What better way to get in the holiday spirit than to fire up the DVD, Blu-Ray, Tivo, Wii, XBox, Laptop, IPad, Kindle, Smart Phone, Hulu, NetFlix, Roku, Amazon Prime, etc. and watch your favorite Christmas films.
We divided our list between good and great films and categorized them with either a ‘sacred’ view of Christmas (focused more on the birth of Jesus), or a ‘secular’ version (focused more on Santa Claus). Then we listed them chronologically within each group.
We hope they inspire as much holiday cheer in your household as they do in ours.
Gary & Sue
GREAT Films with a More (or Less) ‘Sacred’ View of Christmas
It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) Frank Capra’s masterpiece is not just a great Christmas movie, it is one of the ten best films ever made.
Charlie Brown Christmas (1965) Charles Schultz’s enduring glimpse at the meaning of Christmas. Set the DVR and experience the least commercial Christmas tale ever told on network TV.
The Nativity Story (2006) Not everything you’d hope it would be, but does a marvelous job of capturing the incredible faith (and sacrifice) of Mary and Joseph.
GREAT Films with a ‘Sacred’ View of Christmas as Part of a Larger Movie
Ben-Hur (1959) Charlton Heston’s character’s life parallel’s the life of Jesus, (even if he actually misses his birth). Also, one of the best films ever made. As an added plus, that chariot scene can really get you in the mood to face the mall.
A Christmas Carol (1951) When you hear them singing The Most Wonderful Time of the Year in the Mall, you know it’s time for “scary ghost stories.” You don’t get any scarier than the original adaptation of this “Dickens Horror Picture Show.”
Scrooged(1988) A snide and cynical take on Dickens tale with the inimitable Bill Murray as Scrooge himself.
The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) Kermit, Miss Piggy, Gonzo, and the gang in an offbeat, but faithful retelling of Dickens’ classic.
Miracle on 34th Street (1947) Classic, “Do you believe in something you can’t prove” premise. Many remakes, none come close to the original.
White Christmas(1954) Not much Jesus (or Santa), but a wonderful tale of friendship and loyalty. We watch it every year as it chokes us up every time.
A Christmas Story (1983) I don’t know why we all get such a kick out of this admittedly B movie. A pitch-perfect coming-of-age story surrounding the hopes and fears of a nine-year-old boy. Just don’t shoot your eye out.
Elf (2003) Perhaps Will Ferrell’s best movie. The story of Buddy the Elf is an irresistible recasting of the Santa story. Zooey Deschanel‘s sterling role doesn’t hurt one bit.
GOOD Films with ‘Secular’ View of Christmas
Christmas in Connecticut (1945) A New York food writer’s false personal brand as the perfect housewife is in danger of being exposed as a sham when her boss invites a returning war hero for a traditional family Christmas at her home in Connecticut. Only one problem, she doesn’t have a home n Connecticut.
Prancer (1989) A bittersweet, but poignant tale of loss and redemption. One girl’s desperate faith changes her life and her father.
Home Alone(1990) A zany battle against the world’s least scary criminals. It made the list this year because so many THW conversation partners mentioned how strangely moving church scene (which wasn’t even part of the original script) added much needed gravitas to the moral premise of a very silly movie.
The Santa Clause (1994) Can you be drafted into the ranks of Father Christmas? Apparently, yes. Tim Allen’s best role since Home Improvement.
GREAT Films set During the Christmas Season (but, uh, not all are kid friendly)
Die Hard (1988) Police Officer John McClain thwarts a ring of Euro-terrorists who crash a corporate Christmas party. Bruce Willis is at his smarmy best, but Alan Rickman as Hans Gruber almost steals the show… and the dough.
Family Man (2000) Turns the “what if” premise of It’s a Wonderful Life on its head. With Don Cheadle as an angel on the edge, and some of the best acting of Nicholas Cage and Tea Leoni’s careers. We watch it every year and ponder our own what if?
Joyeux Noel (‘Merry Christmas’ in French, 2005) The remarkable true story of the WWI Christmas truce. German, French, and Scottish soldiers lay down their arms for a day of celebration and wind up friends with the ‘enemy’ on the opposite side of a brutal war. A powerful expression of both the spirit of Christmas and the power of friendship. (Subtitles.)
