Commonplaces: Teenagers, Reading, and Language

9781626360921In times past, readers kept books in which they recorded favorite items from their reading. These “commonplace books” were sometimes later collected, offering a view into the mind and habits of the reader even as the thoughts of the original writers were shared. This year, I intend to start sharing some of my commonplaces with you. Why wait to share them?

The first comes from a very intriguing book of essays by Jim Flynn, who taught for almost six decades at the University of Otago, New Zealand’s oldest university. Flynn is an avid and careful reader, and in The Torchlight List, he offers what he calls a global “road map” for reading.

In his first chapter, he writes of his own reading experience and compares that experience to the reality of today’s teenagers, including the young people who arrive on the campuses of the world’s most prestigious universities. To put the matter bluntly: they are not serious readers, and this is especially true when it comes to great literature. Flynn is surely right when he argues that an individual who reads well but has no college education is better educated than one who does not read seriously and widely but holds university degrees.

“Ask students what novelist they like best and you get a blank, or some reference to the author of airport trash,” he laments.

He then makes an observation that every parent, educator, pastor, youth minister, and teenager should note carefully. He distinguishes between active and passive language. Active language is the language people use to initiate a conversation. Passive language consists of language an individual can understand, but does not (or cannot) use to initiate a conversation.

Note carefully, then, what he says next:

In sum, in 1948 teenagers could both understand and use the vocabularies of their parents. In 2006 they could understand their parents but, to a surprising degree, could not initiate a conversation using adult language.

Sound familiar? I thought so.

He also observes that teenagers of the past “wanted to become adults and enjoy the privileges of adults.” Now, however, adolescents have their own distinct subculture that “is so attractive that some young adults want to remain in it through their twenties and even their thirties.”

He does not write with scorn nor does he believe that the damage is always permanent. But he writes with a prophetic and wise voice that has to do as much with life as with books—and he warns of a life without books.

Think and consider.

Another Shooting, But the Same Vexing Questions Remain

92032131One day before the one-year anniversary of the killing of twenty-six in an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, an 18-year-old young man entered the high school at which he was a student in suburban Denver on Friday and shot two students before killing himself. One of those students, Claire Davis, a 17-year-old senior, is now in very critical condition, described by USA Today this morning as “clinging to life.”

The story is shocking on its face for any number of reasons. As Carolyn Pesce of USA Today reports:

The gunman, who entered a Denver-area school on Friday and shot and critically wounded a student intended to harm a large number of individuals. Karl Pierson, age eighteen, who died of a self-inflicted gunshot, entered the north side of the high school armed with a shot gun he bought legally, with multiple rounds of ammunition strapped across his body, a machete and a backpack filled with three Molotov cocktails.

Pesce goes on to describe the tragedy: “In less than two minutes he fired five shots and ignited one of the Molotov cocktails before running to the back of the school library and killing himself.”

This is a story that simply defies the imagination when we ask a couple of very simple questions. The most direct question is unavoidable: why did this young man do this? It appears that behind this crime might be the simplest of human emotions: resentment and revenge. The student had targeted a teacher who had been working with him on the school’s debate team. The student was known to have been a very angry debater at times, but, nonetheless, was described as having his temper under control—at least until Friday. On that day he entered the school, calling out the teacher’s name and, amazingly enough, he entered the school carrying a shotgun he had bought legally as an 18-year-old in Colorado on the sixth of December.

That raises another immediate question: how in the world, given the contemporary concerns about school security, could an 18-year-old student enter a high school in the Denver area carrying, and not even trying to conceal, a shotgun with multiple rounds of ammunition strapped across his body, with a backpack filled with three Molotov cocktails, and also carrying a machete? He detonated one of the Molotov cocktails to little effect, but he shot two students, one of them with only a superficial wound and the other one, young Claire Davis, shot in the head.

This is a sad account in every dimension, but it drives us right back to the same basic questions as Columbine, as Aurora, as Newtown, Connecticut. The big question of why is a question that must be asked but cannot be adequately answered.

