Should Parents Influence Their Children? (Duh.)

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

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

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

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

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

Bringing Judgment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Taste and Beauty

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

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

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

Now isn’t that interesting?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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About Good Friday: This Might Make the Little Hairs on the Back of Your Neck Stand Up

It’s the Passover/Easter season, so I would like to share something fittingly remarkable. Biblical faith is always evidential, and I contend that our relational Creator has provided sufficient reason for us to know He is real and that He has spoken. (You can read about the evidential nature of Biblical faith here.) Among these reasons are the many times when observable scientific data intersects with Biblical history. Last Christmas I posted about a scientifically plausible explanation for the fantastical-sounding story of the Star of Bethlehem (here.) As an aside, I will say that I don’t think God is obligated to prove Himself in this way. But the fact that there is a correspondence between the Judeo-Christian scriptures and the observable universe is only fitting if God is who the Bible says He is.

This post is about astronomical events surrounding the crucifixion of Jesus. This is a bit different from the case of the story of the Star of Bethlehem, which obviously refers to astronomical events. In the case of the crucifixion, the heavenly events are less obvious, but they are implied in the scriptures nonetheless.

The information that follows summarizes research from Rick Larson, creator of The Star of Bethlehem video. This pertains to astronomy, not astrology. In short, the idea is that the movement of the stars and planets is fixed and predictable, like the workings of a clock. The laws of planetary motion were first discovered by Kepler, and further refined by Newton. There is now software that, using these laws, can calculate the exact position of the stars, past or future. We can now run the “clock” back, and know exactly what the sky looked like at any point in history. Furthermore, the software can show us how the sky looked from any point on earth, say, in Jerusalem, around the time of the crucifixion of Jesus. What I like about Larson’s research is that this is all outside of human debates about when Jesus was born, or when Herod died, or what year, or on what day of the week Jesus was crucified. The astronomical data is, literally and figuratively, above all of that. These things were going on in the sky regardless of anyone’s calendar, theories, religious beliefs, or atheism. I think that’s profound, and powerful.

So…What was going on?

The Bible provides details that can be used as coordinates for pinning down the date of the crucifixion of Jesus. He must’ve been killed in a year when Passover (the 14th of Nisan,) fell on a Friday. Luke says Jesus was about 30 years old when He began His ministry (3:23,) and John mentions 3 Passovers during Jesus’ ministry (2:23; 6:4; & 13:1.) We know He was killed during the reign of Pilate, between 26 and 36 AD. For these and other reasons, Larson believes only April 3, 33 AD fits. Remarkably, it happens that there was a full lunar eclipse visible from Jerusalem on April 3, 33 AD. What is the significance of this?

A lunar eclipse produces a phenomenon called a blood moon. (Google “lunar eclipse” to see some cool photos.) During a lunar eclipse the moon is in the earth’s shadow and receives no direct light from the sun, causing it to glow a dull red color. Bear that in mind as you read the following timeline of events for the day of the crucifixion:

  • Jesus spent a sleepless night in the wee hours of Passover Friday enduring betrayal; abandonment by His followers; mocking, false accusations and an illegal trial by the Jewish religious authorities; being bound and presented to the crowd He loved – a crowd that became riotous and called for his death; an excruciating flogging; sentencing by the Roman Government; beatings, mocking, and abuse by Roman soldiers, including a crown of thorns beaten into His head with rods; and finally, a long public march to the place to the place of His crucifixion.
  • Mark’s gospel says “It was the 3rd hour (9am) when they crucified Him” (Mk 15:25)
  • Mark 15:33 says the sky went dark from noon to the 9th hour (3pm.)
  • Matthew’s gospel says it was “about the 9th hour” (3pm) when Jesus cried out and “gave up His spirit.”
  • As the Sabbath was approaching, and as Jesus was already dead, we are told His followers removed the body before evening, and hurriedly prepared and entombed the body before the Sabbath began. The Jewish leaders requested and were granted a Roman guard of 4 soldiers to seal and watch the tomb.

