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May. 27th, 2006 @ 09:59 pm kevin goes to bible camp
Current Mood: barely conscious
Current Music: Ben Folds - Losing Lisa
And it was actually fun. A lot of fun. And it didn't end in mass suicide! :D



It's exhausting, Cedar Campus is. Definitely not for everyone--and absolutely not for people who aren't Christian to begin with. It's like going to church, with worship music and praying and sermons and whatnot, except every day. Twice--once every morning, once every night. And for a good chunk of the afternoon you're doing really rigorous Bible study--my track did two two-and-a-half-hour sessions of Mark a day; that's about three pages of Mark for like five hours--and a decent amount of the rest of the time is spent in prayer.

The Jews among you (specifically Erica) may be pleased to hear that we sang the shema in English at least once a day. (And at the proper time, too--before the ancient priests would have gone in to eat the evening terumah, and, failing that, before sundown.) In no Christian theology are we required to sing the shema, but, well, Mark 12:28-31.

I do realize that from my description, Cedar Campus sounds an awful lot like a cult. I think they realize that also, which may be why they also gave us enormous swathes of leisure time every day, with much more on the Sabbath. (Can't say they're brainwashing us if they're giving us that much time to decompress and think for our ourselves.) About an hour a day of that is supposed to be for quiet meditation or talking to God by yourself, but they let you use that time any way you want, and they don't hassle you if you spend it getting some extra sleep or playing your Game Boy. It's a lot like living in a monastery in some respects--lots of prayer and quiet meditation, lots of spending time alone with nature, lots of menial labor in the service of your friends and your deity. Though I doubt that monks spend two or three hours a day kayaking or building sandcastles or flirting with other monks. And Cedar Campus itself is gorgeous--shady glens, mossy rocks, mirror-calm lakes. It's kind of Edenic, actually.

It didn't really become clear until the third or fourth week that this rigorous, God-immersion regimen was actually a very gentle boot camp for future pastors and lay leaders of the church--in our worship and our Bible studies there's a strong emphasis on leading other Christians in community activities, and attracting curious nonbelievers to the faith. At each evening service they distribute brochures and promotional materials for missionary and outreach programs, in the hopes that attendees will devote their typically prodigous faith to ministry and evangelism. As someone who once spent no small amount of time being on the receiving end of missionaries, I was amused but utterly unsurprised that they say a lot about the goodness of these causes and very little about what being a member of a foreign community actually entails. It's hard not to be sympathetic to their cause once you realize what they're all about, though. They have the best of intentions, and a faith that tells them God will provide all of the many things they don't have. I have a feeling that some of them are going to be rather disappointed when they realize it isn't that easy.

Most of the leadership-talk was lost on me--I had barely been to a Bible study before Cedar Campus; you could hardly expect me to lead one--but it was truly inspiring to be part of a community of such passionate, intelligent, non-brainwashed believers. Any Sunday school Christian or naive believer-since-birth had their faith blown out of the water, and anyone who was looking forward to a week of decompression and spiritual reassurance had their hopes utterly dashed.

As anyone who has actually read the New Testament knows, Christianity is complicated. It's not a crutch, it's a tourniquet. There are difficult passages in the Bible--fathers offering their sons in bloody sacrifice, seemingly meaningless acts of genocide, staggering triumphs of evil over good. There is Jesus recanting his faith on the cross and Paul telling us not to marry (not just sex, no marriage), and the seemingly meaningless slaughter of innocent creatures, and thinly veiled anti-Semitism and renunciations of some of the most sacred laws of Deuteronomy--not to mention the frequent calls to do things contrary and even opposite to human nature, expectations to do things no human could be expected to do. This is the atheist's Christianity. It is not an easy faith to believe, and the pastors working on staff pulled no punches for the sake of protecting our faith. The truths of Christianity are often bizarre and discomforting and morally ambiguous. And yet it is a religion that intelligent, open-minded, well-learned people believe. Not because these people are misguided, but because Testaments old and new alike are riddled with subtle truths. It is easy to do a straightforward, simple reading of Scripture, with simple lessons and simple messages--but every straightforward answer raises questions, and answering those questions raises more questions, and pretty soon it's like you've unraveled a thread from a ball of yarn and you realize that it isn't what you thought it meant at all. (To steal an aphorism from Zen Buddhism, the parable you understand is not the true parable.) Every one of Jesus's miracles has a richness of context and meaning beyond the act itself, subtle but accessible without a ridiculous amount of exegesis or knee-twisting reinterpretation--the multiplying of the loaves, the healing of the blind man, the Sermon on the Mount all say so much about Jesus as a man and a deity--and since Christianity has no Talmud, the burden of finding meaning rests on theologians and ordinary lay people. Jesus frequently chastises his disciples for taking things at face value, but there's so much that's easy to miss, even after a lifetime of study. Do not let the myths of popular culture fool you--this is not a comfortable or easy religion to believe.

