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Monday, February 16th, 2015

With an initial investment of less than $100, I began a new hobby in 2015. A workbench, a dovetail saw, and a couple of flea-market hand planes have me set up to try my hand at traditional woodworking.

My accomplishments in this noble guild can be summarized briefly: I built the workbench (such as it is) on which all future work will take place. That is all. For the last couple of days I’ve been shaping a lovely piece of rough-sawn and locally sourced poplar into the proper dimensions, from 1.25 inches thick and slightly crowned to 1 inch thick and flat. If there is anything left of it when it’s finished—after I’ve shaved a little off this side then a little on the other side and then, well, a little more on the first side to keep it even and so on—it will become a bench for our foyer. That will be my second accomplishment.

This type of woodworking is traditional in at least two ways. For one, the basic technology utilized in modern hand tools is more or less unchanged since about the 17th century. (If the articles I’ve skimmed are to be trusted.) More personally, two of my great-grandfathers were craftsmen. The television in our living sits atop a chest-of-drawers one of them built decades ago. It is fashioned from repurposed crates delivered to the ammunition plant where Daddy Carl worked. (Handmade of reclaimed lumber. Daddy Carl would have made a killing on Etsy.)

The thing is, though, I am not using my great-grandfathers’ tools, nor did either of them teach me the techniques I’d need to know to use them. My tools are technologically primitive but really rather new. And I’m learning everything I know from videos on YouTube. The word “tradition” comes from a Latin root that means to “hand down.” What I’ve done is more nearly picked up something discarded and put it in my pocket.

But this is what “tradition” and “traditional” mean, for the most part, today. Few people I know learn traditional skills from their elders or in dusty workshops or well-lighted studios. We learn traditional technologies such as planing and canning through our new technologies—tablets and smartphones. Tradition isn’t binding or authoritative. It supplements our sense of tactile connectedness with the past. That’s one sense new technology really cannot satisfy. Tradition is today a selective recovery of artifacts—spiritual or material—carefully curated to complement our lifestyles. This is a definition of tradition previous generations would hardly understand.

I’m not complaining. When I finish my bench, I’ll snap a couple of photos with my smart phone. One of them, certainly, will feature a nearly translucent ribbon of poplar beside the planer and the other will show off the finished product in good light. I’ll post them on Instagram. Probably on #handtoolthursday.

What Difference Does Tradition Make?

Tuesday, August 6th, 2013

My people on all sides of the family are low-church anti-traditionalists. Many of them bend in an anti-institutional direction in general. They like their privacy. They don’t like to be told what to think or how to behave—not by Hollywood, not by the government, not by dead Christians they’ve never met.

This is the earth I was grown in.

Some of these convictions stuck with me. My autopsy (and my writing, too, I hope) will reveal a deep vein of populism running head to toe. But despite my anti-traditionalist upbringing, I’ve found great comfort and guidance in the Christian tradition. Here are just a few ways I find tradition makes a difference for my faith.

It offers a framework for questions.
When I was a teenager, I often got the impression it was unfaithful to ask faith-related questions. And boy did I have questions. What I’ve learned from tradition is that there’s nothing wrong with questioning. But there are wrong ways to question. (Here’s a great recent book on just this topic.) The Christian tradition gives me a stable place to stand while I ask my hard questions. Not to mention lots of examples of faithful questioners.

It gives direction for discipleship.
In every age Christians decry certain vices and celebrate certain virtues. It can be very easy to convince ourselves that we are good Christians because we don’t cuss or because we vote Democrat or because we have deep convictions. Tradition reminds us that the things other generations pursued—like holiness and justice and simplicity and compassion—are as important today as ever, whether we recognize it or not.

It points out my presuppositions about Scripture.
If you’ve seen this book you’ll know that I think we sometimes get Scripture wrong. The cheapest way I know of to have a cross-cultural experience is to read old writers. Tradition helps us see what we take for granted; it illuminates our blind spots. Reading texts from other centuries has taught me more about myself than anything written in my own generation. And the better I know myself, the better I read the Bible.