That evening when the moon rose, it was already in eclipse – a blood moon. One has to wonder if that might’ve been an “uh-oh” moment for some people. All the Jewish families in Jerusalem were busy with Passover. Having each selected a spotless male lamb for the Passover sacrifice, they had placed the lamb’s blood on their doorposts at twilight, commemorating how YHWH had freed Israel from bondage to Egypt. No one knew at the time that the spotless “Lamb of God” was in the process of accomplishing a more profound freedom for them – freedom from bondage to sin and death. Using astronomy software we can know something else that none of them could’ve known – below the horizon, when the day’s events were still unfolding, the moon began to go into eclipse at 3pm, as Jesus was dying, according to Matthew.

We could write all this off as an amazing, admittedly highly symbolic, coincidence if it hadn’t all been written about in the Torah and Hebrew prophets. But fifty days after Passover, at the feast of Pentecost, the Apostle Peter makes the claim that the words of the prophet Joel were being fulfilled, and that everyone in Jerusalem had seen, and was continuing to see, their fulfillment. He didn’t appeal to some vague, internal “knowing.” Layer upon layer of implicit foreshadowings and explicit prophecy had been fulfilled in Jesus. Here is part of the prophecy from Joel to which Peter referred, written hundreds of years before:

“And I will show wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below, 

blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke; (these occurred at the crucifixion and at Pentecost)

the sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, (both occurred on “Good Friday,” April 3, 33 AD)

before the day of the Lord comes, the great and magnificent day.

And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Acts 2:19-21)

 Then Peter states:

“Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through Him in your midst, as you yourselves know – this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised Him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for Him to be held by it…” (Acts 2:22-24)

The position of the blood moon in the sky on “Good Friday,” April 3, 33, is also portentous. First we must recall that thirty five years earlier, around the time of the conception of Jesus, it is a fact that in September of 3 BC, the sun was in the constellation of the Virgin with a new moon under her feet. This corresponds exactly with scripture. The gospel writer John refers to this heavenly configuration as a “great sign,” giving it prophetic significance in the book of Revelation:

“And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pains and the agony of giving birth…” (Rev 12:1-2)

John goes on to say that she gave birth to a male child who will rule the nations. He also mentions a great dragon standing before the woman waiting to devour the child when it is born. It seems plausible that this is a reference to Herod’s “slaughter of the innocents” in Bethlehem in an attempt to destroy the child Jesus. Following is my depiction of the sky around the time of Jesus’ conception:

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Some thirty five years later, on “Good Friday”, April 3, 33 AD, the moon was again at the feet of the constellation of Virgo, this time not as a new moon, but as a full, blood moon. I suggest this signifies that the Messiah had fulfilled God’s plan. By His sacrificial death, the Messiah simultaneously satisfied the justice of God, and demonstrated His love for us at great cost to Himself.

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What blows me away in considering these things is the sovereignty of God. I hate to throw around religious words, but these events – the birth and death of Jesus – must have been planned, fixed, and ordained at the time of creation, since these precise dates were fixed in the stars when the universe began. It had to have been a divine combination of love, predestination, and free will. In fact the Bible says as much:

“…You were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Messiah, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot. He was foreknown before the foundation of the world but was made manifest in the last times for your sake…” (1 Pet 1:18-20.)

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For more information visit Rick Larson’s website at www.bethlehemstar.net

Snapshots From My Plein Air Painting Adventures

Some of my life’s most satisfying moments – both creatively and spiritually – have occurred while I’ve been painting alone in the mountains. The incandescent moments are rare. Plein air painting can be physically demanding and full of frustration. My plein air adventures usually include fighting the wind, or trying not to get fried by the high altitude sun, or eaten by insects. Or trying to avoid hypothermia as the temperamental mountain weather plunges, or stay hydrated when it rises. Many times I’ve finally been forced to shut the easel and wait out a rain, hail, graupel, or snow storm. I’m not complaining. This is what I signed up for when I moved to Colorado 11 years ago to become a plein air painter. I’m just describing how it is.

