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.

 

 

Scripture and Culture-Making: What Christian Colleges could Learn from Rabbinic Higher Education

Part 3 in series: The Holy Spirit and the Liberal Arts: The Future of ‘Two Handed’ Higher Education

Today’s Christian teenagers know abundant details about the lives of favorite musicians and television stars or about what it takes to get into a good college, but most are not very clear on who Moses and Jesus were. -Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton

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

The object of Jewish higher education was full mastery of God’s word and full understanding of it.

N.T. Wright concludes The Challenge of Jesus with a challenge of his own to 21st Century Christians:

“The gospel of Jesus points us and indeed urges us to be at the leading edge of the whole culture, articulating in story and music and art and philosophy and education and poetry and politics and theology and even–heaven help us–Biblical studies, a worldview that will mount the historically-rooted Christian challenge to both modernity and postmodernity, leading the way…with joy and humor and gentleness and good judgment and true wisdom. I believe if we face the question, ‘if not now, then when?’ if we are grasped by this vision we may also hear the question, ‘if not us, then who? And if the gospel of Jesus is not the key to this task, then what is?”

Wright’s challenge begs the question whether or not 21st Century Christian colleges hold the gospel of Jesus Christ in as high a regard as the Jewish educators of Jesus’ day held the Torah. Like Greco-Roman higher education, Rabbinic higher education was deeply devoted to the development of the life of the mind in close-knit learning communities.  However, the distinguishing characteristic of Rabbinic Higher Education was not so much its pedagogy as its remarkable devotion to its subject matter–Torah. Whereas Greco-Roman students were expected to master the ever-changing philosophies of their masters, students in Rabbinic higher education strove for mastery of the unchanging word of God. The “words of Torah were essentially divine.  God’s words were part and parcel of God’s essence” (Hirshman, 2009, p. 30).

Faithfulness Before Innovation

This devotion to the word of God resulted in a corresponding commitment to faithfulness versus novelty in Jewish education. “No one was free to choose his own credo or ignore the sage’s mediation in approaching the divine… The way of life was learned, and the worldview the product of particular knowledge and distinctive modes of thinking about and analyzing that knowledge.”  The object of Jewish higher education was “full mastery of God’s word and full understanding of it…” resulting a intimacy with the words of Torah” written on the pages of the heart (Neusner, 1999, p. iii). Education, or more particularly, learning Torah, became “the Jewish religious pursuit par excellence…” (Hirshman, p. 3, 30). In short, they were true two handed warriors.

Jewish boys (and many girls) entered Beit Sefer (primary school) charged with mastering the Torah before the age of thirteen. This mastery often extended to the oral memorization of enormous portions of the Torah, as well as rudimentary reading and writing.  After their bar mitzvah, and the corresponding accountability for obedience to the law, the best students were allowed to go on to  Beit Midrash (secondary school, literally, “study house”), while they learned a trade. The Beit Midrash curriculum added the study of the Writings and the Prophets to that of Torah, and more importantly, Talmud, the art of Rabbinic interpretations comprised of both Midrash—inquiry into the sacred texts, and Mishna, the study of oral law independent of its scriptural basis.

Rabbinic Higher Education

Only the most remarkable secondary students were allowed to go on to the Jewish version of higher education, by obtaining permission to study as a talmid (disciple/student) of a great Rabbi.  Teaching Rabbis made up a “collegium of sages” responsible for applying the law of God in new situations and for passing on the tradition of scriptural interpretation to new students. “Each begins as a disciple of a master, then himself becomes a master to the next generation of disciples, in a long chain of learning” (Neusner, p. iv).

The goal of faithfulness to the word of God drove the master-student relationship and teaching style of the study house. Rabbinic education was consumed with recitation and discussion, not merely because of pedagogical considerations, but also for theological reasons. The Rabbis so reverenced the written words of Scripture, no other texts were considered worthy of study. Rabbinic higher education was an oral culture, perpetrated and preserved by an ongoing high-level discussion that eclipsed even Socratic dialogue in its relentless back and forth nature.