It helps me make sense of the present.
At some point I began to wonder why the faith community I grew up in believed what we believed and behaved how we behaved. This book by Nathan Hatch explained it. Our instincts in the twentieth century were formed by debates and battles from a hundred years before. The tradition helps me understand why things are the way they are so I know how to live faithfully in the present.

It gives me hope for the future.
God has been at work through his church for two thousand years. We face real challenges today. But history bears out the truth of Scripture: “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.” There is hope for the future because God has been faithful in the past.

I’d love to hear from you. What difference does tradition make for you?

Very Short Review: The Religious Roots of the First Amendment

Wednesday, July 24th, 2013

There are two ways to tell the story of how America (eventually) secured religious liberty in the First Amendment. Conventional wisdom in the scholarly realms is that secular Enlightenment figures—John Locke and the like—overcame religion with reason. So religious liberty was a victory for Enlightenment intellectuals. The other way to tell the story is that it was, in fact, religious folks who were the earliest champions for religious liberty—and not just for practical reasons (like to avoid persecution). They did it for theological reasons. Thus religious liberty was a victory for the Christian faithful of various stripes.

Nicholas Miller defends this second way of telling the story in The Religious Roots of the First Amendment: Dissenting Protestantism and the Separation of Church and State (Oxford, 2012). His thesis is that Protestants from Martin Luther on down to the time of the First Amendment held as a theological principle “the right of private judgment” in biblical interpretation and in religious matters. His book is an effort to trace this continuous thread across several continents and a couple hundred years. It is a great introduction to the heritage of liberty in the Protestant traditions. And it makes a compelling case that those same Enlightenment intellectuals may well have been influenced by dissenting Protestants.

Anyone interested in the origins of religious liberty in America will benefit from this excellent scholarship written very clearly. The introduction and appendix can bring you up to speed on the best current works on this topic. And it puts current religious liberty issues in very helpful perspective.

Trendy Tradition

Friday, July 19th, 2013

A couple of articles discussing the appeal of tradition among younger evangelicals have circulated the web this week. One of them, by Andrea Palpant Dilley, encourages traditional churches to be slow to abandon their traditional worship style and values if their primary motivation is attracting young people. Not all young folks want a contemporary worship experience. Or as she so eloquently expressed the matter:

Consider that some of us in time renew our appreciation for the strengths of a traditional church: historically informed hierarchy that claims accountability at multiple levels, historically informed teaching that leans on theological complexity, and liturgically informed worship that takes a high view of the sacraments and draws on hymns from centuries past.

Dilley is telling her own story; she avoids making any sweeping claims about trends toward tradition. The other article, “Young Evangelicals Are Getting High”, explains that young evangelical Christians “are going over to Catholicism and high Anglicanism/Lutheranism in droves.” And here’s why:

The kids who leave evangelical Protestantism are looking for something the world can’t give them. … theology; membership in a group that transcends time, place and race; a historic rootedness; something greater than themselves; ordained men who will be spiritual leaders and not merely listeners and buddies and story-tellers. … They are looking for true, deep, intellectually robust spirituality in their parents’ churches and not finding it.

I’m glad this discussion is still getting attention. You can’t talk about tradition for long before you start talking about history, and that makes this church historian very happy. But it’s not a new discussion, and the trend toward tradition isn’t new either. It was Robert Webber, back in 1999, who pointed out in Ancient-Future Faith that young evangelicals seem hungry for deep roots. (That’s when I joined the conversation.) Chris Armstrong reported for Christianity Today on the appeal of the early church for twenty-first century Christians in 2008. And I helped put together an issue of Leadership Journal called “Rediscovered Roots” in 2009.

