Life Lessons I Didn’t Learn in Class

Overhearing the Gospel is a great title for a book on preaching by Fred Craddock. Craddock argues that an indirect and subtle approach to hearing the difficult truth of the Christian Gospel is often the most effective method of communication. It’s why Jesus relied so heavily on parables to share his truth. Stories have a way of bypassing prejudices and ideology by touching hearers at a deeper level than purely rational arguments can do. Stories personalize concepts and appeal to emotion and morality in a holistic way that is more persuasive than a more direct imperative approach.

That’s why listeners who first heard Jesus urge them to “love their enemies” or “turn the other cheek” probably said, “You’ve got to be kidding!” But when convicted by the truth of the Good Samaritan story, even the lawyer who started out planning to “test” Jesus had to admit the real neighbor in the story was not the religious leaders, as one would expect The surprise hero of that parable is the hated enemy from Samaria who showed compassion on the man who was mugged and left for dead by robbers on the road to Jericho. (See Luke 10:25-37).

I learned some great life lessons via the indirect approach 50 years ago in high school. Blessed with a good memory, I was always a “good” student, which simply means I knew how to play the education game well and regurgitate answers that teachers wanted to hear on tests. But I realized recently that some values I learned in “extra-curricular” activities were far more important than any quadratic equations I solved or verbs I learned to conjugate. The irony is that the lessons I value most from my high school education came from our choral music teacher, Walter Kehres. What makes it ironic is that I cannot and never have been able to carry a tune in a bucket. I am also not very technologically or mechanically gifted; so I don’t remember how I ended up as one of the students asked to run the light board in our school auditorium, but I’m very grateful I did.

As part of the stage crew I had a priceless opportunity to participate in two major musical productions. To explain the value of that experience I need to set some historical context. I attended high school in a small, conservative rural Ohio community from 1960-1964 during a time of great tension and change in American history. My wife and I recently saw the excellent movie, “The Butler,” that is yet another example of the power of narrative. The film covers the history of the Civil Rights Movement from Eisenhower to Obama, and was a painful reminder to me of how isolated and unaware of what was happening in our own country I was in my youth.

That isolation was a function of the culture and ideology that defined my community and my education. For racism to be addressed directly as part of our academic curriculum would have been met with strong opposition from the community. That’s why the indirect approach to controversial issues was necessary and effective. I will never know for sure if addressing social justice issues like racism and multiculturalism even factored into our music director’s decision when he was choosing the shows to be performed each year. I hope it was, but what I do know is that my junior year our big musical production for the year was Rodgers and Hammerstein’s great musical “South Pacific.”

Here’s how Wikipedia describes “South Pacific:” “It centers on an American nurse stationed on a South Pacific island during World War II who falls in love with a middle-aged expatriate French plantation owner but struggles to accept his mixed-race children. A secondary romance, between a U.S. lieutenant and a young Tonkinese woman explores his fears of the social consequences should he marry his Asian sweetheart. The issue of racial prejudice is candidly explored throughout the musical, most controversially in the lieutenant’s song, “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught”.”

Here are the lyrics to that prophetic song:
“You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear, you’ve got to be taught from year to year, it’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear, you’ve got to be carefully taught.
You’ve got to be taught to be afraid of people whose eyes are oddly made, and people whose skin is a diff’rent shade, you’ve got to be carefully taught.
You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late, before you are six or seven or eight, to hate all the people your relatives hate, You’ve got to be carefully taught!”

Had that message about racism and an inter-racial couple been preached from any pulpit or taught in any classroom in my hometown it would never have been tolerated by anyone, including me. But hearing those words sung dozens of time in rehearsals and performances in the context of a “story” sneaked them past the censors and filters in my head. The words and emotions of that great show are so memorable that 50 years later, I can still sing most of the score to this day (fear not, only in the shower).

I have no idea if that production affected anyone else the way it did me, and the message was so subtle, or I was so obtuse, that I didn’t realize until recently what am impact it had on me, even though I’ve quoted “Carefully Taught” in numerous sermons and classes over the years. In that high school auditorium when I thought I was just running a light board, seeds of tolerance and social justice were planted in my head and heart that slowly began to germinate. That made me open to more direct messages and experiences about racial equality in the very formative years of my formal and informal education that followed.

I don’t know if Walter Kehres, our music director, is still living or not, but wherever he is, I send a very belated thank you from one of the most non-musical students whose life you helped change forever.

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