2003 The Return of the King (F)* and the rest of The Lord of the Rings Trilogy: 2001 The Fellowship of the Ring (F) and 2002 The Two Towers (F). (Okay, it’s only been 11 years since the last LOTR film, but I think it’s safe to say that Peter Jackson’s majestic adaptation of Tolkien’s classic will hit a very high DCI mark. )
Films on the Deeper Culture Impact ‘watch list’
I suspect many of these films will grow into DCI films, but it is still too early to tell. After all, we have to wait at least twelve years!
In the fantasy tale Crow and Weasel, Badger declares: “If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away where they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive.”It’s a Wonderful Life has been just such a story for me.
Sue and I were spending Christmas Eve far from family and friends, holed up in a downtown hotel in Kansas City, MO on one of the coldest nights on record. We had just made some of the most momentous decisions of our life. We would not return to China where we had thought we would spend our entire careers. We would not accept a prestigious internship that may have launched my career, but would have kept Sue and I apart for nearly a year. Instead, we would devote our lives to serving God as missionaries, not to a foreign country, but to a generation—young intellectuals, artists, and leaders who would shape the world for good.
To say that it was an idealistic decision is a gross understatement. We were going, “All in” to pursue a dream of cultural transformation that was hard to articulate without sounding crazy. Many friends, family members, bosses, and mentors simply didn’t understand. Frankly, we weren’t we sure we understood. Yet we were certain we were following God’s leading (at least as certain as two doubting idealists living in a physicalist culture can be.) So we talked our idealistic talk over a marvelous dinner in a famous KC steakhouse, prayed our idealistic prayers, and climbed into bed.
Enter It’s a Wonderful Life
Mindlessly, I flipped on the TV. A black and white image of two constellations talking to each other slowly materialized on the screen. Why we didn’t change channels I’ll never know, but slowly the magic of Frank Capra’s film drew us in. Instantly we identified with George and Mary Bailey and their struggle to live out their idealism in a world that seemed determined to beat it out of them. We were transfixed. It was our story. Here was a couple who kept taking punch after punch on the chin, but also kept pursuing their idealistic dream for the benefit of others, all the while wondering they were actually making any difference at all.
It was a holy moment. We wondered aloud if God wasn’t somehow using Capra’s story to communicate something of the kind of life our decisions would lead to. Boy, were we ever right. Since that cold Kansas City night our long and winding journey from Big Ten universities, to Christian schools, to the Ivy League, and now Hollywood has proven to be even more of a challenge than we could have ever imagined. And when things have been their darkest, we have returned to the story of It’s a Wonderful Life again and again.
I know it is a bit melodramatic, but I’m not sure we would have made it this far without George Bailey’s example of self-sacrificing idealism vindicated by God’s direct intervention in the physicalist world. George and Mary Bailey were true two-handed warriors. Watching how their small idealistic decisions added up to the profound cultural influence fills my heart with strength to do the right thing on a day-to-day basis. And in our darkest hours, just knowing that there is a God and his angels and a great cloud of witnesses looking on, helps us pray, “Lord, help me live again.”
So what lessons can modern day two handed warriors draw from Capra’s tale. Let me propose three.
Don’t lose your idealist nerve.
The first lesson is just for filmmakers aspiring to both culture-making and faith-building, and it is this: Don’t lose your idealist nerve. By rooting his film in present-day America (at least it was present-day in 1946), Capra went against the trend of his day to express a theistic worldview only in “Bible films.” By portraying a clear and unmistakable (if comic) divine intervention, Capra went against the trend of his day to limit modern-day religious faith to the private subjective realm. (See, Capra’s Saga of a Depressed Idealist.)
In an era when “magical” intervention in the physical world was established as a Hollywood staple, divine intervention is nearly completely missing. This is not to say that filmmakers of faith should never set their films in a physicalist worldview, or resort to a historical, fantasy, and even horror genres to convey their themes, only that Capra’s courage to root George Bailey’s idealism in the radical repudiation of skeptical physicalism through the supernatural in-breaking of God is what is so desperately lacking in today’s films. If filmmakers of faith won’t make divinely supernatural films, who will?
