The Blind Side is not so much the story of a Christian family who transformed the life of a homeless teenager as much as it is the story of a homeless teenager who transformed the faith of a Christian family
“Wow, I’ve finally met someone who practices but doesn’t preach.” —Sandra Bullock, speaking of Leigh Anne Tuohy, whom Bullock portrayed in her first Oscar-winning performance
In the aftermath of the runaway success of The Blind Side, Hollywood has become more open to Christians’ stories. I don’t mean “Christian” stories, but rather human stories about Christians whose faith has been an element in their facing universal human struggles.
The Blind Side was unlike anything normally accepted by the Church as a “Christian Film.” It is neither an evangelistic message about Leigh Anne Tuohy (Sandra Bullock) witnessing about her faith, nor Michael Oher (Quinton Aaron) coming to faith, nor a missionary appeal for how Christian families should adopt disadvantaged youth, nor a white-washed tale about perfect Christians, living perfect lives, with perfect motives, and everything turning out perfectly.
O, the Humanity!
Instead, it is a very human story about a very human woman whose Christian faith informed and motivated a series of radical decisions that transformed her life, her family, and the young man they adopted. The story is not about her faith, but her faith is clearly part of the story.
This approach works only because The Blind Side wasn’t made like a typical “Christian film.” Although director John Lee Hancock describes himself as a Christian and there are a number of other talented Christians working at Alcon Entertainment who helped guide the project, Hancock made The Blind Side because he thought the story the Tuohys lived was so compelling. Period!
“The fact that the Tuohys are Christians played absolutely no part in me doing it or not doing it…. I mean, let’s be honest, it’s an incredibly charitable act that yields rewards for this family. It would have been an also amazingly charitable act had the Tuohys been atheists. A good deed is a good deed… I thought it was a great story.”
Hancock goes on to explain: “I think that if I set out to do stories based on that (Christianity or even inspiration) then it will probably be like the cart leading the horse… You set out to tell a good story. You don’t do it because there is a deep message involved because the movie is almost always bad when you do that…”
The Future of “Christian” Filmmaking
It is the very humanness of the film that makes it so approachable. Leigh Anne Tuohy is a flawed individual. She is a stubborn control freak, still struggling to stay in control even in the very last scene of the movie. Yet when motivated by her Christian faith Leigh Anne’s flaws propel her to make decisions that few other women would even consider. Her character is complicated (which is why Sandra Bullock won an Academy Award for portraying her), and therefore very compelling. We like her precisely because she represents our highest aspirations and our worst self-sabotaging realities.
Hancock’s approach points toward a compelling future for “Christian” filmmaking in Hollywood — If you live it, they will come (to the theater, that is). Audiences don’t want to watch “Christian” films. They want to see good films about good stories. Compelling stories about real life human beings who overcome tremendous obstacles and who are transformed into better human beings in the process. (See, Casablanca and the Four Levels of Worldview. Crash Goes the Worldview.)
If the story happens to be about someone whose faith informed and motivated their journey then who’s to argue? Their story earned them the right to let their faith be part of the film. (And opened up the “plausibility structure” for audiences accepting that not all Christians are the preachy, bigoted hypocrites so often portrayed by the media.)
In the end, The Blind Side isn’t so much the story of a Christian family who transformed the life of a homeless teenager so much as it is the story of a homeless teenager who transformed the faith of a Christian family: all because one woman made the radical decision to actually live out her faith.
As Sandra Bullock opined about Leigh Anne and the Tuohy family:
“[S]he has no idea the path she’s begun, in terms of adoption and fostering. It’s not been on the forefront of people’s minds. It is on the forefront of my mind every day now when I get up. When I look around I go, ‘Is he, is she, what is their situation?’ And it’s because of this family, and I think what they are going to do for our country in terms of being aware of that is – I don’t think they realize the profound affect that they are going to have…. [Y]ou see this family, they were themselves for no other benefit other than because they wanted to reach out, lend a hand, and had no idea that they would get a son in return… I said, ‘Wow, I’ve finally met someone who practices but doesn’t preach.’ ” (Italics mine.)
In other words, if Christians actually lived better stories then we might have a litany of heroic stories to draw upon and films to make that real people in real theaters actually want to see and A-list actors want to play. Stories about men and women (and teenagers) whose faith motivated and informed their choices to live remarkable lives by making remarkable decisions and overcome remarkable obstacles.
Living a Better Story
Every believer (and not just filmmakers) ought to be asking themselves ‘Am I living the kind of story that, in Donald Miller’s words, “leaves a beautiful feeling even as the credits role”? As Miller discovered in writing his book subtitled How I Learned to Live a Better Story, few Christians are living stories that come remotely close to living out the full implications of their faith.
What story are we writing with our lives? Leigh Anne Tuohy’s story is deeply heroic precisely because her faith motivated her to take action toward the will of God being done on earth as it is in heaven. Will we?
Heaven is looking for heroic stories even more than Hollywood. Will this generation overwhelm the world with stories of very human Christ followers whose faith motivates and informs the heroic lives they live? The world is watching…
Dead Poets Society, 1989 Oscar winner for best original screenplay, boasts an impressive Hollywood lineage. In addition to the best screenplay win for Tom Schulman, Dead Poets earned a best director nomination for Peter Weir, a best actor nomination for Robin Williams. It also helped launch the careers of Oscar-nominated actor Ethan Hawke (Training Day, Before Sunset), as well as Emmy-nominated actors Robert Sean Leonard (House), and Josh Charles (The Good Wife). Not bad for a small budget film few imagined would grow into culture-shaping cinema.
It is also one of the best films ever made on the vocation of teaching. I rarely meet any teacher, professor, or youth minister who wasn’t deeply moved by their first encounter with Dead Poets Society. It deftly touches a nerve for anyone entrusted with the thrilling, yet delicate art of shaping young lives.
Mr. Keating’s brief sojourn at the fictional Welton Academy captures both the highest hopes and greatest fears of anyone who has ever stood in front of a classroom. As it turns out, worldview formation is as dangerous as it is fulfilling. Which brings me to my real point.
Dead Poets is also a tremendous film for anyone interested in the art of worldview formation in film and in life. First, it illustrates the power of mentors, texts, and communities in shaping worldview. Second, it gives soaring testimony to the power of Existentialism in the quest to escape the gravity of Physicalism into the intoxicating heights of Idealism. Finally, it provides a troubling warning as to the power of nihilism to crush the dreams of the unsuspecting idealist. (For and explanation of Physicalism versus Idealism, see, It’s a Wonderful Worldview: Frank Capra’s Theistic Masterpiece.)
The Welton Worldview
Both in movies and real life, worldview change never comes easily. Human beings are insanely committed to maintaining the societal traditions and personal strategies we’ve carefully developed for managing our lives, even and especially when those strategies are counter-productive. Dead Poets does a wonderful job of detailing how good teachers expose the counter-productive flaws in their students’ worldview. And no worldview seems quite so flawed as that of the mythical Welton academy in which Dead Poets Society is set..
As a highly traditional 1950’s college preparatory academy, Welton is rooted in what appears to be a highly Physicalist (if somewhat religiously Deistic) worldview. (For and explanation of the four levels see, Casablanca and the Four Levels of Worldview.) In other words, the hard, pragmatic realities of the physical world are the only things that are “really real” at Welton.
Level 4—Story/Basis:The underlying story of Welton is success, or more specifically, the financial success and social status available to those who get into prestigious schools in order to gain entry into prestigious careers.
Todd Anderson’s (Ethan Hawke) disengaged parents may forget what they got him for his last birthday, but they know they want for his life–Valedictorian honors and a National Merit scholarship like his older brother. (Hint: The Welton Academy Yearbook is a great source for keeping characters straight.)
Neil Perry’s (Robert Sean Leonard) helicopter father may not listen to his son’s desires to write for the school newspaper (or become an actor), but he already has his son’s life planned out for him whether he likes it or not:
“You’re going to Harvard and becoming a doctor.”
Level 3—Values/Principles: Welton faculty and administration oblige their moneyed parents by creating an academy rooted in the values of “tradition, honor, discipline, excellence.” They celebrate “the light of knowledge” with religious trappings and a strong classical sense of morality, giving Welton a rather Deistic slant. All we really know about this distant God is that he doesn’t want girls at “Helton” distracting the “boys” (not men) from their studies. (The Welton Academy Yearbook is a great source for keeping characters straight.)
Level 2 — Strategies/Culture:Accordingly, Welton’s academic culture is devoted to a highly traditional curriculum, and educational methodology. We are offered brief glimpses into the strict world of “normal” Welton classrooms marked by rote memorization of Greek, Biology, and Calculus.
These are not the kind of classrooms a creative personality would cherish, but that’s just fine with most Welton students. They are just going through the motions doing whatever is necessary in order to gain parental approval and Ivy League admission.
Level 1—Action/Behavior: By the end of Act 1, it is clear that while Welton students may not particularly like the school, enjoy belittling its values, and despise their parent’s transference of their success stories upon their lives, they still go along with the flow in overall daily decisions.
The Keating Worldview
All this changes when the students enter the classroom of Welton’s newest teacher—Mr. Keating (Robin Williams). Like a character in Plato’s cave analogy, Keating has broken free of the bondage of Welton’s limited perspective, and returned to enlighten students still chained to the wall of shadows. Like Morpheus in The Matrix, Keating is determined to “free the minds” of his students in order to help them enter a larger, richer world of the liberal arts.
It is a beautiful story of how great teachers foster worldview change in their students. Keating employs a dizzying teaching arsenal of texts (Walt Whitman, etc.), music (The 1812 Overture), mentorship (“O Captain, my Captain”), learning exercises (standing on desk), challenge (“A sweaty-toothed madman”), and community (The Dead Poets Society) to captivate his students’ imaginations. While at first his classroom is merely, “Weird, but different,” it gradually becomes the focal point of their universe.
