I Was A Pre-Teen Christian Supercomputer!


Let me tell you a little bit about Colby.

Ever since I was ten, Colby has been a part of me, like a small, sentient circuit board lodged in my brain. He wasn't always like this. When I first met him, he was autonomous: a Moloch Machine, a literal deus ex. Beneath the brim of his red baseball cap, unblinking eyes bulbously stared, plunged, hypnotized. In a contractionless castrati monotone, he sing-songed his teachings, and over many weeks and months, I memorized them until some remnant of his programming seeped into my own.

And who was Colby? A giant Christian supercomputer, of course. When I was in fourth grade, I was sent to attend North Shore Christian School in Lynn, Massachusetts. The decision was not taken lightly by my parents. On his part, my father could never believe in something as comic as an ephemeral old man who lives on a cloud and whom — after a brief burst of creative creationism in his early twenties — has been spending the last six thousand years of his early retirement kookily obsessing about where and how people are mashing their genitals together. My mother, on the other hand, is culturally Catholic. She is fascinated by the ritual of faith, but otherwise seems to believe that the afterlife will sort itself out with a minimum requirement from her either of guilt or hysterical self-justification. They are both exquisitely good people, and as such, they measure other people's goodness by their kindness. Both, when asked, would agree that any faith that gloats about the eternal suffering of billions is inherently unkind. As such, they are inherently distrustful of many of the permutations of North American protestantism.

Still, at the end of my third grade year, it was decided I would be sent to N.S.C.S. My hometown's public schools were commonly reviled, and North Shore Christian School was well known for its excellent reading and math programs at the time, which was very important to my family. The science curriculum was also excellent... with one notable, glaring exception. Classes were small and the teachers were said to be young and focused. Additionally, the music director, Larry Kamp, was a family friend who was well respected by my father for being driven out of the neighborhood church for not being fundamentalist enough: they both shared a love for John Zorn and horror movies. There would be a friendly teacher there to keep an eye on me.

But there were some notable drawbacks. None too surprisingly, the science program completely ignored evolution, although it did not go as far as to claim the universe was only six thousand years old. There were also Bible classes and prayer sessions. There was nothing to be done about the prayer sessions, but my father spent a lot of time in the evenings unraveling the mysteries of evolution for me at home — King Kong was once used as a whimsical teaching aide — and my mother, who admired the philosophical problem-solving of Catholics, tried to get me to approach the Bible more critically.

Ultimately, with some reservations, my parents enrolled me. And this is where Colby comes in.

In the beginning of my fourth grade year, when I was just settling into my new school, my teacher Mrs. Betts announced that we would be doing a class play, called "God Uses Kids." The play sounded exciting, mostly because it had a robot in it named Colby. I repeat: some lucky kid was going to get to be a fucking robot in the school play. Every one else had to play a member of Colby's backyard Bible-study group, the Colby Gang, all of whom wandered around the stage wearing a t-shirt clearly identifying his or her character by name.... not the way Tennessee Williams might have accomplished things, but hey, it worked for the audience.

But I digress. That's not the point. The point is: ROBOT. Let that word sink into your inner ten year old for a second. Take any kid on Earth and ask them what they'd rather pretend to be: the robot overlord of each and every one of his classmates or some doofus Christian kid so dumb he not only allows an 8086 to advise him on the affairs of his soul, but walks around with his name airbrushed on the front of his t-shirt. Everyone wanted to be Colby. The competition for the role would shed blood and sweat and — in the case of our class' tearful prima donna, Jonathan — tears and temper tantrums. But no one wanted the role more than I did.

I took the script home and started memorizing. The plot seemed no more demented than many of the things I had been exposed to at North Shore Christian School, but as my parents helped me learn the lines, even I couldn't ignore the incredulous arching of their eyebrows. As I sit down to describe the plot now, I find mine following the same upwards trajectory.

