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

Part of ongoing series: Hollywood and Higher Education: Teaching Worldview Thru the Stories We Live By (See also,  The Future of Faith-Based Filmmaking)

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

by Gary David Stratton • Senior Editor

“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

blind-side-poster-0In 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!

Sandra Bullock as the highly flawed and genuinely Christian, Leigh Anne Tuohy.

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…”[1]

The Future of “Christian” Filmmaking

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Michael Oher is a most unlikely hero in the most unlikely “Christian” film in recent memory.

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 WorldviewCrash 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.)[2]

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

If more Christians actually lived compelling stories then we might have a litany of heroic movies.

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…

If you live it, they will come!

 

Next post in series: Current Films by Act One Graduates Reveal Strange Dichotomy in Box Office Mojo’s ‘Christian Movie’ Category, by Gary David Stratton

See Also:

Conversations On The Blind Side – Sandra Bullock and Leigh Anne Tuohy Go One-On-One, by Rebecca Murray

Michael Oher and Tuohy Family Celebrate Super Bowl Victory (ABC)

Hollywood and Higher Education, by Gary David Stratton

Why Story Structure Matters: Even if you don’t want it to, by Christopher Riley

Opening Doors for Others: An Interview with Writer-Director Brian Bird, by Gary David Stratton

Christians in Hollywood: A Mission Impossible Writer Offers a Treatment, by Ron Austin

 

Notes:

[1] Interview: ‘The Blind Side’ Director John Lee Hancock, Michelle A. Vu

[2] Bullock Quotations from:  Sandra Bullock and Tim McGraw Discuss ‘The Blind Side’ 

Ideas Have Consequences: The Power and Limits of Existentialism, Dead Poets Society 2

Part 9 of series:  Hollywood and Higher Education: Teaching Worldview Thru the Stories We Live By

“No matter what anyone tells you, words and ideas can change the world.”   -Mr. Keating (Robin Williams)

by Gary David Stratton • Senior Editor

gal-dps-cast-jpgThe main characters of Dead Poets Society (1989) provide a perfect opportunity to observe, not only the remarkable skill of no less than three young actors (Ethan HawkeRobert Sean LeonardJosh Charles) on their way to Hollywood greatness, but also a profound illustration the various array of practice shifts involved in the worldview of Existentialism  (See, Bungee-Jumping to Eternity: The Existential Angst of Dead Poets Society).

Paradigm Shifts versus Practice Shifts

A worldview is a lot like an iceberg in at least two important ways: First, only their uppermost levels are visible to the naked eye.  Second, that visible tip is not the even close to the most dangerous part of an iceberg or a worldview. It is that proverbial 90% lurking beneath the waterline that can sink your ship… and maybe even cost you your life.

Screen shot 2013-05-02 at 1.37.53 AM

You cannot “see” the strategies, values, or stories guiding a person or society. Unless they are reflected in actions, words, or “cultural artifacts”—art, architecture, literature, technology, institutions, etc.—ideas remain hidden under the surface. Like mounting pressure on tectonic plates, no one knows how much power is really stored up until the ground begins to shake.

Many anthropologists, therefore, make a distinction between “paradigm shifts” and “practice shifts.” A paradigm shift is change in the unseen world of ideas of an individual or society, while a practice shift is a change in actual behavior. For instance, in Casablanca, we had no idea what a profound paradigm shift Rick was experiencing until the moment we saw his practice shift in putting Ilsa on the plane with Victor. Or in Fiddler on the Roof, it was impossible to know if Tevye had actually shifted his paradigm for marriage from a business contract to a romantic covenant, until he applied his daughters’ paradigm in his own practices by asking Golda, “Do you love me?”

The critical moment that ultimately leads Keating’s students from paradigm shift to practice shift

The relationship between invisible paradigm shifts and visible practice shifts is a critical element of all good filmmaking. Whether it is Luke Skywalker turning off his targeting computer, because he has finally put his faith in “The Force,” or George Bailey asking God to make him live again, because he has finally reinterpreted his life as “wonderful,” the clearer the connection between a main character’s paradigm shift and their practice shift, the better.

Dead Poet Society (DPS) Character Transformations

Dead Poets Society offers the unusual pleasure of following the transformation arc of multiple characters, four of who get their own complete storylines. And while their paradigm shifts are similar, their practice shifts are radically different.

While Mr. Keating implores his students that “words and ideas can change the world,” it is Knox Overstreet who gives voice to the counter-balancing truth, “I’ve got to do something!” And do something is exactly what the young DPS members set out to do.

Knox Overstreet: For the Love of Chris

For Knox Overstreet applying Mr. Keating’s worldview to his own life story begins with the inciting event of Chris Noel (Alexandra Powers) coming into his life. What begins as obligatory dinner at the home family friends—the Danbury’s—turns into the beginning of an epic adventure. The Danbury’s football star son, Chet, is dating cheerleader Chris whom Knox decides is “the most beautiful girl I have ever seen in my entire life.”

Instead of accepting the script written for him by his family and school, he invokes “Carpe Diem!” in his headlong pursuit of the girl of his dreams. The new plausibility structures of his new worldview open up the possibility of engaging in behaviors that would have been unthinkable just a few weeks earlier.  He sneaks off campus to see Chris.  He writes poetry about her.

Chris Noel, the Goal of Knox’s Quest

Finally the internal pressure of his newfound love and newly expanded worldview reach a boiling point. Standing by the phone with the entire DPS watching, he rewrites his life story from the Welton/family worldview to his newly chosen existentialism in a single moment:

Knox: She’s going to hate me. The Danbury’s will hate me. My parents will kill me. (Looking at the group.) All right, God damn it. (Inserts coins.) Carpe diem!

Once committed—the “midpoint” of his story arc—there is no turning back for Knox. He kisses Chris at a party, reads her poetry at her school, and just when all hope seems lost, he wins a date and the heart of his true love.

Mr. Keating’s teaching has shifted his paradigm in such a way that his practice shifts with it. Knox rejects his Welton/family story that social structures must be followed and embraces a new story where he is free to think for himself and find his own meaning for his day-to-day existence. The ideas found in Mr. Keating’s Existentialism have serious consequences for Knox. His life is clearly changed and enriched from the experience.

Charlie Daulton: The Name is Nuwanda

Charlie Daulton’s (Gale Hansen) life story, on the other hand, isn’t so much transformed by Mr. Keating’s worldview as it is confirmed. As the film’s steadfast character, Charlie really doesn’t change much at all. He is a charming rebellious hedonist at the beginning of the film, and a charming and even more rebellious hedonist at the end. From bringing pornography, and later girls to DPS meetings, interrupting a school assembly with a phone call from God (also about girls), to painting a virility symbol on his chest and adopting the name “Nuwanda,” Mr. Keating’s Existentialism functions primarily to free Charlie to act on impulses he had previously restrained.

Mr. Keating attempts to reign in Charlie’s character with the warning: “Sucking the marrow out of life doesn’t mean choking on the bone. There’s a time for daring and there’s a time for caution, and a wise man understands which is called for.”  Yet he never really succeeds in actually transforming Charlie’s girl obsessed life story.

On a more positive note, his new worldview also helps Charlie to stand against external pressure. He is perhaps the first Dead Poet to “get” Mr. Keating’s courtyard marching lesson on conformity when he tells his teacher, “I’m exercising the right not to walk.” In the end, Charlie alone is the only Dead Poet willing to endure both paddling and expulsion without ratting out his friends or betraying his teacher.

While Mr. Keating’s worldview doesn’t really change the direction of Charlie’s life, it does help strengthen his character. While not exactly a heroic character, his exposure to existentialism certainly hasn’t hurt his life.

Todd Anderson: O Captain, my Captain!

Perhaps the most moving transformation in the film is that of Todd Anderson. At the start of the film, Todd’s identity is buried so deeply in that of the Welton/Family worldview, he functions merely as a sub-plot of his older brother’s story.  Something inside him is so stirred by Mr. Keating’s message that he writes “Seize the Day” in bold writing in his notebook.  Then we watch as the Welton/Family story wins out and he crumbles the paper and tosses it in the waste basket.

But Mr. Keating is not finished with Todd yet. When Todd refuses to even admit that he has written a poem to be read aloud in class, Mr. Keating steps in:

Keating: “Mr. Anderson thinks that everything inside of him is worthless and embarrassing. Isn’t that right, Todd. Isn’t that your worst fear?  Well, I think you’re wrong. I think you have something inside of you that is worth a great deal.”

Visions of a sweaty-toothed madman

In perhaps the film’s most moving scene, Mr. Keating writes Walt Whitman’s adage on the blackboard—“I sound my barbaric YAWP over the rooftops of the world”—and demands that Todd YAWP! Suddenly the paradigm shift that has been lurking beneath the surface of Todd’s life breaks into the open in his “sweaty-tooth madman” speech.

Todd: Truth like-like a blanket that always leaves your feet cold… Y-You push it, stretch it, it’ll never be enough. You kick at it, beat it, it’ll never cover any of us. From the moment we enter crying t-to the moment we leave dying, it’ll just cover your face as you wail and cry and scream.

Keating: [long pause then class applauds] Don’t you forget this.

He never does. In the climactic final scene it is Todd who finds his voice in leading the Dead Poets in their final act of heroism. As the bagpipe music closes on a freeze frame of the boys standing on their desks, you FEEL the incredible power of existentialism to free these young men from the bondage of the gravity of Physicalism and send them soaring into the invisible world of Ideals.

Todd is the first one on his feet, er, desk, in a final DPS salute to their “Captain”

O, if that was all there was to the story. But there is another major character, and it is his story that points us to the second similarity between worldviews and icebergs—what you don’t see is what is most likely to kill you.  Was there something lurking just beneath the waterline of the iceberg of existentialism that ultimately led to Neil’s tragic Titanic ending?

If so… was Mr. Keating at least somewhat responsible for Neil’s death?

.