Rabbi Hillel and his Talmidim (Unattributed)

In order to facilitate this dialogue, Talmidim were expected to follow their master night-and-day as they taught their tight-knit band of brothers in the study house, over meals, and in the market place. “Study was a process of unending repetition and ubiquitous recitation that transpired in almost every possible venue” (Chilton, and Neusner, 2005, p. 131-132). A good disciple stuck so close to his teacher that by the end of the day he was literally covered with dust kicked up by his master’s feet (Vander Laan). Through it all, Talmidim strove to attain the prerequisite mastery of Torah, Midrash, and Mishnah necessary to become sages themselves so that they too could join the unbroken chain of faithfulness. (For an outstanding discussion of 1st Century BCE Rabbi Hillel and his application to 21st Century culture making, see, Joseph Telushkin’s, Hillel: If Not Now, When?)

From Studying Scripture to Making Culture

Most importantly for our discussion, the goal of this remarkable devotion to the word of God was not privatized faith, but culture making. Rabbinic education was birthed in the cultural crisis of the Babylonian captivity and is certainly the best human explanation of how Jewish culture survived the Diaspora. While Moses commanded the night and day impartation of Torah to the next generation, leading Torah historian, Wilhelm Bacher, notes that Nehemiah’s reading the Torah before the post-exilic community in Jerusalem was the actual “birthday of ancient Jewish education” (cited in Hirshman, p. 121.) Jewish leaders were painfully aware of their society’s need for leaders soaked in the culture-making power of the word of God. “According to the Rabbinic ideal, all of Israel would be teachers, and ultimately masters, of Torah” (Chilton, p. 46). Only then could Jewish society reflect Torah in justice, charitable acts, gifts of first fruits and sacrifices (Hirshman, p. 19).

When the cultural chips were down, Rabbis had the courage to contrast the culture-making power of the Jewish study house, not with the Greco-Roman education, but with the theatre and circus, “pitting the two against one another on the level of popular culture” (Hirshman, p. 121). In most Roman cities the circus/theater and beit Midrash were within blocks of one another. However, unlike the Romans, Jewish commitment to the word of God led to a stronger emphasis upon education than entertainment. Romans flocked to bread and circus, while Jews gathered to study. The Rabbis were confident that, in the end, their deep culture would triumph over Rome’s shallow culture. The beit Midrash had helped them endure the cultural onslaught of Babylon and Persia. Rome would be no match for them. And while the process took much longer than they could have ever imagined, it was a strategy that stood the test of time.

 

From Deuteronomy to the SAT

Moses with the Ten Commandments (Philippe de Champaigne, 1648, Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia)
Moses with the Ten Commandments (Philippe de Champaigne, 1648, Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia)

It doesn’t take any stretch of the imagination to envision how this principle might apply to twenty-first century educators seeking to develop two-handed warriors fluent in both faith building and culture making. Entrance into Rabbinical higher education required an oral recitation of the entire Torah. Entrance to most Christian colleges today requires little more than an SAT score of 1500.  Entrance to early American liberal arts colleges required a comprehensive grasp of the English Bible. Graduation from most Christian colleges today requires little more than a rudimentary understanding of Scripture. Is it any wonder that pop culture is shaping our students more than their faith?

Whether one is referring to Catholics or Protestants, today’s ‘Christian culture’ is a mile wide and an inch deep. Education is losing out to entertainment at every level. As much as I value the culture-making force of the entertainment industry, the arts nearly always follow the intellectual currents of the day (Hunter, 2010, p. 87-88), and the only intellectual current flowing in pop culture today is a narcissistic, consumer-driven, individualism.

Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton’s research into America youth culture discovered that, “Many teenagers know abundant details about the lives of favorite musicians and television stars or about what it takes to get into a good college, but most are not very clear on who Moses and Jesus were.” As a result, “a strong, visible, salient, or intentional faith is not operating in the foreground of most teenager’s lives.” Their worldview is little more than “moralistic, therapeutic, deism,” or more specifically, “whatever.”

For Protestant and Catholic colleges and universities to be of any value in helping our faith communities resist this pop culture onslaught and grow into vibrant culture-making institutions ourselves we need to return to the wisdom of the Rabbi’s—a rigorous devotion to the word of God. Like Chaim Potok, the sages of the Rabbinic school might dare ask the leaders of today’s Christian colleges, “Do you have faith in the word of God?” Sometimes I’m not so sure. Our curriculum and campus culture certainly don’t appear to reflect that kind of faith. At least not in comparison to the Rabbinic schools.

Yet I suspect that our best hope for prevailing in the struggle for the souls of our colleges and universities may be engaging in a Rabbinic commitment to the mastery of the worldview-forming, character-shaping narratives of Scripture. I am not talking about a lightweight devotional band-aid, but an intellectually challenging and spiritually enriching student-teacher dialogue that dominates our campus culture and captures the hearts minds our students. Anything less may result in a cultural exile from which we will never return.

Chaim Potok gave voice to a more modern expression of this sentiment in his novel, In the Beginning: “If the Torah cannot go out into your world of scholarship and return stronger, then we are all fools and charlatans. I have faith in the Torah. I am not afraid of truth.”

As N.T. Wright challenges us: “If the gospel of Jesus is not the key to this task, then what is?  If not us, then who? If not now, then when?”

 

Next post in the series: With Prayer in the School of Christ: The Liberal Arts and the Knowledge of God.

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To read series from the beginning go to:

The Holy Spirit and the Liberal Arts: Two Handed Higher Education.

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Notes

Wilhelm Bacher, Tradition und Tradenten in den Schulen Palästinas und Babyloniens: Studien und Materialien zur Entstehungsgeschichte des Talmud. (Berlin: W. de Gruyter, 1966).

Bruce Chilton, and Jacob Neusner, “Paul and Gamaliel.” In, Alan J. Avery-Peck, ed. Review of Rabbinic Judaism. (Leiden: Brill, 2005).

Marc G. Hirshman, The stabilization of rabbinic culture, 100 C.E.-350 C.E.: texts on education and their late antique context (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).

James Davidson Hunter, To change the world: the irony, tragedy, and possibility of Christianity in the late modern world. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).

Jacob Neusner, The four stages of rabbinic Judaism (London: Routledge, 1999).

Chaim Potok, In the beginning. (New York: Knopf, 1975).

Christian Smith, and Melinda Lundquist Denton. Soul searching: the religious and spiritual lives of American teenagers. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).

Richard Valantasis, Douglas K. Bleyle, and Dennis C. Haugh, The Gospels and Christian life in history and practice (Lanham, Md: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2009).

Ray Vander Laan, Stephen Sorenson, and Amanda Sorenson. In the dust of the rabbi: 5 faith lessons. (Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 2006). See also, Ray Vander Laan’s excellent website, Followtherabbi.com.

N.T. Wright. The Challenge of Jesus: rediscovering who Jesus was and is. (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 1999.)

Partnership not Persecution: A Modest Proposal for the Future of China and her Christian Intellectuals

Why the current spiritual awakening on Chinese campuses may offer China with its best hope for a future of peace and prosperity.

If China’s political leaders forswore persecution and instead looked to partner with Christian intellectuals committed to a ‘faithful presence’ theology, the implications for China’s future could be earth-shaking.

by Gary David Stratton, PhD | Senior Editor

Obama’s current visit to China for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit and his call for improved human rights in China at the same time when Chinese officials are in the midst of a crackdown on both student protests in Hong Kong and student-filled Churches in Beijing has thrown a media spotlight on the future of Christianity in China among its young intellectuals. (See, The rise of Christianity in China and Cracks in the Atheist Edifice.)

