Monday Morning – August 18, 2008
Summer camp is woven into the fabric of American life. I went to church camp as a little boy, across the state line from our little mid-western town into Wisconsin on the shores of Lake Geneva. When we became parents, we sent our kids off to camp, too. All week long, their room neat and quiet and vacant, we wondered how they fared. Were they making friends? Did they like their counselor? Were they having fun? Anybody hurt? Were they getting to know God out there in the shadow of the mountain peaks by day and under the stars by night in the company of all those fellow believers?
In my growing up years, some of the coolest camps I could imagine were portrayed in the Disney movie Parent Trap. Haley Mills (I still remember that serious crush I had) attends a girl’s camp, but down the road there is one for the boys. They finished the week with a dance. Wow. That wouldn’t happen at our camps (dancing was strictly prohibited). In my world, camp and church were synonymous. Up on the movie screen, the twin sisters of the movie classic navigated a secularized camp – all the camp stuff including pranks and adventures in the woods and on the canoes, but no religion. Religion was (apparently) off limits.
These days, we get a feature film called The Jesus Camp. Here, summer camp looks more like a fanatical version of a terrorist boot camp that trains young fundamentalist mercenaries to engage in culture wars. It’s much more than a simple get-away at the lake for swimming and fishing. This is camp with a purpose – a laser beam focus on indoctrination from creationism to the explosive global conflict of the end times, complete with whistle blowing drill sergeants. In our day, the “exposé” gets high praise.
So it should be no surprise that another kind of summer camp for high school students has emerged. It’s a camp for humanists – an alternative to religious camps – that invites young skeptics and atheists to gather together to share ideas, find support. Here, at Camp Inquiry, there is freedom to explore the night sky and the forests and streams and the camp library for a world without the distraction of religion. Counselors are screened to reflect the camp’s mission. Speakers expound the not-so-subtle nuances of the material-world writings of Dawkins and Hitchens.
Public Radio sent a crew over to check out the camp and talk to the students and their leaders. It’s a fascinating conversation. For openers, the students share enthusiasm for finding a refuge from annoying religious types – evangelizing Christians in particular. They take on creationism and moralism as articulate spokespeople for an alternate world-view. It’s as though John Lennon’s lyrics have become a prophesy fulfilled – “Imagine there’s no heaven, it’s easy if you try; no hell below us, above us only sky…”
One misplaced Christian shows up. Maybe he didn’t read the brochure. In the spirit of openness, he is accepted. But he’s directly challenged by the other students. He holds his ground. His atheist parents failed to convince him, he says, that his God-fearing grandfather was wrong about the universe and its Maker.
But the turning point of the conversation comes when the NPR interviewer asks an innocent question. “You know,” she says, “many people embrace religion because it speaks to the question of life after death.” The giddy banter stops. An eerie silence follows. “Do you guys think about that? Is it something that bothers you?”
Yes, they agreed. One talked about lying awake at the age of nine trying to cope with the notion of nothing beyond the material world. “If you think about it, you can’t sleep,” she stated flatly. She stayed awake all night she said, and in the morning, well, “it was like… ah-ohhhhh….” Her voice trailed off. Another, also in a shaky voice, admitted, “I’m terrified of non-existence… I’m kind of stuck there…” His emotion welled up in fearful tones. “I don’t know what else to think,” he added.
Their counselor/mentor at Camp Inquiry chimed in from the back of the room. “Well, here you all are skeptical of the afterlife, but you’re not sitting here alone in a room obsessed with it. You’re here at Camp Inquiry and having fun…”
“…Until now…” one of the campers observes. Nervous laughter from the others breaks the spell. “An awkward silence…” a girl says. “Deep down,” a boy offers, “deep down, it’s tough.”
The NPR narrator fills in. “After a few uncomfortable moments, Jared and his friends stop pondering the meaning of life and death, and move on to the water balloon fight.”
* * * * * * * *
It’s Monday morning. You are a leader. Maybe your kids have just returned from summer camp.
I think about that boy’s grandfather, an authentic man who was well acquainted with the God of the cosmos, a man who transferred his conviction: that God of mine knows the name of my grandson.
This young grandson, whose parents convinced themselves that Dad was a poor deluded fool, stood his ground. This boy at the discussion table up at Camp Inquiry, in spite of the sharpened, reasoned argument of his parents, would not be swayed. By his peers that week. Or by his quick-witted counselors.
He knew something the others didn’t.
I want to be that kind of grandfather.
Copyright, Kenneth E Kemp 2008
Listen to the fascinating NPR Broadcast – 7 minutes