There’s been a pretty interesting discussion happening in the comments section of my recent post about The Da Vinci Code. Like all of us, I wish our name-calling didn’t exist in the footnotes of blogs and could be broadcast during primetime for everyone to watch (or at least TiVo), but my dedicated readers will just have to check back and look at comments from now on.
As I watched the movie last Friday, the idea of tradition mingling with history and slamming head-on into the present kept coming to mind. The church, one of the oldest institutions, walks a fine line when it is confronted with newness. Inevitably, the traditions that sustained it in one era will not sustain it in another. Whether it is the times that are a-changin’, or the culture, the people, or the weather, something is afoot and the church always has a choice. In its worst cases, it reacts negatively, gets defensive and personal, and leaves scars on itself and others (think witch hunts, Crusades, or slavery). But, at its best, it is a proactive force, meeting society in the middle of the street, at the top of the mountain, or under the mistletoe, being the church as prescribed by its founder, the husband of Mary Magdalene (joking). The church I want to be a part of, the church I love, the church that is missional, incarnational, and active is this kind of church.
Traditions cannot exist well without the history that formed them. Without that history, without an understanding of what was in the minds and hearts of those who went before us and felt the need to begin a new practice or way of experiencing God, then all we have are motions. And going through the motions never sustained anyone except robots and monsters. Unless we know why we do what we do, then the church is hopeless to engage new followers, new converts, and new revolutionaries for peace and love.
However, feeding the homeless, the staple of youth group outreach and evangelism, can also become a meaningless, motion-only tradition, teaching nothing new and retaining no meaning. Lost of staples of the church can follow suit – baptism, communion, confirmation, marriage, praise, prayer, study, discipleship, preaching, teaching. If the church is not careful, its often-reactionary nature will replace its historical (traditional?) role as a prophetic voice to the world. And this role, too, could become meaningless tradition.
Likewise, tradition in some churches has become a spiritual supermarket, where individuals can pick and choose which traditional practices and activities suit them and benefit them in their current setting. They can choose to worship in one style with half of the congregation at a given time. If that doesn’t suit their needs, they can shop at a different church, one that has a better youth program and friendlier folks and maybe a more entertaining preacher. And, our church buildings are then nothing more than four walls housing clerical acrobatics for the amusement of those in need of watching something.
This of course is a worst-case scenario and is nothing new, but is a reality for countless churchgoers the world over. Who’s to blame? Is it the church’s fault for not teaching an ethic of sacrifice and love? Or is it the individual’s fault for not being more spiritual? Do we even really need to blame someone?
Yesterday, I went to two meetings where I discussed The Story, and why I choose to be a part of this community, and what we’re about. We’re not trying to provide a place where Christians dissatisfied with their current ecclesial setting can come have fun. We’re not setting up shop so more people can initially be turned on by our attractive traditions that only turn into motions years later. We’re trying to be the church as we believe the church should be – living in the way of Jesus, speaking prophetically to the powers and principalities that seek to destroy life.
And, we’ll probably incorporate some traditions. One of our core values is that we promote only systems and structures that are a catalyst for progress, not an impedance. Any church, regardless of age, would do well to evaluate their structures to see what is still working to engage people in a meaningful dialogue about their lives and their futures. Chances are, the program Ms. Janie started in the seventies isn’t working like it used to, and maybe we need to move in a different direction.
Of course, this would upset Ms. Janie, who is a faithful tither and bulwark of the congregation. Her friends in the bridge club will also be upset, and everyone she knows may threaten to take their toys and go home. Then, there is no money to pay the rent and everyone is mad at the pastor, so the deacons ask him (or her) to resign, and once again a prophet is not welcome in his (or her) own hometown. And, worst of all, a relevant gospel is never preached to many who need to hear it the most.
And this is where traditions absolutely suck. This is a situation in which broken humanity takes beauty, consumes it, and throws it away, like we’ve done with the body (pornography), sex (prostitution) and beer (alcoholism). We take tradition – a beautiful reminder of the saints before us – and made it an obligation, a prerequisite, and a burden. What was meant to point at the beautiful and unique Jesus is now a personal vendetta against change.
And, this is what I saw when I saw the movie. Sure, it’s a leap. Sure, you may not have seen that. But I believe in the priesthood of all moviegoers, so I’ll take what I want and you’ll take what you want and Ron Howard will take our collective $15. End of story.
There is of course a better way. Sometimes when I speak to older pastors and clergy who ask about the emerging conversation or postmodernism, I can detect a hint of skepticism in their questions. But, I patiently answer and even ask them questions as well. My hope is that we can take our collective imagination and desire to make real the kingdom of God and change the world. But sometimes, I feel like I’m at a board meeting with GM executives in the late 80’s. “Everything is fine,” they say. “We’ll just keep doing what we’re doing and we’ll always be okay.” Tell that to the assembly line workers who are out of jobs and pensions.
Jesus was about those on the assembly line. And if the long-standing traditions needed to be sacrificed on the altar of meaning, so be it.