Hollywood and Higher Education: Worldview and the Stories We Live By

Part one of ongoing series

Raised in a culture dominated by Hollywood storytelling—from Disney to Tarantino—my students often know Hollywood’s stories better than they know their own.

by Gary David Stratton, Ph.D.

A worldview is a commitment, a fundamental orientation of the heart, that can be expressed in a set of presuppositions, or better yet, in a story.
A worldview is a commitment, a fundamental orientation of the heart, that can be expressed in a set of presuppositions, or better yet, in a story.

The concept of worldview first proposed by Immanuel Kant in 1790 has grown to become one of the “central intellectual conceptions in contemporary thought and culture.” [2] After a century of growing influence in continental philosophy, worldview (from the German word weltanschauung) migrated to the U.S. in the late nineteenth-century and gained immediate acceptance in both philosophical inquiry and popular culture. As David Naugle notes in his magisterial Worldview: The History of a Concept, “Few transplanted European notions have enjoyed as much success as Weltanschauung, as a first cousin to ‘philosophy,’ in aptly capturing the intrinsic human aspiration to formulate a worthy view of life” [3]

Over the course of the twentieth-century worldview grew to embody neo-evangelicalism’s attempt to reconstruct intellectually rigorous higher education on both sides of the Reformed-Wesleyan divide. It became foundational not only to teaching the disciplines of philosophy and theology, but the entire larger project of the integration of faith and learning. As Arthur Holmes declares in his highly influential, The Idea of a Christian College:

A world and life view is not the same things as theology… [Theology] looks within, whereas a Christian worldview looks without, at life and thought in other departments and disciplines, in order to see these other things from the standpoint of revelation and as an interrelated whole. Integration is ultimately concerned to see things from a Christian perspective, to penetrate thought with that perspective, to think Christianly. [4]

By the mid-1970’s, freshman worldview courses began to appear in the catalogs of Christian College Consortium (CCC), and Council for Christian Colleges and Universities  (CCCU) schools. [5] James W. Sire’s The Universe Next Door: A Basic World View Catalog (1976) [6] became the gold standard of worldview textbooks. Universe traces Sires’ framework for eight philosophical macro-worldviews—Christian Theism, Deism, Naturalism, Nihilism, Existentialism, New Age, Eastern Pantheistic Monism, Postmodernism, and Islamic Theism [7]—differentiated by their answers to seven key questions regarding, ultimate reality, the physical universe, anthropology, death, epistemology, ethics, and history. In time Sire’s definition of worldview became ipso facto orthodoxy for countless worldview courses:

worldview is a commitment, a fundamental orientation of the heart, that can be expressed as a story or in a set of presuppositions (assumptions which may be true, partially true, or entirely false) which we hold (consciously or subconsciously, consistently or inconsistently) about the basic constitution of reality, and that provides the foundation on which we live and move and have our being. [8]

The Worldview Classroom Disconnect

This emphasis on worldview was good news for the future of American evangelicalism, but often bad news for the faculty assigned to teach these courses. Worldview is a difficult enough philosophical concept for first-year students to grasp. When coupled with the reality that many of the faculty assigned to teach these courses had little or no academic preparation in philosophy, they often worked far better in principle than in practice.

This was the precise situation wherein I found myself as low man on the faculty totem pole at a an evangelical university in the 1990’s.  My first term as a full-time faculty member included  three sections of our newly created first-year worldview course. A previous version of the class had been, in the words of my department chair, “an unmitigated disaster.” It was my job to try to fix it. In a school whose tenure and promotion policies were heavily tied to student evaluations, it was the existential equivalent of having my short-lived academic career pass before my eyes. To say that I spent that summer in prayer and fasting for wisdom as to how to help the course connect with students would be a gross understatement.

Stories articulate, legitimate, support, and modify our worldviews.
Stories articulate, legitimate, support, and modify our worldviews.

Even as a non-philosopher my problem wasn’t so much grasping the course content as much as it was finding connections between those worldview concepts and lives of my students. Effective teaching is the art of taking what students do know and connecting it to what they don’t know. So I spent the summer desperately searching for at least one common experience that nearly all my eighteen-year-old students knew; something I could use to build a bridge that might make worldview concepts come alive for them.

