Christian Tradition and Drumming Tradition

Three years ago, I discovered my need for (and eventually, love of) theology.  By that time, I had already been playing drums and taking music very seriously for nine years.  Many lessons that I learned as a musician have turned into crucial guides along my journey of faith.

Christians and Tradition

Tradition inevitable comes up when Christians talk about what we can, should, or do believe.  After 2,000 years of Christianity, it’s hard to find a topic that previous generations of Christians haven’t already wrestled with.

So what do we do when our questions overlap with the questions of previous generations of Christians?  Does “being a Christian” mean that we’re obligated to agree with whatever most Christians throughout history have believed?  Lately, many conservative Protestants have begun touting “orthodoxy” or “historic Christianity” in this way, evidently hoping that Tradition will be a less slippery and divisive tool for ousting heretics than the Bible has turned out to be.

Alternatively, should we be suspicious of our forefathers and mothers?  After all, most generations of Christians lived in markedly premodern contexts.  Their philosophical assumptions and social views can strike us today as being offensive, degrading, ridiculous, and outright weird.  Should we assume that their opinions, however “orthodox” they may be, are irrelevant and oppressive until proven otherwise?

I suspect that most Christians today relate to Christian tradition somewhere in between those two extremes.  Perhaps they take some standard Christian beliefs to be non-negotiable (the Nicene Creed comes to mind), while many (most?) other beliefs remain safe to question.

Luckily, my experience with music has shown me another way to relate to tradition.

Drummers and Tradition

For six years, I took weekly or biweekly private drum lessons from well-educated professional drummers.  I quickly learned that serious drummers have a certain reverence for the great drummers who came before us.  The general public may not be familiar with names like John Bonham, Elvin Jones, Tony Williams, Gene Krupa, and Steve Jordan, but among drummers, those guys (and many others) are treated like deities.  In some of my lessons, I even had to write out, note for note, what a great drummer played on a recording.  Like many serious drummers, I’ve spent hours dissecting a single five minute drum part, trying my best to get inside the head of a drumming legend.

As drummers, we take our “Tradition” extremely seriously.  But even the best, most nerdy (yet mature) drummer will readily admit that the “point” of drumming isn’t simply to re-create the music of the giants of the past.  Being a good drummer doesn’t mean simply copying old material and pasting it into our own performances.

In fact, merely repeating the work of the masters would be a great disservice to them!  The genius and value of those trailblazers was their ingenuity, their innovation, their creativity.  They exhibited the art of drumming in new contexts, demonstrating the rich depth of this art in ways that hadn’t yet been imagined.  It’s crucial that we spend time learning from their music so that we can make our own innovative new music.

How to be a Christian Drummer

Christians can learn a lot from drummers about how to be faithful to tradition.

Taking the Christian tradition seriously isn’t the same as uncritically parroting whatever previous generations of Christians have believed.  Drummers understand that the genius of the old masters was that they found new ways to be an awesome drummer.  Would anyone remember Origen, Augustine, Anselm, Luther, Schleiermacher, and the like if they had simply re-stated whatever Christians had said in the past?  Being faithful to our tradition could mean finding new ways to be an awesome Christian in today’s world, just like the great theologians of the past.

If we get stuck merely repeating the beliefs of prior generations of Christians, our theology can get pretty boring – kind of like drummers who use every song as an opportunity to do their best Neil Peart impersonation.  Following the example of previous generations of Christians need not mean uncritically repeating whatever they believed.  (And let’s not forget that the example of Jesus and Paul is an example of tradition-unsettling!)

Of course, that doesn’t mean that we should ignore the tradition, either.  Far from it!  How could we face the daunting task of describing Christian faith in a pluralistic, postmodern, post-Holocaust context if we didn’t search the work of previous Christians for insights?  Studying great drummers of the past inspires and equips me to be more innovative in my own context.  Why couldn’t studying the great Christian thinkers of the past serve the same function?

Some Christians today seem to see the Christian tradition in grayscale, reducing it to a set of beliefs that must be believed or suspected to a greater or lesser degree.  As a Christian drummer, I see the Christian tradition in color, challenging me with the question “What will you make?”

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