Yearly Religious Memory Dump

Warning – long, rambling personal narrative follows.

Last night I went to the Christmas program at the school that my kids attend. They attend a Catholic school. My family is not Catholic.

The kids, especially my older one, have been asking if they can turn Catholic. This is natural, being immersed in that environment and it is fine with me. My wife may turn Catholic as well. I told her I was good with it as long as they don’t mind that she is married to a non Catholic person – I have no intention to ever be Catholic.

The Christmas program was packed and the wife and I were relegated to some hard wooden benches in the back of the church since we were a bit late – she is always late. I always think these programs stink. Not that the kids and others aren’t trying, but my frame of reference is pretty skewed. More on that in a bit.

Every year while I am thinking about how bad the program is, I let my mind wander to my youth and the religious experiences I had while I was growing up. It is the one hour a year where I actually sit and try to dust off the cobwebs in my mind and go back in time to the 70s and 80s, to Rockford, Illinois.

My mother grew up in Akron, Ohio and attended the Akron Baptist Temple. It was a very conservative Baptist church back then. It was natrual when I was born that I would be raised in that environment. We attended a church in Rockford, Illinois that was also a very conservative Baptist congregation. In addition, I attended school there. It was a tiny school, with classes of twenty or so per grade.

The school was extremely strict by standards of today. Corporal punishment was freely dished out whenever needed. All of the boys had to have hair up over the ears and collar, and the girls always had to wear skirts. When they were in gym class, the girls were not allowed to wear shorts, but had to wear culottes.

As I read the first part of Albion’s Seed, I literally saw myself. Many of the things I read in there we did exactly to a tee during my childhood. There was a lot of fire and brimstone being preached there and the rule of the day was to guilt you into accepting the Lord into your heart, telling you how bad you are and that the only way to save yourself is to come clean. I remember one service where some “backsliders” were outed in the service. It was basically a public humiliation (I don’t remember what they did, probably played pinochle or something) and they ended up coming clean and being saved again. You always had to be “saved”. So, in the Baptists minds, you were going to hell out of the gate, unless you received the Lord “as your personal savior” – that phrase was repeated ad infinitum.

I remember in the large services that they would have an offering. This was the time where they would pass large wooden bowls through the aisles to collect donations. They preached tithing – giving ten percent of your income to the church. Looking back, I think of this public offering taking as a humiliation tactic to get people to drop their cash into the plate. Maybe I am wrong and other churches do this as well. I don’t know. I do remember how heavy the bowls felt to me when I was little.

We recited the Pledge of Allegiance to the United States every morning, as well as a pledge to the Christian Flag and also a pledge to the Bible. They really, really hated Communism, and the Communists and Socialists were villified almost as much as the devil himself. Jews were treated as royalty – I was always taught that they were the chosen people. I never actually met a Jew in person until I went to college at the U of Illinois. Absolutely true story. The Jewish population in Rockford was tiny (probably still is).

A special emphasis was placed on choir. We were taught from an early age how to sing correctly, using our diaphragms. We were also taught pitch, tone and timing. We had one of the best choirs in the state of Illinois and went to the state championships, where we placed. As the Catholic children paraded in front of the parents a few days ago and weakly sang their songs I mentally shook my head. The staff of the school really never took time to teach these children how to properly sing. The parents, of course, went wild with applause – I am quite sure that they have no frame of reference as to how a well trained choir can sing. The choirs that I was in were like a pro basketball team, and the choirs I saw a few nights ago were like a pickup game. There was simply no comparison.

I am not sure why this is. I would imagine that the school my kids attend use their time to do other things. I don’t want to bash the school my kids attend as they are getting a damned good education, and they very much enjoy the teachers and kids. Just saying that they can’t sing their way out of a paper bag.

As I grew up, into ninth grade or so, things deteriorated for us at the Baptist church. My father started to dedicate more time to his business and began not to show up at church. I would imagine that our donations started to dwindle as well as we had some very tough times in that period. I always thought my mother dragged my father along to church anyways. Eventually we dropped out of that church (and church altogether) and I was transferred to a school run by an Assembly of God church.