The Great Wall stretches for over 4000 miles, nearly as wide as the current divide between China’s government and her Christian intellectuals.

While the government has worked hard to erase public memory of the 1989 pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square, images of crowds and tanks continue to haunt Chinese officials, especially in light of the global phenomena of social media driven revolution. As reported by the Chronicle of Higher Education, “Political analysts have speculated that the government crackdown is a reaction to the protests across the Middle East, which leaders here fear could encourage similar uprisings.”

Since university students played a key leadership role in those protests, it is only natural to assume that Christian university students are a potential threat to political stability in China. However, as the number of Christians in China begins to surpass the number of communist party members, the broad spiritual awakening on Chinese campuses could actually offer a bright hope for peaceful engagement of Christian intellectuals in the future of Chinese culture-making. (See, Vibrant Faith Among Future Chinese Culture Makers: Christians Now Outnumber Communists, especially on Campuses.)

By working against a new generation of Christian leaders on many of China’s leading universities, the Chinese government may actually be working against the very intellectuals who might become their strongest allies against an Egyptian-style revolution.

A Call for ‘Faithful Presence’ Among Chinese Christian Intellectuals

While some Chinese Christian intellectuals may indeed choose to embrace “power-based” approaches to culture-making, many espouse the “faithful presence” advocated by University of Virginia Christian public intellectual James Davison Hunter. Based upon Jeremiah’s prophesy to the Jewish exiles in Babylon, Hunter calls for Christians to “Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”[1] (See, CT’s excellent interview with James Davidson Hunter below.)

While written for the American cultural context, Hunter’s ‘faithful presence’ theology clearly applies to China’s current political situation as well.

Hunter’s faithful presence approach to culture-making emphasizes cooperation between individuals and institutions in order to make disciples and serve the common good. As Hunter asserts in his Oxford University Press volume To Change the World:

“If there are benevolent consequences of our engagement with the world, it is precisely because it is not rooted in a desire to change the world for the better but rather because it is an expression of a desire to honor the creator of all goodness, beauty, and truth, a manifestation of our loving obedience to God, and a fulfillment of God’s command to love our neighbor.”[2]

While Hunter wrote ‘To Change the World’ for the American cultural context, his ‘faithful presence’ approach to culture-making is clearly applicable to China as well.

The presupposition that the goal of Christian intellectuals is regime change is as mistaken as it is foolish. Christians intellectual leaders primary concern is only that “the will of God be done on earth as it is in heaven.”[3] They serve to remind God’s people to follow the scriptural admonitions to: (1) “be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good,”[4] and, (2) pray “for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives.”[5]

Do you not need such citizens to make China great?

A Call for Restraint Among China’s Government Officials

Sadly, the current government crackdown could force Christian intellectuals into the unenviable position of choosing revolution over cooperation. As former Wheaton College professor Dennis Ockholm asserts: it is not Christians but governments who force the church to choose between “Christ Against Culture” and “Culture Against Christ” positions. [6] The last thing the Chinese government should do at this time is force their Christian intellectuals into this a position of cultural opposition.

Crackdown or Cooperation? Police usher worshippers onto bus at the site of a planned outdoor prayer service led by the Shouwang Church so popular with Christian intellectuals and top university students

Instead, I would propose that the Chinese government pursue a different strategy altogether. When Jerusalem’s first century political leaders first faced the powerful social-disruption often caused by Christian spiritual awakening, their initial instinct was a crackdown similar to current events in Beijing–incarceration, inquisition, and threats.