 

Next post in series:

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

.
See also:

Hollywood and Higher Education: Teaching Worldview Through Academy Award-winning Films

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

Fiddler on the Roof: Worldview Change and the Journey to Life-Interpreting Story

Crash goes the Worldview: Why Worldview Transformation Requires Changing Scripts

It’s a Wonderful Worldview: Frank Capra’s Theistic Masterpiece

If you Live it, They Will Come: The Blind Side and Better Faith-Based Filmmaking

 

 

Bungee-Jumping to Eternity: The Existential Angst of Dead Poets Society

Part of ongoing series:  Hollywood and Higher Education: Teaching Worldview Thru the Stories We Live By

“Carpe Diem!  Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.” -Mr. Keating (Robin Williams)

by Gary David Stratton • Senior Editor

posterDead 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.

Worldview Transformation

Gather ye rose buds while ye may…

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.

The underlying story of Welton Academy is financial success, not personal exploration

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.)

“Tradition, honor, discipline, excellence.”

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

Enter the transformation artist

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.

Make your lives extraordinary!

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”[1] 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.

Seeing the world from a new perspective

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.

Watch desk scene here.

Freedom from Physicalism

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!

Next: Ideas Have Consequences: The Power and the Limits of Existentialism, Dead Poets Society, Part 2

 

See also:

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

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

Crash goes the Worldview: Why Worldview Transformation Requires Changing Scripts

It’s a Wonderful Worldview: Frank Capra’s Theistic Masterpiece

Bungee-Jumping to Eternity: The Existential Angst of Dead Poets Society

Deep Culture: Is Winning an Oscar a Reliable Indicator of a Truly Great Film?

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

Related Posts:

Using Zombie Movies to Teach Politics, by Daniel W. Drezner

The Joker Is Satan, and So Are We: René Girard and The Dark Knight, by Charles Bellinger

Echoes of René Girard in the Films of Martin Scorsese: Scapegoats and Redemption on ‘Shutter Island,’ by Cari Myers

Hitchcock and the Scapegoat: René Girard, Violence and Victimization in The Wrong Man, by David Humbert

 

Notes



[1] Perhaps an allusion to George Bailey’s objection to his father’s commitment to the Building and Loan in “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

 

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

Part of ongoing series:  Hollywood and Higher Education: Teaching Worldview thru the Stories We Live By

By changing the foundational story of Rick’s life from that of a self-centered love-betrayed to the story of a other-centered love renewed, Ilsa transforms Rick’s values and rule of life as well. 

by Gary David Stratton • Senior Editor

urlSince 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.[1] 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. [2]

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.

The countless decisions we make each day are but the visible tip of the iceberg of our largely hidden worldview.
The countless decisions we make each day are but the visible tip of the iceberg of our largely hidden worldview.

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…” [3] 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.” [4] 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. [5]

Constructing a False Worldview

At first glance Rick seems the model narcissist, longing only to catch the only plane out of Casablanca while sticking his neck out for nobody.
At first glance Rick seems the model narcissist, longing only to catch the last plane out of Casablanca while sticking his neck out for nobody.

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.”

Captain Louis Renault is the first to recognize a deeper story rumbling beneath Rick's cynical shell
Captain Louis Renault is the first to recognize a deeper story rumbling beneath Rick’s cynical shell

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.

Movie Clip 1: Captain Louis Renault Accuses Rick of a Deeper Story

The beautiful and enchanting Ilsa Lund stole Rick’s heart in a whirlwind Paris romance Paris only to break it as the German tanks rolled into Paris.
The beautiful and enchanting Ilsa Lund stole Rick’s heart in a whirlwind Paris romance Paris only to break it as the German tanks rolled into Paris.

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.

Movie Clip 2: Paris

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?

A guy standing on a station platform in the rain with a comical look on his face, because his insides had been kicked out.
A guy standing on a station platform in the rain with a comical look on his face, because his insides had been kicked out.

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.

Movie Clip 3: Ilsa Tries to Explain Her Story

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.

Movie Clip 4: Midnight at Rick’s apartment

Ilsa’s startling admission begins to change Rick’s worldview at every level.
Ilsa’s startling admission begins to change Rick’s worldview at every level.

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).

Clip 5: Rick and Ilsa at the Airport

Change the Story, Change the World

At the airport, Rick's new story empowers him to not only give up his ticket to freedom, but Ilsa as well.
At the airport, Rick’s new story empowers him to not only give up his ticket to freedom, but Ilsa as well.

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.

Movie clip 6: A beautiful friendship

Everyone Meets at Rick’s

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“This could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” In the end, even Louis is caught up in Rick’s heroic transformation.

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.

Next posts in series:

Fiddler on the Roof: Worldview Change and the Journey to Life-Interpreting Story

The Volcano in Your Backyard: Micro-Worldviews and the Honeymoon from Hell

See also:

Hollywood and Higher Education: Teaching Worldview Through Academy Award-winning Films

Crash goes the Worldview: Why Worldview Transformation Requires Changing Scripts

It’s a Wonderful Worldview: Frank Capra’s Theistic Masterpiece

Bungee-Jumping to Eternity: The Existential Angst of Dead Poets Society

Deep Culture: Is Winning an Oscar a Reliable Indicator of a Truly Great Film?

If you Live it, They Will Come: The Blind Side and Better Faith-Based Filmmaking

 

Related Posts:

Using Zombie Movies to Teach Politics, by Daniel W. Drezner

The Joker Is Satan, and So Are We: René Girard and The Dark Knight, by Charles Bellinger

Echoes of René Girard in the Films of Martin Scorsese: Scapegoats and Redemption on ‘Shutter Island,’ by Cari Myers

Hitchcock and the Scapegoat: René Girard, Violence and Victimization in The Wrong Man, by David Humbert

 

 

Notes

[1] 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).

[2] Followers of Arthur F. Holmes’ will notice that I am using his categories for evaluating ethical decisions.  See, Ethics: approaching moral decisions. Contours of Christian philosophy (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2007), 52-80. See also, Lawrence Kohlberg, The Development of Children’s Orientations Toward a Moral Order (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press); Carol Gilligan, In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press); and, James W. Fowler, Stages of Faith: the Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1981).

[3] 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.)

[4] Hunter, Change, 33.

[5] 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.

 

 

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

 

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

The Greatest Day in New England History

Think the fiery Puritan who preached America’s most famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of Angry God,” would threaten to dangle celebrities over the pit of hell?  Think again.

by Gary David Stratton • Senior Editor

I’m your biggest fan, I’ll follow you until you love me Papa, paparazzi

—Lyrics from “Paparazzi” as performed by Lady Gaga

The 2004 Red Sox victory parade attracted 68% of the total population of greater Boston.
The streets of Boston course with life as a crowd greater than the city’s total population joins in celebration.

Commerce grinds to a standstill.

Women faint.

Grown men weep.

The governor joins the standing-room-only multitude on Boston Common and declares the festivities, “the greatest day in New England history.”

If that sounds to you like a good description of the victory parade for the 2004 Boston Red Sox who vanquished a 68 year-old ‘Curse of the Bambino” with a World Series championship, you’re not far from the truth.  The Red Sox parade attracted an incredible sixty-eight percent of greater Boston’s population.[1]

However, these words actually describe something even more historic:  the 1740 farewell sermon of British evangelist George Whitefield–an event that drew 135 percent of colonial Boston.  No wonder Harry Stout has calls Whitefield “Anglo-America’s first modern celebrity.”[3]

And Whitefield’s celebrity is no accident. It is the result of a carefully orchestrated public relations tour de force. Whitefield and his publicist, William Seward, worked tirelessly to promote the evangelist’s exploits, writing as many as a hundred personal letters, articles, and journal entries a day to a vast network of leaders and publishers throughout the New World. Incredibly, Whitefield personally wrote or inspired thirty-percent of every work published in America in 1740. By the time he reaches Boston, all of New England is in a fever pitch. Six weeks and 175 sermons later, “virtually every New England inhabitant” has heard Whitefield preach face-to-face.[3]  

Sinners is the Hands of an Angry God

Jonathan Edwards
Jonathan Edwards’ “Faithful Narrative” helped pave the way for Whitefield’s preaching tour.

One hundred miles to the west, fiery preacher Jonathan Edwards waits not with condemnation, but delight.[4] Rather than dangling the “paparazzi” of his day over the pit of hell, Edwards follows media coverage of Whitefield’s every move with growing delight. He even invites the innovative young preacher to fill his famous pulpit in Northampton, Massachusetts.

Edwards helped start this media sensation in the first place. His autobiographical Faithful Narrative [5] was an international best seller for nearly three years before Whitefield’s preaching tour, making Edwards a towering public figure in his own right. He has helped stoke a deep hunger for spiritual awakening throughout the colonies; a hunger now filled by Whitefield’s flamboyant preaching and growing celebrity.[6]

While many Christians today decry our shallow media-driven celebrity culture, leaders of the Great Awakening recognized that capture society’s imagination with spiritual realities required media-driven celebrity. And capture it they did. By year’s end, perhaps as much as fifteen-percent of the population of the American colonies professes conversion to Christ in one of the most transformative social movements in American history.

Edwards and Whitefield helped birth not only one of the most transformative cultural movements in America history—the First Great Awakening—they also helped launch America’s celebrity culture. Twenty-first-century culture-makers seeking to birth society-wide transformation on the level of the Great Awakening would be wise to pay careful attention to the lessons Edwards and Whitefield learned in using celebrity for the glory of God.

Celebrity

Celebrity is perhaps the most coveted and least understood concept in contemporary culture. While the billion-dollar celebrity industry seems to grind out a new subject for fifteen-minutes of fame nearly every fifteen minutes, the scholarly community (and the church) has scrambled just to stay current. Recent scholarship has produced many claims to the title of “America’s first celebrity,” ranging from John James Audubon (c. 1826) to Walt Whitman (c. 1850), Buffalo Bill Cody (c. 1885), Douglas Fairbanks (c. 1920), and Ernest Hemingway (c. 1925).[7] Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield certainly precede each of these contenders, but were they true celebrities? The answer is, perhaps, yes and no.

