“Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. -Jaroslav Pelikan
So I’d like to start a small series for the next few weeks about tradition. Why we need it more than we think we do, and why it probably doesn’t mean what most of us think it means. Most of my friends tend to think about tradition in the same vein as maintaining status quo. But it actually can be one of the best resources to challenge it.
Here’s what I mean.
Maybe you’ve seen this video before. It’s from a slam poet named Jeffrey Benke who wrote and produced an incredibly well done video about the downside to American Christianity.
He wrote it as a Christian who was trying to wake up the American church to how they were being perceived by his peers. He wanted the church to know that they weren’t representing Jesus very well, and so he spent days and weeks writing and creating this. And as soon it went live it also went viral.
Turns out he was giving lots of people words and art to say what they had been feeling, because somewhere around 10 million people watched it within a few days. Personally, I must have had this video emailed to me a dozen times the week it came out. And whether you agree with this video or not, you have to admit Jeffrey was tapping into something that was widely felt and he was giving these people a voice.
And then the criticism started.
Preachers and Christian professors came out of the woodworks critiquing this poet for critiquing the church. They had well thought out, articulate arguments against what he was doing.
And the slam poet folded.
He totally just gave in, and said he was sorry.
And that’s a shame. Because the problem wasn’t the traditionalists that didn’t like someone critiquing them. The real problem was that this young man didn’t have a firmer grasp on tradition.
Advice to a Young Rebel
A few weeks after this all went down, a guy named David Brooks wrote an op-ed piece about this for the New York Times called “How to Fight the Man.” And it was genius. He made the point that this kids problem wasn’t that he was standing up against tradition, it was that he didn’t know enough tradition to stand up against much of anything. Here’s what he said:
“For generations people have been told: Think for yourself; come up with your own independent worldview. Unless your name is Nietzsche, that’s probably a bad idea….If you go out there armed with your own observations and sentiments, you will surely find yourself on very weak ground. You’ll lack the arguments, convictions and the coherent view of reality that you’ll need when challenged by a self-confident opposition. This is what happened to Jefferson Bethke.”
In other words, the problem is that we don’t have an alternative vision. We critique but we don’t know how to construct. My generation has a lot of angst about religious institutions (and just about every other kind of institution) but we don’t know what we want to replace them with. We just know what we don’t like. David Brooks goes on in his article to say that if he could offer any advice to a young rebel, it would be to understand the world that has come before you. The answer to defying tradition is to attach yourself to what he calls a counter-tradition.
Learn about the way people have lived counter-culturally before. From Amos to Augustine, the people of God have been in pits worse than some mere blog war in the past.
See Jeffrey Renke might have benefitted from knowing that, despite what his critiques were saying, The Bible and Christian history is filled with people and prophets who God sends a fresh hard word through for his people. And they almost never like it.
In other words, Renke was standing in a tradition that was much older and stronger. And had he realized that, he might have kept standing.
All the Best Letters Come From Jail
I’ve noticed this is so true in my own life. Just knowing what’s wrong with something rarely gets anything done. In fact, it does the opposite. Without an alternative vision for what could be, people don’t change. And you can’t get an alternative vision by looking ahead, we don’t know what is to come. In the words of Yogi Berra, “It’s hard to predict, especially about the future.” We can’t see into the future, but you can get an alternative vision by looking backward.
Remember when Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his Letters from a Birmingham Jail? It was to white clergy members who had the weight of society behind them, they were respected members in their community. And they were making sound arguments for an evil idea. If I was Dr. King, I would probably not had the moral fortitude to press on. But Dr. King, knew the Christian story didn’t go like this. And so he reached back into a counter-tradition as ancient as the prophets, and he said, “Let justice roll on like a might river.” He didn’t fight their traditional view of society with a new idea.
He fought it with an idea as old as time.
That’s one of the reasons that tradition matters.
It’s a good way to stick it to the man.