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

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

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

by Gary David Stratton • Senior Editor

In the fantasy tale Crow and Weasel,  Badger declares: “If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away where they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive.”[1]  It’s a Wonderful Life has been just such a story for me.

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

Sue and I were spending Christmas Eve far from family and friends, holed up in a downtown hotel in Kansas City, MO on one of the coldest nights on record. We had just made some of the most momentous decisions of our life. We would not return to China where we had thought we would spend our entire careers. We would not accept a prestigious internship that may have launched my career, but would have kept Sue and I apart for nearly a year. Instead, we would devote our lives to serving God as missionaries, not to a foreign country, but to a generation—young intellectuals, artists, and leaders who would shape the world for good.

To say that it was an idealistic decision is a gross understatement. We were going, “All in” to pursue a dream of cultural transformation that was hard to articulate without sounding crazy. Many friends, family members, bosses, and mentors simply didn’t understand. Frankly, we weren’t we sure we understood. Yet we were certain we were following God’s leading (at least as certain as two doubting idealists living in a physicalist culture can be.) So we talked our idealistic talk over a marvelous dinner in a famous KC steakhouse, prayed our idealistic prayers, and climbed into bed.

Enter It’s a Wonderful Life

Mindlessly, I flipped on the TV. A black and white image of two constellations talking to each other slowly materialized on the screen. Why we didn’t change channels I’ll never know, but slowly the magic of Frank Capra’s film drew us in. Instantly we identified with George and Mary Bailey and their struggle to live out their idealism in a world that seemed determined to beat it out of them. We were transfixed. It was our story. Here was a couple who kept taking punch after punch on the chin, but also kept pursuing their idealistic dream for the benefit of others, all the while wondering they were actually making any difference at all.

It was a holy moment. We wondered aloud if God wasn’t somehow using Capra’s story to communicate something of the kind of life our decisions would lead to. Boy, were we ever right.  Since that cold Kansas City night our long and winding journey from Big Ten universities, to Christian schools, to the Ivy League, and now Hollywood has proven to be even more of a challenge than we could have ever imagined. And when things have been their darkest, we have returned to the story of It’s a Wonderful Life again and again.

I know it is a bit melodramatic, but I’m not sure we would have made it this far without George Bailey’s example of self-sacrificing idealism vindicated by God’s direct intervention in the physicalist world. George and Mary Bailey were true two-handed warriors. Watching how their small idealistic decisions added up to the profound cultural influence fills my heart with strength to do the right thing on a day-to-day basis.  And in our darkest hours, just knowing that there is a God and his angels and a great cloud of witnesses looking on, helps us pray, “Lord, help me live again.”

So what lessons can modern day two handed warriors draw from Capra’s tale.  Let me propose three.

Don’t lose your idealist nerve.

The first lesson is just for filmmakers aspiring to both culture-making and faith-building, and it is this: Don’t lose your idealist nerve. By rooting his film in present-day America (at least it was present-day in 1946), Capra went against the trend of his day to express a theistic worldview only in “Bible films.” By portraying a clear and unmistakable (if comic) divine intervention, Capra went against the trend of his day to limit modern-day religious faith to the private subjective realm.[2] (See, Capra’s Saga of a Depressed Idealist.)

In an era when “magical” intervention in the physical world was established as a Hollywood staple, divine intervention is nearly completely missing. This is not to say that filmmakers of faith should never set their films in a physicalist worldview, or resort to a historical, fantasy, and even horror genres to convey their themes,[3] only that Capra’s courage to root George Bailey’s idealism in the radical repudiation of skeptical physicalism through the supernatural in-breaking of God is what is so desperately lacking in today’s films.  If filmmakers of faith won’t make divinely supernatural films, who will?

Certainly this kind of two-handed filmmaking will require remarkable wisdom and audacity. Wisdom, because physicalist Hollywood will automatically categorize any film with a supernatural element as “Fantasy.” (In fact, AFI now lists It’s a Wonderful Life as a “Fantasy Film.”) Physicalist (especially nihilist) films are held in such high honor in this town that nearly everything else is often viewed as “sentimental hogwash” (except when it is time to balance the budget.)  Making films that are both excellent and idealist and even theistic will be an incredible challenge, but I believe it can be done, because it has been done. Gladiator is a recent idealist example, even if it was a period piece.[4]

The truly audacious thing will be if someone follows Capra’s lead and manages to make a critically-acclaimed and commercially-viable theistic idealist film set it in present-day America. It will have to be a spectacular, genre-bending effort, but as Flannery O’Conner put so eloquently:

“When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal ways of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock—to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.”[5]

It will take the kind of courage Capra demonstrated in making Wonderful Life, and like Capra, it might take years for such courage to be vindicated on the earth, or in heaven. But is that any reason not to try?

In my life journey, I NEEDED a story like Capra’s “more than food to stay alive.” I don’t think I’m alone. But who will make the films that will sustain the next generation of two-handed warriors?  Only filmmakers like Capra with the courage to live idealistically. Is that you?