Certainly this kind of two-handed filmmaking will require remarkable wisdom and audacity. Wisdom, because physicalist Hollywood will automatically categorize any film with a supernatural element as “Fantasy.” (In fact, AFI now lists It’s a Wonderful Life as a “Fantasy Film.”) Physicalist (especially nihilist) films are held in such high honor in this town that nearly everything else is often viewed as “sentimental hogwash” (except when it is time to balance the budget.) Making films that are both excellent and idealist and even theistic will be an incredible challenge, but I believe it can be done, because it has been done. Gladiator is a recent idealist example, even if it was a period piece.
The truly audacious thing will be if someone follows Capra’s lead and manages to make a critically-acclaimed and commercially-viable theistic idealist film set it in present-day America. It will have to be a spectacular, genre-bending effort, but as Flannery O’Conner put so eloquently:
“When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal ways of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock—to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.”
It will take the kind of courage Capra demonstrated in making Wonderful Life, and like Capra, it might take years for such courage to be vindicated on the earth, or in heaven. But is that any reason not to try?
In my life journey, I NEEDED a story like Capra’s “more than food to stay alive.” I don’t think I’m alone. But who will make the films that will sustain the next generation of two-handed warriors? Only filmmakers like Capra with the courage to live idealistically. Is that you?
Don’t rely on Idealism alone
The second lesson I’d like to draw from Capra’s classic is for those of us–like Ricky Gervais–who are stuck between idealism we intuit to be “true” and physicalism we face with our senses everyday. (See, Ricky Gervais and Sentimental Hogwash.) Let’s be honest, some of us are way too idealistic. We ground our faith in the unseen realm in such a way that our faith is little more than an existential and/or postmodern personal preference. Then, when someone criticizes or critiques our faith with data from the world of sense perceptions we defensively label them an “enemy of the faith.” Perhaps they are. But isn’t it more likely that they are simply a skeptical physicalist waiting for us to provide a demonstration of the in-breaking of the idealist world into this “present evil age.” Maybe they aren’t rejecting our faith so much as the shallow level of experience we’re basing it on.
Jesus never asked his followers to judge the truth-claims of his message based upon “pie-in-the-sky bye-and-bye” idealism. He asked them to base it upon the ideals of the kingdom of God breaking into the physical world through the “miracles” of supernatural answers to prayer (John 14:12).
Until Christ followers live lives marked by supernatural power and sacrificial love, I’m afraid that the Ricky Gervais’s of the world are going to have a very hard time taking our truth claims very seriously. Roman Emperor Julian despised the Christ followers of his day, yet he could no escape the reality of their faith in their lives when he confided in a friend:
“…the kindness of Christians to strangers, their care for the burial of their dead, and the sobriety of their lifestyle has done the most to advance their cause… these impious Galileans support our poor in addition to their own… outdoing us in good deeds while we ourselves are disgraced by laziness.”
Sounds like a perfect description of George and Mary Bailey to me. Yet, I mean no disrespect when I say that many of the “media leader Christians” I encounter today remind me more of Mr. Potter than George Bailey. In their preoccupation with wealth and political power, their lives and their careers seem just as dominated by “me, me, me” as any other (nihilistic) physicalist. Is it any wonder that the Ricky Gervais’s of the world have a hard time believing the message we preach?
Co-labor with God
The third lesson I’d like to draw from It’s a Wonderful Life is for all two-handed warriors—whether you labor in the Ivy League, Hollywood, Wall Street, or Main Street—Don’t allow the story of skeptical physicalism to deter you from seeking to co-labor with God in the in-breaking of his kingdom in the world. Follow George Bailey’s lead and grow a pair. We might just live to see our work transform our own culture every bit as much George and Mary’s self-sacrificing idealism transformed Bedford Falls. But even if we never see the full result of our idealistic actions on earth, we must live our lives the way we will wish we had lived them on that day when we finally will see our life from God’s perspective—because someday we will.
