The long, complex history of the Christian Church, prior to the Reformation, saw the development of deep attachments to the faith in the lives of millions of ordinary people. While the Church fathers debated, argued, wrote books and hammered out the details of what would become the canon of Scripture and the great creedal statements of the faith, regular folks found in the retail living out of the Christian faith the hope, patience and endurance which enabled them to stand against the prevailing winds of paganism. The faith gave meaning to their lives and as they lived together new, Christian cultures and traditions emerged which became the inheritance that was passed on from one generation to another.
Lutherans, Anglicans, Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox, especially, see tradition as the great store of this cultural\theological inheritance of the Christian faith. These Christian traditions grew organically out of the seminal events of the life of Jesus Christ; a Spirit-woven fabric of Christian life and thought that transmitted the faith through, forms, orders, and patterns reflecting the collective mind of generations of Christian experience.
Beginning with the Reformation, and continuing to the present day, however, many Christian voices have taken to repudiating this inherited Christian culture. The great inheritance passed on to the Church by former generations is seen by many as an intolerable, unnecessary burden and they scoff at those who seek to hand it on. In its place many Christian forms reflect the relativism, cynicism and restless need for novelty that have come to characterize our rootless age. These new forms have served to set the theological, artistic and liturgical inheritance of the Church at an impassable distance from those who might have received it and found within it a durable, stable framework of faith and life.
Since becoming conscious of themselves at the time of the Reformation, the inheritors of radical Protestantism, and its culture of repudiation, have been struggling to define their vision of the faith ever since. Try as they may, these new forms have largely fallen short of developing durable expressions of the faith. In fact, many of them are trivial and unconvincing as they continually voice their discontent with the inherited traditions while offering pale substitutes at best. It is a long way from the sermons of Martin Luther to the self-help exhortations of Joel Osteen.
There is a fairly simple reason for this. Culture, including Christian culture, is the collective practice which offers each generation the ongoing examples, images, words and artistic expressions which enables us to extend a comprehensive world-view into all areas of life. The Christian faith is passed on not only to benefit the individual but also to benefit us, the community of faith in its self-understanding. So, the question arises; if a Christian community is to understand itself as part of the broad narrative of Christian history (what St. Paul might refer to as the “body of Christ”) which tradition or traditions best conserve that narrative? And another question follows. Which aspects of the Christian tradition, its works of art, worship practices, theological insights should we bring forward because they are intrinsically valuable and relevant to each generation?
Here a few comments are needed regarding relevancy. Ever since John Dewey turned educational theory on its head, postulating that education must conform to the interests of the young, rather than the other way around, the appeal to relevancy has permeated every area of life. But is this a valid view? And is not relevancy confused nowadays for popularity? That which is relevant is that which applies at all times and in all places.
To develop an authentically Christian culture is not to conform the church and its expressions to the topical, the popular, the zeitgeist. These things are here today and gone tomorrow. This is why for generations, the settled cultures of Christian traditions carefully passed on what had been received, taking their cues from the New Testament admonitions in the same vein. The curriculum of the faith was not made relevant to the candidates for baptism or those who felt called to the clerical life. Through the processes of catechization and the education of the clergy, people were made relevant to the curriculum of the faith.
The Church encounters people today who for several generations have been coddled in a system which caters to their perceived needs, and who have no serious rites of passage through which they may enter an established way of life. They have been taught that everything in the social matrix must conform to what the self imagines is “relevant”. As a result vast numbers of churches are lead and managed by people who allow themselves to be defined by a popular culture which has no understanding of the Church, its history, its cultures or traditions, and who view all tradition with suspicion and cynicism.
The result of this has been an accumulating deficit in the depth of Christian tradition, with people standing on the brink of Christian maturity but seldom crossing over. Popular culture is perhaps the greatest current obstacle to the acquisition of the great inheritance of the Christian traditions, including the popular culture within the Church. For popular culture silences the adult voice and feeds the culture of adolescent insolence and refusal.
The Christian church ought to be preparing people, especially young people, for the thing that popular culture withholds from them – the rite of passage from self-centered adolescence into a mature, Christian cultural inheritance where they are equipped to receive “the faith delivered to the saints” and see themselves as living members of the “One, holy Christian,and apostolic Church.”
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