The Theology & Sentiments of Baby Worship
by Chene Heady
My quarrel with Precious Moments products began early. My mother charted the course of my childhood on an endless series of Precious Moments Psalms calendars, and I hated every one of them. She hung each of the calendar’s incarnations in the kitchen, over the burn-spotted patch of yellow linoleum adjacent the oven.
So when, as an awkward ten-year-old, I dropped a set of dishes, a knee-high shepherd and his herd of dog-like sheep were smugly looking on. When, as an angst-ridden teen, I sulked over my black tea, a joyfully noisy toddler with a badly dented trumpet was standing over me in judgment.
I was a biblically astute, if not abnormally happy youth, and was perpetually annoyed at how our calendar simplified the Psalms. Never would I see a toddling David weep, “Out of the depths I cry unto thee, O Lord,” or “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Our linoleum tile, speckled black following a disastrous pizza reheating incident, evidenced a greater knowledge of human frailty than did these Psalms.
For this reason, I was more likely to look to the linoleum for spiritual encouragement than to the calendar above. The Precious Moments Psalms calendar has ever afterwards remained with me as the emblem of a problem, some mistake or misdirection in conservative Christian culture, which I felt but couldn’t properly name.
When I finally came across a name for this problem, I was reading Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope, the great Victorian novelist and postal reformer. The chapter titled “Baby Worship” begins with the liturgical service of the same name, offered by Mary and Eleanor Bold to Mary’s son, little Johnny Bold. Though Trollope describes the service in some detail, the relevant points follow:
Now, Trollope was a model Victorian, but he was hardly a model Christian. He had a kind of civic faith, but drew no clear distinction between the Paschal and the Postal Services. I am always surprised when Trollope’s mild satire implies that there is such a thing as a theological error. Nevertheless, Trollope finds two theological defects in the Bolds’ worship—its devotion is misplaced and its words are without meaning—and most current Christians, I fear, would not have been able to find one.
My local Christian bookstore seems to be run by the Bolds. It sells 157 Precious Moments figurines (I counted; people stared), the Precious Moments Bible in both Protestant and Catholic versions, and inspirational works with titles like Hugs from Heaven. The Bolds’ call and response of “Diddle, diddle, diddle, diddle, dum, dum, dum” has, I realized, become an accepted rite of Christian worship. Thanks to Trollope, the mistake that nagged me had a name: It was Baby Worship.
I am afraid all this will sound like carping, but there are real theological problems with indiscriminate Baby Worship. It is not just sentimental and cloying; it is an error. Most obviously, Baby Worship effectively does away with original sin. It confuses the child’s lack of actual sin with the presence of legitimate beatitude, absence of action with sanctity.
To give an extreme example, my Christian bookstore’s newest fad is a product called the “Baby Cross.” There are 29 different varieties in stock, but each features a cute little boy (in powder blue pajamas) or a cute little girl (in pink pajamas) suspended on the cross beams of a crucifix. If this strains credulity, just go to the Christian Armory Bookstore on Morse Road in Columbus, Ohio—you can’t miss the display rack. I have no idea what the rival makers of this product thought they were doing, but they have created an icon in which the anonymous baby literally takes the place of the personal Christ.
More generally, though, Baby Worshipers deny original sin by assuming that all things infantile inherently function as sources of religious inspiration. Baby Worship is also psychologically regressive, a textbook case of “the mature . . . those . . . trained by practice to distinguish good from evil,” envying “everyone . . . still an infant” (Hebrews 5:13–14).2 Baby worship wears a cute face (albeit one not yet capable of focusing on individual objects), but taken to its logical conclusion, it is both a heresy and a destructive habit of mind.
An Ill-Conceived Book
Ordinarily, however, Baby Worship evades these charges. Baby Worship is a haze widely diffused in the Christian cultural atmosphere, scattered throughout a myriad of popular images and passages of devotional ephemera, but rarely condensing into a theological proposition. Since heresy and orthodoxy are propositional matters, it is hard to convict an idea of heresy when it habitually avoids propositional expression. We need, then, a propositional statement of Baby Worship, one that will illustrate and flesh out all its errors. We need a book ill-conceived enough to be the very symbol of the problem at hand.