Celebrity as Star

If one takes the perspective that celebrity is a purely modern invention, then obviously Edwards and Whitefield can’t be celebrities. Many scholars find a strong enough connection between celebrity and modern media to assert that “there is no such thing as celebrity prior to the beginning of the twentieth century.”[8] This school of thought is strongly rooted in film studies and the rise of the Hollywood star-making business. Before 1910, the motion picture industry sold story. However, studio executives soon realized that what they were actually selling was stars—men and women who moviegoers liked and personally identified with beyond the quality of their performance.[9]

Splash
Little known TV star Tom Hanks won the lead for Splash (1983) over hundreds of famous actors because he was the more ‘likable.’

For instance, producer Brian Grazer chose the little known TV star Tom Hanks over hundreds of famous actors vying for the lead in Splash (1983), not because Hanks was the most talented, but because audience testing proved he was the most likable.[10] Soon Hanks joined the pantheon of Jimmy Stewart, Cary Grant, John Wayne, Harrison Ford, et cetera—actors America loved not for how they played their role, but simply for who they were.[11]

Hollywood intuited what academic research later demonstrated: people personally identify not merely with the hero of the story, but also with the actor playing the hero in the story.  Media-generated personal identification evoked a public hunger for access to the private lives of stars. In small-town America, everyone wanted to know the gossip, slander, triumphs, tragedies of the  in crowd. But in the emerging global village, the most popular kids are found on the big screen.

Aided by the media-driven celebrity industry, stars quickly became what Richard Schickel calls “intimate strangers.” People wanted to know these stars and be connected to them personally. Graeme Turner asserts that we can actually “map the precise moment a public figure becomes a celebrity”: when their “private lives attract greater public interest than their professional lives.”[12]

It wasn’t long before stars began to realize that they had become a commodity to be marketed and traded, not only by studio heads, but also by their own publicity people. Within a few short years, the public relations and celebrity gossip industries were born.[13] Soon Paparazzi was a household word. 

Since Edwards and Whitefield were dead for over a hundred years before the first Hollywood stars were born, it is hard to see how they are celebrities in this limited sense of the word.

Celebrity as Hero

However, other scholars adopt a broader understanding of celebrity, one that seems to better fit Edwards and Whitefield. These scholars root their understanding of celebrity in the Latin words for “fame” (celebritas) and “being famous” (celebrer) and in Western society’s desire to “celebrate” greatness. [14] Human beings need heroes to emulate.

Both the Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian traditions developed strong “hero-making” story cultures. We tell the stories of heroes such as Hercules, Achilles, Odysseus, Perseus, Jason, Atalanta, David, Elijah, Esther, Mary, Paul, and Peter because they embody the virtues valued in our culture.

Yet for cultural heroes to serve as public role models, they need to be both virtuous and known. A virtuous man or woman whose story goes untold simply can’t be emulated. Therefore, the desire to be great and the desire to be famous are not necessarily mutually exclusive. As Paul boldly declares, “Follow me as I follow Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1).[15]

Perhaps it is more helpful to follow Daniel Boorstin’s distinction between a genuine celebrity and what he calls a “pseudo-celebrity.”[16] Pseudo celebrities, as the Hollywood school of thought asserts, are differentiated mainly by the “trivia of personality,” whereas true celebrities are heroes who are distinguished by their achievements, virtues, and character.[17] Edwards and Whitefield appear to fit this second type. Although there is no universal consensus, celebrity studies seem to point to four distinct stages in the creation of a genuine celebrity: (1) A defining incident or accomplishment makes someone a “hero”; (2) some kind of identification with the hero’s character sparks admiration and a desire to connect with the hero; (3) intentionality by the hero (or someone acting on behalf of the hero) meets public desire for a greater connection by providing access to their “story” and their life; and, (4) the public’s identification with the hero exerts influence in other people’s lives that shapes their behavior.[18]

Heroic Celebrity

Edwards’s celebrity clearly fits this pattern.

(1) Edwards’s public story begins with a clear defining incident—a powerful revival among the youth in his church results in the conversion of 300 people, a quarter of the town’s population, transforming youth culture in Northampton.[19] Soon there is “scarcely any in the town, old or young, left unconcerned about the great things of the eternal world [. . . .] The work of conversion was carried on in a most astonishing man¬ner [. . .] and the number of true saints multiplied [. . . until] the town seemed to be full of the presence of God.”[20]

(2) These events spark a profound identification, not only in America, but across the English-speaking world. Edwards’s church became “the talk of New England” and famous British cleric Isaac Watts declared, “We have not heard of anything like it since the Reformation, nor since the first days of the apostles.”[21] What minister (or Christian) would not want this to happen in their church? People wanted to know more.

(3) Edwards responds to this interest with acute intentionality. He publishes A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising work of God in the Conversion of many Souls in Northampton, and Neighbouring Towns and Villages of the County of Hampshire, in the Province of the Massachusetts-Bay in New England. It becomes an international best seller reprinted at least ten times in three languages before Edwards’s death and over fifty times since.[22]

(4) Faithful Narrative provides Edwards with the influence and “international audience for which he longed.”[23] More than any other published statement, Faithful Narrative would “define the standard expectations for evangelical conversion”[24] and firmly establish Edwards as the “revival expert” with broad readership for his future publications on the Awakening. For over a century, it serves as a nearly canonical corpus for New England revivalism. More dramatically, it opens the door for interest in Edwards’s more scholarly works so that Edwards eventually comes to be known as “America’s greatest theologian.”[25]

Notice the key role that intentionality plays in Edwards’s celebrity. Without his providing the story, there is no story, and therefore, no celebrity. Without Edwards’s providing a personal account of the revival—an incident he did not “cause,” but which spread to his church from the surrounding villages[26]—this “towering intellectual figure” could very well have remained unknown and unread.[27]

Whitefield as Heroic Celebrity

George Whitefield’s 1740 farewell sermon drew 135% of the total population of greater Boston.

Whitefield’s celebrity also appears to fit this four-stage cycle as well.

(1) Whitefield’s first trip to America (mostly in Georgia from 1737–1738), followed by his tremendously successful campaign in London, creates an international incident that introduces him into popular imagination. Whitefield’s adoption of John Wesley’s practice of “field preaching” (versus preaching inside churches) coupled with his profound dramatic gifts and unusual anointing create a sensation. His sermons are some of the most compelling theater of his generation, recasting “biblical history in a theatrical key.”[28]

(2) Whitefield’s preaching generates tremendous public identification. Theater is all but unknown in America, and Whitefield’s dramatic performances (in comparison to the logical treatises offered by most New England pastors) connect in an unprecedented way. People love Whitefield. They flock to hear him preach. They relish his willingness to take on the (ancestral hierarchical) establishment. They can’t get enough of him. Newspapers normally committed to business and political news are filled with accounts of his success.

(3) In preparation for his second American preaching tour (1740-1741), Whitefield demonstrates unusual intentionality in managing his celebrity. He fashions a clearly defined and “audacious” plan to build on his momentum and transform his revival movement into “an international event with himself at the center.”[29] He and his publicists unleash a barrage of publicity employing careful use of social networking and mass media. People are able to “personally” connect with him through him publishing his personal journals and maintaining a grueling schedule of personal appearances.[30]

(4) Whitefield’s growing celebrity soon grants him unparalleled influence. He is able to network with the rich and powerful, target key social causes (especially orphans and African American education), and take controversial anti-institutional stands on the issues of his day (unconverted ministers). Whitefield becomes “the first in a long line of public figures whose claims to influence would rest on celebrity [. . .] rather than birth, breeding, or institutional fiat.”[31]

Like with Edwards, it is difficult to miss the critical role intentionality plays in Whitefield’s celebrity. His use of William Seward’s immense talent as a public relations officer is critical to his success. He certainly would have connected with people without it, but he could never have attracted such remarkable crowds without the tireless efforts of Seward and his network of advance men. As Stout asserts:

“Where other influential preachers. . . wrote learned treatises and preached in meetinghouses. . . to audiences totaling in the thousands. . . Whitefield wrote best-selling journals and drew audiences that must be totaled in the millions. . .  For comparison one must look to an electronic age and. . . movie stars.”[32]

Heroic Leadership

Both Edwards and Whitefield appear to fit the criteria of heroic celebrities. Without the celebrity account provided by Edwards’s Faithful Narrative, it is entirely possible that America would not have been primed for Whitefield’s publicity and preaching. From a human perspective, it is not unreasonable to claim that Edwards and Whitefield’s efforts helped initiate America’s first celebrity culture, and that celebrity culture in turn helped birth the First Great Awakening.[33] Mark A. Noll, arguably the most influential historian in our contemporary understanding of the First Great Awakening, notes that although revival can be viewed as the result of a movement of the Holy Spirit, it can also be interpreted as an effect of human agency and 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.”[34]

The leaders of the First Great Awakening were young men of great natural gifts who preached, wrote, promoted, and built institutions with unusual force. Their actions mattered, regardless of their motivations or by what power they were energized. This in no way minimizes the Holy Spirit’s role in the First Great Awakening. Something truly remarkable occurred in this movement that no amount of human effort has ever been able to recreate (although not for lack of trying). However, it does emphasize that the Holy Spirit worked though human leaders who made wise use of the means at their proposal, including their celebrity.

Edwards himself came to embrace the importance of human leadership in the Awakening. One of his central contributions to religious self-understanding was his refusal to accept an either/or dichotomy between divine and human impulses. His first work in the midst of the Great Awakening, Some thoughts concerning the present revival of religion (1741), was an urgent appeal for human leaders to promote the work of God by wise and strenuous efforts.[35]

His first major publication in the aftermath of the Great Awakening, A treatise regarding religious affections (1746), was in many ways his “second thoughts about the first great awakening.”[36] Edwards claimed that Satan won a great victory in the Awakening because human leaders failed to embrace their God-appointed role in directing such a powerful “pouring out of the Spirit of God.”[37]

Edwards and Whitefield were not leaders who shirked their human responsibility. Their model points toward a possible future for leaders seeking to become “adept shapers of culture” in the twenty-first century. However, before we can directly apply the principles they employed in the eighteenth century to our contemporary setting, we must first account for a factor with which Edwards and Whitefield never had to contend: contemporary pseudo celebrity culture.

