My Top 10 Christmas Movies

American Girl Doll Samantha

I admit…one of my favorite Christmas movies is an American Girl Doll movie. Don’t judge me.

At our house we love a good story. One of our Christmas traditions is watching Christmas movies together, beginning right after Thanksgiving. I’ve noticed that if I do this with too many lame Christmas movies it makes me sad and tempts me to hate Christmas. So here are 10 that I can look forward to seeing during the season.

Here’s my criterion for the Top 10:
My personality requires that a Christmas movie be meaningful to me in some way. If it’s only about Santa Claus, or people singing and dancing, or Christmas for the sake of Christmas, that doesn’t quite do it for me. (Even though I like to watch Elf every year because the idea of a human raised in elf culture is pretty hilarious, Elf didn’t quite make the cut).

Also, since we like to watch movies as a family I wanted to make the list kid friendly. I believe these ten movies are. I hope I’m not forgetting anything. I’ve made note of possible exceptions at the end of some descriptions. (I like the idea of making Green Book a Christmas movie, for example, but it has some thematic elements that don’t fit well with small kids, so it didn’t make the cut ).

10 – Little House on the Prairie – The Christmas They Never Forgot
I haven’t actually seen this movie for a couple of decades because we only have it on VHS, but I think I really like it. The entire Ingalls family and a friend get snowed in by a Christmas Eve blizzard. They decide to pass the time by sitting around the fire and sharing stories of their favorite past Christmases. Almanzo’s story is the only one I remember, but it’s pretty great. Also, Hester Sue tells her story of what Christmas was like for her as a slave child.

9 – Prancer
A beautifully filmed movie about very average people in a small town. Sam Elliott plays a prickly widower struggling to raise his 2 kids. His spunky and mildly annoying daughter has a Christmassy secret that becomes public in hilarious fashion. This leads to the father having an emotional epiphany of his own, leading him to reexamine his priorities and rejoin the land of the living. The characters are wonderfully cast in this film.

8 – Miracle On 34th Street
In contrast to Prancer, this is a beautifully filmed movie about a beautiful couple in NYC. While the movie revolves around a charming Kris Kringle character (Richard Attenborough), the movie is really about the struggle between good and evil, belief and distrust, within each of us. While I might disagree philosophically with a few ideas, the bottom line is that it’s a visually lovely Christmas movie that is enjoyable to watch.

7 – The Bishop’s Wife
I haven’t seen the 1996 remake, so I can’t make a comparison, but I can’t imagine why this movie needed to be remade. In this 1947 Black and white film, Cary Grant plays an angel sent to help a Bishop get his priorities straight, (though that’s not why the Bishop thinks he’s been sent a helper). The emotional affair between the angel and the Bishop’s wife has always made me a little uncomfortable, but the writers manage to erase the discomfort by the end of this amusing story.

6 – Christmas Eve
The newest movie on my list (2015), we watched this for the first time a couple of years ago, mostly because of the cast: Patrick Stewart, Jon Heder (Napoleon Dynamite), James Roday (Shawn from Psych), to name a few. It’s a psychologically fascinating idea. Basically, an entire section of NYC loses power on Christmas Eve, trapping various groups of people in 6 different elevators throughout the city. It’s kind of an exercise in imagining what would happen if you were forced to move beyond the surface with people you would ordinarily pass by. (For instance, a guy who just got fired on Christmas Eve gets stuck on an elevator with the manager who fired him). The entire movie consists of following these wildly diverse groups as they interact throughout the evening, resulting in some alternately amusing and profound moments.

5 – The Nativity Story
After all, the birth of Jesus is the reason we have a holiday called Christmas, so every season I want to see a movie telling that story. This is the best one I’ve seen. I love that the characters look middle-eastern (because they are). And yet, despite their quest for authenticity, the producers fail to comply with the biblical narrative at a couple of points. Nonetheless there are many powerful and beautiful moments. For me it is most moving to watch the awkwardness of Mary and Joseph’s divinely-created predicament being played out in a palpably human manner. Visually this film is exceptional.

Note: there are a couple of violent (but not terribly graphic) scenes having to do with Roman soldiers, which some kids might find disturbing.

4 – A Christmas Carol (George C. Scott version – 2009?)
These last 4 are difficult to rate. Perhaps I only rank this at number 4 because of its familiarity, and I want end with a couple of movies you probably haven’t seen. For me A Christmas Carol may be the quintessential Christmas story. I LOVE the story of Mr. Scrooge’s repentance and joyful embrace of becoming a man who “knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.” I like this particular version because of its beautiful filming and clarity. (Apparently there are over 8 movie versions of this story). I also have the1951 classic version starring Alastair Sim as Scrooge. It has its superior aspects, but overall I find it sometimes difficult to watch and understand.

Note: some children might find Marley and some of the Christmas spirits frightening.

3 – It’s A Wonderful Life
These last 3 are probably a 3 way tie. Love this story. Love the characters. Love the self-sacrifice of George Bailey, reluctant though it may be at times. (Love that too). Love the corniness. Love the dialogue and the quotable lines. Love Clarence, the angel with “the IQ of a rabbit.” Love the valuing of family and community over personal achievement. I suppose this film is similar to A Christmas Carol in that a man is made to assess his life with the help of a supernatural being, and has a change of heart. I guess something about that resonates with our common human experience.

2 – Samantha – An American Girl Holiday
Okay…my guy friends will probably revoke my man-card for listing these last 2 as my favorites, but I don’t care – I love this movie!

