Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Monday, August 13, 2012

A Catholic Goes to Backyard Bible Camp

Some new neighbors down the street were hosting Backyard Bible Camp, a truncated version of Vacation Bible School, and I sent the kids down last week. I went, as a youngster growing up in the Bible Belt, to VBS for several years, and still remember a few of the songs from the year the theme was "Joy Trek". ("Only one came back, only one came back, only one came back to say thank you to the Lord!") There was always the mildly strange element of being a Catholic kid in a predominantly Protestant group, but the strangeness was of the three-headed calf variety: more an oddity than a horror. And then there was the time my siblings and I were part of the cast of Kids Praise! 2, a musical featuring a big blue talking (and singing) Bible who put kids through their memorization paces. This is primarily memorable for me not for the theological content but because I first experienced the thrill of being in the theatrical clutch: one of the kids forgot a line which was necessary for moving the action forward; after an awkward pause, I stepped forward and delivered it, the show went on, and no one congratulated me for saving the day because from the audience it only looked like I had forgotten my own line and delivered it a beat too late.

So last week was full of songs, verse memorization, and games. Helping the kids memorize their verses was a cinch: I made it to Guards in AWANA back in the late '80s, so "God is my refuge and my strength; an ever-present help in time of trouble" (Ps. 46:1) rolled trippingly off my tongue as if I learned it yesterday. But the songs, oh, the songs! Christian faux-pop tarted up with the nasal stylings of auto-tuned teens wailing about how my God will meet all your needs. My girls, natural mimics all, had learned their verse after listening to their take-home CD the first day, but were also imitating the bad musicality of the singers. I don't care how catchy the songs are; I'm throwing the thing out because I can't stand much more of it. The message is good, true, and beautiful; the presentation? Killing me.

Watching Bible Camp from the outside was intriguing, as I watched most of the kids from the block file in each morning and recite (or not) their memory verses, urged on by the enthusiastic candy-wielding teenagers from my neighbor's Evangelical church. There are varying levels of religious observance on the street, and some children barely know what a bible is, let alone who Jesus is. Many of the parents were desperate for an hour and a half of daycare at the end of the summer. (I'm guilty as charged; I hadn't really considered sending the kids down to Bible Camp until I was so hard-up for quiet homeschool planning time that I would have let them beat each other with sticks outside if they would just leave me alone.) I wondered how effective an introduction to the Christian life it was to hand out isolated bible verses to those who have no basis for crediting anything the Bible says. I don't know; I'm not trying to be snide or dismissive of the clear and joyful effort put into the whole project. The parable of the sower and the seeds did become a running meditation for me all week: the soil must be prepared if the word is to be accepted and take root, and it seems to me that part of that preparation is that an appeal to the authority of the Bible must be grounded in the necessity of the search for God. The existence of the Bible, as a physical object, is incontrovertible, but its authority rests on establishing that God has indeed chosen this means of communicating Himself to man, something that gets circular when using the Bible to establish itself as such. The urge for God, or the search for meaning in life has resonance even to children, even outside of any established religious convention. Does this need to be explored, or even touched on, for scripture memorization to take on any significance other than a means to candy?

"He then gets two nuts in recompense for his infant piety." 
I know that the format of Catholic basic religious education for children has altered greatly since my days of atrocious catechesis in CCD. I can still remember the Silver Burdett books used for sacrament prep in second grade: banal and blithely content-free. From teaching second-grade classes at church when Eleanor was preparing for her first communion three years ago, I know that even the poorer textbooks under consideration made more of an effort to communicate a Catholic worldview, even if their paucity of vocabulary meant that the mass was described as a "celebration!" on every other page. I know that the catechism format of question-and-answer is having a bit of a revival, even if the questions are a bit simplistic. I celebrate this, if you will, because the catechism format gives a philosophical underpinning to the Catholic life. The traditional first question we ask children: "Why did God make me?" has several different answers, depending on the source consulted; the versions I memorized were "God made me to know, love, and serve him, and to be happy with him in heaven" and "God made me to show forth his goodness and to be happy with him in heaven". This kind of questioning, introducing children to the broader world of ideas and of an examined life (Why did God make me? Why did God make anything? What does the answer to this question say about the way that I should live my life?), starts to build an awareness of God and our life in him that is enhanced, transformed, and directed by the Bible; fed and enriched by the sacraments; encouraged and sustained by the Churches Militant, Suffering, and Triumphant.