For this, I am grateful for the work of Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye. Their book, Left Behind: A Novel of the Earth’s Last Days, kicked off the series of the same name. With over 20 million in sales, the Left Behind books have been both the apocalyptic hit of the decade and something of a cultural phenomenon. An apocalypse is a showing forth of hidden things, and in Left Behind the hidden things of Baby Worship are made plain.
In Jenkins’s and LaHaye’s apocalypse, Baby Worship rises to a literally unsurpassable height, as every baby on earth is raptured off to heaven to be with God. Before the rapture, the godly Pastor Billings predicts that those left behind will see “the pain and heartache of a world without precious children.”3 And so it happens. Following the rapture, “it looks like all children are gone, even unborn ones.”4 “Not one was left!”5 A quick look back through the novel reveals ten passages where infant rapture is discussed; there are probably more.
Jenkins and LaHaye are, in fact, even more committed to their Baby Worship than to their traditional premillennial eschatology. When the two concepts come into conflict, Baby Worship emerges the victor. As the logical consequences of this victory cut far beyond debatable matters, like the rapture, into the core of Christian orthodoxy itself, the victory of Baby Worship is worth analyzing in some detail.
Premillennial eschatology traditionally defines the rapture as (to use Left Behind’s words) God “remov[ing] his church from a corrupt world.”6 Moreover, both the novel and the premillennial tradition as a whole consider the Church to consist of “every person who believe[s] in and accept[s] the sacrificial death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.”7
The basic conflict here is that it is the Church that is to be raptured, and it is impossible for infants to belong to this Church. Babies rarely profess their faith in “the sacrificial death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.” In fact, the novel alleges that all infants will be raptured, and no definition of the Church includes every infant within its bounds.
None of the major models for incorporating implicit believers into the Church opens it wide enough to cram all these children in. Neither the Reformed model of familial covenant, nor the existential model of anonymous Christianity, nor the sacramental model of infant baptism, nor even all three put together could render every infant on earth an implicit Christian.8
These infants, then, can be raptured only if the Church is disconnected from Christ (which is heretical), or if the rapture is disconnected from the Church (which is meaningless). If babies are raptured universally, it follows that they do not need to be incorporated into Christ to be caught up into heaven alive. The undeveloped, unredeemed state of nature is, it seems, equivalent to the state of grace. This is, I think, the heresy of Baby Worship. Left Behind has put forth a set of propositions that logically require what the Baby Cross can only imply.
The heresy of Baby Worship is, then, a belief in the beatitude of the undeveloped state of nature. Of the developed state of nature, Baby Worship speaks negatively enough, or perhaps too negatively. As in Blake’s religion, experience itself is a fall, and infancy itself salvation.
Here again, what baby bibelots suggest, Left Behind affirms. For the novel envisions a rapture more of babies than of believers, more of undeveloped nature than of grace subject to the trials of development. Believers or would-be believers may doubt and sin and consequently be left behind; even half-sincere pastors like Bruce Barnes find themselves left behind. Babies, however, are automatically raptured, whatever the disposition of their infantile souls might be.
But, as after “a certain age, which is probably different for each individual . . . God will . . . hold a child accountable” for his decisions, even youth has its worries.9 One could develop and be a babe no longer; one could accidentally become a moral agent. Thus, the ideal state in Left Behind is that of the fetus, who cannot conceivably be held accountable for his actions, and who is therefore wholly blessed. The rapture of Christians is selective; the rapture of children is general; the rapture of the unborn is without exception.
This idealizing of the infantile state knows no precedent in orthodox Christianity. The historic Christian ideal of life is one of gradual sanctification, often accomplished through suffering. This ideal proceeds naturally from the example of Christ. As Christ, God though he was, “learned obedience through what he suffered” (Hebrews 5:8), we too are to “lear[n] Christ” (Ephesians 4:20ff.) as we “deny [our]selves and take up [our] cross daily” (Luke 9:23).
