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Why do we think new is better?

New and improved! Fresh! The latest! Exciting!

You don’t have to go far in our society today to witness claims of having the newest, latest product. One would not think of buying something old, stale, and “so yesterday.”

This applies to commercial products that are marketed by clever advertisers, but, unfortunately, it also often applies to church ministry, theology, and worship. Old is bad, and new is good. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard otherwise conservative people tell me, “We just need some fresh, new music in our worship.”

Why is it that we automatically assume new is better, anyway?

C.S. Lewis addressed this question in his 1954 De Descriptione Temporum on the occasion of his appointment to the Chair of Mediaeval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge University:

Between Jane Austen and us, but not between her and Shakespeare, Chaucer, Alfred, Virgil, Homer, or the Pharaohs, comes the birth of the machines. This lifts us at once into a region of change far above all that we have hitherto considered. For this is parallel to the great changes by which we divide epochs of pre-history. This is on a level with the change from stone to bronze, or from a pastoral to an agricultural economy. It alters Man’s place in nature. The theme has been celebrated till we are all sick of it, so I will here say nothing about its economic and social consequences, immeasurable though they are. What concerns us more is its psychological effect.

How has it come about that we use the highly emotive word “stagnation”, with all its malodorous and malarial overtones, for what other ages would have called “permanence”? Why does the word at once suggest to us clumsiness, inefficiency, barbarity? When our ancestors talked of the primitive church or the primitive purity of our constitution they meant nothing of that sort. . . .

Why does “latest” in advertisements mean “best”? Well, let us admit that these semantic developments owe something to the nineteenth-century belief in spontaneous progress which itself owes something either to Darwin’s theorem of biological evolution or to that myth of universal evolutionism which is really so different from it, and earlier. . . .

But I submit that what has imposed this climate of opinion so firmly on the human mind is a new archetypal image. It is the image of old machines being superseded by new and better ones. For in the world of machines the new most often really is better and the primitive really is the clumsy. And this image, potent in all our minds, reigns almost without rival in the minds of the uneducated. For to them, after their marriage and the births of their children, the very milestones of life are technical advances. From the old push-bike to the motor-bike and thence to the little car; from gramophone to radio and from radio to television; from the range to the stove; these are the very stages of their pilgrimage. But whether from this cause or from some other, assuredly that approach to life which has left these footprints on our language is the thing that separates us most sharply from our ancestors and whose absence would strike us as most alien if we could return to their world. Conversely, our assumption that everything is provisional and soon to be superseded, that the attainment of goods we have never yet had, rather than the defence and conservation of those we have already, is the cardinal business of life, would most shock and bewilder them if they could visit ours.

Lewis makes several important observations. First, that what happened with the “rise of the machines,” as he calls it, created a shift in civilization like no other shift that came before. I would add that the Enlightenment created the philosophical conditions necessary for this shift to occur, that philosophical change being of quite a seismic nature itself. This reminds me of Quentin Faulkner’s claim that there is more difference between Christianity and post-Enlightenment secularism than there was between Christianity and paganism. At least paganism believed in the transcendent and supernatural. The point is, this is no change to gloss over.

The second point he makes is the effect of Darwinian evolution upon the philosophical discourse. With evolution, less always progresses to better. Through natural selection, only what is good lasts, and by necessity, the good is the new. Progressiveness (in contrast to Conservatism) is at its core Darwinian.

The third important observation Lewis makes is what technological advancement has done to the collective psyche of society. Whereas in times past permanence, stability, and classic were virtues, they have now been replaced by a desire for new, fresh, and “contemporary.” As T. David Gordon notes in Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns, “contemporaneity” has become a virtue in itself.

I think Lewis is right that this shift comes because of the rise of technology. Anyone would admit that when it comes to machines, new is in fact always better. Machines break down, they rust, they wear; advancements in technology do always lead to better machines. Who wants to buy the old iPhone when you can get the new one?

On this point no one–not Lewis or I–is claiming that technological advancement is necessarily a bad thing. We all enjoy the benefits of medical breakthroughs, and I am a huge techie with the best of them.

