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.

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 called PERSPECTIVES. The class 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 in 2018, 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 insights 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. There is usually a $50 early bird discount available. If you’re unsure about committing, you can attend the first two classes for free. Attendees choose between 3 levels of participation, the least committal being the “key reading” level, the highest being the college credit level.

PERSPECTIVES is an inter-denominational event hosted by various local churches. For more information click here for the WEBSITE. 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.

In Memory of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Martin Luther King Jr quote

Fifty years ago today, Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down on a motel balcony in Memphis, Tennessee. For many, King’s assassination marked the end of the civil rights movement’s strategy of non-violence.

Some believe his assassination was the result of a conspiracy involving the United States government. King’s family eventually even filed a wrongful death suit against the government, which it (sort of) “won.”

As news of his assassination became known, riots broke out in over 100 cities across America. For many fighting for the cause of civil rights and racial equality, King’s death must’ve signaled a loss of hope that the entrenched white power structures could be reformed through peaceful means.

So…fight fire with fire. Fear with fear. It seems that violence is what works. Force gets things done.

But does it?

The human problem is the human heart. King was a remarkable leader because he understood the problem. As a follower of Jesus, King rightly saw that the solution to the human problem was the strategy of changing hearts for good. Violence never does that. Unfortunately, violence has its place in our broken world, but only when there is no hope for understanding and empathy.

I don’t believe we are at that place yet. I think understanding and empathy have barely been tried. But violence and intolerance can seem easier, faster, and more satisfying to hearts that are hurting.

Following is one of my (reluctantly) favorite quotes from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I believe these words are true, but they are extremely difficult to carry out. This is a hard saying. It is even difficult to read. But I think he is right. His strategy transcends conspiracies, governmental power, intolerance, and hatred:

I’ve seen too much hate to want to hate, myself, and every time I see it, I say to myself, hate is too great a burden to bear. Somehow we must be able to stand up against our most bitter opponents and say: We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will and we will still love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws and abide by the unjust system, because non-cooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good, so throw us in jail and we will still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and, as difficult as it is, we will still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our communities at the midnight hour and drag us out on some wayside road and leave us half-dead as you beat us, and we will still love you. Send your propaganda agents around the country and make it appear that we are not fit, culturally and otherwise, for integration, but we’ll still love you. But be assured that we’ll wear you down by our capacity to suffer, and one day we will win our freedom. We will not only win freedom for ourselves; we will appeal to your heart and conscience that we will win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.    — A Christmas Sermon for Peace on Dec 24, 1967

These words, spoken 4 months before his murder, echo the words of Jesus and the apostle Paul: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21.)

It’s a messy business living in a broken world with broken people, and we are still far from the destination that King envisioned. I believe our hope must ultimately come from outside of ourselves; from the Savior who made inward transformation possible through spiritual rebirth. Regardless of how much progress we make in this corrupt age, He promises unity and justice in the age to come. Jesus invites us to experience the realities of that future age right now, in this present age. I think Dr. King, the Baptist minister and activist, would be pleased if the occasion of his death would spur some to accept the invitation of Jesus to step into His kingdom of light.

Why a Giant Community Mural in Downtown Loveland?

Loveland sweetheart city arts

Loveland’s “Creation,” by Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni, with help from local residents.

Loveland, Colorado, nicknamed The Sweetheart City, has developed a reputation as a city supportive of the arts. In recent years, citizens here have braved the cold to participate in an outdoor Valentine’s Day festival called Fire & Ice. The festival includes an ice sculpting competition and also metal sculpture involving lots of fire.

Despite brutally cold weather this year, people still bundled up and showed up. Lots of great musicians still managed to play and sing. And people still showed up to express themselves in paint even though the paint was freezing on the panels. ‘Word is that there were about 40,000 participants this year.

As an arts town, Loveland is best known for its sculpture and bronze foundries, so sculpture is a big part of the festival. But I’m mostly a painter, so this year the folks at the church I attend agreed to once again step up and help me facilitate a huge public art project for festival-goers. Beggars’ Gate pastor, Pat Sokoll, has insisted on the church footing the bill so that this event can be free for everyone.