The worldview Mr. Keating wants his students to address is robust form of romantic Existentialism, rooted in Physicalism, yet rejecting its pragmatic pessimism.
Level 4—Story/Basis:Walt Whitman and the other romantic poets teach us that even though Physicalism may be scientifically true in that “we are all food for worms,” we can strive to make meaning out of our own brief lives by our own choices and values. Keating’s story is a radical rebellion against both Nihilistic Physicalism that insists that life has no meaning, and the Deism of Welton that insists we live only for the morality and stories of others. Mr. Keating is not so much interested in his students’ embracing their parents’ story of financial/social success as he is that they live their own story.
Keating: We are food for worms, lads. Believe or not, each and every one of us in this room is going to stop breathing, turn cold, and die… Peruse some of the faces of the past (Welton students) …Did they wait until it was too late to make from their lives even one iota of what they were capable. Because you see, gentlemen, these boys are now fertilizing daffodils. But if you listen real close, you can hear them whisper their legacy to you: (whispered) ‘Carpe Diem! …Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.”
Level 3—Values/Principles: Beyond the walls of the physical universe Keating points his students to the Idealistic realm of beauty, love, and meaning that eludes those trapped in the Physicalist worldview. Naturalistic Physicalism would tell us that the universe is a “box” limited by space and time, and accessible only through the physical senses. Our hearts tell us a different story. There is something more to life than what we can touch, taste, hear, see, and smell. Poetry points the way to this larger world of values, that can’t be measured “scientifically” like a “length of pipe” nor explained with graphs like J. Evans Pritchard, Ph.D.
Keating then tells his students to rip out the entire introduction to their poetry textbook and has them “huddle up” to hear the real meaning of poetry (and life.)
Keating: We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. Now, medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary for sustaining life, but poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.”
This speech is a stunning description of Existential Idealism in its purest Romantic form. And it will not be the last.
Level 2—Strategies/Culture: Keating’s goal is for his students to stop mimicing and reciting the words of others, and “find your own voice,” and “Learn to think for yourselves again.”
On top of his desk, he gets them to consider life from a new perspective. In the courtyard, he gets them to fall into the trap of walking in conformity to the life of those around us. On the soccer field, he inspires them to reach their full potential.
As I said above, it is liberal arts education at its finest. He is using the arts to liberate his students from seeing life only from their own tradition and preconceptions. (See, The Greco-Roman Liberal Arts.) It is a breathtaking and soul stirring tour de force his students find nearly iresistible.
Slowly, Keating’s students begin to break free from the suffocating gravity of a Physicalist worldview, in order to embrace the broader Idealistic world he has opened up for them….
Level 1—Action/Behavioral: Of course, the movie only gets going once some of the boys actually start acting on Mr. Keating’s worldview.
And that is where the story really gets interesting!
Since its initial release seventy-five years ago, Casablanca has grown to become one of the most beloved films in the history of American cinema. Winner of three 1942 Academy Awards in (best picture, best writing, and best director) Casablanca is now recognized by the Writers Guild of America as the greatest screenplay of all time, and by the American Film Institute as the second greatest American movie ever. Even in the high-tech world of Blu-ray players and streaming video, this black-and-white masterpiece remains an enduring favorite with both contemporary audiences and critics alike.
Casablanca also provides a compelling example of the four levels of worldview, and how change at the story level can lead to dramatic change in every level of worldview. Character development (both cinematic and moral) “flows” from the hidden recesses of our life story, where our unexamined presuppositions about reality form a worldview that guides our life in ways we rarely think about in our day-to-day existence. In life and great films, we experience our worldview on four overlapping, but distinguishable levels. 
Four Levels of Worldview
Level 1) Actions and Behaviors: The countless personal decisions and moral judgments we make on a daily basis make up the visible tip of the iceberg of our largely hidden worldview. We glide through thousands of “preconditioned” responses each hour—what to wear, where to live, who to befriend, when to lie, how to speak—simply doing what we do, without ever examining why we do them. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred these decisions predictably emerge from the lower levels of our worldview, usually without any conscious awareness of why we make them.
Level 2) Rule of Life:The next level of our worldview is found in the rules and roles defined for us in the traditions and ‘scripts’ society develops to maintain equilibrium, or the personal strategies developed by us to cope with the difficulties of life. At this level our worldview provides a ‘rule of life” that defines our relationships, and the boundaries and maxims we use to guide our own personal behavior. The clothes we buy, the worship we express, and even the words we use, are dictated by cultural expectations and personal habits far beyond our normal self-awareness.
3) Value and Belief System: The rules and roles we follow on a daily basis are normally based upon a presuppositional value and beliefs system that undergird these conventions, (once again, usually sub-consciously.) These principles, doctrines, aphorisms, and symbols are the often unspoken “commanding truths, which define the ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’ of our experience, and accordingly, the good and evil…”  They provide the language and categories by which we unconsciously interpret reality and make sense out of our experiences of our life.
Level 4) Stories and ‘Scriptures’: The deepest level of our worldview is normally found in the stories of our life-shaping personal experiences and our community’s authoritative ‘scriptures’ that form the basis of our principles and strategies for living. The three upper levels are “embedded within narratives that often have overlapping themes and various myths that often reinforce common ideals.”  The personal and corporate stories we live by are self-evidently true to us (even if they are, in fact, hopelessly false). To question them is to question reality itself. 
Constructing a False Worldview
Casablanca provides a beautiful example of all four levels of this process. Originally entitled, “Everyone Meets at Rick’s,” this masterpiece traces the worldview transformation of American expatriate and nightclub owner, Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart). Set against the backdrop of Nazi-controlled but unoccupied north African territories of Vichy France during WWII, the movie opens with a bitter and cynical Rick Blaine making his daily decisions (level 1) out of a fairly consistent rule of life (level 2). He never drinks with customers, never commits to a woman, never takes sides in a political debate, and never intervenes to help others. His narcissistic value and belief system (level 3) leaves little room for anyone but himself, his alcoholism, his business, and his business partner, Sam. His value system (level 3) is clearly expressed in his famous rule of life (level 2), “I stick my neck out for nobody.”
However, as the movie progresses we learn that Rick’s worldview wasn’t always so jaded. In fact, both French prefect Captain Louis Renault (Claude Rains) and Nazi Gestapo Major, Heinrich Strasser (Conrad Veidt) express concern that Rick’s current story might not be his true self. They note that there was once a time when Rick’s value and belief system led him to a rule of life marked by a heroic willingness to sacrificially fight against tyranny even in a losing cause. They don’t want Rick returning to this old rule of life by aiding Czech freedom fighter Victor Lazlo (Paul Henreid) in his attempt to escape Casablanca (and the Nazi) by means of a pair of stolen letters of transit granting the bearers free passage on a flight to neutral Portugal.
What Louis doesn’t know, is that Rick’s current rule of life and value system are driven by a heart-wrenching story (level 4). Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman), a beautiful and enchanting Norwegian once stole Rick’s heart in a whirlwind Paris romance at the outset of WWII.
However, after swearing her undying love, Ilsa abandons Rick just as the German army descends upon Paris. By the time Rick gets to Casablanca Ilsa’s betrayal provides the seething caldron of molten anguish driving Rick’s cynical value system and narcissistic rule of life. Like the city where he dwells in exile, his life is a desert with but one goal: escape.
A Different Story?
This is the story Rick is living when Ilsa turns up in Casablanca as the traveling companion for none other than Victor Lazlo. Confronted anew with heartache of Paris, Rick’s narcissistic behavior only intensifies. Despite his admiration for Lazlo, Rick refuses to help the desperate couple. He stubbornly retains his “I stick my neck for nobody” rule of life even as Ilsa desperately tries to convey a different story than the one driving his current behavior.
Just when Rick’s journey toward the dark side seems complete, something happens that radically changes the interpretation of his entire life story. With the Nazi’s closing in and their every effort to escape Casablanca thwarted, the stolen letters of transit in Rick’s possession are now Isla and Lazlo’s only hope. A desperate Ilsa turns up at Rick’s apartment intent to do anything to obtain them.
Ilsa’s startling admission that she still loves Rick begins to change Rick’s worldview at every level. He now knows that Ilsa left him behind in Paris only because she learned that Lazlo, her husband, was still alive. She was not living a story of a self-centered love betrayed, but rather one of heroic sacrifice. While no one yet realizes it, this new story of a sacrificial love-renewed (level 4) begins to invisibly reenergize Rick’s heroic value system (level 3), displacing his values of narcissism and his “I stick my neck out for nobody” rule of life (level 2).
In the iconic airport scene, Rick’s new worldview based upon his new story suddenly erupts into full view with a startling decision (level 1).
It turns out that Captain Louis Renault was right about Rick all along. The real Rick Blaine is, in fact, a hero. The pain of losing Ilsa had created a false life narrative, but once he knew the real story, his value system and rule of life came back on line. Rick decides to give away his tickets to freedom to Ilsa and her husband (level 1), because he has (re)embraced his rule of life of to fight against tyranny even in a losing cause (level 2), rooted in his rediscovered value of self-sacrificing heroism (level 3), birthed by his true life story (Level 4). By changing the foundational story of Rick’s life from that of a self-centered love-betrayed to a story of an other-centered love renewed, Isla transforms Rick’s values and rule of life as well. He now sticks his neck for everybody, even the husband of the woman he loves.
In the end, the power of Rick’s true story is becomes so compelling it returns Louis to his own true story, values, and rule of life.
