What happens when you nail a panda to a cross? Does it squeal? Does it bleed? Certainly not – those cute little lovable bears should never be put on a cross and certainly not made to suffer. As I was driving around the other day I noticed a church with a “Pandamonia” banner on the front lawn. Pandamonia is the latest greatest entry into the VBS publishing sweepstakes.
The reason I bring this up is that Pandamania is another example of the church trivializing the faith and trying to make the faith fun and exciting. There isn’t much fun or excitement in receiving the forgiveness of sins. It is no fun confessing that I am a poor miserable sinner and there was no fun for Jesus in being nailed to the cross.
There is certainly joy and relief in Holy Absolution and there is much rejoicing to be had in Jesus gift to us of his body and blood for the forgiveness of sins but VBS programs with titles and subtitles like the following run the risk making kids think that religion has to be fun and exciting:
- Pandamania – Where God is wild about you. A wild celebration of God’s unconditional love for you.
- Island Odyssey – linking Biblical island stories with popular vacation spots.
- Sonsurf – Sonsurf beach bash.
- Shake it Up Cafe – with pots, pans, aprons and the like kids will explore the Bible as a cookbook with recipes for living out God’s word.
I am not making this up. These are the actual titles and subtitles from the publishing company. (I took these from the Cokesbury site. These are only a few of the examples out there.)
The last title shows another crucial and problematic sub theme of many of these programs. They often see the Bible as a recipe book for leading a moral life rather than the proclamation of Christ’s life and death for the forgiveness of sins (see John 5:39).
In Pandamania’s defense, (I can’t believe I just wrote that phrase – how surreal) it is published by Group magazine which even though they have fallen for the “Jesus is fun and exciting” erroneous motif, they do focus things on the Gospel for the forgiveness of sins. Also, all of these programs have daily Bible story instruction included. This is good but this is not my concern. My concern is that Jesus is a bit trivialized by surf, vacation island and panda motifs. What happens when you nail a panda to the cross? These programs let the “Vacation” in “Vacation Bible School” overshadow the “Bible” and the “School” elements. “Vacation” is a designation for when these programs take place and not a designation for the style and substance of such.
Gospel freedom certainly makes room for Pandamania and the like but we must also remember that this freedom can be abused. We have used programs like these in the past in our parish but are trying to steer away from them now. There are better alternatives. Last year and this year our day school teachers wrote the VBS curricula for us. Last year we did a week on the doctrine of creation.
This year we are using a Lutheran fantasy novel written by LCMS pastor Thomas Sabel. It is all about a young prince who is sent on a quest to save his father the king and along the way is taught Luther’s Small catechism and learns how the faith is real and provides strength and courage to meet life’s challenges. There are sand ships, and dragons and sword fights and castles and the like but no pandas. Instead of taking a popular theme and building VBS around it, like pandas or other jungle animals, this book has given us the chance to chronicle a boys struggles and how the catechism doctrine helps him understand how law and gospel is to be applied to the odyssey known as life this side of heaven. (For more on Sabel’s book click here.) For another good and Biblical alternative for VBS see our past article on Pax Domini Press.
To further promote the “Bible” and “School” aspects of VBS we are continuing our Creation Camp for junior high and high school students that we started last year. Creation Camp teaches basic creation science in support of the Biblical record. This year, in conjunction with the dragons that are showing up in our VBS program, the creation camp is focussing on the dinosaur issue.
Please understand my point. I am not saying that there is nothing good in Pandamania and the other kitschy VBS programs. There is certainly much good that is coming out of these programs. What I am saying is that these programs have the harmful effect of adding to the notion that the faith must be fun and exciting. Joy yes, but hanging ten with Jesus on the Sonsurf beach – maybe not.