Friday, October 05, 2007

HELL ON EARTH: A Sunday Paper Editorial

One of my favorite books on children and religion is Do Children Need Religion? by Martha Fay (Pantheon Books, 1993; paperback edition re-titled Children and Religion: Making Choices in a Secular Age). The book includes a chapter on holidays, ritual, and tradition.

Approaching the six or seven weeks between Thanksgiving and
New Year’s that has come to be called “the holiday season,” …
a friend invited me to attend a session of a support group of
corporate women who meet periodically to discuss the difficulties
of combining motherhood with full-time work outside the home.
The subject for this meeting, which took place in mid-autumn,
was “How Important Is a Spiritual Life?” but … as one woman
after another spoke, it became obvious that what they really
wanted to talk about was Halloween, which had just passed a few
days before.

Far from being a minor event, the children’s holiday appeared
to have taken on enormous significance in the lives of these
mothers, and their descriptions of the preparations and the
actual event were delivered with the sort of animation and
detail women traditionally reserve for tales of love or child-
birth. One after another, they told how their children had
decided what they were going to “be” for Halloween, how they,
the mothers, had then assembled or sewn the appropriate
costumes, how they had left work early or made special
arrangements with the baby-sitter to take the child trick-
or-treating. It was clear that this holiday satisfied these
women in a way no other celebration did and eventually the
conversation shifted toward why that should be. One
woman suggested that it was because Halloween was what
she called a “true children’s day”; second, that the element
of make-believe made it especially fun; and a third, that,
unlike Thanksgiving, for example, it did not entail messy
involvement with one’s troublesome extended family. …
And finally, one woman said that what she liked about it was
that it was a purely secular holiday—that, unlike Easter or
Christmas or Passover, it did not make you feel uncomfortable
about choices not made.

Everyone around the table nodded in agreement. Then I
noticed a few faces registering confusion as their owners
struggled to recall just where this wonderful holiday did
come from. Feeling something of a pedant, … I volunteered
that while it was technically not a religious feast itself,
Halloween did derive from one, being the even of All Saints’
(or All Hallows’) Day in the Christian calendar … . The
goblins and ghosts, devils and broom-riding witches, now
rapidly being displaced by fairy princesses, astronauts, and
Ninja Turtles, refer to a long tradition of caricature of the
unholy dead, as well as to Celtic pagan traditions that
antedate Christianity and have to do with the onset of winter’s
darkness and the unleashing of emotions customarily
repressed. This bit of information was politely received, but
generated no further discussion. Not only were these women
not much interested in Halloween’s religious antecedents;
there could be little doubt but that their sense of the holiday
as a thoroughly secular one was both an active preference
and a proper gauge of general sentiment. (pp. 137-139)

Fay adds in a footnote, “Ironically, while the majority of Christians celebrate Halloween without a thought to its once considerable religious significance, the Jewish day school one of my friends’ children attends sends a note home every October to remind parents that it is a Christian holiday and that their children should not be participating in it.”

There are, of course, other groups besides Jews who object to Halloween. Many conservative Christians who may never have heard of All Saints’ Day see in Halloween an orgiastic celebration of death, evil, perversion, witchcraft and Satanism, and take a firm stand with their children: no Halloween.

In my book Offering the Gospel to Children (Cowley Publications, 1992), I mentioned this attitude:

There are Christian bodies and Christian families that will not
allow their children to participate in Halloween at all, because
of its ancient connections with paganism and its continuing
association with devils, witches, and monsters. These Christians
are frightened of letting their children participate in such
traditions, in the same way some other parents are afraid of
letting the children play with toy guns. They fear that permitting
children to play with a symbol of evil—the gun or the devil
mask—signals to them that we approve of the evil itself, and
removes all restraints on its seductive powers.

But by censoring children’s imaginative lives, by modeling fear
and denial instead of an imaginative approach to our own
destructive impulses, we fail to help our children. We are
warning them that we ourselves are so frightened of our own
aggression that we cannot face it or offer hope that it can be
tamed. This realization may be more frightening to children
than the fear they certainly feel as they themselves play with
and test these symbols of evil, and find their own response.
Censorship may also, of course, have the opposite effect of
endowing these ideas and figures with the fascination of
forbidden fruit.

I know several evangelical churches in New Haven that bypass Halloween in this way, substituting a harvest festival (or in one case a “Hallelujah party!”) with entirely wholesome and happy themes.

