Jonathan Edwards Goes to Movies: What Story Structure Teaches Us About Religious Affections

Part IV of 2017 Lenten Series: Why Lent is a More Like Moana than Monty Python
The inciting event presents the hero with a decision: Shall I continue in the relative comfort of my business-as-usual life, or risk pursuing a new and more dangerous goal?

by Gary David Stratton 

Something in Erin Brokovich compels her to radically devote herself to the townspeople of Hinkley, even at the expense of her own children.
Something in Erin Brokovich compels her to radically devote herself to the townspeople of Hinkley.

If by some miracle of time-travel you could suddenly transport 18th Century theologian Jonathan Edwards into the audience of your local cineplex tonight, he might very well declare the entire motion picture industry a work of witchcraft! (And he may very well be right.) Yet, a careful reading of America’s greatest theologian’s most important work, A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections, reveals insight into both the craft of screenwriting and the purpose of Lent. Both point to the importance of paying attention to “inciting events.”

The Inciting Event

Whether in real life or a work of fiction, most stories begin with a hero[1] pursuing largely self-centered goals designed to help them survive in their current circumstances. In Gladiator (2000) Maximus just wants to go home to his family and farm. In Star Wars (1977) Luke Skywalker desires only to get off the planet to be with his friends at school. Erin Brockovich (2000) seeks nothing more than a salaried job to feed her kids. Each lacks both the understanding and the desire to pursue anything beyond the struggles of their day-to-day life.

Then something happens; something screenwriters refer to as the inciting event. Suddenly, a new and bigger story crashes in upon the hero’s carefully constructed world. As John Truby notes in The Anatomy of Story, “At the beginning of the story, when weakness and need are being established, the hero is typically paralyzed in some way. You need some kind of event to jump-start the hero out of his paralysis and force him to act.”[2] Luke accidentally triggers a hidden distress video in the memory of a droid. Erin Brokovich discovers that Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) is poisoning Hinkley’s small town water supply.  Caesar unexpectedly commissions Maximus as protector of Rome in order to re-establish a true Republic. In each case, the inciting event presents the hero with a decision: Shall I continue in the relative comfort of my business-as-usual life or risk pursuing a new and more dangerous goal?

The entire story turns when (and only when) the hero makes this difficult choice. In fact, we don’t even have a story without such a decision. For instance, in The Blind Side (2009) hundreds of “Christian” parents drove past homeless teenager Michael Oher one cold November evening. Any one of them could have stopped to help. Only one did. Everyone faced the same event, yet only Leigh Anne Tuohy was incited by it. We tell her story because she acted.[3] This is why most screenwriters refer to the hero’s decision to act in response to the inciting event as plot point one.  Why? Because without that decision you don’t have a plot. You don’t have a story at all.

Affections

This is where Edwards’ thought becomes helpful. According to Edwards, our soul is composed of two primary parts: our mind (including both our perceptions and our understanding of those perceptions), and our heart. Our heart is that aspect of our inner being that attracts us toward some people, ideas, or actions and repels us from other people, ideas, and actions.

When our heart’s attraction towards a particular person, idea, or action is particularly strong, Edwards labels these powerful inclinations as our affections. To Edwards, affections are “the moving springs in all the affairs of life, which engage men in all their pursuits; and especially in all affairs wherein they are earnestly engaged, and which they pursue with vigour.”[4] They are the hidden internal reasons why we choose to love some people and not others, to believe some ideas and not others, and take some actions but not others.

Victory in hand, Maximus just wants to go home to family and farm, until Caesar's inciting event changes everything.
With victory for the empire in hand, Maximus just wants to go home to family and farm . . . until Caesar’s inciting event changes everything.

This makes our affections an extremely important element of any great story. When the hero answers their story question in the affirmative it reveals something deeper in the their soul than any casual observer could notice. Something in Erin Brokovich (compassion? justice?) compels her to radically devote herself to the townspeople of Hinkley, even at the expense of her children (for whom she originally took the job.) Something in Maximus (duty? nobility?) drives him to accept Caesar’s commission, even though it means delaying a comfortable retirement with his wife and son.

Something in the inciting event reveals the hero’s genuine affections. While this single experience never completely transforms the hero–numerous temptations to give up or turn back will come later–something in the inciting event causes them to take their first step of their journey away from a mere longing for comfort and convenience and into something deeper. They want something more and are willing to take action to pursue it.

Awakening or Transformation?

