This false dichotomy is very attractive at The Master’s College since we’re a conservative, residentially-focused Christian institution that has a pretty defined subculture, for better and for worse. Put your ear to the ground for long enough and you’ll hear the rumblings of the “TMC isn’t real life” mantra. I’m not intensely bothered or threatened by it, mostly because I see (and often emphasize) its accuracy at points, and partially because I’ve never been a hardcore party-liner who believes that TMC is the burning center of all that’s good in Christian higher education. Further, I couldn’t and wouldn’t be here if I weren’t concerned most of all about students’ futures, which I am very aware will be lived in contexts far different than the TMC campus. I’ve repeatedly told Cindi that we could only stay here as long as (1) I can believe wholeheartedly in the overall mission and philosophy of the college without becoming an undiscerning, uncritical party-liner and (2) I don’t become (by sin or by necessity) a reactionary radical constantly running toward seemingly greener ideological pastures while throwing stones at all the weaknesses I see along the way. In other words, I want to live both passionately and discerningly in the Lord’s service. I want to maintain a tenacious loyalty, because the majority of what I see is wonderful and biblical. Yet I want to think critically, because the institution has its faults, and not all of them are insignificant. All this to say, I have a very personal and experiential understanding of this particular false dichotomy, along with the temptation to swallow it hook, line, and sinker.
Last time, I focused on college as real preparation for what’s commonly called “real life,” followed by the clear implication that we should make the most of our preparatory seasons, because they are meant to orient and train us for the rest of life.
But more than just functioning as preparation, college actually is real life. College is simply earlier life. It’s younger life. And even the preparation is real-time. The Western model of education is not as experiential and hands-on as I’d like it to be, but still we are real people with real souls expressing real actions in real community while encountering real challenges alongside real opportunities filled with real allurements resulting in real consequences. Our responsibilities, our temptations, our failures, our victories, and our lessons are all real. Yes, classes are different than a job, but they’re no less of a responsibility. Yes, relationships within the conservative Christian subculture are markedly different than relationships among the diversity of the pagan cultures that await you at the end of your college trajectory, but all people are sinners and all relational dynamics are echoes of sin and righteousness. Yes, the policies are TMC-specific, but forty-year-olds still abide by speed limits, dress codes, and organizational rules, all within the diverse structures of societal accountability. If you are a human being, whether before or after or during college, your life is fundamentally real.
Further, providence has no pause button. The joys and tragedies of life punctuate the experience of every college student in one way or another. It was during the fall semester of my freshman year that I had to decide between living my lifelong dream of playing college baseball or continuing my first-year Greek class, diversifying my friendships, and experiencing previously unforeseen aspects of college life. It was during my sophomore year, standing next to the pool on upper campus, when I was told that my oldest brother had just been diagnosed with a brain tumor the size of a tennis ball. And it was before and during my senior year that I was taking significant steps toward the marriage that is undeniably my highest earthly blessing.
When you and I stand before the Lord, do you think we’ll be more or less accountable for our words and our choices and our actions and our priorities during our college years? Do you think He’ll say, “Oh, don’t worry about that — that part didn’t count. It wasn’t real”? If we are somehow a little less accountable for our college years, it would only be because we were younger and more naive, not because were were living in some kind of standard-less quasi-reality. God may show mercy because we were childish, but not because the context was counterfeit. The college years are real. And the college environment is real.
I wouldn’t suggest approaching a NAVY SEALS trainee participating in “Hell Week” and telling him that what he’s doing isn’t “real,” or sauntering up to the young men at Army Ranger School and floating it out there that this season of training isn’t “real.” And I certainly wouldn’t suggest telling the drill instructors anything of the sort. You wouldn’t want them to show you how real it is.
What then are we trying to say when we say or feel that our periods of preparation aren’t “real”? We’re trying to say that we’re not currently doing what we think we’ll be doing in the future; that the campy, narrow subculture doesn’t fully reflect the culture “out there”; that the priorities that we keep during such seasons are disproportionate to what we perceive our futures will be like. This recognition is good if it gives us the perspective and the motivation to live well and train hard during these preparatory seasons. But I’ve seen this attitude demotivate too many students. Too many use it as an excuse for laziness and complaining — they use it as a distraction.
