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

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

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

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

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

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

Why would anyone invest so much time and money striving to master such an outdated mode of transportation?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

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

Spiritual Disciplines

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

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

The Soul-Deadening Worlds of Power

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

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

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

Yokes that Bring Our Souls Rest

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

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

Connecting to the Life of God

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

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

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

Personalizing the Process

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

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

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

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

Let’s ride!

..

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

 

See also

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

Why Lent is a lot Like Surfing

Spiritual formation book recommendations:

The Practice of the Presence of God, by Brother Lawrence

Sacred Rhythms, by Ruth Haley Barton

Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, by Adele Alberg Calhoun

The Organic God, by Margaret Feinberg

The Celebration of Discipline, by Richard Foster

Invitation to a Journey, by Robert Mulholland

The Way of the Heart, by Henri Nouwen

The Life You’ve Always Wanted, by John Ortberg

Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, by Peter Scazzero

The Good and Beautiful Life, by James Bryan Smith

Sacred Pathways, by Gary Thomas

The Spirit of the Disciplines, by Dallas Willard

 


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

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

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

 

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.)

What does the University have to do with Prayer?

Remarks by Gary David Stratton

Given at the Campus House of Prayer Annual Banquet 

The Foundry, Knoxville, TN

October 29, 2015

The University of Tennessee Campus House of Prayer (CHOP) was established in 2009 as a venue for 24/7 prayer, worship and intercession for U.T. students and campus ministers.
Gary and Rhonda Peacock founded the Campus House of Prayer (CHOP) at the University of Tennessee in 2009 as a venue open day and night for U.T. students and campus ministers to pray.

Thank you for that gracious introduction, Bryan. And thank you to Gary and Rhonda, for inviting Sue and I to be with you tonight. When the four us first met in Colorado over seven years ago, I don’t think we could have ever imagined that one-day we’d get to live and minister together in Knoxville.

And let me make something clear: ‘minister’ is exactly what I mean. Don’t let any changes in role and title over the years fool you; Sue and I are campus ministers through and through. We started our careers as Cru staff at the University of Memphis, an experience that nearly kept us from taking another job in Tennessee, [Laughter] and everything we’ve done since has only served the pursuit of our primary calling as ministers to students and those who lead them.

So speaking on prayer to the extended family of the Campus House of Prayer, CHOP, at the University of Tennessee makes perfect sense. And as I prayed at CHOP early this morning, I sensed that I needed to scrap my planned remarks and pave the way for the stories you have heard already tonight and the ones you will hear later by providing an educational rationale for a campus house of prayer.

But first, I want to start with a piece of advice that might lead to some great PR for CHOP. After just a few months of observing the UT community, I believe that the greatest service the Campus House of Prayer could offer the University would be to petition the football program to stop praying before games… [pause] ….and ask that the athletic department move the prayer time to the fourth quarter! [Laughter.]

(Note to those who are not Volunteer football fans: The UT football team–who open every game at Neyland Stadium with public prayer for the 102,422 faithful in attendance–lost four of its first seven games in the 2015 season after leading in the fourth quarter, including narrow losses to eventual CFP tournament teams Alabama and Oklahoma.)

Prayer: An Odd Duck in the Modern University

Let’s admit it, football traditions not withstanding, a House of Prayer on a college campus sounds more than a little out-of-place. Colleges are centers of learning; universities established as institutions devoted to study and to scholarship, not spiritual exercises.

In the second century after Christ, Christian theologian Tertullian famously asked, “What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?” Now the tables are turned, and a better question today might be, “What does U.T. have to do with prayer and prayer with UT?”

Some might argue that the best answer that question is, nothing. Even many Christians may say, “We have so many campus ministries devoted to teaching Biblical truth in a manner worthy of a community of higher learning, why confuse things with a practice that appears amusingly antiquated to many in the university community, and completely delusional to others? Let’s preach the gospel and forget this troubling notion of prayer.”

However, tonight I wish to argue that the real answer to the question, “What does UT have to do with prayer and prayer with UT?” is everything. I believe that is true even for those who have no faith commitment whatsoever. (I will have to leave that argument for another day.) However, it is especially true for those who name the name of Christ. Here’s why.

Prayer in the College of Christ

While Jesus never established a brick and mortar school in the modern sense of the word, the discipleship movement he founded was indistinguishable from first-century Jewish higher education. Itinerating with a rabbi was simply the way you “did” college in Jesus’ day. After a youth spent studying the Torah, only the most remarkable students were allowed to go on to the Jewish version of higher education: obtaining permission to study as a talmid (disciple/student) of a great Rabbi. (See, Rabbinic Higher Education: Culture-Making, The Life of the Mind, and the Word of God.)

Like all Rabbis, Jesus’ curriculum centered on the study of his teachings and interpretations of Torah. Like all Rabbis, Jesus’ pedagogy was highly relational and centered on the creation of a learning community where master and disciples lived in close proximity and forged a friendship.

What distinguished the “College of Christ” from other first-century higher education was Jesus’ unique emphasis on the spiritual discipline of prayer. While prayer was part of all Jewish education, Jesus’ overarching commitment to prayer goes far beyond any Rabbi of his day. [2] Luke records no less that nine occasions when Jesus prayed with and/or modeled prayer for his students. [1] Matthew recalls least twenty-percent of Jesus’ parables and the Sermon on the Mount centered on prayer. John, perhaps Jesus’ favorite student, notes that his teacher devoted nearly half of his “last lecture” (John 13-17) to teaching his students about prayer, and praying together with them.

For Jesus prayer and education were inseparable, because education and the knowledge of God are inseparable. Whereas the object of Greek education was to study to ‘know thyself,’ Jesus taught his students that true spiritual life is found in knowing God (John 17:3). This emphasis was consistent with the Rabbinic concept that you could only know someone or something you experienced. Jesus’ learning outcomes demanded that his students encounter God not merely intellectually, but experimentally as well. He taught them to seek this experiential knowledge of God not only through the discipline of study (as important as this might be), but in prayer as well.

1) Education and Contemplative Prayer: Instruction in Abba Intimacy

After years of teaching and modeling prayer, Jesus’ students finally ask their Rabbi, “Lord, teach us to pray.” Jesus’ response would have sounded both disappointingly familiar, and astonishingly radical at the same time.

On one level, “The prayer is thoroughly Jewish “and “could easily have appeared without change in rabbinic literature.” [3] However, another level, the Lord’s Prayer highlights at least two unique aspects of prayer in the College of Christ.

First, in teaching his disciples to address God as Father, Jesus’ rooted the practice of prayer in his desire for his students to experience the intimate love of God. While the fatherhood of God is only inferred in the Torah, it is clearly evident in the Psalms and Prophets, and later rabbinic writings. [4] Jesus drew upon this rabbinic tradition, deepening it in a manner that would have been nearly unthinkable for most Rabbis of his day.

Renowned Near Eastern Studies scholar Joachim Jeremias discovered that “In the literature of Palestinian Judaism no evidence has yet been found of ‘My father,’ being used by an individual as an address to God… We do not have a single example of God being addressed as Abba (my father) in Judaism, but Jesus always addressed God in this way.”[5]

It is an astonishing choice of words. Abba implies a close, personal and familial relationship. “What others thought too intimate in praying to God, Jesus used because of its intimacy.”[6] What’s more, he taught his disciples to do the same. As New Testament scholar Joel Green asserts, Jesus’ teaching on prayer “begins and ends with references to God as the Father of his disciples.”[7]

Prayer was a critical educational practice, because in prayer students encountered genuine knowledge of God the Father. As Singaporean theologian Simon Chan affirms, “Intimacy with God is what characterizes a life of prayer.”[8]

The early Christians followed Jesus’ example so thoroughly that for the first 1200 years of the church, prayer and education were inseparable. In fact, for most of that time if you wanted to learn the great Greco-Roman liberal arts, you had to do it in a community devoted to prayer. As renowned church historian, Jean LeClerq, summarizes, “Hence, there arose a distinctive culture with marked characteristics, contemplative’ in bent, oriented toward spirituality [and] assuming there is no theology without prayer and the establishment of certain [experiential] contact with God.” [9]

How will they know unless someone teaches them?

