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Death-Porn On The Playground PDF Print E-mail
Swift
Written by Brandon K. Thorp   

In the current issue of Harper's Magazine, you'll find a long article by Rachel Aviv entitled "Like I Was Jesus," subtitled "How to bring a nine-year-old to Christ."

In it, Aviv writes of infiltrating - and that's an ugly word, but apropos - a chapter of a group called the Child Evangelism Fellowship during the summer of 2008. The chapter comprised 40 young missionaries who "roamed the housing projects of Connecticut," accosting unsupervised young children and pressuring them to accept Jesus into their hearts.

According to Aviv: "The goal was salvation, but the missionaries rarely used that long word. They employed monosyllabic language and avoided abstract concepts and homonyms. ‘Holy' was a problem, the missionaries said, as children thought it meant ‘full of holes.' ‘Christ rose from the dead' was also tricky because children mistook the verb for a flower."

Once approached, kids tended to take the missionaries' claims seriously. Most converted on the spot. And then, only then, after the pitch had been made and the kids' lives were safely pledged to Jesus, did the missionaries seek to consult a parent. This was to obtain permission for the children to attend the afternoon Bible club that the missionaries would host all summer. A few parents said no. Most said yes. Many overworked and underpaid parents viewed the clubs as "free babysitting."

Overworked, underpaid parents are extremely good news if you're in the business of stealing kids' souls. If you are such a person, you will prefer latchkey kids who need as much "free babysitting" as they can get. They're easy marks, and you're easily pleased. They'll crave the solicitous attention of an elder; you, the soul-stealer, will dig the chance to upload your uncensored theology into the kids' uncritical brains without having to pass it through a parental filter.

When at rest, or while strategizing, Aviv's missionaries disagreed on how best to approach the children. Should Hell be soft-pedaled? Should damnation go unmentioned? Ultimately, most decided that it shouldn't. (The Fellowship's expeditionary leader, or whatever you want to call him, said: "Yes, we do have to make it clear that there's a punishment if they don't accept Jesus as their best friend.") And what about the story of Jesus' life? Should it be simplified? Many thought it should, though no one suggested editing out the crucifixion. The missionaries used, and presumably still use, a tool called the EvangeCube, which tells the story of Jesus in pictures. The crucifixion is included. It is not the most graphic depiction of the crucifixion you've ever seen - it certainly doesn't swoop to the Cthonian death-porn depths of The Passion - but it does show a nearly-naked man being murdered.

If that doesn't strike you as evil, consider how you would feel if your 8-year-old your carefree little 8-year-old came home from the playground newly washed in the Blood of the Lamb, saved without warning by a bunch of out-of-town Christians who hadn't bothered to ask your permission before showing your child images of a freshly-killed corpse. If your spleen twinges even a little at the thought, grab the magazine and take a read.

Really, do. It may be your last chance to read about the doings of these Christians, who have been doing their missionary work since 1937 and have done a remarkable job of flying below the radar of the secular press. Although the Fellowship is vast and international in scope, very few of its chapter heads would have anything to do with Rachel Aviv when they realized she wrote for a secular publication. (Naturally, they would have had fewer reservations about speaking to her children.) She was denied access to Fellowship groups in both New York and New Jersey, and the group that did open its doors to Aviv did so only because the Fellowship's Connecticut director, a 24-year-old idealist named Josh Guido (the same fellow who insisted the kids be told that there's a "punishment" for not accepting Jesus as their new best friend), worried that she'd been sent by the Lord. I suspect he regrets his decision already, and will assume that the next secular journalist to come knocking has been sent by someone else.

