Sunday, June 12, 2011

Bible Camp

I was talking to niece The Amazing Molly yesterday -- yes, that's her name, though sometimes she just goes by Amazing; why? She mentioned that she's going to bible camp next week.

About an hour later,  I was able to finally soothe the hives that spontaneously erupted all over my body at the words "bible camp".  Who ever thought putting those concepts together was a good idea? "Hey, you know how kids love to run around and stuff and learn skills? Well, what if we had a week where instead of that we talked about God, but we still called it camp. Wouldn't that be cool!"

Seriously, religious organization youth group people, the whole thing's false advertising. And if anyone should be trying not to be false in their advertising, it's you (and by you I guess I  also mean me).

We never went to "bible camp" growing up, but there was one at a Christian church of some denomination a block over from our house.  I remember passing by that place many times and breathing a sigh of relief that my Church did not require that I be locked in a church basement during the summer for two full weeks of further religious indoctrination. (I wasn't much of a fan of CCD, either. Frankly I was a real treat to bring to church at all.)

Ironically, today if I wasn't doing what I am doing today, I'd probably be teaching Scripture.  And while I can't say that the idea of making kids go to bible camp sounds terribly more attractive -- or any camp for that matter, really; it's all a little too Lord of the Flies, Piggy's got the conch for me -- I do have some strong wishes as to what you might do/not do at such a camp.

My Wish: Introduce kids to stories from the Old Testament as well as the New. 

My memory of religious ed is mostly that we learned Jesus is love. This is not a bad thing to learn, if at some point a little too much corn syrup sweetness for any person, including the son of God. (Seriously, I'm all for a human Jesus (SO for it), but long haired smiling handsome hippy Jesus? A little too far.)

Okay, he's not so bad -- though to me, he's still spending a little too much time on his hair. 

But this?

Just plain creepy. 

But did we ever venture into the Old Testament? Based on adult Catholics' understanding of the Old Testament, I would say most of us almost definitely did not, other than some of the showpieces of Genesis).  It's pretty much standard issue for adult Catholics today that OT=Bad, Angry God; NT=Good, Loving God.

And that's just plain tragic, not only because in my opinion that's a total mischaracterization of the OT God (a whole other column), but because it means so many good characters and stories get lost.

5 Old Testament Characters/Stories/Books I Wish Every Kid Got to Know (Plus One):
1. Abram and Sarai: A few years ago I was putting together a wedding homily, and thought I'd look to some scriptural figures for a model to live by.

How many biblical married couples can you name? Take a minute, I'll go get a latte.

Done?  I'll bet you had no more than three, and that Mary and Joseph and Abram and Sarai make up two of them. (Bonus if your third is "David and whoever he cheated on". Nice.)

It's true: the Bible has very little in the way of stories about married people. And among them, only the story of Abram and Sarai really digs into the relationship at all.

Do you know these stories? They wander around because God asks them; God keeps showing up and saying weird things about "their seed"without actually delivering on his promise of a child; at two different points the couple pretend to be brother and sister out of fear that a king would otherwise kill Abram.  (Of course, the trouble is, because they're brother and sister, the kings have no trouble chasing Sarai, and God has to get them out of it.) When God finally says he's going to give them their son, Sarah laughs at him.  And that's what Isaac means in Hebrew -- she laughs.

There she is, listening in on God and thinking, Oh come on!   

Seriously, this is the Lucy and Ricky of the ancient near east, and their stories are things we can all identify with.  Well worth a look.

2. Jonah: This will seem odd, as every kid is told about Jonah getting swallowed by a whale.  But the story is so much more than that. So much more. Jonah's this wonderfully begrudging prophet sent to a nation to tell them God's going to wipe them out, who actually gets mad when his proclamation succeeds, they repent and God saves them.  Again, such a very human character; and funny, too!

Also, it's short!

3. Bel and the Dragon: First of all, have you ever even heard of this? It's in the Apocrypha, the secondary Old Testament books.

Why give this to kids? Hello, it has a dragon.  Also, lions. And a really fun story about how Daniel proves an idol isn't a god. And again, it's short.

But most of all -- Come on, it has a DRAGON.

4. Proverbs: Totally different kind of book, mostly two line aphorisms. But great little ideas to talk about.

     "Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring."

     "A stone is heavy, and sand is weighty, but a fool's provocation is heavier than both."

     "A child who loves wisdom makes a parent glad, but to keep company with prostitutes is to squander one's substance."

Okay, so we'll have to pick and choose and/or "creatively edit". Proverbs isn't exactly a book you read straight through anyway. You get the picture.

5. Job: Yeah, I know, Job's a little intense for 3rd graders. (For a companion film, I suggest Sophie's Choice.)

Also, the book is crazy long -- did you know that? We all know the beginning -- bad things happen, and the end -- Job asks why, and God says I am a mystery. But in between there's about 2 dozen chapters of toing and froing between Job and three "friends" who churn out all sorts of reasons why Job is suffering.  Ah yes, those oh so familiar golden chestnuts like "you must have done something wrong".

But that's exactly why I would love to see kids read some fuller form of the story. Because you don't have to be old to have the experience of having bad things happen. In fact, although some of the struggles kids go through can seem somewhat insignificant in the big picture, I'd say they end up feeling some of these things much more radically than we adults would because they don't really have the defenses yet.  Having the kid you like push you in front of the class really does have a certain dark night of the soul quality when you're 7. And there's really no answer to it, no satisfying explanation as to why it happened.  You just sort of grit your teeth and wait for it to pass.

All that's worth talking about.  And Job's a great way in.

This isn't exactly about getting picked on or other childhood trauma, 
but my many redheaded family members will find it amusing.  

Plus One:  Catholics do not read the Bible.  They just don't. I'm not exactly sure why. Maybe it seems like work? Or it's daunting, what with all the books and strange references? Or was it something I said?

But it's really too bad, because there's so much lovely material in there waiting for us if we're willing to venture forth -- psalms that capture the cries of our own hearts; little tales of family and faith, heroism and self-sacrifice; weird and wonderful moments like the bird who poops on Tobit and makes him go blind, or the amorous chase of the Song of Songs. 

And when we do get scripture, both as kids and as adults, it's these little passages and stories that someone else chooses.  Maybe one way to turn the Bible from chore/encyclopedia -- do we still have encyclopedias? -- into an adventure is to let kids have the opportunity to read around, choose for themselves from among a much wider range of stories or books, and see what they find interesting.  Let them find their own favorites.  

I don't know what will come of the Amazing Molly's week at bible camp.  She actually seems much more into it than I ever would have been. But I'm crossing my fingers at this camp, some of the new friends she might make are to be found in our holy books. 

And also, that she might not be made to look like she's in a work release program.


Jen Pontow said...

Hey how did you not go to that camp at that church and I did???? I know Meg did too for sure. Jack, Meg and even Ally are going to a bible camp this summer too. HAHAHA
A friend of mine runs it and it looks really neat for them. The kids are super excited too to talk about Jesus when he was a kid. :)

Jim McDermott, S.J. said...

Jesus when he was a kid -- well that's a fun idea.

I think Mom and Dad must have loved me more. And by loved me more I mean known how much trouble I would have made if they had me me go.