Religious Freedom & Hobby Lobby: Who Is Imposing What on Whom?

Hobby Lobby Religious Freedom
Hobby Lobby is a privately owned, for-profit, arts and crafts business that has always provided contraceptive coverage in its insurance plan for employees. It continues to do so. However, the owners of Hobby Lobby objected to ACA (Obamacare) requirements that they cover four contraceptive options which may act as abortifacients. Complying in this manner would violate the owners’ sanctity-of-human-life beliefs, which are rooted in their biblical worldview. Hobby Lobby initially was denied a preliminary injunction from the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma. When Hobby Lobby was eventually granted a preliminary injunction, the government appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States. Without the Supreme Court’s recent intervention, Hobby Lobby would’ve been subject to fines of $1.3 million per freaking day.

On June 30, 2014, the Supreme Court announced its decision that the US government cannot force Hobby Lobby to pay for contraceptive coverage that violates the owners’ sincerely held religious beliefs. The Court ruled in accordance with the bi-partisan Religious Freedom Restoration Act, signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1993. This was primarily a religious freedom case, not a contraception case.

The Burwell vs. Hobby Lobby Supreme Court decision brought into the spotlight a reality that will not be going away anytime soon: In “secular” American culture, there is going to be an inevitable clash with religious freedom around the issues of abortion and human sexuality, because, embarrassing as it is to secularists, America is still the most religious developed nation in the world. Secular and religious worldviews will continue to collide.

I’ve argued here that the best we can hope for in America is freedom and pluralism. Creating a homogenous utopia always comes at too high a price. We must all put on our big boy pants and accept that we’re not all going to agree with each other, even on life’s most fundamental issues. Issues like the sanctity of human life and human sexuality. It’s okay if we disagree, so long as we respectfully allow other viewpoints to co-exist alongside ours. The deal-breaker is when either the Right OR the Left attempts to use government to force compliance on such fundamental issues. Everyone is free to ignore the Church. None of us are free to ignore the State, and everyone must recognize that government necessarily always entails force. This is what the Hobby Lobby case was about.

It’s simply not a question of whether you think you are right, or whether you think your view is the most fair and compassionate, or whether you think your political opponents arguments are stupid or misinformed. I’m pretty sure we all think something like that, or else we would change our opinions. The point is that we must never allow one side to take the step of violating by force, the civil rights and autonomy of those with whom it disagrees. The Supreme Court essentially ruled that this was, in effect, what the Obama administration (Sebelius/Burwell) was attempting to do in the case of Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties.

In their decision, the Justices referred to the *Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The Court ruled that the US Government could find a less restrictive means of accomplishing its interest in the matter, which is precisely what the RFRA requires. In the midst of all the hysterical, vitriolic, and often flat out dishonest media reaction I’ve heard around the Hobby Lobby decision, I heard precious little reference to the RFRA. I thought it would be helpful to address some typical objections in light of the RFRA:

Objection: Hobby Lobby is forcing their religious views on women…denying women access to birth control coverage…waging a war on women…carrying out a thinly disguised anti-woman agenda…imposing something on women…hating women, etc.

Such statements, honestly, are baffling to me. The only party having something forcibly imposed on it in this situation was Hobby Lobby. The choices were: abandon your reasonable foundational beliefs, or else pay $1.3 million a day until you either comply or go out of business.

In America, when an employer and an employee wish to enter into a consensual, contractual agreement, each party agrees to provide something for the other. If the prospective employee doesn’t like the benefit package for whatever reason, she is free to walk away. An Employer refusing to pay for something is not the same thing as banning it, or denying access to it.

I couldn’t find the numbers on this, but I’m pretty sure that if there were ever a business that caters mostly to women, it’s Hobby Lobby. From what I can see, their workforce is mostly women as well. I would be very surprised to learn that the Green family hates women. Until I see some rational reason to believe they do, I’m going to assume they are grateful to women for making their business a success.

Objection: What’s next, if “religious” people can pick and choose which laws they want to obey? Now anyone will be able to use “religious freedom” as a pretext for not obeying the law…Pandora’s box…minefield, etc.

The RFRA squarely addresses this concern. It begins:

The framers of the Constitution, recognizing free exercise of religion as an unalienable right, secured its protection in the First Amendment to the Constitution…”

However, the RFRA was designed to strike a balance between this inalienable right of the people and the interests of government. The law states that, in general, “government shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability,” but then it provides an exception:

Government may substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion only if it demonstrates that application of the burden to the person-

  • is in the furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and
  • is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.
    (See the RFRA in its entirety here.)

So, if a person’s religion requires them to not pay taxes, or to own slaves, or to conduct weekly human sacrifices, the Court will almost certainly find that government is justified in burdening those religious practices. (Here’s a great article on the RFRA)

Senator Ted Kennedy, together with Senator Orrin Hatch, led the bipartisan passage of the RFRA in the Senate (97-3.) The House unanimously passed it. Kennedy claimed that, under the RFRA, “not every free exercise claim will prevail.” The RFRA does not predetermine the outcome of any religious liberty claim.

Objection: The 4 contraceptives in question are not abortifacients.

1) Depending upon how one defines pregnancy, they may indeed act as abortifacients. Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties chose to err on the side of not being a party to ending a developing human life, as is their right.

2) This objection is irrelevant anyway. Even if a company were religiously opposed to covering any birth control whatsoever, (which is not true of HL,) the RFRA still requires the government to “strike a sensible balance between religious liberty and competing prior governmental interests.”

 Objection: With this decision, America is heading toward a Christian theocracy…the end of the world as we know it…back to the Inquisition, etc…

 A guy seriously tried to argue this with me.

No. Just because the Supreme Court recognized that it’s illegal for a liberal administration to use governmental power to force conservatives to behave like liberals does not mean we are heading toward a theocracy. It means we’re heading back toward freedom. Anyway, it’s also unconstitutional for the American government to have a state church, so no, there will be no theocracy. Plus nobody wants one. Especially Christians. My guess is that such hysterical statements stem from the Left’s tendency to conflate Christianity and Islam.

And speaking of not understanding religion…

 In her dissent, Ruth Bader Ginsburg made this statement: “Religious organizations exist to foster the interests of persons subscribing to the same religious faith. Not so of for-profit corporations.”

 With all due respect, she’s wrong. Her statement is certainly not true of the many faith-based universities, hospitals, and national and international relief organizations which shape the world we live in. One could even argue that her statement isn’t even true of many churches! Religious belief, at least in the Judeo-Christian tradition, provides a motivating, transcendent basis for valuing, loving, and helping all human beings, regardless of distinction. Such organizations do not screen refugees, earthquake victims, and starving people to make sure they “subscribe to the same religious faith” before serving them. In fact many “religious organizations” intentionally seek out people groups of other faiths to do good to them.

 Her statement mirrors the Obama administrations arbitrary (and incorrect) definitions of what religious organizations are, and what they do. Administration attorneys have been arguing in court that religious people give up any claim to a right of religious liberty when they choose to start a for-profit company.

