VACATION BIBLE SCHOOL has never been my favorite part of the Christian tradition. It’s not nearly as bad as, say, the Inquisition, but I would gladly trade it for a week of minor persecutions. Yet somehow this summer I found myself spending five perfectly good evenings dressed in a purple T-shirt with a cartoon crocodile on the front, to show I was a “Crocodile Dock” crew leader.
And I was a diligent leader for my little clump of 7- to 10-year-olds. I stood in front of the big flat screen and sang and danced my way through the Christian pop songs, complete with hand motions. I attentively watched the videos in which a giant chipmunk quoted scripture to prove that God would save him from sinking in quicksand. I even, with a straight face, led the scripted group discussions that sought religious meaning in games that were really variations on childhood classics such as “freeze tag” and “Simon says.”
Until this summer, I’d been away from Vacation Bible School for a while. It was, of course, part of the drill in my Southern Baptist childhood, but I only have three distinct VBS memories. There was the morning before Bible school had started when I joined a group of boys who were trying to scale the walls of our church. I fell from a windowsill and broke my arm. I also clearly remember the craft project that had us assemble a portrait of a chicken by gluing colored corn kernels to a piece of construction paper. Mine was a complete disaster. I also recall that one year all the “older” kids (I was 9 or 10) were herded into the sanctuary where a visiting evangelist terrified us with the threat of hell.
As an adult, I joined the Catholic Church, and I thought my VBS problem was solved. Certainly there was no such thing as Vacation Scripture- Reason-and-Tradition School. But then my wife, Polly, and I went to my native Mississippi to work with the Glenmary Home Missioners. There VBS re-entered my life. For one thing, our own young children insisted on going to Bible school at one of the Protestant churches in town because every kid they knew was doing it. Then we quickly learned that in order to have any chance of being seen as a legitimate Christian church, our fledgling Catholic mission would have to offer some kind of Vacation Bible School itself. We now live near a bigger town (population 15,000), with a somewhat larger Catholic community, but still it would look bad if ours was the only church on
Of course, there were no fires of hell promoted in our Catholic VBS curriculum, or in the Protestant version of the same package used by several mainline congregations in the area. In fact, there was nothing objectionable at all about the program’s content. It even had a service component. One night the kids made stuffed animals for children at an agency that serves families in crisis. Leaving aside the question of my adult dignity, or musical taste, the only things wrong with VBS were the same things that are wrong with kid pop culture in general. It was based on the mistaken assumption that children have no capacity for sustained attention or deep reflection. There was a new activity at least every 10 minutes.
Of course, it’s unreasonable to expect any five-day program to counter the damage done by commercial television and video games. Still, as God is my witness, I will never wear purple again.
Danny Duncan Collum, a Sojourners contributing writer, teaches writing at Kentucky State University in Frankfort, Kentucky.