The story of movement away from low-church worship to liturgy is definitely a popular story. It’s my story (another day, perhaps). But it’s important to remember that the movement runs both ways. Lots of folks I know who now worship in low-church, nondenominational congregations grew up in Roman Catholic, Anglican, or otherwise liturgical churches. For them, what some outsiders consider rich tradition they themselves consider dead formalism. Many of my community college students grew up in Roman Catholic or Orthodox (Greek, Russian, you name it) churches and left having no idea what was going on in the worship services. These students are attracted to contemporary, nondenominational, informal worship experiences. (See this, for example.)

What is really fascinating to me is that it’s not only young evangelicals that are returning to tradition. Judaism and Islam are also encountering flocks of young faithful who want to recovery ancient practices—more Hebrew in the synagogue and more interest in sharia law, and so on. (See this great article for more.) It makes me wonder: is there anything in particular about our tradition, Christian tradition that appeals to young people? Or does my generation simply long for some connection, any connection, to the past?

Sometimes I wonder just how deep my generation’s appreciation for tradition runs. Sometimes I feel like we want to adopt the parts of tradition that seem meaningful to us, that give us that sense of connection we long for. But we are slow to submit to tradition; we don’t want to be burdened by it. I hope this interest in tradition ultimately sparks an interest not just in liturgical worship but also in the actual facts and faith and practice of Christianity past. I’d hate to see the trend for the contemporary replaced by trendy tradition.


Monday, January 7th, 2013

Whether you think of it as the final word of the Christmas season or the first word of the new year, Epiphany propels the church from manger to mission—from rejoicing in the arrival of the Messiah (good new for us) to recognizing the significance of his coming for all people everywhere (good news for all). Traditionally the Three Wise Men are considered the first Gentiles to see and worship Jesus, so they are the primary cast of the Epiphany story. They remind us that the Messiah came first for the Jews and then for the Gentiles (Romans 1:16). The central image of Epiphany is light, particularly the star that led the magi to the savior child. Jesus is the light of the world himself, and He calls his people to be that light, too; to let their light “so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). Epiphany challenges us to take the star from the top of our Christmas tree and, instead of boxing it up until next year, to march it into the dark streets of our neighborhood.

Epiphany follows Christmas by two weeks because it tries to follow the biblical narrative of the birth of Christ. Most of us put the wise men in our nativity scenes at the beginning of the Christmas season. But the Scriptures indicate that the wise men didn’t arrive until Jesus was a “young child”—perhaps two (Matthew 2:11). Two years in history becomes two weeks on the church calendar. Many Christians worldwide (catholic, with a lowercase “c”) observe this by keeping the magi at a distance until Epiphany.

That’s the historical reason for the gap between Christmas and Epiphany. And I’m glad for it. Because I think many of us use up all our Christian imagination at Christmastime. It’s easy to see and sense the Savior when all is calm and all is bright. But in the darkness and chaos of post-holiday real life, he begins to vanish. He gradually recedes from view until we find him again—now an adult—in the season of Lent. Then he’s gone again until Advent. We need this one more flashbulb of divine light to remind us that though the world failed to see Jesus for who and what he was, the darkness did not swallow him up.

This helps us keep the darkness in perspective. The deep shadow of the Christmas Story that we seldom talk about is the death of the innocents. Insane with jealousy, Herod orders all the boys in Bethlehem two years old and younger to be murdered in an effort to snuff out the wick of the Christ child (Matthew 2:16). That story kept coming to mind during news coverage of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary. While Christians were celebrating the coming of Christ during Advent 2012, evil was devouring the innocent, darkness was trying to gobble down the light. It’s always been this way.

In view of the such darkness, the light of Epiphany is comfort, yes; but it’s also a summons. Epiphany reminds us, in the first place, that we are the children of God—most of us Gentiles by birth—because the first fearful disciples refused to hide their light under a basket (Luke 8:16). It calls us, then, to march into the darkness around us with the light of Christ high above our heads and deep in our hearts to shine the Light down every lane and alleyway.  From manger to mission. From treetop to mountaintop. Far as the curse is found.