Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Indoctrination in Vanilla

It was like being born a citizen.  I was an American before I had an appreciation for what the United States of America was as a country.  I was a Christian long before I understood what Christianity was about.

My own story of the beginning of my faith was so bland that I have great difficulty remembering details.

My parents shuffled me off to Sunday School while they attended the real sermon.  There, I learned how Jesus loves all the little children, yes, all the children of the world.  Cartoon pictures of Noah and David decorated the cinder block walls.  Cartoon versions of Biblical stories told to us, like how David, just a mere young boy, bravely stood up against the evil, giant Goliath, and killed him with God's help.  (They left off the part about the subsequent decapitation, as they did with any of the less-kid-friendly details from other stories.)

It was, for all intents and purposes, a real school without exams.  The stories which we were told were presented as fact, just like an History class.  That's not to say I would expect anything different, but just to point out that there was no deep thought involved.  There was no reason.  There was only the way it was.  And I just soaked it up without question.  Indoctrinated.  Christian.

I can't remember the precise age, maybe 10(?), but at some point I was deemed old enough to go through the Methodist Church Confirmation program.  It was to be a confirmation that I was actually in the faith, that I was indeed a Christian.  The program took the cartoon concepts presented in early Sunday School and, well, made them less cartoon like.  But just a little.  Still in two-dimensions, the concepts of Salvation and (the only alternative) damnation were sketched out on a foundation of sin.  God's love would save us.  Jesus would save us.  Make that:  Jesus had already saved us.

To this day I can't tell you what version of damnation they had preached to me at that time.  I thought I was already a Christian, and all the people I knew were too, so I didn't worry about it.  Also, I was pretty self-centered, even more than I am now.  ;-)

This program, too, was just another form of school.  The trouble is that I was a pretty smart kid with a wealth of laziness.  When you are "blessed" with that gift, a structured teaching pace can be unbearably slow.  So just like in real school, I would pay attention just long enough to get the gist of what the teacher was saying, and then completely zone out in daydreams.  The Confirmation program did have tests of sorts, and I paid attention just enough to pass them.  That's probably why I barely remember anything from the program.

Anyway, graduation day came, and I was confirmed in front of the entire congregation.  The whole class was paraded up front, where we each read a verse out of the Bible.  Voilà.  We were proclaimed Christians.  Our parents were happy.  I didn't feel any different.  I mean, I thought I already was a Christian.  To me, it wasn't a faith; it was a status, or identity.  It wasn't something you earned, it was something you were.  The pomp seemed a bit unnecessary.

However, now that I was a true Christian in the eyes of the church, from then on I attended the regular sermons with my parents.  Physically I attended, that is.  Mentally I was off in a different world.

Our church didn't have an energetic preacher.  Fire and brimstone was rarely in the forecast.  Nobody jumped up and yelled "PRAISE THE LORD!"  Nobody spoke in tongues.  Nobody got healed.  Nobody prophesied.  Nobody stood up and waved their arms back and forth with hands uplifted as if receiving invisible ray beams of love-energy from the God in the sky above.

There was no show.  There was only worship and psalms.  Reverent, quiet worship.  And daydreaming.  And the occasional nap.

It would take a special girl for me to start pondering my Christianity more deeply, but that's a story for another time...


  1. I wish you could send this to every church in the country. Seriously. It highlights just how atrocious the average American church experience has become (and maybe always has been). Presenting bland, censored versions of the same five Bible stories to kids in Sunday School. Not encouraging the kids to ask difficult questions. Sermons so dull that you were forced to daydream. And worst of all, *confirmation*. What the hell is *that* all about?!?

    My church has its problems, too, but at this moment I'm very thankful that it's *way* better than what you've described here.

    My impression of the so-called "early church" (in Christianese, this means the group of believers who existed at the time when (and shortly after) Jesus was on Earth) is that it was all about action. Sharing possessions with others in the church who were in need, helping the poor and the widowed, risking their lives to preach a message that was not tolerated at the time, etc. How things have changed. . . .