I was mystified when I attended the first service there during school and people were raising their hands up in the air, and speaking in tongues. The base education I had received at the Baptist place didn’t let these things compute and I outright rejected the practices. I would have been spanked unmercifully if I would have uttered a peep in the Baptist church services and I sat like a statue during the Assembly of God services as I was used to. One time the Assembly of God school brought in a faith healer and did their deal on the kids. I refused this practice outright as well. A few months later I randomly polled the students that got “healed” that day and the results were predictable. I felt bad afterwards after asking one girl who had scoliosis if she was indeed healed and she said no and started to well up a bit.

I received a good, solid education at the Assembly of God church school as well as the Baptist school and my parents worked very hard to keep me out of the Rockford, Illinois public school system (for good reason). I ended up being salutatorian and got accepted into the University of Illinois. When I got there it was apparent that the education I received wasn’t good enough. But I had good study and work habits instilled in me and eventually got my BA with a solid A-/B+ average. Even made the Dean’s list once. And that was in the middle of partying like a rock star for four straight years.

Those college stories may be for another day. Or maybe they would be better served staying untold.

As the Christmas program wound down, and my memories faded back into the nether regions of my grey matter for another year or so, I had one more thought.

No matter what religion you are, nor your background, what could possibly be so bad as to celebrate the existence of Jesus of Nazareth? Even if you don’t worship him or think he is a god, you have to acknowledge that our country and the world wouldn’t exist as we know it without his existence. And it would be a much more horrible place.

31 thoughts on “Yearly Religious Memory Dump”

  1. Interesting stuff. I didn’t know that you can sing! I never learned properly and my own mother is a music teacher, no less. You need to sing the Bears fight song better up in the cheap seats.

    Since I don’t have kids I don’t spend even an hour a year thinking about the past like that. I got thrown out of our church because we had some liberal guy who came in to the Methodist church talking about the unilateral nuclear weapons ban (this was when there was a big stink with the placement of tactical nuclear missiles in Europe) and I stood up to him and told him that was crap and we could never trust the Russians. I was about 11 or something like that at the time. That was the end of church for me.

  2. So that’s why guys get unhinged in college – I’d never understood the intensity. I see: it’s a forbidden fruit; compensation mechanism. When one gets spanked all his childhood for not sitting straight…

    Something’s wrong with your conclusion, Dan, but I’ll leave it as is. It’s a Sunday.

  3. Thanks, Dan. Agreed about the singing. Also interesting to see ne family’s shift from old style Protestantism to the populist and revivalist form. Interesting that the old Yankee ways depicted in Albion’s Seed lived on so long. Interesting also that you were Baptists. I think the people in the Yankee zone of influence who stayed rigious became Baptists, starting during the Second Great Awakening. The rest became secular progressives.

  4. thanks Lex – I should note that as a family we never attended the Assembly of God church – we just quit going to church altogether after the Baptist church fallout – I just went to school at the Assembly of God place.

  5. The comment about singing is interesting. I had read that all babies are born with perfect pitch and tonal languages like the Asian languages maintain that ability. It also explains why children need to start very young with music. Being tone deaf myself, I have little experience beyond that. Maybe a music major could elaborate.

  6. Today, December 12, is the anniversary of an Aztec man named Juan Diego receiving a vision of Mary, the mother of Jesus in the year 1531 on Tepeyac Hill, Mexico City. There is a relic associated with that vision, an image of Mary on a tilma or traditional cloak worn by Juan Diego, believed to be miraculously imprinted. The relic and its image and the accompanying account of the vision are known as Our Lady of Guadalupe.