Yes, I know this film was probably made as a marketing stratagem to sell more Samantha Parkington dolls and accessories, (hence the stupid title), but it resulted in a great Christmas movie! It actually makes me CRY…there, I said it! But not due to mere sentimentality. The movie is about love, family, friendship, loss, social justice (yes), and how privilege and power could, or should, be used.

I only know about this movie because my wife and I bought it years ago for our daughter who owned a Samantha doll. We have since stolen the DVD back from her. I still can’t believe somebody made a full length movie this good to sell a toy. Don’t knock it ‘til you’ve seen it. Don’t even try to tell me you sat through this and didn’t tear up.

I don’t even know how to summarize without spoiling the movie. I’ll just say the movie is set at the end of the Victorian era, in New York, 1904. Samantha befriends a neighboring immigrant servant girl, and…you should just watch this movie.

1 – A Season For Miracles
Number one of the 3-way tie – a movie nobody has heard of. That’s probably because it’s a Hallmark movie. Elitist types have taught us to smirk at and disdain Hallmark movies. Not unlike the Samantha movie, this one is also a marketing tool. In this case, the movie was made in order to create a positive emotional connection in the viewer’s mind toward Hallmark Cards, Inc. (I know this because I worked at Hallmark as an artist and I once heard the guy in charge of Hallmark movies speak). But I don’t care! I LOVE this movie!! Hooray for ethical capitalism!!!

But about the movie. All I’ll say is this. A devoted aunt rescues her sister’s kids from being put into the foster care system, but she does this pretty much illegally. Things get complicated as she tries to make this work by blending into a small town. She meets a guy, whose attraction to her further complicates things. So it’s a love story, but also a story about trust, poverty and privilege, exclusion and community, and love. All kinds of love. Did I say love? Love is awesome. Always. Good movies about love are the awesomest.

Our family lived in the inner city for a long time. The biological mother (Laura Dern) in this film is scarily spot on. Same with her street smart and not-cute daughter. Pretty gritty stuff for a Hallmark movie. My only complaint is that, as in several of my picks, there is an angel in this movie, which I think the movie could have done better without. But in keeping with Hallmark’s tendency to gild the lily, there she is. I still love this movie. I think you will too.

Share you thoughts
If you check out a movie from this list that is new to you, I’d love for you to come back and share your thoughts in the comment section below. What did you think?

Also, if you would like to recommend your favorite Christmas movie below, I’d love to hear it. I’m always on the watch for good ones.

Merry Christmas!
Scott

Watch This Graceful Interpretation by an Inspiring Young Girl

Down syndrome girl signing ASL

At our little church, members take turns leading the congregation in breaking bread every week. A few weeks ago during communion, one of the dads said a few words and then turned the platform over to his daughter, Autumn.

Autumn is 12 years old and was born with Down syndrome. The youngest child of a big, loving, musical family, she loves to dance and worship. She has also been learning American Sign Language (ASL) and wanted to sign a worship song she had been learning. The video below is her mom’s iphone recording of what Autumn shared with us that Sunday morning.

When I first met Autumn, I was struck by her name – a child with Down syndrome named Autumn, the youngest of 9 children. I assumed she was unplanned, and that her name reflected her parents’ later season of life into which she was born. Not that it was any of my business.

But I eventually asked Autumn’s mom, and she informed me that my assumption was incorrect. At age 45 she realized she wanted to have one more child. The parents understood the increased risk of having a child with Down syndrome due to their age, but they consciously chose to accept whatever blessing God might give them. God gave them Autumn.

This is beautiful to me. It also stands in remarkable contrast to the direction the world is heading. In recent months there have been news stories reporting that Iceland has essentially eradicated Down syndrome. But not through prevention or through finding a cure. Iceland has reduced its Down syndrome population through prenatal genetic testing and abortion.

This is a troubling accomplishment, but apparently Europe and the United States are not far behind in following Iceland’s chilling example. I love that Autumn’s mom and dad predetermined to love her, with or without a disability.

I don’t know how much Autumn understands of the song she is signing. But the truth of God’s promises remain regardless of how well they are understood. There is something moving about her simple belief in a Savior who loves her and welcomes her into His presence. I have a feeling that we are all in a similar position to Autumn with regard to our imperfect understanding of things to come.

Enjoy and give thanks! :

https://youtu.be/VG8fwIMUqXk

Video used with permission from Lori Mihaly.
I do not own the rights to the music. “I Can Only Imagine” was written by Bart Millard and released by the band Mercy Me in 2001.

The Myth of White Evangelical Racism

Jesus was Jewish

There can be no such thing as an evangelical Christian who is intentionally racist. This is true in the same way that there are no Muslim pig farmers, or Mormon brewpubs. Or vegan cannibals. Or feminist sex traffickers. You get the idea.

These things are not merely unlikely – they negate the very definition of the concept.

I recently read an opinion piece by a professor, Anthea Butler, suggesting that liberals should stop puzzling over why evangelical voters are (supposedly) so pro-Trump despite Trump’s flagrantly unchristian behavior. Her answer to this puzzle is simple:

We’re racists.

Professor Butler has a history of making ridiculous and extreme claims, but nonetheless, NBC news saw fit to give her false assertion a hearing. It’s a serious accusation, so just in case anyone is inclined to believe her, I’d like to explain why her assertion can’t be true.

It must be the case that Butler, and others riding the racist-labeling bandwagon, simply don’t know what an evangelical follower of Jesus is. Hopefully the following will be helpful.