One reason why Casablanca resonates so deeply with audiences is our strong identification with Rick. We have all been hurt deeply. We all develop belief systems and strategies to protect ourselves from further pain. We all know what it is like to have those rules of life sabotage our heroic journey. We all know what it is like to be trapped in a life story that hurts everyone around us and yet we are powerless to change. We all want to believe that we are the master of our own fate, freely making our own choices at any given moment, when in reality our unexplored stories, unexamined values, and unexamined rules of life dictate much of our daily decision-making. Sooner or later, everyone meets at Rick’s.
For those who are willing to listen, the deepest longings of our heroic life story may be churning just beneath the surface and well worth the journey of further exploration. Over the course of this ongoing series I hope to help you do exactly that. I’m hoping this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
 Casablanca is currently #25 rating on the IMDB all-time best film list. Michael Curtiz, Julius J. Epstein, Howard Koch, Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, et al. Casablanca (Burbank, CA: Warner Home Video, 1999).
 James Davidson Hunter, To Change the World (Oxford University Press, 2010), 32. To be fair, Hunter considers all four levels to be overlapping elements of “culture,” not worldview. However, this is at least somewhat a matter of semantic disagreement between philosophers (who study worldviews),and sociologists, like Hunter (who study cultures.)
 Hunter, Change, 33.
 What I am calling the ‘Story’ level of worldview is what philosopher James K. A. Smith refers to as the ‘pre-worldview’ level of ‘social Imaginary.’ “The social imaginary’ is an affective, noncognitive understanding of the world. It is described as an imaginary (rather than a theory) because it is fueled by the stuff of the imagination rather than the intellect: it is made up of, and embedded in, stories, narratives, myths, and icons. These visions capture our hearts and imaginations by “lining” our imagination, as it were— providing us with frameworks of “meaning” by which we make sense of our world and our calling in it. An irreducible understanding of the world resides in our intuitive, precognitive grasp of these stories. Desiring the Kingdom (Cultural Liturgies): Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Publishing Group, 2009), p. 68.
“Fiddler on the Roof (1971) is one of the most beloved dramas of the stage and screen.  On Broadway (1964), Fiddler was the first musical to surpass 3,000 performances. It won nine Tony Awards, including Best Musical. The Hollywood version (1971) lost the Academy Award Best Picture nod to the more cutting-edge The French Connection, but still managed a box office of over 365 million dollars (adjusted for inflation), making it the 9th highest grossing musical of all time. After four Broadway revivals, three London runs, and countless high school and community theatre performances, Fiddler became one of the more influential cultural works of the late twentieth-century.
The film also provides a beautiful illustration of the adaptability of worldview at the upper levels: 1) Actions/Decisions and 2) Rules of Life/Culture.Fiddler chronicles the life of a small Jewish community seeking to maintain their cultural balance (like a fiddler on the roof) in the Gentile-dominated Czarist Russian village of Anatevka. The story’s protagonist, Tevye, is a poor dairy farmer seeking to scratch out a meager existence with his wife Golde. It is a task made all the more difficult by the fact that God has blessed them, not with economically viable and socially valuable sons, but five daughters.
(1) the visible Actions and Behaviors of our day-to-day decisions, and
(2) the Rules and Roles of personal strategies and cultural conventions that form the ‘scripts’ we follow in most of our decisions without ever thinking about—as well as the resiliency of worldview at its deepest levels
(3) the Beliefs and Values that form the and presuppositional principles of our belief system, and especially
(4) the foundationalStories and Myths that form the authoritative “scriptures” for both the macro-worldview of the society we live in, as well as our more personalized micro-worldview (See, Casablanca and the Four Levels of Worldview.)
From the four-level construct perspective, Tevye’s worldview is a set of stories from the foundational Scriptures of The Torah (the“Holy Book” or “Good book” in Tevye’s language) of how God has revealed himself and his law to his people Israel (Level 4), from which generations of Rabbinic scholarship have drawn key theological beliefs and ethical values (Level 3), from which synagogue and societal leaders have constructed cultural conventions and rules for daily life (Level 2), from which the residents of Anatevka live out their faith in their daily behaviors and moral judgments (Level 1).
Some of Anatevka’s strongest cultural conventions surround the roles and rules surrounding the institution of marriage. Over the course of the film, Tevye’s three daughter’s confront him with more and more counter-cultural views of marriage, which in turn drives Tevye to explore his worldview at deeper and deeper levels. When using Fiddler to teach worldview, I use six scenes to trace the transformation of the upper levels of Tevye’s worldview, and his ultimate resistance to change at his worldview’s deepest level (Scene times in parenthesis are from the downloadable ITunes version.)
Scene One: Tradition! The first scene (1:40–12:00 on ITunes version of Fiddler) introduces the protagonist, Tevye, and the cultural conventions that govern his daily decisions through the song, Tradition.
I ask the class to use the four-level worldview construct to organize the elements of Tevye’s worldview described in the film. Students easily pick out see the rules, conventions and role conformity that govern the social relationships of his culture (Level 2), and that this culture is based upon the authoritative story of the Torah (Level 4). It normally takes them a little longer to flesh out the principles (theology and philosophy) that undergird the conventions. They also quickly see that many of Tevye’s assumptions are unexamined.
Tevye:Because of our traditions, we've kept our
balance for many, many years. Here in Anatevka,
we have traditions for everything... You may ask,
"How did this tradition get started?" I'll tell
you! [pause] I don't know. But it's a tradition...
and because of our traditions... Every one
of us knows who he is and what God expects him
Scene Two: Tevye and Golde’s Worldview Construct of Marriage. In the second scene (1:04:09–1:07:30) Tevye informs Golde that he has successfully arranged a marriage for their oldest daughter, Tzeitel. What’s more, the groom is the richest widower in the village, Lazar Wolf.
I ask students to watch the clip and to use the four-level construct to flesh out Tevye and Golde’s worldview in regards to marriage. It normally takes a bit of prodding to help them see that what they view Tevye’s actions in arranging the marriage (Level 1) as virtuous and in the best interest of Tzeitel, because the father is in the best position to arrange a marriage (Level 2), because marriage is essentially a business/social contract (Level 3), based upon the village’s “story” that happiness is tied to increasing one’s prosperity and social standing (Level 4).
3) A Non-Traditional View of Marriage
Scene Three: Tzeitel and Motel’s Conflicting Worldview Construct of Marriage. In scene 3 (1:07:30 –1:14:42), Tzeitel & Motel (Leonard Frey) object to Tevye’s decision (Level 1), precisely because they disagree with Tevye’s belief that marriage is primarily a business arrangement. They believe that marriage is best based upon romantic love (Level 3), and therefore propose a different convention for arranging a marriage—a pledge between lovers (Level 2). After all, while the father is in the best position to make a successful business arrangement, the couple is in a better position to arrange a marriage based on love. For Tevye, a pledge is well outside the plausibility structures of his worldview.
Tevye: They gave each other a pledge? Unheard of... absurd!
They gave each other a pledge? Unthinkable!
However, Motel is a good negotiator. While his own worldview provides romantic love as the basis for his pledge to Tzeitel, he ultimately appeals to the Anatevka’s prosperity/happiness myth (Level 4) to try to convince his would-be father-in-law:
Tevye: You are just a poor tailor!
Motel: That's true, Reb Tevye, but even a poor tailor
is entitled to some happiness! [He places his arm around
Tzeitel.] I promise you, Tevye, your daughter will not starve.
While it often takes awhile, students are normally able parse out the these worldview levels (although I often have to point out level four.) What is really interesting is helping them examine Tevye’s reasoning in allowing Tzeitel & Motel to wed. Students are normally able to discern that Tevye’s worldview has not actually changed as much as it appears. “Papa” is still making the decision based on his daughter happiness (Level 1). While he is breaking with convention to allow the couple’s pledge to stand (Level 2), he is not really buying their notion of romantic love (Level 3) as its basis. To him marriage is still a business arrangement (Level 3), and he approves only once he is convinced that Motel is capable of giving his daughter enough financial security to satisfy the village prosperity myth (Level 4).
4) Pushing the Boundaries
Scene Four: Hodel and Perchik’s Conflicting Worldview Construct of Marriage: In scene four (1:57:23 – 2:03:53), Tevye’s second daughter, Hodel, and her love interest, Perchik (Paul Michael Glaser), escalate the worldview conflict. Hodel and Perchik also believe that marriage should be based primarily on the principle of romantic love (Level 3). However they further break with village conventions by choosing to become engaged without consulting their parents (Level 2). They ask only for Tevye’s blessing (not permission)—a blessing Tevye is not anxious to grant.
From a worldview perspective, the scene is absolutely fascinating. Tevye’s reason for allowing their engagement to stand reaches well beyond the village’s prosperity/happiness myth and into the authoritative worldview stories of the Torah (Level 4).
Tevye: On the other hand, our old ways were once new,
weren't they? ... On the other hand, they decided without
parents, without a matchmaker!... On the other hand,
did Adam and Eve have a matchmaker ?... Well, yes, they did.
And it seems these two have the same Matchmaker!
By reorienting his worldview around a new principle of love (Level 3) derived from a new insight into the authoritative story from Scripture (Level 4), Tevye is able to embrace a counter-cultural convention for marriage. He is undergoing a significant paradigm shift. Students can nearly always connect with this transformation and “get” the worldview transformation issues.
5) Tevye and Golde’s Worldview Shift
Scene Five: Tevye and Golde’s Paradigm Shift: Scene five (2:03:53—2:09:05) is a touching portrayal of Tevye seeking to apply (Level 1) his new understanding of love (Levels 2-4) to his own marriage. He asks Golde a question made possible now only by the new probability structures of his transformed worldview: “Do you love me?”