It’s highly unlikely we’ll ever get a George Bailey-esque ‘advance screening’ of our life’s work. Yet Paul of Tarsus assures us that we will “all appear before the viewing seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad” (2 Corinthians 5:10). To be a true two handed warrior is to live for that heavenly red carpet affair, more than for its pale imitation at the Kodak theatre each year.
That day is the one when we want the Lord himself (and not some mere angel) to declare, “Well done, you good and faithful servant! You’ve really had a wonderful life.”
 Flannery O’Connor, Robert Fitzgerald, and Sally Fitzgerald, Mystery and Manners (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1961). Italics mine.
 Julian Caesar, “Letter to Arsacius,” Based in part on the translation of Edward J. Chinnock, A Few Notes on Julian and a Translation of His Public Letters (London: David Nutt, 1901) pp. 75-78 as quoted in D. Brendan Nagle and Stanley M. Burstein, The Ancient World: Readings in Social and Cultural History(Englewood Cliffs, NJ; Prentice Hall, 1995) pp. 314-315. Introduction and e-text copyright 2005 by David W. Koeller firstname.lastname@example.org. All rights reserved.
It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) provides a wonderful expression of the complicated interplay between the macro-worlviews of Physicalism and Idealism as life-interpreting stories in the life of its main character, George Bailey. At the outset of the film George is caught in the vice between these two warring worldviews. He is an idealist at heart, anxious for freedom from the physicalism of running the family business where his father is trapped “spending all your life trying to figure out how to save three cents on a length of pipe.” However, after his father’s untimely death, his own idealistic commitment to save the Bailey Building and Loan locks George into an ongoing struggle between these two powerful worldviews. Day after day he labors in the physicalist world of dollars and cents, while steadfastly maintaining his idealistic commitment to honesty, compassion, and justice.
George is a typical modern in that he simply cannot resolve the tension between physicalism and idealism.While the intuited ideals passed to him by his family’s worldview are strong enough to shape his own life, the dualistic skepticism imparted to him by his broader culture is dissolving his confidence that his ideals are actually making any difference in the physical world. Even a lifelong romance with his ever-ebullient wife Mary (Donna Reed) isn’t enough to stem George’s growing angst.
Physicalism at its worst
It is important to recognize how Capra sets up the conflict between George Bailey and the main opposing character, Mr. Potter: “the wealthiest man in town.”Potter (Lionel Barrymore) is the very incarnation of physicalism in its most devastating form—nihilism. To him, there is no meaning in his universe save his own will to dominate others through the power of his wealth. Early in the film, George contrasts his father’s idealist view of human beings with Potter’s nihilistic perspective:
George: People were human beings to him, but to you,
a warped frustrated old man, they're cattle.
To Potter, men like Peter and George Bailey and their “so called ideals” are simply poor businessmen unwilling to dominate those around them for self-gain. Their idealism is nothing but “sentimental hogwash!”
Potter will stop at nothing to get his hands on the Building and Loan—coercion, intimidation, seduction. Yet, nothing succeeds. As a “steadfast main character,” George holds onto his ideals despite of the growing physical proof that his ideals have failed him.
The film’s defining moment arrives when George’s business partner, Uncle Billy, loses a $8,000 bank deposit. (Actually, Potter steals it.) Crushed between the physicalist realities of “bankruptcy and scandal and prison.” George chooses the idealist value of self-sacrifice and takes the blame for the shortfall. Finally surrendering to Potter’s domination, George asks his wealthy enemy for a loan. Seizing the moment, Potter not only refuses to help, he swears out a warrant for George’s arrest. But before he does, he trashes George’s entire life story in a devastating radical physicalist appraisal of the failure of George’s ideals:
Potter: You once called me a warped, frustrated old man.
What are you but a warped, frustrated, young man?
A miserable little clerk, crawling in here on your hands
and knees and begging for help. No securities––no stocks––
no bonds––nothing but a miserable little $500
equity in a life insurance policy. [laughs]
You're worth more dead than alive.
With nowhere else to turn, George makes the ultimate Idealist leap and turns to the one person in Bedford Falls he hopes might be more powerful than Mr. Potter: God. For the first time we see that George’s ideals are rooted not just in his family’s story, but in the broader Christian story of a theistic worldview. While he is “not a praying man,” George reaches out to the God whose story undergirds the ideals he lives by.
