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The Little Tradition

Mobile_home"[W]e find in Scripture, classically in the Magnificat, a preference for the ordinary, the modest, humble and ordinary, and we cannot but take account of that in reflecting on the built environment.  This leaves us with an embarrassment, because to be interested in 'architecture' is to be concerned almost solely with what I will call, following Redfield, 'the great tradition.'  Redfield distinguishes between the great tradition, the written and celebrated, the work of the philosophers, historians, theologians, the learned, and the little tradition, which for the most part comes to us only in scraps, in folk memories, songs, tales and ballads, in pamphlets crudely written.  One of the remarkable things about the New Testament is that it contains so many documents which bear the mark of the little tradition, written in a Greek which was an acute embarrassment to the first educated Christians.  In the built environment the great tradition means the work of prestigious architects or planners, whilst the little tradition corresponds to the work of unknown craftsmen who have left their mark on every ancient village, town and city.  Christianity, I shall claim, is wedded to the little tradition."  (T.J. Gorringe, in A Theology of the Built Environment).

While the Bible certainly does tell the story of some great men, at least men great in the world's eyes, men such as Solomon, it is mostly a story of little people and little places.  Christ is born in the backwater village of Bethlehem and a smallish land called Palestine, some distance from the great cities of Rome and Athens.  His disciples are uneducated fishermen, and he never travels more than a few hundred miles from the place he was born or reared.  He lived simply.  He grew up simply, among ordinary people, doing ordinary things.

Today I'm riding by small brick homes, farmhouses, and mobile homes in the eastern part of our state, past the everyday built environment, watching homes built by unknown builders.  There are no great cities here, no monumental architectural works, no cathedrals -- only the ordinary.  It all makes sense to me.  If we are to think Christianly about what we build, we have to be able to do it here, amongst the ordinary, and not just about the great tradition of architectural works, of planned urban communities. If we can't relate God's truth to these places, what good is it to think of it in regard to the great works?

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