Well Understood, Not Secret, Not Mysterious
By definition, evangelicals, white or otherwise, are followers of Jesus who consider the Bible to be authoritative. Look up “evangelical” in a dictionary if you doubt this. At the risk of sounding snarky, this means that they seek to follow what Jesus and His apostles taught in the Bible. If they don’t, then they are not evangelicals. They are something else.

But does the Jesus of the Bible have anything to say about race and racial superiority?

Yes. Tons, actually.

It so happens that Jesus’s greatest commandment and His “great commission” utterly rule out intentional racism. In fact, the defining statements of Jesus and His apostles, and their descriptions of where human history is heading, simply do not allow followers of Jesus to be racists. A racist may attend church, but to the extent that he or she harbors beliefs of racial superiority, he or she is not following Jesus. He or she is following someone else.

The clearly stated aims of Jesus presuppose racial inclusivity and equality. Here are a few indisputable examples:

The Greatest Commandment:
 “…Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?”  And [Jesus] said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Matt 22:36-40).

The Great Commission:
“And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt 28:18-20).

Jesus’s Final Prayer for His Followers, Past and Present:
“I do not ask for these [1st c. disciples] only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me… I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me” (John 17:20-23).

Paul Affirming that Social & Biological Distinctions are Obliterated in Jesus:
“…for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.  For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.  There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:26-28).

 Paul’s Statement of God’s Ultimate Plan for Human History:
In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph 1:7-10).

John’s Revelation of the Future Age to Come:
“…After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’… For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Rev 7:9-17).

For the evangelical follower of Jesus, unequivocal biblical statements like these must settle the issue.

Angel, Evangel, Evangelical, Evangelism
Notice the Great Commission verse about making disciples of all the nations. This undertaking of making voluntary disciples is called “evangelism.” The word “evangelist” literally means “bringer of good news,” (from eu- “good” + angelos “messenger”).

Notice how the word “evangelism” is part of the word “Evangelical”? That’s because Evangelicals are supposed to be evangelizing – spreading the good news of how Jesus has invited all of humankind to be restored to relational unity with God.

Furthermore, biblical evangelism is not about making brown people Western and white. Jesus specifically commanded that His followers spread His invitation to people of different ethnicities. Here’s a statement the resurrected Jesus made before His ascension:

“…and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

Notice the progression: his disciples congregated in Jerusalem. The news then spread to the whole region of Jewish Judea. Then to the Samaritans, who were historically looked down upon as “half-Jewish.” Then to all the nations of the earth, including every “race.” There is simply no getting around the fact that God wants to include all people groups in His kingdom.

How Jesus Abolished the Notion of Racial/Ethnic Superiority
Perhaps the most stunning development among the first (Jewish) followers of Jesus is the fact that the (Jewish) apostles officially, as a matter of conscious policy, extended the invitation to salvation to non-Jews. This was a completely unexpected development coming from a group of Jewish followers of the Jewish Messiah, and it was not without some controversy. You can read the whole debate in the book of Acts, chapter 15.

Clearly, everyone assumed that non-Jews who wished to become followers of the Jewish Messiah would have to first become Jewish, and follow the Torah of Moses. However, through a series of signs from God, and as a result of seeing the ancient Hebrew scriptures in light of the actions and words of Jesus, the apostles reached their revolutionary agreement: the gentile nations could enter into Jesus’s new covenant and kingdom, as uncircumcised gentiles!

This development was so unexpected that the apostles thereafter referred to it as a “mystery,” meaning that it was unforeseen, and not clearly explained previously in their Jewish Torah and prophetic writings. Here is one example of (Jewish) Paul speaking of this “mystery”:

“When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit. This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (Eph 3:4-6).

Pretty clear.

The racially and ethnically inclusive nature of the message of Jesus is not optional. It is not a modern, liberal reading of the scriptures. It was there from the beginning. Any racism in the church of Jesus is a corruption of what Jesus taught. Even the Torah teaches that “all the families of the earth” descended from the same two parents (Gen 3:20; 9:18,19; 10:32). The gospel writer, Luke, affirms this in Acts 17:26.

Of course, one is free not to believe the Bible. My point here is not to prove that the Bible is true. My point is to prove that one cannot truthfully say that the Bible promotes racial superiority of any sort. In fact, the very concept of “race” is man-made, not biblical. There is no white supremacist version of evangelicalism.

History Cuts Both Ways
Historically, there certainly have been white church goers who have misused the Bible to justify slavery and racism. Those people have gone the way of the buffalo. Anthea Butler even acknowledges that the Southern Baptist denomination has repeatedly apologized for and repented of past evils. “But” she says, “statements are not enough.” Her proof that Baptists are insincere in their denunciations of past racial sins? They opened their 2019 Annual Convention with a gavel that was owned by the founder of their seminary, and who was also a slaveholder.

I would expect her to be more concerned with groups that were formerly openly racist, but that continue to exploit and decimate the black American population in the present. An example comes to mind:

For some reason white Darwinian “progressives” get a pass for misusing science to justify racism in much the same way that religious people misused the Bible to justify racism. During the early 1900s, there emerged a popular eugenics movement in America and Europe that was concerned with preserving (white) racial purity. It was a terrible and oppressive Orwellian episode of our history. Some 75,000 “unfit” Americans were forcibly sterilized in the name of racial hygiene and human betterment.