Idealism Breaking In
Don’t miss the courage of how Capra sets up the solution to George Bailey’s dilemma. From a worldview perspective, George is asking for the God–who has never been more than an otherworldly ideal to him–to intervene in the physicalist world. He is not asking for strength and courage to live out his ideals through this dark hour (as noble and important as such a prayer might be), he is asking God to reach into the physical universe and change it. He is asking God to reach out of the circle of heaven and break into the box of the earth.
George’s prayer is the very essence of Biblical theism wherein idealism and physicalism are reconnected and redeemed. George is not asking for the subjective private truth of his ideals to prevail, he is asking for objective public proof that God is alive and active in the world. In the pre-dualistic language of Jesus, he is asking for a God to exert his rulership on the earth so that “his will is done on ( the physicalist) earth as it is in (idealist) heaven.”
What’s more, Capra has insured that the audience already knows what George doesn’t: God is listening! The movie opens, not only with George’s prayer, but also the countless prayers of his family and friends flooding heaven with petitions on his behalf. While the corny constellation graphics are a bit over the top and his human-turned-angel theology flawed, Capra makes certain that audience knows that the world he has constructed in his film is inhabited not merely by physical human beings, but God, and angels, and human souls.
It is NOT a merely a physicalist world. It is an idealist one as well. They are interconnected. When a despondent George drives to the bridge to end his own miserable failure of an idealistic life, the world of ideals breaks into the physical world in the person of one very star-crossed angel–Clarence.
Clarence: You've been given a great gift, George --
A chance to see what the world would be like without you.
Needless to say, the rest of the film is slow and certain vindication of George’s idealist worldview in the physicalist world of sense perception. One-by-one, Clarence reinterprets George’s idealistic decisions on an even deeper level than George ever imagined. George was just trying to the “right” thing. As it turns out, he was also doing the “world-changing” thing. Not only is God willing to break into the physical world by his actions; George Bailey is changing the outcome of the physical universe in the direction of the will of God by his own idealistic actions.
Capra’s vision expresses the heart and soul of Christian theistic idealism: the possibility of the knowledge of God being manifest not only in the private realm of subjective knowledge, but also in the public world of sense perception. Jesus taught his disciple to pray for the “public” manifestation of the compassion and power of God, because “through answered prayer Jesus’ students experienced God as alive and active in the physical world.” He not only proclaimed the reality of the unseen (idealist) kingdom of God, he demonstrated its reality in the (physicalist) world through supernatural answers to prayer. (See, With Prayer in the School of Christ.)
Divine “in-breaking” is a key element of Capra’s film. Just as people could “know” that the kingdom of God was “breaking into” the kingdoms of this world through supernatural answers to prayer in Jesus’ ministry, George Bailey (and vicariously, Capra’s audience) “knows” (in Hebraic language, understands by experience) that God has broken into his world. Just as Jesus called for his followers to bet their lives on the “unseen” ideals of the kingdom on the basis of the “seen” supernatural interventions of God (John 14:11), so George Bailey reaffirms his commitment to his unseen ideals because of God’s physical intervention in his life. As Clarence concludes:
Clarence: You see George, you've really had a wonderful life.
Don't you see what a mistake it would be to just throw it away?
Capra’s moral premise is clear: despite strong physical evidence to the contrary, living in the light of idealism is “a wonderful life,” because those ideals are rooted in God himself. It is worth being an idealist even in a world dominated by physicalism, because as important as the physical world is, it is not all there is. They are interconnected in ways that George’s dualism (and skeptical hold upon his idealism) prevented him from ever imagining. 
 I am fairly confident that, like most artists, Capra intuited these worldview issues and expressed them in his art far beyond what he could have explained philosophically. For more insight into the concept of a “moral premise,” see, Stanley D. Williams, The Moral Premise: Harnessing Virtue & Vice for Box Office Success (Studio City, CA: Michael Wiese Productions, 2006).