Think about that.

Can the free market not sort most of this out? Do we really need the heel of government coercing people of faith to abandon their fundamental beliefs before they can incorporate a business? As if a secularist worldview is somehow less biased than a religious worldview. And anyway, is it really a good idea to keep people who may be religiously motivated to not be self-focused, cut-throat, money-grabbing dirt bags out of the business world?

Bigotry is bigotry. Just because it’s liberal bigotry doesn’t make it good bigotry.
‘Just sayin.’

I’m reading between the lines just a bit here, but I’m getting the impression from the Left that it is content to let “religious people” exist, so long as they stay out of the public square, outside of government, outside of the sphere of public influence, and squirreled away in their own churches. In fact the “new atheism” explicitly encourages this.

If I may close by putting this idea into perspective, let’s make some comparisons:

Many Islamic nations claim to have “religious freedom.” This means they allow Christians to live among them, so long as they do not build (or repair) churches, “make converts,” or criticize Islam. Should a Muslim decide to “convert to Christianity,” the consequences can be quite severe for everyone involved.

Similarly, China, an atheist state, claims to have “religious freedom.” Christian churches are allowed to exist, but only if they are registered with and controlled by the government. They must stay out of the public square and outside of government. The assumption is that religion will eventually die out as the public becomes more enlightened.

I’d be interested in hearing from someone on the American Left as to how the Left’s perspective on religious liberty is substantially different from that of China, or even from theocratic Islamic nations. In your answer, please tell me why you feel more threatened by the (non-compulsory) Church, than by the (compulsory) State. I’m genuinely curious.

Announcing My New Publishing Company

kids story books - the Cocky Rooster

Watercolor illlustration from the author’s upcoming children’s story, The Cocky Rooster.

This week I want to share with you my excitement over my new business adventure. I’m about to launch Big Picture Publishing, an online children’s storybook company. In this early stage I am the author, illustrator, designer, marketer, owner, & janitor of the company.

In 2006 I authored, illustrated, and self-published my first children’s book. Naomi’s Gift, a Christmas storybook, achieved moderate local success and won an award. However, I went into debt to produce it, and eventually got stuck from a marketing and distribution standpoint. As much as I enjoyed writing and illustrating books for kids, the industry seemed too difficult for a self-published guy like myself to break into.

Books for kids - Naomi's GiftI have since come to believe that technological advances are changing the picture, making it possible for a little fish like me to survive in the big book-publishing-pond. Because now, via the internet, you can directly access what I’m offering. My entire business will be conducted online – books will be offered both in an ebook format, and also as ink and paper books printed “on demand” by a third party.

“Hey – I have a great idea for a kid’s book!”
It’s surprising to me how many people I meet who have a kids’ book idea they would like to see published. Eventually I intend to offer books from other authors, but until everything is well underway I need to keep things simple. Since I have several books already written, some of which have been waiting for years to see the light of day, I’m beginning with these titles. Since I already have the writing, design, and illustration skill set to create a high quality children’s book, this is where I must begin.

I also look forward to eventually adding audio and interactivity to the ebooks, but this is beyond my ability and resources at this time. For now I must settle for simple, beautifully illustrated, great stories that are affordable for parents (and affordable for me to produce!)

Mission Statement
Big Picture Publishing has a specific mission and target audience:

Our mission is to help parents instill, reinforce, and normalize a biblical worldview in their children.

To clarify, this is not to say that the stories will all be “religious.” Since a biblical worldview encompasses all of life, I don’t see the point of dividing life up into religious and non-religious categories. Therefore our “non-religious” stories will always be completely in line with our mission, beliefs, and  values. Every book, whether an original new story, a Bible story, or a retelling of a public domain favorite such as the Emperor’s New Clothes, will be designed to reinforce truths and spiritual realities revealed in the Bible.

We fully intend to produce books that will engage and entertain kids, but we intend to go way beyond mere entertainment. We’re going for the heart. As a parent who loves Jesus, you know that your kids are bombarded daily by voices hostile to your worldview. Today, via electronic media, this can even happen within the sanctuary of your own home. However, one aspect of culture that you can control as a parent is the books you read to your children. Big Picture Publishing hopes to be a source you can trust.

I’ve emphasized parents here, but I want to be sure to say that if you are a grandparent, aunt, uncle, teacher, caretaker, or friend of a child under 9, please DO become a part of this community! A beautifully illustrated storybook can be a great gift idea as well – a gift that can contribute to a child’s spiritual formation.

kids story books by Big Picture Publishing

Illustration from The Cocky Rooster – Soon to be released! Sign up below to receive notification!

I have something for you
Key to the success of this endeavor will be building a list of thousands of interested parents and other lovers of children. In this initial stage I’m calling on my interested social media friends and blog followers to jump-start me by visiting my website and signing up in the blue box. Signing up does not obligate you to purchase anything – it simply makes it possible for me to notify you of quarterly new book releases.

When you sign up, I will immediately send you my free ebooklet about the importance of stories in parenting. In this ebooklet I share some ideas that inspired and energized me as a young parent years ago. In fact, these same ideas were the impetus for me to launch this project. I think you will be inspired and encouraged as well.

I thank you for your support – I am quite enthused over this project! I am honored to have the opportunity to support parents and families by providing tools that will edify their children. In a world that’s getting crazier every day, may God give you wisdom in helping the little ones you love to navigate the course of life.

Please do visit the website for more info: www.bigpicturepublishing.com  – and don’t forget to sign up to receive your free ebooklet!
(Fyi – you will not be fully subscribed until you also click on the follow-up confirmation email, as this is a permission-based list.)

kids story books-biblical worldview

A spread from The Cocky Rooster, written and illustrated by Scott Freeman: The story of a self-absorbed rooster who resents being cooped up with the hens every night.

 

A Humongous Mural Project Outside of My Comfort Zone

 

Lake Providence mural 1
Can public art make a difference in a town’s identity? I think I now believe it can play a part.

I certainly don’t think that painting a huge mural on an old building is going to solve anyone’s problems. However, perhaps living alongside inspiring words and images can help to create a climate favorable to positive change. Perhaps it can announce that there are those present who are willing to see change come, and even willing to do something to make it happen. Perhaps seeing a life-enhancing message every day may work on a person’s spirit, at least raising the possibility of new possibilities.

If there were ever a town that could use an identity change, Lake Providence, Louisiana, would be a good candidate. This town has gotten more than its share of bad press. Here is just a sampling of national and regional news stories singling out Lake Providence and the county where it is situated:
-  In 1994, Time magazine designated Lake Providence the poorest place in America.

-  In 1996, the Shreveport Times reported that East Carroll Parish, Louisiana, had the highest rate of child poverty in America.

-  In 1998 George Magazine named LP as one of the most corrupt cities in America.

-  In 2013 CNN called East Carroll Parish “the most unequal county in America.”

This northern Louisiana town of under 4000 people is a Mississippi River town, situated around a lake.  80% of the population is black. Traditionally there has been a white side, and a black side of the Lake, (although this is beginning to change.) There is a public school with no white students, and a private school with no, or few, black students. Though the town is filled with churches, they tend to be either black or white.