When I’m at an exhibit with my fellow painters, and we’re all cleaned up and dry and eating appetizers in an air-conditioned art gallery, it must seem to our friendly patrons that we’ve been out playing all week!

“Plein air” is French for “open air”. Plein air painting has become something of an American art movement over the past couple of decades with plein air festivals popping up all over the country. I first learned about plein air painting during my 10 year stint working at Hallmark Cards in Kansas City, Missouri. Hallmark had a wonderful library on site, staffed by some smart ladies who purchased the coolest books having to do with the arts and creativity. I spent a lot of time there and eventually stumbled across the movement. I soon identified some favorite painters, whose work I looked forward to seeing in the magazines, foremost among them being Matt Smith.

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From time to time Hallmark would reward their artists with “creative renewal” trips. One year I was selected to go on week long trip with five other guys to a cabin in the Conejos region in the Colorado Rockies, near the New Mexico border. I have loved the Colorado landscape since childhood. Our family used to vacation there every summer at my mom’s cousin’s working ranch in Canon City when I was a boy. Everything about those vacations was magical for me, but I was a kid then, and had not yet begun to think about painting.

This Hallmark trip would be my first chance to try my hand at plein air painting in the landscape I loved, and I was stoked. When the time came, just being out in that landscape again was wonderful in itself. I lugged my gear out into the mountains, not really knowing what I was doing, and my first couple of attempts were pretty fruitless. But then one evening I had the first of those transcendent painting experiences. I was standing on a high bluff, which had taken some doing to get to with my gear. I had already been rained on and submerged in fog, and was wondering if I was wasting my time. Eventually I was able to start up again, and I got lost in my painting. It was late afternoon and I soon noticed that the air temperature was perfect. A whisper of a breeze lightly rustled the million pine trees around me and carried their scent along. As I was looked out across miles of space, the sun’s last light began to color the mountains pink and violet. In the canyon below me some coyotes began to call. I was hooked.

There are a lot of things to do in the landscape: hiking, snowshoeing, skiing, snowboarding, camping, photography, rock-climbing, floating, fishing, hunting. I enjoy many of these things. However, most of them entail moving through the landscape to some degree. I once realized that of all the things I can do in the outdoors, for me plein air painting amounts to the ultimate act of appreciation. It requires me to spend hours taking in one selected spot in nature; hours dedicated to the study and discovery of what I’m seeing. As the small, wonderful revelations unfold, in one sense I become part of the environment in a way that doesn’t happen when I am moving through the landscape. This means I get to see things that others don’t often see.

I’ll tell you one of my favorite painting memories. A few years ago I was in a competition in Rocky Mountain National Park near my home. Afternoon is usually my favorite time of day to paint because the light can be quite dramatic, and I had decided to start a painting on Trail Ridge Road in the Park. Trail Ridge is the highest continuous road in the nation, at around 1100 to 1200 feet in elevation. The ecosystem at this altitude is quite different from lower elevations, and looks somewhat barren and otherworldly. It even sounds different up there. This is the region known as “tree line”, the environmental limit beyond which large trees cannot grow. The stunted trees that do live here struggle to survive and are buffeted year round by extreme wind and cold. They are called “krummholz” (crooked wood) and are known by their twisted shapes and scarcity of limbs on the windward side.