However, Gamaliel—a wise and honored leader—proposed a different strategy: let the Christians alone. He said in essence, “If the Christians are wrong, then their movement will eventually collapse on its own. However, if they are right and we persecute them, then we may not only find ourselves on the wrong side of history, we will be the ones who lose in the long run.”[7] Sadly, Gamaliel’s counsel prevailed only the briefest season when Jerusalem’s leaders quickly returned to their reign of terror—a reign that only served to strengthen and spread Christianity across the Roman world. Still, Gamaliel’s counsel is very much in keeping with the wisdom of China’s ancient tradition of the responsibility of each regime to act virtuously toward their citizens lest they lose their Mandate of Heaven to rule.

Two hundred years of Christianity in China have only proven the wisdom of Gamaliel’s counsel concerning Christianity in China. When Mao Zedong made it his personal mission to eradicate the one million Christians in the Middle Kingdom, the intense persecution he sponsored only served to strengthen and scatter Christianity throughout China. Today there are no less than 87 million Protestant and Catholic Christians in China, and no reason to believe that their numbers won’t continue to grow.

A Partnership for Peace and Prosperity

If China’s political leaders forswore persecution and instead looked to partner with Christian intellectuals committed to a ‘faithful presence’ theology, the implications for China’s future could be earth-shaking. Under-girding Communist egalitarianism and Confucianism ethics with the soul-strengthening power of authentic Christian spirituality could result in exactly the kind of revolutionary society the communist party first envisioned when it came to power.

Contrary to current Beijing policy, the specter of 1989 pro-democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square is the best reason NOT to keep Christian intellectuals at arms length.

Such a synthesis might even form the foundation for the same kind of greatness that supported American society in its earliest days. The United States was not founded as a ‘Christian nation,’ so much as an unusual fusion of Christian ideals and Enlightenment intellectualism. America’s Christian/Intellectual synthesis (now nearly completely abandoned) helped form one of the strongest nations in history.

Might a similar synthesis be key to China’s future peace and prosperity?.

The World’s Next Great Nation

Western civilization is cracking under the weight of a rampant materialism made possible by our own failure to produce Christian citizens. It is a moral failure we invited upon ourselves by jettisoning our own Christian/Intellectual synthesis. And it is the same materialism that now threatens to devour China’s youth as well.

The moral strength provided by genuine Christian intellectualism could help shape the People’s Republic of China into the greatest nation on earth.

Yet in your very midst is the one community who might yet possess the key for a different future for China. Don’t destroy them. Embrace them. Foster an ongoing dialogue between government leaders and Christian intellectuals. Trust will be hard-won on both sides. But with so much at stake, it is trust that simply must be forged. Perhaps invitations to include top international Christian intellectuals might eventually enrich the conversation. [8]

No matter who the conversation partners might be, they need to listen carefully to one another in order to find the peace and prosperity so desperately desired by Christians and Communists alike. Who knows what fruit such a conversation might bear?

Who knows what a great nation might emerge from such a partnership?

 

————

Faithful Presence

James Davison Hunter says our strategies to transform culture are ineffective, and the goal itself is misguided.

Interview by Christopher Benson in Christianity Today

Over two decades have passed since Allan Bloom’s famous polemic, The Closing of the American Mind, shook up the American academy. The time is ripe for another shakeup. Enter James Davison Hunter, whose latest contribution, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World(Oxford), promises to shake up American Christianity. An endorsement for Bloom’s book applies just as well to Hunter’s: It “will be savagely attacked. And, indeed, it deserves it, as this is the destiny of all important books … Reading it will make many people indignant, but leave nobody indifferent.”

Hunter, professor of religion, culture, and social theory at the University of Virginia, is author of Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America and The Death of Character: On the Moral Education of America’s Children.

To Change the World comprises three essays. The first examines the common view of “culture as ideas,” espoused by thinkers like Chuck Colson, and the corrective view of “culture as artifacts,” as recently argued by Andy Crouch in Culture Making. Both views, argues Hunter, are characterized by idealism, individualism, and pietism.

