“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.

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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.

Do Christian Missionaries Destroy Native Cultures?

Chau - Christian missions

John Allen Chau, presumed dead at age 26.

With the recent killing of an American “adventurer and missionary,” the legitimacy of Christian missions is being questioned again. The missionary in question, John Allen Chau, illegally made his way to an isolated island off the cost of India, to share the message of Jesus with the island’s inhabitants – one of the world’s last “uncontacted” tribes. The Sentinelese tribe, known to be hostile and violent toward outsiders, reportedly killed Chau and buried him on the beach.

Anthropologists and activists are concerned that contact with Chau himself, as well as contact with any outsiders who may wish to recover his body, could endanger the survival of the Sentinelese tribe by introducing pathogens against which the tribe would have no immunity. There is abundant historical precedent to warrant such concerns. In addition, raging within secular culture are philosophical concerns that raise a number of interesting questions:

Do Christian missionaries destroy indigenous cultures?
Do they impose, forcibly or otherwise, western beliefs and values on indigenous people?
Do they operate from a position of assumed superiority, culturally, religiously, or racially?
Do they threaten or do they enhance the physical survival and well being of indigenous peoples?
Is it fundamentally arrogant, or even immoral, for missionaries to assimilate with
“unreached” people groups with the ultimate intent of sharing a foreign, spiritual
message with them? Shouldn’t isolated people groups instead be left undisturbed?

There is no question that, historically, missionaries have often been wrong-headed in their approach to sharing their messages. One sorrowful, infamous example is the case of Catholic Franciscan priest and bishop, Fray Diego de Landis. As a Spanish missionary to the New World, whatever good he did was eclipsed by his harsh and coercive methods against the Mayas. His most infamous accomplishment may have been the burning of the entire Maya library due to the books being filled with what he believed to be “superstition and lies of the devil.” Only 3 Mayan documents survive – a great loss to our understanding of Mayan culture.

Having said that, let us not imagine that the committing of cultural and racial atrocities has exclusively been a religiously motivated pursuit. For nearly a century, Darwinian evolution widely held that dark-skinned people were less evolved than Caucasian people. As recently as the late 19th century, some 5.000 to 10,000 (Australian) aboriginal graves were desecrated, and “specimens” shipped, to British museums. In some cases Aborigines were murdered to obtain parts for study. (See David Monaghan, “The Body Snatchers”). As late as the early 20th century, targets for eugenics and forced sterilization included dark-skinned races.

Thankfully, both theists and atheists, religion and science, have come a long way since then. The modern missionary movement is smart and sensitive. There is nothing innate to the whole of scripture to justify the earlier missionary atrocities.

When Worldviews Collide
Nonetheless, there is certainly a clash of worldviews at play here, and that’s not going to go away. Secularists will continue to think that Christian missionaries have no business “invading” the lives of isolated people groups for the sake of spreading a myth. Followers of Jesus will continue to consider it a compassionate act to introduce isolated peoples to their universal Creator. What is different now is that both groups are concerned with respecting and retaining indigenous cultures and protecting the health and survival of these people.

One fact both sides can agree on is that isolated tribes are vulnerable to a number of modern threats, and that their existence is fragile. Missionary author Don Richardson claims that in the past 75 years, more than one tribe per year has disappeared from Brazil, from an estimated population of 4 million. Richardson claims thousands have been gunned down, blown up, or poisoned. The fact that the Sentinelese warriors have been observed firing their stone age weapons at a helicopter shows that they have no idea what they are up against.

The view of the modern missionary movement is that leaving tribal people undisturbed is not an option in the 21st century. It insists that it is better that missionaries get to remote peoples first because they value them as human beings created in God’s image. There are a host of potential outsider contacts who have no qualms about cheating, exploiting, and contaminating tribal people groups, and they are not asking permission: farmers, lumbermen, land speculators, minors, hunters, military leaders, road builders, art collectors, tourists, and drug dealers.

In thinking about indigenous cultures, there tends to be a halo effect around the way secularists view tribal people groups; as though their existence is peaceful, free, equitable, and humane. But all human beings are broken, and there is no ideal culture. Tribal cultures believe in the supernatural and are bound by strict beliefs about what their gods require. Critics of missionaries must grapple with the question of whether acceptance of an indigenous culture means acceptance of such practices as inter-tribal warfare, slavery, female genital mutilation, cannibalism, and other oppressive or self-destructive behaviors.