This motivating drive could be an affection that was always present, but “woke up” only when confronted with the inciting event. For instance, in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, Bilbo’s inciting event is an unexpected party of singing Dwarves inviting him to join their quest:

“As they sang the hobbit felt the love of beautiful things made by hands and by cunning and by magic moving through him, a fierce and jealous love, the desire of the hearts of the dwarves. Then something Tookish woke up inside him, and he wished to go and see the great mountains, and hear the pine-trees and the waterfalls, and explore the caves, and wear a sword instead of a walking-stick.”[5]

It takes a bit no longer for him to act, but soon he is running down the road without so much as a handkerchief in his pocket.

Other times, something in the inciting event itself changes the hero’s heart. For instance, in Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), a chance encounter with an alien spacecraft implants Roy Neary with both vivid images of The Devils Tower in Wyoming as well as the insatiable desire to go there.[6] In Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 epic The Ten Commandments, God not only incites Moses to return to Egypt to free his people, he transforms Moses’ affections (and even his appearance) as well.[7]  Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus in Acts 9, is perhaps the ultimate inciting event in the New Testament. His zeal for God is both revealed and transformed by the voice from heaven.

In both inciting event types the hero is confronted with a choice before the story can even begin. As über screenwriting guru Robert McKee declares:

“True character is revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure – the greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation, the truer the choice to the character’s essential nature.”

Obviously, the inciting event is only the beginning of this revelation and transformation, but it is crucial to writing (and living) a great story.

We Are What We Do

This is where Edwards’ thought becomes interesting not only for screenwriters, but for anyone seeking to deepen their relationship with God. Edwards rejects the commonly held notion that our affections and our will are two separate components of our inner being, so that our affections might want one thing, but our will chooses another. Not so, says America’s greatest theologian. “Such seems to be our nature, and such the laws of the union of soul and body, that there never is in any case whatsoever, any lively and vigorous exercise of the inclination, without some effect upon the body…”[8] In other words, while we often profess belief in one direction and act in another, or feel we ought to act one way and then do the opposite, our actions alone reveal the true affections of our heart and mind. We do what we love.

Edwards therefore insists that genuine faith . .

“[C]onsists, in a great measure, in vigorous and lively actings of the inclination and will of the soul, or the fervent exercises of the heart. That religion which God requires, and will accept, does not consist in weak, dull, and lifeless wishes, raising us but a little above a state of indifference. God, in his word, greatly insists upon it, that we be in good earnest, fervent in spirit, and our hearts vigorously engaged.”[9]

Lenten Examination

"Then something Tookish woke up inside him..."
“Then something Tookish woke up inside him…”

This is why Lent can be so transformative. The season is designed to help us examine the gap between our professed faith and our lived belief, between our creed and our lifestyle, between the things we tell ourselves we are passionate about and our true motivations revealed by our actions. Jesus instructed his followers, “You will know them by their fruits.”[10] And Edwards reminds us that Jesus viewed most important fruit as a love of God expressed in sacrificial service on behalf of others. “This is my command that you love one another as I have loved you… For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give us life for others.”[11]

The practice of (and not the mere tip of the cap to) sacrificial service reveals the presence of the greatest and highest affection of all: love of God and others for God’s sake. Why? Because much of what passes for religion seems motivated by little more than a self-centered desire to survive in our current circumstances. However, the decision to give up your life in sacrificial service of others is rarely motivated by anything except genuine spiritual affections. In essence, Edwards is saying, if you want to see who the true heroes are around you, don’t look for the most religious, or the most famous, or the most published. Look for those who love

Lent then is a season for honestly asking myself if I might be missing inciting events to love and serve that are happening all around me: a homeless teenager who needs shelter, a town that needs an advocate, a political system that needs reforming, a social injustice that needs a champion. Perhaps they are more than the mere random events. They could be God’s call to wake up and enter our true story. Our true affections are revealed only in our responses to these inciting events that dare us to ask: Shall I continue in the relative comfort of my business-as-usual life or risk pursuing a new and more dangerous goal?

Any screenwriter could tell you that.

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

 


[1] Or, ‘Main Character,’ as some main characters are clearly not heroic.

[2] 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller (p. 276). Faber & Faber. Kindle Edition. (2008-10-14).

[3] This is not to say that sometimes a hero requires numerous inciting events to jar them into action. For instance, Luke learning that a beautiful princess needs rescue, that his father was really a Jedi fighter pilot, or even that a Jedi master needs his help, isn’t enough to overcome his earth-bound (er, Tatooine-bound) inertia. It is only after imperial Stormtroopers kill his aunt and uncle that he finally decides to go with Obi-wan to Alderaan and, “Learn the ways of the force like my father.”

[4] Edwards, Jonathan (1745) A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections (In Three Parts) (Kindle Edition, 2011) Locations 332-333.

[5] The Fellowship of the Ring (Boston: Mariner books, 2012), p. 83. (Italics mine.)

