Occasionally, however, one of these odd pairings really causes me to pause. With my iPod on shuffle during a recent bike-hike, I had an interesting one: Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” followed by Matt Maher’s “Hold Us Together.” If you know both of these songs, you probably won’t see an immediate connection, but I’d like to share two stories that link these songs together in my mind, and share a few of my reflections on how they affect my thinking about our work as teachers.
In 1991, I was a 14-year-old freshman in high school. I remember riding home from youth group one night with my friend Brad who had just turned 16 and was a newly licensed driver. A new song came on the radio—crunchy guitars and a singer who sounded like he had marbles in his mouth. I was pretty sure it was the best song I had ever heard…who was it by? Some band called “Nirvana.” I heard it a few more times on the radio, and then—at a friend’s house, since we didn’t have cable—I saw the video on MTV. “Smells Like Teen Spirit:” a grunge anthem celebrating teenage angst, alienation, and anarchy. The video? A parody, almost: adolescents at a pep rally with the band playing a concert, in which the kids ultimately go crazy and destroy the set. I felt like the song was about my life: frustrated, confused, and a little apathetic. The hook of the chorus seemed to capture my feelings at the time: “Here we are now, entertain us.”
In retrospect, I realize that the song wasn’t really about me at all. As a young adolescent, I wasn’t an isolated loner; I actually had a pretty solid group of friends. I wasn’t a burnout; I was basically a good kid and got good grades in school. I wasn’t an anarchist; I actually pretty much did what was expected of me, played well with others, and tried to live the Golden Rule. Why then did lyrics like these resonate so clearly with me, and with teen culture at that time? Because they certainly did—my friends and I often would listen to music by bands like Nirvana, and Pearl Jam, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers and talk about how these songs just captured how we felt.
Where this gets a little weird is when you fast-forward 20 years to the present. I still have these songs on my iPod, after all, and they were downloaded long after 1991. What I’m recognizing is that songs like this one are part of my story, part of my history. They reflect who I was—or maybe how I felt at age 14. Perhaps the grain of truth in “Smells Like Teen Spirit”—capturing teenage angst and the feelings of rebellion and alienation common to young adolescents—was what hooked my friends and me. But there’s a part of me that wonders if it’s because I was so steeped in “church” that I was reacting to it in some way. That even though I knew all the right answers, maybe I was reacting to expectations, acting out in some way, wanting to go along with the culture around me (“here we are now, entertain us”) rather than living the Truth I really knew to be true?
This brings me to my second story.
I have served as a teacher for the past 14 years in Christian schools in California and Iowa. I’ve taught a variety of subjects, mostly in middle school. As a music-lover, I often teach with my guitar close at hand. There are times when it just makes so much sense break out the 6-string and throw down a song: it can help affect students’ moods, it can reinforce the point of a lesson, and—sometimes—it’s just good fun. In my current role as Technology Coordinator, I sometimes play while my 5th graders practice their keyboarding; it helps pass the time for them, and make such a “boring” task more interesting. One day last fall, since I was working on learning the song anyway, I played and sang Matt Maher’s song “Hold Us Together” to great response. The chorus is catchy—pretty soon the whole group was singing along.
After the song, one of the kids said something along the lines of, “I love Christian music.” And the kid sitting next to her said something like, “That’s a ‘Christian’ song? It isn’t about God or anything.” (Ooooh…I love it when that happens!)
This actually prompted a pretty interesting conversation about what makes music “Christian.” Mr. Maher is a devout Roman Catholic. He has written several songs that would definitely qualify as “Praise and Worship” music; maybe you know “Your Grace is Enough” or “Christ is Risen (Come Awake).” This particular song, however, could have just as well been written by a 60’s folk singer calling for world peace and love and harmony. The 5th graders who knew “Hold Us Together” prior to our singing it in class had heard it on a local Christian radio station—that must make it “Christian,” right? But, as I pointed out to them, there is no clear mention of Christ, or God, or the Bible, or “churchy” stuff…just loving your neighbor as yourself. What do we do with that? Is this still “Christian” music? They definitely had opinions about that, and it became an amazing teachable moment for thinking critically about the culture around us.
