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Brainwashed at Bible Camp

By undercover agnostic ~

Lately, I’ve been reflecting on the key stories and experiences from my childhood that had shaped and solidified my belief in God/Jesus for several decades, until my recent deconversion. One event in particular had a profound impact on my spiritual development, and convinced me that Christianity was real. As I look at the story with fresh eyes and without my faith goggles, however, I can clearly see that my experiences were largely the product of manipulation and brainwashing, but at the time, I was sure they were supernatural. This is the story of going to summer Bible Camp and getting “Baptized in the Holy Spirit.”

Every summer I went to Bible Camp in Bellevue Idaho, situated just minutes from the famous Sun Valley ski resort and Ketchum, the resting place of Ernest Hemingway. The documentary, JESUS CAMP, paints a vivid portrait of what my experiences were like.  We started our day with devotions in our cabin led by our camp counselor, followed by breakfast and then immediately to chapel, where we sang kid-friendly action songs, like “Hallelu-Hallellu-Hallelu-Hallelu-ja, Praise Ye the Lord.” The boys would stand and shout at the top of their lungs, the “Hallelu’s” and then the girls, not wanting to be outdone, would jump up and scream their part, “Praise Ye the Lord.” We also learned Bible verses and did crafts, patterned after Vacation Bible School. Following lunch we played outdoor games, enjoyed free time, and took a day trip to the Crystal Ice caves, swimming pool, or ice-skating rink nearby.

In the evenings we dressed up and headed to the big tent revival, where the children’s pastor pulled out all of the stops and offered an emotional appeal that one simply couldn’t refuse. Each night for a week, there was music, skits, and powerful object lessons, to drive home the message being conveyed.  Some pastors used puppets. Others used magic tricks. One lady, as I recall had a dog who could howl specific notes when she heard them being played on the piano. “Muffy is singing a ‘B’ to remind you to Bee-lieve on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.” Regardless the medium, the message was always the same.  You are a sinner, doomed to Hell. Jesus is the solution and you need to invite him into your heart NOW.  If you wait, you might die and burn in hell F -O -R -E -V -E -R ..ever..ever..ever.. (Reverb)

It was in such a meeting, that I was convinced that Jesus was calling me to walk down the aisle to the altar.  This wasn’t just a call to salvation, but an invitation to be filled with the Holy Ghost. I had prayed the sinners prayer hundreds of times since the “cupcake” incident (a story I tell in an earlier vignette). In fact I went forward nearly every Sunday at church to ask forgiveness, lest I died unexpectedly with un-repented sin in my heart. Knowing I could lose my salvation at any moment, forced me to remain militantly vigilant.  I had also prayed to be filled with the Holy Spirit numerous times, but to no avail.  My spiritual language never came. I couldn’t understand why God would keep this gift from me, when he himself was reported saying, “Ask and you will receive.” But this time was different. The pastor said, “If your heart is beating heavily, that is the Holy Spirit knocking on your door.  He’s inviting you to come forward and be saved and baptized with the Spirit.  My heart was pounding out of my chest.  He must be talking to me! In almost a trance-like state I made my way to the altar and was met by a counselor who directed me to kneel.

We drank the Kool-aide without a clue that we were being manipulated. As I began to sob loudly, (that seemed to be the prerequisite for receiving the Holy Spirit) the counselor praying for me offered some syllables for me to try. Say, “Shan- da- la-ma- sha-ku-rah.” I repeated. She was pleased. She then told me just to relax and let the “spirit” do the talking. She instructed me to say whatever sounds my tongue wanted to form and I did. My teeth started to chatter as if standing in the middle of a snowstorm, waiting for the school bus. “Good! Just let it go,” the counselor encouraged. The teeth chatters turned into, “lalalalalalala” “That’s right, sweetie. Make love to Jesus,” she said over and over, “Ewwwww!” I thought to myself, blushing in preadolescent embarrassment. I couldn’t even say the word sex, without turning several shades of red, so the imagery of becoming “intimate” with Jesus was simply unthinkable.  This time my la-la-la-la's reached a crescendo, not from the spirit’s anointing, but rather to drown out the counselor’s prompts. The la-la-la-la’s morphed into tatatatatatatatatatata, like a machine gun and then eventually into supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.”  I’m kidding. But whatever nonsense syllables I uttered, my coach exclaimed, “Good! You’re doing it!  That’s the Holy Spirit!” I had worked myself into such an emotional tizzy, I couldn’t tell if I was just making up the sounds or if God really was taking control of my tongue.  But she assured me I had indeed received my heavenly language, so I believed it. I was convinced that I had finally, been “touched” by God. This was the evidence I needed to trust that he loved me, heard my prayers and knew me personally. I was elated. The Holy Ghost was going to keep me from sinning so that I wouldn’t go to Hell. What a relief! I was a new creation. The old me had died and the new me had just been born. From that moment on, I considered myself a real Christian, born-again and spirit filled, and I vowed to live the rest of my life for Jesus.

Looking back I can see how this parlor trick was played.  Here we were, a bunch of kids, away from our parents, being indoctrinated throughout the day, as we were homesick, tired and emotionally vulnerable. Then using mood music, like the background sound effects in a movie, the pastor became a salesman, delivering his most compelling pitch, laced with fear, guilt, shame and intense urgency. We must get right with God or we could die that very night and go to hell forever. What a perfect concoction for brainwashing at its finest.  We drank the Kool-aide without a clue that we were being manipulated.

I wonder how many of my friends have had similar experiences. I would love to hear them!