[6] This same alien transformation motif is also subtly evident in Spielberg’s more famous E. T. The Extra-Terrestrial  (1982).

[7] Actually, in this nearly four-hour long epic, one could argue that Moses transformation is the midpoint of the film. However, in the biblical account, Moses’ encounter with THWH at the burning bush is clearly the inciting event for his personal journey at the Exodus itself.

[8] Affections, 270-271.

[9] Ibid., 297-300.

[10] Matthew 7:16

[11] John 15:12, Mark 10:45

Give it a Rest! by Keith Kettenring, PhD

It is in the place of relational intimacy with the Father (like Jesus has) that true rest is experienced and lived.

by Keith Kettenring, PhD • Homestead Retreat House

There are probably few things we do more poorly than relaxing.  When they try, workaholics feel guilty, controllers get anxious, the lazy get bored, fun-lovers become disillusioned, the responsible get uncomfortable and the diligent feel awkward. We’ve got to make it happen; if we don’t who will? We’d rather burn out than rust out. We’ve got to be proactive, hard-working, productive, energetic, and busy. How in the world can we relax when there’s so much to do?

I’m using the word relax. But Jesus, in Matthew 11:28, uses the word “rest.” His word is superior and more satisfactory since it goes to the core of our being – our souls (“you shall find rest for your souls”). Relaxing is primarily a physical thing which humans try to make happen through their own efforts. Rest is an inner serenity, a calm trust that is realized even in the midst of outer turmoil. True rest, Jesus tells us, is a gift given to those who are with Him, accept His yoke, and learn from Him. Therefore, we can experience rest no matter our circumstances, our energy levels, or our productivity.

I’d like to focus on finding rest by “taking his yoke” as an exploration as to why we have such a hard time resting (or relaxing). Typically when a Bible teacher gets to the “yoke” he or she begins explaining what a yoke in Jesus’ day may have looked like and concluding that we, too, are connected (“yoked”) to Jesus so that He guides our lives and shares our burdens. That’s all well and good as far as it goes. Yet there may be something richer and deeper here into which Jesus is inviting us when he says, “take my yoke upon you.” We will find real rest in this richer and deeper place.

Pause a while on the word “my” that Jesus used in designating this yoke. Could it be that Jesus is inviting us into the same intimate relationship he has with the Father? First, he explains that certain truths are hidden from the wise and clever but not to the childlike (11:25-26). Then, he opens the door for us to get a glimpse of his relationship of experiencing life with the Father as the context for helping us understand “his” yoke (11:27). Now, is the perfect time to offer those willing to accept it (the childlike) the invitation to take hold of (enter and embrace fully) the intimate relationship that he has with the Father that He now wants us to share with him. In other words, “my yoke” is the kind of yoke he has with the Father, a yoke that connects them in loving intimacy. Astonishing! You and I are invited to possess an intimate relationship with the Father similar to what Jesus has with Him.

Are you facing turmoil? Are you weighed down by genuine concerns? Are you exhausted from trying to make your marriage, family, job, or ministry work? Are you carrying burdens that are crushing you? Take hold of Jesus’ “yoke,” put it on and learn what it is to be intimate with your Father. Within this deepening intimacy with the Father you will discover fresh ways to manage life’s burdens and weariness.

Does the prospect of intimacy with the Father like Jesus has stir something deep within you? Is that kind of intimacy something your heart and soul longs for? Does the prospect of genuine rest in connection with your Father resonate in your soul? Come to Jesus…his relationship with the Father can be your relationship with the Father…and find rest.

See also:  

 

 

Millennials and Lent: An Unlikely Pairing, by David Kinnaman

Part of Lenten series Spiritual Formation in Everyday Life 

Millennials are by far the least likely age group to be aware of Lent—but, interestingly, they are more likely than average to say they are planning to fast.  

by David Kinnaman • President, The Barna Group

ash-wednesdayEvery year, beginning on Ash Wednesday and ending on Easter Sunday, millions of people celebrate the 40 days of Lent by giving up—fasting from—certain foods or activities. It’s a practice with a rich history among many Christian traditions. But how likely are believers today to participate in Lenten disciplines—and, if they do choose to fast, what are they fasting from?

The majority of adults (72%) are aware of the Christian tradition of giving something up for Lent. Even among non-Christians, awareness of Lent is at about the same level (70%). Yet in spite of this widespread awareness of the season, only 17% of all adults—roughly one-fifth of those who know about the season—have practiced Lenten fasting in the last three years. The same number (17%) plan to give something up for Lent again this year.

