Jesus Camp and Me

This year I will be turning twenty years old. A decade ago, half my life ago, I attended a camp called Camp Geneva in Holland, Michigan. This was not an evangelical camp, it was defined only as a ‘Christian Camp’, and indicated no denomination. I was lucky not to be brought up in a more disturbing form of Christianity, as my parents are Lutheran and Catholic (as they would describe it, the only difference is whether communion is symbolic or literal). Other than that, Catholicism is more ritualized and formal, Lutherans eat a larger variety of food after church, and so forth, both pretty chill.

The children in that film, “Jesus Camp”, are within just a few years of my age. They are brought up in a Christianity I would never describe as chill or calm. One of the focus children, Levi, is the same age as me. Some of these children are growing up taught to ignore the world around them for the sake of making it to an unobserved world besides this. Like misguided intergalactic salesmen they grow up trying to sign people’s lives into the cost of a ticket to a world no one has ever seen. These children experience a camp at which they cry every night and are told how flawed they are, for what they may not even know. These children are manipulated to ‘speak in tongues’, pound the ground, and move violently to impulses. They are told what to think about things entirely outside of their church and encouraged to have their lives overpowered by the one force of this mass of humans and pressures.

However, this camp experience, though mostly a recreational time, had some aspects which stick out chillingly from the background of archery attempts, capture the flag, and camp store ice cream. No worries, no one there spoke in tongues as they did in the film, nor did anyone fall on their knees and cry from what I can remember. But there were skits and talks on stage every evening and one of them I remember still as it caused me more trauma than just about any other experience I had in the churches and church functions I attended in childhood.  For this reason it’s a story I tell often when the subjects of indoctrination and fear arise.

One night we sat in our seats in the darkened auditorium/chapel late after dinner. On the stage were three yardsticks laid end to end. The speaker started to describe to us the scene. The yardsticks showed a lifetime and on the left a man in a red body suit and velvet horns took the stage. To the right, one in sandals and a white robe. As different councilors of ours entered, they walked downstage on the line of the yardsticks with the two men heckling them for attention. The speaker described the personal struggles of each character.

When a walker took the hand of the red velvet man, he lead them a few gentle steps from the yardstick while the robed fellow made anguished faces and grasped across the line for them until they were thrown violently to the ground where they lay. On the Jesus side of the sticks, the person would be lead to the back and side and helped into a kneeling prayer position. The devil would throw up his hands in frustration. All of this well and good, I contemplated how much more comfortable the people playing sinners must have been, not having to kneel.

The last walker turned back and forth between the two sides, inching slowly along the line. He reached the end of the line and stood, looking out for a moment. He turned left and right and decided to face to the Jesus side. ‘Oh good,’ we all thought, ‘no one else thrown to the ground.’ But the speaker informed us this was not so. The walker had run out of time, he said, and, though the walker faced the robed man, the scarlet clad actor grabbed him from behind and flung him brutally down onto the stage. The speaker told us how he’d waited too long to decide, and was cast down.

I have a few big problems with this. One, I simply don’t believe ‘educating’ children based on fear is proper. Children should be nurtured, not emotionally tortured and told they are individually worthless and only achieve worth through adopting given dogmas. Children should not be told their lives mean so little and there is something bigger than life. Children should be nurtured and taught what can be known with evidence, not what is assumed due to tradition. Two, the time-line was scrunched up and jumbled by the statements of the speaker that you could die that very night and, if you did, where would you be? These children have been told of their inherent undeservedness of a good end for ten to twelve years. These children have been told that you’re sinning even if you don’t know it. My prayers as a child only taught me to apologize and resign to waiting for things instead of trying for what I wanted. I apologized every night to some horrible figure who wanted me to be sorrowful for what I didn’t know I had done, but must certainly have done, due to my inherent flaws. I do not think it’s a healthy relationship to lay in bed apologizing and then feel so unsafe one is compelled to pretend to fall asleep so that the figure is still paying attention to them. I did this near every night. I was terrified as a child of dying and so I’d pray I wouldn’t die during the night and, just in case, pretend to fall asleep without ‘hanging up’ with a sign of the cross. No Amens for me as a child, it was ‘please don’t let me die tonight’ ‘please don’t have me die tonight’ and ‘I’ll go to sleep while you’re still watching close, just in case.’

Imagine this, if you would, as a human romantic relationship. What would you tell me, the young woman who I am, if I told you that every night I came home to my angry boyfriend, not sure what was wrong but knowing it must have been something I had done? If I told you that I would quietly whisper apologies into his ear and then ask him not to hurt me for it, not to let anyone hurt me, and accepted him as the protection I had against ills and fell asleep in his arms, gently squeezing to remind myself he was protecting me. If he never told me what was wrong but there was always something, would you tell me I should be apologizing? Would you tell me it was healthy to fall asleep in his arms and feel that he, my fear, was my safety? It doesn’t sound healthy to me.

