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You’ll never guess what came on the UPS truck the other day—a life-sized cardboard cut out of Bob Ross. You know, the curly-haired PBS painter who made painting look easy. I used to watch Bob Ross; he inspired me to want to be a painter. I tried to use my cheap crayola water colors to create happy little clouds, snowy mountain peeks, and sweet looking pine trees. They never turned out, but that never stopped me from trying. Bob Ross has developed a cult following of sorts among young people thanks to Netflix and Deadpool. My kids told me they watch him at night when they can’t sleep, his soothing voice reminding them that there is no such thing as a mistake, only happy accidents, giving them a sense of peace that allows them to gently drift off. They even make baby and toddler clothes stating “I’m a happy accident.” (I know one little guy who’ll be getting one for Christmas.) That’s where I found the life-sized cardboard cut out. The Religion Department at Northwestern needs a new bulletin board out in the hallway, so we’re going with a Bob Ross theme. My colleagues had some doubts, but when students kept popping in to take a picture of life-sized cardboard cut out Bob Ross they came around.

I read somewhere that Bob Ross was in the military, a sergeant or something, and that he used to yell at people. When he got out of the military he decided he didn’t want to yell anymore, making way for the soft-spoken persona we see standing in front of the canvas. There’s a spiritual dimension to Bob Ross in quotes like: “Look around. Look at what we have. Beauty is everywhere—you only have to look to see it.” Or, “Haha, and just beat the devil out of it.” Or, “People look at me like I’m a little strange, when I go around talking to squirrels and rabbits and stuff. That’s ok. Thaaaat’s just ok.” Or, “People might look at you a bit funny, but it’s okay. Artists are allowed to be a bit different.”

What if the church were more like Bob Ross? What if Sunday mornings were a blank canvas on which we were invited to imagine what it means to be part of a new creation with happy little trees and clouds that are free, making sure there are places for the squirrels and birds to rest? What if we viewed our lives, not as mistakes, but happy little accidents God uses to make something new? What if we took seriously the idea that all of us need a friend?

It’s easy to see why young people love Bob Ross. He portrays a grace and generosity that’s hard to find in the world. Most of the time, we can’t even find it in the church. Which is sad. After all, as Bob Ross says, “Trees cover up a multitude of sins.” Sounds like the gospel to me.

Jason Lief

Dr. Jason Lief teaches courses in Christian education and youth ministry. A Northwestern College graduate, he served as the chaplain for Pella (Iowa) Christian High School while earning a master’s degree in theology from Wheaton College Graduate School. He also completed a doctorate in practical theology from Luther Seminary. He previously taught theology and youth ministry at Dordt College for 10 years. Dr. Lief is the author of “Poetic Youth Ministry: Loving Young People by Learning to Let Them Go” and "Christianity and Heavy Metal as Impure Sacred Within the Secular West: Transgressing the Sacred.”

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