14 Aug

The Necessity of Tradition

Category: What We're Reading
By: Ken Myers
Published: 08/14/05

In 1997, I wrote a short article for Modern Reformation magazine entitled "Is Popular Culture Either?" It was an epilogue to my 1989 book, All God's Children and Blue Suede Shoes: Christians and Popular Culture, which began my interest in what might be called the sociology of popular culture. While many Christian apologists have focused on the message-bearing capacity of pop cultural artifacts, I have long been more interested in the deeper dynamic of how cultural forms situate us in (or out of) communities, how they shape our deepest assumptions (as opposed to our explicit beliefs), and how they shape sensibilities and emotional expectations which, in turn, become matrices of meaning.

One of the aspects of popular culture which I failed to examine as thoroughly as I should have in my book was taken up in this article. I had not yet read Wendell Berry's powerful essay "The Work of Local Culture" (included in our Anthology, Place, Community, and Memory) which underscores the imperative of intergenerational continuity if a community is to sustain any kind of coherence. The word "culture" has historically been used to describe in summary all of the ways of living, believing, and feeling that sustain bonds of membership and obligation within a community. Culture is thus about passing on a notion of the good life from one generation to the next. A culture establishes ends and bounds that in-form the conscience by speaking deeply with morally binding address.

I suggested in that article that "popular culture" wasn't really popular, as it was created and sustained by elites in entertainment, manufacturing, media, and marketing, and it wasn't really culture because popular culture as we know it is deeply committed to age segregation. I addressed the ephemerality and disposability of the artifacts of popular culture in my book, but mostly in the context of the problem of superficiality. The deeper problem is the problem of culture-as-commodity rather than culture-as-legacy. When what we label as "culture" becomes a collection of accessories that individuals independently choose to shape their personal project of self-creation, cultural artifacts no longer have the capacity to bind, to join, to direct, and to in-form. Popular culture as we know it is a web of commodities (often short-lived), aspirations to independence, and the liberation of desire. Cultures as they have been experienced through most of human history have served such radically different ends that calling popular culture "culture" is at best confusing. (I won't bother connecting the dots on the phrase "youth culture.")

From a theological perspective, we were created for community, for membership, for mutual trinity-imitating belonging. Cultures are not simply adaptive mechanisms that facilitate survival, they are the necessary extensions of our image-bearing being. That's why social, political, and economic institutions that encourage us to move in a direction that is (in Christopher Clausen's term) post-cultural, or (in Philip Rieff's formulation) anti-cultural, or (in my own phrase) auto-cultural are finally dehumanizing.

In the past few decades, many Christian churches have adopted techniques of ministry that fit nicely into this post-, anti-, or auto-cultural regime. These techniques are sometimes labeled "contemporary," and they are often consciously pitted against "traditional" forms of ministry. The leaders of the various movements that have championed these retoolings seem to be largely oblivious to the problems I have briefly outlined above. In their writings to explain the necessity of their approaches, one reads a great deal about how traditions need to be dismantled in order to reach more people. But there is no evidence that they have wrestled with the question of whether or not traditions are necessary to keep a people together (at many levels) over time. The Gospel itself is then another commodity individually appropriated, not the foundation of a community, not the announcement of a new people committed to a shared way of life forward into many generations. Such re-invented churches are successful in reaching many individuals, which is absolutely no surprise. It would be shocking if they didn't. But if they are to become communities rather than strategies, they will have to take more seriously the necessity of traditions as vehicles of committed memory.

These concerns were all at the back of my mind (as they almost always are) as I was reading a recent article by Lee Harris called "The Future of Tradition," in the June & July 2005 issue of Policy Review. Harris's recent book Civilization and Its Enemies has gotten a lot of attention; several of our subscribers have suggested that I interview him (let me apologize here for my negligence). He has obviously thought a great deal about what allows a civilization to survive, and one of the ingredients he has identified is tradition. He says that traditions must be seen not as "reason in a somewhat garbled code," but as a pattern of living that embodies deep "habits of the heart."

Let me extract a few paragraphs, and suggest that you read them not just with the crisis of our own civilization in mind, but with concern for the health of the Church as a community, a people, a body through time.

"In even the shortest possible list of the attributes of a civilization, you are certain to discover the feature of transgenerational stability. A civilization must have a proven track record of cultural permanence, which is to say that it must be a multigenerational project. A civilization must be passed, with its fundaments pretty much intact, from one generation to the next; and this is especially true when we are dealing with civilizations whose civilizing process requires a stern renunciation of the id in all of its manifestations—ungovernable impulses, unruly desires, a lack of consideration or feeling for the well-being of others, sexual promiscuity, prodigal expenditures on passing fads, and so on. In short, the loftier the ethical ideal of a civilization is, the harder it must work to preserve this ideal against the return of the id.

"But how exactly is a civilization passed on from generation to generation? We can understand passing on an heirloom, like a set of fancy china, from one generation to another. But a civilization cannot be reduced merely to the physical props that are associated with it: the buildings, the transportation system, the machines and the tools, the gold and the treasure. What possible use would America's complex superhighway system be to a generation no one had taken the trouble to teach how to drive?

"A society that wishes to reproduce itself must take care to pass on to the next generation the knowledge required to maintain itself at more or less the same level of civilization. It is not enough to pass on the good china; you must also pass on the family recipe for making the pot roast. Yet even that is not quite enough; you must also find a way to pass along the culinary skills needed to transform a recipe written in words into an actual plate of pot roast. Figuratively speaking, a civilization must pass on the china, the recipe and the cook. But even this is not quite enough. You must also make the cook realize that in addition to cooking, he must know how to replace himself, and, most critically, he must feel that he has a duty to replace himself. Not only must he teach his children to cook, but he must also teach them how to teach their children to cook.

"If a society wishes to find a way of ensuring that newly emergent and valuable techniques are passed on and preserved, its members must feel themselves under an ethical obligation to leave the best possible world not only for their children, but also for their grandchildren.

"The grandchild, far from being incidental, is decisive. Civilization persists when there is a widespread sense of an ethical obligation on the part of the present generation for the well-being of the third generation—their own grandchildren. A society where this feeling is not widespread may last as a civilization for some time—indeed, for one or two generations it might thrive spectacularly. But inevitably, a society acknowledging no transgenerational commitment to the future will decay and decline from within. Which leads to our main question: How is this task accomplished? How do you make parents feel such a deep and unshakeable ethical commitment to their grandchildren?" [Posted August 2005, KAM]