“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.

Two More Paintings and Thoughts Behind Them

Gods army, christian soldiers

Army of God, by Scott Freeman, 20×30

Today I want to show you a couple of recent paintings, for a couple of reasons:
1) They’re not the sort of thing I usually do, or am known for doing, so I’m kind of curious as to what people will think of them.
2) It would be helpful to me if I could sell them as I’m waiting for responses on some large potential commissions.

From the National Day of Prayer, 2018
The first one was painted during a local National Day of Prayer event in Loveland, on May 3, 2018. I was invited by the organizers to paint during the entirety of the event, and the subject matter was left open to me.

I’ve (reluctantly) called the painting, The Army of God. I say “reluctantly” because for years I’ve been a bit uncomfortable with using war metaphor to describe the church of Jesus. I’m not uncomfortable with it because I disagree with the truth of the metaphor, I’m uncomfortable with it because of how I know it sounds to the ears of skeptics and critics of the church. Therefore, I never use war terminology with reference to the church unless I can explain that I am referring to spiritual warfare.

As followers of Jesus, our weapons, our armor, and our enemies are explicitly described as not physical in nature (Eph 6:10-18; 2 Cor 10:3-5). All of the physical terms and conditions of the former Mosaic Covenant have been fulfilled and translated into spiritual terms in the new covenant of Jesus. So there can be no justification for a Christian religious war. There can be no justification for human governments physically slaughtering their enemies in the name of Jesus. There can be no justification for human beings setting up a theocratic Christian state. Yet this all seems to be a continuing concern for secularists.

Many biblical metaphors are used to describe the church: a body, a family, an army, a bride. Those of us in the church understand them and are accustomed to using them. But I think we have an obligation to be clear to those outside of the church, especially when using the army metaphor, especially in the divisive, hysterical, irrational cultural climate in which we now find ourselves.

As a worship leader I wouldn’t even sing Onward Christian Soldiers without a disclaimer. To a Jewish or Muslim listener, for example, the first line of that song would sound like a perfect description of the Crusades, (which were biblically unjustified.)

So…having said all of that, calling this painting The Army of God underscores the point. It’s a picture of biblical, multi-ethnic community, planting and watering and praying. Jesus said that His kingdom is different from the kingdoms of the world in that His message comes, and His kingdom is spread, not by means of the sword but through the proclamation of His good news of restoration. Jesus said that gospel is like seed planted in the world.

This is a first stab at a painting I’ve been wanting to do for years. Years ago I was inspired by the story of several young Christian boys who were kidnapped by radical Islamists, and who refused to recant their faith in Jesus, even under torture. Eventually one of them escaped, minus a limb. I thought of the irony that this is the army of God; not composed of ruthless warriors but rather, courageous young boys in this case, willing to suffer harm and refusing to hate their captors, even praying for them, just as Jesus instructed.

 

parable of Jesus as sower

Sower, by Scott Freeman, 20×24″

Northern Colorado Worship and Prayer Event
The second painting has some similarities to the first and was painted at the last NOCO Worship & Prayer Night in May of 2018. These monthly events were envisioned to bring diverse church congregations together in worship. Everyone is welcome, and if you haven’t been to one, they’ll be starting up again in August. There is always live worship painting going on at these events, (usually including my lovely wife). You can stay posted at http://www.loveonfireworship.com.

This painting is a variation of an earlier oil painting of Jesus as a sower. In this smaller version His arms are outstretched in a sort of crucifix gesture. The seed is red, representing His blood, but particularly the blood of the martyrs, which has so often resulted in many coming to faith. (Since the news media so often fails to draw a distinction between murderers and martyrs, here I must clarify that a martyr is not someone who kills others for God and dies in the process. A martyr is someone who willingly suffers for God, even unto the point of death.)

A couple of weeks ago a friend asked me about the birds. In one sower parable, Jesus explains the birds this way: “When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil (one) comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart…” (Matt 13:19). This is the world we live in for now – goodness, redemption, and life always face spiritual opposition, even in addition to our own apathy and distractedness.

Prices
Both of these paintings are painted on canvas that I pre-textured, and both are painted with up-cycled latex paint. This not the type of painting that I have shown in galleries over the years, or, I assume, that my current gallery would be interested in. So here’s what I’d like for these unframed paintings if anyone is interested:

God’s Army, 20×30” – $300
Sower, 20×24” – $250

Since these paintings are medium size, I would like to charge shipping to the buyer as well. (I think shipping will come to around $30 in the US.) If you live in northern Colorado, (Loveland, FC, Windsor, Johnstown, -ish,) I would be happy to deliver these to you free of charge.

