“Far too much Traditional Church has been too much tradition, and not enough Church.” -N.T. Wright
I was almost an art thief. Or at least I felt like one. It was at the end of our semester abroad, we got to go to the Louvre where we saw thousands of priceless works of art.
Including the Mona Lisa.
But the Mona Lisa, was a bit disappointing. Maybe it’s because of all the hype from Dan Brown, and the fact that Da Vinci was not actually admitting to the world that he was a descendent of Jesus through this famous work of art. Or maybe it’s because the actual painting is pretty small. But I think the reason that I didn’t enjoy it was because of the guard.
Unlike so many other incredible works of art at the Louvre, there was a guard specially assigned to this one piece. Just watching you as you watched it. And I noticed that as he was especially watching me, I was acutely aware of the fact that I didn’t want to give him the impression of being a suspicious character. But that’s when he had me.
Because once you start thinking about trying to act like you are not thinking about stealing a famous work of art, you in fact start acting very shady. So much so, that I think they assigned a special guard to me for the rest of my time there.
Context Is King
This past Sunday at the Highland Church, I co-preached with Doug Foster. Doug is a Church historian who teaches at the ACU Graduate School of Theology. He’s passionate about Church history and the tradition that we have been handed down, and he’s a great story teller. (Which all historians really should be).
And we talked about how, in our particular tradition, the way we sing and worship has become codified over the past few generations. Many Churches of Christ have sang A Capella for the past few hundreds years. It’s a wonderful tradition…
But Dr. Foster and I were talking about when this became more than just a tradition.
If you want to hear the whole sermon, you can find it on ITunes or here, but the basic gist was that this became more than just a good tradition, pretty soon after the Civil War.
Because now Churches of Christ in the North had some money to spend, and some of these churches bought buildings and organs, while some of the Churches of Christ in the South were dying from hunger. And they saw their brothers and sisters dying and their northern brothers and sister buying. And they said that’s not right.
And then suddenly, what had previously been a preference or tradition became what some would call, “A Salvation Issue.”
And over time, we forgot about the context of why this became such a passionate problem for some people, and we just knew our grandparents taught us it was wrong.
In my context, I’ve learned that while this form of worship may have mattered a lot to my grandma, chances are it didn’t matter as much (or at least in the same way) to her grandmother.
And that’s the value of tradition! It doesn’t codify the way things used to be done. In fact it can help to challenge it!
For the past few months, I’ve taken up gardening. That’s probably too generous of a word for it. Basically I tried to make the primary color of my front yard to not be brown. But as Leslie and I have planted shrubs and flowers, I’ve noticed how much trimming and cultivating we have to do. We have to keep something’s in and other things out.
Gardening is in some ways like Guarding.
Except for one fundamental difference.
One is about something that is alive, and the other is about something that is dead.
One of the problems with tradition is not knowing how to live with it.
So for example, in my tribe, we’ve said that we want to worship A Capella because the early Christians (some times) did. That’s an okay reason, but it’s dead by itself. It’s copying and pasting a form, without having the heartbeat behind it.
We ask the question How…but the real question to ask, to have a Living Tradition, is Why did the Early Christians sing like that?
And the answer is of course, far more fascinating and engaging, it’s because they were trying to be different than the Jewish and Roman religious around them. They were trying to be a distinct group of people in the world that they currently lived in.
And now all of a sudden, you have a tradition with some teeth in it. Not just the form that they used, but the principle behind it. Which was to be a good missionary for the culture that they were in.
In other words, maybe the best way to not break tradition, is to sometimes break tradition.
And this is why, in keeping with my last post on Tradition, I think my generation has undervalued it. Because the answer to what to do next, probably isn’t to invent something new. The way forward lays through the past, but you still must engage your present.
The early Christians didn’t have everything worked out as far as what their strategy should be for spreading the Gospel, let alone what our strategy should be today.
They were just trying to think like a missionary for their time and context.
That’s the tradition that we’ve inherited.
That’s a living breathing tradition that demands more than just someone guarding it.
It demands that we replant it in every culture and see what blooms.
*Tip of the hat to Shane Hipps for the Guardening/Guard metaphor