The play centered around Colby, a sentient Christian super-computer who — for some reason — had set up a secret neighborhood enclave for the Christian kids in the neighborhood. It was called Colby's Clubhouse, and inside, it was a Jim Jones phantasmagoria, in which a dancing, singing Christian robot led a gaggle of Bible-thumping kids in elaborate dance numbers, pausing only occasionally to recite scriptures. The main dramatic arc of the play concerned the arrival of new kid Eddie in the neighborhood: he cracked wise about Jesus, never read the Gospel, and was dismissive not only of the Colby Gang's impromptu hymnals but openly professed an admiration and affinity for that year's hot R&B supergroup, the New Kids on the Block. Eventually, Eddie is shown the error of his ways through the tireless proselytizing of the Colby Gang... as well as the direct intervention of Colby himself, who bluntly informs Eddie that he's going to hell if he doesn't mend his ways. Eventually, Eddie breaks down, falls to his knees, and welcomes Jesus into his heart as his Lord and Savior. At that point, Eddie is welcomed into the Colby Gang as an honorary member, presented with his very own pastel-colored, self-identifying t-shirt, and takes part in the exiting performance of the play's title song, "God Uses Kids." Curtain and applause.

As an adult, Eddie's plight concerns me. He was openly referred to as a "jerk" and "bad kid" in the play character notes, and that never bothered me at the time. But let's more closely dissect the plot by placing ourselves in poor Eddie's shoes for a minute.

At the beginning of the play, Eddie moves into a new neighborhood. He's alone, depressed and friendless. Worse, he quickly discovers that none of the kids in the neighborhood like to play video games or watch movies or listen to records or play with action figures or throw the football around — you know, normal kid stuff. All they ever want to do is sing about Jesus. Raised non-secularly, poor Eddie finds himself ostracized from his newfound peers from the very start, and understandably compensates by adapting the defense mechanism of a smart aleck personality. He acts out. He differentiates himself through cynical non-conformity, but is soundly hated for it.

That's all bad enough, right? Poor Eddie. But consider what happens next. Eddie is invited to the neighborhood clubhouse. Hoping for the acceptance and friendship of the neighborhood's unseen but popular alpha dog — the mysterious but charismatic Colby — he goes, but instead of meeting another kid, the door is locked behind him and a giant metal monster lumbers out of the shadows. Its eyes spit sparks; its servos gnash like rusty teeth. It grabs Eddie by the arms and in a shrill falsetto scream that reverberates with metallic soullessness and the sounds of gears grinding, it inexorably begins to paint Eddie a picture of hell straight out of Bosch. Mewling, fleshless bird things with scissors for beaks. Oceans of boiling feces in which billions bob and drown. Bodies crawling with insects and scabs that never heal. Forced sodomy by impossible geometric shapes. The sound of infants screaming forever and ever and ever and ever. Eddie's mind breaks... as, in fact, had the mind of each and every member of the Colby Gang's under the same nightmarish duress. It is the initiation. He's been accepted. One of us. One of us.

For those who have not been exposed to the children's media of fundamentalist Christianity, this will all seem absolutely perverse, even in abstract. Colby is one of many surreal horror shows adopted by North American churches as Christian mascots: another is Salty, a talking, magical Bible with a similar constabulary of prepubescent minions to do his bidding. For atheist adults, the adoption of these soulless anthropomorphisms as prophets of Christ doesn't seem Christian... it seems positively Satanic.

But as a kid, I never noticed. In fact, I inexhaustibly pursued the part of Colby, and eventually won it... mostly by dint of being the new kid. About my actual portrayal of Colby, there's little to say: the dad of one of the kids in my class made a wonderful cardboard robot suit for me, and my performance was hailed in the school newspaper as positively Shakespearean. All in all, it was a happy time.

Still, as the years have passed, I have become more and more disturbed by the way my childhood, all so briefly, was caught up in the cult of Colby. As an adult, it seems insane and monstrous. How could my teachers not recognize that their play could easily be interpreted as being about a demonically-possessed IBM clone? More importantly, how could my teachers so cavalierly adopt a soulless machine as a prophet for Christ?