When I say these things to non-Southerners, they tend to be appalled, incredulous that such a situation would still exist in 21st century America. I admit that it’s taken me some time to wrap my head around the situation. I was born in 1960 in St. Louis, Missouri, and my siblings and I grew up assuming that racism was stupid and backward, despite having close relatives who sometimes made racial slurs. As a young parent, when my family lived in the inner city of Kansas City, my wife and I sent two of our boys to an all black charter school, partly because we thought it might be good for them to experience how it feels to be a minority. Especially before moving to Loveland, Colorado.

But despite the demographics in Lake Providence, it would be wrong to assume that LP and other towns like it are brimming over with racial hatred today. At this point it seems to be more a matter of ingrained patterns and inertia, especially with younger generations, who haven’t lived with the actual acts of hatred that the older generations have seen. Political power is no longer held by whites. For the past 20 years, LP has made great strides in pulling itself out of the ashes of a nasty history. There are concerned citizens working to turn the town around, and making improvements. I spoke at length with an older gentleman, who grew up in Lake Providence, and who is an agent of change. It’s interesting to hear him describe his upbringing:

By way of background, segregation in the South meant there were two of everything. Two entrances to the only movie theater in town, for example, & two seating sections…Blacks sat upstairs in the balcony; whites sat downstairs. That’s the world I grew up in & I didn’t think much about it at the time. That’s just the way it was…In a small town like Lake Providence, we associated with blacks. Our family had a black maid and I grew up around black folks, played with blacks as a child. In the army I roomed with a black man. Once in TX, we were denied service at a diner because he was black. Though he “took” it, it was my first experience with bigotry and it made me angry on his behalf and helped me to understand a little of what he went through.  

In the courthouse here, there were two drinking fountains – one for whites & one for coloreds. I drank out of the one labeled “white” and didn’t think anything about it. Three restrooms – one for white men, one for white women, one for coloreds (men & women). I went to the one labeled “whites”. That’s just what I did. No one made a “to-do” about the separateness of it…Of course, that’s all changed and you’d never know it even existed now. Everybody shops together at Walmart now.”

Today, I think people still tend to assume racism and hatred where it may not exist. One of my white Lake Providence friends told a story of going to the black section of the mall to have her hair done. She was totally well intentioned, trying to build bridges, and wanting to support a black business. She was met with cold stares, and was refused service. She insisted, saying, “but I want you to do my hair.” The hairdresser refused, saying she had never done a white person’s hair before. My friend insisted again, but the hairdresser said she didn’t have the right supplies, and told her to go the white salon. Is this racial hatred?

Not necessarily, though it probably felt like it to my friend. I don’t know the hairdresser, but I do know that black people hair is really different from white people hair. My wife had dreadlocks for ten years, and she definitely had to go to way more effort to make that happen than black do people. I once had a friend in Kansas City tell me that it was kind of a hassle for her to come to Colorado because the stores didn’t carry the right products for her hair and skin. These is not an insurmountable problem, but it illustrates the point that it’s just more work to accommodate differences. That is not to say it’s not worth the effort.

I can tell you from experience that it is way more work to racially integrate a church congregation than to remain separate. This is partly because integrating involves figuring out how to bring together different, sometimes very personal, cultural aspects such as dress, speech, music, and worship styles. Again, it’s just more work. It requires humility, forbearance, and cooperation from all sides. The multi-racial churches I’m familiar with specifically have a vision to be multi-racial, and are committed to making it work. Yet this is only fitting for any New Testament church that claims to believe the biblical call to love and unity under a universal Savior.

A Brief Word About Hate
Leaving the specific topic of racism for a moment, let’s consider the topic of hate-blaming-and-shaming in general.

I assume everyone has noticed by now the political left’s current tactic of assigning hateful motives to those who hold views it doesn’t like. This is not helpful. Assuming hatred where it doesn’t exist has a polarizing effect on the culture – it promotes a false picture of a society consisting of people who are politically liberal versus people who are motivated by hate. As if the picture is that simple. It’s a lame political tool used to manipulate and shame those with “incorrect” opinions into getting in line. This tactic is being used to shut down honest dialogue, so desperately needed between those whose opinions differ. But accusation is much easier than dialogue. It promotes sucking up to popular opinion over actually thinking about the issues. It’s also blindly arrogant: “If you disagree with my viewpoint, it is because you hate.” End of discussion.

And, by the way, if you’re a liberal hate-shamer, this business of broad-brushing people’s motives isn’t ultimately going to work. Those relative few who actually are haters don’t care what you think (because they hate you,) while the majority of us whose views differ from yours resent having our motives maligned by you. We know we’re not motivated by hatred, we’re not ashamed of our beliefs, and we’re not going to be manipulated or forced into silence.

Racial hatred, homophobia, misogyny and other types of irrational prejudice exist, but probably not to the extent that the ankle-deep news media would have us believe. For example, if you think the millions of people who oppose gay marriage are necessarily motivated by hate, I am thrilled to inform you that you are simply wrong. We’re actually motivated by truth, love, and tolerance. If you think opposition to abortion-on-demand and to Planned Parenthood constitutes a “war on women,” you should be relieved to know that we’re actually motivated by a desire to create a culture that upholds the innate value of all human life; in other words, truth, love, and tolerance. Disagreement does not equal hate.

Attempting to shame people into conformity ultimately won’t work because it doesn’t change people’s hearts. Government force does not change people’s hearts. There is simply no easy substitute for the hard work of building relationships.

The Humongous Lake Providence Mural
Resurrection Fellowship, whose pastor was once a worship leader at a church in Lake Providence years ago, has committed to building a long-term relationship with the town of Lake Providence. This Loveland church sponsored the LP mural project. A local black business owner in LP agreed to let a bunch of (mostly) white people from Colorado paint on his building. The team consisted of 9 adult artists and their families. Most considered themselves to be amateurs or non-artists. As the only full-time professional artist, I headed the project along with my wife and our leader, Eric Holmlund. Our team had one week to paint a very complex design on a huge, already primed, old building. I had my doubts that it could be done in a week.

Lake Providence mural 2
The design, which Eric had named “Destiny Words,” consisted of a crossword puzzle-like grid with interlocking words. In the spaces between we were to paint images reflective of the town and region, based on input from local citizens. Eric created the basic design for this using photos .

I felt that giving inexperienced artists photographs to paint from on such an ambitious project would probably not have ended well. So Mollie and I translated the photos into basic flat shapes, with gradated color, and incorporated heavy line work. We used the design approach of poster artists David Lance Goines, and Michael Schwab as inspiration. We felt that this would unify the overall look of the mural despite the large number of people involved, (some of whom were children.) I also felt that the simplicity of the shapes and flat color would give us a chance of actually finishing in one week.

Lake Providence mural 3
This was uncomfortable, but good for me. When it comes to art, I don’t see myself as a person who is naturally great at collaborating with other people, but for this project I determined to do the upfront design work and then “let it go.”