This particular evening I had been painting for a couple of hours when the sun disappeared behind some low clouds. The tourists on the overlook began to get into their cars and drive away, and soon I was left alone, small and invisible on an enormous tundra field. In front of me the tundra stretched out before dropping precipitously down into a richly wooded pine forest. Rising up beyond that was a wall of high mountains, bare at this altitude, except for the glacier patterns that I had been painting. This particular evening was quite still. In this landscape and altitude even the smallest sounds carry unusually far, and I was listening to the picas call out. My painting wasn’t going well, and I worked feverishly as I knew that soon the little light that remained would be gone. Suddenly I looked up to see that an enormous herd of elk had silently emerged from below the drop-off. They covered the field in front of me, feeding on the tundra and slowly meandering toward me, completely unconcerned about my presence. Soon they crossed the road and I was surrounded by them. At just that moment the full intensity of the setting sun broke through a gap in the clouds so that it seemed to be resting on the mountaintops. It bathed the landscape and elk herd in a spectacular golden light, stretching their hundred elongated shadows across the landscape and into the darkening distance. My brush was still as I stood silently, thanking God that I could be there at that moment.

That is why I paint the landscape on location. While plein air painting no longer makes up the bulk of my work, I think I will always continue to paint outdoors for the joy of being and painting in the midst of creation.

Following are a few examples of my plein air works with a few notes if their stories are interesting. Unfortunately, since a lot of my plein air work is done at festivals, I often don’t get good documentation of the work before it sells. All of these are oils.

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Thunderhead Over Lumpy Ridge – 8×10”

A little afternoon study painted from the town of Estes Park during the Plein Air Rockies competition.

ImageDawning Light – 18×20”
This chapel, near Rocky Mountain National Park on Hwy 7, is one of the most beautifully situated pieces of architecture I know of. It appears to emerge from the rock. The story behind it is that a local Monsignor saw a comet hit the earth one evening in 1916. The next day he went looking for it and instead came upon this enormous boulder. He determined to build a chapel on it. After nearly 20 years, and fighting with the Colorado Highway department to keep the rock intact, his dream became a reality in 1936.

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Mustang – 6×4”
I never do animals, but I was at an artists party at a ranch and we were supposed to paint. So I followed this guy around, talking to him and trying to get him to stand still. He didn’t.

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Mountain Portrait – 5×7”
Of the places I’ve been, Sedona, Arizona is probably my favorite place to paint the natural landscape. The geologic formations and colors are amazing, yet they rise out of a lush environment. This little painting was done from the street on the opening day of a plein air festival.

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Evening Concert – 18×20”
Cathedral Rock is supposedly the most photographed site in the country. Indeed, to complete this painting I returned to the site 3 times, and every evening there would already be photographers there, setting up and having a little party. We were all waiting for the sunset to light up Cathedral Rock during the last few minutes of daylight.

In case you’re unfamiliar with Sedona, there is a very visible interest in UFOs, energy vortexes, and all things New Age. Cathedral Rock happens to be one of the main “energy vortex sites,” and I happened to be painting this piece on Oct 31rst. Under a full moon. Just sayin’. At one point I looked up from my painting to see the opposite bank of the river, (pictured here,) covered with about 30 people, kneeling with their faces to the ground. That’s all I know.

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Bell Tower – 10×20”
I had a long skinny canvas that I needed to use, and this seemed like a good composition for it. This was painted during the Sedona festival’s “Quick Draw” event – a timed competition where artists complete a painting in 2 hours while the public watches. You’re disqualified if you keep painting after the closing whistle sounds. It’s pretty fun. I’m not a fast painter, and I don’t often like my Quick Draw pieces, though I’ve won several awards for them over the years. This time I decided to ignore the rules when the second whistle blew because I thought the painting would be worth completing to my satisfaction. The blue tiled dome drew me to this view.

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Red Planet Diner – 9×12” (lame photo)
This painting explains why I don’t do early morning paintings during plein air events – I love painting lit up urban views at night. I was drawn to this one because of the crazy lighting of this place. Everything inside looked bright pink and violet. Also the whole thing is so Sedona. Sedona’s gotta be the only place with a burger joint called the Red Planet Diner, featuring tables shaped like UFOs, aliens inside, and great 1950s architecture. I had hoped the owner would come out and offer me a free burger, but he never did, so I can’t vouch for the food. This painting won the Artists’ Choice Award, and was purchased by a local Sedonian.