Don’t rely on Idealism alone

The second lesson I’d like to draw from Capra’s classic is for those of us–like Ricky Gervais–who are stuck between idealism we intuit to be “true” and physicalism we face with our senses everyday. (See, Ricky Gervais and Sentimental Hogwash.) Let’s be honest, some of us are way too idealistic.  We ground our faith in the unseen realm in such a way that our faith is little more than an existential and/or postmodern personal preference. Then, when someone criticizes or critiques our faith with data from the world of sense perceptions we defensively label them an “enemy of the faith.”  Perhaps they are. But isn’t it more likely that they are simply a skeptical physicalist waiting for us to provide a demonstration of the in-breaking of the idealist world into this “present evil age.” Maybe they aren’t rejecting our faith so much as the shallow level of experience we’re basing it on.

Jesus never asked his followers to judge the truth-claims of his message based upon “pie-in-the-sky bye-and-bye” idealism. He asked them to base it upon the ideals of the kingdom of God breaking into the physical world through the “miracles” of supernatural answers to prayer (John 14:12).

Until Christ followers live lives marked by supernatural power and sacrificial love, I’m afraid that the Ricky Gervais’s of the world are going to have a very hard time taking our truth claims very seriously. Roman Emperor Julian despised the Christ followers of his day, yet he could no escape the reality of their faith in their lives when he confided in a friend:

“…the kindness of Christians to strangers, their care for the burial of their dead, and the sobriety of their lifestyle has done the most to advance their cause… these impious Galileans support our poor in addition to their own… outdoing us in good deeds while we ourselves are disgraced by laziness.”[6]

Sounds like a perfect description of George and Mary Bailey to me. Yet, I mean no disrespect when I say that many of the “media leader Christians” I encounter today remind me more of Mr. Potter than George Bailey. In their preoccupation with wealth and political power, their lives and their careers seem just as dominated by “me, me, me” as any other (nihilistic) physicalist. Is it any wonder that the Ricky Gervais’s of the world have a hard time believing the message we preach?

Co-labor with God

The third lesson I’d like to draw from It’s a Wonderful Life is for all two-handed warriors—whether you labor in the Ivy League, Hollywood, Wall Street, or Main Street—Don’t allow the story of skeptical physicalism to deter you from seeking to co-labor with God in the in-breaking of his kingdom in the world. Follow George Bailey’s lead and grow a pair. We might just live to see our work transform our own culture every bit as much George and Mary’s self-sacrificing idealism transformed Bedford Falls.  But even if we never see the full result of our idealistic actions on earth, we must live our lives the way we will wish we had lived them on that day when we finally will see our life from God’s perspective—because someday we will.

It’s highly unlikely we’ll ever get a George Bailey-esque  ‘advance screening’ of our life’s work. Yet Paul of Tarsus assures us that we will “all appear before the viewing seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad” (2 Corinthians 5:10). To be a true two handed warrior is to live for that heavenly red carpet affair, more than for its pale imitation at the Kodak theatre each year.

That day is the one when we want the Lord himself (and not some mere angel) to declare, “Well done, you good and faithful servant! You’ve really had a wonderful life.”

Merry Christmas!

Gary & Sue Stratton

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

See also:

Hollywood and Higher Education: Teaching Worldview Through Academy Award-winning Films

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

Fiddler on the Roof: Worldview Change and the Journey to Life-Interpreting Story

Crash goes the Worldview: Why Worldview Transformation Requires Changing Scripts

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

 

 

Notes

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

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

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

[4] Look for a future post on Gladiator.

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

[6] Julian Caesar, “Letter to Arsacius,” Based in part on the translation of Edward J. Chinnock, A Few Notes on Julian and a Translation of His Public Letters (London: David Nutt, 1901) pp. 75-78 as quoted in D. Brendan Nagle and Stanley M. Burstein, The Ancient World: Readings in Social and Cultural History (Englewood Cliffs, NJ; Prentice Hall, 1995) pp. 314-315. Introduction and e-text copyright 2005 by David W. Koeller timemaster@thenagain.info. All rights reserved.

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

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

Like George Bailey and Ricky Gervais, we all eventually find ourselves wondering: Is there a reward for knowing and trying to do the right thing? (Either in heaven or on earth) Or, is it all a waste of time?

by Gary David Stratton • Senior Editor

“Why don’t I believe in God? No, no no, why do YOU believe in God? Surely the burden of proof is on the believer.” – Ricky Gervais

Ricky Gervais’s God jokes as host of  the last two Golden Globe Awards and his Wall Street Journal essay, “Why I’m An Atheist” provide perfect backdrops for examining one of Hollywood’s most famous attempts to defend Theism–It’s a Wonderful Life.  (Plus, it is one of my All-Time Favorite Christmas Movies.)

Hollywood legend Frank Capra made It’s a Wonderful Life specifically to, in his words, “combat a modern trend toward atheism.” [1] This certainly appears to make Gervais his ideal target audience. Yet, Capra’s approach to combating atheism was in no way as simplistic as one would expect. It’s a Wonderful Life is not only one of the best Christmas movies of all time, it is also a remarkable example of using worldview conflict to construct a compelling story… and live a wonderful life. Students seeking to understand worldview and filmmakers seeking to make culture-influencing movies would be wise to pay careful attention.