I still apologize for nearly anything, though I’m getting better at it. I learned from my Christian upbringing to feel truly and deeply miserable whenever anyone is upset around me, and to accept that I’m not doing anything to help and, even if I want to help, am probably making it worse. Just as miserable as if I have really done something bad. I am very quick to apologize when I have done something bad. I learned how faulted I necessarily was, being human, in this way. And that is a grossly inappropriate thing to do to a child. Children should be taught to be accountable for what they have and have not done. Children should be proud of their strengths and unashamed of their flaws. Children’s flaws should not be exaggerated.

Is God Dead? Propaganda with Popcorn!

The smell of overly buttered and under-salted popcorn, the excitement as some people go to see films on artificial intelligence and super heroes, the somewhat squeaky movie seats and awkwardly placed armrests . . . ah, ’tis the theater. Earlier tonight I attended a showing of “God is not Dead” with another member of the club. Besides being possibly the first movie ever written entirely based on an internet thread of a made up story, it also had cliché script and entirely unbelievable characters (as well as un-believing character… get it?)

The premise of the film is there is a crotchety atheist professor of philosophy who makes it his personal duty to see to the non-belief of all of his students in deities (though, really, he only ever attacked singular deities of Monotheistic religions. I’m gonna go out on a limb and guess this is due to the Christian theme). Early in the film, a list containing the names of a few philosophers is brought up. From then on, the philosophy is reminiscent of that of Jaden Smith. In other words, no philosophy whatsoever.

god dead meme

In addition to the regular atheist hate which I expected, there was also a disturbing amount of bashing of Muslims. Spoiler Alert! When a Christian female character from a traditional Muslim family is found out, her father beats her severely while her little brother looks on and throws her out of the house. Fortunately, she experienced no bruising from the brutal slaps to the face, and was able to fall off her bed, traverse backwards through a straight bathroom while defending Jesus, and end up back in the same room on the far side of the bed.
Perhaps I’m being too sensitive in this aspect, but the girl also looked strikingly less ‘foreign,’ for lack of a better term, than her actively Muslim family. Considering the portrayal of the latter, this is reminiscent of the complaints I’ve heard about Aladdin, and the difference in appearance of the ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’.

Carrying on with the serious note, this film is rife with poor definitions, a poor representation of the actual debates which occur between theists and atheists, and some terrible misrepresentations of science and the evidence known to us.

Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to track down the exact definitions from the script which the “Professor” uses in his class. However, for standard definitions see the about page extension, “Quick Facts”.

My specialty, though, is science, so these issues struck me most of all. The main Christian character, Josh Wheaton (sounds like Joss Whedon to me), describes a quote from Stephen Hawking’s book The Grand Design as circular logic. This entirely ignores that there is scientific support for the claim.

  • “Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.”

The movie focuses on the first sentence. The problem arises when we realize that this is not circular logic due to there being supporting evidence. If there were an extensive discussion of laws of gravity, the shape of the universe, essential instabilities, and so forth before the quote, it would be a simple conclusion to the presented evidence. However, the film entirely ignores the existence of actual empirical evidence and thus avoids discussion of science as well as philosophy.

In response to the terrible attempt to debunk inorganic origins of life while appealing to Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection (or the preservation of favored races in the struggle for life), I have a few comments. The following is the only mention of the origin of life in Darwin’s Origin of Species. 

  • “Probably all the organic beings which have ever lived on this earth have descended from some primordial form, into which life was first breathed”

Why doesn’t he discuss this important question more? Well, because Origin is not about the Origin of Life, it is about speciation. It is about a mechanism of gradual change, natural selection. It is entirely true that natural selection does not occur until there is something to work on. It is also true that natural selection only gets to work on genotypes by way of phenotypes, something you will never see Darwin discuss as the New Synthesis came around after his work. One cannot say that natural selection doesn’t work because we as scientists are willing to admit we do not know every detail of the world, including the exact way organic matter started to organize in a construct we would call alive. This is like saying “trains can’t run” because “how did the tracks get there?” or “no one picks what movies to watch because you don’t know the director, actors, set and location, budget, and producers which brought about the films”. In short, natural selection has absolutely nothing to do with the origin of life, it only starts after we have competition. If you’re interested in the basic requirements for natural selection, here you go:

natural selection

1. More organisms are produced than can reproduce
2. Resources are limited
3. Heritable traits exist in populations, some of which are better for survival than others

Another common misconception, natural selection is not ‘survival of the fittest’ (a term Charles Darwin did NOT coin), it is more like ‘survival of the good enough.’ Those good enough to mate get to have their genetic lineage continue. One could think of this in that it is not enough just to survive to puberty, one must also find a mate. Or one could consider that the sketchy traits can sneak through. You can probably think of quite a few people in sexual relationships you would not consider reproducing with.

Another Spoiler Alert! Silly silly silly ending. The atheist professor has a death-bed conversion after a hit and run car crash whilst trying to find his ex-girlfriend. This is cheesy enough, but it was even worse when his tragic death was celebrated (super spoiler, it’s actually a concert movie). Everyone is happy, a reverend diagnosed the medical problems the dying man was suffering from, God started a car for the reverends and dried their hair between scenes, and all the while a man has just died. I do not know a single person who claims to be atheist because they are “angry with God”. This is an assumption theists make all the time, and one that apparently leads not just to misunderstanding and hatred but also to poor filmography.