The thing that gets me about this story was their sincerity! When this group of students was singing out, “Love will hold us together, make us a shelter to weather the storm. And I’ll be my brother’s keeper, so the whole world will know that we’re not alone,” boy, it was enough that I really believed it! They sang it like they meant it; and maybe they really did.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how our surrounding culture shapes us and affects who we are. Somehow, I’d like to think that my 11-year-old self would have been singing out with our 5th graders. But I doubt that my 14-year-old self would have. 14-year-old Dave was the Nirvana fan, going through the motions of faith, fighting in some sense. What happens between 11 and 14? Would my 8th graders sing along with “Hold Us Together”? Maybe they would in our Christian school where they’re “supposed” to act Christian. But would they sing it outside of school? Would they live out the words they are singing?
I meet every few weeks with a group of colleagues to read and discuss interesting things that help us reflect on how we are doing at teaching Christianly, and to dream a little about what distinctively Christian teaching might look like. My Colleague Group has been talking lately about faith formation—which ought to be what we’re about as a Christian school, right? We’ve talked about how we are (of course) an academic institution first of all, but to be distinctively Christian means we are going to get at their hearts as well as their heads. I’m very concerned about our students knowing all the right answers, but not really believing it. I’m concerned that they’re going to get so Bibled-out that they’ll go through the motions, but not really own their faith. I’m concerned that they’ll be more, “here we are now, entertain us” than, “love will hold us together.”
Of course, as I’ve admitted, at 14 I was a lot more “here we are now, entertain us.” And I came around.
That’s where I take comfort in Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 3…
1 Corinthians 3:5-11
What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. The man who plants and the man who waters have one purpose, and each will be rewarded according to his own labor. For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building.
By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as an expert builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should be careful how he builds. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ.
We’re planting seeds, and we know it’s up to the Holy Spirit to make them grow. We’re building houses, but only on the foundations the Lord has already laid. That said, I’m convinced that Christian teachers have a role to play in the faith development of our students. I’m convinced that we need to model an honest life of faith for our students. For the younger kids, I’m convinced that we need to give them chances to express their child-like faith with full voice, as I’m convinced that this helps shape them. For the older kids, I’m convinced that we need to help them see it’s okay to have doubts and questions—that’s part of our life of faith. I’m convinced that we need to let kids go through the motions sometimes. Perhaps “acting Christian” will help them later to live their faith more fully when it is full-grown.
I’m thankful, after all, for the role models I had—teachers, especially. I’m thankful for Mrs. Aasen, my first grade teacher, who taught me to pray by talking to God, and to sing with my whole heart, and to love books. I’m thankful for Mr. De Jong, my 5th grade teacher, who taught me that being smart is a good thing and that I never have to apologize for the gifts God has given me. I’m thankful for Mr. Slager, my 8th grade science teacher, who taught me to build rockets, and who helped me see that the whole Earth is the Lord’s, and confirmed for me that science is pretty much the best school subject there is. I’m thankful for Mr. Branderhorst, my high school Bible teacher, who taught me that it’s okay to ask questions, and to doubt, and to admit that I don’t understand God’s grace at all. I’m thankful for Dr. Vander Plaats, the professor who taught so many of my methods classes, and supervised my student teaching, and shaped so much of who I am as a teacher. I’m thankful for John Van Dyk for messing with my head in my graduate work and challenging me to think audacious thoughts about what teaching Christianly really looks like. I’m thankful for Arlan and Marlys, former colleagues and master middle school teachers, who came alongside me and mentored me through my first few years of teaching. I’m thankful for Steve, my colleague and friend, who was an inspiration to me to just be myself in the classroom. And I’m thankful to Tammy, and Geri, and Al, and Carla, and Robin, and Rebecca, and Jill—my Collaborative Group from this year—for our many conversations about what an authentically Christian approach to teaching is, and for sharpening up my thinking about how we as teachers play a role in our students’ faith development.
I don’t mean this list to be exhaustive; but all of these teachers—and many more—had a hand in shaping who I am today. They have helped in my own faith formation. They have helped me to grow in knowledge and faith and love for both God and neighbor. I am thankful for teachers who planted seeds, or watered them, or pulled weeds, or simply waited patiently for fruit to start showing up. I’m most thankful for the Spirit’s work, so often through my teachers. May God bless us as we share in this amazing task! And may He bless our students as they grow!
(A final note: I actually wrote this piece in the spring of 2012 for my final turn leading faculty devotions while teaching at a PreK-8 Christian school. My vocational path has since taken a turn to higher education, but I'm still very interested in faith development of students; I think this is one of the key aspects of Christian education. I would love to hear your feedback on this piece.)