Margaret Sanger, founder of what is now Planned Parenthood, was on board with the eugenics movement. It’s difficult to prove whether or not Sanger was an overt racist, but in her autobiography she reports making a favorable impression at a speaking appearance to the wives of the KKK. She also welcomed Klansman and popular white supremacist author, Lothrop Stoddard, as a co-founder and board member of her American Birth Control League, (renamed the Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA) in 1942).

Lothrop Stoddard, Margaret Sanger's colleague

Stoddard’s most popular book. He also published eugenic articles in Sanger’s magazine, Birth Control Review. A content analysis reveals that the magazine’s overriding concern was not women’s autonomy, but societal improvement.

Today, PPFA enjoys a solid “progressive” reputation because it renounces Sanger’s racist/eugenicist statements, just as evangelical denominations have renounced past racial sins. The difference is that PPFA continues to disproportionately terminate black lives, today.

Black women buy abortions at a rate 5 times that of white women, according the Guttmacher Institute. The reasons are unclear. Regardless, the American black population is significantly smaller than it would otherwise be if not for Sanger and PPFA, America’s largest abortion seller. Bishop Larry Jackson claims, “If we [blacks] had not aborted our children, we would be 30%, not 13%, of the population”.

I can’t prove that widespread black abortion also disintegrates belief in the sanctity of black human life in the black psyche, but I can’t imagine how it would help.

Having said this, I don’t believe that pro-legal-abortion ”progressives” are intentionally racist. But I would arguably be far more justified in leveling that accusation against them than those claiming that evangelicals are racist. Maybe both “progressives” and conservatives should focus on cleaning up their own houses when looking for racists to call out.

None of us lives out our compassion perfectly. All of us – white, black, or brown – harbor prejudice that we must work to overcome. We’ll all be more successful if we work together to overcome it.

“Purity Culture” Hoopla: Comparing Notes

evangelical purity culture

I don’t know who came up with the phrase “purity culture,” but apparently I, my evangelical church friends, and our children were all part of it.

I guess.

It’s not like I was asked to sign a “purity culture” membership card to keep in my wallet as a parent. I think it’s a bit of a stretch to call it a “culture.” I’ve never heard of purity culture cuisine. I’m not aware of any purity culture holidays, art, or burial practices.

Why does everything have to be a culture now, even when it isn’t?

I’ve been reading critics of “purity culture” ever since Joshua Harris came out with his latest in a string of announcements. At age 21 Harris had published I Kissed Dating Goodbye (IKDG), a book advocating an alternative to casual, serial dating. The book became a best seller and was enormously influential in shaping the evangelical and Christian home-school subcultures during the late 90s.

Twenty some years have passed and Harris has now very publicly renounced the central message of his book, announced that he is divorcing his wife of 19 years, and most recently, announced that he is no longer a Christian.

But more troubling, quite a few women who came of age in church youth group “purity culture” are now well into adulthood, and are claiming that “purity culture” damaged them, leaving them to wrestle with shame, fear, anxiety, eating disorders, nasty rashes, sexual dysfunction, inability to recognize sexual abuse, and more.

I’m sincerely puzzled. I was there. What these testimonies typically describe sounds nothing like what I saw. My five kids also grew up in church youth group “purity culture,” and I was a parent leader in our parent-led youth group in a theologically conservative, evangelical church. One of my sons read Harris’s book. One of my daughters went to a True Love Waits conference with a friend. More than one church youth conference or retreat was themed around guy/girl relationships and why casual dating and sex is not a good idea.

Regardless, here are all these testimonies claiming injury from Harris’s book. At first I concluded that, if his critics’ claims are true, Harris is doing evangelicalism a favor by repudiating his book and stopping further publication.

But then I actually read his book.

After hearing the backlash I was surprised that IKDG seemed sensible and sensitively written. I didn’t see any of the legalism or rigidity that I expected to find. Didn’t see any shaming or intimidation.

Then I tried to verify the specific accusations I’d been hearing. For example, here’s a quote from an opinion piece in Huffpost, specifically referring to Harris’s book, (emphasis added):

…Other messages from the book: Girls should be modest and meek. Boys are sexual creatures and if they have impure thoughts about you it is your fault. The body and its desires are to be suppressed at all costs. Harris’ ideas were par for the course in the purity culture that dominated evangelical circles like mine.
– Hannah Brashers, Huffpost Personal

I’ll assume we can all agree that such a message deserves to go down in flames. However, I could not find such a message in IKDG. Following is the closest I could find, from the chapter entitled, Purity. Harris encourages “brothers and sisters in the Lord” to protect each other. He has just addressed the guys, and here he addresses the girls, (emphasis added):

…You may not realize this, but we guys most commonly struggle with our eyes. I think many girls are innocently unaware of the difficulty a guy has in remaining pure when looking at a girl who is dressed immodestly. Now I don’t want to dictate your wardrobe, but honestly speaking, I would be blessed if girls considered more than fashion when shopping for clothes. Yes, guys are responsible for maintaining self control, but you can help by refusing to wear clothing designed to attract attention to your body…I know many girls who would look great in shorter skirts or tighter blouses, and they know it. But they choose to dress modestly. They take the responsibility of guarding their brothers’ eyes. To those women and others like them, I’m grateful…
– Joshua Harris, IKDG, p 99

Is he not humbly asking for help here? Is he not calling for mutual caring?

Why does his critic get it exactly backwards?