But it was no accident. In my own accidental embracement of method acting, I once asked my teacher, Mrs. Betts, about Colby's motivation.

"Mrs. Betts," I asked. "Is Colby a cyborg?"

"What do you mean, cyborg?"

"Is he like a human brain inside a robot? Like Robocop?"

"Oh, no, John..." Mrs. Betts laughed. "He's just a computer."

I was puzzled. "But he believes in God."

"Well, of course! We wouldn't be doing the play if he didn't."

"If he doesn't have a soul, how can he believe in God?"

"Ah, I see where you're going..." Mrs. Betts mused. Then she paused and thought for a second. I'll never forget what she said next. In a few words, Mrs. Betts perfectly expressed something: an ideological contempt for personal meaning that has come to define for me both the Fundamentalist whack job and militant atheist alike.

"No, you're right, Colby doesn't have a soul," Mrs. Betts explained. "He's just been programmed to think he does."

If you want to know more about Colby, Wikipedia has an entry about his television show, Colby's Clubhouse, which was on the air for fourteen years. You can also see clips of the show on YouTube.

Join the Conversation


  1. “No, you’re right, Colby doesn’t have a soul,” Mrs. Betts explained. “He’s just been programmed to think he does.”

    Now THAT is just creepy!

  2. I don’t know why he saved my life. Maybe in those last moments he loved life more than he ever had before. Not just his life–anybody’s life. My life. All he’d wanted was the same answers the rest of us want. Where do I come from? Where am I going? How long have I got? All I could do is sit there and watch Colby die.

  3. Damn you to hell, Brownlee! -Jonathan

    I also had to learn evolution in roundabout ways. I believe one of my papers for science class was about how wrong evolution theory was. Embarrassing.

  4. It was “Psalty” the singing songbook (not Bible) that gave me a childhood experience very similar to yours. Thanks not for the terrible memories, but for exposing more of this craziness to the rest of the world.

  5. Oh my God! I likewise performed this hilariously horrible play/musical in 4th or 5th grade. I’d completely blocked it out until I saw that picture… brought everything back. That is fantastically bad.

  6. Wow. I created an account just to comment on this. Thanks for solving one of my great childhood mysteries, John Brownlee. When I was 7 or so, I saw a video in church that featured one of the most amazing evangelical-child-robot-vocoder-dream-sequence songs ever devoted to the small screen. Turns out to have been from the video “Colby’s Missing Memory.” Here’s the link below (skip to 2:20 seconds in for full Fundamentalist Daft Punk glory):


  7. Excellent entry. I totally remember Salty… I still have Salty’s kids bible around somewhere.

    Reminds me of my favorite Twilight Zone where they guy wants to bring his dog into heaven and the guard is like, “No dogs allowed.” But then the kindly country angel comes by and is all like, “Of course you can bring your dog! That other place is hell, the dog would have smelt the brimstone.”

  8. If memory serves me (and apparently, it does!) the songbook dude was called Psalty- silent P, as in “Psalms, Book of”. Or “Pterrifying Anthropomorphism”.

    Egad. When I think of the things I unquestioningly absorbed as a child surrounded by that culture…

    It might have been a good place to discuss the Three Laws, back then. I’m pretty sure Colby broke a couple of them.

    As an escapee from Fundie Evangelicalism, I have to say that the single most abusive thing perpetuated by Christians is their failure to teach critical thinking skills to their children. We were informed very early on about what sources are trustworthy, and told to reject everything not originating with those sources. Scientists, public schools, labour unions, leftists, the medical establishment, Disney, the Liberal News Media, and on and on the list went; all had an evil agenda to destroy the Nuclear Family and rob Heaven of its souls. We were taught it was wrong to even discuss information not vetted by trusted sources, as it might have a corrupting influence. Discussions of science revolved around videos produced by whackjobs with artificial doctorates and crazies like Kent Hovind asserting that YEC (young earth creationism) is proved by the fossil record and the inherent errors in C-14 dating methods.