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Feed & Grain – 11×14”
This was painted down the street from my house. Readers from Loveland will recognize the historic Feed & Grain building which the community rescued from being leveled. Part of the reason I painted this was to contribute to the sense that it’s a valuable piece of Loveland history. Plus I think it’s a cool building. I expected a local to purchase this piece but instead it ended up in Germany.

Thanks for taking the tour. If you’re a plein air artist I would enjoy hearing your favorite stories.

The Star of Bethlehem – A Fairy Tale?

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“Adoration of the Magi” by Gentile de Fabriano (1423)
Notice the star about 2 feet above Joseph’s head.
In 1303, Giotto painted the star of Bethlehem as a comet.

We are often told by materialists and “skeptics” that as scientific knowledge has advanced, belief in the Bible has become irrational. We have been informed that science and the Bible are impossibly at odds. I contend that this can be shown to be a nonsensical view. We can now see many examples where science and the Bible intersect. In fact, for those who have an open mind toward the Bible, this is an amazing time to be alive. Recent advances in scientific fields such as genetics, paleontology, geology, and astronomy are making belief in the Judeo-Christian scriptures surprisingly, even amusingly, viable.

During this joyous advent season I thought it would be fun to relay some recent research I’ve seen pertaining to one of many implausible accounts in the Bible – the star of Bethlehem. The gospel of Matthew gives an account of Magi being led by a star. This star “went ahead of them until it stopped above the place where the child lay. They were overjoyed at the sight of it” (Matt 2:9,10). Ridiculous. Obviously a fairy tale, right? If one wants to believe this story, one must obviously chalk it up as a supernatural event that can be only “taken on faith”, right? Certainly this event, if it occurred at all, couldn’t possibly be scientifically verified. Right?!

Well…hold onto your latte. Technological advances have yielded some jaw-dropping affirmations about the Creator of the universe. This could be the best Christmas ever for you.

You may or may not know that the movement of the stars and planets is set and predictable, like the workings of a giant clock. There now exists a computer program, (Starry Night,) that enables us to run that clock back to any point in human history, so that we can now know exactly what was going on in the sky, say, 2000 years ago. Furthermore, we can know how those goings-on looked to observers on earth, from any point on earth. We can know what the Magi were seeing from Jerusalem. Not to belabor the point, but this is not speculation. We can know. It’s verifiable astronomical history. If there were nothing extraordinary going on in the sky 2000 years ago, then we could write off the biblical account as a fairy tale. But in fact, the heavens were writing a freaking celestial birth announcement.

In determining a correct date, it is worth mentioning one coordinate given to us by Josephus Flavius, a Jewish historian who lived from 37 to 95 A.D. He tells us that Herod the Great, shortly before he died, executed two rabbis on the night of a lunar eclipse. We now know that there was a full lunar eclipse on January 10, 1 B.C., occurring 12 and a half weeks before Passover. What astronomical events occurring before Herod’s death could have pertained to the star of Bethlehem? Let us remember that all of Jerusalem, including Herod, seemed surprised by the momentous visit of the Magi. The birth of a king was news to everyone in the capitol city of Israel. This suggests that whatever was happening in the sky had gone unnoticed by the average person. The idea of a bright star “dancing in the night with a tail as big as a kite” comes to us from Christmas carols, and greeting card illustrations, not from the scriptures. The Bible’s description of the star is quite matter-of-fact, and it only says the Magi saw it and understood what it meant.