This revolutionary question evokes a wonderful interchange on the true meaning of marriage, complete with a back and forth exchange between Golde’s conventional understanding and Tevye’s deeper counter-conventional challenge inspired by their daughters. It concludes with a paradigm shift on Golde’s part as well.
Tevye: Then you love me?
Golde: I suppose I do
Tevye: And I suppose I love you too
Both: It change a thing, but even so, after 25 years
it's nice to know.
I normally need only ask students to watch the clip and tell me what is going on, to evoke a spirited conversation. They nearly always get the point. It DOES change a thing. It changes everything. Their new worldview of marriage changes the plausibility structure of their of their daily decisions. Ultimately, it will transform their marriage.
6) A Bridge Too Far
Scene Six: Tevye and Golde’s Rejection of Chava and Fyedka’s Marriage. The final scene in Tevye’s worldview journey is not nearly as heartening. The scene details Tevye and Golde’s rejection of their youngest daughter, Chava, due to her marriage to a Gentile, Fyedka (Ray Lovelock). I normally show the first part of the scene (2:22:00 – 2:25:33)—Chava’s love for Fyedka and Tevye’s disapproval and stop the film. I then ask the class to use the four-level construct to try to predict how Tevye will respond.
Once they have made their prediction(s), I show the rest of the scene (2:25:34 – 2:35:35). It is a gut wrenching depiction of a man who has come to the foundations of his worldview and found (much to his dismay) that there is no room for further reinterpretation. There is no story that will save his relationship with his daughter. She is dead to him.
Chava: Papa, I beg you to accept us.
Tevye: Accept them? How can I accept them?
Can I deny everything I believe in? ON the other hand,
can I deny my own daughter? On the other hand,
how can I turn my back on my faith, my people.
If I try to bend that far... I’ll break.
On the other hand... NO... there is no other hand!
NO, CHAVA!! NO! NO!! NO!!!
I normally let the scene play all the way through Chava’s desolate tears. When I turn up the lights, the room is very quiet. I normally need only ask, “What do you think?” to evoke a highly emotional conversation. I try to force them to think through why Tevye reached the limits of accommodation possible in his worldview. (With A classroom of adult learners this often brings up some of their own painful family and personal experiences with interfaith marriage.)
In the end, most students reject Tevye’s rejection of Chava. I push them hard to discern what it is in their worldview (romantic, sentimental, relativistic, Western, democratic, pluralistic, postmodern, individualism) that reacts so negatively to Tevye’s moral judgment. When I am feeling particularly antagonistic, I often ask them, “Would it make any difference if the story was set in Israel around 1000 BC and Fyedka was a Canaanite?” (That really gets things going.)
After a spirited discussion I ask students if they know the limits of accommodation in their own worldview? How do we know when cross from accommodation to assimilation? I suspect the only way is to be certain of the foundational stories of our own worldview.
Like Tevye, the stories of Scripture provide for us, not only fertile soil for nurturing reinterpretations of our philosophy and culture for a new generation, but also foundational bedrock for grounding the story of our own life in the mind of God.
Crash, 2006 Academy Award-winner for Best Picture, provides a powerful metaphor for why worldview change is so difficult.Crash follows a stellar ensemble cast through multiple story lines, most of which explore deeper and deeper levels of worldview.It is one of my favorite films for helping students explore “memes” and the “inciting events” that evoke worldview transformation journeys. 
In 1961, literary critic extraordinaire René Girard first introduced the idea that we borrow most of our desires from other people rather than developing our personal desires from scratch. Girard developed his highly influential concept of memetic borrowing throughout his long career, branching out from literary theory into theology, philosophy, and psychology. (See René Girard: The Greatest Christian Intellectual You Never Heard of.) 
Then in 1976, Oxford zoologist Richard Dawkins made the idea of memetic borrowing more palpable when he coined the term meme (short for the Greek root of “imitate”) to convey the idea of a single “unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation”(in the same way that a gene is a unit of biological transmission.) In Dawkins’ memetic theory, memes jump from “brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation” (p. 192). Since Dawkins’ initial publication, the field of Memetics has grown both in influence (it helped birth the idea of “viral marketing”) as well as skepticism as to its value as a theory of cultural evolution.
Staying on Script
The concept of memes is a useful interpretive key for helping for understanding why our worldview is so resistant to change. As memetics proponent Susan Blackmore explains, “Everything that is passed from person to person (by imitation) is a meme. This includes all the words in your vocabulary, the stories you know, the skills and habits you have picked up from others, the games you like to play, the songs you sing and the rules you obey.” 
In other words, like actors in a screenplay, we all follow “scripts” provided for us largely from outside of our own self-awareness. (Think of the role of “Tradition” in Fiddler on the Roof.) If imitation is the highest form of flattery, then we are constantly flattering the individuals and communities who have transmitted their “scripts” to us. Our worldview is so deeply rooted within us that we glide through thousands of “preconditioned” decisions each hour, following the cultural and philosophical scripts provided for us by the stories that have shaped us. We simply do what we do without giving a great deal thought as to why we do it. (See, Casablanca and the Four Levels of Worldview.)
These “scripts” exert such a powerful influence on our daily lives that it normally takes a significant “crash” to reexamine them. These crashes—unexpected events or decisions, often called “inciting events”–are a common devise in nearly all (good) films, but they are particularly evident in Crash. Writer/Director Paul Haggis predicates Crash on the simple premise that no one in Los Angeles deviates from the script of their daily “commute” without a crash.
In the words of Crash’s narrator, Det. Graham Waters (Don Cheadle):
WATERS: In L.A., nobody touches you. We're always behind
this metal and glass. I think we miss that touch so much,
that we crash into each other, just so we can feel something. .
Officer Ryan’s Scripts
One notable story line traces the interplay between LAPD Officer Dan Ryan (Matt Dillon), and socialite Christine Thayer (Thandie Newton). In one of the film’s early scenes, Officer Ryan gropes Christine in a racially motivated traffic stop. Later, he heroically risks his own life to save Christine from a burning car. In each case, he is unreflectively following “scripts” (memes) transmitted to him by the best and the worst of police culture. Only the “crash” of a life-and-death encounter with Christine jolts him into a completely new script of tolerance and understanding.
Ryan’s first “script” is rooted in the story of his father’s relationship with the African-American community. As a young man Ryan watched his father dare to treat his African-American employees with dignity only to lose his business to the city’s affirmative action policies. Now, his father suffers in agony from what Ryan fears is prostate cancer, and the one person standing between him and the specialist he needs is a no-nonsense African-American insurance adjustor named Shaniqua Johnson (Loretta Devine).
RYAN: I'm not asking you to help me. I'm asking that you
do this small thing for a man who lost everything so people
like yourself could reap the benefits. And do you know what
it's gonna cost you? Nothing. Just a flick of your pen.
SHANIQUA: Your father sounds like a good man. And if he'd
come in here today, I probably would've approved this request.
But he didn't come in. You did. And for his sake,
it's a real shame!
[To security guard.] Get him the hell outta my office!
Dan’s frustration creates unstated presuppositions of injustice, anger and retaliation against all blacks that are only reinforced by the worst elements (memes) of LAPD culture. Dan never examines the cultural, philosophical, or mythical basis of his decision. He never asks how his father’s story, and the “racist meme” in LAPD culture shape his actions. He simply acts. With horrific brutality, he uses his power as a police officer to abuse Christine.
In an instant, Christine’s life is shattered. Now part of Officer Ryan’s story of racism has deeply impacted Christine‘s story. His actions fill her with unspeakable anguish. Her personal life disintegrates in anger and confusion. Her relationship with her husband, Hollywood director Cameron Thayer (Terrence Howard) begins to spiral out of control as she begins to act out a “reverse racism script” she barely understands, but which her husband knows all too well.
CAMERON: You need to calm down here.
CHRISTINE: No, what I need is a husband who won't just stand
there while I'm being molested!
CAMERON: They were cops! They had guns! Where do you think
you're living, with mommy and daddy in Greenwich?
CHRISTINE: --Go to hell.
Ryan and Christine’s new scripts begin with a crash (literally). Christine’s SUV crashes and flips. Gasoline spills everywhere. She is trapped in a burning car with a malfunctioning seatbelt and no hope of escape. No hope, that is, except Officer Dan Ryan. First to arrive on the scene, Ryan quickly springs into action following the hero script written for him (the meme transmitted to him) by the best of LAPD culture.
Then comes the real crash. Christine and Ryan face each other in an inferno that threatens both their lives. Christine suddenly recognizes Ryan and responds according to the script provided by the personal, cultural, philosophical presuppositions of her story. Despite the approaching flames, she refuses Officer Ryan’s frantic attempts to help her.
RYAN: Lady! I’m trying to help you!
CHRISTINE: #&$% you! Not you! Not you!
Somebody else! Not you!
Momentarily confused, Dan suddenly recognizes Christine, not just what she is, but who she is, that she too has a story separate from his. The screenplay reads, “Ryan looks into her face and sees her pain and humiliation, and knows he was the cause of it.” His worldview begins to shift.
Full of shame, he begins to treat Christine with the dignity and respect he never afforded her in the ill-fated traffic stop. But to no avail. As the flames envelope the car, it is obvious that there is nothing to be done for Christine. Ryan’s partner begins to pull him to safety before it’s too late. The secret that could ruin Ryan’s life will die with Christine.
Suddenly, against all odds, Ryan completely rejects his racist script (meme) and fully embraces his heroic script. Kicking off his partner he dives back into the burning car, risking his life to save the same woman whose life he so carelessly degraded just a few days earlier.