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

Ironically, much like its main character, George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart), It’s a Wonderful Life entered midlife as an apparent failure.[2] Before its release, Capra believed it to be his greatest film. However, after a disappointing box office, and a complete shut out at the Oscars,[3] Liberty Films didn’t even bother to renew the copyright for “Capra’s masterpiece” when it expired in 1974.

This lapse in judgment proved to be precisely the angelic intervention It’s a Wonderful Life needed. Television networks turned to the now public domain (i.e. “free”) film to fill their desperate need for cheap programming in the slow holiday season. Soon “a whole new generation of movie-lovers fell in love with the previously-obscure release.” [4] Capra had the last laugh when the film grew to become a beloved classic, now regarded by the American Film Institute as one of the 20 best films ever made.

Much of the greatness of It’s a Wonderful Life stems from Capra’s deliberate use of worldview conflict in the film. (Don’t worry, I won’t ruin your Christmas buzz with a bunch of philosophical mumbo-jumbo, but this first part is important). When philosophers speak of a “worldview” they actually mean more than one thing: micro-worldviews and macro-worldviews.[5]

At the micro level, a worldview is a description of the stories that shape the principles that support the conventions that an individual uses to make their daily decisions. (See, Casablanca and the Four Levels of Worldview). The problem is, nobody’s worldview is actually “personal.” While we each have unique experiences that form the backbone of the “story of our life,” we interpret these experiences through the stories transmitted to us by our larger cultures.[6] (See, Crash Goes the Worldview). Our personal micro-worldview rests within concentric circles of larger and larger macro-worldviews. In other words, (1) my (micro) worldview rests mostly within, (2) my family’s (slightly less micro) worldview, which rests mostly within (3) my sub-culture’s (even less micro) worldview, and (4) my current society’s (more macro) worldview, and (5) my historic civilization’s (macro) worldview.

While it is a gross oversimplification, you could say that the history of Western civilization has been comprised of the interplay of two key macro-worldviews: what I will call physicalism and idealism.

The ‘Box’ of Physicalism

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

Physicalism is a macro worldview that roots our understanding of reality in the physical world.[7] Physicalism starts with what you can see, feel, touch, and taste as the only “really real” things in the world.[8] If you can measure something’s length, weigh its mass, or quantify it in some way, then it is a reliable source of knowledge.

The worldview of physicalism can best symbolized by a BOX, because in physicalism the “closed system” of the material universe is pretty much all you can rely on. You can extrapolate from sense perceptions of the visible universe to a “spiritual” world, but every effect in the physical universe owes its existence to a cause within the physical universe. As cosmologist and the original host of Cosmos (PBS) put so eloquently, “The universe is all there is and all that there will ever be.”

This makes physicalism perfect for scientific experimentation. A laboratory technician wouldn’t be able to maintain a proper relationship between experimental variables if they had to account for factors from outside the physical universe messing with their data.  A medical researcher who used ‘angelic intervention’ as a factor in studying the effects of an antibiotic on staph infections would be laughed out of the scientific community. Good experiments require the “closed box” provided by physicalism.

Ricky Gervais’ Wall Street Journal essay is a beautiful example of using the logic of scientific physicalism to defend a broader philosophical proposition-namely atheism. Ricky explained the rationale for his lack of faith by asserting, “I don’t believe in God because there is absolutely no scientific evidence for his existence and from what I’ve heard the very definition is a logical impossibility in this known universe… (Science) bases its conclusions and beliefs on hard evidence…” By “hard” evidence, Ricky means things you can touch, taste, see, and measure.  If there is no “hard” physicalist evidence for God, then he won’t believe it. It is a common position for modern physicalists (more below.)

The ‘Circle’ of Idealism

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

Idealism is a worldview that roots our understanding of reality in the world of ideas, values, spirits, and/or gods. Idealism starts with what you cannot see, touch, taste, see or feel as the only “really real” things in the world. You can’t weigh a pound of love, or measure a mile of justice, or put a soul in a beaker, yet idealists view these intuited unseen ideals as what really matters. As Immanuel Kant asserted, “All human knowledge begins with intuitions, proceeds from thence to concepts, and ends with ideas.”

The worldview of idealism is best symbolized by a CIRCLE. Normally this circle surrounds the box of the physical universe, because in idealism the physical universe exists within the broader field of unseen realities.[9] This makes idealism perfect for, say, artists and lovers. Everyone “knows” that beauty and love are what make life worth living, even if you can’t quantify them. To reduce love to mere chemical reactions, or art to the properties of sculptor’s materials is neither romantic, inspiring, nor “real.”

Idealists look beyond the hard realities of the physical world and point to something they view as much more “real.” When the Beatles sing, “All you need is love,” or Jean Valjean declares in Les Miserables, “To love another person is to see the face of God,” they are giving voice to an idealist worldview. They are not appealing to hard physical evidence, but to an ideal so ‘intuitively true’ they need no “proof.” When Jefferson wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” or MLK declared, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” they were appealing to truth claims beyond the physical world and calling others toward them as ultimate realities.

A 2500-Year War

The struggle between these two worldviews is at least as old as the study of philosophy. Plato (and later Augustine and Kant) advocated for idealism, while Aristotle (and later Aquinas and Hume) sided with physicalism.  Neither side ever scored a decisive victory, yet the philosophical underpinnings of each era of Western history can often be described by the relationship between the two at a given cultural moment.

