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Among the many astonishing images of dystopia contained in the 2006 film Children of Men is a scene that takes place in an abandoned elementary school. The school is abandoned because, in this story of a not-too-distant future, humankind has for unknown reasons lost the ability to reproduce. And because the futuristic Great Britain we are experiencing in the film is still in the midst of the “War on Terror” of today, like many of the locations in the film the school looks like the site of a bombing raid: broken windows, walls overrun by grass and weeds, animals scrounging around the rubble. Children of Men‘s depiction of a world without children and overrun by violence is a startling symbolic narrative that suggests not only what is possible in the future but the present reality of the status of children in Western societies.

“Seen and not heard” is the classic line, right? Although the saying is trite, it is trite for a reason. Children, like all too many classes of persons, live in a world not of their making, not organized with them in mind, and therefore, “not for them.” And as strange as it may sound, this is true even in our churches. As much as Catholics, for example, say we are “pro-family” and “pro-child,” more and more observers are noting that children are largely absent from our churches and from our theologies.

This thought struck me, of all places, at Mass this past Palm Sunday. I was attending a parish in my hometown when I was there for a visit. The parish, as I experienced it growing up, was a fairly traditionalist parish and I have found that things have not changed much as I have gotten older. When I am home and decide to participate in liturgy at this parish I can’t help but have today’s “liturgy wars” on my mind throughout the Mass, as small signs of the “reform of the reform” movement are present. But despite the young pastor’s attraction to cassocks and copes, smells and bells, the Saturday evening Mass is still strongly under the influence of a sizable “folk choir,” a much maligned phenomenon among some liturgical circles in the Roman Catholic Church today.

Granted, I am still a fan of the well-done “folk Mass” and will defend the army-of-guitars approach to liturgical music till the day I die. The “folk choir” was, after all, the first “band” in which I played guitar. But there are admittedly some songs from the heyday period of folk Masses that I simply can’t stand. There is no need to list them here, but at this particular Mass, the song for the presentation of the gifts was one of these songs. A minute or so after I grabbed the missalette and began to sing along half-heartedly, a remarkable thing happened. A couple pews behind me sat a young family, a mother and three or four young women, maybe five to ten years in age. As the choir played on and the children caught on to the tune, their voices gained confidence and took over the sonic space on my side of the church. In that moment I was overwhelmed by the beautiful sound of children singing a song that I absolutely hate.

The children’s strong presence in the church’s musical worship revealed to me in a vivid way their relative absence in church life, liturgical practice, and theologizing. For example, in all of the liturgical battles taking place at parish council meetings and on Catholic blogs, whether the various factions are arguing for the use of chant or of cherry red Strats in the choir loft, children simply ain’t present in those discussions. We may tolerate their contributions in a monthly cute “children’s choir” or we might even give them their own “children’s liturgy” or “Life Teen” Mass, but can we really say that the views, concerns, and needs of children are integrated with the rest of our communities? Children are indeed seen (sometimes) but rarely really heard. I’m glad I “heard,” loud and clear, the presence of children on Palm Sunday.

Perhaps the most horrendous example of the absence of children in the church is their deliberate disappearance through the cover-up of clergy sexual abuse of children and the church’s response to media coverage of it. One thing I have noticed in the reactions to the media from much of the hierarchy and commentators is that media criticism of the church is often labeled an “attack on the church.” The rape of children, on the other hand, is never considered an “attack on the church” or named that way. “The Church” is primarily made up of adults, and further, it is often equated with the hierarchy.

When children are present in the church, they are frequently seen as objects rather than subjects. Children provide, for example, numerical proof of what good Catholics we are, because, after all, for many Catholics the seriousness of one’s faith is directly related to how many children they have. In distinction from the understanding that children are the flowing outward of conjugal love in the act of co-creation (ambiguous language, to be sure, but nonetheless true), are children not often reduced to the mere products of the life project of “good Catholic couples”? Likewise, children are made into objects when we treat religious education not as an immersion into the life of Christ or as a school of discipleship but as a form of political indoctrination in which children can readily parrot lines like “Obama kills babies.” And of course, children are made into objects, most horrifically, when they are the victims of sexual and spiritual abuse.

As my own experience of ministry in the church has been limited to a number of years working with college students, I’m not sure I can point to many initiatives or models of what a church that takes children seriously — as persons and as members of the church — would look like. Theologically, we are seeing some emerging scholarship on these issues, as reflected in such publications the Journal of Children & Religion. Certainly Tom Beaudoin’s research and reflections on the religious sensibilities and practices of young people are helpful in this area.

So where does the Rock and Theology project fit into all of this? Clearly the kind of reflection being done here touches on the issue of the presence and absence of children in the church and in society. For although rock culture is not and never has been a culture of youth alone, it is a movement in which youth have had, we could say, a place of privilege. The young have not only been equal participants in rock culture; they have in many ways taken the lead. As I get older myself, and as my own participation in bands and in rock culture takes different forms, I can’t help but have the feeling of a certain degree of passing on the reins and the feeling that the really really creative stuff is being produced by folks younger than myself! Like liberationist theologians who insist that the church must be a church of the poor and marginalized, rock culture has in many ways been an irruption of youth, often so marginalized in our societies, as subjects at the very center of the project of culture. As always, there is much more to say about this, and the Rock and Theology project represents the interaction of some unique resources for this kind of reflection.