This year we doubled the size of the final image to 15 x 27 feet. The image consists of 405, 12 inch square tiles. The way it works is that an artist (yours truly) translates the image beforehand into light, medium, and dark values. Each square tile contains a piece of the larger image with the correct value marked accordingly. Participants can express themselves as they wish so long as they use the correct value of paint in each designated area.

Last year we spoofed perhaps the best-known painting in the world – The Mona Lisa. We gave her a Loveland twist. She held a Valentine that says, “With love, from Leonardo,” and I put Long’s Peak in the background. (Click here to see her.) This year we spoofed another iconic image from art history – Michelangelo’s Creation from the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Since participants don’t know in advance what image they are helping to create, it seems reasonably safe to me to spoof a well-known and loved image from art history.

Why we do this
Several people have asked me about the inspiration for putting on such a large, free event. I think this is worth doing for a couple of reasons:

Community-building
I think our country has experienced a serious loss of civility and unity. I like this project because participants can express themselves individually while being an integral part of a larger picture together. It’s a great metaphor for community. An art project will certainly not solve our problems, but it can be a nice reminder that we all have a place here, making the community of Loveland what it is.

It’s just fun to look at the diversity expressed on the wall; to appreciate the creativity and to see the differing personalities of each individual coming through. I know the stories of many of the participants. I see tiles painted by a husband and wife who are physical therapists, a dad and his small kids, a retired school teacher who loves the arts, a child with Down Syndrome, a college student home for the weekend, a friend struggling with an unsettling medical diagnosis, and a competitive distance runner.

Every tile on the wall represents a person with a story. Maybe we can all get better at getting to know each other despite our differences this year. Maybe we can learn to be slower to shut each other down when we disagree.

public art community

Detail of local color…

Radical Inclusivity
Some tiles are quite complicated and require a bit of time and careful attention to complete. Others are completely blank and are impossible to mess up, so long as the correct value of paints are used. This means that even a child barely old enough to hold a brush, a person with a physical or mental disability, or even a blind person can participate. This is personally meaningful to me as a father of a child with a disability and also as a father of a very gifted child, both in the same family. I know how rare it is to find something everyone can engage with as equals

We made it free because we didn’t want anyone to be excluded for financial reasons. As an artist couple raising 5 kids, often below the poverty line, my wife and I often avoided events like this festival. Or if we attended such an event, we had to tell our kids in advance that we weren’t going to buy anything there. It was gratifying to see parents of large families smile to see that our event was free.

art and math

One of my favorite tiles, just because it is so different from anything i would ever do. The mathematical equation creates the heart shape shown on the tile. This tile appears near the head of God in the mural.

What do you think of having a permanent art wall in Loveland?
It looks as thought this may be our last year, as things now stand. The boarded up building on 4th Street where the mural is situated is scheduled for renovation in late spring. I think it would be a unique addition to downtown Loveland to have a permanent, rotating art wall for projects like this. Maybe at the Feed & Grain, or on the side of some other well-exposed building, visible from 4th Street. Or possibly a large billboard type structure reserved for 2D art display.

It could be another way for the city to support the arts.

Thanks again to the small army of volunteers at Beggars’ Gate for your service and ingenuity, and for sticking it out in the cold weather. Thanks to everyone who came by and painted a tile. I love being part of this community.

— Scott Freeman

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art for kids

A small artist with his tile.

Thoughts on “Religion,” and How Not to Fix the World

Maxfield Parrish Humpty Dumpty, fall of man

Before the Great Fall

Does anyone like getting asked the question, “Are you religious?”

When asked this, does anyone ever enthusiastically answer, “YES!”

I only like getting asked that question because it gives me a chance to explain my faith.

One of my earliest insights as a young follower of Jesus was that Christianity is not about a religion; it’s about a relationship. In college I pretty much abandoned the use of the word “Christianity” altogether because it is so broad as to be practically meaningless and confusing.

This is not an uncommon way of thinking in evangelicalism. It is widely understood that our faith has primarily to do with the person of Jesus, not about some system of belief or ritualistic practice. At a minimum most would agree that a religion is not “the answer” to the world’s problems. Most would recognize that one can be scrupulously religiously observant and yet completely miss God. There is good and bad religious practice. I think most people would agree that there are bad religions in the world.