If you’d like to purchase one of these, contact me at scottnmollie@yahoo.com .
Thanks again for your support! I’d love to hear your feedback on these – positive or negative.

A Remarkable Memorial Mural and Its Story

MLK mural Indianapolis

Photo copyright 2018 Sierra Gillard, used with permission from photographer and subject.

Here’s a story worth telling, about art and hopefulness.

Although I’m a fine art painter in my own right, I’ve increasingly found satisfaction in facilitating “non-artists” in the enterprise of art making. I’ve developed an inclusive process by which virtually anyone, including small children and people with physical or intellectual disabilities, can be a participant in creating a compelling, monumental artwork. (Of course, skilled artists are welcome as well!) This process necessarily involves large numbers of people.

My most recent story began with a discussion I had with one of my daughters last Christmas. She and her husband were visiting for the holiday, and I wanted to hear about her new job in Indianapolis. She was teaching at an inner city school there in a pretty rough environment. She recounted that one of the students had been shot over Thanksgiving break, and that when school resumed, fights had been breaking out over the incident.

The high school where she was teaching had combined two different high schools for the current school year. Then at the close of the school year, these high school students were going to be moved again, and the school was to become a middle school for the next school year.

My daughter recounted conversations she had with students during a time of sharing thoughts. She told me that pretty much across the board the students feel like nothing they do matters to other individuals. Certainly not nationally, but not even locally. Their voices don’t matter. What they do doesn’t matter.

Pointlessness and hopelessness are not good ingredients for creating a culture of life. Especially for a demographic that has a lot stacked against it.

I wondered out loud about how something like the Fire & Ice Festival murals would go over at her school. For the past 2 years, the small church I attend had been helping me put on these big art-making events, each culminating in a giant public mural. The point of the process is that each individual paints a small square of the larger picture. Each tile bears the personal expression of the individual, while contributing to a larger mural that the entire city can enjoy – a colorful metaphor for community.

We envisioned the possibility that the Arlington High School (AHS) students could see such a mural as both a legacy that they could leave to the incoming middle school students, but also be a way that they could leave their individual mark in a creative, positive, and lasting way. It seemed like these students could use something that would feed their souls; to be part of something big and meaningful. I understood that the staff and teachers at AHS already work hard to deliver this, and this seemed like something that I could contribute, even if from a distance.

I cautioned my daughter that it would be a ton of work for her, but she took it on. She ran it past her principal and then the staff. Even without being able to fully know what was coming they said “yes.” I ran the idea past my pastor to see if our church, Beggars’ Gate, would be willing to cover the cost of my time. The high school would cover materials, installation, and its own time. It was now officially a collaboration between a little church in Loveland, Colorado, and a large high school in urban Indianapolis, Indiana.

The school principal approved a design bearing a likeness of Martin Luther King Jr., which was fitting for this year because 2018 is the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s tragic assassination.

I completed my part and shipped off over 750, six inch square, prepped and coded tiles to Indianapolis. As the painting began at AHS, the students got into it and so did the staff. My daughter had a friend come in and DJ the painting area to create a good atmosphere. Good things happened. Creativity flowed. Dancing ensued.

community art project

Some kids, “hall-walkers” who have not been able to find their place in an academic setting, found their place in this setting.

At least one kid who is artistically gifted spent over 2 hours on his 6 inch square tile. He said it was the first time he had used paint.

A Behavior Specialist on staff said, “You know what? If we would’ve done this earlier in the year, I think our kids would’ve done better. It’s inspiring. I’m inspired!”

As the individual painting was going on, no one really knew what was coming. A few kids snuck their tiles out, presumably because they didn’t want to give them up. But when the seemingly random pieces all came together and went up on the wall, the result was spectacular. A lot of hugs were exchanged.

Congrats to Principal Law and the staff and students at Arlington High School – you did a great job!  Thank you Beggers’ Gate Church, for your support!

Martin Luther King Jr memorial

Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Mural, painted by the students and staff of Arlington High School. Formatted by Scott Freeman, 2018. (12.5 x 25.5 ft)

Obviously, a mural is not going to solve anyone’s problems. But if, at least for some students, it provided even some sense of being part of something transcendent; of having a unique place in community; of seeing themselves as being mentors to younger kids; of creative potential breaking out; then I think that’s a good thing. Maybe that’s about the most we can expect from art.

inner city high school project

Find your place in the bigger picture

Getting a vision? Contact me about bringing an experience like this to where you are.
My email is scottnmollie@yahoo.com.