George Bailey: The young idealist years

For over 2000 years, Muslims, Jews, and Christians used both Idealism and Physicalism to support their faith. For Christians, the Hebraic worldview Jesus inherited from his Jewish heritage was more or less free from the dualism of having to choose between these two sources of knowledge. Truth was found both in the invisible God and in his visible creation. Faith-building and culture-making were therefore two sides of the same coin.

However, as the early church became less and less Jewish and more and more Greek, dualism began to plague the church. Idealism held the upper hand in ancient Greco-Roman society and nearly overwhelmed early Christianity with a radical form of Idealism known as Gnosticism. Augustine and other key thinkers restored sanity through a more moderate form of Idealism that helped salvage Christianity when the Roman empire fell. Physicalism began to gain serious traction in Middle Ages when both Muslims and Christians (such as Aquinas) began to use Aristotle’s physicalist philosophy to defend their faith. While increasingly disconnected by the “either-or” dualism of Greek thought, both idealism and physicalism remained key elements of both a God-centered view of the world as well as a number of attempts to support atheism.

The Rise of Radical Skepticism

Unfortunately, the Enlightenment gave birth to a “pervasive and astringent skepticism” that began to “dissolve” both Physicalism and Idealism (and any hope of reconnecting them.) [10] Physicalists lost confidence first in their sense perceptions, and then in their ability to extrapolate from the physical world into the spiritual. Idealists began to doubt that their own thoughts and intuitions were anything more than their own inventions (or the inventions of their community) so that there was no spiritual world “out there” only my own ideas and perspectives “in here.”

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

Skepticism quickly demoted Idealism to the ranks of second class truth, enthroning a weakened and highly dualistic form of Physicalism at the center of Western thought. When a modern Westerner says that something is objectively true, we mean that it is true from a Physicalist perspective. It is something that can be verified with the physical senses.

By contrast, when we say that something is subjectively true we mean that it is “merely” an ideal–something that an individual subject (person) holds to be true, but which cannot be physically verified. Ideals are therefore second class citizens in the world of truth. Idealist (subjective) knowledge has been assigned to the back of the bus as “private” knowledge. While physicalist (objective) knowledge is driving the bus of “public” knowledge.

A Comedian’s Circular (Logic) Dilemma

Whether he realizes it or not, this is exactly why Ricky Gervais, like many physicalist moderns, has to so much trouble with Theism–it simply doesn’t make any sense from his starting point of skeptical physicalism. When Gervais exclaims, “People who believe in God don’t need proof of his existence, and they certainly don’t want evidence to the contrary,” he is giving voice to an extremely common view of faith.  Those damnable believers are appealing to knowledge derived from outside the realm of physical verifiability. Gervais continues,

“Why don’t I believe in God? No, no no, why do YOU believe in God? Surely the burden of proof is on the believer.”

And he’s right, of course, at least from a skeptical physicalist perspective.  Which is precisely the problem. He’s right back to where he started.

He begins with the presupposition that your physical senses are the only thing you can only trust, and ends up right thinking that anyone who believes in something you can’t access with your physical senses is crazy. As Gervais explains, “I don’t think there is a god, but belief in him does no harm. If it helps you in any way, then that’s fine with me.” In skeptical physicalist thinking, ideals might be personally helpful to some, but as truth-claims they are, “Sentimental Hogwash!

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

However, even Gervais has to resort to idealism to guide how he actually lives his life. The same skeptical physicalism that can be so helpful in a laboratory, can be an extremely unsatisfying way of life. As James Davidson Hunter explains, “radical skepticism leading to radical nihilism is, of course, rare… for the simple reason that it is unlivable.”  Even Gervais resorts to very Idealist and Intuitive (and therefore unprovable) concepts of ‘right’ and ‘good’ in order to direct his life: “My reward is here and now. It’s knowing that I try to do the right thing. That I lived a good life.”

Enter George Bailey

Which is, of course, exactly what George Bailey is striving for in It’s a Wonderful Life. Like Gervais, George Bailey only wants to live a good life here and now. However, like most of us in the postmodern world, the crushing realities of skeptical physicalism are squeezing the life out of our weakened idealism.

Like George Bailey (and Ricky Gervais), we all eventually find ourselves wondering: Is there a reward for knowing and trying to do the right thing? (Either in heaven or on earth) Or, is it all a waste of time? Like Gervaise, we simply cannot reconcile belief in God with the ideals of truth and honesty we strive for. Like George Bailey, we simply cannot reconcile the ideals for which we live with the harsh realities of our day-to-day existence.

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

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

See also

Hollywood and Higher Education: Teaching Worldview Through Academy Award-winning Films

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

Fiddler on the Roof: Worldview Change and the Journey to Life-Interpreting Story

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

Deep Culture: Is Winning an Oscar a Reliable Indicator of a Truly Great Film?

