Tuesday, July 3, 2007

But I'm a real boy -- look, no strings!

Confession: I was involved, shall we say, in middle school and high school with this youth program affiliated with the Churches of Christ called Lads to Leaders/Leaderettes. And no, despite the misogyny on steroids name, it actually wasn't all bad. I had some great fun at the conventions. I still miss my puppet. (I'm such a geek, but my god, puppetry is FUN! And Carlos - I named my puppet -- and I were together for like four or five years, man.) And, inadvertently LtL had a lot of influence on me. For one thing, I really got my taste for playing with gender from puppetry. See, there was always a shortage of boys (puppets are aimed at kids, boys don't do kids stuff), so I was frequently cross-puppeteering, because I wasn't bothered by it and I had one of the least "girly" voices. And, I not only didn't mind, I outright relished it. So. Much. Fun. I got mad the first year I was sent back to playing a girl character -- incidentally, Carlos and I stayed together, I made him wig. I was even madder the next year, when it was decided that I could handle King David in the skit, but that it was preferable to have the sole male on the team talk to himself rather than having me take over either the voice of God or Moses. But still, fun times, on the whole.

But really, debate was where it was at for me. Oh, I love a debate. I love verbally ripping someone's unsuspecting throat out because no one was expecting that from a little girl. I delight greatly in the fact that due to crossed wires, I -- a lowly, sinful, weak female made it into the guy's debate (these things were strictly segregated, of course, and yes, I probably would have emasculated some poor unsuspecting boy). And, you know, a girl's gotta cut her teeth somewhere.

Soon after we switched churches to the one with the LtL program, my dad took over coaching the debate team at the congregation. He debated in high school and college and actually knew what he was doing. So when the debate resolution for that year showed up worded in such a way that the affirmative team couldn't even argue a case but would have to simply walk in and then walk out, he contacted the national office and explained the situation. They then, of course, put him in charge of fixing it, and next thing we know my dad is in charge running the debate competition: choosing resolutions, organizing the actual competition, formulating a new score card, etc. Groovy, huh?

So for several years, he worked on trying to switch the debate category from an extension of the speaking competitions into an actual debate program. And I spent a few decent amount of time looking over his shoulder. Here's what I can tell you. The main difference between my father and many people in the CofC is that he was interested in having actual debates. My dad was a firm believer in the principle that you can not fully understand your own argument until you understand those of your opponent. Thus, he tried to pick topics for the debate resolution that were not ones the strange powers that be structure in the CofC had already "ruled" on. So we debated things like pacifism, and the ethics of the lottery, etc. Dad's goal was to get something that was timely, but not so much of a hot-button issue that people couldn't see clearly (we are talking about high schoolers for the most part), and never ever should an issue of salvation be debated in the context. The reason being that high schoolers weren't mature enough to handle that type of a debate without everybody coming away hurt.

The vetting process went something like this. Dad was in communication with a number of other debate coaches and interested parties through e-mail (every single e-mail was saved FYI, I can reconstruct the decision-making process). He'd make suggestions, take suggestions, and explain reasons why he would reject certain topics. One topic which was suggested and politely rejected every year was the issue of the necessity of baptism for salvation. Or Resolved: Baptism by immersion is essential for salvation. Their were a couple of reasons for not using that resolution. One, it isn't fair to potentially put high schoolers in the position of having to argue a case that damns them to hell. Second, the adults in the LtL aren't mature enough, for the most part, to admit that a case for salvation without baptism can indeed be made, so it wouldn't be a fair fight.

Then, he died. Whereupon virtually every principle he had tried to put into practice in the debate program was promptly ignored by the new boys in town. The first resolution picked by the new man in charge. Resolved: Baptism, by immersion, is essential for salvation. (Or whatever the wording eventually became, I was so mad I just played semantics to my heart's content.) Mad isn't strong enough. I was livid. I'm still enraged, oh dear people of the Lads to Leaders organization, if you happen to stop by.

Of course, that year my little sister and I were partners. Fran's first draft of her affirmative speech: Hi, my name is Fran, and I'm going to hell. You see, Fran's not baptized. (I'm also going to hell by their reckoning, but for different reasons.) Bad enough, right? Oh, it got worse.