The Rise of Pseudo Celebrity

Paris Hilton provides ample proof that celebrity sells

The problem with the celebrity cycle is that it is essentially value neutral. The process that makes someone a heroic celebrity is essentially the same as the process that makes someone a pseudo celebrity. As the Hollywood school of thought contends, something went seriously awry with celebrity in the early twentieth century. It is as if somewhere we decided that if you can’t be a true hero without also achieving fame, why bother with virtue at all? Contemporary media makes it all too easy to skip heroism and jump straight to the stardom of a pseudo celebrity who is “well-known only for being well-known.”[38]

In pseudo celebrity, the inciting incident moves from important to trivial (and/or contrived); intentionality moves from important to critical; and identification moves from character to personality. The pseudo celebrity “develops their capacity for fame, not by achieving great things, but by differentiating their own personality from those of their competitors in the public arena.”[39]

Dry Erase Girl

A good example of this phenomena is found in the “dry erase girl” resignation hoax. This meme serves as a great example of how the four-stage cycle can be applied to the creation of pseudo celebrities.

(1) On the morning of August 10, The Chive, a relatively unknown Web site, creates an incident by posting a series of pictures under the banner: “Girl quits her job on dry erase board, emails entire office.” The hilarious photos, received from “a person who works with [. . .] Jenny,” chronicle a young worker’s struggle with her boss’s sexual harassment, her subsequent resignation, and the outing of her boss’s odd Internet viewing habits.

(2) By the afternoon of August 10, the public’s identification with Jenny’s plight makes the story is an instant Internet sensation. The photos “soared to the top of Google and Twitter trends, and a group of Facebook pages popped up to honor” the brave underling.[40] Who wouldn’t root for this perky persecuted worker and her “heroic” actions? People were dying to connect with Jenny and know more of her life and future.

One day wonder ‘Dry Erase Jenny’ (aka, Elyse Porterfield)

(3) The role of intentionality becomes obvious on August 11, when the Web site TechCrunch reveals that it was all a publicity stunt. “Jenny-the-Dry-Erase-Girl” is really Elyse Porterfield, a struggling young actress hired by The Chive to perpetrate the hoax.[41]

(4) By the evening of August 11, Porterfield and The Chive editor have garnished sufficient influence to be interviewed by CBS News Entertainment to discuss their successful creation of the hoax. Thirty-six hours after the first posting, The Chive and Porterfield are hot properties. Could an acting role be far behind? (And of course, I’m pulling for Porterfield. She is so darn likable.)[42]

In less than two twenty-four-hour news cycles a hoax is: (1) perpetrated, (2) debunked, and (3) milked for enough publicity to become national news and achieve celebrity status. Porterfield is the paramount pseudo celebrity created via what Boorstin calls a “pseudo-event fabricated by the media and evaluated in terms of the scale and effectiveness of their media visibility.”[43]

Pseudo Celebrity and Cultural Currency

Notice, however, how the final stage of influence is still very much intact. In fact, the defining characteristic of the contemporary pseudo celebrity culture is the shallow but powerful nature of the identification it engenders. Pseudo celebrity endorsements are both effective and pervasive, because these superstars are integral parts of our lives and intimately tied to our greatest hopes and fears.

In a culture devoid of meaning and relationship, the pseudo celebrity system offers powerful images to direct our lives. Media outlets create an “illusion of accessibility and relationship.”[44] In a society hungering for close personal relationships, the pseudo celebrity system delivers pseudo-relationships with people we feel connected to but have never met.[45] When Lady Gaga sings, “I’m your biggest fan, I’ll follow you until you love me,” she is eerily describing the zeitgeist of paparazzi culture. Through pseudo celebrity culture, we perpetrate a new American mythology: not the maxim that strong character, hard work, and perseverance will eventually lead to success and happiness, but rather be in the right place at the right time, with the right YouTube video and you too can be famous. The underlying story behind pseudo celebrity becomes: it could happen to me.

Not everyone can be a hero, but anyone can be famous. Accomplishments might put someone in a position to be noticed by the media, but only the intentional courting of the public eye can produce an ongoing celebrity. This is the underlying secret of our pseudo celebrity culture: it’s all about the Benjamins. Celebrities are needed to drive the economy, sell the products, and fill the airtime so as to generate advertising dollars to sell even more products. Pseudo celebrities are the ultimate wedding of consumer culture and democratic aspirations.[46] In a society cynical about truth, and without a clear sense of common good informing our ethical decisions, the pseudo celebrity system guarantees that even if I don’t know how to live a meaningful life, at least I’ll know how to dress.

On Being a Twenty-first Century Heroic Celebrity (and Not a Pseudo Celebrity)

Moses was “more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth” yet he wrote books that celebrated his own heroism

Does this trivialization of celebrity mean that twenty-first-century culture-makers should eschew all celebrity and start dangling our own paparazzi over the pit of hell? Perhaps. But if the realm of celebrity is stripped of every true hero, all that remains will be pseudo celebrities. And a world without public heroism is a profoundly unbiblical idea. Without contemporary additions to the Hebrews 11 hall of fame, how can we expect a new generation to “Remember your leaders [. . . .] Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith”? (Heb. 13:7). If we don’t have heroic celebrities who are broadly famous in our culture, then haven’t we lost our culture already? To put a twist on Edmund Burke’s oft-quoted aphorism: “All that is necessary for pseudo celebrity to triumph is for heroic celebrities to do nothing.”[47]

Still, some might argue: yes, we need heroes, but shouldn’t we leave hero-making to God? You would certainly think so if you read evangelical devotional literature. Even thoughtful historians often help perpetrate the myth that the Holy Spirit alone drew the giant crowds that followed the saintly Whitefield, as if he wanted only to be left alone with his Bible. Consider Stephen Mansfield’s hagiographic account:

“What could explain the crowds, always the crowds? It must be simply the grace of God and his decision to use a slight, squint-eyed boy to change lives.”[48]

My point is not that the supernatural impact of Whitefield’s ministry is difficult to account for except by the grace of God (more on this later), only that Whitefield carefully cultivated and judiciously utilized his celebrity for the glory of God. Why should twenty-first-century leaders be any different? Moses was “more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth” yet he wrote books that celebrated his own heroism (Numbers 12:3). Nehemiah certainly wasn’t shy in trumpeting his own accomplishments. And David commissioned the telling of the heroic story of Ruth in order to clear up a public relations problem in his (Gentile) heritage. Yet Moses, David, Ruth, Nehemiah, Whitefield, and Edwards possessed at least three further traits that define their heroic celebrity and which might help mitigate against contemporary pseudo celebrity.

The Compelling Authenticity of a Life Well Lived

Edwards and Whitefield were men of remarkable integrity. Edwards was no pseudo celebrity scholar. He was the real thing. He was devoted to the calling of his craft, often spending thirteen hours a day in his study. Nor was he a public figure who wilted in private. He developed a profound contemplative prayer life, forged a beautiful marriage, and stayed deeply involved in the lives of his eleven children.

Although Whitefield never achieved Edwards’s “depth in his thinking about culture,”[49] he began each day reading his Greek New Testament and returned to finish his master’s degree at Oxford after already achieving much of his fame. He worked tirelessly to improve as an orator (and actor). More importantly, he was a man of profound personal and financial integrity. He raised staggering amounts of money while maintaining a Spartan lifestyle that bordered on asceticism.[50] Both leaders escaped moral scandal despite determined enemies and years in the public eye.[51]

This is not to say that these men were perfect; they both freely admitted their mistakes and misjudgments in their own writings. Whitefield wrote, “Alas! Alas! In how many things have I judged acted wrong. I have been too rash and hasty in [judging the] character, both of places and persons. . . I have used a style too apostolical . . . been too bitter in my zeal . . . and published to soon and too explicitly. . . By these things I have hurt the blessed cause I would defend.”[52]  But rather than repelling followers, such authenticity drew men and women to his celebrity. In short, they were actually men who could be admired; they were heroic celebrities who might be emulated.

Twenty-first-century culture-makers must strive for the same excellence in craft and character. Pseudo celebrity culture has bred cynicism regarding all celebrities. Americans crave authenticity but expect duplicity. We are looking for our heroes to fall, and the celebrity media industry is only too happy to pounce when they do. Those who would aspire to heroic celebrity must be absolutely certain that they are up to the task. Although pseudo celebrities sometimes become heroes over the course of time, heroic celebrities can become pseudo celebrities overnight. Ted Haggard became a national celebrity, not through his accomplishment of building one of the most influential churches in America, nor by his position as President of the National Council of Evangelicals; he became a household name by reason of his infidelity.

The bar is high, but authenticity is achievable even in an age of pseudo celebrity

This calls for a ruthless commitment to the compelling authenticity of a life well lived. Scholars, ministers, businesspeople, musicians, politicians, filmmakers, artists, actors, and publishers had best count the cost before they dare enter the world of heroic celebrity. They need a radical commitment to master both their craft at a world-class level and the spiritual disciplines, marriage, family, and relational habits required to shape their character toward the fruit of the Spirit.

Great artists, scholars, businesspeople, and ministers are not formed in a day. Great marriages, families, and friendships are forged with great intentionality. Heroic character cannot be instantly formed by sheer force of will, but the ongoing practice of key spiritual disciplines put us in a position to receive the transforming grace of God and be “incrementally changed toward inward Christlikeness.”[53]

This also calls for a countercultural commitment on the part of thoughtful media leaders and public relations specialists to work against the forces of pseudo celebrity. In addition to Edwards and Whitefield, leaders of the First Great Awakening included not only one of the pioneers of publicity and public relations (William Seward), but also three of the key forerunners in modern mass communication: John Lewis, Thomas Prince, and William McCulloch.[54] They were determined to use the power of the media to promote spiritual awakening through Edwards and Whitefield’s celebrity. Twenty-first-century media leaders must seek for the true heroes in our society and make certain their stories are told. They must also do everything within their power to insure that those they promote as celebrities are in fact heroes.