If you Live it, They Will Come: The Blind Side and Better Faith-Based Filmmaking

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Related Posts

Using Zombie Movies to Teach Politics, by Daniel W. Drezner

The Joker Is Satan, and So Are We: René Girard and The Dark Knight, by Charles Bellinger

Echoes of René Girard in the Films of Martin Scorsese: Scapegoats and Redemption on Shutter Island, by Cari Myers

Hitchcock and the Scapegoat: René Girard, Violence and Victimization in The Wrong Man, by David Humbert

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Notes


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

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

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

[4] James Berardinelli, ReelMovies.net.

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

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

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

[8] James W. Sire identifies nine macro worldviews currently influencing Western culture: predominantly physicalist worldviews, such as Naturalism, Nihilism, and Post-modernism; Predominantly idealist worldviews such as, Christian Theism, Islamic Theism and Eastern Pantheistic Monism, and hybrids, such as Existentialism, Deism, and the New Age movement. The Universe Next Door: A Basic World View Catalog(Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2009).

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

[10] See James Davidson Hunter’s masterful take on “dissolution” in To change the world: the irony, tragedy, and possibility of Christianity in the late modern world. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 205-210.

The Screwtape Letters Onstage: One Hell of a Good Show

by Gary David Stratton, PhD

“WICKEDLY WITTY…it is, if I may say so, ONE HELL OF A GOOD SHOW! Lewis’ topsy-turvy exercises in inverted moral theology were made to be played with lip-smacking relish!”  -Terry Teachout, The Wall Street Journal

Award winning actor, Max McLean, is brilliant in his role as Senior Tempter, “Uncle Screwtape”

Saturday evening I had the privilege of taking my fourteen-year-old actress daughter to one of the most unlikely of theatrical performances to grace a Los Angeles stage since Aimee Semple McPherson closed the Angelus Temple Theatre.

After a 300 performance run in New York City, The Fellowship for the Arts, a New York based nonprofit organization, had the audacity to attempt a stage rendition of C.S. Lewis’s literary classic, The Screwtape Letters at the historic Alex Theatre in Glendale, CA.  Their faith was well honored and their mission to “produce theatre from a Christian worldview that engages a diverse audience” well served in the four sold-out shows in one of the tougher theater towns in America. (Extra shows had to be added to meet demand.)

Anchored by acting tour-de-force, MAX McLAEN, THE SCREWTAPE LETTERS ONSTAGE proved to be one of the most delightful evenings of my life. The acting and storytelling was riveting, but more importantly, the content was mesmerizing.

“THE DEVIL HAS RARELY BEEN GIVEN HIS DUE MORE PERCEPTIVELY AND ERUDITELY…a humorous and lively stage adaptation…clever and satirical…” -Wilborn Hampton, The New York Times

C.S. Lewis' masterful interweaving of theology and storytelling landed him on the cover of Time

McLEAN and his writing partner JEFFREY FISK’s adaptation of C.S. Lewis’s masterpiece augments SCREWTAPE’s storyline by highlighting the central spiritual lessons learned at the expense of Junior Temptor, Wormwood. They breathe life into the invisible battle between heaven and hell in a humorous and moving performance.

“The play, set in a eerily stylish office in hell, follows the clever scheming of Satan’s chief pyschiatrist, Screwtape, as he entices a human ‘patient’ toward damnation. In this topsy-turvy, morally inverted universe God is the “Enemy” and the Devil is “Our Father below.”  The stakes are high as human souls are hell’s primary source of food.

As His Abysmal Sublimity Screwtape, award winning actor Max McLean, creates a ‘master of the universe’ character who mesmerizes the audience as he allures his unsuspecting ‘patient’ down the “soft, gentle path to Hell.”[1]

THE SCREWTAPE LETTERS ONSTAGE was true Two Handed Warrior magic! The artistry was first class culture making and the content highly sophisticated faith building.

“DEVILISHLY FUNNY…Lewis’ philosophical insights into human nature are cleverly conveyed!” -Jennifer Farrar, Associated Press

Screwtape (Max McLean) with junior demon “Toadpipe” (Karen Eleanor Wight).

Even more importantly to any parents, I can give The Screwtape Letters  my HIGHEST PARENTAL RATING. It is so hard to find artistic expressions from a genuinely Christian worldview teenagers won’t view as “lame.” Screwtape was anything but.  My sophisticated actress was transfixed. The play evoked a SIX HOUR spiritual conversation that I will cherish for the rest of my life.  She was inspired not only in her faith, but in her commitment to acting as well. I simply can’t recommend it highly enough.

THE SCREWTAPE LETTERS is currently on a mini-tour of the U.S. (See confirmed dates below). If it comes to your town, you absolutely must see it.

Who knows?  If you miss it you might regret it for all eternity,

Gary

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Currently Scheduled Tour Dates 

Sacramento, CA – March 3 

Seattle, WA March 10

The Fellowship for the Performing Arts Mission Statement: "To produce theatre from a Christian worldview that engages a diverse audience."

Chicago, IL March 16-18

Oklahoma City, OK – March 24 

Indianapolis, IN  March 31

Buffalo, NY  April 14

Nashville, TN  April 27

Norfolk, VA – May 1-6

Aurora, IL – May 19

Atlanta, GA – June 7-10; 14-17

.