Not surprisingly, practicing Catholics are among the most likely to have participated in Lent, with just over two-thirds (65%) saying they have celebrated the fast in the past three years. But many Protestants have also adopted the habit: one in six practicing Protestants (15%) say they have fasted for Lent in the past three years, and about the same number (16%) say they plan to fast this year.

Each younger generation of Americans is less likely to know about Lent. Millennials, the youngest adult generation, are by far the least likely age group to be aware of Lent (57%)—but, interestingly, they are more likely than average to say they are planning to fast in 2014 (20% compared to 17% among all adults). By contrast, eight out of 10 Boomers (80%) are aware of Lent, but only 10% are planning to give something up this year. Those in the oldest generation, the Elders, are most likely to know about Lent (82%) and most likely to celebrate it, with one-quarter (26%) planning to fast in 2014.

Among those who plan to celebrate Lent this year, the most common abstentions include food or drink, such as chocolate (30%), meat (28%), sugar (28%), soda drinks (26%), alcohol (24%), fruit (14%) and butter or cream (11%). Although less common, many Americans who fast for Lent are planning to abstain from technology or entertainment. This includes curtailing use of social networks (16%), smartphones (13%), television (11%), video games (10%), movies (9%) and the Internet (9%). Activities that were mentioned by fewer than 2% of respondents include sex, smoking and swearing.  Unsurprisingly, Millennials are the population segments most likely to fast from technology.

What the Research Means
Roxanne Stone, a vice president at Barna Group and general editor of the FRAMES series, points out that the data belies established stereotypes about Millennials and traditions, “The conventional wisdom says younger people are anti-tradition—that young Christians rebel against rituals they may deem ’empty’ or antiquated. However, the data shows Millennial Christians express distinctive interest in this ancient discipline—even more so than among their parents’ generation.

“The ability for people to adapt this practice to daily habits such as television, social media, video games and other modern ‘idols’ is likely part of Lent’s current appeal,” Stone says. “It’s a tradition that can connect a contemporary believer to a very ancient and rich faith history, while still feeling applicable to the realities of modern life.

“This connection is an important one for church leaders to note: the more rituals and belief practices can be made pertinent—that is, can be shown to have a depth beyond mere tradition—the more likely today’s Christians are to see their validity and to engage them. Young Christians have come of age in a time when everything feels up in the air; when the newest thing is old in just a few days. The ancient practices of the Christian faith may hold a counter-cultural appeal to many Christians, including Millennials, as they seek to find a sense of rootedness in such a shifting cultural context.”

Read Complete Lenten Research

 

Why Beauty Matters in a Broken World, by Catherine Hart Weber, Ph.D.

Part of Lenten Series You Are What You Do (and Eat): Spiritual Formation in Everyday Life

We can’t escape the pain, darkness, and brokenness of a fallen world, neither can we escape the beauty of Christ’s transforming life. Through the 40 days of Lent we acknowledge this, in us, and around us.

by Catherine Hart Weber, PhD

Beauty will heal and save you.

That’s the hope and message woven into the 40 days of Lent leading up to Easter. God’s balance of beauty through love, goodness and redemption are His divine antidote to vandalization and brokenness in and around us.

Protesting Brokenness with Beauty

A dear friend of mine who admires pottery came across a large bowl that particularly caught her eye at a recent art show. It was in an amazing shape of waves and the beauty captured her heart. But, it was expensive. So she focused on the joy of another potters three small pots formed together, symbolic of a three-fold cord unbroken.

The next day however, she just couldn’t get the beauty of the wave bowl off her mind. She had to go back. Admire it once more. Maybe the artist would be willing to give her a discount. She had saved some Christmas money – for such a time as this.

The potter was flattered at her admiration of his work. They had a great conversation. As she turned to approach him about the beautiful wave bowl, her bag knocked a large vase behind her, and it fell to the ground, shattering in small pieces.

She was in shock. How could this happen? She came to pursue and acquire beauty, and now she was faced with brokenness – that was very expensive!  Right then and there, something in her also shattered. She broke down crying, sobbing.

It wasn’t just about feeling bad for the loss of the art, or the huge cost.  It was much more, much deeper.

The Balance of Beauty

You see most of her life is about dealing with or paying for brokenness. She has lived with cancer for over 20 years, consistently for the last 12 years. The 5th round of chemo and treatment she is on now costs thousands.  Her life revolves around the damaging consequences of her broken body and other shattered things around her.

But it just couldn’t end this way. She couldn’t just pay for more brokenness and walk away with no beauty. God has always provided a balance of beauty and goodness in her life. She exemplifies beautiful fruitfulness. Each fresh new day she embraces answered prayers, deep relationship connections, pilgrimages and daily ‘love and kisses from God’.  Just the other day, the Lord assured her of His love in Zephaniah 3: 16, 17 through three different sources.

