She’d asked me to drop by her class because the topic seemed like something I’d have some thoughts about. That’s what she told me in a FB message, an invite really. She guessed I have thoughts she bargained I could share and would. High school seniors, two classes. “It would be nice if you could visit. . .”
I was apprehensive. My bum knee isn’t the only reminder I’m pushing 70. It’s been a while, after all. Many of her students’ grandpas are nowhere near retirement. I know next to nothing about kids today. I wish I knew more. I’ll just listen, I told myself.
Dream on. She stood me up in front of the room, gave my string a pull, and wanted me to spin stories. Which I obligingly did. I’ve been out of the classroom for five years, but a hybrid a long-dormant teacher’s voice emerged out of nowhere, roots as deep as big blue stem.
A homemade apron-like creation is hung on the wall of that classroom. It’s festooned with color-coded pockets in which students slip their smart phones the moment they come in the door. That’s new. It’s nothing to sneeze at, but maybe that’s about all.
The students were kind, respectful, and, to a person, it seemed, tuned-in. But they didn’t have much to say. I tried. Volunteers were few. They much preferred listening to the guest, the old bald guy.
The essay in question was from a magazine titled Relevant, its thesis obvious from the title: “Why the ‘Faith-Based’ Film Genre Must End: These kinds of labels can be destructive to art.” New twist on an old question. Christians should not dedicate their artistic selves to a genre of Christian film or music because in so doing they will be depriving a wider audience, a secular audience, of their great work. That’s the way the argument goes.
Kind of “millennial,” I thought, so couched in privilege, assuming, as it does in the first place, that the readers’ “work” could earn a wider audience, that anyone with a good guitar can be Bono.
Still, ought to be interesting, I figured, so why not? Visiting her class was a well-meant offer, and she’s a gem, an ex-student of mine who’s been a wonder as a teacher for longer than I could guess.
Truth be told, I left that classroom somewhat moderately depressed, not because the kids were disengaged or rowdy, not because the topic seemed irrelevant or silly. I think she wanted a wise man; what she got instead was a wise guy, and an old one at that, someone who knows the questions very well but, even at 70–maybe more so at 70–doesn’t know the answers.
I could have brought up the Benedict Option, a book raising all kinds of commentary within the evangelical community, yet another option on how exactly to interpret the age-old paradox of being “in, but not of.”
I could have said I remembered being their age and thinking that being a Christian writer meant churning out Sugar Creek Gang stories or Sunday School lessons. I might have added how wonderful, how free it felt finally to think that even as a Christian I could try to write like Hemingway.
I could have told them about a man I know, raised in the church in the fifties, who stole into a darkened theater for the first time in his life, then tore out, warp speed, when God chased him out once Satan lit that huge screen before him. Might have, but they wouldn’t have understood.
I could have told them how my mother once offered to buy me the very best Selectric typewriter on the market if I’d promise never to type another four-letter word. Truth be told, I did tell them that. (And that I had to turn her down.)
I could have told them about an essay of mine aired just the day before on public radio, aimed at an audience that wasn’t “Christian,” in their sense of that word, written instead for a much wider bunch–and how my mother wouldn’t have liked that little essay for that reason.
What I couldn’t tell them was exactly what it means to be “in, but not of.” Is there an answer? What I couldn’t answer is how Christians should be using those smart phones up on the wall, whether or not vaping was good or right or whatever, what words should be or should not be blazoned over their t-shirts, or what to think of President Donald Trump. I might have liked to answer some of those questions, but I couldn’t, not because it wouldn’t be wise but because the answers to so many questions about this world those senior kids are about to enter are often really hard to come by.
What I couldn’t say was exactly what they should think of that article in Relevant magazine, or what to do exactly with “in but not of,” in 1967 or 2017. What I ended up telling them, I guess, is not that there are no answers, but that there are many. Start sorting.
What I could have said is, “You’re seniors, right? Welcome to real life.”
And then listened. I should have listened.