Saturday, July 18, 2009
Tales of a Ninth Grade Nothing
So there was actual thought behind this post. I was reading Klosterman’s explanation of why he doesn’t like soccer and he got to the point where he said that in high school those kids can just get away with shopping at Hot Topic and being punks and I suddenly realized, “Or they go to church!” Then I realized that if I was going to write a post comparing Christianity to soccer I’d probably piss a bunch of people off. I decided to embrace the possible controversy. After all, I’ve had a few Christian trolls. I haven’t yet gotten a football hooligan. This blog could use some more hooliganism… Either way, like I said, there is actual thought behind the parallel I drew. I wasn’t just pulling something out of my ass to get everybody mad. I swear. The fact is, picking church due to holding the status of “outcast” isn’t actually too far-fetched. I strongly suspect that it’s what I did even though I probably never would have guessed so at the time. But the shoe fits. See, I wasn’t one of the cool kids by any stretch of the imagination. I don’t think that I was ever particularly bullied, but that may well be because I was bigger than the rest of the kids and didn’t go to schools where fighting was particularly common. I was, however, the fat, hyperactive, socially maladjusted nerd. I, uh, I got made fun of a lot. I also didn’t get invited to parties. Ever. In seventh grade, however, I started going to my church’s junior high youth group. I’d been looking forward to it, since my older sister thought it was the coolest thing in the world. I loved it. I don’t recall being singled out and made fun of. I don’t know that I was “cool” there, but I don’t really recall there being the same hierarchy at youth group that I would have found at school. More importantly, though, were the adult leaders. They were the volunteers, who ranged from college kids to parents of junior highers, who lead the small groups and were pretty much the engine that kept the entire thing running. They treated me with respect and I felt like an adult. I felt like somebody when I was in youth group. The thing about junior highers is that they’re both incredibly intelligent and really dumb. I remember one night I was riding shotgun in a rented 15 passenger van while the youth group leader drove and I explained to him how helicopters fly. He told me that he’d always thought they could only fly close to the ground so they could push against it. I explained how the air coming off the helicopters is, for all intents and purposes, pushing against the air beneath it, so as long as there is adequate force coming from the blades and the air is dense enough, the helicopter can fly at any height.* For years after he’d remind me of this conversation when I ran in to him. But for all of the random bits of knowledge that your average thirteen or fourteen year-old possesses (or thinks he or she possesses), they lack certain necessary faculties. Abstract thinking simply isn’t that big of a deal to your average junior high school student. The upshot is that they’re easy to lie to, whether you do so intentionally or not. If one authority figure, say a science teacher, tells them that the universe popped in to existence 13.7 billion years ago one day, then another authority figure, such as a pastor, tells them that god created the universe in 4004 BCE on a Tuesday, they’ll believe both. They won’t do so because they’re intentionally creating cognitive dissonance. There isn’t any. They’re believing the authority and the fact that two equally valid authorities say two wildly different things isn’t necessarily going to be met with anything closely resembling critical evaluation. This is why, even if they don’t admit it or even know it themselves, churches try to get kids in the door and try to create fun youth groups. My old youth group leader knew less about science than I did when I was in junior high but it didn’t matter. He was awesome (and anybody who tells me different now will get punched in the nose, so don’t try it). And he was still an authority, as were the various other adults who populated my youth group world. For me this would create a mentally dangerous dichotomy. I had my school world and my church world. I was comparatively lucky, though. A lot of the kids in my church world went to private Christian schools or were home schooled, so they didn’t have the external authority figures to create in their minds equally valid opposing facts and ideas. After my freshman year in high school my parents decided to leave the church I grew up in and my older sister started trying to avoid church altogether. I wanted nothing more than to stay in that church, however. I know exactly why. I’d just gotten back from the high school’s summer missions trip when I learned that my parents were leaving. The summer missions trip is, ostensibly, designed to give people who otherwise just go to school or go to their jobs a taste of the missions field. You get a group together and head to some place where people need to have houses built for them or something and go do “the Lord’s work.” Before the group