It's kind of sad how misrepresented Christianity is, even among its believers. Real Christianity does not promise you happiness or complacency or personal fulfillment. It does not assert that all good people go to a magical playground in the sky or that all evil people spend eternity being raped by red horned men with pitchforks. It is not an institution of fear designed to oppress the poor and outlaw natural human desires and justify the occupation of countries hostile to Western influence. Rather, it is the opposite of all these things--it is a religion of courage and kindness and sacrifice, of justice and harmony, of conscience and hard work and humility, of morality over authority, of the continual challenging of your own beliefs. Above all, it is a religion of love. Of love for God, of love for your fellow human beings, of forgiveness for your enemies. The reason why it has such a bad rep today is because we have been getting it wrong for the past two thousand years--the boy-diddling priest, the vengeful crusader, and the Bible-thumping evangelist are not true Christians, yet they are the yardstick by which we are judged. Which I'll admit is not entirely unfair. The church sucks at being the church--it always has--and yet it's the one chance we've got, as a community of believers, of reaching the ideals on which it was founded.

But the truly inspiring thing is that so many of us are trying so hard. Cedar Campus is full of the Christians you never hear about--the ones that work soup kitchens, that deliver hope to impoverished inner-city communities, that risk their personal safety day after day to show history-jaded Chinese mainlanders that there is an alternative to the meaningless economic egomania of Maoist communism. There are a lot of picket-fence Christians, too, the kind that grow up in church communities taking Jesus for granted, but this camp tested their faith. By fire. If their faith was naive, and in danger of being lost to suffering, it was certainly tested at this camp. The staff workers pulled no punches--they asked all the hard questions, and gave few easy answers.

Oh man. Going into withdrawal. Not Jesus withdrawal, because that's not really possible. But it's strange to be in an environment where you're pretty much like going to church every day, and then moving back into an environment where you're not.

If anyone brainwashed me at that camp, it was definitely me. They gave us oodles and oodles of free time so we could get a rest from thinking about Jesus for hours at a stretch, but I don't think ten minutes went by in which I wasn't poring over some aspect of theology or my personal relationship to God that was troubling me. I even worried some of the other campers. Kiel--our dear and gentle OCF president, and a man of tremendous faith--saw me reading Ruth (it's a short book) before Bible study, and he shook his head at me and said, "Come on, man." And that level of spiritual involvement is annoying because there isn't a thing in this world that can't potentially remind you of God. God made the trees, God made the lake, God made the mustard on my ham and salami sandwich--well, okay, a factory made that, but God made the mustard plant it was made from. I could half imagine myself praying, "Our Father, who art in Heaven," and God throwing down His cell phone and shouting, "Me damn it, Kevin, stop calling me!"

So much more to say about Cedar Campus--but I'll let it rest for now.

In closing...I leave you a sign!
About this Entry
dd2guy
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From:hatikvah_42
Date:June 7th, 2006 01:25 am (UTC)
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Hurray for the shema! (I really like the shema...)

Testaments old and new alike are riddled with subtle truths.

Okay, okay. I'm really really going to read the whole Bible this summer. I'll be on the lookout for truths.

The church sucks at being the church

I had the sudden thought while reading this that it would be really cool if you became a minister or something.

It's funny (and I trust you will not be offended by this) but my immediate mental associations with Christian clergy are all very positive, while my immediate thoughts regarding strong Christian believers who are not clergy almost always carry and undercurrent of "they probably think I'm going to hell". (This is not true and not fair, but it's the first thing I think until proven otherwise.

