Monthly Archives: December 2012

Favorite Pics – Gordon Parks’ American Gothic

One of the things I like is collecting photographs that have some element of historical or artistic interest for me personally. From time to time, I’ll post some of these photos here.

                       “Ella Watson” by Gordon Parks, 1942

GordonParks - Ella Watson - 1942

Gordon Parks’ American Gothic

In 1942, groundbreaking African-American photographer Gordon Parks went to work for the Farm Security Administration in Washington, DC. Born in Kansas, but raised in Minnesota, Parks was unprepared for the depths of prejudice that characterized the nation’s capitol at that time. He later said that “discrimination and bigotry were worse there than any place I had yet seen.” He was moved to use his camera to bring to light the terrible impact such attitudes and practices had on the lives of those victimized by them.

One of his first opportunities to put his determination into practice came when he talked to a woman who made her living cleaning offices in a government building. Her name was Ella Watson, and her hard work paid her a grand salary of $1080 per year. Parks was struck by the fact that one of the offices she cleaned was that of another woman, obviously not black, who “had started work at the same time, with the same accomplishments and education.”

American Gothic - Grant Wood, big

American Gothic – Grant Wood, 1930

In 1930, Iowa artist Grant Wood had produced a painting he called American Gothic, which quickly became an icon of 20th century art. Seen as quintessentially American,  it has achieved world-wide fame, and has been parodied and caricatured probably thousands of times. This is the image that came to Gordon Parks’ mind as he thought of how he could most powerfully tell Ella Watson’s story.

Parks became one of the first, if not the first, to re-purpose Grant Wood’s American Gothic image when he decided to use it to visually represent Ella Watson’s life. The carefully posed photograph Parks took of Watson standing in a flag-draped government office, mop and broom in hand, has achieved prominence in its own right, and throws a different light on what it meant to be an American at that time in the nation’s history. It, too, has come to be known by the unofficial title, American Gothic.

Parks was very moved by Ella Watson’s life story, which he described as a pitiful one. He recounts,

She had struggled alone after her mother had died and her father had been killed by a lynch mob. She had gone through high school, married and become pregnant. Her husband was accidentally shot to death two days before their daughter was born. By the time the daughter was eighteen, she (the daughter) had given birth to two illegitimate children, dying two weeks after the second child’s birth. What’s more, the first child had been striken with paralysis a year before its mother died.

Now, on her meager salary, Ella was raising three grandchildren and an adopted daughter.

Gordon Parks - Ella Watson with three grandchildren and adopted daughter 1942

Ella Watson with three grandchildren and adopted daughter

A major factor that helped Ella Watson cope with the difficulties of her life was her Christian faith, and the church she attended. Parks documented these in several photographs, such as the one below:

Gordon Parks - Ella Watson's pastor Rev Vondell Gassaway preaching Sunday sermon at Saint Martin's Spiritual Church 1942

Ella Watson’s pastor, Rev. Vondell Gassaway, preaching Sunday sermon
at Saint Martin’s Spiritual Church

Gordon Parks considered his portrait of Ella Watson as the very first of his professional career. He recalls that when his boss at the FSA first saw it, he “told me I’d gotten the right idea but was going to get all the FSA photogs fired, that my image of Ella was ‘an indictment of America.’ I thought the image had been killed but one day there it was, on the front page of The Washington Post .” Now, that photograph, like the painting it is modeled on, has itself become iconic.

Ella Watson’s story, along with more of Gordon Parks’ photos of her, are documented here.

Here is video of  Gordon Parks telling the American Gothic story.

Gordon Roger Alexander Buchanan Parks (11/30/1912 – 3/7/2006) was a world famous photographer, musician, writer and film director. He is best known as one of Life Magazine’s most prominent and prolific photographic essayists, and as the director of the 1971 film, Shaft.

“I want one, too!”

In an article headlined “Businesses Report Surge in Sales of Weapon Used by Conn. School Shooter,” the Christian Post reports that:

Americans are flocking to gun stores around the country to buy the AR-15 assault weapon used by the gunman who massacred 27 people in Newtown, Conn., last Friday, fearing that authorities might start cracking down on the sales of such guns.

“Sales were through the roof on Saturday,” Joe Eaton of the Buckeye Firearms Association, a grassroots pro-gun PAC in Ohio, told Fox News. “People were buying everything they could out of fear the president would try to ban certain guns and high-capacity magazines.”

Fox News adds:

In southwest Ohio, from dawn to dusk a Cincinnati gun show had a line of 400 waiting to get in, said Joe Eaton of the Buckeye Firearms Association … The Colorado Bureau of Investigation says it set a new record for single-day background check submittals this past weekend.

I don’t understand this. I really don’t understand.