Against even greater odds, Christine rejects her hatred script and accepts help from the man she has hated with archetypal passion. Her worldview shifts as she accepts his now dignified help and heroic rescue. Everything they thought about one another is changed in an instant; everything they thought about themselves is changing as well. As they weep together in a rescuers embrace both characters hover at the edge of transformation.
CHRISTINE throws one look back over her shoulder –
hate filled with fear and gratitude.
RYAN watches her, equally confused, overwhelmed
and embarrassed by his feelings.
As the scene ends it is clear that Ryan and Christine have each entered a new story–a story that will alter their future value and belief system, personal practices, and decisions. Their scripts (memes) change because they crashed into each other’s stories with sufficient force to jolt them out of their culturally transmitted roles. Christine returns home to reconciliation with Cameron (who has been in his own transformation journey). Ryan returns home and begins to treat his father with a new tenderness and dignity.
Snowfall in L.A.
Paul Haggis’ masterpiece, concludes with the most unlikely crash of all—a once-a-century snowfall in Los Angeles. The snow is as unimaginable as a worldview shift. It is also symbolic. For decades, snowfall has served as a favorite Hollywood metaphor for “something is changing.”
As the audience considers this final image, they are challenged with the questions:“Will we continue gliding through the thousands of “preconditioned” decisions we make each day, or will the “Crash” of this movie cause us to reexamine them deeper levels? Will we dare to change?”
And as we rise we see the twisted chaos of the intersection,
the cars and people and the (now freed) Illegals disappearing into the maw of the churning city.
And it starts to snow.
 Paul Haggis, Cathy Schulman, Sandra Bullock, Don Cheadle, Matt Dillon, Jennifer Esposito, William Fichtner, and Brendan Fraser. Crash. (Santa Monica, Calif: Lions Gate Entertainment, 2005). All quotations from, Crash. Story by Paul Haggis; Screenplay by Paul Haggis, and Robert Moresco. (Bob Yari Productions, Bull’s Eye Productions, Blackfriar’s Bridge & the Harris Company, 2004).
 Susan J. Blackmore, The meme machine (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 16. “So, for example, whenever you drive on the left (or the right!), eat curry with lager or pizza and coke, whistle the theme tune from Neighbours or even shake hands, you are dealing in memes. Each of these memes has evolved in its own unique way with its own history, but each of them is using your behaviour to get itself copied” (p. 16).
“People who are caught up in the pursuit of excellence are particularly vulnerable to stress-related disorders.” – Psychologist Archibald D. Hart
Tabloids love it when a celebrity ‘lose it’ in public. Nothing sells quite as well a fallen “hero.’ And fortunately for the tabloids, losing it is a common occurrence. In recent years Quentin Tarantino, Billy Bob Thornton, Mel Gibson, Justin Bieber, Brittany Spears, Charlie Sheen, Tom Cruise, Kanye West have each provided ample fodder to guarantee tabloid clicks stay high.
Still, the truth is, sooner or later, everyone loses it. Only most of us don’t have paparazzi stalking us night and day to chronicle our worst moments. What if we did? High stress environments tend to bring out the worst in us, whether you’re a filmmakers, academic, businesswoman, salesman, or church leader. The question is why?
One explanation is the worldview concept of ‘story failure.’ A famous episode from the life of Jesus highlights just how easy it is for even the most earnest spiritual seeker to lose it and why it happens so easily.
As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”
“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things,but few things are needed—really only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her. (Luke 10:38-42)
A Tale of Two Spiritualities
Having such a great “celebrity” under your roof is a great honor, but it also carries tremendous responsibility. It places the reputation of the entire village squarely on the shoulders of these two apparently unmarried women. The eyes of every (married) homemaker in town bears down on them to scrutinize the quality of the hospitality they provide.
It is a high stress environment to say the least. And as the “snake” of the dinner hour grew closer and closer, the difference between Mary and Martha’s responses to stress begin to emerge.
Mary immediately seizes the opportunity of having Jesus in her living room. In other settings she would have to defer to the cultural practice of “men only” preferred seating. But they’re in her house now. Mary pushes past the other guests, and plops herself down at her master’s feet. She wants to catch very word that falls from his lips.
Martha is no less committed to Jesus. However, her way of showing her commitment reveals the presence of a profound story failure functioning in her life. We don’t know why an unmarried Martha is running her own household while caring for her younger siblings, but it is a very unusual living situation in the first century Jewish world. It almost certainly involves difficult and painful circumstances. The untimely death of her parents, her husband, and perhaps Mary’s husband as well are all likely explanations. No matter how you cut it, it is not a happy story and it is a story that appears to have shaped her inner life.
We don’t know all the false beliefs and strategies Martha has (unconsciously) constructed on her painful life story, but a few are evident in her words and actions in this passage. (See, Casablanca and the Four Levels of Worldview.) First, we can infer from her accusation that Jesus doesn’t care that her value and belief system seems to include hidden creeds such as: “Nobody cares as much as I do,” or perhaps, “Trust no one but yourself.” Second, we can also infer from her attempt to order Jesus around that her personal rule of life is to always stay in control. And of course, her society’s ‘scripts’ or memes for how to run a household reinforce some of her worldview. (See, Crash Goes the Worldview: Why Character Transformation Requires Changing Scripts.)
This underlying micro-worldview may have helped Martha successfully navigate life in the past, but it fails her altogether in the high stress environment of hosting Israel’s hottest celebrity rabbi. Empowered by her unwavering (and probably unconscious) belief in her life story, Martha starts comforting herself with her preferred coping mechanisms. She knows that the evening is descending into chaos and that no one else cares as much as she does. She knows what must be done and is more than ready to demand obedience to her will. If she could only get her lazy sister’s attention then she could give Mary a piece of her mind and set things right. But her enrapt sister simply won’t take her eyes off that darn rabbi.
Like an adrenaline-charged mouse, her self-comforting behaviors begin winding her soul tighter and tighter with each passing moment. Luke tells us that all Martha accomplishes with her adrenaline rush is becoming worried and upset.However, those English words simply don’t carry enough weight to adequately describe her internal state. In the original Greek language, the word “worried” carries the idea of being pulled in many different directions at once. Like a loaf of bread thrown into a gaggle of geese, Martha’s soul careens from one concern to the next—the bread, the village busybody’s stare, the soup, her sister’s absence, the tableware, Jesus’ presence, the wine, the disciple’s appetites—until little pieces of her soul begin to tear away.
The word “upset” is even more instructive. It literally means that her “soul is in an uproar.” Anyone who has ever lived in a high stress environment knows exactly what that phrase describes. It is that feeling of a having an angry toddler or an out of control teenager in your soul. And it is the very state of being that now has Martha squarely in its jaws.
Two Phases of Losing It
It is only a matter of time until they begin to manifest in her relationships. Her anger boils to overflowing until she simply has to act.
In short, Martha loses it …on JESUS!
First, she transfers her self-comforting lie—“no one cares as much as I do”—onto Jesus. She pushes her way to the front of the room, not to sit at Jesus feet, but to yell at him. “Don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself?”
Second, she employs her self-comforting take-charge life-strategy to the Lord of the universe. Instead of sitting at Jesus feet and listening to what he has to say, Martha is now the one issuing the orders. “Tell her to come help me!” she commands.
Like everyone who loses it, Martha’s “Adrenaline Induced Psychosis” has only served to bring out the worst in her. Like a high-tempered filmmaker who “loses it” on set, a passive-aggressive academic who sabotages a rival’s tenure review, or the ever-smiling pastor who browbeats his family at home, her soul-deadening strategy has failed the test of thriving in a high stress environment.
We all develop stories we tell ourselves about life, God and others to help us cope with the pain of living in a fallen world. These unconscious narratives form the foundation of a false worldview from which we develop specific strategies to comfort ourselves from past wounds and protect ourselves from further harm.
The bad news is that high stress environments bring these lies and strategies to the surface like silver in the crucible. Veins coursing with adrenaline, our fight or flight reflex kicks in and we compulsively turn to the comfort and/or protect ourself like that mouse in a snake cage. The results are never good.
The good news is that this same crucible makes our largely unconscious worldview visible. Once we’re aware of the false story we are living we can begin address them in our day-to-day lives. Just listen to your own “self-talk” the next time you’re in a high stress environment and you will begin to piece together some of the false story you are living. (More on this in future posts.)
A Prescription for Adrenaline Induced Psychosis
The better news it that it is possible to follow Jesus into a way of life that exposes these lies and strategies before they destroy us. We can develop a personalized plan of spiritual disciplines to help identify, replace the specific lies with truth, and our unique self-defeating strategies with new life-giving ones. (More on this later as well.)
Through personalized soul-nourishing spiritual practices, we can learn to live a better story. Such practices renew our minds, transform our hearts, and better align our worldview with God’s great story of love and redemption.
Like Jesus, we can even arm ourselves with an arsenal of specific Scriptural truths and character-strengthening practices that prepare us to parry the fiery darts of the evil one, and overcome the specific temptations where we are most vulnerable.
Some of the most foundational truths of the worldview shift everyone requires to thrive spiritually in a high stress environment are found in Jesus’ response to Mary’s “losing it’ episode. One one level they are specific to Martha’s particular lies and strategies. On another level, they apply to all of us.
The first truth is that God is not angry at us when we ‘lose it.” Instead, he is full of compassion. He begins his response with the double use of her name—“Martha, Martha”—a cultural idiom for endearment. It is certainly not the reaction Martha anticipated. In fact, his gentle touch completely disarms her. Suddenly becoming self-aware of the scene she is causing in front of the very people she is trying to impress, (trust me, I’ve been there), her indignation drains from her face like a deflated balloon.
For the first time Martha looks into Jesus’ eyes. Instead of finding the anger/compliance response her take-charge strategy has produced in the past, she finds something altogether different. Jesus meets her bullying with unadulterated compassion.
