I Am a Sea

“For most people, ‘Kum Ba Ya’ is the canonical Christian camp hymn.”

“For most people, ‘Kum Ba Ya’ is the canonical Christian camp hymn.”

I am a sea!

I am a sea-aiche!

I am a sea-aiche are eye estee eye aye-en!

Everyone knows what is happening but me. I am sitting in a beige-colored folding chair, one of hundreds of such folding chairs in a long meeting hall on the Oklahoma State University campus. The month: July. My age: 12. I should be riding my bicycle. I should be playing Nintendo. Instead, I am surrounded by hundreds of junior high evangelical Christians who are clapping and swaying and laughing and sing-shouting strange words at the top of their evangelical lungs.

These kids are just like me. They go to church every Sunday. They live in the suburbs. They wear shorts and T-shirts and tennis shoes. They have youth pastors. They have too much gel in their hair.

Just like me, but different. They understand the words to the song.

And I have sea-aiche are eye estee in my aiche ee-aye are-tee…

This is my first Christian summer camp. It will not be my last, and in time I will come to enjoy the sing-shouting — louder than mere singing, funnier than mere shouting. I will laugh and stomp and do the hand motions and hope that the girl next to me thinks I am being cute. But then I will know the words, while tonight I am utterly confused. I’m standing at the bottom of the Tower of Babel. I think they are shouting in tongues.

…and I will el-eye vee-ee-ee tee-ee-are enay el el why!

Everyone knows what is happening, and within two full choruses — each of which is sung faster than the one before — I get it, too. It’s a declaration. It’s a joyful noise. It’s a spelling game that forms a credo sung full and loud and silly.

I am a C! I am a C-h! I am a C-h-r-i-s-t-i-a-n!

And I have C-h-r-i-s-t in my h-e-a-r-t!

And I will l-i-v-e e-t-e-r-n-a-l-l-y!

It’s an initiation into youth group summer camp, a ritual I will perform excitedly through junior high and part of high school. Summer camp will involve games and Bible studies and flirtations and make-outs and pranks and the occasional threat to be sent home early, and it will also involve hours of sing-shouting. And nearly every night, we’ll sing I am a C. For most people, “Kum Ba Ya” is the canonical Christian camp hymn, but every evangelical in America born after 1970 knows that nothing is as unforgettable — or inescapable — as I am a C.

At this particular youth group summer camp, called Crosspoint, every attendee picks a sport and practices it twice a day. The camp is built on the theme of running a good race in life, which was the Apostle Paul’s favorite metaphor. Clearly a fan of the Olympiad, Paul knew a thing or two about running, and he said things like, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” and “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize.” Such sayings are blazoned on banners and T-shirts and baseball caps at Crosspoint, where running a good race means several things: Loving God a lot. Reading your Bible. Not giving into peer pressure by smoking, or cussing, or lying to your parents. Inviting your friends to church so they can hear about Jesus. Not just saying you are a Christian, but living like one.

But by far, the most tiresome race I run at Crosspoint is each night’s song service. Every night after supper, we filter into the huge meeting hall with the beige chairs where banners sway with Paul’s race quotes. After a long day of fun and games, I anticipate the evening meetings with dread. I know that the meeting will begin with a solid half-hour of sing-shouting. After that, a funny skit will be performed. Then a pastor will teach us about a Bible passage. I enjoy the skit, and the teaching is more or less bearable. But the half-hour of singing is terrible. Every song is supposed to be goofy and funny and fun if you know the words and motions, but, for most of my first summer camp week, I feel uninitiated. When everyone else bends over I am standing. When I lean to the left everyone else leans right. I reach for the sky and wiggle my fingers; they grab a partner and turn around. I feel like everyone attended a Crosspoint Sing-Shouting Orientation that I missed. Why do I not know this stuff? I was raised in Southern Baptist churches, too!

The problem is amplified by I am a sea. Even when I finally hear I am a C, I feel like an imbecile for not hearing it automatically. In my memory, it will become several minutes of not knowing, verse after verse of people spelling out the terms of faith and my head spinning at the abstract, foreign sounds. In reality, it is 30 seconds of confusion. But I feel each and every one of those 30 seconds like a reverberating gong.