The Courageous Ambition of Genuine Humility

Genuine humility sometimes appears arrogant (David and Goliath by Jason Engle)

Edwards and Whitefield were also men of tremendous ambition to glorify God in the world. Early in his life, Edwards determined, “I will do whatsoever I think to be most to God’s glory [. . . ]” However, Edwards’s humility didn’t prevent him from developing a ruthless ambition to serve the coming of God’s kingdom throughout the world. He continued: “[. . .] and my own good, profit and pleasure to do whatever I think to be my duty [. . .] for the good and advantage of mankind.”[55]

Edwards saw no conflict in these two aspirations, having also resolved to throw off anything smacking of “gratification of pride, or vanity,”[56] and he lived his life to maximally steward the gifts God had entrusted to him by establishing himself as a renowned intellectual force for good.[57]

Whitefield too was a man possessed of a deep passion for the glory of God with a corresponding repudiation of self-glory. Yet, he also held to a keen sense of the importance of his impact upon the world. Certainly, the hierarchical worldview of Edwards and Whitefield’s day helped them seize those opportunities in ways that our current pseudo celebrity, democratic, level-playing-field worldview does not.[58] They were encouraged to aspire to become “great men” from their youth, and their respective Yale and Oxford educations only reinforced the idea that they were God’s elite. They did not need to be asked to step forward as celebrities. They knew it was a responsibility entrusted to them by God and correspondingly seized the day.

Not so today. The cynicism of pseudo celebrity when combined with tireless assaults upon anyone who dares stick their heads above the democratic crowd has had a devastating impact on moral leadership. True heroes step back from the public limelight while pseudo celebrities push themselves forward. Those who do not possess true character and accomplishment manipulate the media for their own celebrity, whereas those who possess some modicum of humility shrink back. True heroes fear not only their own ego, but also the potential humiliation involved in having a target painted on their back. For instance, it is now a right of passage for nearly all intellectual, cultural, and spiritual leaders to have multiple Web sites devoted to their demise.

Overcoming our contemporary aversion to principled heroism will call for the courageous ambition of genuine humility on the part of twenty-first-century cultural leaders. Like Saul’s army before Goliath, unbelief sometimes looks a lot like humility. Genuine humility, on the other hand, sometimes appears arrogant. While lifelong soldiers cowered in fear, David was willing to push past his brother’s stinging accusation, “I know how conceited you are” in order to seize the heroic challenge (1 Sam. 17:28ff). Twenty-first-century culture-makers who wish to wisely use celebrity for the glory of God will also need to regularly weather the pseudo celebrity culture’s challenge of “Who do you think you are?” in order to stand as heroic celebrities.

Tina Fey as Sarah Palin: A morality tale on the danger of losing control of your public perception

This will also require careful partnerships with thoughtful public relations professionals and new media experts.[59] As media expert Phil Cook, exclaims, “If you don’t control your perception” and “the story that surrounds you [. . .] you’ll live the rest of your life at the mercy of those who will.”[60]

One need only look at James Monaco refers to persons who come to the public eye but fail to control their public image as “Quasars.” They are at the mercy of the media’s construction of their image, and that construction is nearly always bad.the “Tina Fey effect” in the last presidential election for a warning against the dangers of losing control of your own image.[61] Unlike the leaders of the Great Awakening, today’s leaders have allowed our culture’s perception of spirituality to drift at the mercy of the mass media’s construction. Oprah and Richard Dawkins have done more to shape mass media’s conception of faith (or lack thereof) than countless pastors and other spiritual leaders. Only by drawing upon the savvy leadership of the best public relations experts, journalists, filmmakers, television creators, and new-media mavens is there any real chance of reversing this trend.

The Unmistakable Stamp of Divine Exaltation

Joseph Accused by Potiphar’s Wife at the midpoint of his descent into greatness (Rembrandt)

In the end, Edwards and Whitefield’s lives bore the unmistakable stamp of divine exaltation. Their personal lives and vocational success simply defied all human explanation. Although self-exaltation may lead to pseudo celebrity, there is a type of exaltation only God can bestow. As the psalmist declares, “It is God who judges: He brings one down, he exalts another” (Ps. 75:7).

Celebrity did not bring David in from the shepherd field, release Joseph from prison, nor fill Mary’s womb with divine offspring. They were men and women who followed the biblical injunction: “Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time” (1 Pet. 5:6).

Each hero waited in relative obscurity—growing in character while mastering the disciplines of their craft—waiting for the moment chosen by the God whose eyes “range throughout the earth seeking to strengthen those whose hearts are fully committed to him” (2 Chron. 16:9).[62]

For some, like Daniel and Esther, this call came at a relatively young age. For many others, like Moses and Anna, the call came much later. In either case, these biblical figures were ready when their moment arrived.

Whether short or long, God used their time in secret preparation to forge in them the strength of character to support the weight of their calling. Edwards and Whitefield were men of similar character. When the divine moment came—in the 1734-1734 revival in Edwards’s church and the 1739 revival under Whitefield’s itinerant preaching—these two principal leaders of the First Great Awakening knew what to do. Once exalted by God to a place of celebrity, they were ready to bear the responsibilities it demanded and steward their celebrity for the glory of God. In doing so, they helped spark one of the most socially transformative movements in American history. W

ill the twenty-first-century be any different? We may never know how many potentially dynamic cultural leaders will be lured by the siren song of pseudo celebrity, impatiently squandering their youth seeking fame instead of steadily building the craft and character required for their divine moment. Still, we must do everything within our power to help foster spiritual depth as well as professional excellence. In an age hungering for the depth of genuine authenticity to counteract the shallowness of pseudo celebrity, waiting for God’s timing could make all the difference.

The Greatest Day in World History?

C.S. Lewis’ Edwardsean commitment to scholarship and popular culture landed him on the cover of Time

Will we see again the equivalent of the crowds that thronged Boston Common for Whitefield’s farewell sermon? Perhaps not. But if we do, that crowd will more likely gather in movie houses worldwide and/or at a massive Web cast than a single venue. A twenty-first-century equivalent of Whitefield is more likely a cutting-edge filmmaker, actor, or television producer than a traditional evangelist.

A twenty-first-century equivalent of Edwards might take the form of a C. S. Lewis, the Oxford scholar who built upon his prestigious position through popular writings and radio broadcasts that gave him a celebrity—the cover of Time magazine for The Screwtape Letters—that made his complex moral and theological arguments beloved reading for a generation of children and adults.  Either manifestation would certainly be a great day for the world as we know it.

In a media-saturated age marked by both an unhealthy appetite for pseudo celebrity and a deep cynicism toward heroism, it would be hard to find a better tonic than the courage and authenticity of Edwards and Whitefield, heroic celebrities unafraid to utilize their fame for the glory of God.

The thought that we can sit on the sidelines and call down judgment upon today’s celebrity culture may be as dangerous as it is naive. We are called to be missionaries in a media-driven culture. Wishing it weren’t so won’t make that fact go away. To impact our image-driven generation for the kingdom of God will require entering the fray prayerfully, thoughtfully, and with great excellence. And if all else fails, we can always dangle a few paparazzi over the fires of hell. Or, better yet, we can follow Whitefield’s example and hire them.  

Article adapted from version in print and online versions of  The Other Journal.  

For Responses to See:

Hollywood Responds to Paparazzi in the Hands of an Angry God Higher Education Responses to Paparazzi in the Hands of an Angry God

Icons of Heroic Celebrity: TV Writer Chris Easterly Guest Posts on Paparazzi in the Hands of an Angry God

 

Notes


[1] The 2004 Red Sox victory parade attracted an estimated 3 million out of 4.4 million in greater Boston (68 percent), whereas Whitefield’s farewell sermon drew 23,000 from of the city population of 17,000 (135 percent). Whitefield’s more modest estimate was 20,000 (118 percent). Mark A. Noll, The Rise of Evangelicalism: The Age of Edwards, Whitefield, and the Wesleys (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press Academic, 2003), 79.

[2] Harry S. Stout, The Divine Dramatist: George Whitefield and the Rise of Modern Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991), x.

[3] Stout, Divine Dramatist, 90; Frank Lambert, Pedlar in Divinity: George Whitefield and the Transatlantic Revivals, 1737-1770 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994), 128; Arnold Dallimore, George Whitefield: The Life and Times of the Great Evangelist of the Eighteenth-century Revival (Westchester, IL: Cornerstone Books, 1979), 527; and Harry S. Stout, “Whitefield, George,” Dictionary of Christianity in America, ed. Daniel G. Reid (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1990), 1252.

[4] George M. Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003), 202.

[5] Jonathan Edwards and C. C. Goen, A faithful narrative of the surprising work of God in the conversion of many Souls in Northampton, and neighbouring towns and villages of the County of Hampshire, in the Province of the Massachusetts-Bay in New England. The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 4: The Great Awakening (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1972).

[6] Marsden, Jonathan Edwards, 137.

[7] Richard Rhodes, John James Audubon: The Making of an American (New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf. Blake, 2004); David Haven, Walt Whitman and the Culture of American Celebrity (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006); Joy S. Kasson, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West: Celebrity, Memory, and Popular History (New York, NY: Hill and Wang, 2000); Richard Schickel, Douglas Fairbanks: The First Celebrity (London, UK: Elm Tree Books, 1976); Leonard J. Leff, Hemingway and His Conspirators: Hollywood, Scribners, and the Making of American Celebrity Culture (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1997). Other proposed contenders include: Adah Isaacs Menken (c. 1855), see Renée M. Sentilles, Performing Menken: Adah Isaacs Menken and the Birth of American Celebrity (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003); Gertrude Stein (c. 1900), see Karen Leick, Gertrude Stein and the Making of an American Celebrity (New York, NY: Routledge, 2009); and Charles Lindbergh (c. 1940), see Randy Roberts and David Welky, Charles A. Lindbergh: The Power and Peril of Celebrity, 1927-1941 (Maplecrest, NY: Brandywine Press, 2003).

[8] Richard Schickel, Intimate Strangers: The Culture of Celebrity (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1985), 21.

[9] Richard DeCordova, Picture Personalities: The Emergence of the Star System in America (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1990).

[10] Malcolm Gladwell, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (New York, NY: Little, Brown and Co, 2005), 45.