“A large part of what makes it successful is the energetic performance by Max McLean as Screwtape…every inch the cunning gentleman he is often purported to be.” -Wilborn Hampton, The New York Times

“A parable dipped in MORDANT IRONY…CAPTURES THE DROLL HUMOR with which Lewis constructed his topsy-turvy morality lesson. CLEVERLY IMAGINED FOR THE STAGE, it gives even nonbelievers an amusing primer of modern vice.” -Michael Schulman, The New Yorker

“The production with its IMAGINATIVE set and SNAZZY lighting effects is HIGHLY SEDUCTIVE!” – Joe Dziemianowicz , New York Daily News

“EXCELS at depicting seduction and corruption…the audience’s 90 minutes is spent — HUMOROUSLY but at times uncomfortably — being wooed by the underworld’s top salesman.  Lessons I didn’t notice when reading the book jumped out at me during the performance.” -Kristin Hamill, CNN


[1] http://www.screwtapeonstage.com/about

Blue Ocean Summit 2011: Hearing from God in Prayer and Society, by Dave Schmelzer


One highlight of our recent trip to New England was the Blue Ocean Summit in Cambridge, MA., where I was pressed into service on a couple of plenary panel discussions.

Stanford anthropologist, Tanya Luhrmann, PhD, started the week off with a remarkable report on her study of the impact of kataphatic prayer (prayer where God talks back to people). It ended up shaping the entire conversation of the conference.

I will post more later, but here is conference organizer Dave Schmelzer’s summary of the week. Enjoy!

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How I Spent My (Blue Ocean) Summer Vacation

by Dave Schmelzer (Adapted from Not the Religious Type)

This year’s Blue Ocean Summit took on a bit of a big-picture theme, with Tanya Luhrmann painting a picture of an experiential connection with God presenting a unique opportunity in a secularizing world, followed by our culture panel taking a pass at how centered-set faith makes a unique offer in many spheres of the wider world (Hollywood, publishing, academia, finance).

One of the more-intriguing themes at the recent Blue Ocean Summit was the thought that the sort of spirituality we talk about here might, in some ways, boil down to “Can we just skip the middleman?”

When God Talks Back

Tanya Luhrmann, a Stanford anthropologist, talked about her astounding multi-year study of people who talk to God in hopes that God will talk back to them.  I asked her before her talk: has anyone in human history done an anthropological study like this one, of the actual dynamics of what happens when people try to “relate” to God?  She hemmed and hawed for a moment and then said, “No.”

After hearing Tanya’s utterly provocative talk on what she learned, one implication we talked about was: is there a case to be made that we just bring this relational dynamic with God to anyone we meet who might like it?  Or do we need to take an intermediate step where we briefly change terms?

Do we need to tell our non-churchgoing friends, “Wow, your life can change if you learn to interact with this invisible but seemingly-very-real God and I’d love to teach you how to do it.  But first I’d like to offer you historical proofs that Jesus is the Son of God and, who are we kidding?, God himself.  And then I’d like you to sign off on that and pray a prayer to that effect.  And then we can get down to business about this change-your-life-by-interacting-with-God stuff.”  Maybe, we hazarded, we can just jump to that last part and see what happens?

Cultural Implcations

And then we enjoyed a really provocative “culture panel” with the following people: Jill Lamar (editor-in-chief of Henry Holt publishers), Peter Eavis (recent Wall Street Journal banking columnist), Brian Odom (Northwestern faculty in physics) and Gary David Stratton, PhD (moderator of the Two Handed Warrior online community and recent head of Act One, perhaps the largest gathering-point/training institution for Christians in Hollywood).

And we asked the question: is this sort of faith relevant primarily to people who go to churches?  Or is it directly relevant to the financial and publishing and Hollywood and academic worlds?  That gave us about an hour of things to talk about together.  But most-assuredly the upshot was, yes, take this to the larger world and get moving as quickly as you can pull this off.

Taking it to the Streets… I mean, Pub!

An intriguing capper came just after the summit finished, on Wednesday night.  Tanya joined about thirty folks in a nearby pub for another of our summer “Meaning in a Pub” gatherings, composed of about a third churchgoers and two-thirds folks from either other religious traditions or no religion.  She shared quite candidly about her really astounding tour of religious communities as an anthropologist–surely no one in history has lived even a similar life to hers–before turning things back to the tables for processing.

Later that night, over a glass of wine with Grace and me, Tanya shook her head and said something like, “You folks really are remarkable.  Believing Christians who truly live out centered set.  I don’t think I’ve seen that in quite the same way before.”

So just a few words on a time I’m still very much chewing on.  We may well have more to say soon…or we’ll ponder it in our heart.  Thanks so much to those of you who made it here, usually at the cost of real sacrifice.  I can’t wait to see where things go next.

But what do you think?  Can we offer whatever it is we have to offer to anyone, directly?  Or is a conversion of some sort required first?

Visit Dave’s Blog.

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

Hollywood legend Frank Capra made It’s a Wonderful Life specifically to “combat a modern trend toward atheism,”[1] which certainly appears to make Gervais his ideal target audience. Yet, Capra’s approach to combatting atheism was in no way as simplistic as one would expect. It’s a Wonderful Life is not only one of the best Christmas movies of all time, it is also a remarkable example of using worldview conflict to construct a compelling story… and live a wonderful life. Students seeking to understand worldview and filmmakers seeking to make culture-influencing movies would be wise to pay careful attention.