Hunter develops an alternative view of culture, one that assigns roles not only to ideas and artifacts but also to “elites, networks, technology, and new institutions.” American Christians—mainline Protestant, Catholic, and evangelical—will not and cannot change the world through evangelism, political action, and social reform because of the working theory that undergirds their strategies. This theory says that “the essence of culture is found in the hearts and minds of individuals—in what are typically called ‘values.’ ” According to Hunter, social science and history prove that many popular ideas, such as “transformed people transform cultures” (Colson) and “in one generation, you change the whole culture” (James Dobson), are “deeply flawed.”

The second essay argues that “the public witness of the church today has become a political witness.” Hunter critiques the political theologies of the Christian Right, Christian Left, and neo-Anabaptists, showing that unlikely bedfellows—James Dobson, Jim Wallis, and Stanley Hauerwas—are all “functional Nietzscheans” insofar as their resentment fuels a will to power, which perpetuates rather than heals “the dark nihilisms of the modern age.”

The third essay offers a different paradigm for cultural engagement, one Hunter calls “faithful presence.” Faithful presence is not about changing culture, let alone the world, but instead emphasizes cooperation between individuals and institutions in order to make disciples and serve the common good. “If there are benevolent consequences of our engagement with the world,” Hunter writes, “it is precisely because it is not rooted in a desire to change the world for the better but rather because it is an expression of a desire to honor the creator of all goodness, beauty, and truth, a manifestation of our loving obedience to God, and a fulfillment of God’s command to love our neighbor.”

Christopher Benson, a writer and teacher in Denver, Colorado, spoke with Hunter about To Change the World. Benson’s work has appeared in The Weekly Standard, Books & Culture, Christian Scholar’s Review, Image, and The City. Mark Galli, senior managing editor of Christianity Today, assisted in the interview…

CT: How does your paradigm of cultural engagement differ from the others?

JDH: All the paradigms speak to authentic biblical concerns. Yet the desire to be relevant to the world has come at the cost of abandoning distinctiveness. The desire to be defensive against the world is rooted in a desire to retain distinctiveness, but this has been manifested in ways that are, on one hand, aggressive and confrontational, and, on the other, culturally trivial and inconsequential. And the desire to be pure from the world entails a withdrawal from active presence in huge areas of social life. In contrast to these paradigms, the desire for faithful presence in the world calls on the entire laity, in all vocations—ordinary and extraordinary, “common” and rarefied—to enact the shalom of God in the world.

Christians need to abandon talk about “redeeming the culture,” “advancing the kingdom,” and “changing the world.” Such talk carries too much weight, implying conquest and domination. If there is a possibility for human flourishing in our world, it does not begin when we win the culture wars but when God’s word of love becomes flesh in us, reaching every sphere of social life. When faithful presence existed in church history, it manifested itself in the creation of hospitals and the flourishing of art, the best scholarship, the most profound and world-changing kind of service and care—again, not only for the household of faith but for everyone. Faithful presence isn’t new; it’s just something we need to recover.

Continue Reading

 


[1] The Prophet Jeremiah: chapter 29, verse 7

[2] Hunter, James Davison.  To change the world: the irony, tragedy, and possibility of Christianity in the late modern world. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

[3] The Gospel of Matthew: chapter 6, verse 10

[4] The Apostle Paul’s Letter to Titus: Chapter 3, verse 1.

[5] The Apostle Paul’s First Letter to Timothy: Chapter 2, verse 2. (See also, 1 Peter 2:13-17; Romans 13:1-7)

[6] “Culture against Christ,” Evangelical Theological Society, San Francisco, November 1992.

[7] The Book of Acts: Chapter 5, verses 33-39

[8] Conversation partners as diverse as James Davidson HunterMiroslav Volf, Vishal MangalwadiGeorge Weigel, NT Wright, etc.

 

It’s a Wonderful Life and the Courage to Live (and Create Art) Idealistically

Part 3 of 3-part series on It’s a Wonderful Life: Click here for Part 1.

Capra’s Christmas story came into my life just when I needed it most.

by Gary David Stratton • Senior Editor

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.”[1]  It’s a Wonderful Life has been just such a story for me.

