“The word I picked was God,” B. said quietly. “I apologize if this offends anyone.”
It was the second week of the semester in my beginning composition class when the former high school football captain and current ROTC student volunteered to read his writing. But it wasn’t merely a matter of reading: B. bared his soul to a roomful of strangers as he shared his free write about his faith.
A free-write is stream of consciousness writing with only one rule: keep the pencil moving. No concerns with spelling or punctuation or margins. The writer simply follows his mind through the nooks and crannies of the subconscious.
Today’s stimulus came from the poem, “Trees.” I read the poem aloud, and asked students to write down three words that stuck with them. It is a beautiful poem filled with vivid imagery.
by Joyce Kilmer
I think that I shall never see A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day, And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in Summer wear Anest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain; Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me, But only God can make a tree.
Next I asked them to circle one of their three words and use it to start the free write without consciously thinking. At first, I’d hesitated to use this poem in the exercise because of its reference to a particular body part, but took the risk because the writing is gorgeous.
I didn’t expect anyone to volunteer to read, but I asked anyway with what I hoped was an inviting smile. Not one pair of eyes met mine when I scanned the room, so I prepared to move on.
Then B. spoke up with his apology and proceeded to read about his belief and the huge role it played in his life.
I’ve been reading lately about teenagers and their watered-down faith. I hear about young people following the Great Lie of individualism, of forging their own beliefs in today’s pop-culture society. Kendra Dean, minister and professor at Princeton Theological Seminary and author of Almost Christian, writes about teens embracing a “moralistic therapeutic deism” which she defines as a faith that depicts God as a “divine therapist” whose chief goal is to make sure we feel good about ourselves – a self-serving brand of Christianity.
If there’s truth in Dean’s claims, and I’m sure there is, B’s articulation of his faith reassures me that not all young people are ambivalent about Christianity. And Emory professor Elizabeth Corrie contends there is religious passion in teens. She conducts a theological boot camp for 16-18 year-olds and makes this observation, “we think they want cake, but they actually want steak and potatoes, and we keep giving them cake.”
B’s commitment to his chosen word may have opened a door that helped other kids feel comfortable sharing their religious beliefs. In introductory blog posts written shortly after his reading, many of his peers mentioned their faith and how important it was to them. This semester is the first time that’s happened in numbers this large. Don’t apologize, B.