So, once again, the spirit of God gave her the gift of being released to keep pursuing and embracing the gift of beauty. The potter offered for her to pay wholesale for the broken vase and the wave bowl.  She left with a bag of shattered vase pieces and a beautiful wave bowl: the balance of beauty to protest against the brokenness.

Beauty Matters

That’s how life can be. Keeping the balance of beauty.

We teeter on the edge of freedom and fear.

Dealing only with broken pieces keeps us deprived, holds us back. The beauty is too extravagant. I can’t justify it. It’s unrealistic, unreachable. I can’t enjoy it because it’s overshadowed by the darkness and brokenness.

That’s why Jesus came. His love and beauty set us free.

He brings light into our darkness. He makes beauty from ashes.

And only the Spirit of God can release us, open our eyes and hearts to see all that Christ is, what He provides for us through the Cross. What He promises to do in us, in the new Heaven and the new earth – is goodness and beauty. Images of fresh flowing rivers, life-giving fruitful trees, no more pain and tears – instead peace, love and laughter.

Beauty matters. The beauty of Christ’s transforming life in us matters.

We can’t escape the pain, darkness, brokenness and vandalizing.

Through the 40 days of lent we acknowledge this, in us and around us.

But then we open our lives to the Holy Spirit, holding on to our visions of God paying the price, transforming and empowering us now and finally making the whole of creation anew – with love, joy, peace, hope – and beauty.

Live out the beauty

You can protest the darkness and brokenness by balancing with beauty.

Embrace God’s kingdom, His Shalom, His resurrection in you, living in harmony with nature and others each day.

The Spirit of God challenges us to protest the languishing and brokenness. Anticipate and embrace the beauty God provides and promises.

Make this vision come true by living out love and beauty each fresh new day.

It is this vision that enables us to live fully alive, right where we are.

Love matters. A cup of water matters. Creating beauty matters.

A beautiful wave pottery bowl matters.

Henri Nouwen reminds us that “every time we show compassion to a suffering person, every time we arrange a bouquet of flowers, offer care to tame or wild animals, prevent pollution, create beauty in our homes and gardens … we are making the vision come true…Whenever it comes alive in us we will find new energy to live it out, right where we are….this beautiful vision gets us involved.

That’s the reason why I am coming alive while watching the daffodils I planted in my window boxes slowly open their happy faces to brighten my day.

  • Why I feed the wild birds around my home.
  • Why I finally painted my kitchen cabinets.
  • Why I lead a spiritual formation group.
  • Why I write this blog.
  • Because living out the vision of God’s love and beauty matters.

QUESTION: What beauty matters to you right now?

Next: Give it a Rest, by Keith Kettenring

For more by Catherine visit her blog 52 Ways to Flourish

Why I am Giving Up Prayer for Lent, by Margaret Feinberg

Part of Lenten Series You Are What You Do (and Eat): Spiritual Formation in Everyday Life

When Lent began, I struggled to pray three word prayers. I’d count words. Oops! And realized I’d added a fourth or fifth. As the days rolled into weeks, three word prayers became more natural. But now I’m finding that my prayers are becoming one word. Not out of force or effort but this natural expression to God.

by Margaret Feinberg 

I’ve been thinking a lot about Lent this year and wondering how best to walk through the next seven weeks. I know people who are giving up Twitter, chocolate, and a long list of self-indulgent or addictive activities and foods.

As I’ve reflected, I’ve decided to give up prayer for Lent.

Okay, maybe not all prayer, but lengthy prayers in my personal time with God.

I recently heard a sermon by our friend, Jay, which highlighted the importance of praying simple but potent prayers. As I’ve been mulling over this concept, I realize how mindless I’ve become in my own prayer life. Yes, I feel free to express every desire, whim, ache and need to God–which is a good thing!–except that at times my prayers sound like a gushing four-year-old who talks in an eternal run on sentence. I realize that over time I’ve been increasingly unspecific and inattentive in my prayer life.

That’s why I’m giving up prayer for Lent. Or at least long prayers. For the next 40 days, I’m committed to only offering God three word prayers.

Help me Lord. Heal oh Jesus. Give grace abundant. Grant strength now. Thank you, God.

I’m hopeful the discipline will help me be more thoughtful in my prayer, more strategic in the things I ask God, more focused on Jesus, more ready to listen, more prepared to unleash heartfelt worship and gratitude on Easter morning.

Since I began this journey, I’ve found myself becoming more focused in prayer life, more sensitive to God’s presence, and more aware of my dependence.

But over the last week something new has been happening and I didn’t notice it at first.