One especially haunting issue rises to the surface of this tragedy. Unlike so many recent school shooters, Karl Pierson was not suspected by his friends of being capable of such criminality and violence. How could his closest friends miss this part of Karl? We must note the inability of even his closest friends to describe what in the world happened between the relatively hot-headed-but-under-control young man they say they knew and the young man who entered the high school on Friday, intending to commit murder, setting off a Molotov cocktail, and shooting one student for no apparent reason whatsoever before taking his own life.

This transformation—of the Karl Pierson who entered that school with murderous intent on Friday as compared with the Karl Pierson that had been known for the previous eighteen years—raises one of the most basic questions that frustrates all human beings: how in the world can we understand someone like this? But then, of course, that drives us back to an even more basic question: How can we understand anyone? How can we get into the human heart and try to plumb its depths and disentangle its cobwebs? The reality is we can’t, even when it comes to our own heart. And, yet, we have to try.

That is why we put screening and security systems in place.  But why in the world wasn’t there some screening process in place that would have prevented someone walking in with an unconcealed shotgun? The directness of that question is raised by Jack Healy in The New York Times when he writes:

The student did not try to hide the shotgun he carried into Arapahoe High School at 12:30 p.m. Friday. He sought to confront a teacher, law enforcement officials said, and asked his classmates where he could find him. The teacher slipped away from the building, but officials said the gunman seriously wounded one student and then died, apparently of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Gov. John W. Hickenlooper of Colorado then called the episode an “all-too-familiar sequence” in his state. The memory of Columbine is ever present.

No doubt Governor Hickenlooper now faces the same questions as the rest of us.  And when you look at so many of the editorial pieces written over the weekend, so many seem to assume that there is an obvious answer to how to prevent this kind of tragedy. The truly vexing thing from the Christian worldview, the most deeply troubling truth, is that there is no way to prevent this—not fully, not adequately, not comprehensively. We fool ourselves if we think we can. On the other hand, we’re irresponsible if we do not try.

A Theology of Action: Owen Strachan on “Risky Gospel”

risky-gospelOne of the most lamentable symptoms of today’s emotionalist Christianity is its tendency to inaction. We can trace this symptom to any number of causes, and most of them are theological. Many Christians suffer from warped understandings of the will of God, of the nature of true discipleship, and of the character of the Christian life. Tragically, throughout their lifetimes many church members and nominal Christians never actually do anything of significance for Christ and his kingdom. Owen Strachan not only laments this fact, he intends to do something about it. With fresh energy and keen insight, he offers a vibrant vision of the Christian life in Risky Gospel, just released in the past few days.

He confronts “mystical, fearful Christianity” head-on and, as he explains, this means a living discipleship that is rooted in a heart and mind transformed by Scripture and leads to strategic deployment for the Kingdom of Christ. As he asserts, this means not living fearfully. To the contrary, it means living a life of Gospel risk-taking. Owen talks about risky faith, risky identity, risky spirituality, risky family life, risky work, risky church, risky evangelism, and risky citizenship. With incredible honesty, he also describes risky failure. Many of those who have been used of God for the greatest work of the kingdom have been failures in the eyes of the world. As he explains:

So this is what the concept of gospel risk does for you: it frees you. It positions you to see life with fresh clarity. You’re released from the tyranny of small expectations. You’re loosed from the chains of fearing what others think of you. In point of fact, their opinions pale in comparison to God’s. You’re freed from the endless cycle of brand management. It’s not your reputation among fellow sinners that gives you happiness; it’s being a child of God.

Risky Gospel is filled with biblical truth, saturated with wisdom, and targeted right at the heart of weak, indecisive, emotionalist, inactive spirituality—and at every false gospel. This book would serve as a great Christmas gift for young Christians, and it is well-timed for the challenges all Christians now face in our risky world.

Owen Strachan is assistant professor of Christian Theology and Church History at Boyce College and Executive Director of the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. He is a brilliant young scholar and teacher. I should know, because he served as one of my research assistants and interns several years back. He was kind to dedicate this book to me. I am proud to commend this book to you.

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