“A writer for Emmy magazine is on the phone for you.” At first I thought our PR director was pulling my leg. College professors don’t get calls from Emmy magazine, even if they are moonlighting as the Executive Director of a community of Christian entertainment industry professionals seeking to train and equip storytellers to enter mainstream Hollywood. Act One had been in existence for over a decade and even though we had graduates writing, producing, and directing on numerous TV shows and more than a few feature films, no entertainment industry press had ever called our offices before.
Kurt Schemper changed all that. A producer for A&E’s critically acclaimed reality program, Intervention, Kurt had just become the first Act One graduate to win a prime time Emmy Award. The writer on the phone, Libby Slate, was fascinated by Kurt’s connection to a Hollywood Christian community. But, what really impressed her was how the Act One community had lived out our faith by rallying to aid former staff member Rosario Rodriguez after her gang-related shooting while walking in the tawny L.A. neighborhood Libby called home. (Read story here.)
Libby wanted to know if Emmy could do an article highlighting Kurt and Act One’s unique mission in Hollywood. Kurt and I readily agreed, and director Korey Scott Pollard (House, Grey’s Anatomy, Monk, Nashville, Rizzoli and Isles, Lie to Me, The Middle, Jack Ryan) signed on to represent the Act One faculty perspective.
As Kurt, Korey and I prepared for our interview, Korey pushed for us to be ‘really ready’ to express exactly what we wanted to say. Our conversations turned to how difficult it is to thrive spiritually in Hollywood, and interviewer Libby Slate graciously picked up on this theme.
In the course of our conversations Kurt mentioned that one of his college professors at Judson College encouraged him to pursue his calling to Hollywood by quoting Frederick Buechner:
“The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”
Kurt’s response was, “My deep gladness is Jesus. The entertainment industry is no different than any other place with lonely people searching for gladness.”
The idea of finding “deep gladness” in Hollywood really resonated with me, especially as I contemplated what a “soul-deadening” place Hollywood can be for many industry insiders. So in my interview, I told Emmy, “We’ve found that the spirituality taught by Jesus is an ideal starting place for guiding industry professionals on a soul-nourishing spiritual journey.”
That language resonated with Emmy readers as well, and soon opened doors all over Hollywood. Now it leads to this new series entitled, “Soul-nourishing Practices for a Soul-deadening world: Finding the Voice of Your Own Gladness in Hollywood and Beyond.”
My hope is that these posts will help filmmakers, educators and other culture makers find their own “deep gladness” through the soul-nurturing practices Jesus taught his first followers over 20 centuries ago. Not mere religious practices targeted at greater self-righteousness, but spiritual practices targeted at nurturing a deeper connection to God.
We officially launched the series earlier, but today I thought you might want to read the original Emmy article. (I couldn’t figure out how to post it directly, so you’ll have to download the article as a pdf.) Enjoy!
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.
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
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.” 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.” 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. 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.
Reflections on the Relaunch of Two Handed Warriors
Dear Two Handed Warrior Community,
When Sue and I first launched Two Handed Warriors eight months ago we never could have imagined how many people would connect with our theme. All we had was a deep conviction that an unnecessary dichotomy between faith and culture has plagues both the quality of life and overall effectiveness of an entire generation of leaders.
Leaders adept at culture-making—whether in Hollywood or the Ivy League—are rarely trained in the disciplines of faith-building; whereas leaders with strengths in faith-building—whether in a local congregation or an international relief agency–are rarely trained in the art of culture-making.
It is a dichotomy that not only creates glaring blind spots in our leadership (and personal lives), it also robs us of a vibrant conversation with other leaders from whom we have the most to learn.
We launched Two Handed Warriors in hopes that it would inspire an ongoing conversation among educators, filmmakers, business and spiritual leaders devoted to gaining expertise in BOTH faith-building and culture-making. Our hope was that (in time) such a conversation might help birth a movement of intellectuals, artists, leaders, and philanthropists who could redefine faith and culture for an entire generation.
Our hunch was that such a movement of experts in such diverse fields could be unified by developing a common “school of thought” centered on a deeper understanding of “the stories we live by” at the deepest level of our societal and personal worldviews. Or at least that story was one place where filmmakers and college professors, musicians and CEOs, scientists and pastors could meet as equals and develop a common language for tackling the reintegration of faith and culture in their own lives and in the organizations they lead.
On the one hand, THW has exceeded our wildest dreams. Readership has outstripped anything Sue and I could have imagined. On the other hand, THW still has a long way to go in fostering the kind of conversation we envisioned.
Toward that end we are going to try a few new strategies in this next year.
First, we’ll be hosting a series of face-to-face conversations among key leaders in variety of settings–Entertainment, Education, Ministry, etc.–to help better understand the unique issues facing leaders in each setting and (Lord willing) foster the kind of relationships required for a deeper ongoing conversation. (The next step will be cross-pollination meetings between leaders in different contexts.)
Second, we are going to accept some graciously offered help in upping our social media game. These experts tell us that we are seriously under utilizing Twitter and Facebook and have a very time-consuming email system. Please be patient with us as we try new things and let us now if they are helpful (or not). The goal is to build community, not annoy people.
Third, we are officially asking for help. We need to solidify our team of writers, editors, photographers, graphic designers, event planners, administrators, etc. If you have the time and talent we have the need. We’ve got some exciting new pieces and projects in the works, but with my sabbatical coming to an end, we need HELP bringing the website to print and peer group gatherings to reality!
Finally, we want to say thank you to everyone who helped get us this far. We never would have made it without the generous help of so many dear friends. We’d like to give special thanks to Margaret Feinberg, Scot McKnight, Mike Friesen, Dale Kuehne, Dave Schmelzer, Lem Usita, Cheryl McKay Price, Cathleen Falsani, Lauren Hunter, Dean Batali, Sheryl Anderson, Phil and Kathleen Cooke, Erik Lokkesmoe, Jessica Rieder, Michael Warren, Monica Macer, Kurt Schemper, Kevin Chesley, Korey Scott Pollard, John David Ware, Jenn Gotzon, Chris Armstrong, Ashley Arielle, Adam Caress, Dennis Ingolfsland, David Kinnaman, Jay Barnes, Ralph Enloe, McCoy Tyner, Chris Fletcher, Neal and Laurie Barton, Todd Burns, Chris Easterly, Jeremy Story, Bret McCracken, Brian Bird, Ken Minkema, Rich Gathro, Peter Kapsner, Ray and Wendy Hanson, Craig Case, David McFadzean, Dallas Willard, Chuck Swindoll, John Ortberg, Tim and Char Savaloja, Lisa Whittle, Michael Hyatt, Randy Elrod, Ian Collings, Ken Stewart, Dale Schlafer, Dave Warn, Jeremy Story, Mark Russell, Amy Larson, Ben and Rochelle, Jake and Erin, Mario and Kathy, Bill Diggins, Brent Kanyok, Carol Shell Harris, Dave Warn, Doug Clark, Kelly Erickson, Drason Anderson, Keri Lowe, Scott Smith, Steve and Diane Dunkle , John and Laurie Bruns, Wes Wilmer, Wesley Tullis, William Bergeron, René Delgado, Stanley D. Williams, Shun Lee Fong, Jaeson Ma, Jim and Karen Covell, Rodney Stark, Dean Smith, Amanda Llewellyn, Bren and Melissa Smith, Kait Stratton, Ron Jesberg, Brent Kanyok, Randy Elrod, Deborah Arca Mooney, Libby Slate, Jack Gilbert, David Medders, Gabe Lyons and the entire Q Ideas team.
May your tribe increase!
Please let us know if you’re sensing a calling to pitch in.