I will feel those 30 seconds again and again throughout the years. I feel the terrible seconds with I am a C, I feel them as a freshman in college, when I go back to church after a five-year hiatus, and again when I transfer to a Christian university and am literally surrounded by lifelong Christians, and again when I leave the Christian university for a state university and attend ministry meetings like Campus Crusade for Christ. I feel them with every group Bible study. I feel them with every conversation with a new kind of Christian — Baptist, Methodist, Lutheran, Pentecostal, Catholic, Episcopalian. I want these worlds to be familiar. I want to know my way around — and I should, for I have never been too far away from the evangelical world. But the cultural signage is consistently terrible, or, at least, I don’t know how to follow it. “I was lost, but now I am found.” But even when I feel found spiritually, I feel lost socially.

But I do learn the song and countless others, with the result that at Crosspoint and elsewhere in Evangelicaldom, I learn to shout my faith. I learn to wear it on my sleeve — at least while in the comfort of friends on beige folding chairs. I am a C is not merely a youth camp sing-shout. It is the very thrust of life. It is our duty to internalize I am a C. Finishing a race means hearing I am a C and declaring it at the top of my lungs. Being a Christian means banners and Bible studies and Christian rock music and not-drinking and not-partying and knowing in my heart of hearts that I will l-i-v-e e-t-e-r-n-a-l-l-y. Or, if not quite knowing it, then at least declaring it, spelling it out, hearing it and receiving it and believing it all at once, being part of a group that chants the entire content of our spiritual experience, learning that because we are Cs we are different, but not different from one another, just different from the rest of the world who are not Cs and do not have C-h-r-i-s-t in their h-e-a-r-t-s. The song is my leap of faith into a way of believing and living. My identity is forged in the fires of evangelical camp songs.

It takes me a long time to understand that because I shout something does not mean that I believe it. Believing it is a whole other problem. Full-hearted assurance, if it exists at all, is motivated by something other than style of speech. Confessions of faith are always clothed in a particular expression, and for me, the particularity is the confession; and the obsession. Getting around that problem means getting around my whole experience of evangelical Christianity. Even when I am happy with the particular race I’m running, I feel like I’ve entered the wrong heat.

The language of Christendom, said Walker Percy, is worn out. He had high hopes that it would be revived by Christian novelists who could use the fallout of postmodernity (in his terminology: numbed consumers, hopeless autocrats) to point towards the heavenly kingdom. Percy was Catholic, but had he listened to the evangelicals he would have found that a new language had already been birthed: one consistent with the kind of evangelical belief that declares, that champions, that celebrates and thrusts hands in the air and claps and sways and knows for sure that it is Christian. But this would not have solved his problem; it would have intensified it, because the new evangelical language, in its sing-shouted confidence, was stillborn. I am a C rendered faith banal: loud and celebratory, to be sure, but overly familiar to the point of not signifying anything at all.

By the time I left Crosspoint, believing in Christ was like believing in blue jeans. There was nothing extraordinary about it. For much of the rest of my life, Christianity has been the strangest thing I can imagine, but rendered so normal in my memory and in regular evangelical experience that most of the time all I can do is poke at it, like an enormous, amorphous blob. Trying to see evangelical Christianity is like trying to see my own retina: it is that through which I perceive everything, whether I like it or not.

The difference between I am a sea and I am a C is not simply the difference between understanding a youth camp song and not understanding a youth camp song. It is the difference between hearing a song and hearing a symbolic phrase that renders intractable meaning to life. I am a sea is absurd, a singing game that I could happily play. But I am a C is a calling and a curse. It does not mean just being a Christian. It means being an evangelical Christian, being a cultural conservative, being all sorts of things that I did not — could not — choose. It means being immersed into to a cultural form of faith that I may never quite be able to shake.

Patton Dodd is a KtB-contributing editor and the author of the memoir My Faith So Far (Jossey-Bass).