This past summer I had the honor of addressing many of the top leaders in Christian Higher Education in Canada—presidents, faculty and student life staff. As part of my remarks I led us in a brief centering prayer exercise. Now, there is this wonderful thing that happens regularly in centering prayer known as “the drop.” It is a physical sensation that often accompanies moving from our head to our heart in prayer. Now, I can practice centering prayer for twenty minutes a day for a week and never experience the drop. However, that day the Lord graced us with a nearly universally experienced collective drop that you could literally hear in the transformation of everyone’s breathing patterns.

But was most instructive was when I asked how many of these perhaps most highly educated leaders in the entire nation, “How many of you have ever been taught the art of centering prayer and experienced a drop before?” The answer was significantly less than half the room. Their education had never included instruction in what would have been considered a Freshman 101 lesson in most Christian catechetical schools for over 1200 years. Why? Because there was nothing like a campus house of prayer on their campuses to teach them.

So… “What does UT have to do with prayer and prayer with UT?”

If we are committed to building campus ministries capable of following after the model of the College of Christ by leading student into a life of Abba intimacy, the answer is Everything!

How are UT students ever going to learn to pray, unless as in the College of Christ, someone models a life of prayer so thoroughly that students ask, “Teach us to pray”? Which is exactly what happened to Aaron when he wandered into that CHOP city prayer meeting.

The first reason why UT needs the Campus House of Prayer is to provide a safe place for students and staff from every campus ministry to learn to grow deep in the experiential knowledge of Abba intimacy with God through prayer.

2) Education and Answered Prayer: Evidence of the In-breaking Kingdom

The Lord’s Prayer also reveals second reason why we need a campus house of prayer. Jesus didn’t want his students to merely become prayerful navel gazers, experiencing God in private. He wanted them to experience God breaking into their world. He taught his students how to enter into the coming of the kingdom, not only through faith, repentance, and prayer for “private” experiential knowledge of God, but also to pray for the “public” manifestation of the compassion and power of the Father God of the kingdom.

He therefore instructed them to pray, “Cause your kingdom to come, your will to be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Through the Spirit who was “upon” Jesus, God was exerting his “authority to rule” in order to bring about the will of God upon the earth that the Father intended in the heavens. Jesus’ Spirit-empowered ministry was a sign that the Messianic kingdom of God was breaking in upon the world (cf. Matthew 12:28). Supernatural answers to prayer were the fuel of his outreach and discipleship ministry.

Like CHOPS the prayer tent on UT’s campus, Jesus’ students experienced God as alive and active in the physical world through answered prayer. He modeled, mentored and coached his students into an increasing participation in supernatural answers to prayer. He pressed his students to grow into a confidence that no prayer was too big for God (John 14:13-14; 15:7,16; 16:23-26).  He taught them that certain kinds of spiritual resistance could be overcome only through prayer (Mark 9:29). He assured them that miraculous answers to prayer they experienced in his earthly ministry would continue in the new era of the Spirit (John 14:12). And he taught them that the ministry of the Holy Spirit is given in answer to prayer (Luke 11:13).

Then, after their remarkable “graduation” ceremony from the School of Christ at Pentecost (we give students diplomas, he gave them the Holy Spirit), Jesus’ students continued to advance the kingdom of God by praying for power of the Spirit to be released in supernatural answers to prayer (Acts 4:30-31); and witnessed spiritual awakening after spiritual awakening that demonstrated that the kingdom of God was indeed breaking into the world. (Romans 15:9; 1 Corinthians 2:4).

Prayer preceded the first outpouring of Holy Spirit in Jerusalem (Acts 1-2), and the second (Acts 4:31-5:11). Prayer was integral the spiritual awakenings in Samaria (Acts 10-11) and Antioch (Acts 13:1-3).

Prayer for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit was the genesis of Paul’s great revival in Ephesus (Acts 19), where Paul adopted and adapted the best practices of Greco-Roman higher education by teaching in the lecture hall of Tyrannous until, “All the Jews and all the Greeks in all the Roman province of Asia heard the word of the Lord” (Acts 19:10).

And that is not the inflated spin doctoring of Paul’s PR team. It is the inspired word of God. One can only begin to imagine what might happen if prayer for the outpouring of the Spirit on UT’s campus might lead to all the students and all the non-students in province of East Tennessee hearing the word of the Lord.

Which is why, as the CHOP website so eloquently expresses, “Historically, the great movements of God have been predicated by movements of prayer. On campus at the University of Tennessee there is a space that strives to lay this foundation of prayer. We call it the CHOP, the Campus House of Prayer. It is a melting pot where students of different denominations and backgrounds unify to seek God and catalyze a movement for Christ.”

This has been Sue and my experience on each of the fours campuses where we have witnessed spiritual awakening. In each case it began with a dedication group of students and adults becoming a house of prayer for all nations in their intercessions for the kingdom of God to break into their world by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Whether it started with a group of students who prayed from 5:30 to 7:30 each morning, a campus ministry team who fasted together for forty days, or a mother who cried out day and night for over 17 years for God to move on the campus where her son would one day attend, God granted the outpouring of the Holy Spirit to those daring to take Jesus at his word and pray.

But one does not have to wait until a season of spiritual awakening to live out the teaching of the college of Christ. Sue and I have become deeply committed to teaching people to become “Two-Handed Warriors” for the Harvest. Men and women of God committed to both the life of the mind and the life of the Spirit, to both faith-building and culture-making—intellectuals, artists, ministers, philanthropists, and leaders in ever facet of society from the local church to global relief agencies, the Silicon Valley to the Mayo Clinic, Wall Street to Main Street, Hollywood to the Ivy League.

Whether that’s a screenwriter who turns to prayer in a time of desperate need only to rise and write an Academy Award-winning screenplay, a scientist whose research project had failed, but turned to God who granted her Nobel Prize-winning scientific discovery that took her decades to prove in the laboratory, or a UT student who turned to God when an engineering simulation proved impossible like Bryan, or a group of UT campus ministers who are called to tackle racism head on like Matthew described. These men and women are true two-handed warriors following the example set by Jesus in the School of Christ.

Through both the intimacy of “Abba prayer” and the supernatural power of “Kingdom prayer” the distinctive outcome of the graduates of the College of Christ was their experiential knowledge of God. Even in the midst of tremendous pressures of leadership, nothing could distract Jesus’ alumni from devoting themselves to the two key disciplines he had carefully cultivated within them. When pressed with tremendous ministry and service demands they pressed back, “We must devote ourselves to prayer and the ministry of the word.” (Acts 6:4). His graduates not only knew about God and his word, they had experienced the Father God of the kingdom.

3) CHOP: Leading UT Students into a More Experiential Faith

It has been forty-five years since J.I. Packer warned the church, “One can know a great deal about God without much knowledge of him.”[10] Today, we may be danger of producing students who possess neither. If Christian Smith and Kenda Creasy Dean’s sobering research on the sorry spiritual state of today’s Christian students is to be believed, we are facing a generation who knows neither the Scriptures nor the power of God. (Matthew 22:9) and are therefore bored out of their minds. And who can blame them.

The church has managed to take a spiritually intimate and supernaturally powerful faith and made it about as compelling as, “whatever.” [11] Contemporary Christianity offers little of the “personal relationship with Jesus” students were promised when they made their profession of faith and virtually no power whatsoever.

In a generation hungering for intimacy at an unprecedented level, can we offer students pathways to encounter the Father’s transforming love? In a generation flocking to supernatural movies, television shows, and video games, can our campus ministries help students experience the kingdom of God breaking into the world in ways that defy all natural explanation?

Jesus would say we can, but only if we summon the courage to fill our outreach and our discipleship ministries with prayer. A recommitment to a biblical worldview will never be enough to rescue a generation from “moralistic, therapeutic, deism.” [11] They need the experiential knowledge of God. We need to be able to offer students the power of answered prayer to break through the insipid deism of a materialistic worldview. We need to be able to offer students the intimacy of reflective prayer to encounter the love of the Father and evoke genuine love of God in return.  Half measures won’t cut it.

