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Wednesday, January 15, 2014

I'm Not in High School Anymore

I have some friends from high school who are precious and dear to me, and we speak often. One is a lawyer in Louisiana, one a nuclear engineer, one a manufacturing manager, and another a minister in Driscoll’s Mars Hill network. Three of these four also served in the U.S. Navy. I could not be more proud of these men and who they have become.

When we were in high school we didn’t fit in. I’m not saying that we were members of a group that could have been labeled “the outcasts;” I’m saying that we crossed so many social categories and boundaries that we were un-categorize-able. We were all strong academic performers, but we also played on many of the school’s athletic teams. We were deeply involved in the NJROTC program, but we made time for other activities like SGA, mentoring, and Quiz Bowl, and church life. We were weird in that we couldn’t be pigeonholed into what have become the standard categories for high school society (i.e. the nerds, the jocks, the freaks, the goths/emos, etc.).

Thanks be to God that we weren’t categorized as any of those things. We were able to see that friends could be made of all types of people, and that we could all work independently of a social group to succeed in school and society. We avoided, for the most part, what could be called the “usual high school drama.”

High school ended, and we went our separate ways. The men my friends have become, I think, have reflected their ability to not be pigeonholed; they have adapted, transitioned, and thrived in just about every way. (Can you tell I’m proud of them?)

I’m so thankful for the experiences that I had in high school, but I’m also thankful for my time at Mississippi College and at Baylor University. The point is that my friends and I have all grown up and left behind the would-be drama of high school to embrace the fullness of life. Since we largely avoided that drama to begin with, the growing up was perhaps less shocking and painful than it could have been.

Now consider a recent post[1] by Lutheran pastor the Rev. Erik Parker in which he likens Evangelicalism to a high school. He calls Driscoll, Piper, and Eldridge the “football team” because “the crowds love them, but most cannot see that they are also the bullies.” Myer and Osteen are the “rich kids,” and Rachel Held Evans is the valedictorian. In Parker’s metaphor the Mainline denominations are the “parents” and “teachers” who “brought them into the world.”

Parker’s central point is that Evangelicalism “needs” the Mainline denominations for their experience and wisdom. The Mainline needs Evangelicalism for its “drama to remind us how important this faith business” is.

Likening the Evangelical milieu to high school, especially when the Mainline is cast as the teachers and parents, is disingenuous and anachronistic. To do so is to portray the Evangelical movement as young, immature, and under the tutelage of the Mainline “adults” who try to mold the students into their own image. Evangelicals are not in the midst of some maturation process that will eventually graduate them to Mainline status; the Evangelical movement is not the Mainline precisely because it cannot become the Mainline.

The Rev. Parker wants to argue that the Evangelicals need the Mainline and vice-versa, but calling those same Evangelicals the students while his own tradition is the great teacher and parent causes “Evangelical” to lose its historical meaning completely.[2] His metaphor assumes that if Evangelicals would just grow up a little bit they would see their “drama” for what it is and merge with the other sober-minded Mainline Christians in our culture.

Further, Rev. Parker misses the irony that one cannot so easily stereotype Evangelicals into his or any other category. There are not “bullies” or “nerds” or “valedictorians” in the Evangelical camp; these believers flow into and out of and among any categories. The Mainline thinks in categories because it has, in many cases, an ordered hierarchy to clearly define those categories. Baptists, at least, have no such hierarchy and therefore are incapable of categorization. If a specific preacher, author, or believer acts in a way that resembles the jock, the nerd, or the freak, then so be it. Trying to cast the entire Evangelical movement as the children in a school with its drama, though, just doesn’t work.

One final note: the Evangelicals don’t need the Mainline in the way that Rev. Parker thinks. The Evangelical movement has been doing its own thing for enough generations now to understand that wisdom and calmness can be euphemisms for apathy and hollow spirituality. Evangelicals are also not blind to the “grey areas of faith,” nor are Evangelicals ignorant of the tensions these grey areas produce. Evangelicals live in these areas every day, just like Mainline believers.

In my own context of teaching high school students and witnessing their drama, I’ve come to understand that “the struggle is real.” More specifically, I’ve learned that the best teacher I can be is the one who invests in the drama, not to chide, criticize, or tell the students to grow up, but because the love of God in Jesus Christ is found in how I respond to that struggle, that drama.

[2] The meaning of “Evangelical” is slippery at best. My dear friend Roger Olson holds out hope for the term, however, in spite of calls by others to abandon the word in favor of something more solid.

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