When Lent began, I struggled to pray three word prayers. I’d count words. Oops! And realized I’d added a fourth or fifth. As the days rolled into weeks, three word prayers became more natural. But now I’m finding that my prayers are becoming one word. Not out of force or effort but this natural expression to God.

This morning I’ve been praying some friends who are facing a challenge in their relationship. I know they’re talking about the issue sometime today diving into the messiness of hurt, pain, and miscommunication all with a hope of healing and restoration. My prayers for them began as three words. But slowly rolled into two then one. Heal. Restore. Reconcile. Understanding. Compassion. Grace. With each word, I naturally pause as the fullness of the word is heartfelt and passionate yet peaceful.

The single word is a petition, a request, a prayer. One that I offer with the full confidence that God hears and that God will answer.

My prayer life is far more simple than it’s ever been yet somehow feels more effective, more intentional, more potent.

Next: The Soul Killing Problem of Bad Art, by Ashley Arielle

Visit Margaret’s Award-winning website. Used by author’s permission. Photo credit

 

 

What is Spiritual Formation? by Dallas Willard, PhD

Part of Lenten Series: You Are What You Do (and Eat): Spiritual Formation in Everyday Life 

“We have multitudes of professing Christians who well may be ready to die, but obviously are not ready to live.” -Dallas Willard

Dallas Willard served as a Professor in the School of Philosophy at the University of Southern California for over 35 years. He exerted tremendous influence in the areas of epistemology, the philosophy of mind and of logic, and the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl. However, it is Willard’s writings in the field of religion that may prove to be his greatest legacy.

Willard has also become one of the world’s leading voices in a renewed understanding of spiritual formation. His Hearing God (1984)[1], and The Spirit of the Disciplines (1988), helped launch the modern Protestant spiritual formation movement. Subsequent publications have only deepened his impact. The Divine Conspiracy (1998) was selected as a Christianity Today “Book of the Year.” Renovation of the Heart (2002) received Christianity Today’s Book Award in the category of Spirituality. The Great Omission (2006) received a Christianity Today annual Book Award in the Christian Living category.

His final new book, Knowing Christ Today (2009), contained Willard’s lifetime of reflection on the connection between spiritual formation and philosophy. I believe it will prove to be his most influential work.

Willard’s writing, lecturing, and counsel have greatly influenced my own understanding of spirituality. Key concepts in Renovation of the Heart help shape the framework of my dissertation thesis and even merit a special appendix comparing and contrasting Willard and America’s most famous spiritual formation book: A Treatise on Religious Affections by Jonathan Edwards. (More in future posts.)

In the selection below, Willard, introduces the topic, “What is Spiritual Formation,” with concepts that I will build upon in future posts. Enjoy.


Spiritual Formation in Christ: A Perspective on What it is and How it Might be Done

by Dallas Willard on Dwillard.org

“… until Christ be formed in you.” (Gal. 4:19)

“Spiritual formation” is a phrase that has recently rocketed onto the lips and into the ears of Protestant Christians with an abruptness that is bound to make a thoughtful person uneasy. If it is really so important, not to mention essential, then why is it so recent? It must be just another passing fad in Protestant religiosity, increasingly self-conscious and threatened about “not meeting the needs of the people.” And, really, isn’t spiritual formation just a little too Catholic to be quite right?

We could forget the phrase “Spiritual formation,” but the fact and need would still be there to be dealt with. The spiritual side of the human being, Christian and non-Christian alike, develops into the reality which it becomes, for good or ill. Everyone receives spiritual formation, just as everyone gets an education. The only question is whether it is a good one or a bad one. We need to take a conscious, intentional hand in the developmental process. We need to understand what the formation of the human spirit is, and how it can best be done as Christ would have it done. This is an indispensable aspect of developing a psychology that is adequate to human life.

The reason for the recent abrupt emergence of the terminology into religious life is, I believe, a growing suspicion or realization that we have not done well with the reality and the need. We have counted on preaching, teaching, and knowledge or information to form faith in the hearer, and have counted on faith to form the inner life and outward behavior of the Christian. But, for whatever reason, this strategy has not turned out well. The result is that we have multitudes of professing Christians who well may be ready to die, but obviously are not ready to live, and can hardly get along with themselves, much less with others…

Continue Reading

Next: Jonathan Edwards Goes to Movies: What Story Structure Teaches Us About Religious Affections and Lent

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[1] Originally published as In Search of Guidance.

You Are What You Eat (and Do): Why You Might Not Want to Give Up Chocolate For Lent

Part of Lenten Series: You Are What You Do (and Eat): Spiritual Formation in Everyday Life 

At first glance, the concept of Embodied Cognition looks more like a whackadoodle academic program than serious research. But could it be scientific evidence for an ancient Christian practice?

