Tradition and Contemporary Innovation is a both/and

“Tradition” is the opening number from the Broadway musical Fiddler on the Roof. Through the song the main character Tevye describes the traditional roles of the papa, the mama, the son, the daughter and others in the village, melodically establishing the primary problem of the story – how a family in a small tight nit community navigates the tension between maintaining age-old religious and cultural practices while responding to invading new political and social forces. At the end of the song Tevye sums up his perspective with the title line “Without our traditions, our lives would be as shaky as a fiddler on the roof.”

Naturally, the encroaching ideologies bring along their own set of community practices, rituals, power dynamics and cultural expressions (music, clothing, language, etc.) Not surprisingly these new ideas and new practices are a threat to some in the community, and a compelling breath of fresh air to others. The community is as curious as they are suspicious of the “new” which comes from the outside.

As you can imagine – the tension is never resolved. The family is fractured and the community is ultimately displaced. Through the drama there is some good – new opportunities and experiences for the children of Tevye and there is a great deal of bad – Tevye and his friends losing their homes, livelihood, and the village that was the encompassing circle around their fixed communal identity.

The musical Fiddler on the Roof juxtaposes the old and the new, the traditional and the progressive in such a poetic, character driven way that the viewer is left unresolved as to which force is more desirable. The forces from the past which have shaped our language, perspective, beliefs and practices, or the forces of the future which draw us into new possibilities, but do so by presenting us with new language, beliefs and practices, which ultimately challenge and perhaps change what we knew to be right and true before.

This perennial tension between tradition and progress is felt on every social level – the micro and the macro – shaping interpersonal relationships between brother and sister, parent and child, and shaping whole neighborhoods, cities, countries and continents. What Fiddler leaves unresolved, too many in the church fix into a false dichotomy, choosing one side in favor over the other, and pitting the church against itself with categorical thinking in terms of “traditional” or “progressive, innovative, relevant, contextual, etc.” This division between old and new transcends the theological and political lines of right/left, conservative/liberal.

As true today as when they wrote it 25 years ago, Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon remind us in their book Resident Aliens that Christian ethics (i.e. the formative and defining principles and conduct of the Christian community) like any ethics, are “tradition dependent.” They go on to write, “tradition, as we use the term here, is a complex, lively argument about what happened in Jesus that has been carried on, across the generations, by a concrete body of people called the church. Fidelity to this tradition, this story, is the most invigorating challenge of the adventure begun in our baptism and the toughest job of Christian ethics” (Resident Aliens, 71-72). Insofar as we agree with their claim, Hauerwas and Willimon present tradition and contemporary innovation as a both/and – necessarily complimentary in the Church’s effort to remain faithful to the story of what God has done, is doing and is going to do, in and for the world through Jesus Christ.

In my work with collegiate and young adult ministries there is far too great an emphasis placed on the “new” – developing relevant, contextual ministries that culturally resonate with young adult communities. In a sincere effort to explore creative and responsive expressions of ministry among young adults, too many forget that the story they carry (read: steward) into those frontiers is and will always be “tradition dependent.”

This recognition of tradition dependence is why I appreciate the work of Fresh Expressions and their desire to assist congregations to discern missionaly a new frontier, from within the space of their inherited congregational story. Whatever the faults – and there are always faults in every inherited family story – honoring this tradition is the first step towards contemporizing this community as we adventure forward as a “concrete body of people called the church.”

 “Tradition” from Fiddler on the Roof

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