I love this rich, multi-layered religion, and I love the the simple beginning. "Why did God make me?" isn't a just Catholic question, nor even a Christian one, but thanks to centuries of theological and philosophical tradition, and generations of systematic childhood catechesis, we OWN it.

But this isn't an infallible approach, if presented only as information. Generations of poorly-educated Catholics and Protestant converts can attest to that. So what's the answer? I don't know. All I can say is that I find more and more that I am Roman Catholic, not just by birth but by temperament as well as theological and philosophical inclination. The flatter spiritual approach of Protestantism is not for me, nor is it something I desire for my children, no matter how grateful I am for free babysitting. But I am grateful for it, and I hope that the zeal my neighbor shows bears fruit, and that the word so enthusiastically scattered will take root even in imperfectly tended soil.


Unknown said...

Growing up an evangelical, I was in Awana from Sparks through JV's, then 5 years as a Leader. I led the songs and can still do a mean "Only a Boy Named David" with actions.

Don't know how universal this is, but our chapter earnestly tried to get kids SAVED every week, no matter the age. The memory verses were never the Catholic ones either :D

MrsDarwin said...

"Approved Workmen Are Not Ashamed!
Boys and Girls for his ser-vice claimed!
Hail Awana! On the march for youth!!
Hail Awana! Holding forth the truth!
Building lives on the word of God, Awana stands!"

I can't believe I sang that every week. I think we had live piano accompaniment, too.

Oddly enough, though I can't remember any of the songs from my levels, I still remember the Sparks song, perhaps because I had to help younger siblings learn it.

I was a good memorizer, and could rattle off my verses each week, after which I'd sit and try to memorize as many more as I could to recite during the meeting period -- with the result that I don't remember any of those verses. The ones I remember best are the ones I helped my siblings or others memorize.

On the other hand, there was no Catholic equivalent at all to the Protestant scripture clubs, especially in our Virginia town, a fact my parents acknowledged. There were no Catholic schools shy of Roanoke, more than an hour away. The diocese was lax, and the children's programs ludicrous. It probably did us far less harm to be enrolled in the local Protestant clubs than to participate in CCD, and I say that with sadness. Eventually we started homeschooling and moved out of the area -- in great part because of the poor Catholic atmosphere.

I remember the old ladies at church who prayed their rosaries and recalled the beauty of the churches they used to attend. Our parish was St. Mary's, and on the cover was a line drawing of a wooden statue of Madonna and child that stood in the vestibule, One of the favorite occupations of various children during coffee and donut time was to color in the drawing. One Sunday, as I was giving Mary a plain blue robe and a drab veil, on the theory that she was a Jewish peasant, and that's how people really dressed then, an elderly lady with a Mitteleuropean accent sat down next to me and started directing my artwork. "No, no, you give the Blessed Virgin a golden crown! And a purple robe and red dress, and the little Jesus in ivory with gold!" I had never seen such a statue of Mary. I can't even describe to you how devoid of beauty our big boxy church was -- many locals mistook it for a bowling alley.

MrsDarwin said...

on the cover *of the bulletin*

Brandon said...

Ah, Vacation Bible School; that brings back memories. It's true, too, that one of the big attractions is that it's a place parents feel they can drop off their children where there will be lots of adult supervision and nothing too insane, without the cost such things usually have; I knew several friends whose parents didn't ever attend church but made use of VBS quite consistently.

Otepoti said...

Deeply fascinating post, MrsD. I've also been pondering the ethics of allowing the possums to attend our local Holiday Bible School. On the one hand - our separated brethren. On the other hand, sadly deluded about things that really matter. It's a conundrum.

In the meantime, I've been using the famous Youcat with the lads, and it seems to be going down alright. Catachesis was such an imperative in our lives as Reformed christians, that it's second nature for me to get out and push, so to speak. As if the Holy Spirit needs a hand-up.

Skywalker said...

I sent our oldest two with some of our Protestant friends to two days of bible school last week. I went to several Protestant camps as a kid, and I have memories of arts and crafts and bible passages. All the same, I was nervous that they might run into questions about being "saved" or whatnot. That said, I was also nervous that RE class would be as banal and bereft of solid catholic teaching as CCD was when I was a kid.

