By Brandon Logan, Georgia State University
The Jewish Bar and Bat Mitzvah ceremony is a well known ritual in America, whether through personal experience or exposure in popular culture. Fairly recently, however, a lesser known variation has emerged not in Jewish tradition but in Evangelical Christianity. The practice came to my attention earlier this year with the TLC reality show, “The Sisterhood,” which chronicled the lives of a group of pastor’s wives in Atlanta. Two of the cast members, a husband and wife pastor duo, threw a Christian Bar Mitzvah for their son and created a minor controversy that led to numerous blog posts and an article in The New York Times Magazine. Despite this newfound exposure, the practice has actually been in use for some time in certain Evangelical communities.
An instructional guide book, Bar Barakh: A Parent’s Guide to a Christian Bar Mitzvah was first written and published by Craig Hill in 1998. Hill is the founder of Family Foundations International, a Christian ministry based in Littleton, Colorado that offers instructional seminars on such topics as handling one’s finances through spiritual insight as well as the importance of and proper method to give and receive a blessing, the latter serving as the inspiration for the Christian Bar Mitzvah. For Hill, the instability and anxiety caused by modern society can be cured through a return to ancient biblical practices. The Christian Bar Mitzvah, a ceremony of blessing and release into adulthood, is designed to be an integral part of this remedy.
Although Hill desires to ground the concept of a Christian Bar Mitzvah in the ancient biblical past, his version of the ceremony is undeniably a new creation. Aside from some brief attempts to establish the ceremony in scriptural and historical tradition, Hill’s primary focus is for his audience to make use of his general guidelines and tailor a ceremony that suits their individual families’ needs. This focus is, perhaps, indicative of a changing American religious landscape.
Religion scholar Carole Cusack has theorized that an overall shift in authority towards the individual in modern Western society has led to the proliferation of invented religions since the turn of the millennium. The creation of the Christian Bar Mitzvah and Hill’s do-it-yourself attitude towards the ceremony serves as possible evidence that this shift towards the individual is taking place not just in new religious movements but in mainstream Christianity as well.
According to Craig Hill, “there is something on the inside of every person that longs for blessing from parents” and a failure to fulfill this need has led to many of the ills plaguing modern Western society (1). Hill combines this sentiment with a belief that the West is tragically deficient in rite of passage ceremonies. The result is a populace left rudderless, constantly seeking the affirmation that should have been provided to them as they transitioned into adulthood. These individuals fail to develop a sufficient amount of emotional maturity, since for those who fail to receive a “proper release into manhood or womanhood” there remains “in the heart a lingering feeling of childhood.” (13).
This persisting existentialist crisis is further exacerbated by the failure to establish a firm gender identity for a transitioning adult as well. One of the key points Hill makes sure to emphasize throughout his guide, is the importance of making sure your son and daughter has an acceptable understanding of what it is to be a man or a woman. Of course, what is deemed acceptable is viewed through the lens of Hill’s own Evangelical belief system. Failure to establish the correct gender identity only leads to a man or woman trying to assert their gender in harmful ways for the rest of their lives. Hill believes this to be the root cause for sexual promiscuity and gang culture as well as a motivating factor for why many men join the military, and in an odd point of specificity the Marine Corps in particular. Unsurprisingly, he also lays the blame for homosexuality on this lack of blessing, reasoning that a homosexual man is “in search of the blessing and affirmation that should have come from a father and never did.” (14-15).
Hill establishes the legitimacy of the ritual as well as its history of proven success by rooting it in ancient biblical times. His first example, intended to reveal that all of this is according to God’s plan and wishes, is the story of Esau and Jacob found in Genesis. Because Jacob received his father’s blessing, his descendants, the Israelites, prospered. Esau did not receive his father’s blessing his own descendants, the Edomites, were doomed to a destiny of failure (1-2).
The other primary example Hill provides, in Jesus, seems to have the ulterior motive of explaining why the central figure in the faith did not himself appear to have a ceremonial blessing or release into adulthood. Hill argues that Jesus did in fact receive this blessing, not from Joseph who was not his biological father, but from God after being baptized in the River Jordan. He even describes the “potential insecurity” Jesus must have felt before this day arrived, leaving not even Jesus immune to the dilemma a lack of blessing brings about (15-17).
In spite of Hill’s attempts to root the ritual in scripture and in an idealized bygone era, the structure of the ceremony is clearly a new creation. The preparation for the ceremony as well as the ceremony itself is rather divorced from its origins in Jewish tradition. To begin with, Hill seems to acknowledge that the title of Bar or Bat Mitzvah, which he translates as “son or daughter of the Law,” is not entirely appropriate for a Christian. Instead, Hill prefers a name of his own formation, Bar Barakh, or “son of the blessing.” (2-3).
