus Creed, One.Life: Jesus Calls, We Follow, The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible, Fasting: The Ancient Practices, The Real Mary: Why Evangelical Christians Can Embrace the Mother of Jesus. to increase in readership. He and his wife, Kristen, live in Libertyville, Illinois. They have two adult children and one grandchild.

When discussing servant leadership and faith today, few issues are as important as the leadership relationships between men and women. Husbands are commanded to lay down their lives for their wives “as Christ loved the Church,” yet highly authoritarian relationships are still all too common in couples of faith.  Still more, deep conflicts over the role of women in ministry continue to plague the church. It is a critical topic for the future of faith in the global village and one that Sue and I are very passionate about.

No matter which side of the issue you are on, Scot McKnight is a great source for nuanced conversation. Here he discusses Alan Johnson’s book on men who changed their minds on the issue of women in ministry leadership.


How They Changed Their Mind about Women in Leadership

Alan Johnson, well-known and much-loved professor at Wheaton, has edited a collection of stories of well-known evangelicals who have in their own ways changed when it comes to women in ministry. His book has a great title: How I Changed My Mind about Women in Leadership: Compelling Stories from Prominent Evangelicals. Every person who is either “for” or “against” increased roles of women in leadership needs to read these stories. Before I get to the names and the stories, I want to sketch Dallas Willard’s introduction.

First a question: Who wants to tell a story about change? What were the “factors” that led you to shift your mind on women in ministry? What do you think of Dallas Willard’s three points?

Dallas Willard, in fact, didn’t change his mind because he always believed in the legitimacy of women in leadership in the church. He grew up in churches where both men and women taught — though the preaching pastors were male. Dallas thinks the passages used by the complementarians are not “principles” but expressions of the principle that all Christians should be all things to all people. (I don’t entirely agree with that term the term “complementarian” is accurate for those who use it since I think most everyone would want men and women to work together for the gospel in a complementarian way. More importantly, that term today means “hierachicalist in role.”)

Willard makes three points:

1. Those gifted by God for any ministry should serve in the capacity of that gift and churches (“human arrangements”) should facilitate their service. There is no suggestion anywhere in the Bible that gifts are distributed along gender lines. Go ahead and read the gift passages — says 1 Cor 12-14, Eph 5, 1 Pet 4 — and show how gifts are connected to gender.

2. It is misleading to deal with this issue along the lines of rights and equality alone. When it comes to talents and gifts people aren’t “equal” and it’s not about “rights” but about gifts and our obligations.

3. Excluding women leaves women generally with the impression that there is something wrong with them. They may be mistaken in that but Willard makes the important observation that if God excludes them there must be some very good reason — God doesn’t just flip coins. And the so-called complementarians can’t find clear passages where such things are clearly taught.

And I would add my own two cents here. A fundamental principle in Bible interpretation is that we can’t read the “restrictive” passages in the New Testament in ways that fundamentally deny what the NT shows that women are already doing. I wrote about this in The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible.

Now back to How I Changed My Mind about Women in Leadership: Compelling Stories from Prominent Evangelicals by Alan Johnson. Those who tell their stories are John Armstrong, Ruth Haley Barton, Gil Bilezikian, Stuart and Jill Briscoe, Tony Campolo, Robert and Alice Fryling, Stan Gundry, Bill and Lynne Hybels, Alan Johnson, Walt and Olive Liefeld, I. Howard Marshall, Alice Mathews, Roger Nicole, John and Nancy Ortberg, Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., Carol and James Plueddemann, Minette Drumwright Pratt, Ron Sider, John Stackhouse Jr., John Bernard Taylor and Bonnie Wurzbacher.

In his own introduction, Johnson maps some common themes that he has found in the stories evangelical leaders tell in how they changed their mind. Are these themes the ones you have experienced or hear about? What else would you add? If you could do one thing to help hierarchicalists or complementarians find a larger role for women in ministries, what would it be?

Themes about what precipitated change, and I don’t see an order here — rather, what I see in these stories a confluence of dialectical factors:
1. The influence of a strong, gifted woman in one’s life.

2. The impression of the stories of those who changed their minds on this very issue.

3. A more careful reexamining of the whole of Scripture in light of its historical, cultural and broader theological context.

4. The experience of working side-by-side with gifted, dedicated, and called women leaders, teachers, and preachers.

5. The realization that there is a view where head, heart, and Scripture can come together and honestly confront the difficulties of applying a restrictive position consistently.

Women tell their stories and their stories show some common themes too:

1. They were shadows of males.

2. They were “submissive” in order to attract a husband.

3. They functioned as a supplement to make males complete.

4. They became depressed and struggled over rejection of their callings and gifts of the Spirit.

5. They received encouragement from respected evangelical males who wanted their gifts and callings to find full expression and for them to be completely themselves.”

What do you think about the two sides in this issue. Does the story of their change in position add to the discussion?

See more at Scot’s award-winning blog, Jesus Creed.