It would seem that conjunctions of planets provide the best explanation as to what the Magi were seeing. (Comets are generally considered ominous.) A conjunction is the appearance of two celestial objects approaching each other. The closer the objects, the more astrologically significant the event. To describe the relevant celestial events, I quote Ph.D. astronomer, Craig Chester, president of the Monterey Institute for Research in Astronomy. Here he describes what he calls merely the highlights of a series of astrological events that the Magi must have seen as announcing the impending birth of a great king of Israel:

“In 3 B.C. and 2 B.C., there was a series of close conjunctions involving Jupiter, the planet that represented kingship, coronations, and the birth of kings. In Hebrew, Jupiter was known as Sedeq or “Righteousness,” a term also used for the Messiah. In September of 3 B.C., Jupiter came into conjunction with Regulus, the star of kingship, the brightest star in the constellation of Leo. Leo was the constellation of kings, and it was associated with the [Hebrew] Lion of Judah. The royal planet approached the royal star in the royal constellation representing Israel. Just a month earlier, Jupiter and Venus, the Mother planet, had almost seemed to touch each other in another close conjunction, also in Leo. Then the conjunction between Jupiter and Regulus was repeated, not once but twice, in February and May of 2 B.C. Finally, in June of 2 B.C., Jupiter and Venus, the two brightest objects in the sky save the sun and the moon, experienced an even closer encounter when their discs appeared to touch; to the naked eye they became a single object above the setting sun. This exceptionally rare spectacle could not have been missed by the Magi.” (Hillsdale College’s Center for Constructive Alternatives seminar, ‘Man and Creation: Perspectives on Science and Religion,’ 1992)

In case your mouth is not yet hanging open, consider this. He goes on to say that on September 11, 3 B.C., in addition to Jupiter and Regulus being very close in the first of the three conjunctions mentioned above, there was something else. The sun was in the constellation of Virgo, together with the new moon. Get it?…Virgo – the virgin. My drawing below shows how this configuration looked…

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…Keeping the above in mind, read the the following passage from the book of Revelation, penned by the gospel writer John while he was in exile:

“And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars; and she was with child; and she cried out, being in labor and in pain to give birth…And she gave birth to a son, a male child who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron; and her child was caught up to God and to His throne” (Rev 12:1-5)

One must surmise that John was describing either something he saw in the sky as a very young man, or else something he saw in a vision as an old man, or both. At any rate, the biblical record and the astronomical record correspond perfectly.

But what of this business of the star moving and stopping over Bethlehem. Can stars do this? Actually, from our perspective on earth, yes, they can. Again I quote Chester:

“The word ‘stop’ was used for what we now call a planet’s ‘stationary point.’ A planet normally moves eastward through the stars from night to night and month to month, but regularly exhibits a ‘retrograde loop.’ As it approaches the opposite point in the sky from the sun, it appears to slow, come to a full stop, and move backward (westward) through the sky for some weeks…It seems plausible that the Magi were ‘overjoyed’ at again seeing before them, as they traveled southward, His star, Jupiter, which at its stationary point was standing still over Bethlehem. We do know for certain that Jupiter performed a retrograde loop in 2 B.C. and that it was stationary on…”

Wait for it…

”December 25.”

That’s right. During Hanukkah, and precisely on the date on which the gentile world now observes Christmas.

I don’t read horoscopes, and I don’t believe the stars influence my day-to-day life. However, clearly, according to scripture, there have been times when God has given us unmistakable signs in the heavens for our benefit. If He is indeed the Creator of the heavens and the earth, then it would only make sense that there would be some correspondence between the two. In fact, in the very first chapter of the Bible in the creation account, it says as much: “Then God said, ‘let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night, and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days and years’” (Gen 1:14). Furthermore, it’s a beautiful thing that He has provided signs that are transcendent; that can’t be mistranslated or tampered with by human hands. Signs written across the expansive sky above us if only we will remember to look upward.

May you have a very Merry Christmas!

(For more info and corroborating evidence, visit Rick Larson’s excellent website, http://www.bethlehemstar.net)

One of My Most Satisfying Projects Ever…

A few years ago a police officer friend, Jon Holsten, asked me to illustrate a children’s book he had written. During a 3-year stint working as a detective in the sex crimes unit in Ft. Collins, Colorado, Jon had seen a need for a book that parents could read together with their children, to teach about inappropriate physical contact. The resources he knew of were too technical, or frightening, or otherwise inappropriate for kids. Our collaborative effort produced “The Swimsuit Lesson”, which was soon featured on Good Morning America, which in turn got the attention of The Oprah Winfrey show.