In thinking on these things I was reminded of a musical treasure I stumbled upon not too long ago, the Langley Schools Music Project. To describe it, I’ll simply quote from the record label’s website:

The Langley Schools Music Project is a 60-voice chorus of rural school children from western Canada, untrained but captivated by melodic magic, singing tunes by the Beach Boys, Paul McCartney, David Bowie, The Bay City Rollers, and others. The students accompany themselves with the shimmering gamelan chimes of Orff percussion, and elemental rock trimmings arranged by their itinerant music teacher, Hans Fenger.

These 1976-77 recordings, captured on a 2-track tape deck in a school gymnasium, weren’t staged to achieve money or fame, to sell albums or land a record contract. These kids played music because they loved it. Innocent, flawed and bittersweet, guided by Fenger’s unsuspecting genius, these recordings deserve to be heard and preserved. They brim with charm and youthful élan, sparked by flashes of lo-fi Spectorian majesty and Pet Sounds subtlety. Call it folk art, outsider, or campfire rock — the labels don’t matter. These are gorgeous, heavenly artifacts. Period.

These recordings were originally contained on two 12″ LPs, pressed exclusively for the students, their classmates, teachers, and parents. They were never intended for exposure outside the provincial Langley region. But after they came to the attention of Irwin Chusid, the Songs in the Key of Z author and record producer vowed to make these recordings commercially available. He forged a licensing/trustee agreement with the Langley School administrators, and with the blessings of Hans Fenger and several former student soloists who were located, these priceless recordings have now been introduced to the rest of the planet.

A good starting place to get a sense of the power of these recordings is the students’ version of “God Only Knows” by The Beach Boys. The song is available in streaming audio here, along with a few others. You may want to take a moment to listen to it now.

I think the track, and indeed the whole album, is a tremendous symbol of how the authentic presence of children has the power to reorient our thinking, our culture making, and our theological constructions. Indeed, as liberation theologians have taught us, everything changes when the “least of these,” including children, are placed at the center of the church and of our theologies. And as that other profound cultural symbol Children of Men shows through its shocking images, God only knows what we’d be without them.

Michael Iafrate
Morgantown, West Virginia
United States

2 Comments »

  1. I’m a little perplexed by this piece overall, in that it seems heavily based on assertion and speculation in the admitted absence of knowledge.

    You start off with noting how the voices of several children joining in strongly on a hymn you didn’t like reminded you of their presence in the church, in contrast to a general lack of visibility. Some of this may, of course, have to do with the demographics of your city and particular parish. You’d certainly be hard pressed to not notice children if you attended my parish (even when my three oldest aren’t joining in, as they often do, in singing the hymns in voices which make up in volume what they lack in tune) given the sheer number of children in the parish. (For instance, my daughter will be receiving her first communion along with 295 other 7-year-olds this year.)

    But beyond this demographic matter, it seems like part of what you’re dealing with is simply not having dealt much with those aspects of parish life focused on children. This is understandable, given that as I recall your child is still a toddler, but certainly doesn’t mean that there is no effort on the part of the Church to focus on children. Indeed, my experience in parish life has been that roughly have of parish groups and activities are focused on serving the needs of children 16 and under, while the other half are focused on the needs of those 60-and-older, with fairly little attention focused on those in between. If anything, it would seem to me that the lack in many parishes is that little work (beyond the homily each week) is put into seeing to the spiritual and educational needs of those in the 16-60 range.

    Perhaps most troubling is your active dismissal of the experiences of those likely to have the most experience with how the Church interacts with families. You say:

    When children are present in the church, they are frequently seen as objects rather than subjects. Children provide, for example, numerical proof of what good Catholics we are, because, after all, for many Catholics the seriousness of one’s faith is directly related to how many children they have. In distinction from the understanding that children are the flowing outward of conjugal love in the act of co-creation (ambiguous language, to be sure, but nonetheless true), are children not often reduced to the mere products of the life project of “good Catholic couples”? Likewise, children are made into objects when we treat religious education not as an immersion into the life of Christ or as a school of discipleship but as a form of political indoctrination in which children can readily parrot lines like “Obama kills babies.” And of course, children are made into objects, most horrifically, when they are the victims of sexual and spiritual abuse.

    Now, if you took the time to encounter and understand the lives of the families you’re dismissing here, one thing you might find is that in many cases it is the “good Catholic couples” with lots of children who have put a fair amount of work into understanding how to immerse children in the life of Christ. These are the people who are going to have experience helping children understand and participate in the mass, who have daily experience with praying with their children, reading the bible and the lives of the saints with them, and discussing with them the sorts of religious questions and anxieties that children of various ages express.

    When you dismiss these experiences unexamined as merely being cases in which children are made objects for proving the seriousness of the faith of the couple, you block yourself off from understanding how real people experience living our the life of the Church with children on a daily basis.

    And on a side note, where in the world do you get this image of parish and family catechesis as being a form of political indoctrination in which children can readily parrot lines like “Obama kills babies.”

    Have you experienced a parish whether this is the substance of religious education? Really? I have absolutely never need anything like this kind of political discussion going on in parish religious education. Ever. Anywhere. Perhaps it’s common in your parishes, but I must admit I highly doubt it.

    Comment by DarwinCatholic — April 1, 2010 @ 3:16 pm

  2. I realize many parishes in my parents’ area of the East coast are not attended by children, but I second DarwinCatholic’s observation. My smallish parish (400 families) here in the midwest has at least fifty in the under four set at every Mass I go to.

    I rarely go, but whenever I attend Mass at our Latin Mass community and there are about eight alter boys (yes, all boys) and hundreds, I mean hundreds of children there. And they have several vocations in that parish as well.

    Our culture is clearly in troulbe, but I think the Church is a clarion call in the right direction.

    Comment by Bruce in Kansas — April 2, 2010 @ 12:59 pm

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