On the list of movies guaranteed to make me cry, Dead Poets Society is firmly entrenched. It is right up there with the “Wanna have a catch” scene in Field of Dreams.
The scene below is not the one that makes me cry, but it is one that makes the creative writing oriented English major in me leap for joy.*
As a result of my love of DPS, it caught my attention when Stanley Hauerwas attacked the film in his book After Christendom. Indeed, he attacks one of the lines in the scene above: You must learn to think for yourselves.
I cannot think of a more conformist and suicidal message in modernity than that we should encourage student to make up their own minds. That is simply to ensure that they will be conformist consumers in a capitalist economy by assuming now that ideas are but another product that you get to choose on the basis of your arbitrary likes and dislikes. To encourage students to think for themselves is therefore a sure way to avoid any meaningful disagreement.
Hauerwas argues — or is it asserts? — that Christianity is not something you choose to be a part of, but a set of practices and skills you acquire in apprenticeship to existing masters of the art and craft of Christianity. In doing so, we develop the virtues that make it possible to have an intelligible conversation about morality as defined by the practice of Christianity. But you do not become a master at any craft by starting out thinking for yourself. You start out learning how to think — and act — as the master teachers do.
For my part, I know that I have been on a journey for several years now to understand Christianity as practiced by John Wesley. It would probably be better and easier to learn the craft from someone living today. For the time being, though, Wesley has been one of my primary teachers.
As I write this, I am reminded of an essay or talk William J. Abraham gave in which he argued that Wesley should not be viewed as a theologian but as a saint of the church — a man who shows us what it means to be a master Christian.
In the end, I’m not sure what to make of Hauerwas’ attack on a beloved movie, but I find and have long found the argument persuasive that being a Christian is less about beliefs than it is about a form of life.
*Although I loved the film when it came out, an English professor earlier this year attacked it strongly — echoing some of Hauerwas’ complaints — as a distorted view of the humanities.