Bible Porn

Once, when I was eight, I knelt down at my bed alongside my mother, admitted I was a sinner, and asked Jesus Christ into my heart. Once, when I was eleven, I stood up at a Bible campfire and promised my peers and elders that I would earnestly strive to bring my unsaved friend to church. And once when I was 22, among ten high school boys whose souls had been entrusted to me for a week, I sat down on the carpet and read them, for their edification, Bible porn.

"Judges 19:29-30:  When he reached home, he took a knife and cut up his concubine, limb by limb, into twelve parts and sent them into all the areas of Israel. Everyone who saw it said, ‘Such a thing has never been seen or done, not since the day the Israelites came up out of Egypt. Think about it! Consider it! Tell us what to do!’ "

These high school boys were members of what I have in the past called “My People,” a term that referred sometimes to those who accepted that a salad was to consist of, and only of, iceberg lettuce, tomato wedges, thousand island dressing, and Bacos. Sometimes the term referred to Midwesterners, sometimes to Swedish American-immigrants, sometimes to evangelicals. But mostly "My People" meant the Evangelical Covenant Church of America.

Created by a pietistic break-off of the Swedish State Lutheran church in the 19th century, the Evangelical Covenant Church is a denomination of about 100,000 members. Although they are now found in almost every state of the nation, My People cluster predominantly around Chicago and Minneapolis. Leaving the dry, empty formalism of state churches in Sweden for something more real, My People are Scandinavians with a heart for Jesus. Born again Swedes. They are evangelical enough to think that a heartfelt conversion experience is necessary to ensure your spot in the Kingdom of Heaven, but Swedish enough to not make a big fuss over it.

Migrating to the US, Covenanteers found greater religious freedom, but greater competition as well. Unable to simply baptize their infants into the state church before the kids even knew what was happening, My People now had to wait until some age of accountability and then let their kids make their own decisions. From every side – from charismatics, to archaeologists, to MTV – forces threatened to take Covenant kids from the faith of their fathers.

Hence the creation of CHIC.  Once standing for Covenant HIgh Congress, now like KFC or FedEx,CHIC stands for nothing but itself. Every three or four summers, CHIC calls every 13-17 year-old Covenant Kid from across the country to a big college campus where for a week they are bombarded with so much high-power Christian fun and high-volume Christian rock, and so many high-impact Christian speakers, that they have no choice but to dedicate their lives to Jesus Christ.

I attended CHIC in 1984, but because my mom had gone and gotten me saved seven years before, all I could do was get “recommitted.” And I had already been recommitted 19 times. So during the altar calls, while gospel music played softly and the speaker asked people to cast off their sins, come on down and accept Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior, I sat and felt guilty for feeling nothing at all.

On the one hand it made perfect sense for me to sign up as a counselor for the 1991 CHIC held at Indiana University.  Family connections plus regular Covenant camp attendance plus having just graduated from the denomination's college, North Park, plus coordinating Covenant volunteer groups through my job with Habitat for Humanity, meant that I probably already knew 300 of the 3000 kids and counselors in attendance, and the others were probably only separated by single degree. These were My People, after all. Not to go would have been like ditching a big family reunion. But on another hand, signing up made as much sense as shaving my head and passing out the Bhagavad Gita at airports. Because I didn't really want anybody to have a conversion experience, I went to be a counselor at CHIC to save the children from being saved.

The CHIC counselor application asked for a statement of belief. I knew that the right answer was something like "Once I felt tempted to go to a party where alcohol was being served" or "Once my friends' parents got divorced and I was feeling really down and I didn't know where God was in all of this." Then I would relate how I turned to a favorite passage of scripture and how it made me realize that Christ indeed was alive and relevant for my life today. 

But I had no such simple heartfelt story of Christ's presence in my life. I stayed away from all the traditional Christian events at my Christian college and instead hid away in the library and struggled through deep thoughts and hard texts trying to make God and Jesus and the world as a whole make some sort of sense to me. From Kierkegaard I knew that "Truth is Subjectivity," from Nietzsche that Christians were pop-Platonists, and from Rene Girard that the New Testament revealed the scapegoat mechanism secretly present in all other myths. I knew Christianity, like life, was something far more complex and messy and hard and weird than you could explain to teens in a week. And I knew that it was condescending and wrong to make teens feel dysfunctional if they did not have a Jesus experience in just the way CHIC had pre-ordained for them.

