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Thursday, December 20, 2007

A Return to Tradition : US News and World Report 12/24/07
A new interest in old ways takes root in Catholicism and many other faiths

By Jay Tolson
Posted December 13, 2007

Worshipers come to St. Mary, Mother of God in downtown Washington, D.C., for various reasons, but many say that a big draw is the Tridentine Latin mass that is said here every Sunday. Soon, St. Mary may be less well known for that distinctive liturgical offering than for the number of big-name government and media types that occupy its pews. Now that Pope Benedict XVI has loosened the restrictions on churches that want to observe the pre-Vatican II rite, more parishes are availing themselves of the option. Call it part of a larger conservative shift within the church—one that includes a renewed emphasis on such practices as personal confession and reciting the rosary as well as a resurgent interest in traditional monastic and religious orders.

But this shift extends beyond the Roman Catholic Church. In Richardson, Texas, the congregation of Trinity Fellowship Church participates in something that would have been considered almost heretical in most evangelical Protestant churches five or 10 years ago: a weekly Communion service. An independent, nondenominational church of some 600 members, Trinity Fellowship is not the only evangelical congregation that is offering a weekly Eucharist, saying the Nicene or Apostles' creeds, reading the early Church Fathers, or doing other things that seem downright Roman Catholic or at least high Episcopalian. Daniel Wallace, a professor of New Testament studies at Dallas Theological Seminary, which trains pastors for interdenominational or nondenominational churches, says there is a growing appetite for something more than "worship that is a glorified Bible class in some ways."

Something curious is happening in the wide world of faith, something that defies easy explanation or quantification. More substantial than a trend but less organized than a movement, it has to do more with how people practice their religion than with what they believe, though people caught up in this change often find that their beliefs are influenced, if not subtly altered, by the changes in their practice.

Put simply, the development is a return to tradition and orthodoxy, to past practices, observances, and customary ways of worshiping. But it is not simply a return to the past—at least not in all cases. Even while drawing on deep traditional resources, many participants are creating something new within the old forms. They are engaging in what Penn State sociologist of religion Roger Finke calls "innovative returns to tradition."

You see this at work quite clearly in the so-called emergent communities, new, largely self-organizing groups of young Christian adults who meet in private homes, church basements, or coffeehouses around the country. So free-form that many don't even have pastors, these groups nevertheless engage in some ancient liturgical practices, including creedal declarations, public confession, and Communion. They may use a piece of a bagel as the body of Christ, but the liturgy is a traditional anchor in services that may include films, skits, or group discussions of a biblical topic.

More Hebrew. The return to traditional forms and practices is occurring not only in the big tent of Christianity. In Judaism, too, in addition to a small but detectable surge in the Orthodox denomination, the most observant branch of the faith, even the moderate Conservative and the progressive Reform denominations are shifting toward the older ways, including the use of more Hebrew in the services or stricter observance of the Halakha (Jewish law). Many young adults who are joining the Jewish equivalent of the Christian emergent communities, the independent minyanim (plural of minyan, the quorum required for communal worship), are drawn in part by the commitment to traditional liturgical practices and observances. Reform may still be the largest Jewish denomination in America, but much of the faith's vitality is devoted to recapturing those traditions that modernizers dismissed as relics.

The state of traditionalism in Islam is more difficult to capture. On one hand, more young Muslims are embracing outward symbols of their devotion—women wearing head scarves, men growing beards. Many are also more observant of the duties of the faith, whether saying the five daily prayers or fasting during Ramadan. But it is hard to say whether all of this signals a return to traditional Islam or the embrace of a highly puritanical reformist Islam associated with Wahhabi and Salafist teachings—teachings that many Islamic scholars find contrary to the deeper traditions of the faith. Indeed, Ali Gomaa, the grand mufti of Egypt, and some Islamic scholars in America argue that an informed understanding of sharia (Islamic law) is the best antidote to extremism and fundamentalism. The uncertainty, of course, is whether their views will find a wider following among contemporary Muslims.

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