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

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

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

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

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

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

Why would anyone invest so much time and money striving to master such an outdated mode of transportation?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

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

Spiritual Disciplines

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

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

The Soul-Deadening Worlds of Power

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

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

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

Yokes that Bring Our Souls Rest

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

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

Connecting to the Life of God

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

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

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

Personalizing the Process

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

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

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

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

Let’s ride!


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


See also

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

Why Lent is a lot Like Surfing

Spiritual formation book recommendations:

The Practice of the Presence of God, by Brother Lawrence

Sacred Rhythms, by Ruth Haley Barton

Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, by Adele Alberg Calhoun

The Organic God, by Margaret Feinberg

The Celebration of Discipline, by Richard Foster

Invitation to a Journey, by Robert Mulholland

The Way of the Heart, by Henri Nouwen

The Life You’ve Always Wanted, by John Ortberg

Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, by Peter Scazzero

The Good and Beautiful Life, by James Bryan Smith

Sacred Pathways, by Gary Thomas

The Spirit of the Disciplines, by Dallas Willard


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

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

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


Top 10 Books on Spirituality/Theology I Read in 2011, by Mike Friesen

People are always asking me what I am reading. Here is a list of books that I have read this year that I have loved. (In no particular order)-

10. Choosing To Love The World– Thomas Merton

A beautiful and academic look at the ways people can move into society and love what is really in front of you.

9. The Inner Voice of Love– Henri Nouwen

A great spiritual guide into the inner life. A great resource into a deeper and more loving union with God, others, and ourselves.

8. Reforming The Doctrine Of God– Leron Shults

Probably the most brilliant theologian alive right now, and a book I’ll probably have to re-read several times. This is a reconstruction of systematic theology with different categories. I think he will be the Karl Barth of this century. The theologian that every academic has to wrestle with.

7. The End of Evangelicalism?– David Fitch

A brilliant deconstruction of Evangelical culture, belief, with a therapeutic psychoanalytic for exhausted Evangelicals.

6. Resident Aliens– Stanley Hauerwas

There is a reason Hauerwas was voted the most important theologian of our time. This work on the work of Christians within society, and in community is his classic.

5. The Politics of Jesus– John Howard Yoder

The main inspiration for Hauerwas. This is Yoder’s pinnacle work. He brilliantly works through the teachings of community, movement, and non-violence through the life of Jesus.

4.Spiral Dynamics– Don Beck

A awe driven look into human consciousness. Beck reveals the ways in which we can reshape society through an evolution of human growth.

3.Scripture and the Authority of God– N.T Wright

A wonderfully written book, with the wisdom, and knowledge of one of the most important theologians alive. His tenderness, tackles a sensitive but important issue surrounding the Bible and it’s role in our lives and Church.

2. The Source of Life– Jurgen Moltmann

An absolutely wonderful book on the theology of the Holy Spirit. Few people will ever be able to convey theology as deeply and beautifully as Jurgen Moltmann. He is the master of teaching living theology.

1. Falling Upward– Richard Rohr

In my opinion, especially being 24, this is the most important book any spiritually curious person my age can read. Rohr will lead many people from the first half of life into the second half of life. He will help launch us into deeper meaning, love, and service to the world.

Mike Friesen blogs at Christianity for the Rest of Us

Jay Barnes, President of Bethel University, on “The Influencers Who Influenced Me”

Series Introduction: The journey toward reimagining faith and culture is never traveled alone. I asked some key cultural influencers: “Who are authors, artists, filmmakers, screenwriters, poets, musicians, films, books, plays, TV shows, or any other cultural artifact who have deeply influenced you and will always stick with you.” Then gave them only fifteen minutes to complete their list, to keep it “unedited.” (Part of an ongoing series.)


Jay Barnes, President of Bethel University and Consummate Servant Leader.

Dr. Jay Barnes, President of Bethel University in Arden Hills, Minn., is an outstanding example of servant leadership. Jay has been a leader in Christian higher education for more than 30 years, both in academics and student development. Before becoming Bethel’s president, Jay served for 13 years as the university’s Provost and executive vice president. Prior to his time at Bethel, Barnes held at Messiah College (Penn), Wheaton College (Ill.), and at Black Forest Academy in Kandern, Germany.

Jay is known for his collaborative leadership, team-building skills, and student-centered approach to higher education. During his career, he took lead roles in improving student development theory and practices on a national level with the Association for Christians in Student Development. For many years, Jay and his wife, Barb, have co-led counseling groups for engaged students and have conducted workshops nationally on marriage enrichment.

Jay’s tenure at Bethel has also been marked by his deep commitment to racial reconciliation. Under Jay’s guidance, Bethel University began a Reconciliation developed one of the only bachelor’s degree in reconciliation studies in the nation.

With over 6,000 students in bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees in nearly 100 relevant fields, Bethel University is a national leader in Christian higher education

Denny Morrow, Associate Executive Director, ReachGlobal, and former Executive Director of Daystar University (Kenya) asserts: “Jay is a quintessential servant leader. He is laser focused on excellence for himself and the University, but equally important, Jay listens well to others. His rare combination of a strong will and a self-deprecating humor engenders trust for those he leads.” I could not agree more. I’ve know Jay since he was my Resident Director at Wheaton College and have found him to be one of the more consistently Christlike servant leaders I have met in all my years in higher education.


Jay’s top 15 influencers

Chapel Jai Ho Dance: Bethel's voluntary chapel services attract over half the student body three times each week

C.S. Lewis

Philip Yancey

Henri Nouwen

Jim Collins

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Mother Teresa

John Ortberg

The Prodigal Son (painting by Rembrandt)

David (sculpture by Michelangelo)

Good Will Hunting

Under Jay's leadership Bethel established one of the only B.A. in Reconciliation Studies programs in the world.

A Man For All Seasons

Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians

Dietrich Bonheoffer

John Stott

God’s Long Summer (by Charles Marsh)


What’s on your “Fab 15″ list?

1)  Your list must be comprised of cultural artifacts readers have access to. You can’t include your Mom, or some other leader who had a personal impact on you, but who readers will never have the chance to meet.

2) Try to make your list in no more than fifteen minutes if you can, but take more time if you need it.

Bethel's 231-acre lakeside campus is highlighted by the newly opened $30 million Brushaber Commons

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

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


Culture Making and the Arts

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


Faith Building and Spiritual Formation

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

What’s on your list?

Gary & Sue