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

Tom Bartlett reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education (below) that eating chocolate and other sweets can actually make you a sweeter person.

In one experiment, the researchers gave 58 undergraduates either a Hershey’s Kiss or an Altoids Tangerine Sour. Posttreat, those who had eaten a Kiss rated themselves as feeling more agreeable than those who had sucked an Altoid.

That’s not terribly shocking. Maybe chocolate puts people in a slightly better mood. Fine.

What’s harder to wrap my head around is an experiment that linked a fondness for sweet foods with a willingness to help others. First, the 108 participants (undergrads again) filled out a survey in which they rated how much they liked salty, sour, and sweet foods.

They were then asked whether they would be willing to help dispose of sandbags. The question isn’t as random as it sounds: There had been a flood in the area, and millions of sandbags needed to be removed. The way the question was framed, the participants might reasonably have believed that they were committing to help out with the cleanup.

Here’s what Robinson found: People who liked sweet foods were more likely to volunteer to remove sandbags. They were metaphorically sweet people who loved actual sweets.

kids eating candyAt first glance, this concept of Embodied Cognition looks more like some new whackadoodle academic program than serious research. But could it be scientific evidence for an ancient Christian practice?

Late USC professor Dallas Willard and other spiritual formation experts, note that most of what we call “character” consists in what our bodies are “at the ready” to do in specific situations. This means that our inclinations towards evil literally inhabit our body—our tongue, our eyes, our hands, our stomachs, etc.—in such a way that genuine Christlikeness is very much connected to the retraining our bodies for good (Renovation of the Heart, 159, 162, 166).

Willard asserted that no matter how badly we might wish to follow Christ, we cannot transform ourselves by sheer force of our will. We may know that loving our neighbor is Christ’s ideal and even wish to obey, but that desire alone is usually not enough to keep us from, say, speaking in anger when our neighbor’s dog ruins our freshly seeded lawn. If that ‘neighbor’ is a family member with whom we have often engaged in escalating war of words, we might even hear words coming out of our mouth that we vowed we would never say again just a few moments earlier. This embodiment of our sin all but guarantees that “little can be done in the moment of need to help one do the good thing Jesus commands” (90-94).

We are very much like an obese man who is suddenly offered a one million dollar price if he can finish a marathon in under four hours. No matter how badly he wants the money, he simply cannot roll out of bed the next morning and claim his prize. It is physically impossible. However, if this man is willing to devote himself to disciplining his body to a progressively intensive regimen of a careful diet, walking, and finally running, it is well within his ability to one day become the kind of person who can travel 26.21875 miles in less than four hours.

This idea of becoming the kind of person who loves God and his neighbor with her whole heart is central to Willard’s thought. To Willard spiritual transformation is achieved as we cooperate with the power of God within us by directing our bodies and minds to practice certain time-honored spiritual disciplines. “Disciplines are activities that are in our power and that enable us to do what we cannot do by direct effort. We cannot transform our ideas and images, or even the information we have or our thought processes, into Christlikeness by direct effort. But we can do things—adopt certain practices—that, indirectly, will increasingly have that effect.” (113)

Christian Spiritual Formation is therefore a matter of recognizing and replacing in ourselves idea systems and practices of evil with the idea systems and practices of the kingdom of God embodied and taught by Jesus—filling our minds with the images, ideas, and information that filled the mind of Jesus, and occupying our bodies with those activities and practices that filled his schedule.

If I occupy my mind and body with the disciplines of mediating upon Christ’s words of love and forgiveness towards me, memorizing his command to love my neighbor (or my enemy), praying for the well-being of my enemies, and perhaps even secretly serving them with no thought of reward (perhaps by secretly tending to their lawn), it is highly likely that the next time I call upon my body to hold my tongue (what a wonderfully embodied term), my body will throw off its embodied sin and obey my will.  I have become the type of person who blesses others in moments of stress where I may have cursed in the past.

Which brings me back to Tom Bartlett’s Chronicle article below. I am not making a spiritual formation case for eating sweets (which some research says may lead to a life of crime.) What I am saying is that our bodies are an integral part of our spiritual formation. Compare some of the findings of Embodied Cognition to Willard’s thought and ponder whether or not such research may very well be onto something important…

…Or at least give you a good excuse not to give up chocolate for Lent.

Next:  What is Spiritual Formation, by Dallas Willard

 

The Sweet Kisses of Embodied Cognition

People who liked sweet foods were more likely to volunteer to remove sandbags. They were metaphorically sweet people who loved actual sweets.

by  • The Chronicle of Higher Education

Best lollipopsI wandered into a session on embodied cognition at last week’s Society for Personality and Social Psychology conference, and I walked away thinking what I heard can’t possibly be true.

