Rites of passage, identity, and adulthood.

My second blog of 2018. I’m on a roll now. Don’t hold your breath, it may be my last. 

For those interested I’m listening to Lord Huron’s album Mighty as I write this. I feel a bit of shame for admitting how I first came across them, but here it is nonetheless. I first learned of them while watching the first season of the controversial 13 Reasons Why Netflix show, and their song The Night We Met was prominently¬† featured in it. I didn’t like the show or the even the song that much, but I wanted to know more about the band and I ended up enjoying their Strange Trails album on the whole. Since then I watched their NPR tiny desk concert and have listened to their older stuff from time to time to see if I enjoy it. I think it’s OK.¬†

While discussing video games with my students the nature of rites of passage came up. Video games are huge anywhere internet technology is, and in South Korea, which boasts some of the fastest internet speeds in the world and a massive professional and recreational gaming culture, they are big deal. Another thing about much of the developed and developing world is that many local traditions are fading out and giving way to more transient lifestyles, global networks, and the quest for upward mobility. On a bit of a side note, I thought senator Ben Sasse’s conversation with Stephen Colbert about this kind of thing in a recent interview was really well put. My students and I discussed the fact that for many youth, especially the lads, video games are replacing the identity formation mechanisms that were well established in their culture since ancient times. 

I reflected with them on my own formation into adulthood and realized how many markers there were for me along the way. As a southerner I was given a gun by age 8, and taught hunt shortly after I had learned to ride a bike without training wheels. By the time I was 16 I was deer hunting alone, driving, and speaking in front of modest sized crowds at church. I was also working during summers and many weekends. I say none of this to brag, I actually don’t think about it that often except when I want to get my West Coast friends to laugh about my redneck roots. I’m also in favor of stricter gun laws, for anyone wondering, especially regarding assault rifles. I’d like to think of myself as political hybrid of moderate redneck and moderate city dweller. I’m mostly appalled when I read news by just about everything. But in the context of this conversation I reflected on the portion of my life that was pre-internet and pre-cellphone and realized that for all its faults my local, rural, country life was filled with meaning and markers for identity formation into adulthood. Some of it was cultural, some spiritual. It wasn’t perfect, but as I survey my students and many regions of the world I come in contact with I realized that I had something I simply see missing today, especially with my students. There’s a family decay, a community decay, a relational decay, and don’t get me started on the spiritual decay. I don’t have the energy left in my day to process that with you now.

With my students there is a craving to know when one has traversed childhood into adulthood, from boyhood into manhood, girlhood into womanhood, something beyond they studied their eyes bloody and took a big test. Right now many of them are turning to games which have missions and teamwork and levels and markers for development. I wonder how families, churches and schools can recover what was lost, or adapt to something improved in order to more holistically form students and society into something other than depersonalized pieces on a market gaming board. 

That’s all I got for now, I’m tapped. I wish you well, dear reader. 

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Frodo as Pastor

Every year at least once, sometimes two, three or ten times, I rewatch Lord of the Rings with my wife and/or friends. This year I managed to watch the extended additions with her and showing significant portions of the theatrical version of the first two films to all six of my classes while they were given time to finish their final projects in the last weeks of school. We suffered a pretty major earthquake a couple of months ago, so the whole school is in what I call an “earthquake grace” mode, giving a bit of mercy all around. Lord of the Rings and class time to finish projects felt like an appropriate mix of therapy without sacrificing my educational agenda. It’s on Netflix in Korea so there are Korean subtitles, and surprisingly many of my students had never seen it, or only seen it once when they were much younger. Few to none properly understood the themes nor the source material or any information on the source himself, Tolkien. I was able to educate them properly, having haphazardly put the movie on at first, I’m now planning an Inklings club for next year to make sure the Korean youth in my care do not escape their educational experience without proper and full immersion into Narnia and Middle Earth. God forbid!

This time watching it I was also in the middle of assessing the spiritual formation efforts at our school, and in general I tend to think about pastoral care as I go about my business day to day. My dad is a pastor, and even though I’m adopted I think it’s safe to say it’s in my blood. Watching LOTR over and over with my classes and then at home while thinking about spiritual formation, for some reason I singled out the storyline of Frodo in my mind. While watching Fellowship of the Ring a few of my classes happened to end when Frodo was in Rivendell taking up the mantle of ringbearer while the pantheon of warriors fought with each other. My students were positively transfixed (and angry about having to wait until the next class to continue on). They feel small and powerless, and now understanding the context of the story and who the author was, and what the Hobbits represented, it honestly inspired them. Many of them have suffered severe spiritual abuse from family and churches. There are many awesome Christian people in Korea, and many wonderful pastors. But there are also regular scandals that would make the worst of the western evangelical industrial complex¬† blush. Regularly in the news are things like pastors killing people including family members, fist fighting during meetings, embezzling money, having affairs with significantly younger women, so on and so forth. One student told me about an article that detailed a pastor bringing a gun (illegal to own in Korea) to a meeting and hiring mafia bodyguards to intimidate his own elders at a meeting. Aside from the inspiration for a film script that I hope to submit to Netflix, I was stunned and completely ashamed this behavior was associated with church leaders here. The impact has been huge, and in this neo-confucian culture a lot of times they deal with shame by erasing it as quickly as possible, not processing it at all. This has left many of the youth very unsure about how to move forward with their faith, or if their faith is secure, with their churches. I’m sure many of my western readers of faith (or of former faith) will have little trouble relating to that. Just imagine if our culture was built on collectivist honor and shame more than individualist innocence and guilt, and try to process how a child would navigate these issues. How do you trust spiritual authority? How do you process the evil in your own life when such evil is dominate in those who are supposed to be guiding us into the light?

