Reflections on Vacation Bible School and Religious Education

I was inspired to write this post after reading a bit of vitriol from Peter Burfeind titled “How Vacation Bible School Drove Millennials Away From Church.” Although I did agree with a lot that the author had to say, I thought his main claim was a little strong. I don’t see how Vacation Bible School (a series of only five sessions, each lasting roughly 2.5 hours, during a summer week) has such a powerful hold over young people that it would be the main factor in their departure from the church. But I could see some of what Burfeind was complaining about in religious education as a whole.*

Religious education is otherwise known as “Sunday school” or “CCD (Confraternity of Christian Doctrine)” or just plain old “church school.” It consists of the once-a-week religious education classes that Catholic parishes hold during the traditional school year,** most often after Sunday Mass. These classes are taught by volunteers who greatly love their faith and their church but who may not have any teaching experience. I think that in my years as a religious education teacher (the Catholic Church calls us “catechists”), I was one of the few who (1) had never been formally trained as a teacher and (2) did not have children. So I suppose that would make me less qualified than most, although the only true requirements for the position are an ability to fulfill the time commitment to plan lessons and teach class, pass the Safe Environment Training course,*** and pass a criminal background check.

On the whole, volunteering as a catechist was greatly enjoyable. You learn about your own faith while teaching others, you get to laugh and joke with little kids, which is always entertaining, you get to help them make crafts and learn their vocabulary words, and if you’re lucky and have a small class, you get to interact one on one with them. Sometimes you do have to deal with minor discipline problems and the occasional parent who has a complaint, but it’s all a very small taste of what public school teachers have to deal with on a daily basis (which only made me more grateful that I never became a teacher and more admiring of those brave souls who do become teachers).

The greatest challenge of being a catechist is—duh—instilling the faith. It is incredibly difficult to do this when the parents of your students do not take the faith seriously. The kids are in class for one hour a week, but they are with their parents and at school the rest of the time. The hour they spend at Mass (that is, if their parents do in fact take them to Mass, which is a separate post) and the hour they spend in class could very well be the only exposure to religion that they get each week. For religion to become a part of a child’s life, it has to be discussed and lived at home. It has to become a part of that child’s culture. That starts with the parents and how they live their faith.

Anyway, back to Vacation Bible School. It’s essentially a microcosm of what students experience in CCD classes: learning about Jesus, playing a game, putting together a craft, singing a song, and eating a snack. All of this is crammed into a very short time, and it mostly ends up being a babysitting session. Any religious content kids experience and learn is not retained, again, because the parents don’t discuss it at home. I understand that Vacation Bible School is supposed to promote the message that Jesus Is Your Friend™, and it’s not a bad message, but too much of that and you start to get into the territory of moralistic therapeutic deism, which many argue is beneath the skin of most of the Christian denominations these days.

Vacation Bible School should emphasize justice and mercy; with all the feel-good stuff, it focuses too much on the mercy and not enough on the justice. Don’t forget: God is a parent, and like any good parent, He gets disappointed in his children when they misbehave, and for good reason. If you make a mistake as a Christian, part of your duty is to own up to it, reconcile yourself with God, and make efforts to not make the same mistake again. God is forgiving, but only as much as you truly are sorry for your sin.

Some may argue that Vacation Bible School is supposed to be about having fun and not about ramming hellfire and brimstone down kids’ throats, but there must be a way to balance it so kids have a healthier sense of right and wrong. Otherwise, how will their consciences be formed? They can’t walk through life thinking that they won’t be held accountable, or they will indeed turn away from the church because it is too soft and does not provide the framework needed to form a conscience and a rule-bound life. So in a sense, I do agree with the original article’s author that Vacation Bible School might not be conveying Christianity in the best possible way.

*I’m writing about religious education from a Catholic perspective; I don’t have much experience with it from the perspectives of other faiths.

**Still considered to be from August to May or from September to June. Your area may have “year-round” school, in which there is no long summer break but several two-week breaks scattered throughout the year.

***The course teaches a volunteer to recognize signs of abuse in children and how to report those signs to the authorities.

Recovering a Fallen Culture

I have been reading the blog posts on The American Conservative for a few years now, and I’ve learned a few things from what I’ve read: (1) being “conservative” is in no way the same as being a “Republican,” (2) being “conservative” is much more than a political position, and (3) history must be examined and taken into account in order to explain much of the cultural change that is going on today.

Rod Dreher is my favorite writer on The American Conservative, so when I heard that he was going to write a book, I got all excited, marked its release date in my planner, and actually went out and bought a brand-new copy (which I rarely do because most new books aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on or the exorbitant price). Anyway, I just finished reading said book, titled The Benedict Option, and found that it was well worth the price.

Dreher argues that America, following the trend in Europe, has become a post-Christian society; that is, the heyday of Christianity is over and many of those who claim to be “Christians” are really only nominally Christian because their beliefs are no different from those of the wider secular culture. Authentic conservative Christianity as it was once known is dying, and Dreher postulates that the only way America can be redeemed is to live in accordance with what he calls the “Benedict Option,” which is based on the Rule of St. Benedict of Nursia.