“What on earth does prayer have to do with UT and UT with Prayer?” Nothing?

Everything?

You decide.

As for me, I can only throw my lot behind Gary, Rhonda and CHOP and cry out,

“Lord, teach us to pray!”

 

© Gary David Stratton 2015

Notes

[1] Luke 3:21; 5:16; 6:12; 9:18,28; 10:17-21; 11:1; 22:39-46; 23:34,36.

[2] George W. E. Nickelsburg, Ancient Judaism and Christian origins: diversity, continuity and transformation. (Minneapolis, Minn: Fortress, 2003). See Also, Gary David Stratton. 2014. “Rabbinic Higher Education: Culture-Making, The Life of the Mind, and the Word of God,” Two Handed Warriors, http://wp.me/p1TN9X-2R.

[3] Marvin R. Wilson, Our father Abraham: Jewish roots of the Christian faith. (Grand Rapids, Mich: W.B. Eerdmans, 1989), p. 118, see also. p. 288. David Bivin, “Prayers for Emergencies,” Jerusalem Perspective 37 (Mar./Apr. 1992), 1-17. Samuel Sandmel, Judaism and Christian Beginnings (Oxford University Press, 1978), p. 358. Bradford H. Young, The Jewish Background of the Lord’s Prayer (Austin, TX: Center for Judaic-Christian Studies, 1984).

[4] Psalms 2:7; 89:26; Isaiah 9:6; Isaiah 63:16; 64:8; Jeremiah 3:4,19; Malachi 3:10. See, N. T. Wright, Jesus and the victory of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996), 265. See also, Scot McKnight, A new vision for Israel: the teachings of Jesus in national context (Grand Rapids, Mich: W.B. Eerdmans, 1999), p. 62-63.

[5] Joachim Jeremias, The Prayers of Jesus (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1978), p. 57.

[6] James D.G. Dunn, The Evidence for Jesus (Philadelphia, Penn: Westminster, 1985), p. 21.

[7] Joel B. Green, The theology of the gospel of Luke. New Testament theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), p. 111.

[8] Simon Chan, Spiritual theology: a systematic study of the Christian life. Downers Grove, Ill: Intervarsity Press, 1998), p. 132.

[9] Jean LeClerq. 2007. The love of learning and the desire for God: A study of monastic culture, 3rd Edition. New York: Fordham University Press, 2007, p. 3.

[10] Knowing God (London: Evangelical Press, first published in 1970), p. 16.

[11] Christian Smith, and Melinda Lundquist Denton. Soul searching: the religious and spiritual lives of American teenagers. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005). Kenda Creasy Dean, Almost Christian: what the faith of our teenagers is telling the American church. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).

[12] Smith, and Denton, p. 2.

 

Thirty Favorite Christmas Movies and TV Specials

We compiled our list from Stratton family favorites and suggestions from the Two Handed Warrior community. Did we miss your favorite?

by Gary & Sue Stratton

If the stable teaches us anything it’s that you can’t always judge a Christmas classic by its humble beginning. The highest-rated Christmas movie of all time, It’s a Wonderful Life, was known as Frank Capra’s greatest failure until countless TV reruns brought it back to life.  CBS executives nearly killed the most-watched Christmas special of all time, A Charlie Brown Christmas, because they feared it was too ‘sacred.’  With a worldwide audience of over 2 billion, the BBC calls Jesus (1979)  “the most watched movie” of all time, yet most Americans have never heard of it. The most-watched opera in television history, Amahl and the Night Visitors, may never recover its audience after a tiff between composer Gian Carlo Menotti and NBC kept it off the air for over three decades.

So Sue and I put together our own list of favorites in hopes of inspiring your search for true greatness. Some are well-known. Some are secret treasures. We categorized the films/shows between those with a more-or-less ‘sacred’ view of Christmas (focused more on the birth of Jesus), and ‘secular’ offerings (focused more on Santa Claus). Then we listed them chronologically within each group.

We hope they inspire as much holiday cheer in your household as they do in ours.

Merry Christmas!

Gary & Sue

 

GREAT Films with a More (or Less) ‘Sacred’ View of Christmas

A Christmas staple Menotti's 'Amahl and the Night Visitors' is worth finding in a local live performance or the original video
The most viewed opera in TV history, Menotti’s powerful ‘Amahl and the Night Visitors’ is well worth the search to find it

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) Frank Capra’s masterpiece is not just a great Christmas movie, both the WGA  and AMI list it as one of the twenty best films ever made.

Amahl and the Night Visitors (1951) Gian Carlo Menotti’s most popular opera was originally written for NBC as a one-hour Christmas Eve TV broadcast. Find a local live performance if you can, but the hilarious and inspiring original is also available on DVD.

Charlie Brown Christmas (1965) Charles Schultz’s enduring glimpse at Charlie Brown’s search for the true meaning of Christmas. CBS feared it was ‘too sacred’ for prime time.

The Nativity (1987)  This Hanna-Barbera Greatest Adventures of the Bible video is hard to find, but worth it for your kids. We found a couple of YouTube links, but, uh …they might be bootleg.

The Nativity Story (2006) Not everything you’d hope it would be, but does a marvelous job of capturing the incredible faith (and sacrifice) of Mary and Joseph.

 

GREAT Films with a ‘Sacred’ View of Christmas as Part of  a Larger Movie

078nativity
Zeffirelli’s Juliet (Olivia Hussey) makes a breathtaking Mary in Jesus of Nazareth

Ben-Hur (1959) At least one wise man continues his search for Jesus as Charlton Heston’s title character strives to put his life back together after profound betrayal. Also, on the AMI list of best films ever made. As an added plus, that chariot scene can really get you in the mood to face Christmas traffic.

The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) Jean Negulesco directed this understated and haunting Nativity sequence.

Jesus of Nazareth (1977) Franco Zeffirelli’s masterful TV mini-series. Incredibly complex and textured. Get Episode 1 for the Nativity scene.

Jesus (1979) A clear and compelling account of the birth of Christ from the Gospel of Luke. Our normally chatty group of friends didn’t speak for a full hour after watching it together.

The Gospel According to Matthew (1996) The Visual Bible‘s straightforward retelling of the birth of Christ from Matthew’s perspective. Watching Luke (Jesus, 1979) and Matthew’s narrative back-to-back creates a marvelous disequilibrium. Throw in the prologue from The Gospel of John (2003), with LOST’s Henry Ian Cusick as Jesus, to complete a remarkable Christmas trifecta.

 

GOOD Movies with a ‘Sacred’ View of Christmas

Bill Murray at his comedic best
Bill Murray at his comedic best

A Christmas Carol (1951) When you hear them singing The Most Wonderful Time of the Year in the Mall, you know it’s time for “scary ghost stories.”  You don’t get any scarier than the original adaptation of this “Dickens Horror Picture Show.”

Scrooged (1988) A snide and cynical take on Dickens tale with the inimitable Bill Murray as Scrooge himself.

The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)  Kermit, Miss Piggy, Gonzo, and the gang in an offbeat, but faithful retelling of Dickens’ classic.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005) Okay, it’s cheating a bit, but there is a Christ figure, and a Christmas, and presents, and everything. Just don’t let the White Witch hear you talking about it.

Silver Bells (2013) When a scuffle with the ref at his son’s basketball game lands an ambitious television sportscaster in serious trouble he finally encounters the true meaning of Christmas.  Act One graduate Andrea Gyertson Nasfell‘s third Christmas movie, after Christmas with a Capital C (2011) and Christmas Angel (2012), not to mention her 2014 hit Mom’s Night Out.

 

GREAT Films with a “Secular” View of Christmas

A Christmas Story ( ) somehow manages to hit the mark with holiday perfection
A Christmas Story (1983) somehow manages to hit the mark with holiday perfection

Miracle on 34th Street (1947) Classic, “Do you believe in something you can’t prove” premise.  Many remakes, none come close to the original.

