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Steering a Course Between Scylla and Charybdis

Scylla aqnd Charybdis

In Greek mythology Scylla was a cave-dwelling female sea monster who devoured sailors who steered too closely. Charybdis was a mythical whirlpool off the Sicilian coast, opposite the cave of Scylla.

To say that one is “between Scylla and Charybdis” means that evasion of one danger only exposes one to another in a different direction.

The twin perils of Scylla and Charybdis brings to mind two extremes present in modern evangelical church life today. Some people admire tradition; others react to it; the very word stirs visceral resistance. The latter by disposition gravitate to anything novel and contemporary; their counterparts reject the new and the trendy almost reflexively.

Devoured In the Cave of Tradition, or Sucked Into the Vortex of the New

For one personality type anything christened as “innovative” or “creative” is pedigreed. The case for it to them self-evident: whatever is traditional is bad by definition; whatever is different is good because it represents a departure from the customary. This personality stereotype has its polar opposite in the kind who instinctively react to change or anything new as a threat to the status quo which that person holds dear.

Few of us fit either extreme. However on the spectrum between these two poles, most of us tilt in one direction or the other, i.e. we have a dispositional bias in one direction or the other. That is not bad; that is just reality.

What we must resist is following our natural bent thoughtlessly (in whatever direction it happens to lead us), for at either extreme are great pitfalls. Either personality type could lead the work of God into deconstruction and oblivion (were it not for a sovereign God who knows how to maintain His purposes and to counteract the unwitting folly of His servants).

Today the cultural bias runs strongly in the direction of the new and trendy. Even among churchmen there is no shortage of voices calling for change. Frankly I have often (and will continue to be) among them. We can’t get in a rut. Otherwise when the rains of change come, we’ll wind up stuck in the mud.

Yet we must be careful. Anytime the church finds itself singing the same ‘tunes’ as the secularized culture about it, it must re-examine its taste in ‘music’. In that event, chances are we have ceased to become agents for change and just become agents—agents for the culture.

Recognizing the Wisdom that Built our Traditions

The need to say a word in this atmosphere for enlightened and thoughtful respect for tradition was evoked in me by G.K. Chesterton, “one of the most celebrated and reverently esteemed figures in modern literature.” Chesterton, a brilliant man, once agnostic-turned-devout Christian, in his renowned little volume entitled Orthodoxy writes of the compatibility of democracy and tradition.

I love his definition of tradition:

“. . . tradition is only democracy extended through time. It is trusting to a consensus of common human voices rather than to some isolated or arbitrary record.”

Then with withering wit he adds:

“It is easy to see why a legend is treated, and ought to be treated, more respectfully than a book of history. The legend is generally made by the majority of people in the village, who are sane. The book is generally written by the one man in the village who is mad.”

Later with all seriousness, he extols the merits of tradition:

“Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats [he means people who believe in democracy] object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father.”

Tradition may represent the wisdom of the ages. It may be a codeword for the unchanging truth of God. When things maintained their place for generations, it could be they have earned their keep. So let us not divorce tradition lightly. Perhaps God and wisdom may have joined us together.

The Folly of Blind Traditionalism

Yet let us always renounce traditionalism. Traditionalism is a false friend of venerable traditions. Traditionalism is a blind, knee-jerk attachment to the status quo, to our comfort zone, even if it kills.

By the same token let us not admit the novel just because it is different. Let the price of admission be more strict than the favorite cultural passwords: “innovative” and “creative”. In our enthusiasm for doing it another way, let us remember that relatively few “new waves” will stand the test of time.

I know of a church in California which 30 plus years ago got into drama in a heavy duty way. The famous California love of novelty made this church a hot attraction. They thought they had tapped a vein. So they built a mammoth facility adapted for the purpose and one equipped more like a metropolitan theatre than a church. Trouble is, now the thing is a dinosaur and the church has been dying on the vine for a long time.

They are a classic example of the reality that by and large today’s “hot trend” will be tomorrow’s polyester suit.

Let us be open to necessary change. But let us not be cultic about it. And along the way, let us remember that the most mandatory changes are those which bring us into better alignment with biblical norms,

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