A Case Study
Richardson tells the story of the Wai Wai tribe of Brazil, which had been reduced to its last 60 members less than a generation ago:

     This was due largely to foreign diseases and the Wai Wai custom of sacrificing babies to demons in attempts to prevent these diseases. Then a handful of UFM missionaries identified themselves with the tribe, learned their language, gave it an alphabet, translated the Word of God, taught Wai Wai to read and brought modern medical care.

      Far from denying the supernatural world, the missionaries showed the Wai Wai that a God of love reigned supreme over it and had prepared a way for them to “stay right” on a deeper level than they had ever dreamed. The Wai Wai now had a rational, even delightful, basis for not sacrificing babies to demons. The tribe began to grow, and today is fast becoming one of Brazil’s more stable tribes. Wai Wai Christians are now teaching other dwindling groups of Indians how to cope with the 21st century through faith in Jesus.
(Perspectives, “Do Missionaries Destroy Cultures?” – Don Richardson)

The world is now filled with such stories of positive change. Jesus was not “white,” and His message was never to promote Western culture. Relational unity with God transcends all cultures, and can be expressed through all cultures.

Find Out More
If the topic of missions interests you, I would recommend a 15 week long class that is coming up next month in northern Colorado, in both Loveland and Ft. Collins. It’s called PERSPECTIVES, and takes students through the biblical, historical, cultural, and strategic aspects of “the world Christian movement.” All of the issues discussed above are thoroughly addressed, and much more. It’s a great way to learn about what God has been doing throughout human history, and how you can participate.

Mollie and I took the course earlier this year, and loved it. Perhaps my favorite part was hearing a different live speaker every week. Most of the speakers are or have been missionaries in the field, with stories and insight to share. The course includes a workbook and a 750 page reader composed of articles by 150 scholars and practitioners.

PERSPECTIVES is a bit of a commitment: the cost is $250, and there is reading homework between weekly meetings. You choose between 3 levels of participation, the least committal being the “key reading” level, the highest being the college credit level. If you register by Dec 15 you can receive an early bird discount of $50. If you’re unsure about committing, you can attend the first two classes for free.

For more information click here for the WEBSITE. (If you don’t live in northern Colorado, there might be another class near you.) Click here to see a short PROMO VIDEO.

 

The Visitation: A Picture of Trust

As we approach the Christmas season, I thought I would share with you a favorite post, The Visitation, from several years ago. I still find it encouraging, and I hope you will too. Also, I made the painting featured below into a Christmas card. Details at the end:

Sometimes I find it enriching to “copy” great paintings. I like doing this for a couple of reasons. First, re-tracing the stages of a great painting is a good way to learn about painting. It’s like thinking the thoughts of the painter after him/her. In the process one can sometimes understand why the original painter made certain decisions about color, composition, and subject matter.

But secondly, I view re-painting a great composition as similar to doing a musical cover of a great song. It’s not about making a literal copy, or even necessarily trying to improve upon the old composition. Sometimes it’s about making the song (or painting) come alive for a new generation, and honoring the greatness of the original. For me it says there is something beautiful or profound there that is worth looking at or listening to again.

Below is an early 16th century painting by Italian artist Mariotto Albertinelli. I think it’s a painting worth writing about during the Advent season. I’ve never seen this painting in person. I only ran across it in an old art book one day, and it stopped me cold. I’ll tell you why I was drawn to this painting…

Image

…I was moved for a number of reasons. The main reason is the tender depiction of the relationship of these two pregnant women, each leaning in toward the other. I love how their hands are clasped near their wombs; how the older begins to embrace the younger. Most striking of all to me is the proximity of their faces to one another – almost touching, as if there really is no adequate physical way to express what they are feeling.

Even if you’re unfamiliar with the story that is depicted here, you may get the feeling that something momentous has happened, or is happening. You may feel that these women share some wonderful secret.

In fact, they do share a terrible and fantastic secret.