He has been ready for this moment. He knows her story better then she does. With a knowing smile, Jesus shakes his head at his zealous follower and replies:
“You are worried and upset about so many things. But only one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen what is better and it will not be taken away from her.”
This is the second truth Jesus wants Martha (and us) to grasp–no one can take away your connection to God, but you. Like Curly’s advise to Billy Crystal in City Slickers, only one thing is really necessary. Do whatever it takes to stay connected to Jesus—those practices that help you live your life “sitting at his feet and listening to what he says.”—and everything else will take care of itself.
Double-Knowledge. The Two Steps Forward
This means than learning to thrive in high stress environments involves at least two different processes.
First, we need to discover which spiritual disciplines best help us stay connected to God in the midst of the battle. This is a very personalized process involving a great deal of trial and error (and, yes, failure.) We’ll come back to this theme later.
Second, we need to go on the journey of discovering WHY we keep blowing up and self-sabotaging. Spiritual directors through the centuries have discerned what they came to call the principle of double-knowledge: We can only know God as well as we know ourselves, but we can only know ourselves as well as we know God. I know that sounds like a Catch-22. But believe me, it’s not. Like the right and the left pedals of a bicycle we need to keep pumping both sides of this process to get anywhere. Only as we get to know God and his love will will begin to understand our own story better. And only as we come to know our own story better, will we become more open to the love of God.
Casablanca and the Transforming Love of God
Fight Club: Why Our Unreliable Narrator is Always Getting Us Into Trouble
The Volcano in Your Backyard: The Micro-Worldview of a Honeymoon from Hell
 Martha is always mentioned first, so she is most likely the older of the two. It was their younger brother Lazarus who Jesus raised from the dead (John 11).
 It is also possible that Martha and Mary’s singleness is deliberate. Scholars note that a Jewish apocalyptic sect known as the Essenes (who may have helped train John the Baptist) had a strong presence in Bethany and encouraged celibacy. Mary, Martha, and Lazarus could have been older members of this community rather than younger widows and/or orphans. Still, if their singleness is intentional, that makes it highly unusual and stressful in its own way as well.
If by some miracle of time-travel you could suddenly transport 18th Century theologian Jonathan Edwards into the audience of your local cineplex tonight, he might very well declare the entire motion picture industry a work of witchcraft! (And he may very well be right.) Yet, a careful reading of America’s greatest theologian’s most important work, A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections, reveals insight into both the craft of screenwriting and the purpose of Lent. Both point to the importance of paying attention to “inciting events.”
The Inciting Event
Whether in real life or a work of fiction, most stories begin with a hero pursuing largely self-centered goals designed to help them survive in their current circumstances. In Gladiator(2000) Maximus just wants to go home to his family and farm. In Star Wars (1977) Luke Skywalker desires only to get off the planet to be with his friends at school. Erin Brockovich (2000) seeks nothing more than a salaried job to feed her kids. Each lacks both the understanding and the desire to pursue anything beyond the struggles of their day-to-day life.
Then something happens; something screenwriters refer to as the inciting event. Suddenly, a new and bigger story crashes in upon the hero’s carefully constructed world. As John Truby notes in The Anatomy of Story, “At the beginning of the story, when weakness and need are being established, the hero is typically paralyzed in some way. You need some kind of event to jump-start the hero out of his paralysis and force him to act.” Luke accidentally triggers a hidden distress video in the memory of a droid. Erin Brokovich discovers that Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) is poisoning Hinkley’s small town water supply. Caesar unexpectedly commissions Maximus as protector of Rome in order to re-establish a true Republic. In each case, the inciting event presents the hero with a decision: Shall I continue in the relative comfort of my business-as-usual life or risk pursuing a new and more dangerous goal?
The entire story turns when (and only when) the hero makes this difficult choice. In fact, we don’t even have a story without such a decision. For instance, in The Blind Side (2009) hundreds of “Christian” parents drove past homeless teenager Michael Oher one cold November evening. Any one of them could have stopped to help. Only one did. Everyone faced the same event, yet only Leigh Anne Tuohy was incited by it. We tell her story because she acted. This is why most screenwriters refer to the hero’s decision to act in response to the inciting event as plot point one. Why? Because without that decision you don’t have a plot. You don’t have a story at all.
This is where Edwards’ thought becomes helpful. According to Edwards, our soul is composed of two primary parts: our mind (including both our perceptions and our understanding of those perceptions), and our heart. Our heart is that aspect of our inner being that attracts us toward some people, ideas, or actions and repels us from other people, ideas, and actions.
When our heart’s attraction towards a particular person, idea, or action is particularly strong, Edwards labels these powerful inclinations as our affections. To Edwards, affections are “the moving springs in all the affairs of life, which engage men in all their pursuits; and especially in all affairs wherein they are earnestly engaged, and which they pursue with vigour.” They are the hidden internal reasons why we choose to love some people and not others, to believe some ideas and not others, and take some actions but not others.
This makes our affections an extremely important element of any great story. When the hero answers their story question in the affirmative it reveals something deeper in the their soul than any casual observer could notice. Something in Erin Brokovich (compassion? justice?) compels her to radically devote herself to the townspeople of Hinkley, even at the expense of her children (for whom she originally took the job.) Something in Maximus (duty? nobility?) drives him to accept Caesar’s commission, even though it means delaying a comfortable retirement with his wife and son.
Something in the inciting event reveals the hero’s genuine affections. While this single experience never completely transforms the hero–numerous temptations to give up or turn back will come later–something in the inciting event causes them to take their first step of their journey away from a mere longing for comfort and convenience and into something deeper. They want something more and are willing to take action to pursue it.
Awakening or Transformation?
This motivating drive could be an affection that was always present, but “woke up” only when confronted with the inciting event. For instance, in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, Bilbo’s inciting event is an unexpected party of singing Dwarves inviting him to join their quest:
“As they sang the hobbit felt the love of beautiful things made by hands and by cunning and by magic moving through him, a fierce and jealous love, the desire of the hearts of the dwarves. Then something Tookish woke up inside him, and he wished to go and see the great mountains, and hear the pine-trees and the waterfalls, and explore the caves, and wear a sword instead of a walking-stick.”
It takes a bit no longer for him to act, but soon he is running down the road without so much as a handkerchief in his pocket.
Other times, something in the inciting event itself changes the hero’s heart. For instance, in Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), a chance encounter with an alien spacecraft implants Roy Neary with both vivid images of The Devils Tower in Wyoming as well as the insatiable desire to go there. In Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 epic The Ten Commandments, God not only incites Moses to return to Egypt to free his people, he transforms Moses’ affections (and even his appearance) as well. Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus in Acts 9, is perhaps the ultimate inciting event in the New Testament. His zeal for God is both revealed and transformed by the voice from heaven.
In both inciting event types the hero is confronted with a choice before the story can even begin. As über screenwriting guru Robert McKee declares:
“True character is revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure – the greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation, the truer the choice to the character’s essential nature.”
Obviously, the inciting event is only the beginning of this revelation and transformation, but it is crucial to writing (and living) a great story.
We Are What We Do
This is where Edwards’ thought becomes interesting not only for screenwriters, but for anyone seeking to deepen their relationship with God. Edwards rejects the commonly held notion that our affections and our will are two separate components of our inner being, so that our affections might want one thing, but our will chooses another. Not so, says America’s greatest theologian. “Such seems to be our nature, and such the laws of the union of soul and body, that there never is in any case whatsoever, any lively and vigorous exercise of the inclination, without some effect upon the body…” In other words, while we often profess belief in one direction and act in another, or feel we ought to act one way and then do the opposite, our actions alone reveal the true affections of our heart and mind. We do what we love.
Edwards therefore insists that genuine faith . .
“[C]onsists, in a great measure, in vigorous and lively actings of the inclination and will of the soul, or the fervent exercises of the heart. That religion which God requires, and will accept, does not consist in weak, dull, and lifeless wishes, raising us but a little above a state of indifference. God, in his word, greatly insists upon it, that we be in good earnest, fervent in spirit, and our hearts vigorously engaged.”
This is why Lent can be so transformative. The season is designed to help us examine the gap between ourprofessed faithand our lived belief, between ourcreedand our lifestyle, between the things we tell ourselves we arepassionateabout and our true motivationsrevealed by our actions. Jesus instructed his followers, “You will know them by their fruits.”And Edwards reminds us that Jesus viewed most important fruit as a love of God expressed in sacrificial service on behalf of others. “This is my command that you love one another as I have loved you… For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give us life for others.”
The practice of (and not the mere tip of the cap to) sacrificial service reveals the presence of the greatest and highest affection of all: love of God and others for God’s sake. Why? Because much of what passes for religion seems motivated by little more than a self-centered desire to survive in our current circumstances. However, the decision to give up your life in sacrificial service of others is rarely motivated by anything except genuine spiritual affections. In essence, Edwards is saying, if you want to see who the true heroes are around you, don’t look for the most religious, or the most famous, or the most published. Look for those who love
Lent then is a season for honestly asking myself if I might be missing inciting events to love and serve that are happening all around me: a homeless teenager who needs shelter, a town that needs an advocate, a political system that needs reforming, a social injustice that needs a champion. Perhaps they are more than the mere random events. They could be God’s call to wake up and enter our true story. Our true affections are revealed only in our responses to these inciting events that dare us to ask: Shall I continue in the relative comfort of my business-as-usual life or risk pursuing a new and more dangerous goal?
 Or, ‘Main Character,’ as some main characters are clearly not heroic.
22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller (p. 276). Faber & Faber. Kindle Edition. (2008-10-14).