[11] There are some who believe that Hollywood’s star-making days are over and are now being replaced by the experience-making of stadium theaters, 3-D glasses, concept movies, and CGI. Given the blockbuster opening weekend ($35 million) of the low-tech but star-studded The Expendables (2010), I suspect this argument will grow even more heated.

[12] See Schickel, Intimate Strangers; and Graeme Turner, Understanding Celebrity (Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE, 2004), 3, 8.

[13] Turner, Understanding Celebrity, 10.

[14] Leo Braudy, The Frenzy of Renown: Fame & its History (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1986).

[15] See also 2 Thessalonians 3:7-9. All references are from the New International Version.

[16] Daniel J. Boorstin, The Image, or, What Happened to the American Dream (London, UK: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1861), 58; and Daniel J. Boorstin, “From Hero to Celebrity: The Human Pseudo-event,” in David Marshall, The Celebrity Culture Reader (New York, NY: Routledge, 2006), 72-90.

[17] Turner, 65.

[18] These “stages” do not always occur chronologically.

[19] Marsden, Jonathan Edwards, 155, 160.

[20] Edwards, Faithful Narrative, 11-14.

[21] Marsden, Jonathan Edwards, 161; and cited in Jonathan Edwards and C. C. Goen, The Great Awakening, 36.

[22] C. C. Goen, The Great Awakening, 90-92

[23] Marsden, Jonathan Edwards, 171.

[24] Noll, Rise of Evangelicalism, 80.

[25] Robert W. Jenson, America’s Theologian: A Recommendation of Jonathan Edwards (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1988), x. See also, Joseph A. Conforti, Jonathan Edwards: Religious Tradition & American Culture (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1995); Douglas A. Sweeney and Allen C. Guelzo, The New England Theology: From Jonathan Edwards to Edwards Amasa Park (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006).

[26] Michael J. Crawford chronicles that between 1712-1732 the Connecticut River Valley alone experienced as many as fifteen revivals before the first of two “outpourings” in Edwards’s Northampton, Massachusetts, church (1734-1736, 1740-1742). See, Seasons of Grace: Colonial New England’s Revival Tradition in Its British Context (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1991), 108. To his credit, Edwards’s own account mentioned “nearly every church in Western Massachusetts and twenty in Connecticut.” See Marsden, Jonathan Edwards, 162.

[27] Harry S. Stout, The New England Soul: Preaching and Religious Culture in Colonial New England (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1986), 228.

[28] Stout, Divine Dramatist, 95

[29] Ibid., 87.

[30] Marsden, Jonathan Edwards, 200.

[31] Stout, Divine Dramatist, xiv.

[32] Ibid., xiii. Italics mine.

[33] For more insight into the use of media, publicity, et cetera in the First Great Awakening see Frank Lambert, Inventing the “Great Awakening” (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999); Harry S. Stout, “Religion, Communications, and the Ideological Origins of the American Revolution” The William and Mary Quarterly: A Magazine of Early American History 34 (1977): 519-541; and Michael J. Crawford, Seasons of Grace, 13ff.

[34] Noll, Rise of Evangelicalism, 141.

[35] Jonathan Edwards and C. C. Goen, Some thoughts concerning the present revival of religion in New England and the way in which it ought to be acknowledged and promoted. The works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 4: The Great Awakening (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1972).

[36] Gary David Stratton, “Jonathan Edwards’ (1703-1758) Theology of Spiritual Awakening and Spiritual Formation Leadership in Higher Education” (PhD diss., Talbot School of Theology, 2009), 59. See also Gary D. Stratton, “Jonathan Edwards’ Treatise Concerning Religious Affections and Gerald McDermott’s Seeing God,” Christian Education Journal 3 (2006) and Samuel S. Storms, Signs of the Spirit: An Interpretation of Jonathan Edwards’ Religious Affections (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2007).

[37] Jonathan Edwards, John Edwin Smith, and Perry Miller, A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections, in three parts. The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 2 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1959), 5-7.

[38] Boorstin, The Image, 58.

[39] Turner, Understanding Celebrity, 55.

[40] Helen A.S. Popkin, “Suckers! Why you fell for ‘Dry Erase Board Girl.’” msnbc.com, August 12, 2010, accessed August 14, 2010.

[41] Alexia Tsotsis, “Confirmed: HOPA Dry Erase Girl Is a Hoax, Identity Revealed,” TechCrunch, August 11, 2010, accessed August 11, 2010.

[42] Shira Lazar, “Elyse Porterfield, HOPA Dry Erase Girl Exclusive Interview [Video],” CBS News, August 11, 2010, accessed August 11, 2010. [43] Boorstin, The Image, 57.

[44] Richard Dyer and Paul McDonald, Stars (London, UK: BFI, 2007), 17.

[45] Chris Rojek, Celebrity: Critical Concepts in Sociology (London, UK: Routledge, 2010), 16, 52.

[46] Marshall, Celebrity and Power, 10. See also Leo Lowenthal, Communication in Society. Studies on Authoritarianism 3, False Prophets (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1997).

[47] Burke probably never used the precise phrase, “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing,” but rather, “When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall one by one [. . .]” Daniel E. Ritchie, Edmund Burke: Appraisals and Applications (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1990), xiii.

[48] Stephen Mansfield, Forgotten Founding Father: The Heroic Legacy of George Whitefield (Nashville, TN: Highland Books/Cumberland House, 2001), 64.

[49] Noll, Rise of Evangelicalism, 108.

[50] Stout, Divine Dramatist, 122-123.

[51] This is not to minimize the doctrinal and methodological controversies that only added to their fame. See Stout, Divine Dramatist, 123.

[52] George Whitefield and Robert Backhouse, The Journals of George Whitefield (London, UK: Hodder & Stoughton, 1993), 144. See also Dallimore, Whitefield, 333-354.

[53] Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2002), 82

[54] Noll, Rise of Evangelicalism, 143-144.

[55] Jonathan Edwards and George S. Claghorn, Letters and Personal Writings (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998), 755.

[56] Ibid., 753-4

[57] Marsden, Jonathan Edwards, 134

[58] Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989).

[59] James Monaco, Celebrity: The Media as Image Makers, And, In Order of Their Celebrity (New York, NY: Dell, 1978).

[60] Phil Cook, Branding Faith, Why Some Churches and Nonprofits Impact Culture and Others Don’t (Ventura, CA: Regal, 2008), 10, 49.

[61] Edward Rothstein, “The Power of Political Pratfalls,” New York Times, October 12, 2008. See also, David Carr and Brian Stelter, “Campaigns in a Web 2.0 World,” New York Times, November 2, 2008.

[62] See also 1 Samuel 13:14; 16:7.

David Oyelowo on Why Christians Can’t Abandon Hollywood, by Tyler Huckabee in Relevant

The blockbuster Selma actor with unflinching faith has a fresh vision for Christianity in film

“I would be lying if I said it wasn’t disappointing [not to be nominated for an Academy Award for his work in Selma.] Not least because it’s Dr. King, and I personally just want to see him celebrated in every way possible, and, of course, the film is an extension of that.” -David Oyelowo

by Tyler Huckabee in Relevant

selma_ver3A lot of what you need to know about David Oyelowo can be gleaned from a brief, viral, almost instantly GIF-able clip from the 2015 Academy Awards.

On the heels of John Legend and Common’s rousing, staggering performance of Selma’s “Glory,” the cameras panned the Oscar crowd, who had leapt to their feet as one in spontaneous, rapturous applause.

The adulation was richly deserved,but one man stuck out in particular: Oyelowo, who starred in Selma as Martin Luther King Jr. He was seated near the front, suited in a smartly tailored, Cabernet-red tuxedo (which would land him at the top of Esquire’s list of best-dressed men of the Oscars the following morning), applauding while tears ran freely down his cheeks.

Even in our age of 24/7 celebrity coverage, in which a Google image search can turn up photos of Gwyneth Paltrow expressing every candid emotion known to man, the moment seemed purely human and vulnerable. The Oscars almost didn’t deserve it.

The reason the moment was so indicative of Oyelowo (pronunciation: O-yellow-wo), is that,in person, it is exactly how he comes across. He is put together, but authentic—impeccably collected and utterly personable.

Oyelowo is becoming well-known for his ability to play other people, but it’s almost as astonishing just how easily he inhabits his own skin.

Parting the Red Carpet

Oyelowo’s presence at the Oscars was notable for another reason. For most of the awards season, his blistering Selma performance was widely expected to net him the Oscar for Best Actor, so it was a bit of a scandal when he wasn’t even nominated (Neil Patrick Harris even mocked the Academy for the snub during his hosting gig).

“I would be lying if I said it wasn’t disappointing,” Oyelowo says, with refreshing candor. “Not least because it’s Dr. King, and I personally just want to see him celebrated in every way possible, and, of course, the film is an extension of that…”

Continue reading

Academic Branding: Professors Producing Hollywood-Style Previews to Attract Students, by Daniel A. Gross

Videos may have no clear connection to course content, but they shape the identity of the course

Harvard University was an early adopter in short videos shared across social networks to boost student interest and attendance as they “shop” for classes. They have an intimacy that course catalogs and posters lack.

photo_68169_wide_large-1
David Malan, who teaches Computer Science 50 at Harvard, shows 
video trailers for the popular course on the first day of class. (Rose Lincoln, Harvard U.)

by Daniel A. Gross • The Chronicle for Higher Education

After 25 years as a typographical designer, Richard Hunt knows the value of visual communication — which makes it a little ironic that his online course at OCAD University, an art-and-design college in Ontario, initially released lectures in an audio-­only format. Last year students accustomed to on-campus learning felt that Mr. Hunt’s “History and Evolution of Typography” course needed greater visual engagement than lecture slides could provide. This fall Mr. Hunt, an assistant professor, hopes to correct that, starting with a video trailer that went live just a few weeks ago. “We thought a trailer would put a face to the voice,” he says.

The new course trailer, released on the college’s internal network and on YouTube, begins with a simple shot of Mr. Hunt speaking. “It’s a way of selling the course to students who resist the online format,” he says.