There are a couple of reasons for this, I think. One is that Clergy of whatever faith usually double as counselors/spiritual advisors and if they're worth their salt they can handle basic philosphical questions and existential crises. Which requires a fair amount of moderation and worldly-wisdom that comes from having Seen It All, things the average lay-person doesn't have. The average person doesn't have to deal with the widely differing viewpoints of an entire congregation and is free to be as extreme as he or she desires. So, I guess even with the nut-case clergy that's out there, I assume a higher level of intelligence and thoughtfulness in Clergy, and assume also that they're NOT just taking things at face value, but have in fact questioned and searched and have decided to stick with their faith for a Reason, which they have presumably thought about long and hard. To be a religious leader you have to be a thinker and a philosopher and have some leadership qualities...which weeds out many of the reactionaries. (Not always, obviously)

Also, my religious school classes throughout highschool were led by one of my Rabbis, who was young and funny and snarky and irreverant...while at the same time having a very deep faith and a wide body of knowledge at his disposal. One of our elective courses once was "The Rabbi and the Pastor" and this Pastor from a neighboring church came in and we discussed things together for an hour and it was incredibly cool. Anyway, that was decisive proof that people who had different systems of belief could still work together and coexist and be friends and I learned that religion didn't have to be exclusive - that it could really be just different paths to the same truths.

Which is really awsome when it works, but most of the time I feel like anyone who believes really strongly in anyreligion isn't going to be open to other thoughts and opinions and paths, just by the nature of what the various religious institutions are teaching/getting wrong.

My Rabbi, and his Pastor friend, and several other clergy-members I've met or seen speak, and you, I think, can walk that line between faith/belief and being psychotic. It's a very fine line though and most people lean too far in one direction or the other. I think that's mostly because religion gets dumbed down so often and it can't be if you're going to do it right.
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From:hatikvah_42
Date:June 7th, 2006 01:53 am (UTC)
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Oh, wait. The course was called "Reverend and Rabbi". It flows better, don't you think?
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From:erf_
Date:June 7th, 2006 03:13 am (UTC)
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That sounds like a really awesome course, and it warms my heart that Judaism and Christianity--bitter rivals since Christianity's inception--can get along.

Me? A pastor? Goodness, I hadn't even started regularly attending church until after I came back from camp. (Which was, oh, two weeks ago.) I've been studying Scripture for several years now, and I've been a Christian for almost as long, but the culture is still kind of new to me. I'm not really an ethnic Christian. Yet.

There were some really anti-Semitic people in my track--a few of them clergy. Really saddened me--I mean, it wasn't a mean-spirited anti-Semitism, just an overzealous desire to follow the tone of the text, and a genuine concern for those poor misguided Jews--but I found it presumptuous, to say the least. At one point a staff worker had to remind us that the Pharisees, who were doing all these things that Jesus condemned as foolish, were acting in obedience to laws God had given them. (And I added that we, the modern Christians--the legacy of the Crusades and the Inquisitions--were the new Pharisees; as the majority religion in the United States, Christians are the fallible human interpreters of the law, and Christians have done far worse things than the Pharisees in the name of the Word.)
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From:hatikvah_42
Date:June 7th, 2006 03:33 am (UTC)
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Yeah, with all the contradictions etc in the Bible you have to be very very careful with the interpretation.
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From:erf_
Date:June 7th, 2006 03:34 am (UTC)
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But there are no contradictions.* The Word is complete.

*sarcasm
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From:erf_
Date:June 7th, 2006 03:03 am (UTC)
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Some advice from my Bible study: Read it all the way through first, then go through it again with a scholar's eye. That way you get the big picture in the first read-through and comb through some of the finer details the second time around.
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From:_pensword_
Date:June 7th, 2006 04:19 pm (UTC)
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You're awesome. And yeah, of COURSE religion is difficult...otherwise, what's the point? It wouldn't be religion. ;-P

And even if you've just recently started going to church, you seem to have learned more about both Christianity and your own faith in it than most people do over a lifetime...I could definitely see you becoming a good pastor. But only if you wanted to.

*hugs* Glad the camp was so awesome.
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From:_pensword_
Date:June 7th, 2006 04:23 pm (UTC)
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P.S. awesome sign! ;-D