The Kingdom of God Excites Me Every Day

kingdom of god parable

“The Parable of the Weeds Among the Wheat,” oil painting by Scott Freeman

When I was a college student, I heard a teaching series at my church on the kingdom of God that changed my life. Somehow, even though I had grown up in a Bible-believing church and considered myself a lifelong student of the Bible, the topic had mostly escaped my notice. Even though Jesus spoke on this topic more than any other. Decades have passed since then and I would say that the topic of the kingdom of God continues to consume my attention and define my life, informing everything I do.

But it’s not quite accurate to say the “topic” consumes me, because the kingdom of God is much more than a mere topic of discussion. I would say it’s a reality in which we as Spirit-born believers live. In a nutshell, one could say the kingdom of God refers to the “reign of God” on earth. In practice, God has designed His kingdom so that citizens live in voluntary, relational unity with Him, living life led by His Spirit.

The Hebrew prophets spoke of this coming eternal kingdom with anticipation, but when the Messiah arrived, his implementation of the kingdom perplexed everyone. It was not until after His resurrection from death, and a great deal of patient explanation, that His followers understood how the kingdom had entered the world. The new covenant scriptures repeatedly refer to the mysteries of the kingdom as things that were formerly “hidden” but have now been made known to us.

We who are alive today have the remarkable opportunity to live out God’s plan for us in a way that old covenant prophets and kings longed for but could only dream about. Aspects of living life in the kingdom of God, right now, include: a new covenant with our Creator; new birth with a new access to God through Jesus; a new indwelling of the Spirit of God for everyone in the kingdom; a new relationship as sons and daughters as co-heirs with Jesus; a new relationship with Jesus as friends rather than slaves; a new life in the Spirit that fulfills and transcends a written code; and a new hope of resurrection and the ultimate fulfillment and completion of all that God has imagined for His creation.

Aspects of of life in the kingdom of God in the future include the ultimate uniting of all things, in heaven and earth, under the authority of Jesus (Eph 1:9,10.)

Several years ago I painted the above painting for my church’s foyer as an expression of the kingdom. I like the image of the sower because it is an image that Jesus chose to describe Himself in this particular kingdom parable. It says a great deal about how the kingdom has come, and how it continues to expand over the earth. Below is my description from the plaque that accompanies the painting. I hope it excites you as it does me! :

mysteries of the kingdom of GodThe kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field; but while men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared also. And the servants of the householder came and said to him, “Sir, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then has it weeds?” He said to them, “An enemy has done this.” The servants said to him, “Then do you want us to go and gather them?” But he said, “No, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. Let both grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, ‘Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned; but gather the wheat into my barn.’    Matthew 13:24-30

During the time of Jesus, Israel’s expectation was that the long-awaited kingdom of God would come as an unmistakable, apocalyptic event. God’s promised messiah would appear, judging and doing away with every source of evil and suffering, and ushering in an eternal kingdom of peace.

Upon His arrival, however, the Messiah inaugurated a different kind of kingdom – a kingdom unlike the kingdoms of this world, but also different from what the Jewish people were expecting.

In the parable of the weeds among the wheat, Jesus identified the sower as Himself. At the establishment of His kingdom the Messiah came not as a warrior, but like one planting seed. His is first and foremost a revolution of love, light, Spirit, and grace rather than one of military might.

In explaining the parable, Jesus identified the good seed as “the sons of the kingdom.” The good seed is sown in the midst this present, corrupt age, growing up right alongside “the sons of the evil one” – bearing fruit over time for the King. Contrary to the expectations of His time, the King Himself withholds judgment until the end of this age, rather than bringing all things to completion at His first appearing (v 36-40.)

But the harvest time is coming. At that time “all causes of sin and all evildoers” will be destroyed, but “the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (v 41-43.)

We, the Church, are the good seed – God’s manifestation of His kingdom in this present, evil age – in the world, but not of it. Though in many corners of the world His followers suffer greatly, still the good news of His kingdom goes out. The revolution continues…”And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached throughout the whole world, as a testimony to all nations; and then the end will come” (Matt 24:14.)

 

My children’s storybook, The True Story of Christmas, presents a basic telling of the biblical narrative that kids can understand.

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.