Course trailers have become increasingly common at universities across North America, as a strategy for attracting students and for putting a public face to the institutions. Several universities have set up official media teams to help faculty members create them. Though such videos seem like a natural development in an age of online and multimedia coursework, they’ve also entered the brick-and-mortar classroom, signaling that a branding tactic once reserved for the marketplace has entered the marketplace of ideas…

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Act One Hollywood Screenwriting Program: Coming Soon to a Computer Near You, by Chris Dalton

Inaugural Online Cohort Begins February 19

“Mentoring Act One students is my way of encouraging and empowering the next generation of screenwriters.”  – Monica Macer, Writer, Lost (ABC), Prison Break (Fox); Producer, Nashville (ABC)

by Chris Dalton • Vice President, Act One: Training for Hollywood

Ralph Winter Act One QuoteThis spring, Act One is offering its world-class screenwriting course online. Over the course of 10 weeks, writers can immerse themselves in 40 plus hours of video courses, Skype group writing sessions, and interactive one-on-one exercises with a skilled master teacher. Our goal: to launch you on the path of becoming a top-notch screenwriter.

The program kicks off February 19 with a 3-day intensive writing workshop in Hollywood, California. Students will sit with Hollywood screenwriters, producers, and executives and engage in high-level discussions on film, story, faith and contemporary culture. Lectures and workshops will focus on the vision and creativity needed to succeed in today’s Industry. Participants will leave spiritually challenged and refreshed, ready to dive into the 10-week video-based, online courses running the week of March 2 through the week of May 4.

We are seeing amazing things come out of our online program. Here is what one alum had to say:

“Here’s my story… I left in the personal parts because they’re true. I was truly, truly blessed this summer to be part of act one and welcomed into the family of this amazing program…You guys were a life saver for me in a difficult time where the grief of losing my mom could have easily brought me to a dark place where I gave up my passion and dreams of writing for television, for good. Getting accepted into act one and taking part of the writing program this summer gave me hope, took my writing to the next level, and allowed me to get a glimpse of Hollywood. It also brought wonderful new friends into my life…All through act one. God is doing so much more through this program, this beacon of light than just reaching Hollywood, He’s doing a deep work in the people He chooses to take part of the program. For that, I say: thank you.” – Joey C.

Right now, Act One is offering a discounted rate on the tuition. Apply by January 30, get accepted and pay the tuition in full by February 10, and you will get $250 off the current rate. On top of that, the registration fee is waived.

Visit http://www.actoneprogram.com/writing-program/ for more information.

“If you were to walk into an Act One class, it wouldn’t feel any different than being at UCLA or USC. But from a Christian perspective, it’s a community where people can think out loud.”  –Kurt Schemper, Emmy Award-winning Act One Alumnus

“Whoever tells the best story shapes the culture. Act One is training Christian writers and producers to be the very best.” –David McFadzean, Act One Faculty, Co-Creator, Home Improvement with Tim Allen

Watch Act One Video

A Few Surprises (and some Big Questions) in LinkedIn’s Top 25 Schools for Media Professionals

LinkedIn’s unique big data foray into the world of college rankings

With the education and job history data for over 300 million members at their fingertips, LinkedIn is in a unique position to connect undergraduate programs with a successful career as a Media professional.  No one is shocked to find NYU at the top of their list, but USC at #19 and UCLA lower still?  Now, that is something to get Hollywood talking.

It's hard to imagine USC got much of a bump from alumni with the most coveted jobs in Hollywood
It’s hard to imagine USC got much of a bump from alumni with the most coveted jobs in Hollywood

Obviously the methodology (below) seems biased against schools training creatives for a film industry where LinkedIn carries little (if any) panache. For instance, stellar non-LinkedIn graduates such as Bryan Singer, Jason Reitman, Judd Apatow, Susan Downey, and Jennifer Todd didn’t help USC’s ranking; and even USC LinkedIn members such as Brian Grazer and Scott Derrickson probably wouldn’t show up as having successful ‘careers’ with the right companies, even if they bothered to keep their profiles up to date (which they don’t.)

Still, it is an interesting list to ponder, not only for high school students considering where to get the best ROI for their media education (Hofstra and Howard in the top five are definitely eye-openers) as well as for anyone contemplating the pro’s and con’s of the future of big data driven decision-making in higher education.

Undergraduate rankings for U.S. Media Professionals 

Based upon the career paths of LinkedIn members

Which schools are best at launching graduates into desirable jobs? We analyzed millions of alumni profiles to find out how schools around the world stack up across a variety of careers.

Here’s how we found the top schools for media professionals:

  1. First, we identified the top companies where media professionals are choosing to work.
  2. Next, we found people on LinkedIn who work as media professionals and saw where they went to school.
  3. Finally, for each school, we found the percentage of these alumni who’ve landed media jobs at these top companies, then compared the percentages to come up with the list.

 Top 5

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

See the entire list

See LinkedIn’s explanation of rankings: Ranking Universities Based on Career Outcomes

LOST Lessons of Leadership 3: A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing – Authoritarian Leadership Learns to Serve

Part 3 of series, LOST Lessons of Leadership: What ABC’s Hit Series Taught Me About Heroic Character.

Ben carefully manipulates of his followers by giving them just enough of what they want to be able to keep them under his control

by Gary David Stratton, PhD • Senior Editor

Dr. Benjamin Linus, a wolf in sheep’s clothing

The second season of LOST introduces yet a third approach to leadership in the person of Dr. Benjamin Linus (Michael Emerson). Ben is the leader of “The Others”—a second group of island inhabitants who predate the plane crash and have no intention of sharing the island with the survivors of Oceanic 815. [1]

Ben is neither a servant leader, nor an overtly authoritarian one. He is something else altogether. He is not above using the “gun” of authoritarian power to force people to do his will, but his particular talent is mastery in the art of picking up a “basin and towel” in order to manipulate followers to do his bidding.

As evidenced in the clip below, Ben is the most dangerous type of leader in the postmodern world—a pseudo servant leader. Injured, captured, and imprisoned by the crash survivors (who have no idea who he really is), the unassuming Ben seems to be in no position to lead. Yet, watch how quickly he gets under John Locke’s skin by exploiting Locke’s “need” to be seen on equal or greater footing than Jack. (Go ahead. I’ll wait while you watch it.)


LOST Season 2: Ben manipulating Locke. Follow my videos on vodpod

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The Paradox of Power

Leadership is essentially a transaction. Followers give their leaders power in exchange for service. The “paradox of power” in democratic societies is that men and women simply will not follow leaders they don’t perceive are meeting their needs.

The American political system bears testimony to this paradox. We call our elected officials “Public Servants.”  If they serve us well, we re-elect them.  If they serve us poorly, we elect others in their place.

Business practice bears this out well. Companies who serve their customers well are highly rewarded with return business and referrals.  Companies that do not meet the needs of their clients soon find themselves filing for bankruptcy.

Hollywood is painfully aware of this principle. The “best” film ever made won’t last a week in theaters if it fails to touch a chord in the hearts, minds, (or funny bones) of a significant audience.

Faith communities are subject to this paradox as well. People join churches and follow various teachers and rabbis because they sense their needs are being met.  They “vote” for their favorite spiritual leader with their attendance, their giving and, in the burgeoning religious marketplace, their buying.  Churches that truly meet the needs of their congregations grow large and prosperous.  Their pastors become famous.  Their methods and teaching become models for others.

But is this all there is to servant leadership? If so, then anyone can do it.  Just give people what they want and you’re a leader.  But are you?  Really?  Is the ability to attract a following by promising and (sometimes) delivering what people want all there is to transformational leadership? If it is, then we are in real trouble.

Authoritarian Leadership Learns to Serve

Unfortunately, the paradox of power cuts both ways. People give power for service.  A leader who fails to understand this and, therefore, fails to seek to meet the needs of his followers will soon lead only himself. However, the leader who does understand this principle can turn it to his advantage.  By selectively meeting only those needs of his followers which meet his agenda, an authoritarian can actually “lord it over” his followers by careful manipulation.

Ben maintains a dictatorial iron fist upon the “others,” by claiming to be their servant leader

This is where authoritarian leadership can most closely resemble servant leadership. Because of the paradox of power even an authoritarian leader must be wise in how she attains to her goal of gaining a position over their followers.  Machiavelli, the epitome of authoritarian leadership, put it this way:  “Men are so simple of mind, and so much dominated by their immediate needs, that a deceitful man will always find plenty who are ready to be deceived.”

Mao Tse-Tung, the father of Chinese communism, used this principle to subdue an entire nation under his iron-fisted grip. His interest in the welfare of the peasants of China was based upon managerial expediency not philosophical principle.  He boldly declared:

“To link oneself with the masses one must act in accordance with their needs and wishes… We should pay close attention to the well being of the masses, from the problems of land and labor to those of fuel and rice… We should help them to proceed from these things to an understanding of the higher tasks which we have put forward… such is the basic method of leadership.”[2]

Power Brokers

A quick study of history will reveal that nearly every dictator from Napoleon to Hitler to Hitler rose to power by mastering this principle. They doled out servant leadership in exchange for power.  Burns describes the difference this way: They learned to exploit the paradox of power to their personal advantage.  In the words of James MacGregor Burns, they are not true servant leaders, but power-brokers.

“Power-brokers …respond to their subjects’ needs and motivations only to the extent that they have to in order to fulfill their own power objectives, which remain their primary concern.  True leaders, on the other hand, emerge from, and always return to, the wants and needs of their followers.  They see their task as the recognition and mobilization of their followers’ needs.”[3]

This kind of power-brokering appears to be the true motivation behind much of the “servant leadership” in contemporary society. Tom Peters and Robert Waterman helped birth a revolution in the business book publishing industry by studying the actual practices of top corporations. One of his key findings is summed up as follows: “Almost everyone agrees, ‘people are our most important asset,’ yet almost none really live it.  The excellent companies live their commitment to people . . . They insisted on top quality.  They fawned on their customers.” [4]

Yet Peters and Waterman were unwittingly candid as to why such an approach is so effective: “We desperately need meaning in our lives and will sacrifice a great deal to institutions that will provide meaning for us.”[5] Really? So is the goal to provide meaning or to get our customers to sacrifice to buy our product?