Parents are also singled out as the agents provided by God to impart His will and blessing. Although, in later chapters, Hill retreats from the suggestion that both parents have an equal role in the ceremony, outright stating at one point that “at the time of puberty, the father (not the mother) inherently has the voice of God or Satan to bless or curse his son’s or daughter’s manhood or womanhood.” All responsibility, for good or bad, thus falls to the father. The mother is instead “designed by God to fulfill two main functions: 1) Birth; and 2) Nurture her children.” Stepfathers are deemed suitable replacements for a biological father if he is not available but in the case of a single mother household a male replacement must be found, whether a key family member or if none can be found the pastor of the congregation. For Hill, there appears to be no circumstance where it is appropriate for a woman to provide the blessing alone (19-20, 31-32).
In a further departure from Jewish tradition, the entire process is intended to be tailored towards each individual family. For instance, there is no set age for when the ceremony should take place. Hill believes the appropriate age range to be somewhere between twelve and fifteen, whenever the parents feel the child is of sufficient maturity (31). The period of instruction each child must undergo prior to their ceremony is noticeably different than that in the Jewish tradition as well. All instruction is to be carried out by the parents and any idea of scriptural discussion is barely mentioned in the guide. The only aspect described as “non-optional” is a list of a total of five books and audio teachings (including two of Hill’s other texts) by Evangelical authors, such as Raising a Modern Day Knight by Robert Lewis and published by Focus on the Family. This requirement is not even directed at the child but is meant for the parents. So long as the instruction consists of establishing a firm sense of gender identity as well as responsibility through faith in Christ, then Hill seems to believe it appropriate (36).
The ceremony itself is equally loose with general guidelines that reiterate the points Hill wishes to establish throughout the guide. Both the child and parents make commitments prior to the blessing regarding a dedication of one’s life to serving Jesus, sexual and moral purity, and in the parents’ case, an emphasis on protecting the child. However, the ultimate moment is, of course, the blessing provided by the child’s father. In spite of the clear importance Hill places on this moment, even in this he remains committed to a do-it-yourself sentiment. Once more, a set of only suggested instructions are provided with proper gender identity again being the point of emphasis. But the prayer and blessing by the father is intended to be personal in nature and construction. When discussing frequent requests he receives from others about what to pray, Hill replies, “obviously, there is no standard prayer that can be embraced, as each parent must pray from the heart those things that the Holy Spirit has led him to pray over the child.” (44-52).
For the most part, Hill has largely divorced his interpretation of the Bar Mitzvah ceremony from its Jewish origins. Aside from his brief attempts to establish a continuous link between his ceremony and the ancient biblical past, he barely mentions this origin. In fact, it seems the term is mostly in place to add legitimacy and as a sort of cultural touchstone in order to make his idea of establishing a rite of passage ceremony more apparent for the intended audience. At the end of the guide, the idea of incorporating aspects of the Jewish ceremony garners a brief mention. Hill offers, at best, a shrugging endorsement but makes sure to add, “in any case, I encourage you to develop your own traditions appropriate to your congregation and culture.” (53).
The Evangelical community would surely not welcome any comparisons to new or invented religions, such as Wicca or Jediism, but with the practice of Christian Bar Mitzvahs they are linked in the modern cultural shift towards the individual.There are certainly rigid aspects to the ceremony, particularly with its ideas on gender. But these are largely a matter of worldview based on Evangelical Christian beliefs and would not be unknown to those already within the community. Strict rules for the ceremony itself are noticeably lacking. Instead of crafting a new ritual tradition with inflexible guidelines, Hill realized the most effective way to reach a modern audience was to speak to the individual and allow them the freedom to tailor the ceremony according to their own personal ideas of faith.
Brandon Logan is in the process of earning a BA in Religious Studies with a minor in History at Georgia State University. He hopes to pursue an advanced degree within the field and his areas of interest include religion in America, new religious movements, and modern interpretations of myth and folklore.
Maud Newton, “Oy Vey, Christian Soldiers,” The New York Times Magazine, March 24, 2013, 48-49.
Carole M. Cusack, Invented Religions: Imagination, Fiction, and Faith (Burlington: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2010).
Craig Hill, Bar Barakh: A Parent’s Guide to a Christian Bar Mitzvah (Littleton: Family Foundations International, 1998).