This vision of the Christian life is common to all orthodox Christianity and is assumed even by the traditional account of the rapture and tribulation. As Left Behind asserts, God wills the rapture as a way “to get the attention of every person who has . . . rejected him,” and allows the “vast period of trial” that follows as a way to prod all people to “take stock of themselves . . . and turn . . . to Christ for salvation.”10
In short, the rapture and tribulation, as traditionally conceived, provide humanity with a final chance at development through suffering. However, in the world of Jenkins and LaHaye and of Baby Worshipers everywhere, while adults are permitted to develop, the best thing for babies is to remain as they are. The “precious children” must know no development through suffering, but must be raptured into heaven before they encounter any difficulty.
Baby Worship’s rejection of human development identifies it as a truly modern heresy. Since the Romantic era, Western culture has imagined innocence as a simple lack of experience; childhood has been praised, adulthood mourned. However this myth is applied (and it can be used for causes both conservative and liberal, to argue for an impoverished child’s right to life or to argue that this child’s possibly less-than-ideal childhood would be best left unlived), its power over the Western mind is inestimable. That a child, inherently innocent, ought not be molded by an adult, inherently corrupt, may be the only idea William Blake and Hillary Clinton hold in common.
However, the testimony of historic Christianity is quite to the contrary—infants are born both undeveloped and unredeemed; no one in a fallen world is innocent simply by inaction. Historic Christianity does not require that infants be damned, but it does require that they not be idealized.
In Catholic (and much Protestant) moral theology, sin is objective but guilt is subjective; an action or state is objectively sinful, but God imputes guilt only when one’s conscience has been violated. Thus, a newborn baby may be free of guilt in God’s eyes since, through sheer incapacity, it is unable to truly and subjectively will any evil, but the child is still objectively in a state of sin.
In words unlikely ever to be put on a plaque or in a scrapbook, Augustine aptly described the newborn’s condition: “The feebleness of infant limbs is innocent, not the infant’s mind,” he wrote, quoting Job’s “for none is pure from sin before you, not even an infant of one day upon the earth” (Job 14:4–5; LXX).”11 To Augustine and Calvin, to historic Christianity both Catholic and Protestant, the idea of attributing innocence to an unborn or newborn child is ridiculous and probably Pelagian; goodness comes with experience, innocence with one’s second birth rather than one’s first.
Calvin, always exact and never one to mince words, put forth the classical Christian position on unborn and newborn infants with admirable clarity. For Calvin, the undeveloped state of nature is inherently deficient. “Before we behold the light of the sun we are in God’s sight defiled and polluted” due to original sin.12 Infants, though morally inert, are still morally polluted since, “although they have not yet produced the fruits of their own unrighteousness, they have the seed implanted in them. Nay, their whole nature is, as it were, a seed-bed of sin, and therefore cannot but be odious and abominable to God.”13
Calvin never shrank from the consequences of his propositions and always took them a bit further than I, as a slightly charismatic Catholic, would. He admirably set forth the logical consequences of the classical view, however, and showed why Christianity has more often tended to the unsentimental ideas of limbo or dual predestination of infants than to Baby Worship and baby rapture. If undeveloped nature is a “seed-bed of sin,” it follows logically that “infants . . . perish when they are accounted the sons of Adam.”14
This result is required both because of original sin and because of the centrality of Christ to redemption. As Calvin succinctly put it:
Later theologians have attempted to find ways to allow for the salvation of unbaptized infants without detracting from the doctrines of original sin and the centrality of Christ. But when, as in Baby Worship, infants are equated with the church militant, inaction with redemption, the dilemma Calvin so persuasively states still stands. Youth cannot simply be exempted from redemption, as from the draft. At Christ’s banquet, unlike Bob Evans’s restaurant, children under three do not eat free; for them, too, a price is paid.