White Christmas (1954) Not much Jesus (or Santa), but a wonderful tale of friendship and loyalty. We watch it every year as it chokes us up every time.

A Christmas Story (1983) I don’t know why we all get such a kick out of this admittedly B movie.  A pitch-perfect coming-of-age story surrounding the hopes and fears of a nine-year-old boy. Just don’t shoot your eye out.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1996) and How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000) Both the television classic and Jim Carrey’s (over the top) psycho-drama-remake are well worth an evening. “I’m feeling!”

Elf (2003) Perhaps  Will Ferrell’s best movie. The story of Buddy the Elf is an irresistible recasting of the Santa story.  Zooey Deschanel‘s sterling role doesn’t hurt one bit.

 

GOOD Films with ‘Secular’ View of Christmas

Tim Allen featured in Bill O'Reilly's new book, Killing Santa
Tim Allen to be featured in Bill O’Reilly’s new book, Killing Santa?

Christmas in Connecticut (1945) A New York food writer’s personal brand as the perfect housewife is in danger of being exposed as a sham when her boss invites a returning war hero for a traditional family Christmas at her home in Connecticut. Only one problem, she doesn’t have a home in Connecticut.

Christmas Vacation (1989) Didn’t get enough of Chevy Chase on Community? This is the movie for you. The Griswold family’s big Christmas turns out to be “nuts’?

Home Alone (1990) A zany battle against the world’s least scary criminals. It made the list this year because so many THW conversation partners mentioned how the strangely moving church scene (which wasn’t even part of the original script) added much needed gravitas to the moral premise of a very silly movie.

Prancer (1989) A bittersweet, but poignant tale of loss and redemption. One girl’s desperate faith changes her life and her father.

The Santa Clause (1994) Can you be drafted into the ranks of Father Christmas? Apparently, yes. Tim Allen’s best role since Home Improvement.

 

GREAT Films set During the Christmas Season (but, uh, not all are kid-friendly)

If you like Christmas RomComs, but hate the Hallmark Channel, While you were Sleeping is for you
If you love Christmas RomComs, but hate the Hallmark Channel, While you were Sleeping is for you

While You Were Sleeping (1995) A touching and laugh-out-loud funny tale for anyone who ever cherished a secret love (or faced a Christmas alone). Might be Sandra Bullock’s best role before The Blind Side.

Die Hard (1988)  Police Officer John McClain thwarts a ring of Euro-terrorists who crash a corporate Christmas party. Bruce Willis is his smarmy best, but Alan Rickman as Hans Gruber almost steals the show… and the dough.

Family Man (2000)  Turns the “what if” premise of It’s a Wonderful Life on its head. With Don Cheadle as an angel on the edge, and some of the best acting of (Madam Secretary)  Tea Leoni and Nicholas Cage‘s and careers. Sue and I watch it every year and ponder our own “what if?”

Joyeux Noel (‘Merry Christmas’ in French, 2005) The remarkable true story of the WWI Christmas truce. German, French, and Scottish soldiers lay down their arms for a day of celebration and wind up friends with the ‘enemy’ on the opposite side of a brutal war.  A powerful expression of both the spirit of Christmas and the power of friendship. (Subtitles.)

Children of Men (2006) Alfonso Cuarón’s masterpiece confronts us with a tale of a miraculously pregnant unwed mother and her reluctant protector set amidst the most horrific violence an empire can throw at them: in short, a stark retelling of the Christmas story.

.

See also:

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

Alfonso Cuarón’s ‘Children of Men’ (2006): A Stark Retelling of the Christmas Story

Thirty Good to Great Christmas Movies for 2014, by Gary and Sue Stratton

Our annual Christmas movie extravaganza compiled from our family’s favorite Christmas movies of all time and suggestions from members of the THW community.

by Gary & Sue Stratton

charlie-brown-christmas2
The #1 Made-for-TV Christmas movie of all time almost never aired because CBS doubted its ‘sacred’ view of Christmas would draw a large enough audience.

What better way to get in the holiday spirit than to fire up the DVD, Blu-Ray, Tivo, Wii, XBox, Laptop, IPad, Kindle, Smart Phone, Hulu, NetFlix, Roku, Amazon Prime, etc. and watch your favorite Christmas films.

We divided our list between good and great films and categorized them with either a ‘sacred’ view of Christmas (focused more on the birth of Jesus), or a ‘secular’ version (focused more on Santa Claus). Then we listed them chronologically within each group.

We hope they inspire as much holiday cheer in your household as they do in ours.

Merry Christmas!

Gary & Sue

 

GREAT Films with a More (or Less) ‘Sacred’ View of Christmas

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The toughest on the list to find, but worth the search if you want to talk about the real meaning of Christmas with your kids.

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) Frank Capra’s masterpiece is not just a great Christmas movie, it is one of the ten best films ever made.

Charlie Brown Christmas (1965) Charles Schultz’s enduring glimpse at the meaning of Christmas. Set the DVR and experience the least commercial Christmas tale ever told on network TV.

The Nativity (1987)  This Hanna-Barbera Greatest Adventures of the Bible video is hard to find, but worth it for your kids. We found a couple of YouTube links, but, uh …they might be bootleg.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005) Okay, it’s cheating a bit, but there is a Christ figure, and a Christmas, and presents, and everything. Just don’t let the White Witch hear you talking about it.

The Nativity Story (2006) Not everything you’d hope it would be, but does a marvelous job of capturing the incredible faith (and sacrifice) of Mary and Joseph.

GREAT Films with a ‘Sacred’ View of Christmas as Part of  a Larger Movie

078nativity
Zeffirelli’s Juliet (Olivia Hussey) makes a breathtaking Mary in Jesus of Nazareth

Ben-Hur (1959) Charlton Heston’s character’s life parallel’s the life of Jesus, (even if he actually misses his birth). Also, one of the best films ever made. As an added plus, that chariot scene can really get you in the mood to face the mall.

The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) Jean Negulesco directed this understated and haunting Nativity sequence.

Jesus of Nazareth (1977) Franco Zeffirelli’s masterful TV mini-series. Incredibly complex and textured. Get Episode 1 for the Nativity scene.

Jesus (1979) A clear and compelling account of the birth of Christ from the Gospel of Luke. With a worldwide audience of over 2 billion, the BBC calls Jesus “the most watched” movie of all-time.

The Gospel According to Matthew (1996) The Visual Bible‘s straightforward retelling of the birth of Christ from Matthew’s perspective.

GOOD Movies with a ‘Sacred’ View of Christmas

Muppet Christmas Carol: A scary ghost story for the PG set.

The Bishop’s Wife (1947) Samuel Goldwyn’s romantic comedy about a Bishop’s fundraising prayer that nets a lot more than cash. Cary Grant plays the angel with more on his mind than money. (The 1996 remake, The Preacher’s Wife, featuring Denzel Washington and Whitney Houston isn’t bad at all.)

A Christmas Carol (1951) When you hear them singing The Most Wonderful Time of the Year in the Mall, you know it’s time for “scary ghost stories.”  You don’t get any scarier than the original adaptation of this “Dickens Horror Picture Show.”

Scrooged (1988) A snide and cynical take on Dickens tale with the inimitable Bill Murray as Scrooge himself.

The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)  Kermit, Miss Piggy, Gonzo, and the gang in an offbeat, but faithful retelling of Dickens’ classic.

Silver Bells (2013) Bruce Dalt (Bruce Boxleitner) is an ambitious television sportscaster who approaches the holidays as he does life – competitively. But when a scuffle with the ref at his son’s basketball game leads to serious consequences Bruce finally encounters the true meaning of Christmas and hope.  Act One graduate Andrea Gyertson Nasfell’s third Christmas movie, after Christmas with a Capital C (2011) and Christmas Angel (2012), not to mention her 2014 hit Mom’s Night Out.

GREAT Films with a “Secular” View of Christmas

MV5BMjA0Mzg0OTU0OF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTYwNTM4MjY5._V1_SX640_SY720_
We watch it as a family every year as we decorate the tree. And every year we say, “They just don’t make ’em like that anymore.”