Ironically, much like its main character, George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart), It’s a Wonderful Life entered midlife as an apparent failure.[2] Before its release, Capra believed it to be his greatest film. However, after a disappointing box office, and a complete shut out at the Oscars,[3] Liberty Films didn’t even bother to renew the copyright for “Capra’s masterpiece” when it expired in 1974. This lapse in judgment proved to be precisely the angelic intervention It’s a Wonderful Life needed. Television networks turned to the now public domain film to fill their desperate need for cheap programming in the slow holiday season. Soon “a whole new generation of movie-lovers discovered and fell in love with the previously-obscure release.” [4] Capra had the last laugh when the film grew to become a beloved classic, now regarded as one of the best films ever made. (It is currently #20 on the prestigious AFI’s Top 100 Movies of All Time list.)

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

Much of the greatness of It’s a Wonderful Life stems from Capra’s deliberate use of worldview conflict in the film. (Don’t worry, I won’t ruin your Christmas buzz with a bunch of philosophical mumbo-jumbo, but this first part is important). When philosophers speak of a “worldview” they actually mean more than one thing:[5] micro worldviews and macro worldviews.

At the micro level, a worldview is a description of the stories that shape the principles that support the conventions that an individual uses to make their daily decisions. (See, Casablanca and the Four Levels of Worldview). The problem is, nobody’s worldview is actually “personal.” While we each have unique experiences that form the backbone of the “story of our life,” we interpret these experiences through the stories transmitted to us by our larger cultures.[6] (See, Crash Goes the Worldview). Our personal worldview rests within concentric circles of larger and larger worldviews. In other words, (1) my (micro) worldview rests mostly within, (2) my family’s (slightly less micro) worldview, which rests mostly within (3) my sub-culture’s (even less micro) worldview, and (4) my current society’s (more macro) worldview, and (5) my historic civilization’s (macro) worldview.

While it is a gross oversimplification, you could say that the history of Western civilization has been comprised of the interplay of two key macro worldviews: what I will call physicalism and idealism.

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

Physicalism is a macro worldview that roots our understanding of reality in the physical world. [7] Physicalism starts with what you can see, feel, touch, and taste as the only “really real” things in the world.[8] If you can measure something’s length, weigh its mass, or quantify it in some way, then it is a reliable source of knowledge.

The worldview of physicalism can best symbolized by a BOX, because in physicalism the “closed system” of the material universe is pretty much all you can rely on. You can extrapolate from sense perceptions of the visible universe to a “spiritual” world, but every effect in the physical universe owes its existence to a cause within the physical universe. This makes physicalism perfect for scientific experimentation. A laboratory technician wouldn’t be able to maintain a proper relationship between experimental variables if they had to account for factors from outside the physical universe messing with their data.  As cosmologist and former host of Cosmos (PBS) put so eloquently, “The universe is all there is and all that there will ever be.”

Ricky Gervais’ Wall Street Journal essay is a beautiful example of using physicalism to defend atheism. Ricky explained the rationale for his lack of faith by asserting, “I don’t believe in God because there is absolutely no scientific evidence for his existence and from what I’ve heard the very definition is a logical impossibility in this known universe… (Science) bases its conclusions and beliefs on hard evidence…” By “hard” evidence, Ricky means things you can touch, taste, see, and measure.  If there is no “hard” physicalist evidence for God, then he won’t believe it. It is a common position for modern physicalists (more below.)

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

Idealism is a worldview that roots our understanding of reality in the world of ideas, values, spirits, and/or gods. Idealism starts with what you cannot see, touch, taste, see or feel as the only “really real” things in the world. You can’t weigh a pound of love, or measure a mile of justice, or put a soul in a beaker, yet idealists view these intuited unseen ideals as what really matters. As Immanuel Kant asserted, “All human knowledge begins with intuitions, proceeds from thence to concepts, and ends with ideas.”

The worldview of idealism is best symbolized by a CIRCLE. Normally this circle surrounds the box of the physical universe, because in idealism the physical universe exists within the broader field of unseen realities.[9] This makes idealism perfect for, say, artists and lovers. Everyone “knows” that beauty and love are what make life worth living, even if you can’t quantify them. To reduce love to mere chemical reactions, or art to the properties of sculptor’s materials is neither romantic, inspiring, nor “real.”

Idealists look beyond the hard realities of the physical world and point to something they view as much more “real.” When the Beatles sing, “All you need is love,” or Jean Valjean declares in  Les Miserables, “To love another person is to see the face of God,” they are giving voice to an idealist worldview. They are not appealing to hard physical evidence, but to an ideal so intuitively true they need no “proof.” When Jefferson wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” or MLK declared, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” they were appealing to something beyond the physical world and calling others toward it.

The struggle between these two worldviews is at least as old as the study of philosophy. Plato (and later Augustine and Kant) advocated for idealism, while Aristotle (and later Aquinas and Hume) sided with physicalism.  Neither side has ever scored a decisive victory, yet the philosophical underpinnings of each era of Western history can often be described by the relationship between the two at a given cultural moment.