George Bailey experiences his personal “triumphal entry” into Bedford Falls

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.[2] (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,[3] 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.[4]

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.”[5]

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.”[6]

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.”

Merry Christmas!

Gary & Sue Stratton

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

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

 

 

Notes

[1] Barry Holstun Lopez, Crow and Weasel (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1990).

[2] Look for a future post on the fascinating relationship between worldview and film genre.

[3] Such as Academy Award nominees, The Robe (1953), and The Ten Commandments (1956), and Oscar-winner Ben-Hur (1959).

[4] Look for a future post on Gladiator.

[5] Flannery O’Connor, Robert Fitzgerald, and Sally Fitzgerald, Mystery and Manners (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1961). Italics mine.

[6] 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 timemaster@thenagain.info. All rights reserved.

Capra’s Tale of a Depressed Idealist: It’s a Wonderful Life, Part 2, by Gary David Stratton, PhD

Part 6 of: Hollywood & Higher Education: Teaching Worldview Through the Stories We Live By

From a worldview perspective, George is asking God–who has never been more than an otherworldly ideal to him–to directly intervene in his physicalist world.

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

The depressed idealist at home: “You call this a happy home? Why do we have to have all these kids?”

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!”

George the idealist is able to smell out and resist Potter’s financial temptations

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.
 .
George the depressed idealist pleads with Potter for his financial life.

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.

With nowhere else to turn, George prays for divine intervention

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.
 .
God’s inbreaking? Clarence Oddbody, Angel Second Class

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?
 .
George’s second prayer is the movie’s transforming moment

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.  [1]

Next: It’s a Wonderful Life #3: The Courage to Live (and Create Art) Idealistically

.

Notes

[1] 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).

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

Part 5 of:  Hollywood and Higher Education: Teaching Worldview Through the Stories We Live By

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?

by Gary David Stratton • Senior Editor

“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.” – Ricky Gervais

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.” [1] 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.

Currently #20 on the presitigious American Film Academy's Top 100 All Time Movies
Currently #20 on the prestigious American Film Academy’s Top 100 All Time Movies

Ironically, much like its main character, George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart), It’s a Wonderful Life entered midlife as an apparent failure.[2] 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,[3] 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.” [4] 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.[5]

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.[6] (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

Legendary Physicalist, Carl Sagan, “The universe is all there is and all there will ever be.”

Physicalism is a macro worldview that roots our understanding of reality in the physical world.[7] Physicalism starts with what you can see, feel, touch, and taste as the only “really real” things in the world.[8] 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

Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) the transcendental idealist: "All human knowledge begins with intuitions, proceeds from thence to concepts, and ends with ideas.”
Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) the transcendental idealist: “All human knowledge begins with intuitions, proceeds from thence to concepts, and ends with ideas.”

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.[9] 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.

George Bailey: The young idealist years

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.) [10] 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.”

To skeptical Physicalists like Mr. Potter, the Idealistic world is nothing but, “Sentimental hogwash!”

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!

George Bailey ponders his failure at Gervais’s ideals, “It’s knowing that I try to do the right thing. That I lived a good life.”

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.

Next: Capra’s Tale of a Depressed Idealist, It’s a Wonderful Life, Part 2

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

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

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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

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Notes


[1] Stephen Cox, It’s a Wonderful Life: A Memory Book (Nashville, Tenn: Cumberland House, 2003), p. 27.

[2] Frank Capra, Frances Goodrich, James Stewart, Donna Reed, et al, It’s a Wonderful Life (Hollywood, Calif: Paramount Home Entertainment, 2006).

[3] Failing to win even a single Oscar despite nominations in the five categories

[4] James Berardinelli, ReelMovies.net.

[5] Or rather, two ways of looking at the same thing.

[6] These society-wide macro worldviews exert a tremendous influence on our daily lives, even when we aren’t aware of them.

