Going Soul-o: one young atheist’s week at Christian camp (Day Four)

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Day Three

As the festival’s third day starts, I’m better rested than the previous morning – the boys camped next door seem to have quietened somewhat – and decide for the sake of my blogs to catch the end of the morning meeting. I walk in as the last half hour commences, and am greeted by another twenty minute stream of guitar-led praising. ‘I will follow you to the ends of the earth’, the singer exclaims. Not for the first time, I’m struck that there are healthier relationships than the one some of these people want with Jesus.

The service ends with Mike thanking God for ‘surprising us’ during the meeting; not having been there, I can’t say what surprises he means, but for Soul Survivor nothing seems out of the ordinary. ‘We don’t want knowledge,’ he says, ‘if it’s not knowledge of you. We don’t want experience if it’s not experiences with you.’ Some people are still being prayed for, and their companions are instructed not to ‘get too huggy’, in case this gets in the Lord’s way. Cuddling, it turns out, is kryptonite to Jesus.

I head out in search of a place to charge my phone – a tricky task, since even for a campsite the area has few accessible sockets. I can’t help but think that, if this were a skeptics’ meeting like QED, there would be power points everywhere for people to charge up, but our community is far more web-based than a lot of others, and I haven’t seen anyone else here tweeting so far. Half way in, and isolation is starting to take hold. It seems that almost everyone here came as part of a group, and not much interaction between separate ones seems to take place. This could, I suppose, explain the absence of Twitter: while atheists are often isolated at some point, looking to the internet for community, everyone here has churchgoing friends.

Since arrival, I’ve been aware that I’m slightly older than most attendees, with the average being somewhere in the mid-to-late teens, but lots of younger children present too. The diversity of the festival takes me by susprise, too. I’m used to mostly-white, sometimes mostly-male skeptic groups, but Soul Survivor has the ethnic diversity of any given city centre and there’s no obvious gender imbalance to be seen. Frankly, I’m jealous. I wonder if the strong female presence is due in part to young straight couples attending, but keen to know if other factors exist, decide to attend a seminar called ‘Soul sista: world shakers’ by Esther Davenport, who spoke at the one about sex yesterday.

It turns out the event is female-only, so I head to the equivalent blokes’ one (‘Soul man’) with Mike and Andy. Something troubles me about the gendered audiences – I’m totally in support of women-only meetings in a feminist context, but I’d like to know what the attendees were told, and it seems a bit secretive giving talks on how to be a man or woman without letting the other gender know the contents. As it turns out, the ‘man’ meeting feels a bit generalised, so I end up wondering if it’s on the programme just to mirror the ‘woman’ one. There are certain things Andy says which are interesting: ‘We’ve all been hurt by girls’, for one, and how like David and Jonathan (he mentions the latter disrobing) we each need ‘one or two special guys’ to whom we can commit. That made my eyebrows do interesting things.

He also names a man called Brother Andrew as a masculine role model, who smuggled Bibles into Soviet eastern Europe, and meets with Afghan terrorists, South American drug lords and even Yasser Arafat to preach the Gospel. I can’t help thinking that in an audience with these individuals, there’d be more obvious morals to promote than Christianity – but then Mike is speaking again, and says it’s God’s will that we be male a particular way. There are some young men here, he says, whom God has been calling to ‘a bigger life’ but who are afraid. ‘God’s grace is bigger than the evil stuff you think and say and do’, he says. Then he has these people stand, gets others to stand next to them and make physical contact, and asks that they be prayed for.

He tells the Lord to release them from ‘harmful habits’ they’ve been ‘stuck in’, to give them ‘visions and dreams’, to live in ‘exploits’ and ‘adventure’, and to achieve ‘great victories in your name’. A curly-haired, stocky boy in a red t-shirt, who must be around fifteen years old, starts quaking at the knees. If you don’t want to give things up which you enjoy or become a religious maniac, says Mike, just have a conversation with Jesus. ‘Down you go’, he tells someone encouragingly whom I can’t see, and I realise that elsewhere in the room people must be collapsing.

I’d planned to hear another seminar from Andy on apologetics, but having just watched this decide I’ll attend a ‘Worship Q&A’ Mike is holding with two younger speakers I don’t know. It’s not just about reverence, he tells the crowd, but intimacy with Jesus as well – and once again, I want to ask what sort of relationship they want with him. He illustrates this idea with a platonic image, though, if a vivid one: ‘If you think of a dog licking its master’s hand, that’s what we’re meant to be doing when we worship God.’ A boy of about thirteen asks if he’s distracted by ‘temptations’ while trying to worship. ‘The Devil always wants to make us feel guilty’, he responds. ‘He wants you to stop worshipping or praying.’

As one of the other speakers says that in Heaven we’ll be ‘singing forever and ever’, a fate I’d personally try to avoid, I decide to ask a question of my own. It seems inevitable, after all, that Mike and his co-organisers will at some point read these blogs, and it’s generally good practice letting subjects provide a comment, so I ask what I’ve been wondering since Friday’s mass conversions, and what I think is the obvious skeptical question.

The Soul Survivor method is typically charismatic, I say, with emotive speaking, music, dancing and flashing lights rather than stripped down, ‘We believe [X] because [Y]’ statements, which isn’t my background. (This is true – while my mother was part of a charismatic church for several years, I grew out of it quickly while still a Christian.) I ask if he’s ever concerned that bringing people into Christianity like this might mean that, down the line, they believe erroneous things for purely emotional reasons.

‘We shouldn’t be afraid of emotion’, Mike replies. ‘It’s not an intellectual exercise.’ There’s an undercurrent of something hard-to-identify in his tone; it might be anger, but I can’t quite tell. ‘You can lose God in intellectualism’ he adds, encapsulating everything about him which ought to frustrate skeptics, and which I disapproved of even as a Christian. I almost want to thank him for giving my blog such a perfect quotation – but due to that whatever-it-is in his voice, decide I better hadn’t.

Day Five

@AlexGabriel #GoingSoulo

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