The subject of how my husband and I want our son to be exposed to religion comes up with relative frequency when my mother is around. She's devoutly christian. My husband is Jewish (non-practicing), and more specifically Israeli. We want our son to know and be involved with my husband's side of the family and the culture and traditions that go along with it. My mother is supportive, in a strange she-doesn't-understand-the-difference-between-Judaism-and-christianity sort of way. For example, I've had to explain to her at least half a dozen times that no, Judaism doesn't consider Jesus a prophet, or particularly important, or, frankly, at all.
She means well, though, and I'm thankful she's supportive.
Whenever our son stays with my mother and her husband, he goes to church with them. He's only eight months old, so that just means he crawls around a brightly colored room with a bunch of other babies and toddlers, chewing on stuffed veggie tales toys. I'm more worried about germs than indoctrination. She keeps checking to make sure this is ok, for some reason. This happened again earlier this week, when I met her to pick my son up. It went a bit like this:
Mom: "[Your husband] doesn't mind us taking [your son] to church with us, does he? I mean, I know he's anti-religion."
Me: "He's not anti-religion, mom, he just doesn't practice."
Mom: "Well, remember that time he said he hates all the conflict and stuff like that? I just don't want him to be upset."
Me: "He's Israeli, mom. I'd probably be sick of religious conflict, too."
Mom: "Well, I don't know what that means."
Me: "It means he's not anti-religion, he's anti-douchebag. He just doesn't like it when people are jerks to each other."
Mom: "I just don't want him to get mad if we bring [your son] to church. It's important that he learns about both. I mean, it's just daycare, anyway, but later."
Me: "Well, later it's not [my husband] you need to worry about, it's me. I don't want him going to youth groups. You can take him with you to church, but he can't join the youth group ministry there."
This sparked a half hour long discussion in the parking lot of a BBQ joint in New Braunfels, Tx--a tiny town nearly halfway between San Antonio (where my mom lives) and Austin (my hippy-dippy-wonderful-city). Her husband just sort of stood there quietly, and patiently, shuffling his feet every few minutes and waiting for me to remember to open my trunk so he could move the stroller from their car to mine.
My mother and I have had very different experiences with christianity. This is, I'm convinced, in no small part due to her conversion later in life. Most religions have a sort of "get 'em while their young" mentality. What my mother has learned from and about christianity is mostly of the love your neighbor variety. She believes in being kind, and charitable. It's really quite lovely, and I hope that she exposes my son to that worldview. I have every confidence that she's going to be a positive influence on his life, and I know that her faith will be a large part of that.
What worries me is that she's got an alarming blind spot when it comes to all of the other stuff christian churches tend to teach. I realized after our discussion that, aside from her general predisposition towards naivete, this is because she wasn't actually raised in the church.
My parents became "born again" when I was probably 6 or 7. My childhood was a strange amalgam of the movies Saved! and Jesus Camp, if you're looking for a frame of reference. If you've seen the former film, I started out as a Hilary Faye sort of person and by the time I was in Junior High I was a cross between Chad Faust and Mary Cummings. If the movie had focused on Chad trying to reconcile his faith and his homosexuality rather than Mary and her pregnancy (and, you know, if Chad had been a girl), that probably would've been my high school experience.
We moved from Texas to California and back again, and changed churches with relatively frequency before settling on one for most of my high school years. I've been to mega-churches and tiny churches and churches that were tiny and quickly became mega. They were all "non-denominational" which means evangelical if you're in Texas.
One was charismatic, but we didn't figure that out until someone fell on me while "caught up in the spirit." I was at a youth group meeting, which is where I spent all of my Wednesday nights, standing among the dented folding chairs and singing along with the band as quietly as I could when suddenly, the girl next to me began to convulse mid-hymn. One minute she's singing, and the next she's clucking and hissing and having what I thought was a seizure. She slammed into me and we both landed, sprawling, in the middle of the aisle with her pinning me down, still having spasms and making unintelligible noises. I was pulled out from under her, and the adults all started circling her and praising Jesus. Another teen could tell I was completely dumbfounded and helpfully explained that the girl wasn't sick, but was rather speaking in tongues because she had been touched by the spirit.
We soon switched churches, thankfully.
Most youth groups I joined weren't nearly that exciting, but were quite a bit more insidious.
When you're a young child and you're attending (christian) church you just learn some heavily edited bible stories. Mostly they're from the Old Testament, so it's a lot of Noah and his Ark, Jonah and the Whale, David and Goliath, Joshua at Jerocho, Joseph and his Dream-Coat. They're taken utterly out of context, and taught from a christian perspective which makes them seem surreal looking back on what I was told they meant then, and what I understand them to mean now. Sometimes you might venture into Jesus and the Loaves and Fishes, although it focuses on the miracle of feeding thousands and not the actual Sermon on the Mount, which is a shame. There's also a lot of singing. You sing about god, and Jesus, and pharisees and sadducees ("cause the sadducees were sad, you seeeee" - it didn't make much sense, but we were 6, so we didn't know - shut up).
When you're an adult in a (christian mega) church, you're probably hearing a lot about how to deal with stress--usually related to money, work or family. You still sing a lot, but it's more generic god is awesome, Jesus died for me type stuff. In the better churches you learn a lot about the gospels, although they still inexplicably skip over the sermon on the mount more often than not. In the not-so-great churches they talk about the book of Revelations a lot.
In the terrible churches they only ever talk about homosexuality and abortion. You still sing, though.
You sing a lot, if you're in the Bible Belt. Lots and lots of singing, and very little dancing. You learn a few Hebrew words for the songs, pronounced horribly, and used in entirely the wrong context. El Shaddai gets thrown around in reference to Jesus, which doesn't make a lick of sense. I blame Amy Grant.
If I ever took my husband into an evangelical church I think we'd be asked to leave just because he wouldn't be able to stop laughing at me.
In any case, aside from the terrible churches it's all pretty benign if you're an adult or a very young kid. Your mega-church could be funding all kinds of nasty political nonsense or engaging in sex-scandals and you'd never really know it if you just show up on Sundays.
As you start to head towards adolescence, though, that's when they really try to get their hooks in. That's when all of the really twisted, anti-science, anti-woman, anti-gay, anti-kindness, anti-christian stuff gets introduced because that's when you're impressionable enough to believe it and emotionally vulnerable enough start being desensitized to the idea of victimizing others or being a victim.
This is a really crucial juncture for Bizarro Christianity.
Kids are starting to question things as they get closer to middle school or junior high. They're beginning to wonder if maybe the adults don't' actually have everything figured out. They're starting to care more about what their friends think than their parents. Girls are starting to wonder if it's ok to be brave and curious and adventurous. Boys are starting to wonder if it's really ok to be affectionate, compassionate, and emotional. They've learned the basics of the scientific method, and perhaps taken earth or physical science. They're about to take biology, which means an introduction to evolution. They're probably starting to notice some of the contradictions present in the things they're learning in church, if they're clever. They may even be starting to wonder about some basic philosophical paradoxes, like why does god let bad things happen?
They're starting to realize they don't quite know what all the fuss is about that sex stuff, but it may just be sort of interesting. Perhaps they're starting to notice who they're noticing, and hoping that those people are noticing them, or perhaps hoping the people they're noticing aren't noticing they're noticing them. It's all very confusing and hormonal.
If Bizarro Christianity is going to supplant all of the stories of kindness, love and sharing children learned up until that point, youth ministries have to work quickly and decisively.
The story of how that process manifested in the youth ministries I was part of, in my life, and from my perspective, is understandably a bit long. As such, I'll continue with the next part of the story on Monday.