Like George Bailey and Ricky Gervais, we all eventually find ourselves wondering: Is there a reward for knowing and trying to do the right thing? (Either in heaven or on earth) Or, is it all a waste of time?
Ricky Gervais’s God jokes as host of the last two Golden Globe Awards and his Wall Street Journal essay, “Why I’m An Atheist” provide perfect backdrops for examining one of Hollywood’s most famous attempts to defend Theism–It’s a Wonderful Life. (Plus, it is one of my All-Time Favorite Christmas Movies.)
Hollywood legend Frank Capra made It’s a Wonderful Life specifically to, in his words, “combat a modern trend toward atheism.” This certainly appears to make Gervais his ideal target audience. Yet, Capra’s approach to combating atheism was in no way as simplistic as one would expect. It’s a Wonderful Life is not only one of the best Christmas movies of all time, it is also a remarkable example of using worldview conflict to construct a compelling story… and live a wonderful life. Students seeking to understand worldview and filmmakers seeking to make culture-influencing movies would be wise to pay careful attention.
Ironically, much like its main character, George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart), It’s a Wonderful Life entered midlife as an apparent failure. Before its release, Capra believed it to be his greatest film. However, after a disappointing box office, and a complete shut out at the Oscars, Liberty Films didn’t even bother to renew the copyright for “Capra’s masterpiece” when it expired in 1974.
This lapse in judgment proved to be precisely the angelic intervention It’s a Wonderful Life needed. Television networks turned to the now public domain (i.e. “free”) film to fill their desperate need for cheap programming in the slow holiday season. Soon “a whole new generation of movie-lovers fell in love with the previously-obscure release.”  Capra had the last laugh when the film grew to become a beloved classic, now regarded by the American Film Institute as one of the 20 best films ever made.
Much of the greatness of It’s a Wonderful Life stems from Capra’s deliberate use of worldview conflict in the film. (Don’t worry, I won’t ruin your Christmas buzz with a bunch of philosophical mumbo-jumbo, but this first part is important). When philosophers speak of a “worldview” they actually mean more than one thing: micro-worldviews and macro-worldviews.
At the micro level, a worldview is a description of the stories that shape the principles that support the conventions that an individual uses to make their daily decisions. (See, Casablanca and the Four Levels of Worldview). The problem is, nobody’s worldview is actually “personal.” While we each have unique experiences that form the backbone of the “story of our life,” we interpret these experiences through the stories transmitted to us by our larger cultures. (See, Crash Goes the Worldview). Our personal micro-worldview rests within concentric circles of larger and larger macro-worldviews. In other words, (1) my (micro) worldview rests mostly within, (2) my family’s (slightly less micro) worldview, which rests mostly within (3) my sub-culture’s (even less micro) worldview, and (4) my current society’s (more macro) worldview, and (5) my historic civilization’s (macro) worldview.
While it is a gross oversimplification, you could say that the history of Western civilization has been comprised of the interplay of two key macro-worldviews: what I will call physicalism and idealism.
The ‘Box’ of Physicalism
Physicalism is a macro worldview that roots our understanding of reality in the physical world. Physicalism starts with what you can see, feel, touch, and taste as the only “really real” things in the world. If you can measure something’s length, weigh its mass, or quantify it in some way, then it is a reliable source of knowledge.
The worldview of physicalism can best symbolized by a BOX, because in physicalism the “closed system” of the material universe is pretty much all you can rely on. You can extrapolate from sense perceptions of the visible universe to a “spiritual” world, but every effect in the physical universe owes its existence to a cause within the physical universe. As cosmologist and the original host of Cosmos (PBS) put so eloquently, “The universe is all there is and all that there will ever be.”
This makes physicalism perfect for scientific experimentation. A laboratory technician wouldn’t be able to maintain a proper relationship between experimental variables if they had to account for factors from outside the physical universe messing with their data. A medical researcher who used ‘angelic intervention’ as a factor in studying the effects of an antibiotic on staph infections would be laughed out of the scientific community. Good experiments require the “closed box” provided by physicalism.
