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. She guessed I have thoughts she bargained I could share and would. High school seniors, two classes. "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'll just listen, I told myself. I know next to nothing about kids today.
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 teacher's rhetoric re-forms, a long-dormant voice with 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.
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 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 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.
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 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 was someone who doesn't know the answers.
I could have brought up the Benedict Option, a book raising all kinds of commentary within the evangelical community, 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 papers; and 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 a half century ago, who, for the very first time in his life, stole into a darkened theater, then tore out, warp speed, when God chased him out once Satan lit that huge screen.
I could have told them how my mother once offered to buy me the very best Selectric typewriter on the market (before an Apple IIe) if I'd promise never to type out a 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 use those smart phones up on the wall, whether or not vaping was biblical, what words should be blazoned over their t-shirts, or what to think of 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 they are about to enter are often 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 saying, 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.