My first attempt at meditation occurred when I was six years old and was a direct result of watching Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Oh, how I loved the Ninja Turtles. It was my favorite show. When I watched them slip into meditation, it didn’t seem like they were doing anything in defiance of Yahweh, a concern in our household. Most of the time, the turtles were just closing their eyes and thinking about pizza. So one day I decided to give it a shot. I crossed my legs Indian-style with my Ninja Turtle action figures strewn across the living room, touched my middle finger to my thumb and extended my other fingers out while my forearms rested on my knees.
I focused my thoughts. Pizza. Chuck E. Cheese’s. Nintendo. All of the good stuff. With the Ninja Turtles music playing in my head, I sat there and meditated like a little red-headed ninja.
“What are you doing?!”
Startled, my eyes flew open, and I saw my mom rushing into the room.
“What? I’m meditating.”
She halted, then started to move again, very slowly. She looked at me with her serious face, directly in the eye, offering a look of discouragement and fearfulness. Her lips were tightly closed until she sat down next to me and said, “What you were doing is very dangerous.” My eyes got wide and all of a sudden I felt scared of something. What I was actually scared of, I couldn’t say, but my mom couldn’t be so terrified for me if something wasn’t seriously wrong. Right?
“When you do that, you’re calling out to demons.”
Okay. Now I wasn’t so sure. “No, no mom. I was meditating like the Turtles do. They don’t call out to demons.” I was sure of this. The Turtles were the good guys.
My mom sighed a great sigh. She was suddenly worried that this cartoon had anti-Christian tendencies, and she had to steer me in a new direction.
Some parents didn’t let their kids watch Teenage Ninja Mutant Turtles because of the violence. They didn’t want their child to get a crazy idea in their head and kick a classmate in the spleen or something that might get a parent sued. My mom was more afraid of my becoming a little Buddhist, succumbing to some misguided spirituality.
The martial arts, with its roots in Eastern religious thought and practices, can be disconcerting to the Evangelical Right. In movies and TV shows, the stereotypical Chinaman is seen meditating, trimming bonsai trees, speaking quietly and slowly. Who knows what devilish thoughts run through such a still mind? So for my Christian mother, karate classes were to be strictly avoided. Until she found a program not far from us that actually taught karate within the walls of a church.
I walked into a crowded room filled with people in white, ranging from five-years-old to 50. Almost everyone was a gold belt (their alternative to the white belt), and everyone was a Christian.
The instructor was a strangely flamboyant man. He had a high voice and was vocal about his revulsion towards long toenails. But he made sure that we always prayed before the karate lessons started. And we never bowed to him. The only time a Christian bows is when we bow in prayer to the God of heaven and earth. That was easy to follow, because our karate instructor was certainly no deity. In fact, I wondered at times if he even knew much about karate at all. He never did any sweet moves or anything. He just made us take turns doing kicks and chops.
My interest in karate waned. This class was strange and boring. Most of our time was spent sitting on the floor listening to him talk about what a Christian can learn from karate. It really wasn’t very much like Ninja Turtles at all. It was…lame.
I wasn’t the only one who dubious about the Christian karate class. Our pastor at the time told us that we shouldn’t practice karate because it calls out to demons. My mom assured her, “Oh, I know but don’t worry, this is a Christian karate class.” Our pastor was skeptical, but eventually nodded in approval. She wasn’t really in a place to talk anyway; she was a woman pastor for goodness sake. Leave it to the Charismatics to blatantly ignore 1st Timothy 2:11.
While we continued going to the martial arts course that glorified the name of Jesus, I never really enjoyed myself and was embarrassed to tell kids at school. Leave it to Mom to blow my cover. “Do you guys know that Dylan goes to a karate class? Oh, it’s so cool. It’s a Christian karate class.” I could just die. Why was she doing this? She invited them to come, a non-stop evangelism machine, but no one took her up on the offer. Until…
Picking me up at the end of the school day, she saw me talking to one of the older kids in my class outside of the school. I went to a Christian school which was incredibly small, with only about two kids in each grade, literally. They lumped us together, every kid from first to eighth grade in the same classroom. One day my mom arrived when I was talking with Dan, an older classmate who was all the way in eighth grade. I thought he was so cool. He had spiky hair and did real karate, with a red belt, just a few notches away from acquiring his black belt. To me, there couldn’t be anyone cooler. He was a teenager! He even called me “tiger,” because it was my favorite animal.
“Hey, Dan!” my mom called out when she saw us standing together. “You do karate don’t you?” Ugh. She just had to do it…
“That’s right Mrs. Peterson.”
“Well, Dylan has been doing karate too, has he told you?”
“No way! Why didn’t you tell me, tiger?” I just said “I don’t know” and kind of shrugged.
“How would you like to come with us to the next lesson?”
I looked up at her. I couldn’t believe what I just heard.
“Yeah, sure, that’ll be great!” Dan replied. He was such a positive guy. I wish I could tell him to save himself the trouble.
But he came. He was there with his red belt, and everyone there was just staring at him. The people in this karate class really were like a dumb herd of sheep that incessantly gawked at anything that seemed new or different. They were the same way to me on my first day. Even if you stared back, they didn’t unlock their eyes. It enraged me.
The instructor called Dan up front, not only because he was a guest but because he was an actual red belt. A real martial artist. As soon as Dan stood up, he bowed slightly. The sheep turned their heads at the instructor expectantly. They knew that bowing wasn’t something we did in our dojo church. “Ah! Good! Ha ha, well, Dan just bowed, uh, which is something he does out of respect for his teacher,” he bumbled. It was somehow embarrassing to have to see Dan put himself through this. He wasn’t there as a Christian martial artist, he was just there because his little friend’s mother asked him to go in support of Dylan’s karate education.
It’s possible that this one moment might have done more for the sheep than they realized though. It affected me. We witnessed a clashing of worlds, and the spiky-haired teenager had one up on the flamboyant, boring instructor whose authority suddenly seemed diminished. “If we study real karate like this spiky-haired teenager, it doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re being bad Christians.”
Maybe that meditation in the living room wasn’t such a bad idea after all. It just might have been the sin that eventually led to a few minds opening up to the possibility of non-Christian karate.
Dylan Peterson is a freelance writer and producer. He has worked with Chicago Public Radio's Sound Opinions, Relevant Magazine, WMBI Chicago and the Burnside Writers Collective. Visit him at his blog Total Darkness Vs. Blinding Light.