Ricky Gervais’ Wall Street Journal essay is a beautiful example of using the logic of scientific physicalism to defend a broader philosophical proposition-namely atheism. Ricky explained the rationale for his lack of faith by asserting, “I don’t believe in God because there is absolutely no scientific evidence for his existence and from what I’ve heard the very definition is a logical impossibility in this known universe… (Science) bases its conclusions and beliefs on hard evidence…” By “hard” evidence, Ricky means things you can touch, taste, see, and measure. If there is no “hard” physicalist evidence for God, then he won’t believe it. It is a common position for modern physicalists (more below.)
The ‘Circle’ of Idealism
Idealism is a worldview that roots our understanding of reality in the world of ideas, values, spirits, and/or gods. Idealism starts with what you cannot see, touch, taste, see or feel as the only “really real” things in the world. You can’t weigh a pound of love, or measure a mile of justice, or put a soul in a beaker, yet idealists view these intuited unseen ideals as what really matters. As Immanuel Kant asserted, “All human knowledge begins with intuitions, proceeds from thence to concepts, and ends with ideas.”
The worldview of idealism is best symbolized by a CIRCLE. Normally this circle surrounds the box of the physical universe, because in idealism the physical universe exists within the broader field of unseen realities. This makes idealism perfect for, say, artists and lovers. Everyone “knows” that beauty and love are what make life worth living, even if you can’t quantify them. To reduce love to mere chemical reactions, or art to the properties of sculptor’s materials is neither romantic, inspiring, nor “real.”
Idealists look beyond the hard realities of the physical world and point to something they view as much more “real.” When the Beatles sing, “All you need is love,” or Jean Valjean declares in Les Miserables, “To love another person is to see the face of God,” they are giving voice to an idealist worldview. They are not appealing to hard physical evidence, but to an ideal so ‘intuitively true’ they need no “proof.” When Jefferson wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” or MLK declared, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” they were appealing to truth claims beyond the physical world and calling others toward them as ultimate realities.
A 2500-Year War
The struggle between these two worldviews is at least as old as the study of philosophy. Plato (and later Augustine and Kant) advocated for idealism, while Aristotle (and later Aquinas and Hume) sided with physicalism. Neither side ever scored a decisive victory, yet the philosophical underpinnings of each era of Western history can often be described by the relationship between the two at a given cultural moment.
For over 2000 years, Muslims, Jews, and Christians used both Idealism and Physicalism to support their faith. For Christians, the Hebraic worldview Jesus inherited from his Jewish heritage was more or less free from the dualism of having to choose between these two sources of knowledge. Truth was found both in the invisible God and in his visible creation. Faith-building and culture-making were therefore two sides of the same coin.
However, as the early church became less and less Jewish and more and more Greek, dualism began to plague the church. Idealism held the upper hand in ancient Greco-Roman society and nearly overwhelmed early Christianity with a radical form of Idealism known as Gnosticism. Augustine and other key thinkers restored sanity through a more moderate form of Idealism that helped salvage Christianity when the Roman empire fell. Physicalism began to gain serious traction in Middle Ages when both Muslims and Christians (such as Aquinas) began to use Aristotle’s physicalist philosophy to defend their faith. While increasingly disconnected by the “either-or” dualism of Greek thought, both idealism and physicalism remained key elements of both a God-centered view of the world as well as a number of attempts to support atheism.
The Rise of Radical Skepticism
Unfortunately, the Enlightenment gave birth to a “pervasive and astringent skepticism” that began to “dissolve” both Physicalism and Idealism (and any hope of reconnecting them.)  Physicalists lost confidence first in their sense perceptions, and then in their ability to extrapolate from the physical world into the spiritual. Idealists began to doubt that their own thoughts and intuitions were anything more than their own inventions (or the inventions of their community) so that there was no spiritual world “out there” only my own ideas and perspectives “in here.”
Skepticism quickly demoted Idealism to the ranks of second class truth, enthroning a weakened and highly dualistic form of Physicalism at the center of Western thought. When a modern Westerner says that something is objectively true, we mean that it is true from a Physicalist perspective. It is something that can be verified with the physical senses.
