Suffering from Chronological Snobbery

As Americans (especially young ones), we have become the poster children for newness. When a building is old, we don’t renovate it; we tear it down and replace it. When the new, cutting-edge tech devices release, we don’t savor the old technology; we toss it in the trash. When the next social cause or movement arises, we are the first to jump on and off the bandwagon in due time.

Let’s face it: We are fickle. And if we know this about ourselves, we must admit it also affects the way we do church. We see old as bad, and new as good. We respect the new forms of worship, the new ideas and new methods of doing church, but we have little interest in the beautiful, ancient forms of worship from our church history.

C.S Lewis, confessing guilt in his own attitude, calls this approach “chronological snobbery.” Chronological snobbery can be loosely defined as the erroneous argument that the thinking, art or science of an earlier time is inherently inferior when compared to that of the present, based solely on its age. This chronological snobbery results in the absence of critical thinking toward anything new, and the automatic rejection of anything old, even though it might be applicable and needed for today.

This is not new, however. In years past, it just took on a different form. In the past, the Church found anything new to be inherently inferior. Contemporary music was not accepted, change was seen as negative and the only music that was accepted in church was traditional and dated. This traditionalism resulted in a lack of contextualization of the Gospel and a snobbery toward new methods. But as I have stated before, the Church tends to swing like a pendulum, and in reaction to this snobbery toward newness, the Church swung to the opposite extreme, only to be guilty of the same chronological snobbery in a different direction.

We still see this in the worship and thought of many contemporary churches. In the process of staying current, and in reaction to traditionalism, we have thrown out all the richness of church history.

We will play a popular radio hit in a worship service, but avoid hymns, psalms and ancient prayers.

We will give people a cup of coffee as they walk in, but skip the grace of frequent communion.

We will show people a trendy graphic, but avoid the beauty of the church’s historical art of liturgy.

We will quote business gurus and pop artists, but avoid the rich theology of the church fathers.

We will develop our own statements of belief, but avoid the unity of ancient creeds and confessions.

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The grace of frequent communion, the beauty of liturgy, the unity of creeds, the reverence of ancient patterns of worship and the richness of historical theology are all neglected, replaced with new art, new ideas and new songs.

Don’t get me wrong, the new methods are not useless. They are great, and we should not leap again to the opposite chronological snobbery of only accepting what is old and traditional. New graphics are great. Coffee is great. Understanding our culture is great. New worship songs are great. We should encourage contemporary artistry in order to contextualize the Gospel to our current society—but this does not mean we must throw out the past.

Can we not have both?

Can we not have coffee and communion? Graphics and liturgy? Videos and hymns? Songs and psalms? New and old? Current and ancient?

I believe we can. And in order to avoid the chronological snobbery pendulum of extremes toward traditionalism and currentism, we must hold both views in tension. This might seem like a contradiction, but it is not; it is a paradox, and we should stay within the center. In this we can avoid the guilt of chronological snobbery, and bring out the treasure of all ages in the rich history of our faith. In the power of this paradox we will experience unity and connection with Christians of the past, while also remaining relevant to the culture of the present.

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