Last weekend I went to my first Big Ten football game. A musician friend and I saw Michigan play in the “Big House.” In order to take it all in, we drove over the night before and stayed in the farmhouse which has been in my family for exactly 100 years. It was fun to introduce a friend to some family history there.
I had no idea that the next day would also be steeped in tradition. Which just means that I wasn’t thinking about it. Because, without tradition, sport can’t sustain itself.
And what a glorious tradition! From the pre-game show played by the marching band drum line, to the voice of Michigan football (Chicago classical music announcer Carl Grapentine), the Star Spangled Banner, the marching band cum pep band, the honoring of celebrated Michigan athletes . . . Something like six hours of tradition-rich experience.
Well, and for the students, it begins earlier. By the time we were on campus, it was crawling with students. Dance music blared from porch roofs and front yards. Students were decked out in team colors, swarming the campus neighborhoods. This started well before 9am . . . on a Saturday. And they occupied a huge section of the stadium – a solid mass of Michigan maize.
Because I don’t watch televised sports (which people mistake for disinterest) just about everything about the Big House event was new to me. When the opposing team is in a fourth down situation, the band plays the old popular standard, “Temptation.” Wha?!? The marching band takes the field in the same way they did back when I was a lad. (That is to say, when TV still showed the half-time shows.) When the announcer gave scores of other Saturday games, one event, which had not yet begun, elicited a roar from the students: Shippensburg v. Slippery Rock. Again: Wha?!? I didn’t even know that these are actual schools. And there’s a fun story behind this, the gist of which is that Slippery Rock scores are announced at every Michigan game. After the game the band took the field again, to play highlights from their show, to the opposite side of the stadium from which they performed earlier. That post-game show was abridged, but then included three traditional marching band classics: “Temptation” in its full arrangement, “Hawaiian War Chant,” and the university Alma Mater.
I thought of these things in the days following, whilst preparing a lecture for Taylor University church music students: “Integrating Tradition into Contemporary Culture.” I realized that students – no less than all of us – are surrounded by traditions in all arenas of our lives. In fact, Taylor athletics also have a basketball tradition that I would love to experience. It is their “Silent Night,” a December home game during which the Taylor crowd is completely silent until the 10th point is scored.
These athletic traditions provided a neat introduction into my topic. We don’t need to “integrate tradition” into contemporary culture; culture is tradition. But it raises the question: why is the church so eager to abandon its own traditions?
Why, in athletics, do we celebrate local athletic traditions, including – especially? – those which are unintelligible to outsiders . . . But apologize for the same in Christian worship?
We explain (even if we don’t defend) all kinds of tradition. To paraphrase Calvin, the human mind is a factory of traditions. Whether it’s specific meals, things we do in certain ways, movies we watch during specific seasons . . . we are constantly establishing and living in traditions.
We find ourselves suspicious of people who dismiss or mess with athletic tradition. What if Taylor brought in a new athletic director or basketball coach who thought “Silent Night” was just silly, and tried to do away with it? Awkward! The other day I heard a radio conversation about Chicago team mascots; much of the talk was about the hassles team owners had when they either did away with a beloved mascot, or tried to introduce a new one. “Tradition” is everything in sports.
So why are we so willing to toss out centuries (or even “just” generations) of worship tradition?
I don’t think it’s fair to give the default answer, the unassailable, easy, clichéd answer: “We have to make the Gospel the main thing and strip away anything that complicates or obscures it.” In the first place, no Christian worship tradition was established to complicate or obscure the Gospel. Rather, thoughtful biblically minded people sought through worship design to highlight and celebrate the Gospel. We might choose to exercise temporal humility and try at least to understand the origins, purposes, and Gospel connections of a tradition before we reject it. (Or, for that matter, before we accept it!)
If my generation doesn’t “get” a tradition, it’s probably a problem with either (a) the previous generation’s failure to pass along (the basic meaning of tradition) well, or (b) the pride or arrogance of my generation. When we consider dropping, altering, or even making subtle changes to a tradition, maybe we should reflect on how we would accept the threat to or loss of our own beloved sports traditions. There are probably people in our congregation experiencing the same threat or loss. Over something more – shall we say? – profound.
Maybe people don’t connect with our churches because they sense that they are not as rooted as their own families, or their favorite teams. Let us consider our tradition(s) and, in the spirit of “handing on,” make sure it/they stay in the family. Don’t put them in a museum, but instead explain their purpose and value, as well as their source and vibrant history. And let’s attend to the meaning as well as the forms of those traditions, while at the same time entrusting them to the next generation, trusting that if we have done our work they will appreciate, benefit from, celebrate, and pass on those valuable, meaningful, Gospel-carrying traditions. We will know this is well done when our grandparents come into our churches and feel at home even though everything isn’t the same as they left it.