But what we must be careful to note is what this constant advancement does to our perception of what is best in terms of truth, goodness, and beauty. These are transcendent, universal, absolute principles rooted in the nature and character of God. And they are very old, they are permanent, they are eternal.

Scripturally, permanence, stability, and tradition are almost always praised as superior to new, creative, and unique. The only “new” that is praised as good is that which transforms a sinner and gives him “newness of life.” But even there, that sinner is being redeemed to very old, permanent realities.

The fact of the matter is that the Christian faith is very old, and that is what the Church has been called to preserve and transmit to future generations. Let us not get caught up in the cultural frenzy of “newness” in our Christian ministry.

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.

7 Responses to Why do we think new is better?

  1. There is a certain irony that in (rightly) decrying the absolutism of the new and improved, that you then assert the absoluteness of the old and traditional.

    "Scripturally, permanence, stability, and tradition are almost always praised as superior to new, creative, and unique."

    This comment simply isn't true. In the OT, God regularly encouraged his people to tear down the pagan high places where they had been worshipping for generations. In the NT, Christ himself upended the centuries old rabbinical traditions, making the incredibly radical claim that he was the son of God incarnate.

    So sure, we ought to value traditions that make much of the gospel and Christ, but we have an equal obligation to challenge traditions that direct us away from the truth. Christians should be both conservative and liberal in their approach to culture.

  2. Paul, I would argue that the support you offer for your point doesn't prove your point. The fact that God told His people to tear down the pagan high places, and that Christ upended the old rabbinical traditions only proves Scott's point. Pagan religion has never been acceptable to God. Even when those high places were used by God's people to offer sacrifices to God, they still comprised faulty worship. The Rabbinical traditions were held by pagan Pharisees who elevated their own truth above God's eternal truth, and that needed to be upended. This is exactly Scott's point. The "tradition" of which he speaks (he can correct me if I am wrong), is the scriptural Christian tradition, which has its roots in the OT, and culminates in the NT teaching. Both the OT example and the NT example you cite both prove that the new ways of worshipping God were not acceptable to God, even though they had become acceptable to man. God's standards for worship remained unaltered and unchanged.

  3. "Scripturally, permanence, stability, and tradition are almost always praised as superior to new, creative, and unique.”

    The first three could be applied to the Psalms or Psalter and the last three to the Gospel songs of the early 20th century. The first three could apply to the organ and the last three to the piano.

  4. Paul,

    "almost always" is not an absolute statement. I would certainly agree that in some cases, God declares something new better than something old. However, as Taigen rightly points out, that is usually when the "new" is actually a return to God's standard, and the "old" is actually just an old innovation.

    I agree, Ron! I'd chose organ over piano and Psalms over gospel songs any day! :)

  5. That works okay theologically–defining the overturning of false tradition as conservative in the sense of a return to an original standard–but it doesn't work well at all on the level of cultural application. The "traditional" music that you are an apologist for is itself historically new; it's not like the early church fathers tickled the ivories, played a Bach concerto, or listened to anything resembling Lauridsen's Lux Aeterna. The organ, piano, and modern choral arranging were in their own ways as radical to their times as the electric guitar was in the late twentieth century.

  6. Paul, first, no one here is necessarily defending tickling the ivories, for one thing.

    Second, I know you know your history better than to make the assertions you just did about all changes being the same.

  7. We cannot create meaning, we inherit it. This is the value of tradition. What is good and true and beautiful has always been so, is so and will be so. A healthy tradition (such as the one we abandoned), provides reliable definitions and descriptions of these transcendentals. Tradition is a framework for making good judgments. Ideally, the contemporary generation would affirm, embellish and build on this tradition, speaking to its own generation, in its own words, giving thanks to the LORD for His goodness, and for His wonderful works to the children of men. In other words, the matter before every generation is to know and use the true, good and beautiful to worship God.

    Bach cannot worship for us, we must worship. But Bach is a reliable guide to understand what worship is. Unfortunately, we do not own him as our forefathers did.

    Once the tradition has been abandoned, it cannot be restored. It can still be referred to, and consulted. It ought to be used to help our generation to gain the tools to rightly judge what is fitting. For the obligation to worship does not cease, even if we are disconnected from the historic Christian tradition.

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