 This is not to say that sometimes a hero requires numerous inciting events to jar them into action. For instance, Luke learning that a beautiful princess needs rescue, that his father was really a Jedi fighter pilot, or even that a Jedi master needs his help, isn’t enough to overcome his earth-bound (er, Tatooine-bound) inertia. It is only after imperial Stormtroopers kill his aunt and uncle that he finally decides to go with Obi-wan to Alderaan and, “Learn the ways of the force like my father.”
 Edwards, Jonathan (1745) A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections (In Three Parts) (Kindle Edition, 2011) Locations 332-333.
The Fellowship of the Ring (Boston: Mariner books, 2012), p. 83. (Italics mine.)
 Actually, in this nearly four-hour long epic, one could argue that Moses transformation is the midpoint of the film. However, in the biblical account, Moses’ encounter with THWH at the burning bush is clearly the inciting event for his personal journey at the Exodus itself.
“A writer for Emmy magazine is on the phone for you.” At first I thought our PR director was pulling my leg. College professors don’t get calls from Emmy magazine, even if they are moonlighting as the Executive Director of a community of Christian entertainment industry professionals seeking to train and equip storytellers to enter mainstream Hollywood. Act One had been in existence for over a decade and even though we had graduates writing, producing, and directing on numerous TV shows and more than a few feature films, no entertainment industry press had ever called our offices before.
Kurt Schemper changed all that. A producer for A&E’s critically acclaimed reality program, Intervention, Kurt had just become the first Act One graduate to win a prime time Emmy Award. The writer on the phone, Libby Slate, was fascinated by Kurt’s connection to a Hollywood Christian community. But, what really impressed her was how the Act One community had lived out our faith by rallying to aid former staff member Rosario Rodriguez after her gang-related shooting while walking in the tawny L.A. neighborhood Libby called home. (Read story here.)
Libby wanted to know if Emmy could do an article highlighting Kurt and Act One’s unique mission in Hollywood. Kurt and I readily agreed, and director Korey Scott Pollard (House, Grey’s Anatomy, Monk, Nashville, Rizzoli and Isles, Lie to Me, The Middle, Jack Ryan) signed on to represent the Act One faculty perspective.
As Kurt, Korey and I prepared for our interview, Korey pushed for us to be ‘really ready’ to express exactly what we wanted to say. Our conversations turned to how difficult it is to thrive spiritually in Hollywood, and interviewer Libby Slate graciously picked up on this theme.
In the course of our conversations Kurt mentioned that one of his college professors at Judson College encouraged him to pursue his calling to Hollywood by quoting Frederick Buechner:
“The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”
Kurt’s response was, “My deep gladness is Jesus. The entertainment industry is no different than any other place with lonely people searching for gladness.”
The idea of finding “deep gladness” in Hollywood really resonated with me, especially as I contemplated what a “soul-deadening” place Hollywood can be for many industry insiders. So in my interview, I told Emmy, “We’ve found that the spirituality taught by Jesus is an ideal starting place for guiding industry professionals on a soul-nourishing spiritual journey.”
That language resonated with Emmy readers as well, and soon opened doors all over Hollywood. Now it leads to this new series entitled, “Soul-nourishing Practices for a Soul-deadening world: Finding the Voice of Your Own Gladness in Hollywood and Beyond.”
My hope is that these posts will help filmmakers, educators and other culture makers find their own “deep gladness” through the soul-nurturing practices Jesus taught his first followers over 20 centuries ago. Not mere religious practices targeted at greater self-righteousness, but spiritual practices targeted at nurturing a deeper connection to God.
We officially launched the series earlier, but today I thought you might want to read the original Emmy article. (I couldn’t figure out how to post it directly, so you’ll have to download the article as a pdf.) Enjoy!
Higher education has played a key role in the church’s training of true two-handed warriors since its earliest days. One could argue that the manner in which Jesus trained his apostles was so consistent with first-century rabbinic educational practices that the church was actually established with a ‘school’ at its very heart. And there is little doubt that the church began establishing more formal schools as early as the First Century when Mark the Evangelist and/or his disciples founded the world’s first ‘Christian College’ in the catechetical school connected to the Roman rhetorical university at Alexandria. Soon, this blending of the Spirit-driven early church with the truth-seeking Greco-Roman liberal arts tradition proved a powerful combination.
College Against Culture
It is difficult to imagine what European civilization might have become without the integrative mindset fostered among the faculty and students of the Alexandrian school, including three of the most influential minds of the Patristic era: Clement, Origen, and Athanasius. This single educational community provided clear-headed theological reflection and courageous cultural leadership in some of the most significant turning points in early church history.
This was particularly evident in their fourth century battle against the heresy of Arianism. By this time the Alexandrian school had grown into an academic powerhouse with strong secular connections and studies, so much so that Eusebius reports that even nonChristian noblemen entrusted their sons to instruction there. The school became the training ground from which their most famous alumnus, Athanasius, launched his attack against the official Roman endorsement of Arianism. Each time he was rebuffed and even excommunicated at Rome, Athanasius would return to Alexandria for counsel and prayer with the faculty and students of this robust educational community. The common perception that orthodoxy finally prevailed because of Athanasius contra mundum, “One Athanasius against the world,” is far too individualistic an interpretation. The battle was actually, “One Christian college against their culture.” And the Christian college won.
Over the centuries since, Christian colleges and theological seminaries have often proven significantly more effective than local churches in nurturing faculty and students whose leadership is genuinely transformational. Although God often furthers his kingdom through unschooled saints, a surprising number of the names in the honor-roll of church history are intricately connected to the schools where they studied and/or taught. Martin Luther and the University of Wittenberg; Timothy Dwight and Yale; John Henry Newman and Oxford, Charles G. Finney and Oberlin College; Fr. Michael Scanlon and the Franciscan University of Steubenville; D. L. Moody and A. J. Gordon and the institutions that bear their names to this day, each stand as a monument to the extent and influence of Christian higher education.
The Life of the Mind and the Life of the Spirit
One of the keys to the influence of these learning communities is the surprising degree to which the life of the mind and the life of the Spirit can and often do coexist in these learning communities. Church-related colleges and universities birthed many of the most significant reformation and renewal movements in history, while most reformation and renewal movements have, in turn, spawned colleges themselves. This is particularly event in American higher education where more than half of our first 600 colleges were established by evangelicals. In fact, the broad historic definition of the term evangelical is best applied to movements who hold to both the power of the Holy Spirit to produce new birth and holy lives with the power of the holy scriptures to guide and shape the life and practice of the church.
It is in these renewal schools that the integration of the life of the Spirit and the life of the mind has achieved its greatest synergy. The study of the Word of God, and the World of God, when empowered by the Spirit of God has proven profoundly transformational in the lives of students and in their ability to transform church and society. In other words, they were effective because they were able to train young men and women to become what we have called two-handed warriors. By cultivating both the life of the mind and the life of the Spirit they were able to produce students capable of mastering both faith formation and culture making.
The Troubled History of Maintaining a Two-Handed Approach
This potential Spirit/Mind synergy is of particular importance to faith-based colleges at the outset of the twenty-first-century. The dawn of the new millennium finds the evangelical College movement emerging from a century of cultural isolation into a remarkable renaissance. Attendance is booming, endowments are up, intellectual respectability is growing, U.S. News and World Report ratings are climbing. It is quite possible that the twenty-first-century will present the Christian college movement with the opportunity to articulate a distinctively Christian worldview in American society in a manner unparalleled in over one hundred years.
However, the history of American higher education is littered with colleges who have abandoned their lofty ambitions to train two-handed warriors for a decidedly more “one-handed” approach. Burtchaell (1998), Marsden and Longfield (1992), Marsden (1994), Reuben (1996), Benne (2001), Ringenberg (2006), Budde and Wright (2004) have carefully outlined how easily colleges lose their spiritual cutting-edge. Whether Catholic or Protestant, Reformed or Wesleyan, nearly every time a church-founded college or university manages to achieve societal respectability and financial independence they have immediately abandoned their integrative mission. Like prodigal sons, once they “received their inheritance” they have immediately “set off for a distant country where they squandered their wealth” and their ability to train true two-handed warriors. Their graduates go into the world with one hand tied behind their backs to the detriment of their own souls and the culture they create. It turns out that balancing a commitment to the life of the mind and the life of the Spirit even in a Christian college is not so easy as one would suppose.
The Twenty-First Century Challenge
Will the twenty-first-century be any different? Burtchaell’s (1998) chronicling of the demise of nearly every Christian college in American history (including at least two CCCU schools) reads like a modern-day Book of Judges. Knowing that within a few generations of the death of nearly every college’s founding leadership, “the people of God did what was evil in the sight of the LORD and worshipped other Gods” (Judges 3:7) is depressing reading for anyone who has given their life to Christian higher education.
Burtchaell concludes his book with a sobering challenge:
“The failures of the past, so clearly patterned, so foolishly ignored. And so lethally repeated, emerge pretty clearly from these stories. Anyone who requires further imagination to recognize and remedy them is not up to the task of trying again, and better” (p. 851).
Will the leaders of 21st century Christian colleges rise to his challenge? The future of two-handed higher education may very well depend upon it.
In future posts I will explore key movements history of higher education and how their educational philosophy and practices could help 21st century Christian colleges nurture two-handed warriors.
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.
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
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.” 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.” 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. 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.
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
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).