We arrived in Lake Providence at night in a freaking downpour, but for the rest of the week we had great weather. Our first morning there, Mr. Brock, an LP local took us on a bus tour of the town and impressed on us how different Lake Providence, LA was from Loveland, CO:

Scott Freeman painting mural

The author working on the trumpeter.

Population: LP – 3,991, Loveland – 66,859
Median hh income: LP – $16,900, Loveland – $47,119
Poverty rate: LP – 55%, Loveland – 4%
Race demographics: LP – 16% white, 80% black; Loveland – 91% white (2010)

Wow.

Then, we were off and running, working hard from morning ‘til night. The LP locals were very generous hosts and fed us extremely well all week. Even strangers fed us: one night, a black lady, dressed all in white and wearing a big white hat, was on her way home from a revival meeting. After stopping to talk with us, she went home and brought back the remains of a cheesecake for me! Really?!

The whole week was a big, crazy, colorful party with people stopping by throughout each day, many of whom joined in to paint. We were on the corner of a very busy, very close intersection, so we painted to a serenade of honking horns and encouraging shouts.

Lake Providence mural gator

Rene, Sandy, and me hard at work. The gator is my favorite.

In the end, we went right down to the wire and got the mural done with the help of many hands and much support. (Well, there is this one little area that didn’t get painted, but I’m not going to point it out.) On the very last night Eric and I went up and painted the url to a website that Eric had set up that day, so that passers by can look up the meaning and inspiration behind Lake Providence’s newest downtown public art addition. You can read about it here: www.LPmural.com.

 
Title: “Destiny Words”
Artists: Sandy Beegle, Mollie Walker Freeman, Scott Freeman, Aubrey Grieser, Margie Gray, Eric Holmlund, Sabrina Peterson, Rene Prinsloo, Marcus Robinson
Opinions expressed here are not necessarily the views of the other artists or Resurrection Fellowship.

Lake Providence mural 4

At the center of the mural is a depiction of two recent high school graduates. These girls, both prom queens from their respective LP schools, agreed to appear on the same parade float for the first time in LP history. Both were members of Providence Church in, which supported our team while we were there.

 

LP Judah

The “Elusive” Project

 

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If you’re a music lover, I’d like to let you know about a project I was recently involved with.

One of the things that drew Mollie and I to the city of Loveland 13 years ago was the local musical talent. Loveland is actually better known for its sculpture and fine art, but at at the time we weren’t aware of this. We moved here for relational reasons, and our friends had connected with some world-class local musicians, specifically guitarist Dave Beegle, Keith Rosenhagen, and Taylor Mesple (pronounced MESS-play.)Musician and composer Aakash Mittal is also from Loveland for those of you who like Modern Jazz. I should hasten to add that I’m not saying that Loveland is a great place to make a living if you are an artist or musician, only that there seems to be a disproportionate number of artists, musicians, dancers, and authors for a town of this size.

Musician, singer, songwriter, and producer Taylor Mesple has just released his newest album, Elusive, for which I was privileged to create the graphic design package. Taylor is the creator of one of my all time favorite albums in the universe: Victory Land. It’s one of the most beautiful, unified, and lyrically evocative albums I’ve heard. (You should just buy it right now.) He released Victory Land shortly after we moved to Loveland in 2001, but due to some timing mishaps the album was never really marketed well. The Mesples moved to Maine for several years where Taylor did musical production and ran a music venue called The Maple Room. Fortunately for us, the Mesples eventually moved back to Loveland.

Elusive represents Taylor’s newest and best musical statement to date, after years of producing music for others. Taylor is a bit of a non-conformist in a lot of ways that I consider to be good. Inside his possibly intimidating, biker-like exterior is a sensitive dreamer that aspires to bring healing, light, and inspiration to hearts through music that is decidedly softer (at times) than a first impression might lead you to expect. There is a sense of yearning for the transcendent that pervades his music – an invitation to a journey to someplace better than where we are.

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A bit about Taylor the musician: Taylor was a child prodigy, raised in a musical family. In 1989, at age 13, he began playing keyboards with his Dad’s highly successful band, Wind Machine. The band, originally formed by Steve Mesple and Acoustic Eidelon’s Joe Scott toured until 1998. As an adult, Taylor is now an accomplished producer, session player, songwriter, and musical innovator.

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I also want to mention that Taylor’s wife, Rebecca, is an accomplished singer-songwriter. A few years ago Rebecca released an album entitled “A Simple Offering.” The album consists of simple, yet moving and unforgettable songs, and is one of my favorite albums by a female singer-songwriter. It’s definitely worth checking out. If you want my recommendation for tracks to sample, my favorites on this disc are “My Light”, “Step Into the Sun”, and her cover of Jonatha Brooke’s “Always.” Rebecca’s disc is available HERE.

For those of you within range, Taylor will be performing an “Elusive” CD release concert at the Lincoln Center in Ft. Collins, Colorado, May 6th, 2014 at 7:00pm. I spoke with Taylor recently about what he’d like to accomplish in a live concert. Rather than simply doing the typically less-excellent-concert-version of what is on the recorded disc, Taylor is interested in creating a transcendent experience for the audience. I can’t wait to see what he comes up with. You can find more information at Taylor’s new website HERE. 

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Taylor and I thought the image of a hula dancer in the snow was a great metaphor for God-renewed life in our cold, fallen world. If you’ve ever felt like we were made for a different place then perhaps you can relate.

Artwork and photography copyright 2014 by Scott Freeman

 

An Invitation for Holy Week

JoW Facebook announcement 1It’s the week before Easter, and, for those of you who are in or near front range Northern Colorado, I would like to issue an invitation. For the rest of you I would like to share some jaw-dropping, mind-expanding, God-revealing thoughts about the Passover/Easter season.

A few years ago I was on staff at my church as the “Worship Arts Something-or-Other.” During my brief stint as a staffer, I created an event for Holy Week, (the week between Palm Sunday and Easter,) called the Journey of Worship. Perhaps you may find my reasons for creating this event interesting.

First of all, I sense that the Church in general is lacking a good and meaningful way to give expression to the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus; arguably the most important Christian holiday. Lovers of Jesus want to celebrate it, but may seem to be at a loss as to how to do it. Christmas has a number of traditions surrounding it. But Easter…not so much. There are no Easter carols. It’s hard to even find a good children’s storybook about Easter. I think there are reasons for this, but I’ll leave it at that.

Secondly, I created the Journey of Worship because there is an amazing back-story behind the climactic events of the life of Jesus that has been largely lost to the “gentile Christian church,” I’m not speaking here of some new, unsubstantiated, Dan-Brownish-horse-crap theory, such as: Jesus was married; or gay; or an alien, or a hologram. No. I’m speaking of something much older than Christianity that has been right there all along, but that nearly 2000 years of anti-Semitic “Christian” theology has buried. I’m speaking of the rich Hebrew roots of what has come to be called Christianity. We have the good fortune to live in a time when we can openly speak of these things without religious authorities lighting us on fire.

