2016-06-30
For a Christian, watching "Saved!", the new teen movie starring Mandy Moore and Macaulay Culkin, was like watching one of those amusement-park caricaturists. You know the feeling. By the time the artist's Sharpie has overemphasized your large nose, the gap between your teeth and your eyebrows in need of waxing, you end up wondering why you spent $14.95 and 20 minutes to feel utter horror while laughing good-naturedly at your own expense.

But that's the idea of caricature, I suppose-take tidbits of truth and throw in a little imagination to turn truthful instances into hilarity. Parts of "Saved!" had a vague familiarity and some laughs, but it was hard to watch-not because of what it did show, but because it brought back troubled memories of what it did not: much, much more disturbing scenes from my real-life Christian school.

In the 1980s, "moral decline" in public schools forced evangelical Christians to take their own unique slant on education. My Baptist school in Chestertown, Maryland was small, 200 kids tops. Like most Christian schools, mine was financially inept, surviving on donations and church support. Unlike the posh learning environment depicted in "Saved!", my school resembled a prison: colorless hallways, cement walls, and a peculiar doctor's office odor. The teachers were disappointed Bible-college graduates who had wanted to be pastors, but were forced to teach chemistry, biology, and English instead.

The most horrendous part of Christian school life was the dress code. My sisters had to trade their jeans, khakis, and shorts for ankle-length cotton skirts and baggy culottes. If a girl's shirt was deemed too tight, she was given an ugly, baggy sweatshirt to wear. On guys, however, baggy was bad: pants with oversized pockets-that was "worldly." If a guy's hair touched his ears or the back of his collar, it was too long. And if it was too long, the school provided haircuts-for $5.

Movie theatres were off-limits. Not even the much-hyped re-release of Disney's "Bambi" was innocuous enough. Any music that even resembled rock-'n-roll was considered satanic. The syncopated beat, the preacher announced from the pulpit, was the beat used in satanic, cannibalistic tribal ceremonies in the jungles of Africa. The pastor also claimed that "the bass line in rock music made men think and do things sexual." I had no idea what he was talking about, but maybe that's because I was never allowed to listen to rock-'n-roll. Even Christian rock was "of Satan." If it had a beat, it was labeled sin, with the strange exception of country music. I guess even Satan thought country music sucked.

Sunday school was a given. One pastor was a self-proclaimed expert on Hell. When he talked about Hell, he'd use a crackly, low voice, as if simulating the accents of Satan. He spoke vividly of the fearful darkness. We were mesmerized as he told us about all the bodies and souls of non-Christians that would stoke the eternal fires. One day, toward the end of his talk, he pulled out a box containing a brand-new Barbie doll. "Isn't she pretty, boys and girls?" he sneered. ""Let's call the doll 'Sally.' Sally looks like a woman who has it all, doesn't she, boys and girls?" I hated the way he said "boys and girls."

You know what?" he continued softly. "The sad truth for Sally is that appearance, success, money, and fame do not matter to God." Suddenly, he exploded into a hellfire scream: "If Sally doesn't know Jesus," he yelled, "she will burn in Hell along with everyone else who denies God!" He then pulled out a bright red cigarette lighter and calmly set Sally on fire. Sally's body, clothes, and hair melted into liquid and ash onto the floor. Smoke filled the room. Kids were coughing. The fire detector was screeching. He declared, "Do you want to spend an eternity in this? I want every head bowed and every eye closed." I stared at the melted mess of plastic on the floor. My eyes were burning from the fumes. A girl in the back of the room was sobbing. One of the other teachers left the room in disgust.

I wish I could say this kind of experience was uncommon, but it wasn't. As I got older, the antics got worse. Another Sunday morning, our youth leader was yelling at us. "Do you know who your worst enemy is?" he screamed.

"The devil," answered one girl confidently.

"No!" snarled the youth leader. "The devil is NOT your worst enemy." He glared around the room. "Anyone else want to give it a try?"

"Is it Satan?" the kid asked hesitantly.

"No!"

One kid answered Michael Jackson.

"No, it's not Michael Jackson," snapped the youth leader.

Another kid ventured, "Jimmy Carter?"

"No!"

"The Pope?"

"No!"

"MTV?"

"NO!"

And then our youth leader turned slowly around and walked back behind his pulpit. He dramatically pulled out a brown paper lunch bag from a shelf in the rear side of the pulpit. He reached into the bag and pulled out...

...a mirror?!?

Slowly, he panned the blue handheld mirror around the room so we could all get a glimpse of our own reflections. "YOU are your worst enemy!" he yelled. "It's you! You are the only person who can keep your life pure and on the straight and narrow."

After all that suspense, it struck me as quite a letdown. I didn't think I was nearly as scary as Satan. As always, the sermon ended with, "I want every head bowed and every eye closed."

Next to these guys the principal in "Saved!", Pastor Skip, would have been the coolest teacher ever, and we would have excused his awkward Jesus cliches. Our teachers were more interested in catching you in a bad deed than loving you.

Or they simply felt it was their godly duty to keep you from doing anything remotely fun. "Saved!" ends at the prom, where dancing, rock music and hand-holding ensued. Who researched this movie? We were not allowed to have a prom, but one year the church got an idea: we'd throw our own kind of couple's banquet.

At the "alternative" prom, my date and I ate a nice meal, played Bible trivia, listened to pre-approved church hymns and praise choruses, and talked with the other 50 or so couples there about how glad we were not to be at the "real" prom where there would be alcohol, drugs, kissing, dancing, rock-'n-roll, sex, smoking, cursing and all the other things half of us had tried at least once in our lives. My date and I just smiled at each other for most of the evening, pretending to laugh at the "snot, booger, and poop" jokes our youth pastor kept telling over the loudspeaker.

The evening's climax was a mini-sermon on sexual purity. "Hand-holding leads to kissing," he said. "Kissing leads to petting, petting leads to necking, necking leads to touching no-no spots and touching no-no spots leads to... babies." He cleared his throat and wiped what appeared to be a tear from his eye. "Oh, no-here it comes," I muttered to my date: another "I'm gonna cry and make you all feel guilty" talk. They always started with the youth pastor sniffing, "I love each and every one of you kids-like you were my own. I look around and I see young men with lust in their eyes. I see young women with weak hearts and poor judgment..."

This was when he would start talking about his wife and their experience with dating. "We never touched until we were married. We never kissed until we were married. I never saw any part of my wife's body until we were married. I just want you to have what I had," my youth pastor concluded. "I want every head bowed and every eye closed."

In short, life in my Christian school was weird, psychotic, and I do consider myself saved, from sin and my Christian school both. What's astounding is that when I graduated, Jesus still had a hold on my heart. I came to realize that my faith in Christ is not defined by my school experience. I saw that Jesus hates fundamentalism as much as I do, and that He didn't come to establish a bunch of rules he knew we wouldn't be able to follow.

If "Saved!" didn't capture the true insanity of Christian culture, it also failed to grasp that people like me come out with faith in Jesus' peace, grace, justice, mercy and reconciliation. Sure, the movie ends with a watered-down voice-over about everyone getting along and loving each other, but it comes off as political-correctness, worried about being edgy and cool, not worshipful. Christians firmly believe Jesus came to seek and save the lonely and lost, but also that He died and rose again for all of us. Let's be honest; you can only be so cool with a message like that.

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