  2. The youth program was, indeed, severely lacking. The main church body, I am less certain about. I was just a little kid at the time, a fairly egocentric and easily bored little kid. The sermons may have been top notch in quality and content, but my attention span would never have been able to discern it. We moved to Florida before I could give that church a fair shake.

    I think the whole Confirmation thing arose from a good intent, it just had a poor execution. It was, in effect, a recognition that children had to develop a certain level of maturity before they could truly accept Jesus as their Savior. They probably picked the timing based off of the Jewish tradition of Bar Mitzvah. (I may have even been 12 at the time, I just don't remember.) I was just too immature, despite my age and intellect. Having almost flunked 5th grade, I guess you could say that I was a rather late bloomer.

    I had picked "vanilla" because of the contrast of my experience versus what I had read from several ex-fundamentalist de-converts, not because it was bland in and of itself. For example, check this story out when you get a moment.

    To be honest with you, as an adult, I kind of favor the more reserved churches over the dancing and singing ones. Give me a deep and reverent sermon by Ravi Zacharias or Dr. Charles Stanley over rock-and-roll praise music and a feel-good love-fest any day, or over a church where people are spewing false prophesies and babbling in the name of "tongues." I'm not saying that worshiping God should be dull. I'm just saying that I see value in quiet contemplation and reserved rumination. There's the whole rest of the week to get the God-party on. Why not pay Him some somber respect for an hour out of the entertainment-saturated week?

    However, I know I am a bit of a strange bird. ;-)

  3. I think styles of worship are and should be to each his or her own. I'm more reserved as well.

    I remember in the Baptist church as a child the flannel board presentations of the same stories; Noah's Ark, David and Goliath, Abraham and Isaac. Most of the OT is too graphic to presented in anything less than a watered down way to children under the age of 16.

    No one told us as children Noah got drunk and passed out naked when they finally got off that boat or that David chopped Goliath's head off and paraded it around or that when the Israelites were bringing the Ark of the Covenant back to Jerusalem God struck Uzzah down for touching to Ark to keep it from falling to the ground (all kinds of rationalization goes on for that one) or that before Abraham "sacrificed" Isaac he had a son with the handmaid. And for good reason.

    But those G rated versions only give one aspect of the stories and don't offer any opportunity for questions. It was only as an adult that I read the stories in their entirety and was sobered by them. The "Vanilla" Bible is much better at getting children to believe when they're young and then they have a very hard time challenging the version they've been taught later in life. They still remember that warm, fuzzy flannel board.

  4. @D'Ma
    Too true.

    I often wonder if back in Biblical times, Jewish parents told their children the whole story, uncensored. The times were more rough, for sure, and God had commanded continuous teaching of the Law to your children, which I am sure would have included examples like the man getting stoned to death for picking up sticks on the Sabbath.

    I think the flannel board versions are more closely aligned with the modern Christian presentation of God. So I wonder if the cartoons hurt or help the faith of adult believers overall. How it would hurt the faith is fairly obvious, but the helping is a little more subtle. If you have already learned to love God through the flannel boards and sermons, then you could deal with it the way you would deal with learning unsavory details about a close friend. You forgive them, or are willing to overlook the issues for the sake of the friendship. Then you can settle back into the more comfortable core beliefs.

  5. My upbringing, Lutheran, was very similar bland vanilla. Like you, a girl ushered in fervency and later, speaking in tongues.

    I still tell my kid Bible stories, Greek Myths, Hindu myths and such -- they laugh and smile at all of them.

    1. What a cool dad you are, Sabio! I would have loved hearing all those stories as a kid! Of course, it does make it easier to realize the myths for what they are. That's probably why few Christian parents would dream of doing such a thing...

  6. just passing thru, checking your boards ... well done.

    1. Thanks c emerson. Glad you enjoyed it!

  7. Fun graphic.
    Was your church vanilla, in terms of all white?

    Was your church all middle class Americans?

  8. Thanks Sabio. I was speaking of "vanilla" in terms of being a relatively bland, non-memorable experience. However, yes, it was all white, as far as I can remember. That wouldn't be surprising, given that there was only one kid of any non-white ethnicity in my school (elementary and middle).

    As for middle class, I think so, but I was a bit oblivious to the class relationships at that age.