Thirdly, in light of the disturbing history of Christian-Jewish relations, the Journey of Worship seemed like a way for the gentile church to humble herself, and acknowledge and honor the Jewish roots of her faith. The apostle Paul referred to the gentile (non-Jewish) believers as uncultivated branches that had been grafted into the cultivated tree. He reminded gentile believers not to be arrogant, but to remember that it is the root that supports the branches and not the other way around (Ro 11:17,18.) He said that the gospel of God was to the Jew first (Ro 1:16.) Indeed, I have come to believe that one cannot fully understand who Jesus was and what he accomplished apart from the Jewish context into which He was born.

So…what is the Journey of Worship?

 “We are all part of a larger story. It is our Creator’s story of love, light, & redemption…”

JoW Announcement 2

These are the opening words of the Journey of Worship, a self-guided tour of the final climactic events in the life of Jesus. There is no speaker, live music, or program. We have simply created a contemplative, worshipful environment in the church sanctuary, where people can stay for as long as they like. There are nine stations guiding the viewer through a tour of the spring feasts that Yahweh gave to Israel. Lit luminaries at each station explain the meaning of the four spring feasts and how Jesus fulfilled them. There is a fair amount of adult level reading, so you should be aware of that if you have small children.

What do these ancient Jewish feasts have to do with us today?
God’s appointed feasts have both historical and prophetic significance. They are a remarkable example of the linear, progressive, unfolding revelation of the whole of scripture. In fact, the 7 (or 8 if you include the Sabbath) mandatory festivals given to Israel by God can be viewed as a sort of prophetic calendar.

If you think I’m getting weird on you, please hear me out. Look at how these mandatory feast days are presented in Leviticus chapter 23:

1)     Passover (v 5)

2)     Feast of Unleavened Bread (v 6)

3)     Feast of Early First Fruits (v 10, 11)

4)     Feast of Latter First Fruits [Pentecost] (v 15-17)

Then there is a four month interval…

5)     Feast of Trumpets  (v 24)

6)     Day of Atonement (v27)

7)     Feast of Booths (v34)

Doesn’t it seem odd that the first three feasts are clustered together in the first month, and then after Pentecost there is a four month interval? Then in the seventh month there are 3 more feasts clustered together? Why didn’t God distribute these feasts more evenly throughout the year?

Well, in God’s sovereignty, it appears as though the feasts and intervals are situated this way for prophetic reasons. The Journey of Worship details how Jesus fulfilled the four spring feasts by His crucifixion, burial, resurrection, and pouring out of the Holy Spirit. Each of these world-shaping events occurred in succession precisely on each of these four feast days. In a remarkable and ingenious way, Jesus instituted a new covenant, secured our redemption, sealed our salvation and empowered His new church, giving new and further meaning to these (at the time) 2000 year old traditions. Amazing.

Equally amazing is that the prophetic fulfillment continues today, and we get to be a part of it. The four month interval between the spring and fall feasts seems to correspond to the time in which we now live – a time of harvest. – when people are being added into the kingdom of God. In fact Jesus often used the language of harvest in His parables. In the fourth chapter of John he refers specifically to a four month interval:

“Do you not say, ‘There are yet four months, then comes the harvest’? I tell you lift up your eyes, and see the fields are already white for harvest. He who reaps receives wages, and gathers fruit for eternal life’” (v35, 36)

Jesus is not concerned about the wheat crop here. He is speaking of spiritual things – about the salvation of human beings. While our expectation would be that the harvest comes in the fall, He tells his disciples not to wait. There is harvesting to be done right now.

Here’s the analogy in the feast of Latter First Fruits (Pentecost): Pentecost was an agricultural festival wherein the people would bring the first fruits of their crops as an offering to God. It was a way of expressing thanks to God for His provision, as well as an act of trust that he would provide an abundant later harvest. According to the scriptures God chose the occasion of the feast of Pentecost to fulfill His promise to introduce the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in a new way (Acts 2:13-33.) Upon seeing this, some 3000 people believed and were added into the kingdom, the first fruits of a great harvest that is still in progress.

It is also remarkable to note that, in Jewish culture, in addition to the original agricultural meaning, this feast eventually acquired a secondary meaning. Rabbis determined that it was on Pentecost that God gave the Law (Torah) to Moses on Mt. Sinai, so Pentecost also came to be a celebration of the giving of the Law. How amazing that the festival that commemorates the giving of the Torah in the old covenant would be the festival that God chose to pour out His Holy Spirit at the advent of His new covenant. Paul elaborates, “…But now we are released from the Torah, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code” (Ro 7:6.)

The three autumn feasts have yet to see a Messianic fulfillment. Many of us think this will happen with the return of the Messiah. The apostle Paul gives us the strange detail that the Messiah’s return will be accompanied by a trumpet blast. Scroll up and look at what the next feast is after the 4 month harvest interval. Just sayin’.

I realize that, to the modern, enlightened, sophisticated ear, this all sounds like a bunch of religious superstitious legend. Except that it simply isn’t. It’s all demonstrably real. Passover and the other spring feasts have been celebrated and handed down by Jewish people for centuries. Real Jewish people are celebrating Passover today as I write this. When the Torah was given 4000 years ago, no one had an inkling that these feasts had Messianic significance. But in fact, they prefigure the climactic events in the life of Jesus, forming perfect analogies that help us understand what Jesus did for us. While Paul alludes to these analogies (1 Cor 5:7,8; 15:20-23) he doesn’t spell them out as they must have seemed obvious at the time of his writing. Who would’ve guessed that the Messianic witness of the Torah would first be denied by most Jews, and then eventually denied by a theologically anti-Semitic gentile church? Nonetheless, the Messianic foreshadowing in the Torah is clearly acknowledged in the New Testament writings:

JoW Announcement 3“Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food or drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ” (Col 2:16.)

“For since the Torah has but a shadow of the good things instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near” (Heb 10:1.)

The Invitation:
I welcome you to step out of your busy routine and take some time this week (through Saturday) to meditate on what our loving Creator has done for us. If you live in the area, you can visit the Journey of Worship at Summitview Community Church in Ft. Collins, Colorado. Click here for times and details. Admission is free.

No matter where you live, this season I hope you get a glimpse of the larger story of which we are all invited to be a part!

Boyhood Visions of the Future

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I was born in the year 1960. Have you ever had moments of realization when you look back on your childhood and suddenly see how media was shaping your perception of reality? Kind of like finding out that the “food” you’d been eating as part of your “healthy diet” was actually part of a seductively packaged alien plot to incapacitate you so that the aliens could take over the planet? Lately I’ve noticed this around popular assumptions about the future that I grew up with.

I’m referring to the booming period of optimism and faith in human progress after WW2, when new nuclear-age war technologies began to be applied to the public sector marketplace. When cars began to grow fins, and vacuum cleaners and toasters were mass-produced to look like rockets. When “the future” was upon us – “The Space Age,” promising to give us a better world through chemistry. When little kids like me grew up watching the Jetsons, My Favorite Martian, Lost in Space, and Star Trek on black and white TVs. This era was the context of Pixar’s more recent, Toy Story, the era when little boys began to turn their attention from Cowboys and Indians to “the new frontier” – Outer Space!