So it’s kinda weird to speak of “religion” in general as either good or bad.

You’ve probably heard evangelicals say,

“Religion is mans’ attempt to reach God, Christianity is God reaching down to man.”

Or “I’m spiritual, not religious.”

I’ve tended to argue that religion can serve as a positive cultural force, but I’ve tended to personally reject the observance of religious rituals, traditions, and practices as baggage. Yes, I pray regularly, but as a part of relationship with God – not as religious ritual. In the same way, I don’t consider talking with my wife to be a marriage ritual.

All in all, the word “religion” has been a pretty distasteful word to me for all of my life, even though, ironically, people who don’t know me well may tend to think of me as religious.

But…Hmmm…Maybe I don’t despise the word “religion” after all

I recently read some thoughts on the origin of the word “religion” that ring true to me.

…Etymologically, [religion] means something like tying back together – re-ligion:
re-ligamenting, re-ligaturing, finding the unifying reality behind disparate appearances, seeking oneness, integration, wholeness…

(Michael Ward, Professor of Apologetics, Houston Baptist University)

This sounds right to me because, for better or for worse, all the religions of the world seem to be concerned with restoring unity to our broken world in some way. There seems to be a universal recognition that things are not as they should be in the human situation, and that the problem is separateness – division between God and man, between man and man, and between man and nature.

However, conflict arises between religions and ideologies because there are vastly differing opinions as to how to accomplish the restoration of unity in the world. Unfortunately, history shows us that human beings are vulnerable to the temptation to externally impose unity onto each other. Of course this doesn’t work, but apparently many ideologues feel there is no other option. Current examples include ISIS and the American left-wing Antifa.

The brilliance of spiritual rebirth

Among authority figures, Jesus is unique in His approach to unity and restoration in that He offers voluntary, internal change for the individual. He offers this to all people in the form of spiritual rebirth:

Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God. (Jn 3:3)

Here’s an apostle of Jesus pithily describing God’s plan for unity and restoration:

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)

This describes the God of the Judeo-Christian scriptures taking merciful initiative on our behalf, and providing a means for us to be reconnected to Him first, and ultimately to each other and to all of heaven and nature. In the very next chapter Paul refers to this salvation as a gift from God – not something that can be earned. (Eph 2:8,9)

Isn’t this what we all want? We really should tell people about this.

(Original image by Maxfield Parrish, circa 1921. Modified by the author.)

 

How Wounded People Have Shaped Culture

fatherless atheists, defective father hypothesis

Have you ever wondered about the personal histories of people who have influenced the world in negative ways – philosophically or politically? I have. I’ve harbored a long-held suspicion that influential people who have shaped the world for the worse have generally done so from a position of personal woundedness.

The point of the question is not to establish a reason to judge people or to create division. But I think it’s an interesting and significant question. If anything, establishing such a connection may help foster understanding.

It may also shed light on issues that we may assume to be intellectual issues but which may in fact originate with psychological issues rooted in personal history.

In my opinion it also underscores the importance of marriage, loving family, and the meeting of the relational needs of our fellow human beings.

I’ve finally gotten around to doing a little research, and what I’ve learned is fascinating. We know the names and contributions of world-shapers, but what is less well known is that the stories of those who’ve made a negative impact are very often deeply tragic.

Who is to Say What is “Negative”?
This is a fair question. Let me hasten to add a caveat here. I am unapologetically biased in my opinion about what constitutes a “negative influence” in the world. Justifying my opinion is probably a topic for a separate post. I recognize that some of you may consider what I see as a negative contribution to be a positive one. I also recognize that the contribution of many the folks mentioned below is mixed.

However, I don’t believe it matters. Regardless of what you think about a person’s contribution to the world, the facts of their personal history remain, and, I believe, shaped the course of their lives.

Following is a list of people who have shaped the world in the modern era; especially in the world of academia. There is overlap in these categories as most of these people are/were atheists.

