I was overchurched as a child. The prevailing ethic of our church community dictated that "every time the church doors are open you should be there." Whether our family actually succeeded in this, I am not sure. But, at any rate, my childhood memories are filled with those of my reluctant but compulsory attendance at more church gatherings than I thought I could bear.
What stands out in my boyhood memories is an assortment of odd characters. I can recall being sternly warned by one member not to eat snow because it had been poisoned by Nikita Khrushchev. An elder of the church adamantly maintained on more than one occasion that we had not "evoluted." A brigade of lay evangelists confronted devout Lutherans or Presbyteriansor even people who had been baptized in the right way but with the wrong ideaon their doorsteps, unblinkingly informing them that they were destined to be cast into the lake of fire unless they converted (i.e., joined our church). These guys made the Sanctified Brethren of Lake Wobegon look like Unitarians. There was Al, who, upon greeting you at the church door with a handshake, would inexplicably pull your hand up into his moist underarm. I learned quickly to enter church through the side door. There was Mr. Reed, an elderly man who sat in the choir, facing the congregation, and had the rather dispiriting habit of elaboratelyeven ceremoniouslyhacking phlegm from his deepest recesses and then, predictably, leaning forward to spit it into the carpet in front of his seat.
We also had our share of hypocrites: the volunteer youth sponsor who, though recently married, attempted to seduce half of the teenage girls in the youth group; the other volunteer youth sponsor who succeeded in seducing another man's wife and running off with her. I can recall more than one occasion on which some of the churchmen traded racist jokesfeaturing, of course, the n-word as a kind of verbal centerpiece. Then the minister took an inordinate interest in the contents of a skirt or two in the congregation and was soon seen loading a U-Haul bound for another state.
There was also the Church Lady, who, outfitted with horn-rimmed glasses and a flannelgraph lesson, taught my Sunday school classes. If every believer is graced with some spiritual gift, such as hospitality or encouragement, hers was the gift of disapproval. This woman never understood that good behavior in little boys did not entail their acting like little girls, so I am sure that her reprimands brought out the worst in me. I could never seem to escape the Church Lady as she was also perpetually involved in vacation Bible school, that bane of summer; a whole week of daylight stolen from the middle of a sandlot-baseball-playing boy's vacation. Under her direction, we pledged allegiance to the Bible ("God's Holy Word") and to the Christian flag ("and to the Savior for whose kingdom it stands"), drank green Kool-Aid from Dixie cups, and glued macaroni to plates to form crosses.
As a child, I was dragged involuntarily to a plethora of gatherings and placed under the authority of dubious characters, many of whom might have made interesting studies in abnormal psychology. Some of this is perhaps the stuff cited by members of Fundamentalists Anonymous, a support group for people who have finally escaped the clutches of the religious authorities of their childhood, but who are still nursing old wounds.
But this company of the strange, the judgmental, and the hypocriticalin cooperation, of course, with the not-so-strange nor hypocriticalmanaged somehow to do me the invaluable service of laying a solid foundation for the faith of my adult life. Indeed, these imperfect people instilled within me my basic worldview by the time I was 4 years old. That worldview has undergone a bit of fine-tuning since then, but by age 4, I had the deep conviction that there is a God who is supremely good and wise, that he created us out of love, and that he wishes for us to learn to love one another in the same way that he loves us. This early orientation on my proper place in the grand scheme of things has been a keel that has directed safe passage through a variety of intellectual and emotional crosscurrents.
I suspect that the Church Ladywho in my memory is more an amalgam of many people who had an early influence on me than an actual personhad something less than an articulate and carefully reasoned theology. I would not be surprised to learn that she harbored some religious beliefs that were downright silly. But she is yet another example of those crude earthen vessels in which God has placed his treasure, and which he is able to use for his good purposes. Everywhere I looked, it seemed, there were examples of people struggling to live lives of discipleship as best they understood it. In short, I grew up in the midst of a community of people who embraced essentially the same Christian worldview, however imperfectly, and I am the better for it.
In addition to this network of believers who shared the burden of directing my earliest steps, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, there was the sense that those authority figures beyond the church wallsschoolteachers, for examplewere very much in league with my parents. But the winds have changed in our culture. The teachers in charge of our children may be more interested in dismantling their politically incorrect Christian convictions than encouraging them. And while I am not interested in joining a critique of today's children's cartoons for purportedly promoting the gay lifestyle, I do believe there is a cynical atmosphere that pervades many of the forms of entertainment to which today's children are exposed. It is the cynicism that marks our postmodern times and that promotes a sort of ironic detachment from any form of deep conviction and commitment. It is "hipness unto death." Our children are alive to it at earlier ages, with the result that the old loyalties can appear to them as quaint, hopelessly naïve, and easily parodied ("Sounds like The Waltons! Goodnight, John Boy!"). Thus the natural trusting innocence of childhood is lost.
The Church Lady is needed today more than ever. It would be the height of foolishness for us to expect to engender a robust faith in our children today without simply immersing them in a community of believing people as I was. There may be attempts within the home to instill faith and Christian virtues, but the prevailing winds of our culture are blowing strongly in the opposite direction. Young saplings are nearly certain to bend to and be shaped by those winds if not sheltered. And the only proven shelter is marked by a steeple.
Mark Linville is professor of philosophy at Atlanta Christian College.
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More about Mark Linville is available from his page at the Atlanta Christian College site.
Similar articles lamenting and praising an idiosyncratic church include:
Come, Lord JesusBut Not Too Soon | Why it's hard to be heavenly minded. (Aug. 25, 2005)
Why I Return to the Pews | The church has often left me bemused, bored, or mystified, but I can no more abandon it than I can myself. (Dec. 16, 2004)
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