[7] How we know things, or “epistemology.”

[8] 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).

[9] In worldviews such as Monism, the circle actually subsumes the box.

[10] 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.

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

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

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Culture Making and the Arts

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

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Faith Building and Spiritual Formation

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

What’s on your list?

Gary & Sue

The Golden Globes, Ricky Gervais’ Atheism and Sentimental Hogwash: It’s a Wonderful Life, Part 1

 

 

 

 

 

Golden Globes Host, Ricky Gervais “And thank you to God. For making me an atheist.”

Golden Globes host Ricky Gervais’s atheism joke and his holiday message in the Wall Street Journal, Why I’m An Atheist,” provide a perfect backdrop for examining one of the best attempts to defend Theism in Hollywood history–It’s a Wonderful Life.

Hollywood legend Frank Capra made It’s a Wonderful Life specifically to “combat a modern trend toward atheism,”[1] which certainly appears to make Gervais his ideal target audience. Yet, Capra’s approach to combatting 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.[2] 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,[3] 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 film to fill their desperate need for cheap programming in the slow holiday season. Soon “a whole new generation of movie-lovers discovered and fell in love with the previously-obscure release.” [4] Capra had the last laugh when the film grew to become a beloved classic, now regarded as one of the best films ever made. (It is currently #20 on the prestigious AFI’s Top 100 Movies of All Time list.)

#20 on the American Film Academy's Top 100 All Time Movies

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:[5] 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.[6] (See, Crash Goes the Worldview). Our personal worldview rests within concentric circles of larger and larger 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.

Radical Physicalist, Carl Sagan, "The Universe is all there is and all there will ever be."

Physicalism is a macro worldview that roots our understanding of reality in the physical world. [7] Physicalism starts with what you can see, feel, touch, and taste as the only “really real” things in the world.[8] 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. 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.  As cosmologist and former host of Cosmos (PBS) put so eloquently, “The universe is all there is and all that there will ever be.”

Ricky Gervais’ Wall Street Journal essay is a beautiful example of using physicalism to defend 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.)

Idealist Immanuel Kant, "All human knowledge begins with intuitions..."

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.[9] 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 something beyond the physical world and calling others toward it.

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 has 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.

George Bailey: The young idealist years

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.

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.) [10] 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.”

Mr. Potter: "Sentimental hogwash!"

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 society. 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 that an individual subject (person) holds to be true, but which cannot be physically verified, and is therefore a second class citizen 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.

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.  These 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’s began with the position that you can only trust your physical senses, and ended 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!

George Bailey ponders his failure at Gervais's ideals, "It’s knowing that I try to do the right thing. That I lived a good life."

However, even Gervais has to resort to idealism to defend his philosophy for actually living 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 skeptisicm leading to radical nihilism is, of course, rare… for the simple reason that it is unlivable.”  Gervais resorts to a very idealist perspective for 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.”

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 vice between nihilistic physicalism and sentimental idealism there seems to be nowhere to turn.  Which is, of course, exactly where Capra wants us.

Next is Series: Frank Capra’s Hollywood Christmas Tale of a Depressed Idealist

 

 

Notes


[1] Stephen Cox, It’s a Wonderful Life: A Memory Book (Nashville, Tenn: Cumberland House, 2003), p. 27.

[2] Frank Capra, Frances Goodrich, James Stewart, Donna Reed, et al, It’s a Wonderful Life (Hollywood, Calif: Paramount Home Entertainment, 2006).

[3] Failing to win even a single Oscar despite nominations in the five categories

[4] James Berardinelli, ReelMovies.net.

[5] Or rather, two ways of looking at the same thing.

[6] These society-wide macro worldviews exert a tremendous influence on our daily lives, even when we aren’t aware of them.

[7] How we know things, or “epistemology.”

[8] 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).

[9] In worldviews such as Monism, the circle actually subsumes the box.

[10] 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.