Today’s Christian teenagers know abundant details about the lives of favorite musicians and television stars or about what it takes to get into a good college, but most are not very clear on who Moses and Jesus were. -Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton
N.T. Wright concludes The Challenge of Jesus with a challenge of his own to 21st Century Christians:
“The gospel of Jesus points us and indeed urges us to be at the leading edge of the whole culture, articulating in story and music and art and philosophy and education and poetry and politics and theology and even–heaven help us–Biblical studies, a worldview that will mount the historically-rooted Christian challenge to both modernity and postmodernity, leading the way…with joy and humor and gentleness and good judgment and true wisdom. I believe if we face the question, ‘if not now, then when?’ if we are grasped by this vision we may also hear the question, ‘if not us, then who? And if the gospel of Jesus is not the key to this task, then what is?”
Wright’s challenge begs the question whether or not 21st Century Christian colleges hold the gospel of Jesus Christ in as high a regard as the Jewish educators of Jesus’ day held the Torah. Like Greco-Roman higher education, Rabbinic higher education was deeply devoted to the development of the life of the mind in close-knit learning communities. However, the distinguishing characteristic of Rabbinic Higher Education was not so much its pedagogy as its remarkable devotion to its subject matter–Torah. Whereas Greco-Roman students were expected to master the ever-changing philosophies of their masters, students in Rabbinic higher education strove for mastery of the unchanging word of God. The “words of Torah were essentially divine. God’s words were part and parcel of God’s essence” (Hirshman, 2009, p. 30).
Faithfulness Before Innovation
This devotion to the word of God resulted in a corresponding commitment to faithfulness versus novelty in Jewish education. “No one was free to choose his own credo or ignore the sage’s mediation in approaching the divine… The way of life was learned, and the worldview the product of particular knowledge and distinctive modes of thinking about and analyzing that knowledge.” The object of Jewish higher education was “full mastery of God’s word and full understanding of it…” resulting a intimacy with the words of Torah” written on the pages of the heart (Neusner, 1999, p. iii). Education, or more particularly, learning Torah, became “the Jewish religious pursuit par excellence…” (Hirshman, p. 3, 30). In short, they were true two handed warriors.
Jewish boys (and many girls) entered Beit Sefer (primary school) charged with mastering the Torah before the age of thirteen. This mastery often extended to the oral memorization of enormous portions of the Torah, as well as rudimentary reading and writing. After their bar mitzvah, and the corresponding accountability for obedience to the law, the best students were allowed to go on to Beit Midrash (secondary school, literally, “study house”), while they learned a trade. The Beit Midrash curriculum added the study of the Writings and the Prophets to that of Torah, and more importantly, Talmud, the art of Rabbinic interpretations comprised of both Midrash—inquiry into the sacred texts, and Mishna, the study of oral law independent of its scriptural basis.
Rabbinic Higher Education
Only the most remarkable secondary students were allowed to go on to the Jewish version of higher education, by obtaining permission to study as a talmid (disciple/student) of a great Rabbi. Teaching Rabbis made up a “collegium of sages” responsible for applying the law of God in new situations and for passing on the tradition of scriptural interpretation to new students. “Each begins as a disciple of a master, then himself becomes a master to the next generation of disciples, in a long chain of learning” (Neusner, p. iv).
The goal of faithfulness to the word of God drove the master-student relationship and teaching style of the study house. Rabbinic education was consumed with recitation and discussion, not merely because of pedagogical considerations, but also for theological reasons. The Rabbis so reverenced the written words of Scripture, no other texts were considered worthy of study. Rabbinic higher education was an oral culture, perpetrated and preserved by an ongoing high-level discussion that eclipsed even Socratic dialogue in its relentless back and forth nature.
In order to facilitate this dialogue, Talmidim were expected to follow their master night-and-day as they taught their tight-knit band of brothers in the study house, over meals, and in the market place. “Study was a process of unending repetition and ubiquitous recitation that transpired in almost every possible venue” (Chilton, and Neusner, 2005, p. 131-132). A good disciple stuck so close to his teacher that by the end of the day he was literally covered with dust kicked up by his master’s feet (Vander Laan). Through it all, Talmidim strove to attain the prerequisite mastery of Torah, Midrash, and Mishnah necessary to become sages themselves so that they too could join the unbroken chain of faithfulness. (For an outstanding discussion of 1st Century BCE Rabbi Hillel and his application to 21st Century culture making, see, Joseph Telushkin’s, Hillel: If Not Now, When?)
From Studying Scripture to Making Culture
Most importantly for our discussion, the goal of this remarkable devotion to the word of God was not privatized faith, but culture making. Rabbinic education was birthed in the cultural crisis of the Babylonian captivity and is certainly the best human explanation of how Jewish culture survived the Diaspora. While Moses commanded the night and day impartation of Torah to the next generation, leading Torah historian, Wilhelm Bacher, notes that Nehemiah’s reading the Torah before the post-exilic community in Jerusalem was the actual “birthday of ancient Jewish education” (cited in Hirshman, p. 121.) Jewish leaders were painfully aware of their society’s need for leaders soaked in the culture-making power of the word of God. “According to the Rabbinic ideal, all of Israel would be teachers, and ultimately masters, of Torah” (Chilton, p. 46). Only then could Jewish society reflect Torah in justice, charitable acts, gifts of first fruits and sacrifices (Hirshman, p. 19).
When the cultural chips were down, Rabbis had the courage to contrast the culture-making power of the Jewish study house, not with the Greco-Roman education, but with the theatre and circus, “pitting the two against one another on the level of popular culture” (Hirshman, p. 121). In most Roman cities the circus/theater and beit Midrash were within blocks of one another. However, unlike the Romans, Jewish commitment to the word of God led to a stronger emphasis upon education than entertainment. Romans flocked to bread and circus, while Jews gathered to study. The Rabbis were confident that, in the end, their deep culture would triumph over Rome’s shallow culture. The beit Midrash had helped them endure the cultural onslaught of Babylon and Persia. Rome would be no match for them. And while the process took much longer than they could have ever imagined, it was a strategy that stood the test of time.
From Deuteronomy to the SAT
It doesn’t take any stretch of the imagination to envision how this principle might apply to twenty-first century educators seeking to develop two-handed warriors fluent in both faith building and culture making. Entrance into Rabbinical higher education required an oral recitation of the entire Torah. Entrance to most Christian colleges today requires little more than an SAT score of 1500. Entrance to early American liberal arts colleges required a comprehensive grasp of the English Bible. Graduation from most Christian colleges today requires little more than a rudimentary understanding of Scripture. Is it any wonder that pop culture is shaping our students more than their faith?
Whether one is referring to Catholics or Protestants, today’s ‘Christian culture’ is a mile wide and an inch deep. Education is losing out to entertainment at every level. As much as I value the culture-making force of the entertainment industry, the arts nearly always follow the intellectual currents of the day (Hunter, 2010, p. 87-88), and the only intellectual current flowing in pop culture today is a narcissistic, consumer-driven, individualism.
Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton’s research into America youth culture discovered that, “Many teenagers know abundant details about the lives of favorite musicians and television stars or about what it takes to get into a good college, but most are not very clear on who Moses and Jesus were.” As a result, “a strong, visible, salient, or intentional faith is not operating in the foreground of most teenager’s lives.” Their worldview is little more than “moralistic, therapeutic, deism,” or more specifically, “whatever.”
For Protestant and Catholic colleges and universities to be of any value in helping our faith communities resist this pop culture onslaught and grow into vibrant culture-making institutions ourselves we need to return to the wisdom of the Rabbi’s—a rigorous devotion to the word of God. Like Chaim Potok, the sages of the Rabbinic school might dare ask the leaders of today’s Christian colleges, “Do you have faith in the word of God?” Sometimes I’m not so sure. Our curriculum and campus culture certainly don’t appear to reflect that kind of faith. At least not in comparison to the Rabbinic schools.
Yet I suspect that our best hope for prevailing in the struggle for the souls of our colleges and universities may be engaging in a Rabbinic commitment to the mastery of the worldview-forming, character-shaping narratives of Scripture. I am not talking about a lightweight devotional band-aid, but an intellectually challenging and spiritually enriching student-teacher dialogue that dominates our campus culture and captures the hearts minds our students. Anything less may result in a cultural exile from which we will never return.
Chaim Potok gave voice to a more modern expression of this sentiment in his novel, In the Beginning: “If the Torah cannot go out into your world of scholarship and return stronger, then we are all fools and charlatans. I have faith in the Torah. I am not afraid of truth.”
As N.T. Wright challenges us: “If the gospel of Jesus is not the key to this task, then what is? If not us, then who? If not now, then when?”
Wilhelm Bacher, Tradition und Tradenten in den Schulen Palästinas und Babyloniens: Studien und Materialien zur Entstehungsgeschichte des Talmud. (Berlin: W. de Gruyter, 1966).
Bruce Chilton, and Jacob Neusner, “Paul and Gamaliel.” In, Alan J. Avery-Peck, ed. Review of Rabbinic Judaism. (Leiden: Brill, 2005).
Marc G. Hirshman, The stabilization of rabbinic culture, 100 C.E.-350 C.E.: texts on education and their late antique context (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).
James Davidson Hunter, To change the world: the irony, tragedy, and possibility of Christianity in the late modern world. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).
Jacob Neusner, The four stages of rabbinic Judaism (London: Routledge, 1999).
Chaim Potok, In the beginning. (New York: Knopf, 1975).
Christian Smith, and Melinda Lundquist Denton. Soul searching: the religious and spiritual lives of American teenagers. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).
Richard Valantasis, Douglas K. Bleyle, and Dennis C. Haugh, The Gospels and Christian life in history and practice (Lanham, Md: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2009).
Ray Vander Laan, Stephen Sorenson, and Amanda Sorenson. In the dust of the rabbi: 5 faith lessons. (Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 2006). See also, Ray Vander Laan’s excellent website, Followtherabbi.com.
N.T. Wright. The Challenge of Jesus: rediscovering who Jesus was and is. (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 1999.)