I still considered myself a Christian, but I had no statement of belief. I wasn't even sure if belief itself was very Christlike. So, I wrote down on the application the Apostles' Creed: "I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth, and in Jesus Christ, His Only Son..." Look, I said, I just believe what everybody else believes; please don't make me personalize my belief the way that everybody else personalizes their belief. I knew it wasn't at all what they were looking for, but I figured if I quoted a central Christian creed they couldn't keep me out.

So it was that on a warm August afternoon, 1991, I was sitting in a circle on the carpet with the ten high school CHIC boys whom I would "counsel." The first activity we were to undertake together was a scripture lesson. The official CHIC scripture lesson was from Matthew 14, in which Peter starts to walk toward Jesus on the water, but then the disciple starts to sink. CHIC had provided brightly colored Xeroxed papers with "hip" clip art and with questions for me to give to each of my charges:  "Have you ever felt like you were sinking and called out to Jesus?" "What risks might Jesus like you to take this week?" 

I put away the sheets and asked my kids to turn to Judges 19. Judges 19 tells a tale less popular in evangelical circles. It tells the story of a Levite man who goes off to Bethlehem to track down his unfaithful concubine. On the way back, the Levite and his retrieved concubine stop to sleep in the town square at Gibeah. A Gibeahan offers to let the two travelers stay at his house instead.  But then the men of the town come and ask to have sex with the Levite. So then the Gibeahan host goes out and says, "No, my friends, don't be so vile. Since this man is my guest, don't do this disgraceful thing. Look, here is my virgin daughter, and his concubine. I will bring them out to you now, and you can use them and do to them whatever you wish." They rape and abuse the two women who then come crawling back to the house at dawn. What happens to the concubine next I mentioned at the start of this story.

After reading the passage to the kids that I was supposed to be turning on to the love of Jesus, I asked them what they thought. One kid from Alaska just got up and walked away. (He got himself assigned to another group and I didn't talk to him again.) I don't know what kind of reaction I was hoping for from the kids. Maybe, "Oh my God! This Bible-Christianity thing isn't as straightforward as I thought! I'm going to run away from my namby-pamby Covenant home, smoke unfiltered cigarettes and read about Kierkegaard and despair in a poorly-lit coffee house!" But instead, they just lounged there in their brightly-colored beach shorts and played with their sunglasses. One said something like, "So that's in the Bible. Huh." Then another one asked if they could go to the mall.

Everything was going okay until one of the CHIC authorities, Dale, came up to quiet us down. For most of the year Dale was the Youth Pastor for the Johnson County Covenant Church, and I had worked with him the previous summer when he brought his church youth group to Habitat for Humanity. But this week Dale was the Head of CHIC Security, The Covenant's Top Cop. It was his job not only to keep the kids away from unsafe and illegal activities, but from sinful ones as well.  He came up and asked me to keep my young ones in line. I explained to Dale that everything was okay because these youth were part of an experimental ministry project called "ARMMFART". ARMMFART stood for "Alternative Role Model Ministry For Apathetic and Reluctant Teens". My logic, as I explained it to Dale, was that not every kid at CHIC was going to connect with the rah-rah, happy shiny form of evangelicalism. I felt that it was my role to reach out to these kids. And if it took a few shenanigans to win them for Jesus, I thought it was worth it. I don't really know if I believed any of this. But I had good Covenant credentials and it sounded good, so Dale let it ride.

Bible porn continued. In place of the official CHIC lesson every night, I read to my campers about how Lot's daughters got him drunk and had sex with him, the sexual purity laws from Leviticus, how Noah got drunk and naked and his sons had to cover him up, and the place in Song of Songs where it talks about breasts. Again, the kids were amused, but mostly felt like they were getting to skip homework. The fact that the book the Covenant Church holds up as God's "only perfect rule for faith, doctrine and conduct" was full of smut made no apparent impression upon them. But, slowly, I believed, my message, whatever that message might be, was sinking in.