This is a depiction of what has come to be called The Visitation, recorded in the first chapter of the gospel of Luke. After learning that her elder kinswoman, Elizabeth, is pregnant, Mary goes to visit her in the hill country of Judah. Both women carry children miraculously conceived, and named by God Himself. Both pregnancies were preceded by secretive angelic visits, with messages so extraordinary that they strained belief. Even today, some two thousand years later, most people do not believe their story. Yet, enough of us do believe it that the story remains with us.

Elizabeth’s situation is a bundle of conundrums. She is infertile, past childbearing age, and childless – until now. At the time of Mary’s visit, Elizabeth is six months into her pregnancy. Of her coming child, John, the angel Gabriel had spoken these words:

“…he will be great before the Lord,…And he will turn many of the sons of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and the power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children…” (Luke 1:15-17)

These words were a direct reference to the very last words written by the last Mosaic covenant prophet, Malachi, prophesying what would occur before the coming of the Messiah (Malachi 4:5). Now after 400 years of silence from God, the waiting is over, and Elizabeth’s child will be this Messiah’s forerunner. However, even knowing the prophecies, nothing would unfold as expected:

Elizabeth was the wife of a Jewish temple priest. Their child John would announce the Messiah, who would in turn make that Jewish Aaronic priesthood obsolete (Heb 8:1-13). He would do this, not because that system was wrong, but because the entire Mosaic system pointed to Him, and He would bring about something much better. In fact this Messiah would be the fulfillment of every Mosaic covenant feast and ritual, though no one could see it at the time.

Mary’s situation is even more impossible. In a culture where sexual infidelity is a punishable offense, she chooses to bear the stigma of an untimely pregnancy. But what can she say to people? God made me pregnant? Only an angelic visit to Joseph persuades him to stay with her.

And after that, what can he say to people? An angel told me in a dream that God made her pregnant? Right. Oh…and by the way, our baby is the Messiah that you and all of Israel have been expecting for centuries? There is really nothing to be done except to let the story unfold. Only trusting in the loving God who initiated all of these things makes sense.

So for now these two women have each other, both caught up in events too mysterious and too earthshaking to be understood at this point. They stand at a place of vivid tension between flesh and Spirit, faith and sight, darkness and light, and between this age and the one to come.

“The Visitation” – watercolor by Scott Freeman
based on a 16th c painting by Mariotto Albertinelli

For those interested, the original painting has been sold, but I do have prints available of the original. Prints are 6×8″ on archival watercolor paper, and come with a certificate of authenticity. Cost is $20.00, unframed, and includes shipping within the US. A nice gift for both art lovers and people of faith. To order, email me at scottnmollie@yahoo.com.

Also, I just made this painting into a Christmas card on my Zazzle site. I think there is still a “60% off sale on greeting cards” going on, if you hurry. CLICK HERE to order.

“Under the Surface” – A Painting

Jesus teaching at Lake Gennesaret

“Under the Surface” by Scott Freeman, 1×3 ft, latex paint on canvas.

A couple of weeks ago I was reading a passage from the gospel of Luke. Though I’d read it many times before, I felt as though God encouraged me with some new thoughts around the passage.

Luke 5:1-11 tells the story of Jesus calling His first disciples. He’s by a lake and the crowd is pressing in around Him. He sees a couple of boats lying on the shore. He gets into Simon’s boat and asks him to put out a little way from the shore. Then He sits down and begins teaching the people from the boat.

When Jesus had finished speaking, He says to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.”

Simon replies, “Master, we worked hard all night and caught nothing, but I will do as You say and let down the nets.”

It says they then enclosed so many fish that their nets began to break. They called their partners in the other boat to help, and filled both boats so full that they began to sink. Simon is amazed and falls at Jesus’s feet, confessing his unworthiness. Jesus tells him, “Do not fear, from now on you will be catching men.”

After getting to shore, Simon and his partners leave everything and follow Jesus.

What came to mind
After I read this I was struck with the thought of what must’ve been going on under the surface of the water while Jesus was teaching. As fantastical as it sounds, it must be that the fish in the lake were gathering around the boat where Jesus was sitting. Unseen and unsuspected by everyone above the surface, God was preparing to do something amazing.

Sometimes I feel as though I’ve “labored all night and caught nothing.” Simon and friends had labored all night, on the very same lake but without Jesus, and caught nothing. For myself, my takeaway is that I need to be with Jesus, abiding in Him, listening to Him, and being like Him. I want to hold Jesus up – not my hard work, not my personal awesomeness, not my politics, not even a religion called “Christianity,” but the person of Jesus.

