Even unto the dog days of summer, kids across North America are trundled off to Bible Camp. Here in Nebraska, school start blessedly early, so Camp Marantha is done stuffing kids full of fundamentalist nightmares ("We believe that the world is fast ripening for the tribulation judgments" its web site says), but up in Nova Scotia the bible camps still have a week to go.
I never went to one, so I can't say firsthand what goes on there. I hear from friends that quite a few camps focus on the sort of love-thy-neighbor character-building that few would find objectionable. Still, there are all too many that provide the Christian equivalent of holy warrior indoctrination that Americans find so objectionable in Islamist madrassas. The above-mentioned Camp Marantha, for example, is still recruiting "Prayer Warriors."
At "God's Backyard Bible Camp," in North Carolina, they lure kids to "come hang out in God's Backyard," and then teach them that "At death the saved will spend eternity with the Lord in Heaven. The unsaved will suffer for eternity in Hell." So don't be gay, kids! Or a Democrat...
Then there's dear old "Camp Jesus," where kids learn that back in the "godly times" Harry Potter would have been put to death. (Though just how you execute a fictional character goes unexplained.)
One thing that clearly doesn't happen: real Bible study. Americans are woefully ignorant of Scripture. Atheists like me generally know more of it than the self-declared true believers. 'Tis a pity, for there's much to learn from Scripture. At my fantasy Bible camp, here's what children would learn (when they weren't having fun, which would be most of the time).
Hi, kids. Meet the Bible. Some might say it's a hodgepodge of horror stories, contradictions, and factual absurdities, with the occasional bit of beautiful poetry and aspirational philosophy thrown in -- and they'd be right! It starts with two versions of Creation, one in which Adam and Eve are brought into being simultaneously (and, dare I say, equally?), and the other in which Eve is made from Adam's rib to relieve his loneliness. It marches on into the history of the Hebrews, with a whole lot of outrageous and downright bizarre laws thrown in. (I mean, honestly, kids, if a girl is raped, do you think her father should make her marry her rapist? And a ban on boiling a young goat in its mother's milk? Who would do such a thing?)
Along the way, there are numerous instances of God's wroth. Once, when some kids make fun of one of his prophets, God sends bears out of the woods to maul them! A bunch of them are killed -- and you thought the principal at your school was a tough disciplinarian?
Most famously, the Lord decides to hit the reset button by drowning the whole world -- except for Noah, his family, and his ark full of animals. But, for an all-knowing, all-powerful deity, God proves to be a surprisingly poor judge of character. As soon as the waters recede and the Ark docks, Noah invents wine and goes on a bender. Now, kids, you've all seen our video about drug and alcohol abuse, so you understand that for Noah to get drunk is not good. He only makes things worse when he tears off all his clothes and goes whooping and hollering before lying down to sleep it off.
Now, you might expect trouble is coming, and you'd be right. But instead of God putting Noah in time-out, a strange thing happens. His son Ham comes into Noah's tent and finds dad naked and blotto. Unsure what to do, he tells his brothers, and they cover dad up. When Noah wakes up and hears what happened he goes for some of that old-time wroth. In a towering rage, Noah puts a curse on Ham. Only, kids, remember what the video said about "hangovers"? Well, Noah must have been experiencing one, because his curse actually falls on Ham's innocent son, Canaan.
I know, I know, makes darn little sense. But just wait till we get to the New Testament. There, God puts his own son through an exercise in "restorative justice" that is, well, just mind-boggling. We'll get to that at tomorrow evening's campfire.
Before you all head off to your bunks for tonight, boys and girls, let's take a moment to consider the real meaning of the Bible. It was written thousands of years ago by people who were trying to make sense of a chaotic world around them. They had no idea that they lived on a globe, and that there were civilizations in China, Southeast Asia, and the Americas. For them, it was enough to know that the Hittites, Pezzerites, Canaanites, and most of all the Babylonians were a daily threat to swoop in and conquer them, if they didn't go out an conquer first.
Even within their communities, bad things could happen to good people at any moment. Disease was rampant. There were no medical doctors. Crime was everywhere. There was no police force. In that context, you can read the Bible as a heroic attempt to inspire (and yes, to bully) people into acting nice, thinking of others, and building a better society. It's easy to make fun, but before we condemn (judge not, lest ye be judged, right kids?), we should take into account how lucky we are.
We should be grateful to be alive in this amazing time and place. However, just like the ancients, we face challenges of our own making. War, poverty, disease, injustice -- those are all still with us. If you read the Bible not as an instruction manual but as an inspiration to reach for the good while keeping a firm grasp on reason, your time at this camp will not have been wasted.