Baby Worship’s Secret
Perhaps that last statement sounded grim. Perhaps this whole essay has sounded grim. Quite the opposite is the case, however. I wrote this essay as an affirmation of life. For Baby Worship is secretly in love with death. Freud suggests that the desire for a state of stasis—a state closed off from the constant process of adjustment and alteration that the external world demands of us—is always implicitly a desire for death.16 Living things must suffer and change and grow; only corpses get to lie still.
On this particular point, Freud is no more radical than the Venerable John Henry Newman. Newman’s famous theory of development is based on the premise that “here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.”17 For Newman, as for Freud, “growth [is] the only evidence of life.”18 And here we see the true evil of Baby Worship. If any desire for stasis is a desire for death, how much more so the desire for an infantile stasis that precludes any experience of life.
This death-drive is found nowhere in orthodox Christianity. To preach Christ and him crucified is to radically affirm the goodness of life even in a fallen world, to proclaim that redemption and meaning can be wrought even through the most unexpected developments and the most unjust kinds of suffering. Paradoxically, then, each small child on a Precious Moments figurine potentially represents a desire for death, while each dying Christ on a crucifix represents an affirmation of life.
As Christ said, “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). What would seem a desire for life, the attempt to close life off from the possibility of suffering, change, and death, is actually an affirmation of death. To recall another of Christ’s statements, only if we are willing to lose our lives can we actually live.
The most chilling moment in Left Behind bears all this out in a disturbingly explicit manner. CNN shows footage of a woman who was about to give birth at the very moment when the rapture occurred (her husband was taping the scene). Jenkins and LaHaye write, “CNN reran the footage in superslow motion, showing the woman going from very pregnant to nearly flat stomached, as if she had instantaneously delivered. . . . The action [on the fetal heart monitor] stopped as the pregnant woman’s stomach deflated.”19
If we strip away the apocalyptic context and simply read the description, what has occurred here is a partial-birth abortion. Just before natural delivery, the stomach is flat; the heart monitor has stopped; there is no child. Because life will be hard after the rapture, because many of the children born in such unfortunate conditions might make the wrong life decisions, because those who make the right choices will probably have to die as martyrs, God has decided that it would be best for these children not to be born at all.
In his compassion and love for children, God has, in effect, aborted every fetus on earth. God, as Jenkins and LaHaye envision him, is truly “Pro-child, Pro-choice.” As Left Behind says later, without apparent irony, the universal fetal rapture has put the abortionists “out of business.”20 Indeed.
A True Heresy
Baby Worship is, at best, an entirely unhelpful and unscriptural habit of mind. At worst, it is a true heresy. Obviously, I cannot say that every purchaser of a sentimental Christian bookstore baby plaque is guilty of heresy. Baby Worship is mostly an inchoate tendency rather than an explicit belief, something to be watched out for rather than something fully possessed.
But up to 20 million Christians have purchased, often with enthusiasm, the Left Behind books, a series where all the evils of Baby Worship are more or less explicit. If even three million people account for these 20 million sales, the Baby Worshipers still form one of the larger American religious denominations.
The Left Behind movie, full of shots of empty school buses and bereft teddy bears, can only make matters worse. So I can say that Baby Worship is a significant and unrecognized heresy harbored by all Christian denominations. I can say that it is ultimately, though unintentionally, destructive of life and sanctity.
I am (as I write) to be married in six months. In our future kitchen, a crucifix (with Christ on it) will hang above and beside the oven, and, if I know myself, the tile will soon be burnt. Both the cross and the tile will mutely testify to the Christian ideal of development through suffering to the children to come, and these children will be kept from Precious Moments calendars and Baby Crosses until they are of such an age as to have already been tested by lesser evils, like alcohol or MTV. •
Chene Heady is a doctoral student at the Ohio State University and is writing a dissertation on the autobiographies of Victorian and Edwardian sages. His essays have appeared in the Southwest Review, the New Oxford Review, and other periodicals. He currently lives in Bloomington, Indiana, where he attends St. John the Apostle Catholic Church.
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“Childish Things” first appeared in the December 2001 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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