Then, just as all seemed lost, I woke one morning with a blinding realization. While my students had been raised in a vast kaleidoscope of denominational churches, listened to uniquely personalized tastes in music, and watched a bewildering array of highly niched television shows, they all watched the same feature films. I had my answer: It was Hollywood!  I had exactly what I wanted—a way to connect worldview concepts to something my students already knew (and thereby save my academic career). Within a semester my department chair had exactly what he wanted—the course went from one of the lowest rated in the university to one of the highest.

The Power of World-interpreting Story

One of the primary reasons Hollywood proved to be such an effective tool for exploring worldview with my students is that worldviews are often best expressed as stories. My students accepted this as a self-evident starting point, but it is not always instantly obvious to the academy. While philosophers and theologians are likely to express their own worldview as a set of propositions, doctrines, or values it is just as critical to understand worldview as the stories we live by.

These world-interpreting stories provide a “foundation or governing platform upon which people think, interpret and know.” [9] Whether one views a worldview as the tapestry out of which we weave our interpretation of the “strings of experience,” [10] the picture on the box of the jigsaw puzzle that shows us where all the pieces of life should go,[11] or “a conceptual scheme by which we consciously or unconsciously place or fit everything we believe and by which we interpret and judge reality,”[12] it is stories that articulate, legitimate, support, and modify our worldviews. [13]

The Power of Personality-Shaping Story 

We make ourselves by subconsciously composing a continually evolving “heroic story of self” that forms the foundation of our identity.
We make ourselves by subconsciously composing a continually evolving “heroic story of self” that forms the foundation of our identity.

What I quickly discovered was that story served not only as the foundation of the philosophical macro-worldviews of societies and civilizations, they were also the primary basis for the psychological micro-worldviews out of which my individual students constructed their identities. Narrative psychology recognizes storytelling as the fundamental way in which human beings package our ideas and express ourselves. We do not so much discover ourselves through story so much as we make ourselves by subconsciously composing a continually evolving “heroic story of self” that forms much of our identity. As Dan P. McAdams, the father of narrative psychology asserts, “If you want to know me, then you must know my story, for my story defines who I am. And if I want to know myself, to gain insight into the meaning of my own life, then I, too, must come to know my own story.” [14]

Novelists and other creatives often capture this story-based idea of personal worldview in more poetic terms. Sue Monk Kid explains in her memoir, The Dance of the Dissident Daughter, “In a way humans are not made of skin and bone as much as we’re made of stories.”[15]  In Barry Lopez’s children’s classic, Crow tells Weasel, “The stories people tell have a way of  taking care of them.”[1] And in Patrick Rothfuss’s novel, The Name of the Wind, Bass tells the Chronicler, “It’s like everyone tells a story about themselves inside their own head. Always. All the time. We build ourselves out of that story. That story makes you what you are.” [16]  (See: Black Hawk Down: No One Asks to be a Hero… or Do They?)

As Hollywood story guru, Robert McKee argues:

(A)ll fine films, novels, and plays… give the audience a fresh model of life empowered with affective meaning… Our appetite for story is a reflection of the profound human need to grasp the pattern of living, not merely as an intellectual exercise, but within a personal, emotional experience. In the words of playwright Jen Anouilh, ‘Fiction gives life its form.'[17]

The Intertwining Stories in Macro and Micro Worldviews

The stories we create influence the stories of other people, those stories give rise to still others.
Fiction give life its form.

Of course there is a complicated relationship between the stories of our personal micro-worldviews and those of the corporate macro-worldviews that surround us. The raw materials for constructing our own life story are found not only our personal experiences, but also in the stories passed down to us by our families, churches, teachers, writers, and filmmakers.

At a very early age we begin to form our own identity by identifying with the heroes of the stories we hear.  Screenwriter Christopher Vogel rejoins, “Stories invite us to invest part of our personal identity in the Hero for the short duration of the experience. In a sense we become the Hero for a while. We project ourselves into the Hero’s psyche and see the world through her eyes.”[18] (See, the “Hero We Deserve” speech from The Dark Knight) The power of these heroic (or non-heroic) stories is nearly impossible to overstate, and difficult to separate from the world around us. As McAdams’ research demonstrates:

“The stories we create influence the stories of other people, those stories give rise to still others, and soon we find meaning and connection within a web of story making and story living… [W]e help to create the world we live in, at the same time that it is creating us.” [19]

Disney to Tarantino
We help to create the world we live in, at the same time that it is creating us.
We help to create the world we live in, at the same time that it is creating us.