Then, some darlings somewhere became offended that there little ones were being forced to consider negative arguments. That is -- there were parents and elders upset that the kids might have to consider the possibility that you could in fact be saved without being dunked. So, it was passed around by the powers that be, that a statement would be read prior to each debate at competition that it was acknowledged that the truth was that baptism, by immersion, was essential for salvation and that any argument put forth by the negative was incorrect.

I screamed. I had, at least, one complete melt-down at practice after I found that out. I contemplated murder. I contemplated a number of actions. I finally decided that the only thing to do was construct a negative case to end all negative cases. They were wrong, and I was going to prove it, even if no one heard me because the bastards had the girls separated off from the all important young men.

And so, with some help from various sympathetic sources, namely the local congregational coaches (who are both amazing people), I found that beautiful thing know as allegorical exegesis. And it was sweet. By the way, I took first place individual speaker, and my sister and I took home first place team. In part because we were the only team there that had a real negative case, and we also got one of the few female judges who knew enough about debate to understand and appreciate what we were doing. (I'll admit -- judging, incredibly subjective. I recognized the lady in question from past years.) Anyway, I felt slightly vindicated.

So, what was that long-winded story for? Well, the Christian Chronicle has an article up on the loss of the youth from the CofC. As one of the lost boys (um . . . youth), I disagree with the main point of the article. I recognize I'm an exception in a lot of ways, but still. Apparently, the CofC is losing youth because they spend too much time "debating" the issues.
“They’re not interested in debating instrumental music, women’s roles, clapping,” Jones said. “Instead, they’d rather discuss how to help the homeless population in their city, how to minister to homosexual friends, how to battle drug and alcohol abuse,” he said. “They want to know how Christ matters in the real world, not just inside the walls of a church building.”
Um, no. They might be losing some of your youth because they don't have enough of an outlet for zealotry. (I've also been to youth programs focused on increasing evangelism. First of all, scary brainwashing events. Second, I'm disgusted at some of the things people are telling these kids about their "homosexual" friends, or pagan friends, or Muslim friends, because most of it is factually incorrect.) But, the Church of Christ is losing most of their youth because no one is seriously debating issues that matter. The rant above explains where my suspicion that many CofC powers that be wouldn't know a real debate if it knocked them in the face. Youth are leaving in droves because rather than debating issues the majority of CofCs would rather just stick to the doctrines handed down seventy years ago than actually engage in any serious inquiry. Youth aren't satisfied with being brain-washed and told that the answer has already determined. Especially when what we are told we must believe contradicts what we have learned in our experiences -- even if they are short ("Let no man despise you for your youth . . ." 1 Tim. 4:12). Our questions are not even respected enough to be given the dignity of an actual debate, they are simply brushed aside.

We're smarter than many people think. Many of us know when we're being manipulated, when peer pressure is being used to try and force us into among youth. And that doesn't fly well. Some might leave for other denominations. Some for other religions that give them a better framework for understanding the world. Some have such a bad taste in their mouth from being played like a puppet that they won't go anywhere near God-talk. Some of us have layers of issues built up from being told for so long that we had to destroy everything we were or go to hell. Some of us become Satanic in the sense that we turn our attention to interrogating the layers of metaphors and models that have been built for the Divine in hope of catching some fleeting glimpse of the reality.

So, yeah, I learned a lot of things from Lads to Leaders. I learned to not focus too much people telling me that I'm wrong and to just use that as a motivation to make my point that much louder and that much clearer. They might not listen but at least I know where I stand. More importantly though, I think, I know about puppetry. And I know I am not a puppet to be manipulated. I am a person.


Dw3t-Hthr said...

I just want to say that this is an awfully cool post. I'm going to go make people read it now.

Brooks said...

And, having been "made" (well, encouraged; I'm no puppet either!) to go read it -- yeah.

It seems somewhat linked, really; the lack of respect for the "listening to the other side" part of debating, and the lack of listening to why kids are really leaving.

WordK said...

Why, thank you, dw3t-hthr! :)