There is a song that still cracks me up, summing up many of these early 60’s stereotypes about the future. The song’s bad grammar helps make the point, probably more accurately than songwriter Terry Taylor could’ve guessed it would, that human beings are still the same, despite technological advances:

(It’s the Eighties So Where’s Our) Rocket Packs?

I thought by now I’d walk the moon
And ride a car without no tires
And have a robot run the vacuum
And date a girl made out of wires…

I thought by now we’d live in space
And eat a pill instead of dinner
And wear a gas mask on our face
A president of female gender

Though progress marches on (new day)
Our troubles still grow strong
And my expectancies become my fantasies
You turn my blood to sand, the earth stands still again

My hopes are running low
Things moving much too slow
There’s no space men up above
And we’re still far from love…so very far from love

I thought by now we’d build a dome
Around the world, control the weather
In every house a picture phone;
Communicate a little better…

                          – written by Terry Taylor, 1984, from the album Vox Humana

You have to watch this Youtube video of the song. You must. Asap:
(Click here. Now.)

I thought it might be fun to list a few of the more damaging myopic futuristic assumptions that everyone thought would be so cool. At the time I was completely oblivious to the politics behind them.

Improved/Synthetic/Space-Age Food
Really? Why did anyone think this would be a good idea? Oh, that’s right – because Science has so perfectly grasped how food and the human body works. It is beyond pompous to assume that we can process, refine, chemicalize, and even genetically modify, the food supply and end up with better results than if we eat the stuff that organically grows out of the ground from nutrient-rich soil. (If you can still find any.) Genetically modified corn and soybeans were introduced into the American food supply in 1990s. Since then, food intolerances/allergies to these foods have exploded.  ‘Could be just a coincidence. Nevertheless, some 60 plus countries have now banned GM crops. Not in America though. There’s too much money to be made. But don’t worry. After all, it’s only the nation’s FREAKING FOOD SUPPLY.

Many futuristic assumptions forgot to take into account human greed and arrogance. Apparently this was supposed to evolve away, or something.

Apart from the nutritional benefits of eating actual food, it is worth noting that preparing food together and sharing a meal with family and friends has always been the quintessential communal act of human existence. Maybe we shouldn’t do away with this in the name of convenience.

Living in Outer Space on a Synthetic Planet
This doesn’t sound fun to me. Maybe for a couple of hours. The reason given for living in space was that the earth was going to become too crowded and polluted. I actually had teachers tell me this. But even as a boy the obvious question seemed to be, “But, couldn’t we just not destroy the earth?”

The Gender Thing
Visions of the future often included a more androgynous society, featuring both women and men wearing matching unitards. Apparently this was supposed to directly equate with equality, as if men and women cannot be equally valued so long as gender and gender roles exist. As if difference must necessarily imply inequality. I think they apply this same strategy in North Korea today, except they don’t use unitards, exactly. No one really knows.

As a little kid I remember seeing an artist’s conception in LIFE magazine about the future. The image contained a line drawing of a man and woman, each wearing only identical striped, bell-bottomed pants. They were the same height, both of their heads were shaved, and they had the same skinny build. The only difference was that the woman had boobs, sort of. (One can only guess at why.) I remember the picture made me cry, because I thought this was what the future would inevitably be like, since it was in LIFE magazine.

In remembering 60′s pop culture I have a hard time coming up with any innate difference between the sexes being celebrated in the future. I can’t think of any futuristic men with beards, (unless they were villains.) I don’t recall seeing a pregnant woman in a futuristic show or movie at all, let alone an image of woman breast-feeding a baby. Eyuu! How primitively human would that be! That would just call to mind all sorts of inequalities and unscientific, subjective feelings. It’s taken decades for breast-feeding advocates to overcome the misperception that breast-feeding is somehow innately less “modern” or less “scientific” than bottle-feeding.

The Procreation Thing
And speaking of babies, in songs and movies it was definitely assumed that this messy, emotional, undignified business of childbirth would somehow be cleaned up in the future. We’d pick babies from a test tube. Fetuses would be grown by scientists in a big tank. We’d be able to pick the gender, eye color, and intelligence of our (probably only) child. As if intelligence is a virtue, apart from good character. (Why does everyone assume their genius child is going to use their intelligence to eradicate disease and hunger? Maybe your genius child will use her intelligence to make weapons of mass destruction and eradicate humanity.)

I’ve been in a number of conversations with pro-legal-abortion-on-demand people who have brought up the idea of an artificial uterus. They seriously hope for this development. This would resolve the issue for them, finally making men and women equal. What is this impulse that pushes us to reject what is most innately human and deeply meaningful about ourselves?

The Inconvenience Thing
The idea of the innate worth and sanctity of all human life necessarily seemed to be on shaky ground in futuristic visions. There were never any people with disabilities, or blindness, or incurable diseases, or old age, in the Future. Why? They’re not there because, well, we will have learned how to fix the human machine by then. At least one hopes that’s why they’re not there.

Much of the futuristic vision seemed to be about overcoming inconveniences, like food preparation, childbirth, children, work, infirmity, and human limitations; the very things that have given shape to the lives of everyone who has ever lived on the planet.

The Work Thing
The idea of a person going to work all day at a job involving physical labor was not futuristic. Even walking more than a few steps was oh-so-20th century. A smiling George Jetson carried a briefcase home from work as the moving sidewalk carried him to his front door.

Of course most labor would be performed by cool-looking robots. Transportation would be akin to a trip to the amusement park – everything from personal hovercraft to rocket packs.

Things Missing From the Future:
God, of course. Of course there would be no belief in God in the future because everything would be explained and fixed without Him. And that would make us God. Super convenient! I now assume this was the media industry buying into the “secularization thesis” – the now discredited “Enlightenment” idea that as nations modernize and progress technologically, belief in God will inevitably die out. So surely in the scientific, space-age future, God will have been long gone.

Large Families. Gosh – there’s just something kind of undignified and Stone-Age about large families. And there is that overpopulation thing. It is interesting to note that the nations that are going extinct today, due to a failure to reproduce themselves, (as in Japan and much of Europe,) are also the ones where belief in God has been on the wane for some time.

Not What It Used To Be
In the present day, entertainment media’s conception of the future is very different from that of the 50s and 60s. It is now difficult to find an optimistic view of the future in popular culture. Most movies portray a very seamy, hopeless, barbaric, apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic futuristic vision. Perhaps this is because Science has proved to be an insufficient savior – it has indeed helped us with our technological problems, but not the human problem. The Modernism of the 50s has given way to the Post-modernism of today, which can offer us no transcendent purpose to history.

