Sunday, December 27, 2020

The Commentariat Speaks (20)

“At the end there’s like a 3-4 minute hip hop breakdancing ... thing, that’s the worst thing in the movie by far. I found this symbolically perfect because, if every worldview has its strengths and weaknesses, the weakness for American evangelical Christianity, speaking as an outsider friend rather than an overly critical foe, is that it has no ‘fence’ or ‘barrier’ to keep stuff like that out, which I suppose is part of the function of tradition in other manifestations of Christianity.”

I know nothing about Owen beyond what I’ve read in a single Twitter thread, but one may reasonably infer that he hails from one of these “other manifestations” of Christianity he refers to, one which offers believers the fence-like protection of tradition.

The respective positives and negatives of Roman Catholicism vs. American evangelicalism are a little more than I am prepared to chew on this morning, but Owen’s supposition about the protective utility of tradition merits a little further consideration. I think there is some truth to his observation: Catholics and the Orthodox are far less likely than evangelicals to inflict the dubious joys of rock bands, light shows, improvisational skits or liturgical dance numbers on their congregants.

That is no small blessing, and tradition is one of the major reasons for it.

A Permeable Barrier

Tradition is indeed a barrier of sorts, but it is a barrier that is far from impenetrable. Tradition in churches is a bit like conservatism in politics: it slows the rate of obvious cultural incursion, but it cannot stem it entirely. A Catholic congregant from AD450 Rome who found his way into a mass performed in a rural diocese in Windsor, Ontario in 2021 might experience less culture shock than the apostle Paul sitting in the back row of one of the Harvest-brand independent evangelical churches, but only a little less.

Tradition keeps basic forms of service more or less intact, but the content of both homilies and sermons is inevitably infected by the spirit of the age in which they are composed. People are still people, and how we express our faith, whether on Sundays or at other times, is heavily influenced by the environments in which we live six days a week. For example, priests and pastors alike are currently converting en masse to social justice causes, and the fact that one shares his unbiblical views in a formalized, traditional context while the other shares his unbiblical views in front of a big screen with a rock band behind him doesn’t make them any less kindred spirits. Evangelicals write tacky breakdancing spots into their Christmas movies but I suspect Catholics trying to influence the broader culture through media have their own hobgoblins of compromise to deal with.

To change the metaphor for just a moment, tradition performs a function something like the brakes on your car. To be sure, brakes can slow you down, but they are of little use in changing direction. Once you have taken a wrong course, tradition has no way of turning you around. Being traditional simply means you get to the same wrong destination a little bit slower.

An Undiscriminating Fence

The “fence” of tradition is also rather undiscriminating about what it keeps out: good and bad cultural influences that are not part of the Accepted Package are equally excluded by the fence of church tradition. Moreover, the fence of church tradition keeps bad things in as easily as it keeps bad things out. Tradition cements in place unhelpful and even anti-biblical customs as readily as it entrenches helpful habits and practices.

Evangelicalism may be constantly convulsing with new trends, influences and ideas, but a good number of the annoying and unhelpful ones get sloughed off in short order. There may be nothing in place to keep hip hop breakdancing out of evangelical movies, but equally, no habits or customs bind evangelicals to include the same sort of silliness in the next five movies they make. We will include some other silliness instead. Meanwhile, extra-biblical traditions like an unmarried priesthood persist for millennia despite overwhelming evidence that the most effective defense against sexual immorality is for each man to have his own wife and each woman her own husband. Sometimes it’s better not to be quite so fenced in.

The Best Defense

So then, tradition is indeed like a fence, with all the good and bad features that may imply. But there is a defense much better than tradition available to individual believers and churches of every type. The word of God functions like the natural defenses of an organism, which are more of a filtration system than a simple barrier. Unlike the fence, which can keep good things out and bad things inside, the God-designed combination of liver, kidneys, lungs, lymph nodes, colon and skin can actually detoxify the human body.

A body operating properly stores and utilizes anything of nutritive value in what has been ingested, while flushing toxins right out of the system. Cultural toxins exposed to the word of God fare no better in the lives of those who make the Bible their be-all and end-all for doctrine and practice. Whether a current social trend is new or old, putting it in direct proximity to scripture guarantees its good and bad features will be exposed, giving us the option of discarding those that are ultimately not beneficial to the church while retaining those that are.

Traditions can point us back to certain places and times, but they rarely point us all the way back to the New Testament. If they did, we wouldn’t call them traditions. Only the Faith Once Delivered as originally worded by the apostles and their amanuenses can provide the defense Christians and our churches need from the incursions of the broader culture.

That beats a fence any day.


  1. That is too blanket a statement about traditions, which is somewhat inaccurate. It depends on the tradition(s) of course. In my household it is a tradition to eat your lettuce with a fork. Thus, traditions can arise at different time periods for different reasons and circumstances which include practicality. The tradition of the Catholic mass, e.g., is probably based on a number of considerations many of which entail making it easier or more understandable for the congregants and/or the priest and therefore were developed over time in response to various circumstances. I am sure the same argument applies to other denominations. This does not imply that those and root traditions do not hint at or are derived more or less from New Testament sources and teaching. At this point in time, it is sufficient if they are seen as authentic enough to meet a useful function or play a useful role in the spiritual and practical life of the congregation.

    1. I am all for eating lettuce with a fork.