Miracle on 34th Street (1947) Classic, “Do you believe in something you can’t prove” premise.  Many remakes, none come close to the original.

White Christmas (1954) Not much Jesus (or Santa), but a wonderful tale of friendship and loyalty. We watch it every year as it chokes us up every time.

A Christmas Story (1983) I don’t know why we all get such a kick out of this admittedly B movie.  A pitch-perfect coming-of-age story surrounding the hopes and fears of a nine-year-old boy. Just don’t shoot your eye out.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1996) and How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000) Both the television classic and Jim Carrey’s (over the top) psycho-drama-remake are well worth an evening. “I’m feeling!”

Elf (2003) Perhaps  Will Ferrell’s best movie. The story of Buddy the Elf is an irresistible recasting of the Santa story.  Zooey Deschanel‘s sterling role doesn’t hurt one bit.

GOOD Films with ‘Secular’ View of Christmas

MV5BMTUzMzg4MTg2M15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTYwNDM4OTk4._V1_SY317_CR6,0,214,317_
Totally idiotic and totally entertaining.

Christmas in Connecticut (1945) A New York food writer’s false personal brand as the perfect housewife is in danger of being exposed as a sham when her boss invites a returning war hero for a traditional family Christmas at her home in Connecticut. Only one problem, she doesn’t have a home n Connecticut.

Christmas Vacation (1989) Didn’t get enough of Chevy Chase on Community?  This is the movie for you.  The Griswold family’s plan for a big Christmas turns out to be “nuts’?

Prancer (1989) A bittersweet, but poignant tale of loss and redemption. One girl’s desperate faith changes her life and her father.

Home Alone (1990) A zany battle against the world’s least scary criminals. It made the list this year because so many THW conversation partners mentioned how strangely moving church scene (which wasn’t even part of the original script) added much needed gravitas to the moral premise of a very silly movie.

The Santa Clause (1994) Can you be drafted into the ranks of Father Christmas? Apparently, yes. Tim Allen’s best role since Home Improvement.

GREAT Films set During the Christmas Season (but, uh, not all are kid friendly)

children_of_men
Long before last year’s Oscar nominee GRAVITY, Alfonso Cuarón was shedding new light on stories of faith, like Christmas.

Die Hard (1988)  Police Officer John McClain thwarts a ring of Euro-terrorists who crash a corporate Christmas party. Bruce Willis is at his smarmy best, but Alan Rickman as Hans Gruber almost steals the show… and the dough.

While You Were Sleeping (1995) A touching and laugh-out-loud funny tale for anyone who has ever had a secret love or faced a Christmas alone. Sandra Bullock’s best role before Blind Side..

Family Man (2000)  Turns the “what if” premise of It’s a Wonderful Life on its head. With Don Cheadle as an angel on the edge, and some of the best acting of Nicholas Cage and Tea Leoni’s careers. We watch it every year and ponder our own what if?

Joyeux Noel (‘Merry Christmas’ in French, 2005) The remarkable true story of the WWI Christmas truce. German, French, and Scottish soldiers lay down their arms for a day of celebration and wind up friends with the ‘enemy’ on the opposite side of a brutal war.  A powerful expression of both the spirit of Christmas and the power of friendship. (Subtitles.)

Children of Men (2006) Alfonso Cuarón’s masterpiece confronts us with a tale of a miraculously pregnant unwed mother and her reluctant protector set amidst the most horrific violence an empire can throw at them: in short, a stark retelling of the Christmas story.

.

See also:

Alfonso Cuarón’s ‘Children of Men’ (2006): A Stark Retelling of the Christmas Story

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

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

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

by Gary David Stratton, PhD • Senior Editor

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

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

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

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


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

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The Paradox of Power

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

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

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

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

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

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

Authoritarian Leadership Learns to Serve

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

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

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

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

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

Power Brokers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The LOST Power of Ben

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Previous Posts In Series:

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

Hollywood Responds to Paparazzi in the Hands of an Angry God

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

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

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

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

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


Notes

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

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

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

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

[5] In Search of Excellence, p. 56

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

LOST Lessons of Leadership 2: Jack’s Position of Power – Service for the Common Good

Part 2 of series, LOST Lessons of Leadership: What ABC’s Hit Series Taught Me About Heroic Character.

Instead of treating leadership like a gun to meet his own needs, Jack is using leadership as a tool to serve others

by Gary David Stratton, PhD • Senior Editor

In contrast to the “asshole” style of leadership evidenced by Sawyer and his gun (see, LOST lesson #1), the first season of LOST open’s with a compelling story of a radically different approach: service. In perhaps the best seven-minute opening in the history of action-adventure television, Dr. Jack Shephard awakens to find himself alone and injured in a bamboo grove on a deserted island. Ignoring his own injuries, Jack rushes to the crash site and jumps into action as a servant leader. He tends to the wounded, brings a woman back from the dead, performs jungle surgery, leads the exploratory party to look for their jetliner’s transceiver, and plunges into the water to save a drowning woman. 

Despite a back story that would cause many to eschew the heroic, Jack functions not so much like a positional leader with the gun, but rather as a servant leader instead for the entire group.  

If you want to see exactly what I mean, you’ll have to sign in to ABC to watch the first ten minutes of the pilot below. (Also available on Hulu.)

The Nature of Servant Leadership

“Servant.”

“Leader.” 

Few words seem more mutually exclusive. Leaders give orders. Servants take them.  Leaders have followers. Servants have masters.  Leaders are powerful. Servants are powerless.  Everyone wants to be a leader. Everyone wants to have a servant.

But are they really so opposite? Jesus told his followers that true spiritual power comes not in seeking a position over others, but rather in a position under them.

Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.” -Mark 10:43-44

The ultimate test of practical leadership is the realization of intended, real change that meets people’s enduring needs.

How these words must have shocked Jesus’ disciples. They must have shook their heads to clear their ears.  Surely they could not have heard correctly.  A servant in Jesus’ day was the lowest of professions.  He performed the most menial of household tasks.  A slave was lower still.  “He had no rights at law and could demand no privileges …his money, his time, his future, his marriage were all, strictly speaking, at the disposal of his master.”[1]

But there was no mistake: Jesus selected His words very carefully. A servant is someone who lives to meet the needs of his master.  A servant leader lives for the needs of his followers.  The basis for greatness in the kingdom of God is not how many people serve you, but rather, how many people you serve.

The authoritarian leader uses people to help him gain his position of authority. The servant leader uses his position of authority to help him meet the needs of others.  “The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant–first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served.”[2] The more needs he meets, the better the servant he is and, therefore, the better leader.

The Power of Servant Leadership

If we can’t live together, we’re going to die alone.

This is the secret power of a servant leader:  people want to follow them. They sense that she genuinely cares about their well-being. There is something in the very nature of leadership that implies service.  True leaders, those who people follow because they want to not because they have to, always begin with and return to the needs of their followers.  As James MacGregor Burns states in his monumental work, Leadership: “The ultimate test of practical leadership is the realization of intended, real change that meets people’s enduring needs.”[3]

This is the secret to Jack’s leadership. He really isn’t trying to lead.  He is trying to serve. The group gradually gravitated to following him precisely because they realized that he was acting with their best interests in mind. When the group needs medical care, Jack is there. When they need fresh water, Jack finds it. When tensions in the group finally boil over into a fight, it is Jack who intervenes in what becomes one of the most famous speeches of the series:

It’s been six days and we’re all still waiting. Waiting for someone to come. But what if they don’t? We have to stop waiting. We need to start figuring things out. …Everyman for himself is not going to work. …Last week most of us were strangers, but we’re all here now. And God knows how long we’re going to be here. But if we can’t live together, we’re going to die alone.” 

