The Revolutionary Traditionalist

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Photo Credit: Dale Robinette.

One of the main characters in the 2016 film La La Land is Sebastian. He’s a musician enthralled with the greatness of jazz as an art form, and he’s determined to not compromise the genre’s purity. Throughout the film, Sebastian preaches the virtues of jazz and champions its beauty, even as he mourns the music’s disappearance among a younger generation that lacks appreciation for its brilliance.

Eventually, Sebastian joins a tour with Keith (played by John Legend), who believes a synth-focused pop sound is the best way to save the elements of jazz they love. But Sebastian is conflicted. Are they truly saving jazz? Or have they created something else? Should he enjoy the success that comes with an innovative approach to the genre he loves? Or should he insist on authenticity, even if this costs him everything and relegates him to a basement club where he can preserve the purity of jazz?

Sebastian’s disappointment wears on him. That’s when Keith asks: “How are you gonna be a revolutionary if you’re such a traditionalist? You hold onto the past, but jazz is about the future!”

Revolutionary? Or tradition? Which one do we choose?

When the Revolution Becomes the Tradition

Many Christians feel the same choice confronting them about the future of the church. Are we not called to be revolutionaries? Did Jesus not confront tradition?

Go back to the earliest days of Christianity, and you quickly see that our Messiah wasn’t the typical revolutionary of his day. Jesus rejected the paths of political compromise, of Pharisaical piousness, and of Jewish zealotry. Instead, He crawled up a hill to be crucified between two of the more typical types of revolutionary.

After Easter morning and Pentecost, Jesus’s followers launched a revolution of love and sacrifice, founded upon Christ’s provision of forgiveness of sins and a way out of humanity’s exile. Certain Jewish traditions fell by the wayside—their purpose now fulfilled in Jesus. Other traditions became the foundation of the Christian faith—their meaning now expanded and transposed by the cross.

Over the centuries, Christians have longed to recapture the revolutionary spirit of early Christianity. But now, in an increasingly post-Christian society, we wonder how we can maintain a revolutionary spirit after the contributions of Christianity have become part of our society’s tradition. Christian truths that once surprised the world are now seen as normal, and values that were once unthinkable are now assumed. And, as the world veers away from the Christian faith in its fullness, many Christians wonder if the church should rethink everything. Maybe a new reformation is upon us, and we must update our teachings and practices if we are to save this beloved tradition.

“How are you gonna be a revolutionary if you’re such a traditionalist? You hold onto the past, but [the church] is about the future!”

Revolutionary vs. Traditionalist?

The question from Keith in La La Land assumes a dichotomy between being a “revolutionary” and a “traditionalist.” The only way to truly stand out, make a splash, or move with the tides of progress and innovation is by accepting changes (some small and some radical) in order to “get with the program” and “modernize for the future.” In this light, the revolutionary is opposed to the traditionalist. The revolutionary steps into the future and the traditionalist remains in the past.But is it really revolutionary to adopt the same assumptions as everyone else? The “revolutionary” mindset suffers from a dreadful sameness of thought—the idea that the only way forward is to ditch tradition in exchange for whatever is “new and improved.” But what is so thrilling about dashing into the fog of the future along with everyone else?

What is so thrilling about dashing into the fog of the future along with everyone else?

What if it’s more revolutionary to be like Sebastian, and to resist innovations that compromise the purity of the tradition you’ve inherited?

What if it’s more revolutionary to preserve something rather than invent something?

What if it’s more revolutionary to go against the stream winding inevitably toward “the future” and instead bind your heart to truths you’ve received?

What if it’s the traditionalist who’s revolutionary?

Revolutionary Traditionalists vs. Dead Orthodoxy

As soon as we ask this question, we are faced with the reality that “tradition” for many people means dead orthodoxy. It means being unmovable regarding beliefs and practices. It means a tradition has ossified to the point no growth and development can occur. In this light, the traditionalist appears cowardly and lazy. Cowardly, because we hide behind the consensus of our ancestors instead of stepping boldly into the unknown. Lazy, because we are unwilling to rethink or reconsider anything about our faith.

The traditionalist cannot dismiss this objection. Dead traditions do exist, and they always squelch the mission of God’s people and forsake the heart of the gospel. Jesus spoke forcefully against the hypocrisies of dead tradition.

Dead traditions do exist, and they always squelch the mission of God’s people and forsake the heart of the gospel.

Dead orthodoxy assumes that faithfulness means leaving everything just as it has come to you. If the tradition is likened to an old church building you’ve inherited, dead orthodoxy says, “Keep everything the same. Don’t do anything to change or improve this building. Leave it alone. Let it be authentic.” But what happens to a building that’s left alone? It falls into disrepair. It crumbles. This is what the wrong kind of traditionalism brings.

But there’s another kind of traditionalist—the revolutionary kind. The revolutionary traditionalist understands that preserving the purity of a tradition is neither cowardly, nor lazy. It requires serious attention. It requires constant vigilance. It requires hard work. For people to thrive within the borders of this sanctuary, the walls need to be repainted, the foundations need to be firmed up, and the interiors need remodeling. Why? Because the place is alive!

No to the Museum, No to Revisionism

So, in different ways, both dead traditionalism and also revolutionary revisionists abandon their heritage. One leaves it alone to die, and the other revises it until it is no longer recognizable as what it once was. One lets the foundation crumble; the other blows it up. But neither carries on the living, breathing tradition they received as a gift.

The revolutionary traditionalist says no both to reinventing the tradition and also to turning into a museum relic. We are too deeply committed to the tradition to move its foundations or to simply leave it alone. We devote attention to its health and future. On the one hand, we object to actions or beliefs that compromise the foundations of the tradition. On the other hand, we find new ways to build upon and express the beauty of the inheritance.

Creative and Faithful

In La La Land, Sebastian is first shown to be mimicking the great jazz artists. By the end of the film, his imitation has enabled him to learn the craft so well he can offer his own contribution within the authenticity of the art form he has submitted himself to. He is creative (true to his personality) and faithful (true to the inheritance he has received).

This is the way forward for the revolutionary traditionalist. We reject dead orthodoxy that would enshrine our heritage as a museum, untouched and unused. We also reject the revisionist impulse that recycles old heresies, no matter how popular or exciting. Instead, we repair and rebuild and restore the home we inhabit, not because it’s perfect as it is, but because we love it. We see its value. We inhabit this way of life. And so, we cherish the gospel and seek to pass its beauty untarnished on to the next generation.

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