goes, though, it engages in a couple months of intense prep work and team building. During the missions trip itself the actual work kind of takes a back seat to the nightly worship and sharing times. After the group gets back there’s a celebration and a few parties and the people who were on the site together probably end up reminiscing about the events of that particular summer for years after. It is, in effect, a big group-building exercise. “The Lord’s work” even seemed to take second billing to the spiritual growth of the people doing the work and the events that were specifically designed to bring the group together. Interestingly enough, the group tends to get involved in making sure that the experience is good. Those who were on, say, the trip in 2006 and 2007 try to make the trip in 2008 just as awesome and help those who weren’t on any before realize how cool the whole missions trip thing is. This, at least for my particular youth group, is then carried even farther forward than throughout high school. People who went on the trips as students tended to come back and do a trip or two as adult leaders, even if they didn’t work with the youth group during the year. The experiences of togetherness on missions trips are special. They’re also, I now realize, completely manufactured. Enough people are bought in to the idea that they make it special. It worked for me. I wanted to stay at my church even when my family was leaving. I stuck around through high school (even though I only went on the missions trips my freshman and senior years). Then I did five years at my church after I graduated. I spent a year helping to build the college ministry, which was practically nonexistent my senior year of high school, then I went back and spent four years working with my old junior high youth group while alternating between working full time and going to community college. During my time as a junior high youth group leader I’m pretty sure I did it all wrong. My first year there I was kind of the enforcer. It was actually my job to make sure that the kids weren’t sneaking out and I was damn good at it. I pretty much knew exactly where the kids would be if they weren’t in the main room during the meeting. The interesting thing is, though, that I got in to the habit of sitting down and talking to them. See, I remembered the adult leaders from when I was a junior higher. I was one of the kids who was always involved, always trying to make a good impression, whatever, so nobody had to chase me around. But I remembered that the adult leaders seemed to care. So I focused more on trying to care about “my kids” than I did on making sure that they were in the meeting. And I thought of them as “my kids.”** I knew the outcasts. See, this was something I hadn’t picked up on my first time through junior high. I was an outcast in school but I wasn’t in youth group because I played all the games and tried to do everything right. There were still outcasts, though. They were the ones who didn’t want to be there, who only showed up at church because their parents made them go. They didn’t care. So even though I did care I somehow figured out that they didn’t want to sit there and hear about the Bible all night. So I didn’t talk about it. I talked about what they wanted to talk about. Meanwhile, when I was doing my thing as a small group leader I tried my hardest to teach the kids how to think for themselves. I refused to feed them answers and encouraged them to try to build on one realization with another. I was, in short, teaching them critical thinking skills and to not expect me to be an authority. I don’t think I was supposed to do that. The thing is, I was pretty highly regarded as a youth group leader. The kids loved me, the other adult leaders respected me. And I spent the better part of four years with the nagging feeling that I wasn’t doing it right. There was this idea that we could only do what we were doing “with god’s help.” So there had to be a lot of prayer and admission that we just didn’t know how to do anything without god, um, doing it for us, I guess. Yet I pretty much felt like I was doing everything "under my own power" (which, for the record, is a bit of Christianese). I made it through just fine. Meanwhile, though, there was a group of people I spent a lot of time hanging out with. We were working with the junior highers and heavily involved with the college ministry, so it was kind of a default thing. I thought they were my close friends since I was around them pretty much all the time. Then it gradually started to occur to me that I never hung out with them outside of church-related things or those times when we’d get done with church stuff and say, “Hey, let’s go eat.” I knew that they hung out with each other when I wasn’t around, but I never seemed to get the memo. I carried that confusion forward with me to WIU. When I finally got around to getting my ass out to college to finish my degree I was older than almost everyone else, but still too young to be a “non-traditional” student. I’d also spent the last five years hanging out with people who were younger than me and was mostly in 3- and 400 