Atheist thinkers
In a recent movie review I mentioned the connection between well known atheists and the “father wound.” Psychologist Paul Vitz has written a book on this connection entitled, Faith of the Fatherless, which I recommend. Here are arguably the most notable atheist names in history:

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900)
Popularly known for his pronouncement, “God is dead.” Nietzsche’s father, to whom he was very attached, died just before his fifth birthday. After his father’s death he lived in a religious household consisting of his mother, sister, paternal grandmother, and two paternal aunts, until he went away to school at age 14.

Bertrand Russell (1872-1970)
Prominent British atheist philosopher and author, notably published a collection of essays entitled, Why I Am Not a Christian. From an aristocratic family, Russell’s mother died when he was two years old. His father died two years later. Russell was then raised by his paternal grandparents, Lord John Russell and Lady Russell. However, his grandfather died when he was six years old, leaving him to be raised by his puritanical grandmother and a succession of nannies.

Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980)
Influential 20th century French atheist philosopher, playwright, and novelist. Sartre’s father died when he was 15 months old. He grew up very close and emotionally invested with his mother. When his mother remarried in Sartre’s 12th year, she moved into an apartment with her new husband, and Sartre stayed with his grandparents with whom he was not close.

Albert Camus (1913-1960)
French atheist philosopher, author, and journalist. His father died in battle during World War 1 when Camus was 1 year old. Camus was raised by his mother, who was illiterate and cleaned houses for a living, and subsequently grew up in an economically depressed environment. In 1937 Camus was denounced as a Trotskyite and expelled from the French Communist Party, at which time he joined the French anarchist movement.

Madalyn Murray O’Hair (1919-1995)
Perhaps America’s best-known atheist before her death, she led the lawsuit to successfully ban prayer in public schools during the 1960s. According to her son, Madalyn hated her father and unsuccessfully attempted to kill him on at least one occasion. The reason for this intense hatred has not been disclosed.

Richard Dawkins (1941- )
British “New Atheist,” evolutionary biologist, and author. A critic of all religion and especially Christianity, Dawkins is on record stating that the teaching of Christian doctrine to children is child abuse. He attended a religious boarding school at age 9 and experienced sexual abuse at the hands of his Latin master while separated from his parents.

Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011)
British “New Atheist,” journalist, and author of God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Hitchens grew up in an intact family and also went off the boarding school at age 8. His father was a naval officer and Hitchens claims to have “few clear memories of him,” referring to him as “the Commander.” He was close with his mother, who eventually had an affair with a former Anglican priest. The two lovers subsequently ended their lives together in a suicide pact.

Daniel Dennett (1942- )
American “New Atheist” philosopher, writer, and cognitive scientist. Dennett’s father worked as a counter-intelligence agent for the US government. The family moved to Lebanon during World War 2. His father died in an unexplained plane crash while away on a Middle East mission when Dennett was 5 years old.

Political leaders
Vladimir Lenin (1870-1924)
Leader of the Bolshevik Revolution and architect of the Soviet state. Third of six children in a happy family, when Lenin was 16 his father died of a brain hemorrhage. He renounced his belief in God soon thereafter. 5 months later his elder brother was hanged for his part in conspiring against the Tsar.

Joseph Stalin (1879-1953)
Soviet dictator, orchestrator of the Great Purge against political rivals, and perpetrator of the worst man-made famine in human history. The precise number is unknown, but by some estimates Stalin presided over the deaths of 20 million people. Originally trained for the priesthood, in his 30s Stalin rejected his family name (Djugashvili) and changed it to the Russian word for “man of steel.” Stalin had a very harsh upbringing. His father was an alcoholic and often severely beat him and his mother.

Mao Zedong (1893-1976)
Communist leader and father of the People’s Republic of China. Mao presided over the Great Leap Forward of 1958 (the ensuing famine of which caused the deaths of some 30 million peasants,) and the Cultural Revolution of 1966 (which resulted in some million and a half deaths and destroyed much of China’s cultural heritage.) Mao reportedly hated his father, who was a tyrant and regularly and severely beat him and his three siblings.

