Sunday, April 19, 2009

traditions and fashions

"The Bohuns were one of the very few aristocratic families really dating from the Middle Ages...But it is a great mistake to suppose that such houses stand high in chivalric tradition. Few except the poor preserve traditions. Aristocrats live not in traditions but in fashions."
-- G.K. Chesterton, The Hammer of God (The Innocence of Father Brown)

These words are simply part of the beginning of a short story written more than 80 years ago - a mystery from one of the greatest collections of mysteries - yet they are provoking and profound. Did anything strike you? Sure, the language is dated, with words like chivalric and aristocratic. But there is something to catch from a simple collection of words.

Aristocrats live not in traditions but in fashions. Don't get stuck with the word "aristocrats." - unless it brings a disdain or "not that" feeling to your heart, which might prove helpful for these moments. Think about traditions. And don't relegate your concept of traditions to politics, though they might be one outlet to consider in application later. Think about fashions. Ok, don't get stuck on "fashions" either...think trends. Think gratifications.

What are some traditions? I think of family reunions. A certain type of cake or celebration for a birthday. Celebrating holidays like Easter, Christmas, Thanksgiving, the Fourth of July. Eating something in particular on a certain day, or denying something on a specific day, or perhaps wearing something or saying something on a certain day.

Traditions look back, they have a sense of history, and they span generations. Traditions serve groups of people, sometimes entire people groups, and cultures. Traditions have a lot to do with being known.

What are fashions? Inherently the word "new" comes to mind. The latest this, the newest that. Trends. Colors of clothing. Iphones and "an app for everything" (and which apps are "in" now). Record albums were fashions for a time, then 8 tracks, then cassette tapes, then CD's, and even mp3 players have had their own fashions over the past few years. Atari, Nintendo, Playstation, PS2, PS 3, Wii. Anyone remember Laser Discs?

Fashions tend to only look ahead, with hope of easing the uneasiness. They can make history feel old and less useful, and they may last one generation if the stars align. Fashions serve the people in the know and the people with resources to join the party, and once in awhile affect an entire culture and people group. Fashions have a lot to do with knowing...and wanting to know more...and maybe there's a little more I can know about something even still.

Most people would seem to fall into the fashionable traditionalists category, or maybe traditional fashionists. We are caught somewhere in the middle, honoring both sides of the coin. We swing one way, then the other...maybe based on the people we're with, the work we're doing, the time of day or year, the resources we have available.

Where do you find yourself in this tension between fashions and traditions? Is it different then yesterday? What affects your perceptions of fashions and traditions? Does something from either side bring shame, or make you want to keep it secret/out of the public eye?

Of course, Chesterton is not just making a statement about the tensions between fashions and traditions, though they are part of the picture. Few except the poor preserve traditions. Ahh, it is also about preservation. Why do some people more faithfully preserve things, while others bounce from one to another? Is there anything worth preserving? What do the poor have to offer? What's the rub with aristocrats, with people who have more access to more variety of resources?

Good things are worth fighting for...but they do involve a fight. It takes offensive and defensive maneuvers in order to preserve these good things. And preservation usually takes place swimming upstream: the minute you relax, the world changes up and your senses are pulled in a plethora of stimulating places...fashions...trends. These are not necessarily evil places, but when they focus heart, mind, and spirit on simply knowing (facts, pleasures) instead of being known (family, friends, relationships, communities), they can be a danger to person, group, village, and even a nation.

Walker Percy wrote "Bad books always lie. They lie most of all about the human condition." Most fashions and trends do as well. But most traditions are still worth fighting for and preserving.

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