Meatballs (1979) is one of those feelgood movies full of sweet moments guaranteed to put a smile on the faces of most viewers. It is a Bill Murray vehicle with cornball jokes and pointless sight gags and the movie itself has no other objective but to entertain and appeal to the nostalgia of youth and the time spent at camp. To go deeper, for those people always whining about the meaning of life, Meatballs may represent it on a small scale. The meaning being “each other” and simply enjoying life with some mild conflict that always returns to gentle laughter. Certainly, there are those of us who aspire to do more–artists, writers, scientists, philosophers–but if you just want “to be” then there’s nothing wrong with “being Meatballs.”
I was watching it again today, as I was chained to my desk trying to finish drawing a comic book page, and kept noting how much Bill Murray’s character Tripper Harrison was like a youth pastor. I’m very familiar with that role as at one point in my life I wanted to be one. I actually looked up to my own youth pastor as a role model since he was a bit of maverick and with well meaning intentions he broke the rules where necessary to build a tight knit and loyal group of kids that went to church of their own freewill–on weeknights and on Sunday mornings. That’s not easy to do, but my youth pastor fostered an atmosphere of acceptance with much of the same humor that Tripper Harrison used (barring any sexual references).
Specifically, Tripper zeroes in on a lonely kid named Rudy Gerner played by Chris Makepeace who initially runs away from Camp Northstar. Through humor and encouragement and even putting Rudy up to tasks he doesn’t think he’s capable of–like giving camp announcements to say over the speaker or running a race at the end of the film–Tripper helps the kid come out of his shell. Tripper doesn’t patronize the kid, but pushes where he needs to while looking out for him so even if he falls, he can be helped back up again.
It is the role of what we could term “a secular youth pastor.” There is no mention of God in the process of transforming Rudy into someone who now is willing to take chances, despite the potential for failure. All he needed was guidance from an adult friend. You might think this is just fictional nonsense to provide some sentimentality to a lowbrow humor movie, but the relationship between Tripper and Rudy is fairly realistic. When I assisted in the youth pastoring program at my church (before church politics gave me a headache) I had at least one kid who looked up to me as well as connecting with another kid at a church camp. Certainly, I felt like an inadequate role model and my motivation was to convert, but what it really came down to was showing a kid you cared and giving them a boost in their self-esteem. Because let’s face it, Junior High and High School are places where kids get torn down, by incompetent teachers and by other kids–especially other kids! Every flaw is exposed and every blunder exaggerated so that you feel you’re naked. Adults need to step in and often they don’t.
I think it may be a good idea for atheists to foster the concept of the secular youth pastor. Secular camps already provide safe havens for unbelieving kids, see Camp Quest for example. The hard part is that a secular youth pastor would have to seek out those kids on the outside of their peer groups. It’s not easy to do. Unlike Rudy, some kids have some really deep emotional problems and patience is required. But you know, as an atheist, if you reach out to those kids it will most likely take them off the map of targets for Christians who love to use youth ministry gimmicks. Youth ministry has the main goal of turning little kids into little Christians and subsequently adult Christians. I’d rather we see the potential of kids in terms of what they could discover–science and the arts–instead of letting them squander their lives away on worshipping an invisible being.
It should also be noted that Bill Murray would never last as a Christian youth pastor, though his methods would be effective. Christians like humor, but outrageous antics and unique personalities have the tendency to bring you standing face to face with the church board and people who aspire to church boards can be like politicians–they never seem to get it. My youth pastor butted heads with our church board and eventually left. They brought in an uptight conformist as his replacement who honestly seemed unhappy with his life, someone I never was able to connect with and so too I left.
I’m not saying that freethinking organizations don’t have some of these same problems, but my experience has been that the “little things” plague churches–which is why we have more churches than ever before (one splits off from another over disagreements). An atheist group probably is not going to care if Bill Murray jokingly says to a kid, “Let’s go get laid.” Because they know it’s done with innocent humor. Ultimately, it is that sense of humor that could save a kid. I guess the only reason I bring up Meatballs on this site is to show an example of how kids are saved, not by Christ, but by human interaction. Atheists need to do more than complain (I’m guilty by the way) and therefore those innovative individuals starting freethinking youth organizations have my applause.
SIDENOTE: See the movie poster for Meatballs with the girls hanging off of Tripper Harrison? It doesn’t represent Bill Murray’s character at all. Tripper Harrison goes after one girl and one girl only and she is not some bikini model. She’s very down to earth and normal and attractive without being “Hollywood” hot. Fact is, the entire cast of Meatballs feels like everyday people we may know or could get to know. That may be one of the other reasons why we can relate to it or want to be part of that group. We see “us” and not a fantasy cast.