I mean, it just can’t be. Can it?

Research on embodied cognition—the idea, basically, that the body strongly influences the mind in multiple ways we’re not aware of (though not everyone agrees with that definition)—is a fairly new field, and in the last few years it has produced a number of head-scratching results. For instance, there’s the 2009 study that seems to show that people holding heavy clipboards are more likely to disagree with weak arguments than people holding light clipboards. Or the study, also published in 2009, that found that people gripping a warm cup of coffee judged others as having a “warm” personality.

In the session I saw, the presentation, by Michael D. Robinson, a professor of psychology at North Dakota State University, was on his research suggesting a strong connection between acting sweet and eating sweets. Between cupcakes and kindness.

Some of his research got attention when it was first published, in 2011, but I was struck again by what it would mean if it turned out to be true.

In one experiment, the researchers gave 58 undergraduates either a Hershey’s Kiss or an Altoids Tangerine Sour. Posttreat, those who had eaten a Kiss rated themselves as feeling more agreeable than those who had sucked an Altoid.

That’s not terribly shocking. Maybe chocolate puts people in a slightly better mood. Fine.

What’s harder to wrap my head around is an experiment that linked a fondness for sweet foods with a willingness to help others. First, the 108 participants (undergrads again) filled out a survey in which they rated how much they liked salty, sour, and sweet foods.

They were then asked whether they would be willing to help dispose of sandbags. The question isn’t as random as it sounds: There had been a flood in the area, and millions of sandbags needed to be removed. The way the question was framed, the participants might reasonably have believed that they were committing to help out with the cleanup.

Here’s what Robinson found: People who liked sweet foods were more likely to volunteer to remove sandbags. They were metaphorically sweet people who loved actual sweets.

And the finding hits on one of the underlying ideas of embodied cognition—that is, that the metaphors we toss around are grounded in more concrete, physiological truths. Warm things make you physically and psychologically warmer. Cold things make you feel more alienated. Sweet things make you sweeter, and liking sweet things means you behave more sweetly.

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See Also: The Feast of Fasting: Why Practicing Lent is a lot like Surfing

 

A Divine Masquerade: The Beauty Behind the Mask, by Margaret Feinberg

If we were to take off our masks and give ourselves wholly revealing the beautiful work of God in our lives, then what might God do?

by Margaret Feinberg

Confession: Masks sometimes scare me. Though the artistic flair of a masquerade half mask can be spectacular, full masks make me uncomfortable. Not only is there mystery in whom I’m talking to, but they are too reminiscent of clown makeup for my liking.

The worst part is that sometimes I wear them myself-without even realizing it.

I don a mask of happiness when I’m really struggling inside. I slip on a mask of energy when I’m really exhausted. I know I’m not the only one.

We all slip on masks. We hide parts of ourselves to distract each other from the real identity underneath.

As I’m going through the Gospel of John for Lent, I was reminded of this truth. John 4 depicts the revealing of one woman’s true identity. A Samaritan woman is so desperate to hide from others she fills her water jug during the hottest time of day. Only on this occasion, Jesus is there.

With a few words Jesus tugs at her mask, “Give me a drink.”

The woman is thrown off by the request. With only four words, Jesus breaks down the barriers of gender, politics, and religion.

A man speaks to a woman.

A Jew addresses a Samaritan.

A rabbi asks to drink out of a defiled, unclean bucket.

Rarely has a request for a drink of water been so scandalous.

The woman is no longer invisible. She’s been called out. Jesus moves past any labels of identity given to her either by the townspeople or herself. Instead, Jesus offers her something better than musky well water: living water and the chance to be truly known.

Like the woman at the well, sometimes we need to realize that as hard as we try to hide God not only sees us, but in his love he sees through our efforts to hide.

As the woman’s mask falls to the ground, she refuses to remain hidden from others in her community a moment longer. She rushes into the town, calling out to everyone to come and see the beautiful work Jesus has done in her. They ask Jesus to stay with them and many come to know him as Christ their Savior, the Un-masker.

The woman at the well took off her mask and displayed God’s beautiful work in her life, and an entire village was transformed. Can you picture the scene? A sea of masks tumbling to the floor in a great tumultuous roar.

Which raises the question, if we were to take off our masks and give ourselves wholly revealing the beautiful work of God in our lives, then what might God do? Who would He draw closer to Himself as a result? A friend? A Neighbor? An entire community?

Anyone interested in diving into John’s Gospel with me may enjoy Pursuing God’s Beauty: Stories from the Gospel of John.

 

**Photo courtesy of: http://weheartit.com/entry/13972700