Jesus, the person, said He would draw humanity to Himself. The apostles speak of God’s ultimate plan to unite things in heaven and on earth in Jesus (Eph 1:9,10; Col 1:19,20). We have each been given the unspeakable opportunity to begin walking in relational unity with Jesus right now, even in this broken age, as we look forward to seeing Him bring ultimate unity to completion in the age to come.

What matters most
Simon made no income the night before he met Jesus. Then Jesus, presumably a stranger to Simon, took up much of his morning, monopolizing his time and equipment. But Jesus paid him back, far beyond what Simon could’ve imagined. Ironically, Simon apparently then left his physical repayment lying on the beach in order to follow the transcendent call of Jesus:

…seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these [material] things will be added to you (Mt 6:33 ESV).

Much later, after the resurrection and departure of Jesus, the book of Acts describes how Simon, now called Peter, is very effectively engaged in His new occupation of “catching men.” The religious leaders are puzzled as to what to do with these fishermen:

Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. And they recognized that they had been with Jesus. But seeing the man who was healed standing beside them, they had nothing to say in opposition (Acts 4:13,14 ESV).

May it become apparent that we, also, have been with Jesus.

The painting
I love the idea of God being at work under the surface. I was intrigued by the idea of an image depicting the crowd of people coming to Jesus on the lake shore, mirrored by the crowd of fish gathering around Jesus under the surface. The only way for me to see how it would look was to paint it.

I joined my wife and a couple of other artists, and made this painting during a worship event; the first Northern Colorado Worship and Prayer night of this new school year. These monthly worship nights are inter-church events, and everyone is welcome. You can follow this year’s schedule HERE. Live worship-painting is always a part of each event.

Jesus teaching the crowds-Scott Freeman

This painting has been sold. Thank you for your support!

How Creationists & Evolutionists are Evidentially on Equal Footing

creationism vs evolutionism debate

The Science of Rock-Scissors-Paper

In my ongoing discussion with “skeptics”, my “skeptic” friends often appeal to the fact that the vast majority of living scientists, and educated people in general, hold to a belief in microbes-to-man evolution. I do recognize that this is the case.

My “skeptic” friends uniformly assume this must be because the scientific evidence is so overwhelming that only someone with a strong, predetermined, religious bias would seriously hold to creationism. Since relatively few hold to young earth creationism, they sometimes wonder if we think there is an anti-creationist conspiracy in academia keeping the truth of creationism from getting out.

I would like to enthusiastically offer my layman’s observations on those two assumptions.

ASSUMPTION #1: Creationists have a predetermined faith position into which they must fit all scientific data. They do not follow the evidence wherever it may lead, (like real scientists do).

It might surprise some that I actually agree with this assumption. Creationists are, in fact, quite open about their bias right out of the gate. Creationists do begin from a faith position that they choose not to question.

The fascinating point that I want to make here is that materialist evolutionists do exactly the same thing. Not something similar, but exactly.

Belief in microbes-to-man evolution is a faith position, complete with its own dogma that may not be questioned if one is to remain in good standing in academia among one’s peers. This isn’t merely my opinion. It is a fact that we can all observe. I will prove this shortly.

I will also point out that this notion shouldn’t be taken as an insult, but it is. It is insulting to materialists and “skeptics” only because they don’t want to see themselves this way. They’ve spent a lot of ink and pixels “accusing” the other side of acting from faith, while positioning themselves as standing strictly on scientific evidence. I am repeatedly told that there is no evidence for God. What nonsense.

Most often in my discussions, I no longer even attempt to prove that creationism is correct. That is far too ambitious a goal. My aim now is simply to get materialists to admit that they are also acting from a faith position when it comes to beliefs around the origins of the universe and life. I say we’re on equal footing. (Actually, as a theist, I believe that my position is the more rational of the two since my position is at least possible, but I’m trying to seek common ground).

But they will not budge. They have made the stakes for themselves too high.

ASSUMPTION #2: Creationists believe in an academia/media conspiracy designed to keep the truth from getting out, (like flat-earthers do).

This one I don’t agree with. It’s completely unnecessary to believe in such a conspiracy. The truth is much simpler than the existences of a secret conspiracy.