    This relic, kept in a cathedral in Mexico City, was recently taken out and shown to the Secretary of State of the United States of America, who was inadequately briefed and asked, “Who painted this?” This incident seems odd inasmuch that unless you are both Catholic and Mexican, you probably didn’t know much if anything about Our Lady of Guadalupe until recently, but information on this topic is being actively disseminated in progressive media (NPR, PBS) as a way of better understanding the culture of our Mexican and Mexican heritage bretheren. You don’t need to believe in the account of events or the miracle of the tilma, but an American who keeps up with current events ought to know that Our Lady of Guadalupe is a powerful national symbol in Mexico and to the Mexican immigrant community in the U.S..

    That symbol is one of unity of the peoples of the Americas as the account is one of the Aztec peoples embracing the Christian religion of their European conquerors upon receiving a sign incorporating Aztec symbolism. More recently, Pope John Paul II canonized Juan Diego as a Christian saint in 2002, declared Our Lady of Guadalupe as Patroness of the Americas, and encouraged incorporation of Aztec art forms into Christian worship in Mexico, when such art is not in contradiction of Christian belief or teaching.

    This weekend was a little complicated because 1) today we are snowed in but good, and 2) we are not allowed to celebrate the Feast Day of Our Lady of Guadalupe on a Sunday during Advent. The neighborhood church (St Thomas Aquinas Parish, Madison) had a Guadalupe pageant on Friday. Our church janitor was dressed in traditional Mexican costume and plays a mean Aztec drum, and we had a man in Aztec costume dancing and blowing a conch horn in veneration before a shrine of the Blessed Mother.

    The high school students of St Ambrose academy put on the pageant, and I cried the whole time when the Blessed Mother addressed Juan Diego in the terms of endearment of a mother towards a child, as it was only 6 years ago that my own mom addressed me that way, when she was otherwise speech-impaired with Parkinsons until she passed away a year later.

    Our Guadalupe pageant was quite modest and didn’t tax the sit-muscles, but Holy Redeemer Parish downtown has a substantial Hispanic community, Mexican and other nationalities, that really pulls out the stops, and they are probably doing something over at St Joseph on the Beltline.

    Dan, as you are part of the Madison Catholic community, you really need to “do” the Feast Day of Our Lady of Gaudalupe some year. As today is December 12, Feliz Fiesta de Nostre Senora de Guadalupe.

  7. Interesting.

    Do either of your parents attend church now? Would either of them be surprised if your wife/children converted to Catholicism? It seems sad that your mother and father apparently had different priorities…I assume that neither did any kind of family religious study with you as a child.

    In contrast, my parents taught us to read by having us read sections of Bible out loud in the evenings…for various reasons this got phased out in place of devotional readings at the breakfast table, but family readings continued along other lines in the evening. This made church life and family religious life supplements to each other. That, and the way they interacted with other people at Church, made such a falling-away nearly impossible.

    I wonder how many people’s religious observance is set for them by the example they saw of their parents’ religious observance?

    WRT the difference between Baptist, Assemblies of God, and Catholic: the Baptist Church has deep institutional memories of church being a place for ‘respectful’ people to gather and do Serious Religious Observance, while the Assemblies of God church has institutional memories that date back to the wild services held at Azusa Street, mostly among lower-class minorities.

    Catholic worship is influenced by millennia of tradition, much of it in a time when literacy was not expected among the congregants and Latin. The fact that the original Roman services were in Latin, and Clergy had to learn Latin to learn literacy, kept services in Latin long after it disappeared as the vernacular language of attendees at Mass. However, the language of Catholic worship (and some of its structure) was changed after a significant global Church Council in the mid-20th Century.

    (Can you tell that part of the religious education my parents gave me was a broad introduction to the history of Christianity?)

  8. Karrde – “Do either of your parents attend church now? Would either of them be surprised if your wife/children converted to Catholicism? It seems sad that your mother and father apparently had different priorities…I assume that neither did any kind of family religious study with you as a child.”