MrsDarwin said...

I did have some hesitations about sending them to the Bible Camp, which is why I didn't make up my mind to do so until the weekend before it started. My neighbor is a member of an evangelical denomination which has several churches in the area (don't know if it's only a regional chain or a national one). Last year, while sitting in the waiting area at Expensive Ballet Academy, I heard a woman, who said she was the wife of a pastor of one of these locations, expressing the most invincibly ignorant opinions of Catholicism to someone else. This was stuff that anyone with a glancing interest in either ecumenism or history would have been ashamed to spout. I would have had to cross the room, interrupt the conversation, and make an issue of it to correct the misconceptions, which struck me as inappropriate in the circumstances, but it really put me off the idea of having anything to do with this group -- I didn't participate in some local homeschool activities that were held at one of their churches.

However, my neighbor knows that we're Catholic and it hasn't been a problem between us, and I spent my own time in various Protestant camps and clubs and came out none the worse for it. As have the kids, so all's well that ends well.

Jenny said...

Ahh, Protestant Bible Camp.

The best one in my neighborhood was at the local Presbyterian church. They had a big piece of land with an old log cabin and they had plans to build but actually met in a local school. Since they had no church building, camp was in the evening after the heat of the day on the land.

Mostly I remember spaghetti suppers and crafts and running around like crazy people. We also sang songs, but I don't remember them. Everyone was there. The only denominational thing that stood out in my mind was their communion and the creed.

We went to services on the last night of camp. They had communion by passing out little crackers and cups of grape juice on platters that were passed around the sitting congregation. I thought that was quite bizarre. They also said the creed which says, "the holy catholic church" and I thought it was strange that they said they believed in the catholic church, but were presbyterian. Shouldn't they have said "the holy presbyterian church?"

The "are you saved?" stuff didn't start until high school with the Baptists.

Otepoti said...

Jenny, Thank God that Protestants hesitate to tamper with the creeds. As long as Protestants are saying those words, "one, holy, catholic, and apostolic", they're getting a tip-off to look above the parapet for once. I remember asking my mother, "Why do we say "catholic" when we're not?" and getting no very good answer. And quite recently, I heard a sermon on baptism from a very respected reformed preacher who said that we should regard the creed's "one baptism for the forgiveness of sins" as strictly advisory, and that perhaps we should think about changing the wording... (This should have been a bigger red flag to me than it was.)

Foxfier said...

I can still remember the Silver Burdett books used for sacrament prep in second grade: banal and blithely content-free. From teaching second-grade classes at church when Eleanor was preparing for her first communion three years ago, I know that even the poorer textbooks under consideration made more of an effort to communicate a Catholic worldview, even if their paucity of vocabulary meant that the mass was described as a "celebration!" on every other page.

About the best religious education I got was from the all-Christian-flavors "Sunday" school on Wednesdays, when I was little. It ended when some bright bulb in the "teaching" staff noticed that the Catholic Priests were an hour away, and started teaching all the little Catholic Kids that our Church...wasn't, so much.

I can't remember anything from solidly from the Church education that would be unusual from a Protestant coloring book, other than a few discussions with the Priest after youth group about the

Considering how much really neat stuff I managed to find once I had internet access to find... that's really pathetic.
If the priest that drove my mom out of teaching CCD was still alive, I'd probably go yell at him. Not only did he screw up the entire class my mom was teaching-- "Sex outside of marriage is just fine if you really love them" to 14 year olds-- but he made my mom so she's STILL reluctant to do jack for spreading the faith. This, from a woman who still has a huge collection of books both for and against a ton of Catholic theology, since you should be able to argue against anything you argue for. GG breaking it, big guy.

(Do you have any idea how frustrating it is to realize that your MOTHER had a good understanding of the theology you painstakingly pieced together over the course of MORE THAN FIVE YEARS, but never said anything because she thought you'd get the good stuff from your teachers, and that her very solid education was inferior from some random blanker that promoted emotionally sympathetic fortification and thus was sent to a "meaningless" parish that "only" shaped the entire theological view of a few hundred people? I'm very slowly building her back up to fraking going to church regularly-- but I'm just her daughter. I'm actually more pissed about the damage done by liberal blankers to my mom and family than I am about them not bothering to respond to my attempts to be married in the Church.)