Barber and Strauss in their book Leadership: The Dynamics of Success, are equally candid:

“Servanthood is the highest form of leadership.  It is the ideal.  It exists when the leader creates a caring environment in which those under him feel wanted and appreciated.  In this environment they can respond to his direction and reach their highest level of productivity.”[6]

Hmmm? So what motivates the supervisor’s interest in her employees needs: service or manipulation? It is difficult to discern?  What happens when meeting the real needs of employees will (at least temporarily) hurt their productivity?  Are they really interested in meeting the needs of their employees or are they merely searching for a method to get them to follow their leadership?

And what about the pastor who diligently attempts to meet the needs of his flock?Which motivates him more; building his people into a super-congregation, or building himself into a superstar?

All too often “servant leadership” boils down to little more than skillful manipulation. We invest in the needs of others only if it yields for us a return on our investment:  a return of profit, promotion and power.  Our true motive is not to serve others, but to serve ourself.  It is authoritarian leadership in servant clothing—all form but no substance.

The LOST Power of Ben

Ben carefully manipulates Juliet by giving her what she wants (but only in order to get what he really wants.)

This appears to be the secret to Ben’s unassuming power: He is wolf in sheep’s clothing. He is a master dictator skilled in the careful manipulation of his followers through giving them enough of what they want to be able to keep them under control.

Nowhere is this more evident than his recruitment of Dr. Juliet Burke (Elizabeth Mitchell). Ben lures Juliet to the island by “serving” her in the death of her estranged husband, the healing of her cancer-ridden sister, and appealing to her longing to help barren women conceive. And to what purpose? To make her his own. (To view the creepy scene, see clip link below.)

Like Dr. Benjamin Linus, the secret to so much power in Western society today is not so much genuine servant leadership seeking to meet the needs of others, but rather the careful manipulation of others through the sleight of hand of power-brokering. 

So what is the difference between power-brokering and genuine servant leadership?

 

Next post in the seriesLOST Lessons of Leadership 4: Charlie and Juliet’s Sacrifice – The Heart of Servant Leadership 

 

Previous Posts In Series:

Paparazzi in the Hands of an Angry God: Servant Leadership in an Age of Self-Promotion

Hollywood Responds to Paparazzi in the Hands of an Angry God

Higher Education Responses to Paparazzi in the Hands of an Angry God

Icons of Heroic Celebrity: TV Writer Chris Easterly on Paparazzi in the Hands of an Angry God

The Paradox of Power: A Cure for the Cancer of Pseudo Celebrity?

LOST Lessons of Leadership 1: What ABC’s Hit Series Taught Me About Heroic Character.

LOST Lessons of Leadership 2: Jack’s Position of Power – A Study in Servant Leadership


Notes

[1] Remarkably, the role of Dr. Benjamin Linus (aka, Henry Gale) was originally intended to be short-lived and minor. However, Michael Emerson created such a creepy and compelling character (one that earned him two Emmy nominations) show writers ended up “promoting” him to be leader of the “others.”

[2] Quoted in James MacGregor Burns. Leadership. p. 10

[3] James MacGregor Burns, Leadership. p. 48

[4] Thomas Peters and Robert Waterman, In Search of Excellence. (New York:  Harper & Rowe)  p. 13,16

[5] In Search of Excellence, p. 56

[6] Cyril T. Barber and Gary H.  Strauss.  Leadership: The Dynamics of Success.  (Greenwood, SC:  Attic Press), pp. 107-108

Two Handed Warriors at Three Years: A Promising Start to a Common Language …Friendship!

Reimagining Faith and Culture One Story at a Time

What Inigo Montoya taught me about transformational leadership

Educators, filmmakers, ministers, and leaders of all kinds share a common desire to influence society for good. What we lack is a common language for understanding one another’s perspectives.

by Gary David Stratton • Senior Editor 

“These were the men who came to David while he was banished from the presence of Saul. They were among the warriors who helped him in battle. They were able to shoot arrows or to sling stones with both the right and the left. Warriors who understood the times and knew what Israel should do.”

-1 Chronicles 12

Inigo Montoya and the Man in Black model two-handed swordplay (The Princess Bride: MGM Home Entertainment)
Inigo Montoya and the Dread Pirate Roberts model two-handed swordplay (The Princess Bride: MGM Home Entertainment)

The Princess Bride (1987) is full of many of my all-time favorite movies scenes. The one I love most is the comedic sword fight between Inigo Montoya () and the Dread Pirate Roberts (). Unbeknownst to either swordsman both duelists fight with a secret: each spent thousands of hours mastering swordplay not only with their right-hand, but also with their left. To make the contest more sporting they are fighting with their non-dominant hand.

As the duel builds to its hilarious conclusion, the combatants slowly begin to realize that expertise in single-handed swordplay is completely inadequate preparation for battle with a true master. Eventually each must reveal the awful truth, “I admit it. You are better than me. But I know something you don’t know, I am not left-handed.” The tide of battle quickly shifts as they switch to their other hand. In turns out that, becoming a two-handed warrior is essential to achieving your life mission—whether that mission is piracy, true love, or revenge.[1]

The Danger of One-Handed Swordplay

The writer of the book of Chronicles reveals a similar strength in King David’s army. One reason they were so devastatingly effective in battle was their ambidextrous fighting abilities. “They were able to shoot arrows or to sling stones with both the right and the left.”  If the angle was wrong for a bowshot with one hand, they could take it with the other. If one hand was occupied or injured, they could quickly switch to the other. Their holistic preparation gave them an advantage over enemies trained only in their dominant hand.

I hate to push a metaphor too far, but I suspect that many of our current failures in connecting faith and culture suffer from a similar ‘single-handed’ myopia. Few institutions in modern society prepare men and women for holistic approaches to life. Filmmaking, sports, and academic careers demand single-minded focus from an early age. Our parents and teachers recognize our ‘dominant’ traits when we are quite young and set us on a path that  all but guarantees we become proficient in a very narrow range of human experience.

This one-handed approach is perhaps even most pronounced in the realms of faith formation and culture making. Educational institutions, churches, and the filmmaking communities all long to shape society for good, but often from drastically different perspectives.  Our common desire to influence the world, devoid of any common understanding of one another’s perspectives often leads to the kind of demonizing and scapegoating predicted by thinkers such as René Girard. The most striking lesson of Sue and my five-year missionary journey to Hollywood is the depth of heartache in our most talented filmmakers of faith because of the rejection and misunderstanding they experience in their interactions with faith communities and faith leaders.

Faith-Formation AND Culture-Making

This tension often spills over into our leadership roles as well. Leaders adept at culture making—whether in Hollywood or the Ivy League—are rarely trained in the disciplines of faith building. Leaders skilled in faith formation—whether in a local congregation or an international relief agency—are rarely trained in the art of culture making. It is my firm belief that this dichotomy not only creates glaring blind spots in our leadership, it also robs us of a vibrant conversation with other leaders from whom we have the most to learn.

For leaders interested in effecting broad societal transformation, this dichotomy is even more devastating. Like Inigo Montoya or David’s army, the ability to fight with either hand is often a matter of life or death. And I am confident that we are facing such a life or death moment for our society. Educators, filmmakers, ministers, may share a common goal. What we lack is a common language for understanding one another’s perspectives. I believe that our only hope for leading our society out of our current cultural dead-end is our willingness to learn one another’s stories and the stories that shape us as a culture.

An Enriching Conversation that Sharpens

Sometimes even the greatest of enemies can become the best of friends
Sometimes even the greatest of enemies can become the best of friends

So I named this website Two Handed Warriors in hope that it would become an ongoing conversation between filmmakers, educators, philanthropists, and faith leaders who aspire to become modern-day versions of the Dread Pirate Roberts devoted to expertise in BOTH faith formation and culture making. Men and women who “understand the times” and therefore know that redefining faith and culture one story at a time is our best hope for accomplishing our respective missions. Three years into this project I feel as if we are only just beginning to understand one another… but it’s a promising start.

This is especially true for Sue and I. My friendships with filmmakers have transformed me in ways I could never have imagined.  Their stories (those they live and those they tell) are so radically different from those of any college educator or spiritual formation professional I know, they help me see life from radically different perspectives.  And my students in the university can tell the difference. I have used Academy Award-winning films in my teaching for over 20 years. Now, I cringe when I think of how poorly I understood what I was teaching.  Not that I’m an expert now, but the new depth of understanding into story I’ve gained in Hollywood has taken my teaching in spiritual formation and theology (two disciplines rooted in story) to an entirely new level. One of my students recently wrote me:

“[W]hat you are doing with this class is phenomenal. I don’t think I have ever looked as deeply into myself as I did for your course.  It gave me an entirely different perspective of movies and a greater understanding of their underlying worldview. Thank you for the soul-searching this course has awoken in me. God truly does send us guides through unusual mediums.”

Reimagining faith and culture one friendship at a time

None of this would have been possible without patient conversations with the brave women and men in the film and television industry. They have been my guides on this awkward journey of learning to fight with my ‘left hand.’  I will never come close to mastering culture-making as they have, but I am now convinced me that I need to stay in conversation with those can. Together, we are slowly beginning to reimagine faith and culture one friendship at a time. And I want to broaden that conversation no matter how awkward and uncomfortable it is.

King David’s son, Solomon, grew up in a warrior’s household. He learned first-hand that swordsmen attain mastery only where sparks fly. He later write, “As iron sharpens iron, so one friend sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17). My dream is that in helping each other master the art of two-handed swordplay we will not only foster transformational films, schools, and congregations, we will also continue to forge lifelong friendships.

En garde!

 

The-Princess-Bride-inigo

 

_____________

Notes

[1] Reiner, Rob, William Goldman, Andrew Scheinman, Cary Elwes, Mandy Patinkin, Chris Sarandon, Christopher Guest, et al. 2001. The princess bride. Santa Monica, Calif: MGM Home Entertainment.

[2] Osborne, Barrie, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Liv Tyler, et al. 2002. The Lord of the rings. The fellowship of the ring. [Los Angeles, CA]: New Line Home Entertainment.