(Posted previously to The Gay-Atheist.)
When I was in first grade my family had a brief flirtation with going to church. It’s something I’ve always been puzzled by (my father has never been a religious man, but the whole thing was his idea — done to please his elderly grandmother, I suspect) and grateful for (because it was a common experience in which I got to take part, and because my participation only lasted a spring and a summer). I have vivid memories of my short time as a church-goer, not all of them unpleasant. I remember receiving my first Bible as an Easter gift that year, a really lovely little volume with a full-color cover and an insert in the middle of glossy illustrations depicting the more benign, kid-friendly scenes from the life and ministry of Jesus. I also remember going with my mother to Ingraham’s to buy a suit to wear to services, a snappy little black pinstriped number that is still the only proper suit I have ever owned. It hasn’t fit for twenty years and I’m in no hurry to replace it.
That summer I attended Vacation Bible School. Nowadays the churches around here all have brightly colored professionally printed banners advertising their upcoming VBS (as those hip Jesus freaks abbreviate it) programs. A few have even purchased space on billboards. Things have changed a little since I attended my one and only VBS session. I clearly recall my mother, a fresh and eager new member of the flock at St. John’s United Church of Christ, spending several nights in the basement painstakingly stenciling and painting a sign for the church to place on the front of its property advertising its Vacation Bible School program. She did a great job and the church continued to use that sign for years after we stopped attending, painting out and crudely re-lettering the dates.
All the VBS programs put on by churches these days have themes. This year “Crocodile Dock” seems like a popular one. There’s a smiling cartoon crocodile on the signs, giving a thumbs-up to the viewer and, presumably, to God the Father, his perfect creator. Last year a lot of churches around here used an Australian theme called “Kangaroo Express.” Its advertisements were almost identical to those for Crocodile Dock, except instead of an anthropomorphic crocodile there was an anthropomorphic kangaroo. The graphic artist working for the company that produces these Vacation Bible School materials doesn’t strike me as very creative.
In my day we didn’t have a theme to Vacation Bible School. (Christ almighty, do I sound like fucking Andy Rooney or what?) We showed up and heard a lesson about some facet of Christianity that had been designed with us suffering little children in mind, completed a few “fun” activities, and made some cheap quickie craft project. My memory is a little vague about the specifics of my VBS experience. My only crystal clear memory is of the picnic we had at the end of it, when Mark Michael, a devastatingly intelligent and brutally awkward kid a few years older than me, burst into tears and pitched the hissy fit to end all hissy fits right there in front of God and everyone because he thought he hadn’t gotten as much candy as someone else. Today Mark’s the pastor of the Episcopal church right down the street from me here in Sharpsburg.
One of the themes I’ve seen advertised in my area is “Galactic Blast.” It’s touted online as a big theme for 2010, but I know I’ve seen signs for it at several local churches this year. Maybe they’re part of a VBS pilot program or something. I’m not really sure how it works. Are churches visited annually by salesmen from the various publishers of Vacation Bible School materials? Or do they have, like, their hip 40-something youth pastor visit a few websites and choose a theme that way? Another fine use for all the booty pulled in weekly in those collection plates, however it works — a much better use of funds than, say, feeding the poor or running a homeless shelter.
I shudder to think what the children attending Galactic Blast VBS are being taught. The logo graphic, a stylized shooting star flying out at you from Earth, includes the tagline “A cosmic adventure praising God!” That sounds about right. Kids will probably be fed a few nuggets of out-of-context science here and there, they’ll be told all about how big and awesome the universe is, and then that inconceivably grand cosmos will be squeezed and chopped and shrunk down to size so it can be tethered to the puny, provincial god of the Bible. Lessons supposedly about the grandeur of outer space will include references to scripture, giving kids the impression that the Bible is not only a source of eternal truth and morality but also of science. Hopefully a few of them will realize when they grow up that it possesses almost none of any those things, but that’s probably wishful thinking.
Children are innocent, and ignorant, which makes them so very easy to indoctrinate. That’s the name of the game at Vacation Bible School, to indoctrinate the innocent and the ignorant into the faith of their parents, to convince them that a particular set of religious beliefs is not an optional feature of a larger worldview, but an inescapable and undeniable fact of life. They might be taught something about geography, or the biosphere (a few of the VBS programs I’ve looked up do at least make an attempt to instill some environmental consciousness, which is always appreciated), or the universe, but through this they will also be taught about the truth and primacy of their strain of Christianity, whatever it is.
And above it all — the master lesson — they will be taught to praise God, always to praise God. Because to the follower of religion it is not sufficient to look up at the sky, or look through a telescope, or otherwise ponder the beauty and immensity of the cosmos and simply feel privileged to be a tiny part of it all. No — your ponderings are incomplete without a hearty, earnest, and eternal expression of gratitude to the jealous, petty, tyrannical deity that created it all.
There are so many better ways to spend your summer. Allow your kids to learn the true magnificence of the universe. Don’t teach them to be forever afraid of some invisible man in the sky who insists on their unquestioning obedience. That doesn’t sound like much of a vacation to me. Take them to the Smithsonian instead.
(Incidentally, my parents stopped going to church not long after the end of my one and only Vacation Bible School. The church’s pastor retired, and my father didn’t like the new guy. Apparently he was offended that the replacement pastor didn’t believe in miracles. I’m not sure Dad believes in miracles, either, but I guess he figured if he had to get up early every Sunday, he should at least get his money’s worth.)