    In truth, it was their ability to control the flow of information into young minds that enabled my parents’ generation to brainwash so many of us. Fortunately, the world is a more open and accessible place now, and it is my fervent hope and prayer that children will surreptitiously Google stuff they learn in Sunday School or from their church youth leaders. Not to destroy or weaken their faith, but ensure they are not simply accepting at face value everything they’re told. I had to unlearn a lot of stuff as an adult that I am making sure my own kids don’t have to. And much to my parents’ chagrin, my kids hold some rather ‘aberrant’ beliefs- but ones they’ve developed through research and critical thought processes, rather than blind acceptance. And I would far rather they held ‘wrong’ opinions after some serious thought than simply taking MY word for everything!

    Colby should have grabbed Eddie by the shoulders and screamed “It’s too late for me- but you can save yourself!”

  9. Conversation with fellow Nazarene school alumnus.

    Zachary M—–: A lot of ENCers went to North Shore Christian.
    D—- Chasteen: Really?
    D—- Chasteen: Interesting.
    Zachary M—–: Yeah, I’ve been there.
    D—- Chasteen: Didn’t realize that was Boston he was talking about.
    Zachary M—–: on a recruiting trip with my baseball coach
    Zachary M—–: I like the “gnashing of gentials together” comment.
    Zachary M—–: too funny.
    D—- Chasteen: 😀
    D—- Chasteen: I love my childhood.
    Zachary M—–: It is hard to deny.
    Zachary M—–: It’s part of who we are.
    D—- Chasteen: Indeed.
    D—- Chasteen: And I think overall much more good than bad.
    Zachary M—–: For sure, but as the author cautions, there are places to hide from truth…especially within the church.
    D—- Chasteen: Without question.
    D—- Chasteen: But I must say that much of what I love in life I found by questioning.
    Zachary M—–: It’s a paradox of faith…
    Zachary M—–: The Christian tradition celebrates doubt and faithfulness at the same time.
    D—- Chasteen: Right.
    D—- Chasteen: But FUNDAMENTALISM doesn’t.
    Zachary M—–: exactly
    D—- Chasteen: And that’s the real downside of my childhood.
    Zachary M—–: 🙁
    D—- Chasteen: Yeah.
    Zachary M—–: Fuck the fundamentalists!
    D—- Chasteen: 🙂
    D—- Chasteen: Ironically, going to a xian school.
    D—- Chasteen: with few exceptions.
    D—- Chasteen: Will strip that fundamentalism.
    D—- Chasteen: Little do the parents know….
    D—- Chasteen: 😀
    Zachary M—–: So true.
    D—- Chasteen: It’s a trap!
    D—- Chasteen: If they knew what the result would be…
    Zachary M—–: Anyone who has ever been to such a school should link up and publish little tracks…
    Zachary M—–: OMG! That would be so funny.
    D—- Chasteen: Seriously.
    Zachary M—–: You know, telling parents what the experience did for them.
    D—- Chasteen: Your kids will be become lefty christians if you let them go to Olivet!
    Zachary M—–: Right!
    Zachary M—–: Illustrations would be great too.
    D—- Chasteen: yep.
    D—- Chasteen: They will become…
    D—- Chasteen: (ominous music)
    D—- Chasteen: Peace and Justice Christians!
    Zachary M—–: Perfect! I am laughing out loud here.
    Zachary M—–: We should copy and past our conversation in the comments section of that article.
    D—- Chasteen: Indeed.

  10. #12 Freetardzero,

    As an ex-Mormon, I can vouch for the LDS church doing exactly the same thing regarding information sources; with a smaller universe of materials and “friendly” voices, it may even be more important for them than for evangelical protestants.

  11. I’m pretty sure that the Trinity Broadcasting System still shows Colby. Also, Bibleman, a show about a Jesus-loving superhero, and maybe a half-dozen other religious cartoons and live-action shows.

    The only one I can watch for more than a few minutes is the old Art Clokey claymation show Davey and Goliath, which is actually pretty laid back and sweet. The episodes are morality fables. Like an actual kid, Davey can be a real shmuck, e.g., mocking a deaf boy, vandalizing a campsite, and having horrifying revenge fantasies.