Adolph Hitler (1889-1945)
Leader of the Nazi Party, Chancellor and fuehrer of Germany, and initiator of World War 2. Hitler presided over the Nazi Holocaust during which 6 million Jews were executed – nearly two thirds of Continental Europe’s Jewish citizenry. Additional victims included communists, the mentally and physically disabled, homosexuals, blacks, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and political opponents. As a boy, Hitler’s father severely and regularly beat him; “every day” according to his sister. He was one of 6 children, 3 of whom died in infancy. As an 11 year old boy Hitler was deeply affected by the death of his younger brother, Edmund. Hitler’s antagonistic relationship with his father ended 3 years later when his father died unexpectedly. There was no father figure in his life after this.

Opinion shapers
Sigmund Freud (1856-1939)
Neurologist and founder of psychoanalysis. While his father was not abusive, apparently Freud considered him to be a weak man and a disappointment; lacking in courage and unable to provide for his family. Furthermore, according to Paul Vitz, in two letters as an adult Freud writes that his father, Jacob, was “a sexual pervert and that Jacob’s own children suffered as a result.”

Charles Darwin (1809-1882)
British naturalist and author of the vastly influential On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. The pure naturalism of microbes-to-man evolutionary theory made materialism (atheism) an intellectually respectable option. Darwin’s mother died when he was 8. He was raised by his sisters until he went off to school at age 9. His relationship with his imposing father was ambivalent. He once wrote, “To my deep mortification my father once said to me, ‘you care for nothing but shooting, dogs and rat catching and you will be a disgrace to yourself and all your family’.”

Feminist leaders
Margaret Sanger (1879-1966)
American birth control activist, sex educator, author, nurse, and racist eugenics proponent. Sanger opened the first birth control clinic in the US and founded the American Birth Control League, which became the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. Sanger grew up in an impoverished home headed by an alcoholic father. She was the 6th of 11 children. Her mother went through 18 pregnancies in 22 years, (including 7 miscarriages,) before dying at the age of 40.

Gloria Steinem (1934- )
American feminist, political activist, and journalist. Steinem was a leading figurehead for the feminist movement in the 60s and 70s and co-founder of Ms. Magazine. Perhaps her best known quote is, “If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.” When Steinem was 10 years old her parents divorced and her father left, leaving her to care for her mentally ill mother.

Bella Abzug (1920-1998)
American feminist, lawyer, congressional representative, and social activist. Abzug was also a leading activist during the 60s and 70s. In her later life she became an influential leader at the United nations working to support womens’ equality around the world. Abzug’s father died when she was 13. She went to the synagogue every morning for a year to recite the traditional mourner’s prayer. This was in defiance of the orthodox synagogue’s tradition that only sons recite the prayer.

Shulamith Firestone (1945-2012)
American feminist thinker and author. Firestone is less well known than the others listed here but she was a central figure in the early development of radical feminism. Her book, The Dialectic of Sex, published in 1970, has continued to be influential in feminist thought, and is also considered to be an early “post-genderist” work. In the book she argues that it is the biological role of pregnancy, childbirth, and childrearing that keeps women oppressed. She envisioned the abolition of the nuclear family with its oppressive parent-child relationship, and doing away with the maternal instinct. She envisioned artificial wombs, and collective child-rearing. Not surprisingly, Firestone’s relationship with her controlling, orthodox Jewish father was wildly antagonistic.

Summary
One would be justified in asking if fatherlessness was typical in past centuries, or if the family dynamic was dysfunctional for most people. Author Paul Vitz answers this question by providing a contrasting list of theistic thinkers and influencers. In virtually every case these theists were raised in nurturing, loving environments. When a parent was lost at an early age, relatives or friends stepped up as affirming father figures. Examples Vitz gives include Blaise Pascal, Edmund Burke, William Paley, William Wilberforce, Soren Kierkegaard, G. K. Chesterton, Albert Schweitzer, Karl Barth, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

It would be wrong to assume that all atheists today grew up with a dysfunctional parent relationship. Atheism has now become a mainstream and academically respectable option. However, I remain convinced that children have a God-ordained right to be nurtured by their married biological parents whenever possible. If you are a parent I hope these stories will strengthen your resolve to stay a loving course in your marriage and parenting.

Happy Father’s day to all the dads reading this! May you be a blessing to your children!