The Goal of Servant Leadership

Throughout the rest of season one (don’t get me started talking about subsequent seasons), Jack continues to cast vision for the survivor’s future by inviting them into a story of collective servanthood. He functions as what business writer Jim Collins refers to as a “Level 5 Leader.” Collins studied top companies in order to discern why some were able to grow from being “good” companies into “great,” while others faltered. Not surprisingly, servant leadership was key. In Collins words:

Level 5 leaders are differentiated from other levels of leaders in that they have a wonderful blend of personal humility combined with extraordinary professional will. They are very ambitious; but their ambition, first and foremost, is for the company’s success. [5]

Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.

Like many Level 5 Leaders, Jack hasn’t sought and doesn’t even want to lead. In fact, it takes Jack more than a few episodes to even realize that he has become the group’s de facto leader.  When he insists to John Locke (Terry O’Quinn) that he can’t lead because, ”I’m not a leader!”  Locke can only reply, “Yet they treat you like one.”

And why not? Instead of treating leadership like a gun to meet his own needs, Jack is using leadership as a tool to serve others. Like Jesus, who took up the tools of a household servant—a basin and a towel—in order to wash the feet of his first followers; Jack uses his medical training and innate leadership skills to wash the wounds, and souls of the survivors of Oceanic 815.

By rejecting the path of lording it over the group and choosing to take a position under the survivors, Jack has become a true servant leader..

But is that all there is to servant leadership? If only it were so simple…

Next: LOST Lessons of Leadership 3: A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing: Authoritarian Leaders Learn to Serve.

 

See also:

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

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

Hollywood Responds to Paparazzi in the Hands of an Angry God

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

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

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

 


Notes

[1] Michael Green, Called to Serve (Philadelphia:  Westminster Press, 1964), p. 19.

[2] James M. Burns, Leadership (New York: Harper & Row, 2010), p. 461.

[3] Robert K. Greenleaf, Servant Leadership:  A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness: 25th Anniversary Edition (New York:  Paulist Press, 2002),  p. 13

[4] Sarah Powell, “Taking Good to Great: An Interview with Jim Collins.”  See also, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t (New York, NY: HarperBusiness, 2001).

[5] At least for the remainder of Season 1.

LOST Lessons of Leadership: What the Island Taught Me About Heroic Character

Part of ongoing series: Paparazzi in the Hands of an Angry God:  Celebrity and Servant Leadership in an Age of Self Promotion.

Like all authoritarian leaders, Sawyer understood that a leadership position is often wielded very much like a gun

by Gary David Stratton • Senior Editor

Critically-acclaimed and wildly successful, culture watchers consider LOST one of the most influential TV shows of all time

I admit it. I’m a huge fan of ABC’s hit series LOST (2004-2010). My son gave me the first season DVDs as a Father’s Day gift right before I boarded a plane for a conference at Yale University. After a late night arrival, I checked into my turn-of-the-century dorm room, fired up the trusty laptop and watched the first episode…alone.  I was completely hooked from the opening slate. [1]

I was also terrified. The juxtaposition of the Island’s tropical beauty with its forlorn isolation evoked some sort of Jungian identification in my soul. The polar bear and that pilot-munching “monster” only added to my sense of disorientation. By the time the first episode ended with a THUD and that eerie theme music, I was completely creeped out.

Lost and alone in a strange dorm room in a college town, I gave LOST my highest horror-film honor—I slept with the lights on!

LOST: A Study in Leadership?

The survivors of Oceanic Airlines flight 815 find themselves on a mysterious island and in desperate need of leadership

Curiously, the most influential aspect of LOST in my own life is its unique insight into the nature of servant leadership. One of the key story lines of LOST’s first season is the tension between Jack (Matthew Fox) and Sawyer (Josh Holloway) for leadership of the small band of plane crash survivors desperately seeking to balance the twin goals of survival and rescue.

With the plane’s crew and captain missing (or killed in first episode), Jack and Sawyer step into a profound leadership vacuum with radically different approaches to leadership.

 Sawyer Got a Gun

Jack and Sawyer’s struggle for control of the band of survivors is a central plot line of season one.

To Sawyer, leadership is about getting his own way, and the means to his end is gaining control of the only advanced weapon to survive the plane crash: an air marshal’s pistol. Once Sawyer gets the gun it is only a matter of time before he begins to use it to impose his agenda and well-being as the group’s first priority.

This is the nature of all authoritarian leadership. It is a lesson that Jesus of Nazareth laid out in his understanding of leadership nearly 2,000 years ago. St Mark records an extraordinary encounter between Jesus and two of his disciples–James and John–who approach him in search of positions of authoritarian power.

Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to Jesus and said, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask.”

“What do you want me to do for you?” he asked.

They replied, “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.”

“You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said. “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?”

“We can,” they answered.

Jesus said to them, “You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared.”

When the ten (other disciples) heard about this, they became indignant with James and John.  Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them.  Not so with you!”

-Jesus of Nazareth (Mark 10:35-43)

To Jesus, an authoritarian leader is someone who seeks to leads by virtue of his or her position over people–whether that position of advantage is gained by virtue of wealth, heritage, connections, talent, or luck.  To “lord it over” someone as Jesus calls it, is to attempt to subjugate them and control them.  This kind of leadership typified the Roman Empire-“the rulers of the Gentiles” in Jesus’ day.   First Century Israel was an occupied nation.  The disciples knew all too well the Roman cruelty and taxation that had already attained infamy in their excess.  By virtue of their position Roman soldiers and official could demand service from any civilian they chose.  Clearly Rome did not rule for the good of her subjects but for the glory of Caesar and his favored subjects.

Authoritarian leaders understand that a leadership position can be wielded very much like a gun

The Goal of Authoritarian Leadership

Like all authoritarian leaders, Sawyer understood that a leadership position can be wielded very much like a gun. Genuine leadership— “The skill of influencing people to work enthusiastically toward goals identified as being for the common good”– is the farthest thing from Sawyer’s mind.[2]

The authoritarian leader leads by using their position of power to force others do as she pleases. She accomplishes this by “exercising his authority over” his followers.  She has gained the upper hand by virtue of her wealth, privilege, status, or influence and uses her position as leverage against others to force them to do her bidding.  As George Mallone puts it,  “people who have spent all their energies getting to the top now let others feel the full weight of their authority . . . They are preoccupied with position.”[3]

This is clearly the aim of James and John. They reason that a dual vice-presidency in the kingdom of God is just the ticket for the ultimate power trip.  Yet their very request reveals a deep misconception of the nature of true leadership–a misconception that Jesus quickly corrects.

The Limitations of Authoritarian Leadership

Sawyer’s use of the “Gun” of authoritarian leadership quickly devolves into a power play for control

To the authoritarian leader, power and position are synonymous. Without position they have no power.  Without power, they cease to be a leader at all.  No one would follow them. When Sawyer loses control of the gun, he loses control of the group. As Dan Allender explains, “”You may obey a leader who has power and authority, but you will not strive to serve her or the cause of the organization unless you respect and care for her in addition to the ones with whom you serve.[4]

In short, as Season 1 begins, Sawyer is in the words of Stanford University professor Robert I. Sutton an “asshole”(an actual scholarly designation).  Assholes are profoundly ineffective leaders who “travel through life believing that they are inspiring effective action when, in fact, it only happens during the rare moments they actively impose themselves on underlings.”

The moment the authoritarian leader turns their back (or gun) their influence plummets.  Until then, followers “learn that their survival depends on protecting themselves from blame, humiliation, and recrimination rather than doing what is best for their organization.” Assholes are often praised for their short-term results, but their long-term impact nearly always devastates any group they lead. [5]

Sadly, such ineffective authoritarian leaders are all too common, whether in ancient Rome, a modern corporation, college, church, or synagogue… or even a tropical paradise. 