Enter Frodo. The humble among the powerful know they can’t handle the ring’s power, starting with Gandalf and ending with Galadriel. The scene when Galadriel was tempted by the ring had my students convinced she was evil. When I explained her backstory and what that scene was really showing, that even though she was good she could be corrupted, they expressed tangible fear and dread, and remained glued to the story. How could Frodo withstand the temptation? How could he carry such evil to its destruction when all the high ranking and powerful characters could not?

These little souls carry many burdens and they are desperate to share them. When they do, they give the listener power. This is part of the pastoral experience and a big part of the life of a Christian community. If we don’t have openness and honesty coupled with wisdom, love, humility and care, we have serious danger. With each relationship and each conversation, little rings of power are being handed over to those in leadership. Those in pastoral care are trusting those doing pastoral care to help them destroy the evil in their lives, whatever form it may be, not to use it against them. And yet even Frodo faltered at the end, but he had his Fellowship, and the one remaining member with him, Sam, to get to the precipice. Even then, without a demon creature to exploit Frodo’s weakness with his pure rage, no goodness from within Frodo would have finished the job. It took a divine plan from outside of him to properly do what needed done, and in ways that none of the Fellowship would have planned or thought of.

As I watched this year I thought of how I want our spiritual formation at the school to look a lot more like Frodo. We aren’t wizards or kings or warriors. We’re common people with an uncommon task. I wish more pastors felt this way, and more training was done in this tone. For now I know I can’t leave my students with swords and shields and traditional forms of power, but with the apostles teaching, the fellowship, the breaking of bread, and prayer. Somehow, in unexpected ways, through these means the light reaches into the darkness, and evils are vanquished.

Preaching and teaching, and the distinctive opportunities for Bible teaching in secondary Christian education

Preaching is proclaiming and teaching is explaining. There is more that can be said of course, but this summary is true. Too often there is a harsh dichotomy of emphasis placed between these two. There is also too often a false confluence, that if one has preached they have also taught, or if they have taught they have also preached. These errors may seem small until you witness the results, which are usually some kind of confusion on a spectrum of severity. I’m thinking about it now because I see the results in my students all the time. They have been proclaimed to their whole lives with very little explaining, and have even been told that asking questions is bad. Has this kind of discipleship achieved the desired results? No, it hasn’t, not here in Korea nor in the USA. We don’t want an unquestioning faith, nor a questionable faith. The Bible presents it in balance and Christians are always to strike the balance. The issue is how well we do.

My contention is that there are few to no opportunities for doing the explaining ministry of biblical teaching as well as can be done in Christian secondary schools. Between 7th and 12th grade, six years of education, longer than any Bible college or seminary program and in a much more holistic environment, students under solid instruction and guidance with appropriate curriculum, have the best opportunity to experience the fruit of teaching ministry. I must add, this is not all that is needed for true discipleship and spiritual formation. The word must be proclaimed from pulpits and lived out in homes, and teaching happens in those contexts too, just not like it can and often does in school.

There are many questions that need to be sorted out to do this well, issues protestants, especially of the non-denominational variety tend to avoid, such as what’s the distinction between the role of parents, churches and Christian schools in the character formation and biblical literacy of their children? Answering these questions will also help solving the category errors I wrote about before, such as the distinction between pastors, parents, lay church teachers, and Christian school chaplains and Bible teachers. What I see happening now in my context, and why I’m thinking and writing about it, is that my students are confused and therefore have shut off much of their attention from what they rightfully perceive as a chaos of authority. Their church proclaims a neutered gospel and a fundamentalist ethical system. Their parents proclaim society’s expectations for academic and financial success. And at school they get everything in between. When I try to both proclaim in chapel, and explain in class, the reality and centrality of the Gospel of Christ, I’m looked at with no small amount of confusion. They are too busy avoiding the sins their pastor told them about to consider the majesty of Christ, and they are too busy trying to get in to the best university they can to understand and own their identity in Christ as a gift that changes them, and not something they earn with their good works as defined by neo-Confucian social ethics and modern materialistic standards of living, all baptized into a syncretistic theological soup.

I’m hopeful, because God is the one who unwinds all our confusion for us, but he also ordains his people to be part of that process, and uses the friendships, fellowships, churches, families and schools those relationships build and maintain to do his work. He gives the gifts of teaching and preaching, and it’s his work. He’s done it from the beginning and he’ll continue. But the process of doing it is part of the his refining for those doing the work, and it should be taken seriously and worked at with discipline and thoughtfulness. We live in thoughtless times, the body of Christ should be known for more, and what I’m talking about here is a big part of that.