“Shouldn’t you say some words?” The humor and the weight of the story hung over me. Dr. David Calhoun, a master storyteller, related a tale of a man who had never tried sweet maple syrup straight from a tree before. The man’s friend offered to rectify the situation, and he accepted. As the man prepared to humble himself by letting his friend pour the sweetness into his mouth, he paused for a moment and asked that question. And it contains the profoundest wisdom; I summarize it thusly: We humans instinctively need to mark the moments of our lives with ceremony, with ritual.
In every area of life, we follow patterns. We are creatures of liturgy. Indeed, we are made to worship, and to do so continually. I gratefully acknowledge the pastoral instruction of Travis Tamerius on this; I have not had an original thought ever in my twenty eight years of existence, and my best ideas, I stole from him, at least for the last six of those. In the face of so many monstrous idolatries and competing allegiances, why have we in the American church decided that the answer is in throwing off the familiar, the old, the repetitious? Sin and death continue their liturgies undeterred, it seems, and our reaction is to remake the church, to re-brand her. Either we think we are beyond the barbaric tendencies of our forefathers, or we think our days are so novel that the old ways won’t help us. In either case, we are profoundly mistaken.
Have we considered that this postmodern age throws off all hints of memory because it truly believes it has nothing to commemorate? Are we as Christians certain that we want to affirm that notion? Indeed, have we unwittingly cooperated in this process of historical erasure because we are ‘bored’ or we want to be ‘relevant’? For whom, and to what end, do we modify our Christian tradition? Of course this yields another short, but potentially dangerous question: with the holy catholic church in pieces, can I say ‘our tradition’ without being naïve, or burned at the stake? If we come as the Body of Christ to a fuller, purer, understanding of ourselves and our mission in the world, fair enough; a more noble reason to modify tradition could not be found. But, if we modify it in a rush to please those outside of Christ, that is folly.
Make no mistake: A clear affirmation of the historic, apostolic faith in every culture is what attracts people to Christ, not that we are like the cultures in which we live. Here in America, we are so afraid of offense that we constantly seek out for elusive “normalcy.” No wonder, then, that we are now irrelevant.
This is not simply an apology for traditional liturgies in worship, though it is not less. Instead, it is a call to begin again, to remember. We have thrown the baby out with the bathwater and then have had the gall to blame the baby. The ones who throw their elders off a cliff will soon forget even those things they continue to cling to as important now and find their mistakes compounded many times over.
Jason is a special contributor to OFB and a student at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, MO.