This rush to purchase assault weapons is occurring in the wake of the killing, by a single apparently demented man, of 27 people, 20 of them children, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT. There is no doubt that this number of deaths could not have occurred without use of a semi-automatic assault weapon. In fact, an episode that casts into bold relief the killing effectiveness of that weapon occurred just the day before in China. According to msn Now:

Chinese state media sources report a knife-wielding man slashed 22 children at an elementary school in Henan province. The man attacked the children at the gate of a school in Chenpeng village and also wounded one adult, according to the Xinhua news agency. Police arrested a 36-year-old man, identified as villager Min Yingjun, and while the extent of the injuries inflicted by the attacker is still unclear, there have been no fatalities reported.

Two attacks, equally vicious, equally demented. But in one no one died, while in the other 27 were killed. Both attackers were equally intent on murdering children. But there was one huge difference: one man, in China, had only knives; the other, in America, had an AR-15 with high-capacity ammo magazines. You do the math.

A whole nation is in mourning over the carnage brought about using this weapon; the children whose lives were cut short before they had a chance to live, the adults who heroically died trying to shield them, and the families forever devastated. Yet there seems to be a group in this country who can see all that, and their greatest reaction is, “I want one, too!”

What is particularly disturbing to me as a Christian, is that so many of those rushing to purchase these mass killing machines claim to do so as followers of the One who commanded, “But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you.” (Matthew 5:44). Perhaps the problem is that the Bible translation I use left out the part about “love your enemies with the business end of an AR-15.”

I cannot fathom what must be in the mind of a person who enthusiastically rushes out to purchase his very own copy of a weapon that was just used to murder 27 people. Somehow I doubt that “love your neighbor as yourself” is one of the guiding principles of his or her life.

But, Jesus also commanded, “Judge not, that you be not judged” (Matthew 7:1), so I will restrain myself. However, I must admit that I cannot begin to understand the thinking and values of people for whom the Newtown tragedy seems to be nothing more than a buy recommendation.

Ron Franklin


Photo credit: Mitch Barrie via flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The Nation’s Economy Is Not Like A Family Budget

Dr. Alieta Eck, past president of the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons, recently published an article entitled, “The Grown-Up Approach to the Fiscal Cliff.” As I understand it, her major contention is summed up in the following extract:

Our people have the idea that the government gives things out for free. But the stark reality is that credit cards come due, the balance needs to be paid, and our government simply does not have the money. Any wise consumer knows that borrowing money to buy groceries cannot go on for long. Whatever happened to thrift, a solid work ethic, and living within one’s means?Budget ahead -road sign

This idea that Americans in general, and Christians in particular, have an obligation to insist that our nation’s fiscal policies conform to those that would be wise for a family to follow is often heard these days. Yet, a nation’s economy is not like a family budget. That’s why Dr. Eck’s title is, to my mind, so very misleading. Her’s is not “The” approach, as if no other could possibility be valid. And, in my view, it’s not particularly “Grown-Up.”

An example is the statement, “Any wise consumer knows that borrowing money to buy groceries cannot go on for long.” But that’s a child’s analogy. The more pertinent one would be borrowing money to invest in a business. Then, as that investment starts returning profits, the borrowed money can be repaid.

A nation borrows to invest in projects that position it for economic growth: infrastructure such as roads and bridges (which desperately need investment now for safety’s sake), education, research, social safety net, health coverage, etc. All these, if managed correctly, eventually return a “profit” to the society through economic growth that allows paying off the debt.

That’s what began happening in the Clinton years when he generated a budget surplus by raising tax rates, allowing us to begin paying off the debt. It was his successor, George W. Bush, following the discredited mantra that lowering taxes at the high end brings growth (see article here), who returned us to rising deficits by bringing down tax rates, which effectively stopped us paying off the debt. The problem was not that the nation borrowed to invest in its economy. The problem came when instead of using the prosperity that borrowing stimulated to pay down the debt at the appropriate time, we tried to keep on spending instead of taxing ourselves to repay what we borrowed.

It’s true that spending needs to be cut and the deficit shrunk to get the nation onto firm fiscal footing. But as Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman says, a nation should cut spending not when it’s economy is just beginning to recover from a deep recession, but after the recovery has gathered strong momentum. Just as government spending stimulates the economy, removal of that spending depresses economic activity. Cutting spending inevitably retards economic growth and should be done when that growth is strong, not when it’s just trying to pick up steam.

So, it’s not only Dr. Eck’s title that is misleading – it is the whole thought process that underlies it. Think about it: A family that avoids borrowing in order to live beyond its means will probably be in good financial shape. But a nation where there is no borrowing (no effective banking system) is a third world economy mired in poverty. There must be an effective balance between borrowing and repaying, each at its proper time.

