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.