The truth is this: creationism is so embarrassing that it renders a conspiracy unnecessary.

Seriously. Creationists believe in an earth only thousands of years old, that God created human life fully formed in His image, and that a historical guy named Noah preserved humanity on an ark in a global flood that shaped geology. Anyone who claims to believe any of this in a secular academic setting commits career suicide.

It’s not a question of whether or not there is corroborating scientific evidence for all of this, (because there is), it is a question of academic respectability and peer approval. Creationism is not intellectual-sounding, and we all want to be thought of by others as intelligent people.

Furthermore, to even admit the possibility that science might corroborate these stories would amount to, not only scientific evidence for the existence of God, but even worse, it would amount to evidence for the existence of the God of the Bible. The secularist establishment will never allow that if it can be avoided. And it can be avoided by having faith that science will someday fill in the existing knowledge gaps.

The problem with questions of origins is that ALL of the possibilities are embarrassing! It’s just that we’ve been conditioned to accept the evolution story as somehow more plausible and intellectual. But it’s not. It’s ridiculous. As of today, it’s essentially belief in magic.

Just to be clear, materialist evolutionists believe that all of the life that we see today – from daisies, to hummingbirds, to blue whales, to Vladimir Putin – all of this accidentally arose from a single-celled organism – one ancestral genome – billions of years ago; blindly and mindlessly. Yet I would assert that we all innately know this is not how the real world works.

Someday science will fill in the gaps…
Perhaps. But until that day, can we admit that microbes-to-man evolution is a faith position?

Evolutionary science asserts that everything we see can be explained by natural processes. But as of this writing, that assertion is demonstrably untrue. In fact, at the most fundamental points, naturalism lacks known, scientifically observable, natural processes that can explain what we see:

  • There is no known, observable, natural process by which the material universe could have accidentally created itself.

 

  • We have known since the 19th century, from scientific experimentation, that life does not spontaneously arise from non-living matter. Yet materialists must believe that it does.

 

  • Even if simple living organisms could have accidentally appeared, there is no known, observable, natural process by which such organisms could have blindly evolved into doctors, lawyers, and Indian chiefs over time. Mutation (genomic copying errors) and natural selection are insufficient to account for this.

 

  • We know from genetic science that the human genome is deteriorating at an observable rate. Not only can mutation/natural selection not explain how complex information got into our deteriorating genome, it can’t even explain how it could have remained there up until the present time.

Accidental existence shouldn’t even be on the table as a serious option until it can be shown to be possible by natural processes. This is simply holding evolutionists to their own claims.

Yes, this too is dogma
I promised to prove that dogma exists in the realm of evolutionary science. Of several dogmas, here is perhaps the most crucial, authoritative doctrine in secular science: deep time – the belief that the universe is 13.8 billion years old, and that the earth is 4.5 billion years old.

Let us be clear. There can be no theory of microbes-to-man evolution via mutation and natural selection without these billions of years. This is absolutely non-negotiable for naturalism or materialism if one wants to remain a rational believer in those things. Regarding the scientific method, an evolutionary scientist may not, cannot, will not, consider a young earth conclusion even if the evidence should point to that conclusion.

The theist’s job, then, is simple: Any evidence that points to a young earth is essentially hard evidence for a belief in God. And there is a great deal of it, from diverse scientific fields. (See a variety of examples here).

To clarify: creationists don’t have to prove the earth is only 6000 years old. It may be 10,000 years old. It may be 100,000. It may be 500,000. Some evidence indicates it may be one or two million years old. This is still far, far too little time for microbes-to-man evolution to be possible. This fact leaves evolutionists in the hopeless position of fitting all scientific evidence that comes in into a deep time scenario. Much of it does not. The fact that soft dinosaur tissue exists today in supposedly 65 million year old bones is just the tip of the iceberg. The universe continues to surprise us.

Without deep time, rational atheism is dead. The dictionary defines dogma as, prescribed doctrine proclaimed as unquestionably true by a particular group.” If you are a materialist, you may object to calling belief in deep time “dogma.” I would ask you to explain why it is not.

Science has its limits, particularly when discerning unobservable, unrepeatable, distant historical events. The creation-evolution debate is ultimately not about what science says. It’s really about what each of us wants to believe, because science says “both.”