level courses, so I adjusted to college well enough. But I still had a lot more experience than most of the people around me. That’s why I had no problems making an impression on the local InterVarsity chapter. I knew what I was doing, I was planning to go in to ministry, anyway, and I spoke with a certain degree of authority. These things brought with them a certain level of in-built respect and the position of Outreach Coordinator for the chapter during my second year out there. This time around it didn’t take me anywhere close to as much time to realize that everyone seemed to hang out and I never seemed to get the memo. I also rapidly developed a certain level of disgust for the way the IV organization as a whole worked and wasn’t a big fan of the way that the local chapter worked. It’s not to say that everything was terrible. I met one of my best friends (who has also left religion after his own journey) in the group and I still keep in touch with an occasionally hang out with a couple other people from those days. But it wasn’t hard for me to realize that I wanted nothing to do with InterVarsity. I left and spent the rest of my time at WIU hanging out with other people who didn’t piss me off. Now, this is the part where I’m sure would-be evangelists would say, “See, you were just around the wrong kinds of Christians. You should come to my church.” Because, see, it can’t possibly be an issue that I realized that thought Christianity was stupid. It can’t possibly be that I know how to separate “bad Christians” from “Christianity.” It can’t be that once I realized I wasn’t getting the friendship and togetherness thing I was supposed to get from church I started asking, “So why am I bothering to keep doing this?” and couldn’t come up with a good answer. I still had one more summer and one more semester to go at WIU after my abortive InterVarsity experience. I decided I needed to try something different. So that summer I started going to a completely different church that one of my friends from high school attended. A couple weeks in to that experience I met Her. The following semester I realized that the pastor of the church I’d been attending out at school was losing his mind (no, seriously, but that’s a completely different story), so I started going to a different church, but barely, since I managed to find excuses to head back to Chicago every other weekend to, y’know, see Her. I was disillusioned with religion at the time, but I had every reason to want to make it work. I was still planning on going to Seminary. I knew that if I stopped going to church I’d lose any chance I had to keep Her around. More importantly, though, even after everything I’d been through I still wanted to believe. I was 25 and had never known any other life than the one I was living. So I went back and spent the second half of the school year working with my old junior high youth group. It wasn’t the same. I knew I was faking it, but I’d done it so well and for so long that I don’t think anyone noticed. There was no more comfort in church. Even though I was actually often hanging out with old friends they usually didn’t feel like friends. I was a stranger in a place I’d once called home. It wasn’t the world outside that was changing. It was me. At the end of that year I left my old church entirely. But even then I wasn’t going to stop going to church. I started going to my parents’ Presbyterian church (where they don’t teach the Bible). I no longer had any interest in Seminary or volunteering with youth groups or any of that. And it wasn’t that I was burned out on church. It’s that everything I’d been through up until that point had pointed to a single, inescapable conclusion: there is no god. Or, at least, there is no god in any sense that’s in any way related to what I’d learned in church. Since this post is inextricably related to my On Hell post and is, in and of itself, not the end of the story, I’m going to add a new label. I’ll call it “Critical Mass.” I don’t promise that I’ll cover topics I haven’t already covered before, but I’m pretty sure I’m going to cover them in a completely different way than I would have in the past. And there are still a couple more things I want to talk about that are at least tangentially related. So, y’know… -------------------------------- *Although, now that I think about this, the explanation is fundamentally flawed. The rotating blades of the helicopter create lift in much the same way that the wings of an airplane create lift, by forcing air to move more quickly over the top surface than it does over the bottom. The creation of down force is more or less negligible. The salient point remains, namely that the helicopter blades aren’t acting against the ground in any way, shape or form and are, in fact, creating interactions solely between air and, um, air. However, in my defense, I was 13 at the time and I’ve since become a historian. Although, ironically, it was a book called Chickenhawk, written by a Vietnam War Huey pilot, that gave me the necessary knowledge of how a collective works to realize I was wrong. **All my junior highers were “my kids,” not just the outcasts.