Critical Distance, Tradition, and A View From the Outside

Yesterday’s essay was triggered by a picture which I found objectionable (and as it appeared on several friends’ Facebook feeds who had a similar opinion, I know it isn’t “just me”). But, I suppose even the worst picture has its value if it leads to real thought, and so even this picture has some value.

The difficulty is that the picture was not intended to lead to real thought, and I was thoroughly chastised by people for having engaged in any kind of critical thinking, or the attempt to look at what this picture might say to anyone who might see it from an “outsider” perspective.  I was also ridiculed as a “fundamentalist Christian” (which to any thinking person who has read two sentences I’ve written, is the most stupid thing to say about me), who doesn’t want anything that isn’t “traditional” in the church.  All of this, not because I object to the churches’ use of social media (which I do not), but because I object to thoughtless use of any media.

Yes, I hold to tradition.  Specifically, two threads of tradition.

The first is from the Reformation.  You know, that piece of Christian history, about 500 years ago, when the printing press made it possible for literate laity to engage in critical analysis of the Bible and other sacred texts.  I hold this in high esteem, and have mentioned it before. If this is what’s being sneered at as “traditional”, the church needs a lot of help.  It would be difficult to find any instance in recorded history when the suppression of critical faculties–either by denying people access to information, or (in yesterday’s instance) sneering at them and ridiculing them as not “teach-able”–has served humane purposes.

If any institution on earth should serve humane purposes, it should be the 21st century church.  Humane purposes are not served by suppressing the exercise of critical thought.  Therefore, anyone who, in the name of the church attempts to do so is to be viewed with suspicion (no matter what “next great thing” s/he is promoting).

The second, which I have also written about is Alasdair MacIntyre’s idea of tradition as an ongoing argument about what is good and right for a community.  He outlines it in After Virtue, so I will not go into further detail.  “Tradition”, far from being a static thing, is about change, and disagreement, and figuring out what is best for the community as circumstances evolve and change but still maintaining fidelity to the original purposes.

Fundamentalists can’t be, in either of these senses, “traditional”.  Because, in the senses that I proudly adhere to the idea of tradition, critical thought (rather than unthinking assent to “authority”) and change are not anathema to tradition.  They are its very life-blood.

So, I suppose that what I am most bothered about is twofold.  First, the suppression–by people who claim to want to spread the Gospel (itself a most humane purpose)–of critical thought, telling someone who exercises it that they need to “get teach-able”.  The fact that they object to critical thought when they themselves come under criticism is an indication that “teach-able” is not what they want, really.  “Brainwash-able” is more what they want.

The second part is the lack of understanding that an “outside” view might be the very thing that is needed.  It’s great that you’re promoting the use of social media in and by the church–and even nicer that people inside the church think it’s great, and are responding positively to what you’re putting out there.  What I see on Facebook and Twitter, however, is really not going to get to people who know the church’s message and (for good reasons) reject it.  What I mostly see on social media is great for what it is:  pictures and videos of services (that have little interest to those “outside”, but make those “inside” feel good about themselves), audios of sermons that may mean a lot to members of congregations who, for good reason, cannot attend “live”.

But unless there is some consideration to what the church looks like to those who stand outside its doors (metaphorically as well as physically), all  of this is just self-service. It feels good, but fails any test of encounter with difference.

The church may need social media in the 21st century.  But it needs to take a hard critical look at what it is putting out (as yesterday’s picture), and how it is received by those it claims it wishes to reach. For the record, the church’s abysmal failure to listen carefully to those it claims to want to reach–the unchurched and the dechurched–and to take into account what they might say (even when it hurts, and it will hurt)indicates that it is not quite honest in making that claim.

Earlier in the week, I mentioned a play I had seen, and said that it could serve as an important instruction to those training for public ministry.  It deals with the sensitive issue of people who begin to question the teachings of the church–including its methods of delivering that teaching.  It would be a start.  Perhaps every seminary ought to start its teaching year with a student-and-faculty amateur production of Over the Tavern. Better still, church leaders could be brought together with those who have heard–but reject–the “invitation” to Christian belief and practice, and have honest conversations as to why they find the church  so unattractive.

“Getting the message out” is important.  Getting it out to “all living things” is a gospel imperative.  But you have to do that well, because getting a fouled-up gospel out to loads of people is just wrong.  Efficiently communicating a message that is perceived by your target audience as bullshit is not really fertilizing God’s vineyard.

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2 thoughts on “Critical Distance, Tradition, and A View From the Outside

  1. I have to chuckle when I hear the word “tradition.” I am the youngest in my family and I am also a little rebellious. I have always been a thinker and I always look for ways to do new things and do them differently (and better). I am often described as ” not a traditional girl.” That being said, I think I am quite traditional in a number of ways. I really do not get that you can’t be both. You SHOULD be both. Holding to certain traditions connects you to someone or something and that is a very important part of the human experience.

  2. The thing is, being loyal to “tradition” is not a matter of “we’ve never done it that way before.” That’s kind of OCD, not “traditional”.

    Doing new things, or doing the same things in a new way, is not a departure from “tradition”, in either sense I use it. But there is nothing good about just accepting what some guru says without careful ongoing investigation and assessment.

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