Our nation’s economy and a family budget are not equivalent things. The idea that they are is the fallacy of Dr. Eck’s argument.

Ron Franklin


Image credit: via flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Loving My Brother Even When He Doesn’t Vote Right

We’ve just come through an election season that provided a wonderful opportunity for Christians to demonstrate how they love and respect one another, even when they think very differently about important issues. Sadly, many believers seem to have missed that opportunity.

Both before and after the election, some believers have been so distraught at how others who professed Christ voted, that they have taken the drastic step of breaking fellowship, sometimes even with close friends, because that other Christian voted “wrong.”

I am convinced that not only is this a tragedy, but it is unbiblical and a grievous disservice to the cause of Christ.
In the run-up to this election, many Christians believed, and were even taught from the pulpit, that it was their duty to vote for the Republican candidate, Gov. Romney. Large numbers of evangelical believers were led to the conclusion that no genuine Christian could possibly vote for President Obama, because of his stands favoring abortion and same-sex marriage. Trusted evangelical leaders preached that for Christians committed to voting their biblical values, these issues must absolutely determine their votes, even if it required voting for one whose religion they had previously been taught was an ungodly cult.

Many other committed Christians had a different perspective. While acknowledging that the president’s positions on the hot button issues of abortion and homosexuality were absolutely unbiblical, they also believed that these were not the only biblical and moral issues Christian voters had to consider. Noting that Scripture gives far less attention to issues like abortion and homosexuality than it does to God’s commands that we care for, advocate for, and defend the poor and oppressed, they came to believe they must give these latter issues greater weight in their voting decision.

The result of these differing perspectives was that Christians equally committed to voting biblical values ended up voting some for Gov. Romney and some for President Obama. And according to Romans 14, that’s OK. It’s certainly not a valid reason for judging or breaking fellowship with one another. Look at what this passage teaches us about how Christians can disagree and still love and respect one another.

Rom 14:1   Receive one who is weak in the faith, but not to disputes over doubtful things. 

Rom 14:4  Who are you to judge another’s servant? . . .

Rom 14:5  One person esteems one day above another; another esteems every day alike. Let each be fully convinced in his own mind.

Rom 14:6   He who observes the day, observes it to the Lord; and he who does not observe the day, to the Lord he does not observe it. He who eats, eats to the Lord, for he gives God thanks; and he who does not eat, to the Lord he does not eat, and gives God thanks.

Rom 14:10  But why do you judge your brother? Or why do you show contempt for your brother? For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ.

Rom 14:13  Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather resolve this, not to put a stumbling block or a cause to fall in our brother’s way.

It seems pretty clear that God does not expect or require all Christians to believe the same on important but doubtful  issues. (Of course, when Scripture definitively addresses an issue, that settles it – it is no longer “doubtful”).

Romans 14 warns us to be very wary of sitting ourselves down on the judgment seat that the true Judge reserves for Himself. James 4:11-12 says, “Do not speak evil of one another, brethren. He who speaks evil of a brother and judges his brother, speaks evil of the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. There is one Lawgiver, who is able to save and to destroy. Who are you to judge another?”

Clearly, both President Obama and Mitt Romney were seriously flawed as “Christian” candidates. Since neither fully met God’s standards, believers had to vote based on their own convictions about which man most closely aligned with Gods priorities. Unsurprisingly, not every sincere believer came to the same conclusion. On issues where the Bible does not provide a definitive answer, God allows for such differences, requiring only that “each be fully convinced in his own mind,” and that whatever a person’s choice, it must be “to the Lord.”

To my mind, Romans 14 simply leaves no room for any believer to take a “my way or the highway” attitude on biblically doubtful issues. To do so is a violation of humility (putting ourselves in the place of the Judge) and unloving towards the fellow believer we condemn because they reached a different conclusion than we did.

Jesus said that it is to be our visible love for one another that assures non-believers that we indeed represent Him (John 13:34-35). When they see Christians saying harsh and condemning words about one another, and actually breaking fellowship because of a difference of opinion concerning politics, what a terrible testimony we present. On the other hand, when the world sees that believers can be fully engaged on opposite sides of a hard-fought campaign, yet still manifest nothing but love and respect for one another, they are brought face to face with the genuineness and life-transforming power of the love of Christ.

We who bear the name of Christ before a watching world desperately need to learn and apply the message of Romans 14. Much more than seeing our candidate win, our goal should be to demonstrate by our words, actions and attitudes toward one another that because Christ is indeed among us, believers can have strong and differing convictions, but still love one another.

That, and not winning an election, is something that really lets our light so shine before men, that they may see our good works and glorify our Father in heaven (Matthew 5:14-16).

Ron Franklin


Image credit: DonkeyHotey via flickr (CC BY 2.0)