Saturday, October 07, 2006

Children Want Serious

My reactions to the movie Jesus Camp were not entirely negative. It provides a lot of food for thought and, for those of us unhappy with the equation of Christianity and American nationalism, disturbed by the denigration of faiths and even Christian churches that differ from our own, and horrified by the blatant and unthinking manipulation of small children, Jesus Camp still asks us to move beyond our initial response (Put that away from me!) and contemplate the underlying truth of the movie: children want serious.

I was seven when my mother and brother were killed in an automobile accident. Given the twin realities that adult competence in a situation like that is almost entirely lost to grief and that adult professionals in the 19050s were (I have this on excellent authority) convinced that children did not "really" experience grief themselves, there was no one to help me through serious. Did I experience trauma? Did I wonder how people vanish? Did I wonder if there was, perchance, a god anywhere around? Yes, I had serious, foundational questions to address, even at seven.

On a lighter note, I got my first camera for my ninth birthday. A little Kodak Brownie. I adored it. It's probably obvious from my blog that, while I am not a trained, technologically adept, or skilled photographer (compliments to the contrary notwithstanding, I have enough knowledge to know where work is needed), I do love the entire image-creating process. I love seeing. I love looking. I love color. And most if all, I love light. And I love trying to transfer what I see in my mind and heart to the concrete medium of paper (or computer screen). I'm not a person who can "do" much of anything -- things like cooking, or carpentry, or sewing, or plastering. Photography is the one thing I can sort of "do." Imagine if someone has taken that seriously when I was nine.

When I was thirteen or so, I wanted to become a Catholic. My nonreligious father had sent me off to a Catholic boarding school (yes, pretty much Hayley Mills in many ways) the year before, which meant that I was surrounded by nuns and spent an awful lot of time in religion classes and church. I loved that, too. I knew without a doubt that God was. Is. Everywhere. And Catholicism was my milieu. My father said, "No way." Not out of any prejudice toward Catholicism, but out out a firmly held belief that children should not be indoctrinated into religious belief. None of us had been baptized or confirmed in our own Methodist church, the one he never attended; he thought those decisions should be left for adulthood. But the reality is that children do perceive the transcendant at an early age, often in a more immediate way than adults do. And taking those perceptions and experiences and questions seriously, and providing a framework in a which a child can address them, struggle with them, and appropriate them for herself, does not equate to indoctrination. It equates to serious. It equates to respect for the individual and her growth.

When I was in tenth grade, I was off to a Protestant religious school. A truly excellent school. It had been founded by 19th century evangelist D.L. Moody to educate future missionaries, but Mr. Moody was not one to limit the meaning of the word "education." One of the stories about him is that while he was preaching his opposition to Mr. Darwin, he was simultaneously raising the funds needed to supply the Northfield girls with the best-equipped science labs possible. And yes, my three years there meant three more years of religion classes and daily church. On the first day of our tenth grade Old Testament class, our teacher tossed college texts on our desks and said, "We will be starting with something called the documentary hypothesis." Our preachers were the best that Vietnam-era New England had to offer. Think William Sloan Coffin. People were taking us very seriously indeed.

So yes, Pastor Becky is onto something. "Kids" as she insists upon calling them 100% of the time, want serious. The typical church youth-group round of pizza parties and discussions about peer pressure doesn't cut it. The kids at her Jesus Camp don't respond with tears and shaking and astonishingly well-articulated parroting of their parents just because they're so terribly young and fragile. They respond that way because they want serious. They want to be taken seriously and they want to participate in the most meaningful adventure of life, the adventure of drawing close to God. We would do well to take note.


Lisa :-] said...

I'm not sure I agree with this. I think kids are often more perceptive than we give them credit for...but on the other hand, I think we need to let them BE children. They may want a certain amount of serious, but they don't need nor want to be immersed in it 24/7.

sunflowerkat119 said...

The trick is to take the time with our children to and be perceptive enough to recognize when that need arises. Kids are forced to grow up way to fast these days. It's also imperative that we enable them to stay childlike, and that we protect them from what we can that immerses them in serious. A lot of their issues are connected to neglect...even in the most doting families. I think a lot of adults are ready to embrace the wrong "needs" of their kids.

I was not aware that you lost your mother and brother in an auto accident as a child. I wish I could send Amelia to you. Now...THERE'S a child that needs serious, but I don't think she's getting it in the right form from the people who are available to her.

Kathryn said...

I think children are deeply spiritual in their own way. I wish I could remember the specific quote from my then 3yo about god and rainbows but I nearly drove off the road.

I think their questions should be taken seriously but they should be the ones that lead, where possible, as to how serious they want to be. You obviously didn't get to choose.

Cynthia said...

I agree with you so much here. Children do want and need serious. They need the respect of adults for having minds that work and question, instead of just being pigeon holed as just a silly immature kid. I'm doing several days catch up here, and I'm dying to read what you read about Jesus Camp next. Hope you feel better soon.

Paul said...

I still have only seen the trailer, but I am unwilling to admit to even the possibility of a semblance of a benefit for children from those freaks.