"Before you can search for truth, you must be interested in finding it." -Miroslav Volf

Saturday, December 18, 2010


Christmas break! Joann and I both have two weeks off from teaching. How’d we celebrate last night? Netflix reruns of “Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman” and rummy and screwdrivers. This has actually become a fairly regular thing for us (minus the screwdrivers), an early tradition or ritual in our marriage.

A couple times a week, we put on the old episodes, and play a few hands of rummy. We actually have an ongoing game, which we began on our honeymoon. I’ve currently been leading for several weeks now, currently 17,330 to 16,770. But she had a lead for most of September and October. As for "Lois and Clark," well…it’s much more cheeseball than I remember it as a kid. The writing isn’t great, Dean Cain is not much of an actor, really, and the Lois-almost-dies-nearly-every-episode-shtick is getting a bit tiresome…but it makes for some good entertainment and heckling.

On the note of “traditions,” I’ve been thinking in the past couple days about Christmas traditions. As I write, the fire is going, tree is lit, Christmas music is playing…making for a very cozy, nostalgic mood. Good time to remember a bit of my own cherished traditions.

I think it’s significant to even acknowledge that I have valued traditions. I say that because it seems many in my generation and young people in general don’t seem to have as good a grasp on traditions as older generations (maybe this itself is as traditional as anything throughout history...the disdain of the young for tradition). At least this seems the case when it comes to the Church (though I think many of us are getting better). A lot of arguments in church and theology seem to involve some element of over-appreciation or under-appreciation for tradition.

In the context of music wars and other church conflicts, it seems the older folks, if they are at fault, are at fault for being a bit unwilling to abandon what they hold dear, failing to see the need for the Christian experience, the language we use, the way we worship, the way we minister, all to be continually evolving and adjusting to remain relevant to an ever-changing culture.

On the other hand, people like me who are younger and pushing for new expressions of worship and ministry can fail to see the value of long-held and long-practiced traditions, thinking we possess the right way to do things, and thinking that what is old is irrelevant and no longer useful. We can forget the fact that we are a part of an historic tradition, passed down by Jesus himself two millennia ago and kept alive—to some extent—by a devotion to ritual and tradition.

And beyond that, we can just be plain rude to those older than us, writing off their opinions. Young and old always need to take care to really pay attention to what the other is saying, lest we choose argument and defeat of the other as our method and goal, rather than dialogue and consensus (or at least respectful concession).

The same is the case for those who do theology, I think, in terms of reactivity. With some of the authors I’ve been reading more lately, I’ve also been making a point to read critiques of those authors/books from the other side. For example, I’m currently reading Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History,” parts of which I read in college. And there are certainly some historians who think Zinn is unscholarly, misguided, insanely liberal, wrong, whatever. That’s fair.

Or reading critiques of leaders in the church today whose theology is at odds with some other prominent leaders on the other side of the spectrum. It’s fine to disagree. Though, one thing I've noticed in these critiques seems to be a bit of fear of those who seem to be diverging from “tradition.” Now, you can easily make a case that there’s nothing new under the sun. For example, a lot of evangelical leaders seem to be afraid of Rob Bell, who they’d claim is diverging from tradition.

But if you trace back Bell’s influence, he’s not really original, other than that he’s reframing some old theology to a new audience. He doesn’t seem all the different from people like Barth, or even further back, Origen, in many ways. It’s hard to get more traditional than Origen, one of the first (maybe the first?) theologians of the church (though our evangelical theology seems more in line with Augustine than Origen, from what I can tell).

But I wonder about the motivations of those who critique someone like Bell. Perhaps it’s a sincere desire to condemn “false teaching” and keep the Christian tradition pure and sacred and true. But I also wonder if some of these leaders feel threatened, and are critiquing from a place of feeling insecure. Perhaps they feel their ministry or livelihood is put at risk. I don’t know for sure.

Same with the critiques of Zinn. Zinn paints a portrait of American history that is very different from how it was framed and presented to me as a child in school. People like Columbus and, later, the Founding Fathers, are not exactly revealed to be heroes. Maybe such historians who would critique a perspective like Zinn's fear the demise of the "noble American tradition" and what the implications might be, for their own jobs as teachers/writers and for the health or "success" of our country. I don’t know—I’m not really a history buff (though I’d like to be), and am probably speaking out of my element here.

It's obvious to me that traditions are very important to us, not something we are easily willing to part with. That’s true in the sense of Christmas traditions; I know I’m always eager to do the same thing every year, reliving what I’ve been doing since I was a child, and even making new traditions, now that I’m married. And it seems true in the sense of traditions beyond the Christmas season.

And I think there are both valuable and dangerous aspects to those traditions. Traditions seem to show what we value, give us a sense of who we are as individuals and as a community, give us some stability, maybe, and hold for us a great deal of meaning in how they connect us to God, or each other, or beauty, or truth, or maybe something else I haven’t named.

But they can blind us as well, or be something we cling to out of fear, when we begin to realize that our traditions need to be questioned and tested. The long-held, traditional belief that the sun revolved around the earth eventually had to be thrown out in light of new insights and discovery and reflection (though I think it took the Church a while to concur with this one). But there are other traditions we are a bit more stubbornly unwilling to reconsider or give up when such abandonment might be called for.

I say all this simply to point out the tension and the need for discernment, and for young and old to be willing to discern together what aspects of tradition should be carried on and what should be reformulated for a new context and era. I have probably made more mistakes in line with the “young”—being too quick to disregard the old; though I think more recently in my life I’ve come to love and be eager to know what is traditional and ancient.

And look at that. I was going to share some of my own cherished Christmas traditions, and I didn’t make it there. Since it’s time to go make dinner, I’ll save that for another post in the near future.

1 comment:

Barb said...

Let's see...
you've got the "Christmas smell" thingy...
and I'll have the dinosaur pancakes ready to go.