Just Wondering: To Conserve or Not to Conserve?

So, I’m going to define some terms, and then talk about football a little. Then, as per usual with these “Just Wondering” posts*, I’ll end with a question and invite a response. Please respond.

First, what does is mean to be conservative?

I don’t ask in a political sense. I’m not asking in any sense, if that’s possible. Just generally. Conservative. What does it denote? Is it something I should want to be or shouldn’t want to be?

In my background, conservative is a good quality, and I should admit on the outset that I tend strongly in this direction. I think it means something like this: I prefer the orthodox to the unorthodox (and certainly the heterodox), the status quo to change, the past to the present, the established to the innovative.

Is this fair? If so (and if it’s not, please comment), it’s of course difficult to classify anyone as conservative about everything or nothing. Absolutes don’t work here. No one keeps old methods in every situation, and no one innovates all the time either.
But people certainly tend in particular directions. C.S. Lewis comes to mind here: In his autobiography, Surprised By Joy, Lewis recalls something a literary colleague once told him: Beware of “chronological snobbery.” This term, of course, has become famous, and it’s probably true for everyone as far as it goes. One shouldn’t assume that people in the past were regressive or underdeveloped, just as one shouldn’t assume that modern people are always rightly progressive and intelligent.

In this sense, and most others, Lewis was unabashedly conservative, and it’s in this sense that I’ll use the term. A conservative is someone who prefers the old to the new, loves the confessional and is wary of the novel. K?

This is of course simplistic. In practice, it’s more nuanced than this and here’s where get to football. In his book of essays, Eating the Dinosaur, Chuck Klosterman writes that football is unique because it gives the appearance of being conservative while actually being very liberal.** In other words, football is attractive partly because it’s ostensibly a tough man’s game played in cold weather with a smash-mouth, coarse veneer. In other words: Brett Favre. Tough, Wrangler jeans, strong, gruff, bearded, etc. etc. etc. Think John Facenda old-school NFL films. This is how football portrays itself.

In practice, however, football is everything but this. The classic descriptor for a Super Bowl-winning team is the one (a) that runs the ball and (b) plays iron defense, reflecting the tough, blue-collar, Midwestern attitude. That is to say, it appeals to conservative ideals. But in reality, the NFL is not conservative at all.

The idea that successful football teams primarily run the football is fallacious. The last two Super Bowl champions (the Green Bay Packers and New Orleans Saints) did so with sophisticated passing games and progressive zone-blitz defensive concepts. At the college level, the best offenses use the modern invention of the “spread offense,” an idea that features either an air raid passing game or a running quarterback utilizing complicated fakes and reads to catch a defense out of position. Football has always been called a tough-man’s game. In reality, it’s more of a thinking-man’s game.

Put another way: football tries to market itself as an enterprise dependent on conservatism, but in reality practitioners are quite liberal and open to change. The winners are the innovators.

Here’s the application followed by the leading question to which you should respond: How does this work out in Christianity? Our faith has a past — namely, 2000 years of theological discourse and definition. In my community, we are taught to honor that history, to cultivate theological distinctives in line with what Christians have been saying about Jesus since he ascended, and to take seriously the commentary of our fathers.

But many don’t feel that way. I can think of one Christian writer in particular—of the exegetical sort—who spurns many theological categories (such as the Trinity and inerrancy) as anachronistic, and encourages free thinking and doctrinal innovation. He even goes so far as to say that he doesn’t really care about church history. If he’s convinced the Bible says something not supported by the whole of Christian history, who cares? Let’s come up with something new to fit our context, rather than relying on doctrinal systems cultivated in some other historical situation — i.e., [place confession of your choice here].

Conservatives stress that there is a singular gospel, once for all delivered to the saints, and our gospel presentations should conform to a formulated model; non-conservatives argue that while there is indeed one gospel, it’s broader than conservatives would admit and the church should routinely come up with creative ways to articulate the story of the Bible in different cultural and temporal contexts.

Conservatives stick with old, “tried-and-true” creeds and confessions; non-conservatives prefer the new, spurn the passe, and resist authoritative creeds in favor of constant re-articulations in faithfulness to the biblical narrative.

So, I’m just wondering, which should we adopt? Should we hold on to the faith of the past, unadjusted in form and fidelity to the old, old story? Should we abandon conservatism in favor of more nuanced approaches to the communication of a multifaceted gospel? Or is Christianity, like football, really a mixture of the two: ostensibly conservative in semantics and reputation, but truly innovative, open to change, and reticent to accept dogmatic expressions of anything?

I don’t know the answer to this question. I know what I think reflexively, but sometimes I have a hard time articulating my reasons for it. What about you?

*Which I’m kinda hoping to do bi-weekly.

**This is a good point to recognize that these usages of liberal and conservative are far from comprehensive. But this is the sense in which Klosterman uses them, and since this post is a rumination on his football theory and how it might work out in our church contexts, it’s also how I’m using them.


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