Perhaps this is why I found Academy award-winning films [20] such a perfect vehicle for exploring the stories my students live by. Raised in a culture dominated by Hollywood storytelling—from the Disney Channel to Quentin Tarantino—my students often know Hollywood’s stories better than they know their own (and much better than they know epistemology.) By helping them grasp the worldview-shaping forces in the stories of their Hollywood heroes it became relatively easy for them to gain a reference point for exploring both the macro-worldviews that have influenced them, as well as the micro-worldview of the story of their own life.

If Hollywood provides us with much of the raw material of the stories we live by, why not return the favor? By teaching students to reverse engineer films using Hollywood’s approach to story structure, they quickly learned the structure their own life story so they could see the recurring patterns in the complicated web of meaning connecting their micro-worldview with the macro-worldviews around them. By teaching them Hollywood’s approach to heroic character development they learned to better cooperate with the story their divine author was crafting in the development of their own heroic character.

A Continuing Story

Raised in a culture dominated by Hollywood storytelling—from the Disney Channel to Quentin Tarantino—my students often know Hollywood's stories better than they know their own
Raised in a culture dominated by Hollywood storytelling—from the Disney Channel to Quentin Tarantino—my students often know Hollywood’s stories better than they know their own.

Fifteen years, over sixty worldview classes, and nearly 2,500 students later, I consider this unusual guidance from God to use films to explore the stories my students live by as one of the greatest answers to prayer in my professional life. I have used academy award-winning cinema to teach worldview to elite liberal arts students, über conservative Bible College students, pragmatic adult learners, and seasoned Hollywood film students and professionals. Nearly without exception the use of film has greatly heightened students’ grasp of the subtle nuance of worldview.

Along the way I have learned a things or two about both using film to teach worldview and using worldview to create films as well. Over the course of the next year, I will try to keep an ongoing series going relating some of the most useful insights I’ve had to date.

Next Posts in Series:

Casablanca and the Four Levels of Worldview: Why Everyone Meets at Rick’s

The Blind Side Leading the Blind: Better Faith-Based Filmmaking through Better Stories

Deep Culture Impact: Is an Academy Award a Reliable Indicator of a Truly Great Film?

Notes: 

[1] Barry H. Lopez, Crow and Weasel (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1900), 60.

[2] David K. Naugle, Worldview: The History of a Concept (Grand Rapids, MI: W. B. Eerdmans, 2002), 66.

[3] Naugle, Worldview, 62.

[4] Arthur P. Holmes, The Idea of a Christian College (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 59-60.

[5] And later schools in the Association of Biblical Higher Education (ABHE) and the Association of Christian Schools International (ACSI).

[6] James W. Sire The Universe Next Door, 5th Edition (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009).

[7] Postmodernism was added to the 4th edition (2004), and Islamic Theism to the 5th Edition (2009).

[8] Sire, Universe, 20.

[9] Naugle, Worldview, 297.

[10] Robert A. Harris, The Integration of Faith and Learning: A Worldview Approach (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2004), 78.

[11] Mark P. Cosgrove, Foundations of Christian Thought: Faith, Learning, and the Christian Worldview (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2006), 19, 20, 24.

[12] Ronald H. Nash, Worldviews in Conflict: Choosing Christianity in a World of Ideas (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992), 16.

[13] N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 116.

[14] Dan P. McAdams, The Stories We Live By: Personal Myths and the Making of the Self (New York: Guilford Press, 1997), 11.

[15] Sue Monk Kidd, The Dance of the Dissident Daughter (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1996), 72.

[16] Patrick Rothfuss, The Name of the Wind  (New York: DAW Books, 2007), 111.

[17] Christopher Vogler. The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, 3rd Edition. (Studio City, CA: Michael Wiese Productions, 2007), 30.

[18] Robert McKee, Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting (New York: Regan Books, 1997), 12.

[19] McAdams, Stories, 37.

[20] Actually, I started out by using only Academy Award-winning films, but have since altered my criteria for what makes a true culture making film. See, Deep Culture Impact:  Why an Oscar isn’t a Reliable Indicator of a Truly Great Film.