In my book, I suggest we can do something much more nuanced, and invite children into a dramatized confrontation with evil, via a “Bible Halloween funhouse” in which we dramatically retell our story, including the very real Biblical element of the Evil One, who dogs us on our journey, meddles with God’s plan, and attempts to seduce us with lies and false promises. Some parts of the story are scary (pitch darkness in a church stairwell at the beginning of the journey, for the telling of the creation story); some are exciting (crossing the Red Sea and slamming the door (draped with plastic sheeting to resemble the “walls of water”) on Satan as he attempts to follow; some are inspiring (standing at the font to renounce Satan, and watching him fall helpless to the floor); some are solemn and serious (anticipating our own death, by adding a cross to a graveyard scene and passing behind a curtain). At the end, we bind Satan and cast him away,[1] each child adds a “saint” figure to a feltboard scene of the New Jerusalem, and we march away singing.

Well, I’m not alone. The Bible Halloween funhouse is an idea whose time has come.

“Shake your city with the most ‘in-your-face, high-flyin’, no denyin’, death-defyin’, Satan-be-cryin’, keep-ya-from-fryin’, theatrical stylin’, no holds barred, cutting-edge’ evangelism tool of the new millennium!” shouts the web site of Colorado’s New Destiny Christian Center, whose pastor, the Rev. Keenan Roberts, invented the Hell House around ten years ago and now markets it online for $299.00. “Piece by piece, prop by prop, costume by costume—the master plan is organized in a comprehensive manual. A video of what Hell House in action looks like and a special-effects compact disc audio master are also included. This sizzling evangelism event is designed to capture the attention of our sight and sound culture!”

Costumed demons guide visitors through five scenes: “the funeral of a young homosexual male who believed the born gay lie and died of AIDS;” “a riveting reenactment of a clinical abortion;” “a satanic ritual involving a human sacrifice;” “a drunk-driving accident where a father realizes he has just killed his own family;” and a teen suicide. Then, in scene six, “the tour experiences the agony of the sights, sounds and smells of hell as well as Satan himself declaring that all of what the tour has seen in Hell House is his handiwork. They are rescued out of hell by heaven’s angels who escort them to scene seven which is heaven.” There, “the tour meets Jesus, sees the glory and splendor of heaven and is given the opportunity to pray the prayer of salvation.”

Additional scenes, available separately, include “Date Rape,” “Gay Wedding,” “Rave” (“underground world of rave clubs and drug usage”) another drunk driving scene—this time the guilty parties are teens, “buzzed after the prom”—domestic abuse, and a school shooting.

Even allowing for the predictable obsession of the right-wing churches with sexuality and abortion, the scenes seem to be picked as much for their capacity to shock as for their moral seriousness. I doubt, for example, that Satanism and human sacrifice are a real temptation for American teens; meanwhile there is no mention of such real-life issues as competitiveness, jealousy, cheating, lying, and character assassination, that can be truly poisonous in the worlds of school, sports, and social relationships. I would be interested to find out if the “school shooting” scene raises the issues of bullying as a common, and serious, occasion of sin, or whether the shooters are merely depicted as devils incarnate and the innocent victims as Christian martyrs, as in the (apparently inaccurate) story of one of the victims of the Columbine tragedy.

Hell House is a high-tech version of the hellfire-and-damnation preaching that has long characterized certain branches of Christianity. True to that tradition, it reduces the Good News of Jesus Christ to the message that the meaning of salvation is to avoid, or be rescued from, horrifying, disgusting, and frightening experiences, and from the bad and evil spirits (and their human minions) who would try to harm us outright, or entice us into harm under the guise of fun or thrills or self-fulfillment or whatever. It does not appear as if any moral distinction is even made between those horrifying experiences that just happen to us (domestic violence of which we are the victims); those which we choose, knowing they are wrong (drunk driving); those into which we fall in desperation (suicide); and those into which we (supposedly) might be tempted through our own ignorance and the evil designs of others (homosexuality, in their view). All of it is just bad: horrifying, frightening, disgusting.

The most horrifying, frightening and disgusting prospect of all is eternal damnation, and that is the one thing we can surely avoid, by accepting Jesus.

And this, it seems, is Jesus’ only purpose, and his only achievement. Apparently he did not preach, or teach, or heal; he did not call disciples, rebuke the religious establishment, or feed the five thousand; he did not wash his disciples’ feet, touch lepers, or eat with the outcast; he may as well not have risen from the dead: all he did was reveal to us the magic words that will infallibly rescue us from horrors beyond our imagining. Some day he will, with triumphant glee, send all the bad guys to suffer the revolting and terrifying punishments that they had tried to visit on us, the saved.

How much of scripture—how much of the riches of the faith given to the saints—these people seem to be missing: how narrow (and ultimately uninteresting!) their Good News, so that the way to make it appealing is to contrast it so vividly to the Bad News, to scare people into church, and then to package church as entertainment, hardly distinguishable (with its amplified music and electronic special effects and its microphone-clutching worship leaders) from the malls and rock concerts and raves that are portrayed as the source of so much evil.