Why do we need the Benedict Option? Not so orthodox Christians can act as if they are superior to everyone else and retreat from the world, leaving non- and nominal Christians to fend for themselves. The Benedict Option is needed to retain the sanctity and importance of traditional religion, to remember that we are mere humans under the love and protection of God our Creator, and to renounce the current culture of materialism and all its false dreams and empty promises.

How can we bring about the Benedict Option in our communities? By bringing eight elements back into our lives: order, prayer, work, asceticism, stability, community, hospitality, and balance.

  • The opposite of order is disorder, in that our political system as we know it is rapidly losing any sense of order it may once have had.
  • The opposite of prayer is refusing to speak to God or even to acknowledge His existence at all. As a culture, America tends to relegate God to certain places where it is convenient for Him to be present, such as church on Sundays.
  • The opposite of work is sloth or making excuses as to why one is not fit to work. Many in today’s younger generation believe that they do not need to work to get by or that everything will be given to them.
  • The opposite of asceticism is self-indulgence. Look at all the things that you have but do not need or use. Look at all the modern-day conveniences you take for granted.
  • The opposite of stability is transience. A person rarely stays in his community of origin for his entire life. He moves all over the place like a leaf being blown about in a storm. He is therefore directionless and may lack a sense of real belonging.
  • The opposite of community is isolation. We think we have community when we communicate with others online, but the fact is that we are becoming steadily more isolated, as the Internet brings to us exactly what we want to see and hear at any given time, thus keeping us inside our little bubbles.
  • The opposite of hospitality is hostility. We are called to welcome the stranger, but the news media can often cause us to believe that we have enemies everywhere and that we are never safe. We are taught to defend ourselves at the expense of greeting someone who may very well teach us something important.
  • The opposite of balance is imbalance. It is so important to know that everything has a purpose, everything has a reason (turn, turn, turn), and that there is a time and place for everything. An improper lack of balance or being too fixated on any one thing can easily distract a person from focusing on what truly matters.

These opposites form a picture of the fallen America that Dreher portrays in his book… but it is still an America worth saving, if we are willing to take an honest look at ourselves and do the work with a persevering spirit. I highly, highly recommend The Benedict Option, especially for those of you who attend church and are seeing a culture of secularism invade what was once your sacred space.


Light at the End of the Table

The title of this post comes from my coworker. We were working on a project that involved editing hundreds of pages of complex statistical tables (and yes, it’s exactly as tedious as it sounds). My coworker turned to me during a meeting and said, “Don’t worry; there’s light at the end of the table—um, tunnel.”

So that brings me to a book I recently finished reading (which was sent to me by a loyal reader of this blog): My Bright Abyss by Christian Wiman. It’s essentially a Christian poet’s meditation on what it’s like to truly suffer (he had bone cancer and had to have a marrow transplant) and how to find God in spite of, or through, that suffering and brush with death.

My Bright Abyss was, as the title suggests, darkly hopeful. One may not truly know the joy of life until one comes close to losing it. There may be light at the end of the tunnel (or table), but we may have no control over how to arrive at that light, and we may have no knowledge that we may even reach it.

I can’t even begin to quote all the passages in the book that stood out to me or spoke to me because there are way too many. So I’ll focus on two that stuck out to me most.

The first:

What you must realize, what you must even come to praise, is the fact that there is no right way that is going to be apparent to you once and for all. The most blinding illumination that strikes and perhaps radically changes your life will be so attenuated and obscured by doubts and dailiness that you may one day come to suspect the truth of that moment at all.

In fiction, you may read many conversion stories, in which a character’s life was changed in a dazzling, sparkling moment, and they were never the same since and never once fell back into the darkness from which they had escaped. In reality, these instant conversions happen much less often, but we still find ourselves seeking those magical moments. When we do have a mystical moment, we tend to let life drown it, and we cease to keep that magic alive. Every day, we need to make many small conversions to return ourselves to the person we were in that one intense moment. The effort it takes to make these tiny “re-conversions” can sometimes lead us to feel discouraged because we are not fictional. We wonder if the conversion even happened. I personally wonder if God was trying to trick me or playing a joke, but I remember that I have free will, and I can choose to let the worries prevail, or I can “re-convert” and choose faith.

The second:

Religious despair is often a defense against boredom and the daily grind of existence. Lacking intensity in our lives, we say that we are distant from God and then seek to make that distance into an intense experience.

Again, I think this is a product of reading too much fiction, watching too many movies, and believing what we see on social media. Others’ lives seem better than our own. We falsely believe we can reach an ideal. We forget that life is mostly made up of dull, monotonous, everyday inconveniences. God will not always come to you in a flash of brilliance. He can be found in the most ordinary moment, and we tend to miss these ordinary moments because we are searching for that brilliance and getting upset because we are not finding it. So, ironically, we lose the perfection of God in the search for a perfect experience of Him. As Wiman says, we don’t need to do something dramatic and intense to find God. We just need to perform ordinary, thankless tasks with joy and do what little we can when we can.

To make a long post short, I highly recommend reading this book. It’s short (182 pages), but there’s a lot to absorb and consider, so take your time. 🙂