By contrast, when we say that something is subjectively true we mean that it is “merely” an ideal–something that an individual subject (person) holds to be true, but which cannot be physically verified. Ideals are therefore second class citizens in the world of truth. Idealist (subjective) knowledge has been assigned to the back of the bus as “private” knowledge. While physicalist (objective) knowledge is driving the bus of “public” knowledge.
A Comedian’s Circular (Logic) Dilemma
Whether he realizes it or not, this is exactly why Ricky Gervais, like many physicalist moderns, has to so much trouble with Theism–it simply doesn’t make any sense from his starting point of skeptical physicalism. When Gervais exclaims, “People who believe in God don’t need proof of his existence, and they certainly don’t want evidence to the contrary,” he is giving voice to an extremely common view of faith. Those damnable believers are appealing to knowledge derived from outside the realm of physical verifiability. Gervais continues,
“Why don’t I believe in God? No, no no, why do YOU believe in God? Surely the burden of proof is on the believer.”
And he’s right, of course, at least from a skeptical physicalist perspective. Which is precisely the problem. He’s right back to where he started.
He begins with the presupposition that your physical senses are the only thing you can only trust, and ends up right thinking that anyone who believes in something you can’t access with your physical senses is crazy. As Gervais explains, “I don’t think there is a god, but belief in him does no harm. If it helps you in any way, then that’s fine with me.” In skeptical physicalist thinking, ideals might be personally helpful to some, but as truth-claims they are, “Sentimental Hogwash!”
However, even Gervais has to resort to idealism to guide how he actually lives his life. The same skeptical physicalism that can be so helpful in a laboratory, can be an extremely unsatisfying way of life. As James Davidson Hunter explains, “radical skepticism leading to radical nihilism is, of course, rare… for the simple reason that it is unlivable.” Even Gervais resorts to very Idealist and Intuitive (and therefore unprovable) concepts of ‘right’ and ‘good’ in order to direct his life: “My reward is here and now. It’s knowing that I try to do the right thing. That I lived a good life.”
Enter George Bailey
Which is, of course, exactly what George Bailey is striving for in It’s a Wonderful Life. Like Gervais, George Bailey only wants to live a good life here and now. However, like most of us in the postmodern world, the crushing realities of skeptical physicalism are squeezing the life out of our weakened idealism.
Like George Bailey (and Ricky Gervais), we all eventually find ourselves wondering: Is there a reward for knowing and trying to do the right thing? (Either in heaven or on earth) Or, is it all a waste of time? Like Gervaise, we simply cannot reconcile belief in God with the ideals of truth and honesty we strive for. Like George Bailey, we simply cannot reconcile the ideals for which we live with the harsh realities of our day-to-day existence.
Caught in the vise between nihilistic physicalism and sentimental idealism there seems to be nowhere to turn. Which is, of course, exactly where Capra wants us.
 James W. Sire identifies nine macro worldviews currently influencing Western culture: predominantly physicalist worldviews, such as Naturalism, Nihilism, and Post-modernism; Predominantly idealist worldviews such as, Christian Theism, Islamic Theism and Eastern Pantheistic Monism, and hybrids, such as Existentialism, Deism, and the New Age movement. The Universe Next Door: A Basic World View Catalog(Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2009).
 In worldviews such as Monism, the circle actually subsumes the box.
 See James Davidson Hunter’s masterful take on “dissolution” in To change the world: the irony, tragedy, and possibility of Christianity in the late modern world. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 205-210.
I love The King’s Speech, and would vote for it as Best Picture (if had a vote), but based upon what I’ve learned from past films, I suspect that another film will have greater ‘deep culture’ impact upon the next generation.
Nearly two decades of using film to teach worldview to undergraduate students has resulted in a few surprises in which films have had the deepest cultural impact on a generation. (See, High Culture, Pop Culture, What about ‘Deep Culture’?)The list below is in no way infallible, but it sure could get a good conversation going.
Key: A-Action/Adventure, C-Comedy, D-Drama, F-Fantasy/Science Fiction, T-Thriller/Horror, *-Academy Award Winner
I love The King’s Speech, and would vote for it as Best Picture (if had a vote), but based upon what I’ve learned from past films, I suspect that Inception’s imaginative story and evocative images have the best chance of actually shaping “the stories we live by” as a culture.