Make no mistake: this is now what many intelligent secular people imagine when they hear the words “Christian,” “salvation,” “faith,” “Bible,” and “evangelism.”

When does a distorted and debased version of the Gospel, and of church, become so problematic that we must flat-out denounce it, even though it claims the name of Jesus Christ? Do we just loftily ignore it, and hope it somehow goes away; or do we confront it—and if so, how? My daughter (a candidate for ordination) recently said to me, “If I couldn’t be in an Episcopal church, I would be much more comfortable in an egalitarian conservative Jewish synagogue than in a fundamentalist Christian church, in spite of the fact that the most important article of my faith is one that I supposedly share with the fundamentalist Christians and not with the Jews.” I heartily agreed with her. Some of this is a matter of culture, class and education. But not all. I really believe they are preaching a different Jesus than the one I find in the Bible. When does the time come to say so—publicly, loudly, and often?

(c) 2007 by Gretchen Wolff Pritchard. All rights reserved.

[1] This is not in the book; we added it some years after the book was published. For more information about the Bible Halloween funhouse, feel free to give me a call.

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Excerpted from the Beulah Land curriculum, available from Beulah Enterprises.

Gathering and greeting

If your children arrive over an extended period of time, it helps to have a simple gathering activity waiting for them, such as coloring or joining in informal singing.

Early arrivers often want to help set up, and it’s nice if you can accommodate that wish—but be sure that the space is already orderly and peaceful, and the leader calm and ready, by the time you expect a significant number of children to be there.

If the children all enter the worship space together (for instance if they are in church for the opening hymn and then come to a children’s chapel), a formal procession with a crucifer will help to establish a reverent and prayerful atmosphere.

If you use candles in worship, you can appoint an “acolyte” to light the candles (under close supervision), using a proper acolyte’s candle-lighting wand. Children adore doing this. There may be other ceremonial roles you can distribute among the children, such as ringing a bell to mark the start of worship.

Learning to make silence

Communal, reflective ritual has few models in our culture. Today’s children are used to being entertained.

  • Most of what children think of as “fun” involves either passive entertainment or frenetic activity.
  • Many of the things children do together (with other children or with adults) are highly stimulating, with bright, fast-moving visual images, constant background noise, hurry, and multi-tasking.

Children are also used to being told to “be quiet.”

  • “Being quiet” is typically negative: it means not bothering the adults: it translates into “being bored.”
  • Or it means paying attention to academic instruc-tion or doing academic tasks.
  • At best, it means quiet solitude with a book or an absorbing activity.
But the words, singing, story and silence of liturgical worship are neither entertainment, nor passive inertness, nor academic instruction, nor even solitary absorption in thought.

  • We want to open to children a world of joy that is not the same thing as “fun.”
  • And we urgently want to avoid giving them the idea that God wants them to “be quiet” in the way adults are always telling them to “be quiet.”

Children may have difficulty realizing that quiet can be truly communal, and may be desired for its own sake, as attentive, reflective stillness. It helps to give this kind of being quiet a distinct name, such as “making silence,” or “finding your center” or “finding your peaceful place.”

An atmosphere of peace and attentiveness grows out of the leader’s calm, friendly sense of his or her own confidence and authority. Establish a few simple rules, positively stated:

  • Raise your hand and wait your turn
  • Stay in your seat
  • Respect your neighbor
  • Keep your hands to yourself

Write out the rules at the beginning of the order of worship, make sure the children know them, and apply them consistently. Be sure to restate your rules frequently, so that infrequent attenders are not embarrassed by being reprimanded for behaviors that they did not realize were out of bounds. It may be helpful to repeat the rules out loud, together, before the opening of every week’s worship.

NOTE: Make sure your worship order is short enough so that, except for children with special needs, bathroom trips during worship should be unnecessary.

Worship, singing and story

Because liturgy is not academic instruction, there is no need to insist that all the children “pay attention” at all times, in the sense of sitting up straight, eyes forward, repeating the responses at the correct times. As long as a child is quiet and not distracting others, withdrawal into the self during singing and scripted responses may open the way for meditation and even prayer.

During the story, however, the leader should expect, and encourage, a higher level of focused attentiveness. Usually, this is not difficult: the children want to listen and participate. But children are distractible, and distraction is contagious, so if one or a few children begin to whisper, invade each other’s space, or compete for the leader’s attention, it’s important to intervene quickly—not with a scolding, but with a reminder to pay attention and listen “so you don’t miss the story.”