Aviv's story is shocking, virtuosic, and devastating. In cool, precise writing, through which one may detect Aviv's outrage seething beneath layers of craft, Aviv creates a piece of objective journalism that nevertheless reads like an indictment. She appears to have three central points: that the Fellowship is well aware that children have an instinctive belief in grownups' infallibility; that those who proselytize to children consciously exploit children's inability to think critically; and that it is an unofficial policy of those who evangelize to children to do so without parental supervision whenever possible. She notes that the group's founding by the minister Jesse Overholtzer was such a secret business that even his own parishioners didn't know he'd started ministering to their kids. She quotes Transforming Children into Spiritual Champions, by Fellowship fave George Barna, in which Barna writes that children between the ages of five and 12 are the most psychologically susceptible to proselytizing. And in vignette after vignette, she reveals how unformed are the minds of those targeted by the Fellowship, and how utterly unprepared they are to think critically about cosmic claims. (The Fellowship blithely illustrates the point with a Barna quote, reproduced by Aviv, in which Barna complains: "[...] subtle worldly philosophies have persuaded the majority of Christians that children cannot make a decision for Christ until they can ‘reason.'")

Consider this vignette, in which Aviv visits three fresh converts after the missionaries have left town:

When I asked the three boys if they could imagine the world if God had never existed, they got lost in a mess of apocalyptic plot details.

"The world would be crappy," said Scott, under his breath.

"No one would be living," added Lamar. "We wouldn't be here."

"The dinosaurs would still be killing us!" Jamal said.

"No," Lamar corrected him, "there wouldn't be any dinosaurs. God wouldn't have ever created dinosaurs, because He wouldn't be here."

Jamal looked around the park. His eyes darting, he pulled a clump of grass from the ground. "True, true. The tree wouldn't be right here. There wouldn't be grass. We'd probably be beat up by a lot of people and never die."

"How can we be beat up when we're not even alive anymore? We wouldn't be thinking. We wouldn't even know what's happening."

"We would be in the caves, tortured," said Jamal, as if he hadn't yet processed his older brother's words.

"We wouldn't be alive!" insisted Lamar.

Scott, who had been quiet throughout the conversation, suddenly perked up. "Mary. Mary would be there."

"Who's Mary?" Jamal asked.

"God's mom."

"Oh yeah," Lamar said. "Then she would have created us. God's mom."

With the possible exception of Lamar, none of these boys are obviously competent to make binding contracts extending even to the temporal and corporeal world, never mind to a hypothetical, eternal, incorporeal one. They are immature minds, and the Fellowship knows it. "The Muslims understand the importance of youth," says Josh Guido in the story. "So did the Communists."

I predict that most non-Evangelicals will feel a rare and restless anger skittering around their intestines when they see such words, as though they're reading a tale of organized and legally-sanctioned child molesters prowling the playgrounds of the northeast. And depending on how you define "molestation," they are. There are all kinds of differences between Josh Guido and the Communists and Muslims he mentions, but they are not particularly salient. What is at issue is not ideology, or even theology, but the obvious truth that humanity's capacity for critical thought is among the species' greatest virtues, and that those who seek to short-circuit that capacity in children are criminals in fact, if not in court.

______

Postscript: I went to the Fellowship's for-kids website, WonderZone.com, and registered. Once registered, I was able to play a game called "The ‘Why I Believe Jesus Is Alive' Adventure." In the game, I followed a cartoon news correspondent, "Dan Lather," through ancient Jerusalem, seeking to prove that Jesus had risen from the dead. (During this adventure, Lather routinely interrupted me with an invitation to play Tic-Tac-Toe and other games, perhaps fearing that all of this Jesus stuff was over-taxing my attention span.) Before I could prove that Jesus had risen, I had to prove that he'd died. To do so, I spoke with some Roman soldiers. They had this to say:

Of course he was dead! We beat him with whips. This whip had glass, metal, and bone on the ends. It's very painful. Then we beat him with our fists. We beat him so badly he was hardly recognizable.

Gruesome, no? The Roman soldiers then went on to discuss other horrors - the crown of thorns, the nailing to the cross, the stabbing with the spear, etc - in equal detail. Through all of this, I was logged in as a seven-year-old.