they used to teach my friends and I that we were social justice warriors for Jesus
My dad’s reasons for leaving the ministry were personal ones, and he had wanted nothing more than to become a pastor most of his life. So in early childhood I got to witness (a loaded term…) a lot of Southern Baptist Convention goings-on in the 60s and 70s because for a long time between pastorates he was what amounted to a media salesman for their Church Library Department in Nashville.
I attended more than one annual SBC convention, went to Ridgecrest and Glorieta every summer for years (which is how I came to grow up watching Route 66 become I-40), and was privy to a lot of shop talk not about the Bible or the faith, but the business of running a nationwide denomination. And it was just that: a business. Our food got on the table not because it fell from heaven, but because my dad drove and flew all over the forty-eight selling books and media and Sunday School curriculum to congregations, and otherwise put in his nine-to-five in a big fancy office building like any other executive.
In the late sixties the SBC was going through a sort of existential crisis, of being simply outdone by the whole “let it all hang out” thing in pop culture. How do we keep our kids off drugs and keep them in church? was a big emphasis at the summer programs at Ridgecrest or Glorieta; the answers usually took the forms of trying to create a sort of Baptist version of sixties culture but with Jesus instead of hedonism being the big draw. There was one evangelist named Arthur Blessitt who sort of hippied up with the long-ish hair and all that, made his own high-profile odyssey across the US dragging a cross (word is it had a little wheel on it…) and passing out little stickers called “reds” with Bible verses printed on them. As if “hey man, wanna score some reds?” was a good lead-in to getting someone saved….
The SBC, and its Library Department, also sponsored the publishing of little musical theater pieces to rival the “Hair” and the “Butterflies Are Free” phenomena, with the same idea in mind: make it hip, make it groovy, and maybe we won’t lose these young people to The Devil after all. I don’t know what age you are, but growing up in the sixties and seventies in a Christian household, one got the sense that The Devil had pretty much taken over everything. I started hearing the terms “end times” and “last days” so long ago that they just bore me by now.
I still remember my brother and sister, a little older and of that target age group that needed to be hipped back to Jesus, playing in a musical at Ridgecrest called “Happening Now.” It was probably what today would be called, um, “cringeworthy”?? It was all about teenagers faced with all these secular, sixties-ish temptations, that were “happening now” and coming to learn somehow that Jesus was happening now, too.
I actually got a lyric from the silly thing stuck in my head just a few days ago:
Conform, conform, I really must conform,
to think that I would be myself,
would really cause alarm…
Of course, “be myself” was intended to sound like, in the church auditoriums where the thing got put on, “stay a Christian”. But what stayed with me my whole life, enough for a thing I hadn’t heard since I was maybe nine to get stuck in my head at fifty-six, was the moral courage it took to stand down demands to “conform” for its own sake, over anything.
Ask my mom: any excess of conforming, was never any problem with me….