So what is my point in going back to the 50’s and 60’s portrayal of the Future, besides for the fun of it? I hadn’t noticed until recently how uniform the picture was that was presented to me, even during that innocent era. As pop culture’s vision of the future has grown darker, the picture of the future continues to be quite uniform. The underlying assumptions that guided the optimistic makers of children’s entertainment in the 50s and 60s happen to be remarkably fitting with the same metaphysical and political agenda promoted by the entertainment media today. Secularist values have not really changed – they’ve just lost their luster. People aren’t smiling at the future anymore. It’s the same fascism (for a better world, of course), the same evolutionary materialism, the same confusion about sex, gender, marriage, and family, the same utter lack of any transcendent basis for valuing all of human life, the same repudiation of the most meaningful aspects of what it means to be human.

In the not too distant future, I may or may not produce a children’s book that will set the vision of the future that I grew up with on its head. Set far in the future, in my book these prevailing secularist ideas will be looked upon as backward. Ideas such as food coming from a box, can, tube, or pill will seem funny. The idea that gender is a mere social construct will seem puzzling. What if children grew up with adults pointing out to them that, back when God ceased to exist, human beings ceased to exist as well, becoming merely accidental bundles of chemicals floating through space? What if children grew up convinced of the absolute value of every human being, since all human beings bear the image of a universal Creator who loves them? What if children grew up respecting the unique gender and parenting roles of both men and women? And what if bringing a new life into being were seen as a great privilege, and a valuable responsibility, rather than an inconvenience? I can testify that it would make for a better world.

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Should Parents Influence Their Children? (Duh.)

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This week I want to share an article with you that I think is well worth reading:

The Case for Good Taste in Children’s Books
— Meghan Cox Gurdon, Children’s Book Reviewer, The Wall Street Journal

The following is adapted from a speech delivered at Hillsdale College on March 12, 2013, sponsored by the College’s Dow Journalism Program.

On June 4, 2011, the number one trending topic on Twitter was the Anthony Weiner scandal. I happen to remember that, because the number two topic on Twitter that day—almost as frenzied, though a lot less humorous—had to do with an outrageous, intolerable attack on Young Adult literature . . . by me. Entitled “Darkness Too Visible,” my article discussed the increasingly dark current that runs through books classified as YA, for Young Adult—books aimed at readers between 12 and 18 years of age—a subset that has, in the four decades since Young Adult became a distinct category in fiction, become increasingly lurid, grotesque, profane, sexual, and ugly.

Books show us the world, and in that sense, too many books for adolescents act like funhouse mirrors, reflecting hideously distorted portrayals of life. Those of us who have grown up understand that the teen years can be fraught and turbulent—and for some kids, very unhappy—but at the same time we know that in the arc of human life, these years are brief. Today, too many novels for teenagers are long on the turbulence and short on a sense of perspective. Nor does it help that the narrative style that dominates Young Adult books is the first person present tense—“I, I, I,” and “now, now, now.” Writers use this device to create a feeling of urgency, to show solidarity with the reader and to make the reader feel that he or she is occupying the persona of the narrator. The trouble is that the first person present tense also erects a kind of verbal prison, keeping young readers in the turmoil of the moment just as their hormones tend to do. This narrative style reinforces the blinkers teenagers often seem to be wearing, rather than drawing them out and into the open.

Bringing Judgment

The late critic Hilton Kramer was seated once at a dinner next to film director Woody Allen. Allen asked him if he felt embarrassed when he met people socially whom he’d savaged in print. “No,” Kramer said, “they’re the ones who made the bad art. I just described it.” As the story goes, Allen fell gloomily silent, having once made a film that had received the Kramer treatment.

I don’t presume to have a nose as sensitive as Hilton Kramer’s—but I do know that criticism is pointless if it’s only boosterism. To evaluate anything, including children’s books, is to engage the faculty of judgment, which requires that great bugbear of the politically correct, “discrimination.” Thus, in responding to my article, YA book writers Judy Blume and Libba Bray charged that I was giving comfort to book-banners, and Publisher’s Weekly warned of a “danger” that my arguments “encourage a culture of fear around YA literature.” But I do not, in fact, wish to ban any books or frighten any authors. What I do wish is that people in the book business would exercise better taste; that adult authors would not simply validate every spasm of the teen experience; and that our culture was not marching toward ever-greater explicitness in depictions of sex and violence.

Books for children and teenagers are written, packaged, and sold by adults. It follows from this that the emotional depictions they contain come to young people with a kind of adult imprimatur. As a school librarian in Idaho wrote to her colleagues in my defense: “You are naïve if you think young people can read a dark and violent book that sits on the library shelves and not believe that that behavior must be condoned by the adults in their school lives.”

What kind of books are we talking about? Let me give you three examples— but with a warning that some of what you’re about to hear is not appropriate for younger listeners.

A teenaged boy is kidnapped, drugged, and nearly raped by a male captor. After escaping, he comes across a pair of weird glasses that transport him to a world of almost impossible cruelty. Moments later, he finds himself facing a wall of horrors, “covered with impaled heads and other dripping, black-rot body parts: hands, hearts, feet, ears, penises. Where the f— was this?”

That’s from Andrew Smith’s 2010 Young Adult novel, The Marbury Lens.

A girl struggles with self-hatred and self-injury. She cuts herself with razors secretly, but her secret gets out when she’s the victim of a sadistic sexual prank. Kids at school jeer at her, calling her “cutterslut.” In response, “she had sliced her arms to ribbons, but the badness remained, staining her insides like cancer. She had gouged her belly until it was a mess of meat and blood, but she still couldn’t breathe.”

That’s from Jackie Morse Kessler’s 2011 Young Adult novel, Rage.

I won’t read you the most offensive excerpts from my third example, which consist of explicit and obscene descriptions by a 17-year-old female narrator of sexual petting, of oral sex, and of rushing to a bathroom to defecate following a breakup. Yet School Library Journal praised Daria Snadowsky’s 2008 Young Adult novel, Anatomy of a Boyfriend, for dealing “in modern terms with the real issues of discovering sex for the first time.” And Random House, its publisher, gushed about the narrator’s “heartbreakingly honest voice” as she recounts the “exquisite ups and dramatic downs of teenage love and heartbreak.”

The book industry, broadly speaking, says: Kids have a right to read what- ever they want. And if you follow the argument through it becomes: Adults should not discriminate between good and bad books or stand as gatekeepers, deciding what young people should read. In other words, the faculty of judgment and taste that we apply in every other area of life involving children should somehow vaporize when it comes in contact with the printed word.

I appeared on National Public Radio to discuss these issues with the Young Adult book author Lauren Myracle, who has been hailed as a person “on the front lines in the fight for freedom of expression”—as if any controversy over whether a book is appropriate for children turns on the question of the author’s freedom to express herself. Myracle made clear that she doesn’t believe there should be any line between adult literature and literature for young people. In saying this, she was echoing the view that prevails in many progressive, secular circles—that young people should encounter material that jolts them out of their comfort zone; that the world is a tough place; and that there’s no point shielding children from reality. I took the less progressive, less secular view that parents should take a more interventionist approach, steering their children away from books about sex and horror and degradation, and towards books that make aesthetic and moral claims.

Now, although it may seem that our culture is split between Left and Right on the question of permissiveness regarding children’s reading material, in fact there is not so much division on the core issue as might appear. Secular progressives, despite their reaction to my article, have their own list of books they think young people shouldn’t read—for instance, books they claim are tinged with racism or jingoism or that depict traditional gender roles. Regarding the latter, you would not believe the extent to which children’s picture books today go out of the way to show father in an apron and mother tinkering with machinery. It’s pretty funny. But my larger point here is that the self-proclaimed anti-book-banners on the Left agree that books influence children and prefer some books to others.

Indeed, in the early years of the Cold War, many left-wing creative people in America gravitated toward children’s literature. Philip Nel, a professor at Kansas State University, has written that Red-hunters, “seeing children’s books as a field dominated by women . . . deemed it less important and so did not watch it closely.” Among the authors I am referring to are Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss) and Ruth Krauss, author of the 1952 classic A Hole is to Dig, illustrated by a young Maurice Sendak. Krauss was quite open in her belief that children’s literature was an excellent means of putting left-wing ideas into young minds. Or so she hoped.

When I was a little girl I read The Cat in the Hat, and I took from it an understanding of the sanctity of private property—it outraged me when the Cat and Thing One and Thing Two rampaged through the children’s house while their mother was away. Dr. Seuss was probably not intending to inculcate capitalist ideas—quite the contrary. But it happened in my case, and the point is instructive.

Taste and Beauty

A recent study conducted at Virginia Tech found that college women who read “chick lit”—light novels that deal with the angst of being a modern woman—reported feeling more insecure about themselves and their bodies after reading novels in which the heroines feel insecure about themselves and their bodies. Similarly, federal researchers were puzzled for years by a seeming paradox when it came to educating children about the dangers of drugs and tobacco. There seemed to be a correlation between anti-drug and anti-tobacco programs in elementary and middle schools and subsequent drug and tobacco use at those schools. It turned out that at the same time children were learning that drugs and tobacco were bad, they were taking in the meta-message that adults expected them to use drugs and tobacco.

This is why good taste matters so much when it comes to books for children and young adults. Books tell children what to expect, what life is, what culture is, how we are expected to behave—what the spectrum is. Books don’t just cater to tastes. They form tastes. They create norms—and as the examples above show, the norms young people take away are not necessarily the norms adults intend. This is why I am skeptical of the social utility of so-called “problem novels”—books that have a troubled main character, such as a girl with a father who started raping her when she was a toddler and anonymously provides her with knives when she is a teenager hoping that she will cut herself to death. (This scenario is from Cheryl Rainfield’s 2010 Young Adult novel, Scars, which School Library Journal hailed as “one heck of a good book.”) The argument in favor of such books is that they validate the real and terrible experiences of teenagers who have been abused, addicted, or raped—among other things. The problem is that the very act of detailing these pathologies, not just in one book but in many, normalizes them. And teenagers are all about identifying norms and adhering to them.

In journalist Emily Bazelon’s recent book about bullying, she describes how schools are using a method called “social norming” to discourage drinking and driving. “The idea,” she writes, “is that students often overestimate how much other kids drink and drive, and when they find out that it’s less prevalent than they think—outlier behavior rather than the norm—they’re less likely to do it themselves.” The same goes for bullying: “When kids understand that cruelty isn’t the norm,” Bazelon says, “they’re less likely to be cruel themselves.”

Now isn’t that interesting?

Ok, you say, but books for kids have always been dark. What about Hansel and Gretel? What about the scene in Beowulf where the monster sneaks into the Danish camp and starts eating people?

Beowulf is admittedly gruesome in parts—and fairy tales are often scary. Yet we approach them at a kind of arm’s length, almost as allegory. In the case of Beowulf, furthermore, children reading it—or having it read to them— are absorbing the rhythms of one of mankind’s great heroic epics, one that explicitly reminds us that our talents come from God and that we act under God’s eye and guidance. Even with the gore, Beowulf won’t make a child callous. It will help to civilize him.

English philosopher Roger Scruton has written at length about what he calls the modern “flight from beauty,” which he sees in every aspect of our contemporary culture. “It is not merely,” he writes, “that artists, directors, musicians and others connected with the arts”—here we might include authors of Young Adult literature—“are in a flight from beauty . . . . There is a desire to spoil beauty . . . . For beauty makes a claim on us; it is a call to renounce our narcisissm and look with reverence on the world.”

We can go to the Palazzo Borghese in Rome and stand before Caravaggio’s painting of David with the head of Goliath, and though we are looking at horror we are not seeing ugliness. The light that plays across David’s face and chest, and that slants across Goliath’s half-open eyes and mouth, transforms the scene into something beautiful. The problem with the darker offerings in Young Adult literature is that they lack this transforming and uplifting quality. They take difficult subjects and wallow in them in a gluttonous way; they show an orgiastic lack of restraint that is the mark of bad taste.

Young Adult book author Sherman Alexie wrote a rebuttal to my article entitled, “Why the Best Kids Books are Written in Blood.” In it, he asks how I could honestly believe that a sexually explicit Young Adult novel might traumatize a teenaged mother. “Does she believe that a YA novel about murder and rape will somehow shock a teenager whose life has been damaged by murder and rape? Does she believe a dystopian novel will frighten a kid who already lives in hell?”

Well of course I don’t. But I also don’t believe that the vast majority of 12-to- 18-year-olds are living in hell. And as for those who are, does it really serve them to give them more torment and sulphur in the stories they read?

The body of children’s literature is a little like the Library of Babel in the Jorge Luis Borges story—shelf after shelf of books, many almost gibberish, but a rare few filled with wisdom and beauty and answers to important questions. These are the books that have lasted because generation after generation has seen in them something transcendent, and has passed them on. Maria Tatar, who teaches children’s literature at Harvard, describes books like The Chronicles of Narnia, The Wind in the Willows, The Jungle Books, and Pinocchio as “setting minds into motion, renewing senses, and almost rewiring brains.” Or as William Wordsworth wrote: “What we have loved/others will love, and we will teach them how.”

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The good news is that just like the lousy books of the past, the lousy books of the present will blow away like chaff. The bad news is that they will leave their mark. As in so many aspects of culture, the damage they do can’t easily be measured. It is more a thing to be felt—a coarseness, an emptiness, a sorrow.

“Beauty is vanishing from our world because we live as if it does not matter.” That’s Roger Scruton again. But he doesn’t want us to despair. He also writes:

It is one mark of rational beings that they do not live only—or even at all—in the present. They have the freedom to despise the world that surrounds them and live another way. The art, literature, and music of our civilization remind them of this, and also point to the path that lies always before them: the path out of desecration towards the sacred and the sacrificial.

Let me close with Saint Paul the Apostle in Philippians 4:8:

Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.

And let us think about these words when we go shopping for books for our children.

 

Copyright © 2013 Hillsdale College. “Reprinted by permission from Imprimis, a publication of Hillsdale College.”
Imprimis (im-pri-mis), [latin]: in the first place - SubsCriptiOn free upOn request.