Next Post in Series:

LOST Lessons of Leadership 2 – Jack and the Position of Power: A Study in Servant Leadership

Previous Posts In Series:

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

Hollywood Responds to Paparazzi in the Hands of an Angry God

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

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

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


Notes

[1] For those who missed LOST’s premise, ABC TV provides the following introduction: “LOST – Out of the blackness the first thing Jack senses is pain. With a rush comes the horrible awareness that the plane he was on tore apart in mid-air and crashed on a Pacific island. From there it’s a blur as his doctor’s instinct kicks in: people need his help. Stripped of everything, the 48 survivors scavenge what they can from the plane for their survival. A few find inner strength they never knew they had.  The band of friends, family, enemies and strangers must work together against the cruel weather and harsh terrain. But the intense howls of the mysterious creatures stalking the jungle fill them all with fear. Fortunately, thanks to the calm leadership of quick-thinking Jack and level-headed Kate, they have hope.  But even heroes have secrets, as the survivors will come to learn. From J.J. Abrams, the creator of Alias, comes an action-packed adventure that will bring out the very best and the very worst in the people who are lost.” (ABC/MARIO PEREZ

[2] James C. Hunter, The Servant: A simple story about the true essence of leadership (New York: Crown Business, 2008).

[3] George Mallone, Furnace of Renewal (Downers Grove, IL:  Inter Varsity Press, 1981), p. 82

[4] Dan B. Allender, Leading with a Limp: Turning your struggles into strengths (Colorado Springs, Colo: Waterbrook Press, 2006).

[5] Robert I. Sutton, The No Asshole Rule: Building a civilized workplace and surviving one that isn’t (New York: Warner Business Books, 2007).

Story Failure: Why We ‘Lose it’ in High Stress Environments, by Gary David Stratton, PhD

Part 4 in series Finding God in Hollywood: Soul-Nourishing Practices in a Soul-Deadening World

The stories, beliefs and strategies we develop to survive life’s most painful experiences inevitably fail us in high stress environments. The question is, why?

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

“People who are caught up in the pursuit of excellence are particularly vulnerable to stress-related disorders.” – Psychologist Archibald D. Hart

You don’t have to be a celebrity to know that high stress environments can lead to “losing it.” (A Justin Bieber’s London tirade caught on video.)

Tabloids love it when celebrities ‘lose it’ in public. Nothing sells quite as well a fallen “hero.’ And fortunately for the tabloids, losing it is a common occurrence. In recent years Justin Bieber, Brittany Spears, Charlie Sheen, Tom Cruise, Kanye West have each provided ample fodder to guarantee tabloid sales and clicks stay high.

But the truth is, sooner or later, everyone loses it. Only most of us don’t have paparazzi stalking us night and day to chronicle our worst moments. But what if we did? High stress environments tend to bring out the worst in us, whether you’re a filmmakers, academic, businesswoman, salesman, or church leader. The question is why?

One explanation is the worldview concept of ‘story failure.’ A famous episode from the life of Jesus highlights just how easy it is for even the most earnest spiritual seeker to lose it and why it happens so easily.

 As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”

“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—really only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her. (Luke 10:38-42)

 

A Tale of Two Spiritualities

Mary seizes the opportunity to cherish Jesus’ every word, despite village and sibling pressure to the contrary. (Christ in the House of Mary and Martha, Vermeer, 1655)

Having such a great “celebrity” under your roof is a great honor, but it also carries tremendous responsibility. It places the reputation of the entire village squarely on the shoulders of these two apparently unmarried women. The eyes of every (married) homemaker in town bears down on them to scrutinize the quality of the hospitality they provide.

It is a high stress environment to say the least. And as the “snake” of the dinner hour grew closer and closer, the difference between Mary and Martha’s responses to stress begin to emerge.

Mary immediately seizes the opportunity of having Jesus in her living room. In other settings she would have to defer to the cultural practice of “men only” preferred seating. But they’re in her house now. Mary pushes past the other guests, and plops herself down at her master’s feet. She wants to catch very word that falls from his lips.

Story Failure

Martha is no less committed to Jesus. However, her way of showing her commitment reveals the presence of a profound story failure functioning in her life. We don’t know why an unmarried Martha is running her own household while caring for her younger siblings,[1] but it is a very unusual living situation in the first century Jewish world. It almost certainly involves difficult and painful circumstances. The untimely death of her parents, her husband, and perhaps Mary’s husband as well are all likely explanations.[2] No matter how you cut it, it is not a happy story and it is a story that appears to have shaped her inner life.

We don’t know all the false beliefs and strategies Martha has (unconsciously) constructed on her painful life story, but a few are evident in her words and actions in this passage. (See, Casablanca and the Four Levels of Worldview.) First, we can infer from her accusation that Jesus doesn’t care that her value and belief system seems to include hidden creeds such as: “Nobody cares as much as I do,” or perhaps, “Trust no one but yourself.” Second, we can also infer from her attempt to order Jesus around that her personal rule of life is to always stay in control.  And of course, her society’s ‘scripts’ or memes for how to run a household reinforce some of her worldview. (See, Crash Goes the Worldview: Why Character Transformation Requires Changing Scripts.)

Martha loses it.(Christ in the House of Mary and Martha, Jacopo Robusti Tintoretto, 1580)

This underlying micro-worldview may have helped Martha successfully navigate life in the past, but it fails her altogether in the high stress environment of hosting Israel’s hottest celebrity rabbi. Empowered by her unwavering (and probably unconscious) belief in her life story, Martha starts comforting herself with her preferred coping mechanisms. She knows that the evening is descending into chaos and that no one else cares as much as she does. She knows what must be done and is more than ready to demand obedience to her will. If she could only get her lazy sister’s attention then she could give Mary a piece of her mind and set things right. But her enrapt sister simply won’t take her eyes off that darn rabbi.

Like an adrenaline-charged mouse, her self-comforting behaviors begin winding her soul tighter and tighter with each passing moment.  Luke tells us that all Martha accomplishes with her adrenaline rush is becoming worried and upset. However, those English words simply don’t carry enough weight to adequately describe her internal state. In the original Greek language, the word “worried” carries the idea of being pulled in many different directions at once. Like a loaf of bread thrown into a gaggle of geese, Martha’s soul careens from one concern to the next—the bread, the village busybody’s stare, the soup, her sister’s absence, the tableware, Jesus’ presence, the wine, the disciple’s appetites—until little pieces of her soul begin to tear away.

The word “upset” is even more instructive. It literally means that her “soul is in an uproar.” Anyone who has ever lived in a high stress environment knows exactly what that phrase describes.  It is that feeling of a having an angry toddler or an out of control teenager in your soul. And it is the very state of being that now has Martha squarely in its jaws.

Two Phases of Losing It

It is only a matter of time until they begin to manifest in her relationships. Her anger boils to overflowing until she simply has to act.

In short, Martha loses it …on JESUS!

Even the most fervent filmmaker, professor, or pastor can quickly lose their connection to God in a high stress environment.
Even the most fervent filmmaker, professor, or pastor can quickly lose their connection to God in a high stress environment.

First, she transfers her self-comforting lie—“no one cares as much as I do”—onto Jesus. She pushes her way to the front of the room, not to sit at Jesus feet, but to yell at him. “Don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself?”

Second, she employs her self-comforting take-charge life-strategy to the Lord of the universe. Instead of sitting at Jesus feet and listening to what he has to say, Martha is now the one issuing the orders. “Tell her to come help me!” she commands.

Like everyone who loses it, Martha’s “Adrenaline Induced Psychosis” has only served to bring out the worst in her. Like a high-tempered filmmaker who “loses it” on set, a passive-aggressive academic who sabotages a rival’s tenure review, or the ever-smiling pastor who browbeats his family at home, her soul-deadening strategy has failed the test of thriving in a high stress environment.

We all develop stories we tell ourselves about life, God and others to help us cope with the pain of living in a fallen world. These unconscious narratives form the foundation of a false worldview from which we develop specific strategies to comfort ourselves from past wounds and protect ourselves from further harm.

The bad news is that high stress environments bring these lies and strategies to the surface like silver in the crucible. Veins coursing with adrenaline, our fight or flight reflex kicks in and we compulsively turn to the comfort and/or protect ourself like that mouse in a snake cage.  The results are never good.

The good news is that this same crucible makes our largely unconscious worldview visible. Once we’re aware of the false story we are living we can begin address them in our day-to-day lives. Just listen to your own “self-talk” the next time you’re in a high stress environment and you will begin to piece together some of the false story you are living. (More on this in future posts.)