The last night of CHIC was the big altar call. Everything that was told to them so far in the week was just softening them up for the final night. The softer meaningful songs went on longer than other nights, and the speaker didn't make as many wisecracks. No fire, no brimstone, but in a sweet sincere voice, he made it clear that tonight was the night to give yourself to Jesus. Jesus loves you no matter what you've done and he wants you to start living for him today. Soft music played, whole rows of people put their arms around each other and swayed.

As emotionally-wrought CHIC kids came up to accept Jesus Christ as their personal savior, tears began to stream down the eyes of everyone in the arena. Except for ARMMFART. I was nervous about desanctifying this, the most sacred point of CHIC and of many young people's lives. But ARMMFARTers were mock-sobbing, loudly blowing their noses, hardly able to keep from busting out laughing.

Youth Pastor Cop Dale shot a glance back that let me know in no uncertain terms that this behavior was not okay.  But I only shrugged, helplessly, to tell him know that this was now out of my control. He came up and whisperingly (so as not to disturb the mood) told the kids that they should be ashamed of themselves and to keep it down. Apparently he had given up any hope of their souls being reached.

The kids quieted down eventually, but I was distraught. I was distraught by the emotional manipulation being perpetuated by the CHIC leaders. I was distraught by my kids' not knowing where to draw the line. I was distraught by my inability to make sense of what I was doing there. The soft music played on, the preacher again asked the kids to make a decision for Jesus tonight. Should I be listening to him? What had my arrogant ways done but created a bunch of teenage hooligans?

That night, back at the dorm, in place of our usual Bible porn lesson, I asked my kids what they thought of the altar call. No one had been paying enough attention to even know what was being said. Disgusted, I went to explain the whole program: just how and why CHIC had been trying to save them, and how I had been trying to save them from that.  What I had been trying to teach them that week was that salvation isn't enough. You aren't altogether without merit before you accept Jesus and you certainly aren't altogether good once you do accept him. You can't judge others based on whether or not they call themselves Christian or if they've had some special experience where Jesus entered their life. I don't know what happens after you die, I told them, but if Jesus is up there separating the sheep from the goats based on whether or not they get all weepy when Amy Grant songs are played soft, I don't want anything to do with it. There's a lot of other stuff going on in the world. People get drunk. People have sex. There's brutality, there's rape and mayhem, and that's just in the goddamned Bible. There's a whole filthy, messy, complicated world out there and nothing you learn at CHIC or Bible camp or at church tells you the first damn thing about how to deal with it. Do you understand?

Josh turned over on his bunk where he had been lying listening and scratched himself. Seth flipped through his motorcycle magazine. Some of the other kids started talking about which CHIC girls they thought were the best looking. I was ready to beat them all senseless for being so oblivious, for paying no attention at all to my theological message or to anyone else's. Then for a brief flashing moment, I saw them. I saw my kids. I saw the kids I counseled not as saved or unsaved, brainwashed or reflective, good or bad. I saw them as just boys in high school, each having their own lives and thoughts, even if such thoughts were only about how to blow things up, how to get girls, how to drive cars. For a brief and shining moment, I saw them like me, fellow Covenanteers, fellow children of the earth, yet entirely unlike me and entirely unfathomable. It was like watching a pornographic movie and all of a sudden – instead of feeling desire or disgust or even humor – seeing the real people behind the porn actor bodies and wondering who their mothers were, how their houses were decorated, what they had for lunch. I saw my kids, My People, for the first time in my life.

All week at CHIC, like my fellow counselors, I had been trying to convert my children to a program I did not really understand myself. Because it was too much, too much, to just let them lie there without categorization, without direction, without ultimate meaning. But the full reality of nine separate kids with all their own lives, their own thoughts, their own experiences, their own being, lasted only for that moment. The godlike perspective was too overwhelming to bear. So we all packed into my car and Seth drove us to the Steak & Shake and we popped straws and ate fries and talked about girls and cars and exploding Barbies.

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