    No, and no to the questions. As to my folks priorities, my fathers main priority was to keep us alive, hence he had to work more. Times were not easy for my family in the late 70’s. My “new” clothes all came from the Salvation Army or hand me downs. The Baptist church that we were attending didn’t really seem to care that my family was very close to broke, just seemed more concerned that my father wasn’t attending church and eventually the church made an ultimatum – either go to church or get kicked out. My folks told them that they had no choice but to leave at that point. A pretty brutal thing for the church to do if you ask me. Not very Jesus like.

    We did no religious studying as a family when I was growing up.

  9. I should add that in contrast to the Baptist church, the Catholic church seems to have no issues at all (*yet*) with the fact that my family may become Catholic and that I will not. Then again they could be desperate for parishoners with possible membership fallout from the pedophilia stuff, but I really don’t know that.

  10. “…no issues at all (*yet*) …”

    This happens all the time these days, couples with mixed religions or one with no particular religion.

    I would be very surprised if you had any hastle about it.

    If your wife and kids are interested in joining, that is a strong indication that the parish is doing something right, or doing a lot of things right, which in turn means they are probably not desperate for membership. Even if they were trying to get parishoners, which you rarely hear about among Catholics, Catholics tend not to do “membership drives.” We should probably do more to promote ourselves, actually.

    A person who is interested in joining, or just learning more, usually has to initiate a contact. Every person who joins gets individual attention and education, and if they are adults, have to make a mature and uncoerced decision.

    My favorite story about that was how Edith Stein joined. She was a non-practicing Jew. She was a brilliant young philosophy scholar (a woman in a man’s world before and during World War I in Germany). She read the life of St. Teresa of Avila, and decided that St. Teresa’s depiction of the world was the fulfillment of her philosophy, which led to her conversion. The story I heard was that she proceeded to apply her brilliant mind to reading up about the Catholic faith. Then one day she knocks at the door of the Catholic rectory near where she lived, and asks to see the priest. She tells him she wants to join the Church. He says, oh, not so fast, there is a period time you have to spend in study … . She says, ask me anything. He quizzes her and she knows everything. Apparently she was able to join on an expedited basis.

  11. “…that is a strong indication that the parish is doing something right…” – yes they are. The people there have been nothing but great to this point. We started with our first child at a different Catholic school and things there were not so great, but this particular parish is a very good fit for us and we have been here for several years now with no plans on moving.

  12. Fascinating post, Dan. Thanks for sharing such a personal piece of your history.

    The people there have been nothing but great to this point.

    This points out the truth of John 13:35, “By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” Or, as it might be rendered in the modern vernacular, “Eighty percent of effective evangelism consists of not being a bunch of jerks.”

    Your observation about the low quality of the singing is also revealing. I have noticed a pattern among many of my fellow Christians that I call Hurray for Our Side.

    The pattern consists of setting a much lower standard for explicitly Christian undertakings, especially entertainment, as compared with our standards for secular work and media. The justification — usually unspoken — is that anything intended to spread the Gospel is an unalloyed good, and therefore deserves unqualified support from Christians, no matter its other faults. The result is often the opposite of the one intended: programs or products so obviously inferior to their secular counterparts that they have no hope of attracting an audience outside the church.

    This also sends three clear, although unintended, messages:
    1) All our talk about the power of Christ is just that (talk), since it can’t even empower us to create a good Christmas pageant.
    2) The church apparently has little appeal to people with natural talent or skills, since we can’t recruit someone capable of putting together a good program.
    3) We don’t really care that much about our supposed Good News, since we aren’t willing to put the time and effort necessary to present it in its best light.

    These criticisms don’t apply universally, but the problem is widespread, especially with movies. If we can’t even keep our standards up in music, our traditional strength, then we’re really slipping.

    All of which prompts me to give a big thank you to the contributors and commenters at Chicago Boyz. There aren’t many other places I would air dirty laundry like this and expect a constructive response.