To my amazement, Jon was booked to appear on the Oprah Winfrey Show, and I began to think about how I might take advantage of the publicity from this once in a lifetime opportunity. I had always hoped to someday write and illustrate a Christmas storybook, and this seemed like the perfect time. I love Christmas, and with 5 children, Mollie and I have accumulated a pretty grand collection of books which we look forward to seeing each Christmas season. I was excited by the thought of making a contribution to the genre, and I knew just the story I wanted to illustrate. Years before I had received a newsletter featuring a true story that deeply moved me. I had saved that newsletter, and each year I would get it out and read the story again to myself.

The story in the newsletter was entitled, The Tiny Foot, written by a doctor named Frederic Loomis. While I loved the story, it had two problems. First, the doctor was clearly writing to an adult audience, as he went into a fair amount of technical detail about the birthing process. Second, the entire story took place inside of a hospital over a period of years. I didn’t want to illustrate the inside of a hospital, so I reset and rewrote the story to take place at the turn of the last century, out west, when doctors still made house calls on horseback to deliver babies. This way I would get to illustrate horses, and a small western town in winter.

The whole project was a blast. My lovely daughter picked two of her lovely high school friends to model for me. I sent them to her room with some references of Victorian era gowns and hairstyles, and asked them to replicate as best they could the lines and feel of the period. They pretty much had only some old white T-shirts, white fabric, and scissors to work with. I would make up the difference with my imagination. Eventually they came out into my studio, looking amazing. I lit them, and shot my usual lame, blurry-but-sufficient photos. One of my sons modeled as well. I also worked with the Loveland museum to get some period photos and artifacts. In short, from start to finish the book is full of things I love – art, music, the American West, antiques, the city of Loveland, my children, Christmas, God, and a great story about the innate worth of every human being. I can’t imagine  how it could get much better than that.

I titled the story Naomi’s Gift, and self-published the book. The Oprah thing never did materialize, but I had a wonderful time doing book signings and readings in Loveland and in several neighboring towns. In doing so I had the further privilege of meeting a lot of great people and hearing their stories, many of which were also quite moving. Following is a brief description of the story line, and a couple of short excerpts from the book:

Summary: A small town doctor rushes to the home of a poor, struggling family, to find the wife in the throes of laboring through a difficult breech delivery. During the course of the labor, the doctor realizes that the baby has a deformity, and the thought occurs to him to perform an “unsuccessful delivery” to spare the impoverished family, and the child, the burden of living with her disability. After an intense inner struggle, he can’t bring himself to do this, and he delivers the baby, though he always second-guesses his decision. True to his fears, the family sells their farm and moves away to seek treatment for the little girl. Years later the doctor meets a musician who helps him to make peace with his decision.

Excerpts: “…I married late in life, and God had blessed me with a very patient and understanding wife. It seemed our life together was constantly interrupted, but Gretta never said a word. She knew I hated leaving now more than ever, but duty was calling again. I kissed her and our new son at her breast. I breathed in their warm scent one last time, grabbed my black bag and my coat, and hurried outside into the cold, grey afternoon.” (pg 1)

“…As if in answer to that unspoken question, the baby suddenly began to struggle. I felt a strong surge of life as she kicked forcefully in my hand with her good leg. This was too much for me. I could not go through with my plan. I quickly delivered a malformed, but otherwise healthy, baby girl. The Hoseas were overjoyed. They scarcely seemed to notice her deformity. After a time, as mother and baby seemed to be doing well, I left some instructions with Mr. Hosea. Congratulating them and promising to return the next day, I headed back home. I remember I could not bring myself to say “Merry Christmas” to the Hoseas that night. It seemed too ironic a thing to say, knowing the broken gift I was leaving with them.” (pg 9)

If you’re looking for a unique gift idea, Naomi’s Gift can be ordered through Paypal at my website: http://www.bigpicturepublishing.com

If you’d like a signed copy, send me an email and let me know who you’d like your book signed to. $20 will cover everything if shipped in the USA. Email: scottnmollie@yahoo.com

…And What’s the Deal with Still Life Painting Anyway?