“Real life doesn’t have policies!” Well, actually, it does — speed limits, online-bill-pay guidelines, MetroLink schedules, car-pool-lane fines, crosswalk laws, restaurant kitchen inspections, organizational codes of conduct, and club membership restrictions. “I can’t believe we have a dress code!” Well, actually, your job will, too. The plumber that came by today had a dress code, as did the UPS man who dropped off our package the other day, as does the Verizon employee who will help me select a new phone this week. Accountants don’t wear shorts and t-shirts to their appointments with clients, and stay-at-home moms don’t usually run errands in their pajamas and slippers. “I can’t wait to finish and get into the real world!” Well, soon you will, but it will be more of a communal transfer than an inter-galactic transport. The desire to be “out there” is a wonderful and natural thing, and it’s a desire that all trainees should have — unless it’s fleshly, condescending, and dismissive toward the current opportunities and responsibilities.
Those of us who serve in college education don’t want students who depreciate and neglect their college season of life because they’re waiting to graduate and get on to “real life.” We also don’t want you to put so much of your focus on the here and now that you forget what you’re being trained for. Rather, what we hope to see is an appropriate energy and focus in the present both because the present is intrinsically valuable and genuine and because you know what’s coming in the equally valuable and genuine future. It’s both-and, not either-or. College is real, and “real life” is real. Just know how they relate, and act accordingly.
I’ve now lived long enough to experience some of the precise relevance of my schooling. In 2006 I took a class at The Master’s Seminary entitled “Exegesis of New Testament Gender Passages.” There were about ten of us in the class. I knew the class was relevant, but there were times when I found myself translating some New Testament passage at midnight or 1:00am with a 7:30am class on the horizon, and it just didn’t quite seem worth the work.
Then two years ago I found myself on a flight from London to Los Angeles, sitting next to a lawyer from England. I was returning from my trip to Uganda where our adoption proceedings had been postponed. We struck up a three-hour conversation, and eventually it turned to Christ and the Bible. At one point, my new friend said, “I know the Anglican Church ordains women as pastors, but some denominations in the U.S. don’t. Does the Bible actually say anything about this?” I said, “Actually it does.” And as I pulled out my Bible and opened it up to 1 Timothy 2, I began explaining to him the nuances of the passage and the overall theological and exegetical arguments. Over the course of an hour or so, I actually dug pretty deeply into the individual Greek words and grammatical connections as I kept remembering things I had heard and read and studied in that class. Being a lawyer, he appreciated the detail. He expressed his pleasant surprise that the Bible gave direction in these debated areas, and that there were people who studied it. I told him that it wasn’t uncommon, and that the Bible deals straightforwardly with a lot of debated issues. We exchanged emails, and we’re still connected through Facebook. It was a collision of preparation and providence.
The example blows open several seeming contradictions: preparation and real life; personal study and missional living; the classroom and the “real world.” It confronts the idea that somehow your time of preparation has nothing to do with reaching the world; that your classes are irrelevant to real life; that engaging in intense, non-corner-cutting study will somehow make you less effective in the future, not more.
I grant that God does not always make the connections this clear. But as an encouragement, I have found that the training I’ve received (both in the academics of the classroom and the relationships of the dormroom) have been, on the whole, relevant, helpful, and preparatory. And even if I didn’t think so, God’s providential guidance would guarantee that it would be relevant, somehow, someway. David ran from Saul for a decade and a half before obtaining his promised kingship. Joseph was thrown into a pit, sold into slavery, and locked up in prison before he rose to second in command in Egypt and saw the divine purposes.
If you’re engaged in any type of preparatory season, remember that this season of life is just as authentic as any other. It may have different characteristics, qualities, colors, and flavors than other longer seasons, but it is genuine life. Engage in it, enjoy it, critique it (and yourself), and make the most of it.
The battle is real. And so is the boot camp.