  13. Setbit – “Eighty percent of effective evangelism consists of not being a bunch of jerks.”

    We experienced a bunch of jerks at the last Catholic place and it is why we are where we are now. Not only are these people not a bunch of jerks, they are friendly, give space when we need it, and have welcomed our children and us into their homes and we have had them over to ours. Real, nice, people.

    As far as the Christmas show goes, perhaps they just have better things to do than teach the kids how to sing. That is fine with me – I will go through the hour plus of pain every winter in exchange for my kids getting a killer education with a solid moral base to help them move forward.

    As they get older they can decide for themselves if they want to continue in the Catholic church (if they do indeed convert to Catholicism).

  14. Dan – “…perhaps they just have better things to do than teach the kids how to sing.”

    Quite so. I was just using the Christmas pageant as a jumping off point for my rant about Christian culture, but I suppose it reads as if I was taking a bunch of Catholic school kids to task for their amateur musical production. Which I suppose is an object lesson in how not being a jerk can be trickier than it would seem. :-/

  15. The fact that the original Roman services were in Latin, and Clergy had to learn Latin to learn literacy, kept services in Latin long after it disappeared as the vernacular language of attendees at Mass.

    Latin ceased being the vernacular for anyone when Rome fell. It was the language of educated people for a thousand years when most common people were speaking local dialects and could not read. As such, it served an enormously important role. Copernicus, for example, was not named Copernicus at birth. Most scholars took a Latin name during their education. Albertus Magnus, the bishop in France that Thomas Aquinas walked from souther Italy to be his student, was not named that name at birth. He discovered arsenic and was probably the greatest scientist of his day. They all spoke Latin so it did not matter their country of origin, they were all Latin scholars. At the medical school of Padua, there were small societies of students from each country. William Harvey, under the Latinized version of his name, was president of the English society for two years, probably because it was so small. After he returned to England, he discovered the circulation of the blood and published it in Latin so all scholars could read it.

    English has largely assumed the same role at present.

  16. Karrde – If you read the first section of Albion’s Seed it is explained pretty well. To them, and to the people at that Baptist church we attended, you were either in their church, or not. No inbetween, and no excuses accepted.

  17. What seems strange to me is that I’ve seen similar situations play out in other churches, and the church typically attempted to offer a helping hand…

    I must have come from a different branching of the four groups of people mentioned in Albion’s Seed.

  18. I was raised in the Methodist Church. My wife, and therefore my kids, are Roman Catholic. I let her know very early on that there was no way I was converting. And after 32 years, haven’t.

    Nothing wrong with Catholicism in general, it’s just that some of the Church’s practices aren’t in line with my own beliefs. Different interpretations.

    But, if you stick to the main lessons- Tee Golden Rule, and the Ten Commandments, well, all Christian churches are pretty much the same there.

    The reason mainstream Protestant denominations are losing members is the main lessons. Their leadership wants to interpret the Ten Commandments the same way liberals want to interpret the Constitution.

  19. “… if they can turn Catholic.”

    “Turn” Catholic? Pls let me know how one “Turns Catholic” Ughhh…

    Is that similar to “turning coats”?
    Or, perhaps, “turning traitor”?

    Subtley Anti Catholic. Nice.

    I have noticed at least two perhaps three articles on this site that are either wholly anti Catholic or…. insinuatingly so with comments about “turning” Catholic. If you lived in a Catholic household as you claim, you’d have a much better grasp of what the Catholic Church really is for the millions of Faithful. But, as I say, it’s doubtful. You might want to ask your wife and her pastor about “valid marriages”.

    Anyhooo… last time here for me.

  20. Anon you are wrong, plain and simple. I never claimed to live in a Catholic household so you are either making it up or just being malicious – probalby both. It is too bad you stopped reading the post after the first few lines and then didn’t read ANY of the comments where I say nothing but good things about the Catholic church/parish that my children are attending school. By turning I meant converting, or choose whatever words you like. How you can try to twist my words above into an anti-Catholic rant is beyond me. I am glad it is your last time here. Back to Kos with you.

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