By Charles Browning II
Almost immediately upon his election as the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Michael Curry called for a renewed emphasis on the work of evangelism. It is no secret that evangelism is a bit of a hurdle for Episcopalians, who often euphemistically call it “the dreaded ‘E’ word.”
We dread evangelism because many of us see it as canvasing people with tracts or knocking on doors (which is what I spent many a Wednesday afternoon doing as a Southern Baptist during my youth in Orlando). Evangelism has often been treated as a kind of task-like obligation. A duty to be performed. We rightly see now that such an approach is lacking. As such, it behooves us to learn what we can from those who do the work of evangelism successfully. For me, that involves learning from a man known for his “happy little trees” and who might very well be among our greatest evangelists.
I’m not joking when I say that Bob Ross might be among the greatest evangelists to have lived in the twentieth century. And, yes, I am talking about the guy with the perm who paints on public access television and is increasingly found on merchandise (including the bobble-head sitting on my desk as I type). Bob Ross died of cancer in 1995 at the age of 52, but his legend lives on.
I grew up with Bob Ross and his show, The Joy of Painting. I spent a lot of time at my grandmother’s house as a child and, in her retirement, she took up oil painting. I’d sit on the floor of her apartment, playing with Knight Rider toys while she would mix a little titanium white with pthalo blue in tune with Bob’s soothing voice, either live on TV or from a VHS she recorded. Years later, when I was out of high school, I’d wake up late in the morning and watch Joy of Painting re-runs on PBS while eating cereal. Frequently my friends would come over after their morning classes at the local community college and we’d all marvel at how simple Bob made things look. He’d get us thinking “yeah, I could get a paint knife and make a snow-covered mountain!”
If you’ve never watched Bob Ross paint, you really should. I find it to be a lot like how the creation story in Genesis describes God’s creative process. First you have the essence of something (like light and dark on the first day), then you have its form (the sun, moon, and stars on the fourth day). When painting a mountain, for example, Bob will begin by taking a paint knife and making a large and ugly dark splotch on the canvas. Later he will spread some blue on it and it looks like a child’s drawing, like finger painting. Then a gentle motion of some white mixed with hues of blue and dark brown will suddenly become a snow-covered ridge, almost photo-realistic to the eye.
If you’re like me, you’ll watch this process and you will come to love the mountain as it is. And then whoosh! (which Bob would say out loud while painting) there’s a black line, thick and obtrusive, vertically splitting the canvas. You might even yell at the TV: “what are you doing, Bob?!” But then that line gets pats of green from a sponge, hints of yellow on the edges. Now that line is a tree and the painting of the mountain has become a beautiful landscape.
For awhile, The Joy of Painting was the closest I got to watching spectator sports.
When I say that Bob Ross was an evangelist, I don’t mean that Bob snuck some evangelical presentation into his show. He didn’t hide some kind of “get out of hell” message in the textures of his happy trees. Bob was a Christian, yes, and he would frequently talk about God on his show. But that’s not what I’m talking about here. Instead, when I refer to Bob Ross as an evangelist, I’m talking about how his work and his love of that work speaks to our situation, our need to (re)learn the work of evangelism.
Bob Ross simply loved to paint. He called his show The Joy of Painting for a reason. Bob’s whole enterprise was about showcasing how enjoyable oil painting could be. He has become an enduring pop-cultural figure because his love of painting was effusive. Like a modern YouTube figure, the man simply set up a camera in front of his easel and painted. And by simply painting, he made us believe that the world was friendly, happy, and that we could paint too. And this is precisely what I mean by Bob Ross being an effective evangelist. The man loved painting and wanted other people to know the joy that comes with it. He made you believe that you, too, could paint just like him. And he did this by the sheer power of his own enthusiasm. Painting, for him, was good news that he wanted to share.
His show was also a wealth of information. He talked about brushes and brush technique. He introduced us to colors and their mixing, even demonstrating how thickness and thinness of paint behaves on a canvas. On top of that, he also waxed poetic about the natural world while he painted and helped people see the beauty in little bushes, the happiness and friendliness of tall pine trees, the distant majesty of a lonely mountain peak.
As Christians, I think there’s much to be learned here. It stands to reason, at least for me, that this thing we call “good news” ought to fill us with so much joy that all we want to do is share it. But, like Bob Ross, share it by doing it. Not simply talking about it.
Bob Ross didn’t lecture about painting. He didn’t hand out pamphlets about painting. He didn’t foster a twelve-point outline about how awesome painting was and then go around and try to tell you about it. No, he simply painted. He painted because it brought him joy and he thought that, just maybe, it could bring you joy too. He’s been criticized for not offering too much in the way of “theory.” But theory was not what Bob was all about. He knew his theory. He knew how to lay out a scene and how colors worked. But he also knew that front-loading people with theory was going to dissuade them from picking up a brush.
Too often, clergy like myself get bogged down in the theory of things. We’ve opened a door and have been exposed to things that are not easily resolvable. As a result, we often scoff at simplistic expressions of the Christian faith because they seem shallow and ineffective. But the shocking truth is that the gospel really is pretty simple, when we get right down to it. It’s a story about a person named Jesus and what that person has done to save us. And when we experience that story, we come to know why we not only call it “news” but news that is, wholly, good.
What Bob Ross teaches us is that evangelism really isn’t all that complicated. Evangelism isn’t about pamphlets and theories and door-to-door sales pitches. Instead, it’s living life from a place of profound joy and letting that joy be definitive and overflowing. For us Christians, that joy is given to us by the grace of our Savior Jesus Christ. To share it, we don’t need pamphlets and marketing strategies. We simply need the joy that comes with the story and living our lives defined by that joy.
Bob Ross shared with us the joy of painting.
We are called to share the joy of salvation.
The Rev. Charles A. Browning II is the rector of the Chapel of Saint Andrew and the head chaplain of Saint Andrew’s School, both sharing the same campus in Boca Raton, in the diocese of Southeast Florida. He is also one-third of the Masters of Divinity podcast, which explores popular culture through a post-Evangelical lens.