Let’s compare more notes
What follows is a rant by a blogger who has left Fundamentalism and wants to help victims of abuse. I’m not including her last name because my point is not to embarrass her. My point in responding here is that “purity culture” was more nuanced than critics want us to believe, and it’s wrong for them to preach that their terrible experiences are representative of all of evangelical subculture:

Katie P: “…Lack of sex education and/or relationship development are unfortunately hallmarks of purity/modesty culture. Purity culture teaches that any type of sexual education or experience outside of heterosexual marriage is wrong and deserving of severe punishment…”

“Severe punishment”? This is news to me. My wife and I taught our kids about sex and reproduction (age appropriately) while they were still elementary school age. We formally went into greater detail before they entered middle school, because we wanted them to hear about sex from us first. From then on we discussed sex, dating, human sexuality, and boy/girl relationships as questions were raised, which they were, often around the dinner table. We still do this as adults.

Katie: “…purity/modesty culture is also called rape culture. Another reason is the severe victim blaming that occurs within this toxic culture…[girls] are taught that their bodies are inherently sinful and tempting and must be covered (modesty) in order not to seduce men…”

Nope. In my lifetime I’ve never heard ANY living, literate, Bible believing person say that girls’ bodies are “inherently sinful.” In fact the Torah states that God personally created the female body and then pronounced it “good!” In evangelicalism, the Bible trumps human opinion – so why did she, or anyone else, say or believe this?

However, I do agree with her that the female form can be “tempting”; not because it’s sinful but because it’s awesome. That’s kind of the point. My wife and I did indeed have modesty talks with our girls. We were intentional about communicating that there is nothing shameful, sinful, or bad about their bodies or about being female. As Harris stated, it is solely on the dudes to control their thoughts and actions. In part, a girl’s choice to dress modestly is to help those of us guys who are actually trying not to objectify women. Many guys aren’t even trying.

Katie: “…Men are taught that they are “visual creatures” who are unable to control their sexual impulses at the sight of a women’s body…”

A revealing criticism. First, dudes do not need to be “taught” this – that we are “visual creatures.” We are this. That’s why there is a multi-billion dollar porn industry – because most guys are enthusiastically able and willing to be sexually aroused by solely visual means. It is girls who, imho, should be taught this about guys, because girls generally do not experience sexual arousal in the same way. My wife and I felt that we would leave our daughters in a naïve and vulnerable position if we didn’t educate them on this biological fact.

Second, regarding male sexual impulses: I’ve read testimonies from women who, due to shame and indoctrination, became unable to think of themselves as sexual beings, causing problems in their marriages as adults. This is sad. This also underscores how boys and girls are different. For most guys, once their pubescent hormones kick in and they find themselves in a world half full of girls, you could no more convince them that they’re not sexual beings than you could convince them that they are the Pope. There are scientifically verifiable reasons for this. “Purity culture” acknowledged them.

Katie: “…Oftentimes in purity culture, women are also given purity rings by their fathers symbolizing their commitment to remain “pure” for their husbands and to obey their father until he gives them to their future husbands.”

Yes, this was a thing. I never did it because I felt it was redundant. Also maybe a little weird. For me. I wouldn’t necessarily fault dads who did it, unless they forced their daughter to sit under a bare light bulb in a concrete cell with no food or water until she signed the pledge. (Which I’m sure evangelicals are being accused of doing, somewhere).

Katie: “…It’s easy to see why purity culture creates such a toxic, unhealthy, dangerous environment sexually, emotionally, and relationally. But for those who are living in this culture, it’s almost impossible to escape. God is used as the ultimate weapon to keep people in line…”

She’s describing cult behavior. Healthy evangelical subculture is not like this.

The youth group my kids came up in did have an informal no-dating policy. It was mostly unspoken, but was certainly articulated at conferences and retreats. During this time my son served as the youth worship leader. Beginning in his sophomore year he also had a steady girlfriend all through high school. No one said anything to him or me about it. No “weaponizing” God to keep him in line. Nothing “toxic” or “dangerous.” He and his girlfriend married after graduating college and have a great relationship today.

I could go on with more examples but I think you get the idea. Many people’s experience with “purity culture” was positive and healthy.

What Made the Difference?
Why did “purity culture” catch on? “Purity culture” gained popularity because Bible-believing parents thought it could be a positive way for the larger subculture to reinforce their values around sex and dating. Joshua Harris’s book became a best seller because he was a young, single guy, articulating what a lot of evangelical parents already believed about love, sex, and dating. They felt a young person saying it would help give the message credibility in the eyes of teens.

There is nothing sinister here. A lot of evangelical parents came to Jesus from out of secular culture and hoped to spare their kids some of the mistakes they had made. Obviously, in the arena of sex and dating, some mistakes come with a big price tag.

Furthermore, there was nothing new about the idea of saving oneself sexually for marriage, or “dating with a purpose,” or generally treating the opposite sex with care and respect. It’s just that this message contradicted the voices of secular education, media, and entertainment. In this sense “purity culture” was a radical alternative message.

Meanwhile, in the minds of many parents, the secular culture’s view of dating and sex is a train wreck. Many parents had been there and found it unenlightening. Secularism promoted a message opposite that of evangelicalism: Sex is no big deal. Sex is merely recreation. Sex is entertainment. Porn can spice up your marriage. There is a world full of people settling for less than God’s design for love, sex, and marriage. Evangelical parents wanted something better for their kids.

So what went wrong?
I suppose the short answer is: sometimes people get stuff wrong. Given a topic as personal, sensitive, and deep as human sexuality, this is not surprising.

Apparently many young people felt motivated by feelings of shame and fear – those are bad motivators. Apparently false or insufficient information was sometimes given. One woman wrote that, for many girls, once they put on the purity ring, that was the end of the discussion. That’s bad parental communication.