George Bailey: The young idealist years

For over 2000 years, Muslims, Jews, and Christians used both Idealism and Physicalism to support their faith. For Christians, the Hebraic worldview Jesus inherited from his Jewish heritage was more or less free from the dualism of having to choose between these two sources of knowledge. Truth was found both in the invisible God and in his visible creation. Faith-building and culture-making were therefore two sides of the same coin.

However, as the early church became less and less Jewish and more and more Greek, dualism began to plague the church. Idealism held the upper hand in ancient Greco-Roman society and nearly overwhelmed early Christianity with a radical form of Idealism known as Gnosticism. Augustine and other key thinkers restored sanity through a more moderate form of Idealism that helped salvage Christianity when the Roman empire fell. Physicalism began to gain serious traction in Middle Ages when both Muslims and Christians (such as Aquinas) began to use Aristotle’s physicalist philosophy to defend their faith. While increasingly disconnected by the “either-or” dualism of Greek thought, both idealism and physicalism remained key elements of both a God-centered view of the world as well as a number of attempts to support atheism.

Unfortunately, the Enlightenment gave birth to a “pervasive and astringent skepticism” that began to “dissolve” both Physicalism and Idealism (and any hope of reconnecting them.) [10] Physicalists lost confidence first in their sense perceptions, and then in their ability to extrapolate from the physical world into the spiritual. Idealists began to doubt that their own thoughts and intuitions were anything more than their own inventions (or the inventions of their community) so that there was no spiritual world “out there” only my own ideas and perspectives “in here.”

Mr. Potter: "Sentimental hogwash!"

Skepticism quickly demoted Idealism to the ranks of second class truth, enthroning a weakened and highly dualistic form of Physicalism at the center of Western society. When a modern Westerner says that something is objectively true, we mean that it is true from a Physicalist perspective. It is something that can be verified with the physical senses. By contrast, when we say that something is subjectively true we mean that it is “merely” an ideal that an individual subject (person) holds to be true, but which cannot be physically verified, and is therefore a second class citizen in the world of truth. Idealist (subjective) knowledge has been assigned to the back of the bus as “private” knowledge. While physicalist (objective) knowledge is driving the bus of “public” knowledge.

Whether he realizes it or not, this is exactly why Ricky Gervais, like many physicalist moderns, has to so much trouble with Theism–it simply doesn’t make any sense from his starting point of skeptical physicalism. When Gervais exclaims, “People who believe in God don’t need proof of his existence, and they certainly don’t want evidence to the contrary,” he is giving voice to an extremely common view of faith.  These damnable believers are appealing to knowledge derived from outside the realm of physical verifiability. Gervais continues, “Why don’t I believe in God? No, no no, why do YOU believe in God? Surely the burden of proof is on the believer.” And he’s right, of course, at least from a skeptical physicalist perspective.  Which is precisely the problem. He’s right back to where he started.

He’s began with the position that you can only trust your physical senses, and ended up right thinking that anyone who believes in something you can’t access with your physical senses is crazy. As Gervais explains, “I don’t think there is a god, but belief in him does no harm. If it helps you in any way, then that’s fine with me.” In skeptical physicalist thinking, ideals might be personally helpful to some, but as truth-claims they are “Sentimental Hogwash!

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

However, even Gervais has to resort to idealism to defend his philosophy for actually living his life. The same skeptical physicalism that can be so helpful in a laboratory, can be an extremely unsatisfying way of life. As James Davidson Hunter explains, “radical skeptisicm leading to radical nihilism is, of course, rare… for the simple reason that it is unlivable.”  Gervais resorts to a very idealist perspective for his life: “My reward is here and now. It’s knowing that I try to do the right thing. That I lived a good life.”

Which is, of course, exactly what George Bailey is striving for in It’s a Wonderful Life. Like Gervais, George Bailey only wants to live a good life here and now. However, like most of us in the postmodern world, the crushing realities of skeptical physicalism are squeezing the life out of our weakened idealism.

Like George Bailey and Ricky Gervais, we all eventually find ourselves wondering: Is there a reward for knowing and trying to do the right thing? (Either in heaven or on earth) Or, is it all a waste of time? Like Gervaise, we simply cannot reconcile belief in God with the ideals of truth and honesty we strive for. Like George Bailey, we simply cannot reconcile the ideals for which we live with the harsh realities of our day-to-day existence. Caught in the vice between nihilistic physicalism and sentimental idealism there seems to be nowhere to turn.  Which is, of course, exactly where Capra wants us.

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

 

 

Notes


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

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

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

[4] James Berardinelli, ReelMovies.net.

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

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

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

[8] James W. Sire identifies nine macro worldviews currently influencing Western culture: predominantly physicalist worldviews, such as Naturalism, Nihilism, and Post-modernism; Predominantly idealist worldviews such as, Christian Theism, Islamic Theism and Eastern Pantheistic Monism, and hybrids, such as Existentialism, Deism, and the New Age movement. The Universe Next Door: A Basic World View Catalog (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2009).

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

[10] See James Davidson Hunter’s masterful take on “dissolution” in To change the world: the irony, tragedy, and possibility of Christianity in the late modern world. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 205-210.