Tuesday, May 3, 2011

What is Tradition?

The idea that our Baptist predecessors might have been wrong in prohibiting dancing doesn’t bother me as much as how much it seems like people have such a disdain for tradition these days. I’ve heard of music directors who refuse to use any song in the church worship service that is older than ten years old. There are preachers who refuse to wear a suit and tie because they see it as steeped in tradition or they’re trying to impress “the young people” and yet, if you turn on the television, many of the actors on shows and the show hosts are wearing suits and ties. Some are even wearing vests with their suits. But I’m not trying to argue that every pastor should wear a suit and tie, just that not wearing one to break with tradition isn’t a great reason.

What is tradition? The word itself might bring to mind the Thanksgiving turkey or opening gifts on Christmas morning or a bride wearing a white dress. But if we really think about it, tradition is society’s way of passing down a way of doing things. The story is told of a woman who was cooking a roast. Her daughter was watching as she cut the roast in half and put it in the pot. “Why do you always cut the roast in half?” the girl asked. “That’s the way your grandmother taught me to do it,” the woman said. “I suppose it makes it cook better.” Curious about what the girl asked, the woman called her mother. “Why do you always cut the roast in half before you cook it?” Her mother responded, “I don’t know. That just the way your grandmother always did it.” So the woman visited her grandmother in the nursing home and asked, “why did you always cut the roast in half before you cooked it?” Her grandmother said, “that was the only way I could get it to fit in the pot.”

Tradition passes down how we do things, but it frequently fails to pass down why we do those things. Tradition can be either good or bad. In the example of the roast, the tradition required an action that wasn’t necessary, so that isn’t good, but on the other hand, if the reason for the tradition remains, passing down a tradition allows for the reason to be taken care of without the need for us to reevaluate how to handle the situation each time it comes up. For example, tradition calls for the playing of the national anthem of the winning country at the Olympics. The tradition serves the purpose of giving the winners special recognition, but each host country doesn’t have to spend time thinking up a new and innovative way to give recognition to the athletes. It works, so use it and focus on other things.

Killing the tradition of something just because it is traditional is ill advised because we may also be killing the benefit received from following the tradition. We will be looking at more of this during the rest of this week.

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