“You see, I am not a Christian,” said the young man at lunch, chilling the conversation in an instant. He was exceptionally good looking, and obviously intelligent, but also obviously sad. His father, a former Protestant minister who was essentially driven out of his church for his faithfulness to the Scriptural directives regarding human sexuality, looked down at his plate. “I see what the Bible says,” he continued, “and I don’t believe it.” More than that, he insisted that a God who could not be laughed at was clearly not a God worth respecting. Hence he was all for a “drawing Mohammed” contest that had raised the ire of Muslims in his country. According to his own admission, he spent most of his time playing video games with his “friends” from abroad and watching such American television shows as the dizzyingly vile Family Guy and the nihilistic satire South Park.
“There,” said his father with a hint of anger, “you see the product of our nation’s educational system.” Not that he was ashamed of his son. He held out the hope that the lad would one day become a fine theologian, because of his persistent intellect and his sensitive nature. Those would lead him eventually to God, he said. The experience of love, too, might lead him to glimpse the transcendent. “Better if unrequited love,” he added.
Another experience, the next day. My daughter and I sat in a room full of young people who had signed up for an intensive three-week class in a foreign language. The kids had come from Germany, Holland, France, Greece, England, Scotland — all over the place. There was a nervous silence, till I decided to ask them where they were from and why they were there. The young man from England seemed a good candidate for banter, he looking somewhat sardonic and with a trace of cynicism, so I teased him about English sports, wondering aloud when the last British man had won at Wimbledon (not since the 1930s, he said), and why the Pakistanis and the Indians were so good at cricket. He insisted, I think correctly, that Americans attempting to speak with a British accent all sounded like Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins. I replied that the British sounded just as silly when they tried to imitate Americans, and asked him to give it a try — which he smilingly declined. When I asked him about the great poets of the British past, poets whom I teach for a living, and whose works have changed the lives of many of my students, he admitted something I had suspected, which was that the British in their schools have largely abandoned the study of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Spenser, and Milton. He had read Hamlet once, he said, and none of the other poets. He had never heard of George Herbert, for my money the greatest writer of religious lyric in English, and possibly in any of the European languages.
The conversation turned round to the language they were going to study, and its relation to English. I said that if you knew a little bit of Old English you could see the connections more clearly. He wasn’t sure what “Old English” meant, so I recited a short passage from Beowulf, utterly incomprehensible. “Well, that sounds like Gaelic to me!” he laughed. Then I said I could give him a passage from the New Testament that he might be able to recognize. “I doubt it,” he said, abashed. “I’m not up on that either.”
“You can spare me your heathenism,” I said, smiling and shaking my head. He smiled sadly in return.
Still another experience, two weeks ago. The father of a family of Catholics had gotten in touch with me to see if we could get together for lunch. He and his wife and six of their eight children were touring near us in a camper. So we went over to the house they had rented for the week, my wife and I, our two children, and our rambunctious puppy, Jasper. The children, who had never met us before, crowded around the puppy, trying to get him to sniff their hands and to take little pieces of cantaloupe from them. They ranged in age from about five to 16.
What united them all was an abiding happiness, which I can only describe as youth, not in chronological age but in soul. For they were in important ways quite mature: The two teenage boys, when their father introduced them to me, smiled broadly, looked me in the eye, and shook my hand. Later, when their father and I were sitting in the den, discussing Canadian politics and the state of the Canadian church, they two sat with us, not slouching but listening intently, for the most part deferentially quiet, but occasionally contributing an observation of their own. At their parish’s recent First Communion celebration, they had had to welcome a large contingent of communicants from the nearby Catholic school, and with them, the liturgical wish-list of the teachers who ran the school. The father had managed to persuade their pastor to take the situation in hand and refuse the foolish suggestions — all but one. After the Communion, the children were led up to the sanctuary to surround the altar and sing, with gestures, a “butterfly song.” The boys smiled at my reaction. For they had been used to singing pretty sophisticated polyphony in their church choir.
“People think that all sopranos are about the same,” said the older one to me, “but I think that a boy’s soprano voice is not really like anything else.” It was an apt remark, which he made without boasting and without embarrassment.
While this was going on, the younger children, especially the two littlest girls, were outside with my wife for a good long time, talking, and trying to make friends with the still skittish Jasper. They were utterly comfortable around a grown-up they had never met before.
What this family had was the fullness of the Christian faith, lived out every day, and made manifest in wholehearted, solemn worship. They had never known the subtle and corroding nihilism of a government school, for they had never gone to one; they had been taught at home. That meant, at the least, that they spent their days among people who loved them, and whom they loved in turn. And they seemed well on their way to becoming young men and women possessing that most attractive of character traits, the one that Chesterton embodied so well: that of being at once wise beyond their years and as young in spirit as the Lord who said, “Suffer the little children to come unto me.”
Yes, I know that three experiences do not a scientific study make. But they are, I think, representative; and I have spent all my adult life around young people, whom I teach for a living, and most of that time too among children whose parents have chosen to turn their backs on the government schools and on their all too many sad imitators among our parochial schools. St. Paul wrote to the fractious Corinthians that love, true Christian love, endures all things, hopes all things, believes all things. But our schools teach almost the obverse of Pauline charity. Not that they don’t try to enlist their charges for community service, or that they don’t peddle the profession of the latest politically correct fad. But if ever the conversation veers toward the transcendent, their teachers are instructed to stiffen up. Then comes the honey-coated acid. Our young people are to endure things only with an eye towards greater self-gratification to come; they are to hope for nothing but the fulfillment of their personal “dreams,” and they are to believe in the silliest idols ever erected by man, themselves.
It is no wonder, then, that even the most successful among them, or perhaps especially the most successful, have about them that shadow of futility.