    Christianity, in this show, amounts to: Don’t be a shmuck, kid.

    Bonus trivia: The dog and the father are voiced by the actor who played the town drunk on Andy Griffith.

  12. From the video:
    (Nick seems to have replaced Eddie as the non-believer, and has ridiculed the bible kids for getting worked up over a machine)

    “Put yourself in Colby’s place, NICK, how would YOU feel if you were the only human in a world full of robots!?”

    Methinks Nick knows exactly how that feels.

  13. Aww … why did it have to be Colby? That’s my name!

    Luckily, I too have also been programmed to believe I have a soul…

  14. Wow. I haven’t been smacked over the head with a part of my childhood I would love to forget in so long that I forgot how awkward it feels.

    My mom was (and is) a galactically huge Christian fundie, I bet somewhere in her cavernous house of old, useless junk I could still find some of the tapes and songbooks for this stuff.

    (And there’s no way I’m going looking for it. Remembering it is awkward enough.)

  15. Thats some mighty fine writin’ there John. Now I know why you came round askin about Heironimous Bosch. Referencing Metropolis and by turn the idol of child sacrifice was a nice touch as well. The only way to top that woulda been to work in a reference to Abraham & Isaac, at least by means of Highway 61 (1). Minor quibble: “Raised non-secularly” should be “Raised secularly”, no?

    1 There was a horrible movie called “The Hunted” that had a sound clip of Johnny Cash doing the opening lines of Highway 61 Revisited. Johnny done gone give those words a whole new level of creepy. Unfortunately its unreleased on its own but I sure do wish he’d done a full cover of that song.

  16. “Colby! Did you see who moved in next door?”

    “Yeah, the Macintoshes. Their daughter, Lisa, is sort of cute, but her brother, Mac, is fat and slow.”

  17. Okay, #13 and #14. That was hysterical. “I am laughing out loud here… We should copy and past our conversation in the comments section of that article.” and then the “accidentally pointless” name redaction.

    I’ve had only a handful of good laughs on the Internet. Whether you meant to be funny or not, thanks for supplying one more.

  18. “Colby doesn’t have a soul,” Mrs. Betts explained. “He’s just been programmed to think he does.”

    You and she were on the verge of restating John Searle’s Chinese Room thought-experiment as an argument in practical theology.

  19. Some scifi authors speculate that sufficiently advanced AI’s might be capable of having some sort of religion, if not because of some sort of feeling, as a conscious decision.

  20. I was sitting here last night, working at my computer, when I heard a gasp from the next room. It was my husband, who’d just read the last line of your essay.

    That thing so weird. And so Fundamentalist, if you don’t mind my saying so: when you run out of explanations, claim the data has been falsified. The same God who could create a 4,000-year-old planet with intricately interlocking systems of fossils and geology that give the impression that the planet is actually much older than that could create a robot that’s been programmed to believe it loves God and has a soul.

    Do these people ever think of the implications? In the case of our planet, it’s that God lies to us, and has created a deliberately deceptive world for us to live in. In the case of Colby, it’s that there is no necessary relationship between feeling that you have a soul, and that you experience authentic religious impulses, and having it be true.

  21. What’s that book the guy with the yellow hard hat is holding? The “Drip Rule Book”? Wonder what that is. Rules for being a drip?

  22. While I agree that “I have to say that the single most abusive thing perpetuated by Christians is their failure to teach critical thinking skills to their children.“, this doesn’t apply universally to all Christians, or at least not all Catholics:

    The single most unselfish thing perpetuated by Jesuits is the teaching of critical thinking skills to children”. I learned to be the atheist I am today primarily through Jesuit schooling, as did at least a third of the students in my graduating class at my Jesuit-run high school.

    Thank you brother Flanagan, wherever you are.

  23. “Save Colby’s Clubhouse” was the series’ attempt to weigh in on property rights issues, a perennial conservative concern. In this case, the clubhouse was built on a protected wetlands. The guy in the yellow hat is a humanity-hating atheist.