I don’t doubt the testimonies of the critics, but I don’t know the solution to the problem. There is a balance to strike when opposing concerns are both based on truth:

  • How do you promote modesty, while also avoiding victim-blaming?
  • How do you promote a positive, feminine body image, while avoiding crass sexualization of the female form?
  • How do you present accurate, comprehensive information about sex and marriage, while avoiding the secularist anything-goes approach?
  • How do you promote saving sex for lifelong, monogamous marriage, without shaming, or promoting legalism?
  • How do you hold up an ideal standard for courtship and marriage, without being formulaic, or marginalizing those who do not conform to that standard?

I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences about “purity culture,” and how the church could do better.

A Painting: Bringing the Hidden Stuff to Light

worship painting, Scott Freeman

“Transformation” by Scott Freeman, 22×28, latex paint on canvas

I haven’t done a great deal of worship painting, (defined as live painting during a worship service,) and when I have done so, I’m not sure that what I’ve painted has spoken to many people. But recently I did a worship painting that seemed to connect with several bros. After the service I had some great conversations, and several people wanted to purchase the painting.

I was a little embarrassed about the subject matter, due, I suppose, to my fine art schooling and the fact that Christian subculture can get pretty cheesy at times. But I do consciously aim to make work that exists in a place of tension between populism and elitism. This is possibly due to the fact that I had a thoroughly blue-collar upbringing, but then attended a private, elitist art college. I found that both had valuable things to offer.

On this night, I figured that making a painting featuring both a sword and a mask would render it hopelessly clichéd in the eyes any art snobs in the room, but I couldn’t think of a better way to communicate what I wanted to say. So I ignored all that and made the painting.

The Painting
I had some friends in mind as I made the painting – guys that are struggling to overcome various addictions, and for whom this struggle has been a protracted battle. As I’ve watched my friends I’ve been impressed by their humility; by their willingness to make themselves vulnerable and accountable to our church congregation of fellow travelers.

This has required them to remove their masks; to allow us into their lives to see them as they are in their failures, and allow us to accept them and care for them. But it’s difficult removing masks. It’s counter-intuitive. It requires a death to self, and that’s what the sword represents. It really is a battle. My friends are warriors.

As I was painting I noticed that the mask has the shape of a shield. It struck me that we may try to use masks as a shield; as a way to protect ourselves, and as something to hide behind. But a mask fails as a shield. A mask is too small, and we all know what’s behind the mask anyway – a broken person who needs connection with God and with other people. We intuitively know this because it’s true for us all.

So the figure in the painting is instead looking to the light of God; exposing himself to God; surrendering himself to God; receiving new life from God, resting in God’s grace. The mask is down. The armor we actually need is the spiritual armor described by the apostle Paul, including the shield of faith and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God (Eph 6:10-18).

Why do we pretend to have our poop in a group?
Church culture can tend to perpetuate mask-wearing as a way to hide our secret sins and imperfections. Maybe it’s because we celebrate the destination, and it’s easier to present the impression we have already arrived than it is to do the uncomfortable work of making the inward journey. Or maybe we feel we don’t have fellow travelers that we can trust. Maybe for a wounded person it feels safer to forego taking a relational risk. Maybe we just don’t know a better way.

But hiding our sins and imperfections is to misunderstand what Jesus envisioned a community of His followers to be. The church was intended to be a subculture of life, called out from a culture of death. Life as God defines it means walking in communion and love, and walking in freedom that comes from addressing our brokenness.

The process of coming to the Light so that the darkness in our hearts is exposed is a process we must all undertake if we are to live in the community of God’s Life. Entrenched lies and destructive patterns must be identified, named, confessed and brought to light, put to death, and then replaced with Truth. Otherwise, they will continue to inhibit the Spiritual healing and wholeness that God has in mind for us.

The hidden stuff has a way of not staying hidden anyway. If it remains present it will shape our identity and our behavior, even affecting those relationships around us as it tends to come out in hurtful or inappropriate ways.

Restoration and Transformation
We were made for wholeness, for freedom, and for loving communion with God and one another. He has created us to need Him, and to need community with one another; to know and to be known; to experience relational unity as human beings helping each other along in the process of being restored to wholeness. The shameful stuff, whatever it may be, has power over us as long as it remains hidden.

“…If we walk in the Light as He Himself is in the Light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness”
(1 John 1:7-9).

May we walk in the Light together.

removing the mask

Prints are available of this painting. Email me if you’re interested at scottnmollie@yahoo.com.

How Worship is Not a Lifestyle

intimacy with God

Perhaps enough time has passed now that I can say this without being labeled a heretic:

“Not everything we do is worship.”

There… I said it.

Over the past 20 years, I would say the idea of worship-as-a-lifestyle has become a fundamental assumption in the American evangelical church. In recent years I’ve heard the phrase less often, but my feeling is that’s because church leaders feel that the point has been made.

A decade and a half ago it seemed any discussion on worship referenced this idea. When Rick Warren’s best selling book, The Purpose Driven Life, came out in 2002, “worship is a lifestyle” was the punchline of his chapter on worship. Referencing Benedictine monk, Brother Lawrence, Warren helped cement the idea in the minds of American churchgoers.

In 2019 the idea is alive and well in evangelicalism. Here’s a sampling of results from a quick Google search:

“Worship isn’t simply an event or a place—it’s an orientation. It’s a way of life. It’s the result of our decision to exalt God above everything else.” (Tony Evans)

“Worship is so much more than the songs that we sing on Sunday morning. It is the life that we live the rest of the week.” (Daughterbydesign.wordpress.)

“Worship isn’t an event to attend and watch. It’s a lifestyle to be lived.” (unknown)

“I think worship is a lifestyle, first of all.” (Michael W. Smith)

“if the vital essence of that inner experience we call worship is a being satisfied in God or a cherishing Christ as gain above all things, this accounts for why Romans 12:1-2 portrays all of life as worship.” (John Piper, 1997)

“But worship is more than just an allotted time to sing songs of praise. We have been called to a lifestyle: living in a way that glorifies our heavenly Father, worshipping Him at all times and in many ways. Through this life of worship, God is welcome in all aspects of our lives.” (2017, YWAM Perth)

Harold Best, author and Dean of Wheaton College Conservatory of Music, says it as bluntly as anyone:

“There is no one in this world who is not, at this moment, at worship in one way or another, consciously or unconsciously, formally or informally, passively or passionately…for, you see, the desire to worship was created in us, not as an add-on, but as an intrinsic part of our very nature” (Harold M. Best, When is Worship Worship?).

I Love these people
Before going further, I want to state a couple of things. I hate divisive speech. I love Rick Warren, John Piper, YWAM, Michael W. Smith’s worship albums in particular, and probably all the other people quoted above. Furthermore, I love the impulse that has moved them to make these statements. I fully agree with the point they are making.

Their point is this: As followers of Jesus, our whole heart and all of our lives should be devoted to God. For us there should be no division between sacred and secular; between Sunday morning and the rest of the week. They are talking about “abiding in Christ” and living full out for Him. I get it, and I fully agree. These are my people.

They are simply using the wrong word to make the point.

Nitpicky much?
In the Bible, the word “worship” actually means something specific. What if, in our zeal to inspire each other to fully devote our whole lives to God, we inadvertently discourage the worship He truly deserves? This is what I think is happening. This is not simply me being picky about semantics.

Test me on this. I contend that the Bible sets forth the meaning of worship in this way:

Worship is intentional, physical expression of one’s love for God.

We may feel many things toward God. Those things may be good things, but they are not necessarily worship; they are something else. We may petition God, we may lament, we may feel grateful, we may cry out for help, we may express joy, we may express anger, fear, doubt, or frustration toward God.

These things are all part of being relationally connected with God, but worship specifically expresses our awe and love for God through physical expression. It is something we do for, and intentionally toward, God, because He is worthy. Ideally, we do not worship “to get something out of it,” or “because it is good for us,” or “to get ourselves into a right frame of mind.” Worshipping God may indeed (or may not) do all of those things for us, but that is not the point. We are not the object in worship.

The physical expression piece
Why am I harping on physical expression? Because that is how the Bible describes worship. Because we are physical, as well as spiritual, beings. It is true that God has granted us spiritual rebirth but we are not, and never will be, disembodied spirits.

But can’t I worship by thinking worshipful thoughts toward God? Can’t I “bow down in my heart”? Isn’t that still a form of worship? *

I’m open to correction here, but if we want to take our instruction from the Bible, I just don’t see that idea in there. Thinking worshipful thoughts toward God leads to acts of worship, but it is the physical expression of the inward heart that is the act of worship. The thought or feeling is the beginning, but the physical act completes our worship.

Therefore you will see throughout the Judeo-Christian scriptures a multitude of physical expressions of worship directed toward God: singing, playing musical instruments, bowing, kneeling, lifting hands, falling down before, shouting, and dancing.

I must hasten to add here that the physical act alone amounts to nothing if the heart is not behind it. Worship is an expression of love; a demonstration of one’s heart.

Ask yourself, “Why resist employing your physical body in worship?”

*(Interesting to note: the only time I see the phrase “heart bowed down” in the Bible is when someone is in a state of grieving. It does not seem to be a phrase pertaining to worship).

Why Does This Matter?
This probably only matters to those who desire to be worshippers of God.

Years ago at a worship conference, I heard a speaker say that when he is eating Doritos after the service in the church foyer, he is worshipping God just as much as when he is singing on stage.

I disagree.

I would also take issue with Harold Best when he says:

I wish there were a word in English which would at once mean both living and worshipping in an indivisible union, because that’s what God originally intended. This was how Jesus lived – thirty three years as a living sacrifice – no moment spent not worshipping…Thus it is quite easy to see how Adam and Eve were continually at worship in whatever they did – not once in seven days – but continuously: moment by moment, action by action, breath after breath…” (ibid).

But the scriptures don’t quite say this. Read it for yourself. There is no clear indication that Adam and Eve worshipped God at all. Indeed, this may have been part of what led to the fall of man – perhaps they regarded God too lightly, or took their relationship with Him for granted. I would argue that is apparently what happened.

I contend that these writers are conflating “worship” and “communion with God.”

We can indeed live moment by moment in communion – in relational unity – with God because of the salvific work of Jesus, I agree! But what if worship is actually something else? If we think we’re worshipping when we’re mowing the lawn, or changing the baby’s diaper, or eating Doritos while chatting in the church foyer, we may never see the need to set apart time for focused, intimate worship of God.

This would be the equivalent of a marriage wherein the lovers never actually set aside intimate time to express their love for one another. After all, they live moment by moment in a spousal relationship and in the knowledge that they love each other, right? So why set aside focused time to physically express their love?

In this sense worship is analogous to romance. Romance is not incidental or accidental. It involves 1) set apart time, 2) focused thought and attention, and 3) making one’s heart known through some physical expression.

The same can be said of worship.

We’re very busy. Could our belief that “everything we do is worship” conveniently be keeping us from actual worship?

In a similar vein, my pastor, Pat Sokoll, recently referred to his earthly father in a way that made this point beautifully. He observed that men in his father’s generation generally thought in terms of expressing their love for their families by being good providers; by faithfully working hard to serve their families. In their minds, their lifestyles showed their love for their families. (And they were right in thinking so). Yet many of these same men failed to express their love to their children by saying “I love you,” or by hugging them, or by kissing them, or by stopping work long enough to focus attention on their families.

Yes, serving is a crucial aspect of caring for one’s family, but it is not an excuse for neglecting to express intimate love interpersonally. It is the same with our relationship with God.

A Brief Word Study
The original languages reiterate these two aspects of love. Throughout the Old Testament scriptures, two words are most frequently paired together when describing worship: “bow down” and “serve.”

Example: “You shall not bow down or serve them” (Ex 20:5).

This is the first of the 10 commandments; to have no other gods before YHWH. Over and over we see these words paired together to describe worship, either of YHWH Himself, or of false gods. These are the two sides of the worship coin.

The Hebrew word translated “bow down” (shachah) is often translated “worship.” In the New Testament, its Greek equivalent (proskuneo) literally means, “to kiss toward.” So both the Hebrew and Greek words literally describe physical expressions of adoration. Jesus uses “proskuneo” during His discourse with the Samaritan woman when he says the Father seeks worshipers who will worship Him in spirit and truth.

It is this word, proskuneo, that we usually have in mind when we speak of worship, worship music, worship services, and corporate worship.

By contrast, the Hebrew word translated “serve”, (abad), and its Greek equivalent, (latreuo), refer to service, including priestly temple service such as the ceremonial killing of animals. In Hebrews chapters 9 and 10, the descriptions of old covenant, priestly temple service (translated “worship”) use the word latreuo.

The verse most universally used to support the worship-as-a-lifestyle idea is Romans 12:1: “Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship(NAS).

Ironically, the word used here is not “proskuneo,” the word usually translated as “worship.” The word used is the word for service: “latreuo.” Paul is saying our temple service is no longer the sacrificing of animals, but is now the presenting of our whole selves to God. Our evangelical friends would be more correct to teach “service-as-a-lifestyle,” since that’s what Paul is urging here.

Arguably, (proskuneo) worship cannot be a lifestyle because it is by definition set apart from the daily stuff of life. Thus biblical worship encompasses both the daily grind, and also holy, undistracted intimacy; the quotidian and the transcendent.

Conclusion
It is not uncommon in modern church services to see congregants not actively participating in worship. Many churches encourage a “casual atmosphere” where people can sip a cup of coffee while they sit back and passively listen to the worship music. Is this inspirational? It certainly can be. Is it worship? I don’t think so.

Is this a legalistic approach to worship? To suggest that (proskuneo) worship cannot simply be thinking reverent thoughts toward God?

Well, can you say you’ve taken communion if you think about the body and blood of Jesus shed for us, but never actually partake of the physical elements?
Can you say you’ve been baptized if you consider yourself dead to your old way of living, but never actually go under the physical water?
Can you say you’ve expressed your affections to your spouse if you are never verbally or physically attentive and intimate?

I’m advocating giving God the worship that He deserves, both as a lifestyle but also, perhaps more fundamentally, in set apart, focused attention. I believe our intimate worship toward God will inspire and inform our lifestyle.

Part of the beauty of being human is our physicality. By the redemptive work of Jesus, God has given us His Spirit as well, making us “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet 1:3,4). Jesus said the Father is seeking worshippers who will (proskuneo) worship Him in Spirit and in truth. Let us be the kind of worshippers with whom the Father looks forward to connecting. When we gather together corporately in worship, may our corporate expression be one of conscious, undistracted focus, and love toward our Creator.

I welcome your thoughts and insights below.

“Loveland Gothic” – A New Mural

Scott Freeman Public Art

The completed mural, 12×15 ft, painted by 320 local citizens, young and old.

For the past 3 years, I and a small army of volunteers have facilitated the creation of a community mural, painted by local festival-goers, during downtown Loveland’s annual Valentine’s Day festival.

Each year we’ve spoofed an iconic fine art painting, giving each painting a Valentiney twist. This year I chose an American artist, Grant Wood, using the occasion to celebrate sibling love. Many people assume that Wood’s original painting depicts a husband and wife, though this is probably not the case. Wood never clearly defined the relationship of the characters.

The point of the mural project is to bring the community together in creating something fun, creative, and monumental. Individuals are encouraged to express their individuality on their tiles, and those tiles then each become a part of the bigger picture – a metaphor for community.

Festival-goers do not know in advance what the bigger picture will be. This is the reason I have chosen fine art imagery – these images are already well loved by the public and are hopefully something of which no one would object to being a part.

Going forward, if we are able to continue this annual project, we may have to do a better job of communicating. This year a couple of people apparently took their tiles home with them! Also there was more confusion than usual as to what paint colors to use in a given area. My apologies to those of you whose tiles I had to alter in order to make the big picture work.

All in all, I think the mural came together nicely! Thanks to the Loveland Downtown Partnership and Chamber of Commerce for their support this year. Also thanks to all the volunteers at Beggars’ Gate church for braving the cold and making this happen again.

Scott Freeman - public art

Detail showing the bear chainsaw sculpture and the Abraham Lincoln brooch.

Loveland Gothic-God is Love