NOTE: Be sure to allow the children space to experience their own reactions to the story. When they make comments or ask questions, try to refrain from labeling any of their res-ponses as “wrong” or “right” (unless it is a simple matter of facts, such the identity of a character or an element of the plot). And never instruct or exhort a child or a group of children to feel a certain way about the story.

The storyteller will need to find his or her own level of interactivity together with the children:

  • You may wish to establish at the outset that the children are to allow the storyteller to complete the story without interruptions, and that “the time for questions is after we have all heard the story.”
  • Or you may let the children’s own response guide you from week to week. Sometimes they will have a lot of questions, or simply be more restless than usual; the story then may be allowed to become a dialogue, with the storyteller asking a lot of leading questions to keep the kids engaged, or allowing them time to ask their questions and contribute their ideas (but “raise your hand and wait your turn!”), even if this forces the storyteller to abridge the story in order not to have the worship run overtime.
  • At other times, the children will be happy to allow the storyteller to deliver the story almost like a performance.

Wondering about the story

After the story, the children may be raising their hands with more questions, or you may wish to introduce some transitional time for conversation before the remainder of the liturgy. This can vary greatly from week to week depending on the children’s mood and behavior, the length of the story, and so on. At the beginning of the year, all such transitional time should be kept very short and simple.

You may choose to introduce the conversation time with specific “wondering questions.” Suggested wondering questions are provided for all the stories in the curriculum.[1] Often, however, wondering questions supplied by the adult leader are of no interest to the children, who have their own questions about the story.

There is no need to press specific questions on the children. Wondering questions should not be used as leading questions to elicit certain responses from the children, or to quiz them to see if they have been listening or have understood the story.

Let the children’s questions lead the way. A child with a simple factual question (such as “What is that thing in the tent?”) can, of course, be answered simply and straightforwardly (“Remember? That’s the ark of the covenant, the golden box with the commandments inside.”)

Open-ended questions are best returned to the children as wondering questions:

Child Why didn’t the king let the people go?
Leader Nicole is wondering why Pharaoh, the King of Egypt,
didn’t want to let the people go. I wonder, why didn’t
Pharaoh want to let them go?

This response to one child’s question invites other children to offer their thoughts to the question itself, not to the teacher. Each response can simply be restated by the leader: “Zach is thinking that Pharaoh liked having them there to boss around.”

The leader’s own thoughts on the subject can be included among the responses, without invalidating any of the children’s responses, which may make more sense to them:

Leader I wonder if he might have been worried that the other
people in Egypt would laugh at him if he let them go.

Again, you should resist the temptation to answer questions that the children have not asked, or to quiz them on the story.

Praying together

If time allows and your group is not too large, you may wish to ask the children if they have prayer requests. Once invited and given, such requests must be acknowledged in some way during the prayer time that follows.

This does not mean that you need to remember exactly all of the children’s concerns—the names of family members or pets, for example—but simply that in any extemporaneous prayer that comes after the requests, the leader must be sure to incorporate at least the general kinds of concerns brought up by the children, such as “all the people we love and are worried about” or “our grandparents who are sick” or “our schools where there has been bullying” or “our pets who have died.”

Don’t forget to invite children into thanksgiving as well as petition and intercession.

If your prayer time is simply silence, you can acknowledge prayer requests as you invite the children into the silence, using words such as these: “Now let’s remember the people [and animals] who need our prayers, especially the ones that have just been mentioned here; and all of us can pray in our hearts for anything or anybody that we want to hold up before God, and we can thank God for all the good things in our lives.”

Try to achieve at least a moment of real silence before concluding the prayer time. Generally, the formal closing prayer should be said by the worship leader alone, at least for the first half of the year. As the children become more familiar with the worship order, the leader can invite “anybody who is old enough to read, or has learned the words” to join in the prayer.

Offertory, announcements, and dismissal

If the children will not be in church for the offertory, it is entirely appropriate to pass an offertory basket. This offering may be designated for some purpose such as an outreach ministry. If the children are in church for the offertory, this part of the liturgy may be omitted.

The announcement time is an opportunity to remind the children of what is expected of them at the close of worship—how they are to line up, where they are to go, and what they will be doing in their activity time. If there are any new children, make sure they are familiarized not only with the procedures but also with their group leader’s name and face. The worship leader, or whoever is responsible for organizing the art projects, can also point out any ground rules for using the art materials—for the benefit of the groups leaders as much as the children, especially if the group leaders have not had a large part in preparing the project.

[1] For more on “wondering questions” see Young Children and Worship by Sonja Stewart and Jerome Berryman (Westminster John Knox, 1989), p. 31.

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