A Prescription for Adrenaline Induced Psychosis

The better news it that it is possible to follow Jesus into a way of life that exposes these lies and strategies before they destroy us. We can develop a personalized plan of spiritual disciplines to help identify, replace the specific lies with truth, and our unique self-defeating strategies with new life-giving ones. (More on this later as well.)

Through personalized soul-nourishing spiritual practices, we can learn to live a better story.

Through personalized soul-nourishing spiritual practices, we can learn to live a better story. Such practices renew our minds, transform our hearts, and better align our worldview with God’s great story of love and redemption.

Like Jesus, we can even arm ourselves with an arsenal of specific Scriptural truths and character-strengthening practices that prepare us to parry the fiery darts of the evil one, and overcome the specific temptations where we are most vulnerable.

Some of the most foundational truths of the worldview shift  everyone requires to thrive spiritually in a high stress environment are found in Jesus’ response to Mary’s “losing it’ episode. One one level they are specific to Martha’s particular lies and strategies. On another level, they apply to all of us.

The first truth is that God is not angry at us when we ‘lose it.” Instead, he is full of compassion. He begins his response with the double use of her name—“Martha, Martha”—a cultural idiom for endearment. It is certainly not the reaction Martha anticipated.  In fact, his gentle touch completely disarms her. Suddenly becoming self-aware of the scene she is causing in front of the very people she is trying to impress, (trust me, I’ve been there), her indignation drains from her face like a deflated balloon.

For the first time Martha looks into Jesus’ eyes. Instead of finding the anger/compliance response her take-charge strategy has produced in the past, she finds something altogether different. Jesus meets her bullying with unadulterated compassion.

He has been ready for this moment. He knows her story better then she does.  With a knowing smile, Jesus shakes his head at his zealous follower and replies:

“You are worried and upset about so many things. But only one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen what is better and it will not be taken away from her.”

This is the second truth Jesus wants Martha (and us) to grasp–no one can take away your connection to God, but you. Like Curly’s advise to Billy Crystal in City Slickers, only one thing is really necessary. Do whatever it takes to stay connected to Jesus—those practices that help you live your life “sitting at his feet and listening to what he says.”—and everything else will take care of itself.

Double-Knowledge. The Two Steps Forward

This means than learning to thrive in high stress environments involves at least two different processes.

First, we need to discover which spiritual disciplines best help us stay connected to God in the midst of the battle. This is a very personalized process involving a great deal of trial and error (and, yes, failure.)  We’ll come back to this theme later.

Second, we need to go on the journey of discovering WHY we keep blowing up and self-sabotaging.  Spiritual directors through the centuries have discerned what they came to call the principle of double-knowledge: We can only know God as well as we know ourselves, but we can only know ourselves as well as we know God. I know that sounds like a Catch-22. But believe me, it’s not. Like the right and the left pedals of a bicycle we need to keep pumping both sides of this process to get anywhere.   Only as we get to know God and his love will will begin to understand our own story better. And only as we come to know our own story better, will we become more open to the love of God.

Next: Casablanca and the Transforming Love of God
See Also
Fight Club: Why Our Unreliable Narrator is Always Getting Us Into Trouble
 The Volcano in Your Backyard: The Micro-Worldview of a Honeymoon from Hell

 


[1] Martha is always mentioned first, so she is most likely the older of the two. It was their younger brother Lazarus who Jesus raised from the dead (John 11).

[2] It is also possible that Martha and Mary’s singleness is deliberate. Scholars note that a Jewish apocalyptic sect known as the Essenes (who may have helped train John the Baptist) had a strong presence in Bethany and encouraged celibacy. Mary, Martha, and Lazarus could have been older members of this community rather than younger widows and/or orphans. Still, if their singleness is intentional, that makes it highly unusual and stressful in its own way as well.

 

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Interview: Malcolm Gladwell on his return to faith while writing “David and Goliath”

How writing a book on the world’s most popular Bible story brought America’s most beloved non-fiction writer back into the fold.

I was so incredibly struck in writing these stories by the incredible power faith had in people’s lives, it has made a profound impact on me in my belief.

by   | via Religion News Service

Malcolm Gladwell speaks at PopTech! 2008 conference. Photo courtesy Kris Krüg via Wikimedia Commons
Malcolm Gladwell speaks at PopTech! 2008 conference. Photo by Kris Krüg [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Author Malcolm Gladwell may not be known for writing on religion. His New York Times best-selling books “The Tipping Point,” “Outliers,” “Blink” and “What the Dog Saw” deal with the unexpected twists in social science research. But his newest book, “David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants,” also includes underlying faith-related themes, and not just in the title. Gladwell said that while researching the book, he began rediscovering his own faith after having drifted away. Here, he speaks with RNS about his Mennonite family, how Jesus perfectly illustrates the point in his new book and how Gladwell’s return to faith changed the way he wrote the book. The interview was edited for length and clarity.

Q: You use the biblical story of David and Goliath in the title and the setup to your book. Do you think we’ve been retelling the story poorly?

A: I think there has been an overemphasis of the idea that David’s victory was improbable. When you look closer to that story and you understand the full historical context, you see it from a different perspective. Here was a guy who brilliantly changed the rules of combat. He was equipped with a sling that was routinely used by armies to defeat the sort that Goliath was. David was very skilled at using the weapon and he was filled with the spirit of the Lord. Put those things together, why is he an underdog? He’s smarter than his opponent, better armed and he had this extraordinary force in his heart. When you understand that perspective, you understand that sometimes our instinct about where power comes from is wrong.

Q: What are some other examples of faith influencing power?

A: The final two chapters of the book also deal with faith: one about a woman who forgives her daughter’s murderer and one about the Huguenots in France who defy the Nazis in World War II. In both cases, people were able to do extraordinary things because they were armed with faith. They were able to perform acts of courage because they came from godly traditions. In both cases, there are people who had been through enormous adversity and had survived — more than survived, thrived.

Q: Is it true you grew up in an evangelical home?

 Continue Reading

Forget The Church, Follow Jesus: ‘Reverts’ Return to their Childhood Religions

Part 12 in series How Millennials Who Gave up  on Church are Redefining Faith and Re-engaging Community

Two articles in national media today picked up on some of the same themes as  this week’s THW theme, albeit from rather different perspectives.

Forget The Church, Follow Jesus

Jesus

by Andrew Sullivan

If you go to the second floor of the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., you’ll find a small room containing an 18th-century Bible whose pages are full of holes. They are carefully razor-cut empty spaces, so this was not an act of vandalism. It was, rather, a project begun by Thomas Jefferson when he was 77 years old. Painstakingly removing those passages he thought reflected the actual teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, Jefferson literally cut and pasted them into a slimmer, different New Testament, and left behind the remnants (all on display until July 15). What did he edit out?

Read the whole story at Newsweek

 

‘Reverts’ return to their childhood religions

by Cathy Lynn Grossman

Bruce and Elizabeth Boling attend a Baptist church in Tennessee. (By Jeff Adkins, for USA TODAY )

Bruce Boling will celebrate Easter Sunday this weekend among Southern Baptists, just as he did when he prayed at a tiny Kentucky church where his family filled half the pews.

After decades away from faith, “I slowly began to see what I was missing was the relationship with God that I could find in my church,” says Boling, 45, settled in with a little Baptist congregation in Hendersonville, Tenn.

Lydia Scrafano’s heart will again thrill to hear Catholic hymns sounding on a great pipe organ, just as she did as a child in Detroit.

“I missed it all. I missed taking communion with a priest. I missed the stained glass. I missed the Virgin Mary,” says Scrafano, 55, who has reconnected with her faith through a Catholic church in Williamsburg, Va.

Like many Christians and Jews, Boling and Scrafano drifted — or marched — away from the religion of their childhood.

Then, unlike most, they came back.

Read the whole story in USA Today

 

Next Post in Series: New Study Reveals Why Millennials Are Leaving the Church, by Robert P. Jones, PhD