"Still Life with Red Pears" - oil painting by Scott Freeman, 24 x 30"Of course there are many approaches to still life painting out there, many of which seek to make the genre more interesting by choosing objects that are more engaging.

“Still Life with Red Pears” – oil painting by Scott Freeman, 24 x 30″
Of course there are many approaches to still life painting out there, many of which seek to make the genre more interesting by choosing objects that are more engaging.

I once had a high school student come through my studio when I was working on a commissioned still life. He said, “What’s the deal? Why do artists like fruit so much?” It’s actually an interesting question. In art history there is a long tradition of still life painting, just as there is a long tradition of painting nudes, and landscapes. I’ll give you my take on it. But I’ll just say up front that I don’t think it’s because we artists get turned on by fruit. I’m pretty sure that none of my artist friends are up alone, late at night, secretly gratifying their lusts over pictures of fruit on the internet. However, I will make the minor point that on some very slight level, fruit is…kind of…sexy.

As a painter, I will admit that the still life is probably my least favorite of subjects to paint. Mostly I’ve painted them because my galleries have requested them. Here’s another observation: I’ve noticed that of the still lifes I’ve sold, the buyers of which I’m aware have all been in creative or design fields, or artists in some capacity. My understanding of still life painting will suggest a reason for this.

Regarding representational painters who paint from observation, my opinion is that the still life may be as close as we come to composing with pure form and color. Fruit shows up repeatedly because fruits are simple, sumptuous forms that carry saturated color, but carry little narrative or emotional content. In other words this genre of still life painting is not about the subject matter, but about form and color. I see parallels between music and painting. Still life painting could be compared to instrumental classical music in the sense that neither contains lyrics or narrative – both simply celebrate the orchestration of raw elements, either sound or color, into a unified composition. Still life objects – fruit, fabric, and vessels – are so timeless and elemental that they are essentially inconspicuous, allowing the composition to be about the harmonization of color and form.

This could explain why still life collectors may tend to be artists or art-sensitized people – they may be more appreciative of the art of a composition for its own sake, not necessarily needing an attention-grabbing subject to draw them in.

As for fruit being sexy, it is an interesting coincidence that both fruit and flowers, (flowers being another natural element that shows up in the still life tradition,) are for us the most visually alluring stages of the reproductive cycle of seed bearing plants. Both are short lived, fragile, and beautiful to look at; existing to attract for the purpose of propagating life. I wouldn’t make too much of this, as I think few people actually make the connection, but it is interesting. For example, it’s interesting that there is an enormous commercial industry built around the fact that lovers give each other flowers on Valentine’s Day. We also give them to our moms who bore us, on Mother’s Day. Hmmm.

On an even more arcane and quintessential level, I wonder about the three elemental still life objects mentioned above: fruit, fabric, and vessels. Could they represent the basic stuff of human civilization: food, clothing, and human industry? Beats me. This only occurs to me as I write. I’m curious to know if that thought resonates with anyone else reading this, or if I’m just being wacky. However, when I realize that I should add a fourth essential element which happens to be non-material – namely, light – which I’ll assert represents Spiritual life, illuminating and enlivening the physical life, I begin to think I see a pretty cool metaphor in the still life. Maybe still life painting’s enduring appeal encompasses all of these things.


“Still Life with Metal Pitcher”- oil painting by the author.
The often nondescript names of paintings of this genre underscore the idea that the painting is not about uniqueness of subject matter. Rather it is about color, form and paint handling.