As a former malcontent who graduated from a classical Christian school, many of my favorite students to teach have also been malcontents. When I was a junior in high school, I scorned study, loathed reading, preferred violent films, mocked diligence and would regularly sneak off at lunch to smoke cigarettes with friends who shared the same prejudices. I wouldn’t swear I was cool in high school, but I was desperate to deal in the currency of cool most commonly accepted by classical Christian students: friendship with the world.
The malcontent of a classical Christian school is not necessarily one to scoff at religion, but he is one to scoff at pious and religious people. Pious and religious people aren’t friends with the world, which is to say they aren’t cool, and lameness is more contagious than influenza. Refuge is sought from sickness. For the malcontented student who can’t stand pious people but lacks the gall or money to finally quit Christianity, some manner of theological apologia is necessary to gloss an endless want for snuggly proximity with the world. That apologia is brief, Biblical, and has accrued more than a modicum of respectability since the 60s. It is, in fact, but five words long: Jesus hung out with prostitutes. Like a password which grants access to the toniest speakeasy, that little aphorism is powerful to open the doors to that ultimate storehouse of hipness— hanging out with public school kids. From thence flows a knowledge of contraband, Tarantino movies, rappers you’ve never heard of, leftist political leanings (even before going away to college!), an intuitive knowledge of authenticity, not to mention thin critiques of religion, most of which are even thinner than the honestly come by critiques the malcontent could supply on his own. And let me frankly grant that all the aforesaid things, especially the mediocre insult of religiosity, are very cool.
Jesus hung out with prostitutes. I have seen more than one reasonable and Bible-read adult (stumping for prudence) absolutely wilt after hearing the malcontent, hungry for the flesh, recite this maxim. In similar fashion, American Christians tend to stammer before secularists who bring up institutionalized ignorance in the Middle Ages, witch hunts, the persecution of Galileo, the Inquisition, the Puritans, Vladimir Putin, and the Westborough Baptists. On either front, the faltering is needless. There was no institutionalized ignorance in the Middle Ages, and neither did Jesus hang out with prostitutes.
Whether a student makes the claim in good faith, or as a cloak for vice, I would invite teachers to return, “Where in the Bible does it say that?” I could not have answered this question had a teacher asked me twenty years ago, and I’ve not met a student since who has answered it promptly. Feel free to follow up that question with, “True or false, John the Baptist was one of the twelve apostles?” Speaking as a mostly-former malcontent (I still watch Tarantino movies), let me confess that friendship with the world almost always goes along with an intense boredom with the Bible. We malcontents know very little Scripture.
After a trip to the men’s room to discreetly look up the passage on Google, a disgruntled student might come back with the required information:
Matthew 9:10-11: While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
Luke 15:1-2: Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
Let us take for granted that “sinners” means “prostitutes,” though it would do the malcontent’s soul good to have to explain that easy interpretation. I’ll wager a dollar it was something a pious person once told him. Regardless, there are precious few places where Jesus is in the company of these “sinners,” although a sage student might also bring up Mary Magdalene or Jesus’s many encounters with the sick and despised.
In Matthew and Luke’s account of Jesus hanging out with sinners, one key aspect of the narrative is in need of attention. In both stories, the sinners flock to Jesus. Jesus is not bored among his own people and looking for a few characters to add color to His days. He is not anxious for the company of humble pagans after dealing with Jewish pride. Jesus is good and loving, and He shows this love to His own selfish and opportunistic people, Whom He is ever blessing and chastising and with whom He almost always eats.
There is little in Matthew or Luke’s gospel which suggests that Jesus is “hanging out” with prostitutes in the sense in which contemporary Americans “hang out” with their friends. The Gospel writers do not record Jesus traveling with them, washing their feet, empowering them to perform miracles. The Gospels do, however, paint a rather clear picture of the kind of people with whom Jesus spent most of his time, and I refer here to the Apostles— a group of men whom, during Jesus’ earthly ministry, are often depicted in Scripture as a group of judgmental, uneducated dorks. While it’s true that Jesus spoke with the Samaritan woman at the well, a social outcast, He cultivated intimate relationships with the same men who wanted to call down fire from heaven to destroy the woman and her people. In modern parlance, we might say His closest friends were war hawks, even though He was “harmless.” The apostles were anxious for violence, annoyed by children, squabbling for power, country mice easily wowed by the big city. These were the people to whom Jesus revealed His secrets, even though He was often sighing over their faithlessness.
In drawing the comparison out as such, I don’t mean to suggest that Jesus was too good for prostitutes, or too good for public schools, or that prostitutes are like public school students. I hope that the malcontent, no less the prostitute and the public school student and myself, are included in Paul’s prophesy that in the Eschaton God will be “all in all.” The claim “Jesus hung out with prostitutes” and its unfortunately accepted interpretation, “Therefore I should be able to hang out with foul-mouthed agnostics,” is not mine, but it is mine to hear over and over again— and the whole mess of it is a tale taller than the giraffe whose head poked out the top of Noah’s non-allegorical ark.
If I may adopt the malcontent’s point of view for a moment, Jesus did not hang out with cool public school kids, but with parochial school kids who wore cheap clothes and stank of fish. They were not basically good people, they were simply His people and His kind of people. They were not humble, kind, and generous. They were not accepting. They eagerly anticipated the restoration of Israel’s kingdom and all the spilled Roman blood which would come with it.
If a classical Christian student wants to keep friends as Christ kept friends, he ought to be good to those people whom God has given him for companions. Even the sinners and tax collectors Jesus ate with were Jews, not pagans randomly wandering around in Jewish cities. If you go to a private school, those people are your people. If you go to a public school, those people are your people. If you’re homeschooled, the kids at the homeschool co-op are your people. These are your neighbors, the people God has put in your way, much like God put a half-dead body in the way of the good Samaritan.
On the other hand, if Christian students want to think of themselves as missionaries, spreading the Gospel to the unregenerate, then they ought to be trained as missionaries and place themselves under the kind of oversight and government which attends mission work. I can’t imagine a sufficient training in missionary work could possibly be finished before the end of high school, though. Further, they ought to do the work typical of missionaries— preaching, founding a church, administering the sacraments, or else providing some kind of service for the lost. A sophomore classicist who prefers to spend his weekends playing Call of Duty and watching Zach Snyder movies with his unchurched friends from across town would, I hope, be too embarrassed to defend himself with “Jesus hung out with prostitutes” against the raised eyebrow of an honest missionary on furlough from Calcutta. It would be unfair to typify every public school student in the country as foul-mouthed, interested in drugs and other lurid recreation, but these are exactly the kind of public school student whose is defended with, “Jesus hung out with prostitutes.” The classical Christian student who is too cool for conservatives who listen to Casting Crowns and don’t curse isn’t looking for a public school friend with mild speech, racks of classical CDs, an agape love for David Hume and a dislike of tattoos.
Perhaps the greatest reason why malcontents should hang out with the dorks they go to school with is that Christ taught us to love our enemies, and the malcontent has no greater enemy than the dork. No friendship will teach the malcontent greater humility or charity than being seen in public, smiling and having a good time next to a bunch of kids who can’t dress and ask for Lifeway gift cards for Christmas. The feeling that all your cool is dying? That’s what John the Baptist was talking about when he said, “I must decrease…”