    In other adventures, Colby:

    Helps a Sunday school teacher remove bad books from the library.

    Convinces one of his minions not to take antibiotics because his illness is God’s will.

    Teaches the dangers of self-abuse.

  24. @32 Except that the robot is created by man and thus can be created with any “thought system” its programmers desire. Were man actually able to create an AI with faith in G-d, all sorts of interesting experiments might be possible. How far would an AI with faith have to be pushed (tortured, Inquisition style for example or simply mentally stressed) before it assumes a position contrary to its programming?

    Regarding the question of believing ones self to have a soul and having one or believing ones self to have religious experiences, I call red herring upon you. To the best of my knowledge, the presence or absense is unprovable externally (thats why they call it faith, etc).

    @36 silly question. same thing thats wrong with militant theists. you dont have to believe in G-d to be a complete jerkoff. as evidence I offer Richard Dawkins.

  25. Part of the awkward thing about being a liberal Christian is that it’s bloody hard to avoid stuff like this. Case in point: my upbringing. My parents wouldn’t have had any truck with this sort of thing (and actively steered me away from Focus on the Family propaganda), but they were in the leftmost quartile of our church, so I probably attended more-conservative-than-at-home Sunday School classes about 75% of the time.

    I don’t remember Colby, but I do remember being recruited into a “Children’s Sunday” performance of an elaborate choral number about how nonsensical and fundamentally un-cool it is to believe in evolution. It didn’t exactly stick.

  26. I originally spent more time juxtaposing my particular distaste for contemptuous militant atheism with my distaste for Fundamentalist Christianity. Essentially, I think Mrs. Betts description of Colby is the sort of answer to a philosophical problem that only one of the two groups would ever give.

    For a certain type of atheist (and please note, I am an atheist), people who believe in a higher power are nothing more than idiot computers culturally programmed to believe they have souls. For a certain kind of Fundamentalist, though (and North Shore Christian School was rife with them), people do have souls, and God is real, but faith itself can be “programmed”: you can teach someone to believe. I find both perspectives ugly.

    On the Fundamentalist side, I spent quite a few years as a Christian as a teenager… although never of the Fundie sort. I can not tell you how many people I knew back then, upon hearing I no longer believe, will basically say to me: “Well, since the dangers of not believing in God are so dire, why not just believe anyway? Believing and being wrong: you lose nothing.” But I think only fools can choose the personal meaning of their existence: the rest of us find answers that resonate, that we feel more than reason. What these people are advocating, then, is brainwashing yourself. What do you mean “I lose nothing?” if I convince myself that something I feel down to my gut is wrong is, in fact, right? I lose everything.

    As for atheism, it’s the thing that makes most sense to me now, but I can’t heap contempt or scorn on those who believe in a God (although I will heap scorn on them for the moral philosophy they extrapolate from that). At the end of the day, I don’t think the universe being primarily sentient is more unreasonable than it being wholly unsentient.

    I rather haphazardly wrote up my lazy thoughts on this here, if anyone’s interested. I’m drcrypt in the comments: http://www.poetv.com/video.php?vid=38555

    Anyway, my original draft of this elaborated a bit more on these things after Mrs. Betts line… but it was a much weaker close.

  27. Wait a minute, according to that picture, Colby has a, a, a… girlfriend? Can they reproduce? The mind reels.

  28. It is helpful for both teens and parents to choose a best school to come out of any types of problems. If the teen is equipped with best support and knowledge and ultimately there wont be any types of problems in future. In order to have all the best support, choose any of the best schools or camps for troubled teens to come out of teens problems.


  29. I think boot camps helps teens to learn in a disciplinary environment and to overcome various addiction & behavioral problems. But this is not always be the only thing which we should consider while choosing one. We must also get proper information about the school and their reputation as their are many such organization that are not much good and they just do their business nothing else. Their are many different sites to help the troubled teens and their parents. one such site is militaryschooloptions.com. Which may helpful for you. You can take a chance there,..

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *