Discernment and “The Benedict Option”

Hearts & Minds Review: The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher

I recently posted a link to Christianity Today Online’s forum of responses to Dreher’s March cover article in Christianity Today, which put forward “strategic withdrawal” from culture as the way forward for American Christianity. The above link is another thoughtful response, this time with respect to Dreher’s book, The Benedict Option, on which his article is presumably based. (The author of the review, Byron Borger, is also the owner of a lovely bookstore called Hearts & Minds, from which I order all of my theology/faith/culture-oriented books, and it is largely due to their columns and newsletters that I hear of many of these books in the first place.) The review is long, so I will briefly sum it up here. I do encourage you to read the whole thing, regardless of your interest in Dreher’s book, because it is really a great reflection on the church’s role in the world, and it includes many great recommendations for other books about the various topics touched on in the review.

Borger discusses six main points about Dreher’s book:

  1. The book clearly reflects the influence of St. Benedict of Nursia, who formed spiritual communities post-Roman Empire.
  2. The modern day call for a new kind of Benedict originates not with Dreher, but with Alasdair MacIntyre, in his After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theology, and Dreher’s concerns with the breakdowns in modern society acknowledge that they go much further back than any recent legislative or cultural movements, although perhaps Dreher does not go back quite far enough.
  3. Dreher is well-read and references many great authors, which gives the book a strong foundation for its critique of “modern progressive impulses.”
  4. Dreher’s earlier book, Crunch Cons, sought to critique conservatism from within, drawing on the likes of Wendell Berry to advocate for more local, more green, more other-oriented conservatism. The Benedict Option also quotes Berry, but Dreher is selective, emphasizing Berry’s views on materialism, family stability, traditional sexual ethics, and conservation, but drawing no attention to his critiques of nationalism, violence, etc.
  5. The book may not be adequately clear on how bad things are or how much Dreher thinks we need to retreat; Dreher has responded to published criticism by clarifying that “he does not counsel a full resistance or a complete withdrawal.”
  6. There is much you may be ambivalent about in the book–he probably overstates what we should be alarmed about and how alarmed we should be.
  7. There is much to wisely consider in the book–worship and the church, prayer and community, spiritual practices that cultivate the interior life, all of these are deeply important, formative, and may indeed be increasingly important as the civilization around us becomes increasingly disconnected from “Christian-inspired” principles.

Borger ends the review with a lovely apologia for a resurrection-oriented, culture-shaping role for the church, from which these few quotes are drawn:

There is little doubt that Dreher is right that many churches these days don’t really help us live into the sort of holiness to which we are called.

But the same Bible also holds out a vision of the renewal of all things. Everything.   The Bible tells us to go into the world; it just does. There is no escaping the missional call to serve our neighbors, the public sphere, working “in but not of” the society around us…

Work, family, politics, art, learning — it’s all gift, it’s all service, even in … a state of exile. Our church liturgy anticipates the final restoration of things…. As such, good liturgy … is hopeful. We hear good news each week and practice ways of embodying such hope, even in exile.  I think Rod [Dreher] should worry less about Supreme Court rulings and listen better, week after week, to that great liturgical refrain:  He Is Risen.  He is Risen Indeed.

Lent IV: Judgment and Compassion

Not long ago, my pastor preached a sermon on the insidiousness of hypocritical judgment. This sermon was in the context of the theme “Every believer a minister,” and the goal was to motivate us to greater compassion for others. In my devotional reading earlier this week, I read the same passage that drove that sermon, along with some comments in my devotional book that compel me in a similar direction.

Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things. We know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who practice such things. Do you suppose, O man—you who judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself—that you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.

~ Romans 2:1-5

“…it is interesting to encounter Paul’s words, and have these thoughts, during Lent. For read in the season of Lent, my judgmental comments seem to be, among other things, one of those barriers between me and other people–and ultimately between me and true self-knowledge.

If I criticize you, I don’t have to acknowledge the ways that we are the same, the ways I, too, have done foolish sinful things. I push away knowledge of my own flaws and failings by setting myself above you and your flaws and failings. Lent is an invitation to stop.”

~ Lauren Winner, “Second Wednesday of Lent,” God for Us: Rediscovering the Meaning of Lent and Easter

We have been attending our church for almost two years, and never before have I been as challenged in the matter of judging others as I have been here. This is not simply due to the preaching. It is in part due to the church’s efforts to be a multi-cultural church, crossing not only race lines but also socio-economic, educational/class, and political lines. As a result, there are many people in the church who are very different from me, and I have been surprised at my reactions to those differences, which I have needed to work through in order to learn to show love. It is also, I think, due to the crucible of parenthood, which has spanned about the same time frame and which brings me face to face with my own baseness. In any case, judgment is a favorite activity for most of us, whether we acknowledge it or not. Let us stop, and find ways of showing compassion, even as we bear witness to the truth.

Give the king your justice, O God,
    and your righteousness to the royal son!
May he judge your people with righteousness,
    and your poor with justice!
For he delivers the needy when he calls,
    the poor and him who has no helper.
He has pity on the weak and the needy,
    and saves the lives of the needy.
From oppression and violence he redeems their life,
    and precious is their blood in his sight.

~ Psalm 72: 1-2, 12-14

Silence

On my list of to-dos this season: watch Silence (by Martin Scorsese, based on the novel by  Shūsaku Endō, which I should also read), read Makoto Fujimura’s new book Silence and Beauty: Hidden Faith Born of Suffering (check out the review embedded in this blog post at Hearts and Minds Bookstore), and spend some time with Fujimura’s Silence gallery. I invite you to join me.

 

Lent III – A Firm Foundation

One of the reasons I started this blog seven years ago was that I have long grappled with the legitimacy of the calling to be a classical musician within the kingdom of God. I also doubted the godliness of spending 6+ years working toward my PhD, when many of my classmates from college were either going into missions or beginning jobs that clearly served others. However, I have come to believe deeply in the importance of a Christian presence in the music world, and in the arts and culture more broadly, because of the present reality of God’s kingdom, launched in the Incarnation and the Resurrection, and our role as livers of and workers in the “already” of that kingdom (anticipating the “not yet,” the decisive return of Jesus, the rending of the curtain between heaven and earth, and the remaking of all things). And it is clear to me that the legitimacy of my work as a musician, researcher, and teacher is assured when it is built solidly on the foundation of Jesus Christ–that is, when all my work is informed by who Christ is and by the reality of his new kingdom.

11 For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— 13 each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. 14 If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. 15 If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.

~ 1 Corinthians 3:11-15 (ESV)

This Lent, I find myself staring down some demons. I am not doing much music, much research, or any teaching, and I find myself feeling less myself, and far less valuable, because of it. The majority of my time is spent loving my two small children and keeping house, and while this is a temporary situation, I have trouble keeping that in perspective. But today I am encouraged by the grace of God, that all my work, both the visible work of my professional life and the invisible work of my personal life, is valuable not because it is my work but because it is founded on the Lord, Jesus Christ and set before me by him. And I am also chastened, reminded that if I do the work set before me merely because it is my duty, having a poor attitude and valuing it less than I should, that yes, I will remain a child of God, but that my work may in fact count for very little in the kingdom.

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
    the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
what is man that you are mindful of him,
    and the son of man that you care for him?
~ Psalm 8:3-4

God’s Patience

When God’s Mercy Sounds Like Bad News

Sometimes God’s patience seems pointless–isn’t the world getting worse? shouldn’t he just come now and wipe the slate clean? are my apparently fruitless endeavors for the kingdom failures? aren’t atheistic, consumeristic, and secular agendas destroying the church (in the West)? But God’s patience is mercy, and we should act in that mercy, trusting him to be present in the making of history and being faithful in our work for him.

In light of the Resurrection, Paul encourages the church to “stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain” (1 Cor. 15:58). His command is not a bizarre non-sequitur but the practical application of everything that’s come before: Resurrection is coming, so don’t give up!

This is my comfort in my affliction,
that your promise gives me life.
~Psalm 119:50

An Invitation to “Unselfing”

Lent Is Here to Throw Us Off Again

What is Lent for?

Lent is an invitation to get us outside of ourselves, so that we might get over ourselves and redirect our lives more wholly to God and to our neighbors. Lent derails our governing inertias to jolt us into seeing things that have gone unnoticed or into feeling things that have begun to calcify into self-absorbed preoccupation.

We are invited to die to self, to make space for Christ’s work in our lives, to make room for the Spirit to confirm our beloved-ness as children of God. We are invited to journey with others in the body of Christ, to come face to face with our humanity and to learn from the Incarnation, to exercise our spiritual muscles. We are invited to reimagine–Christ’s sufferings, the brokenness of the world, God’s love for it–hope.

See this image. See it for the first time, again. See what has become hidden and distorted. See the neglected things. See the small but good things. It is in this way that artists can rescue us from what the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge calls the “film of familiarity” and the “lethargy of custom”…. In this season of Lent, with its rhythms of Scripture and prayer, community and service, my prayer is that art … might enable our sight to be healed by God, as together we die with Christ, that we might live with Christ, for the sake of a more radiant, winsome witness in the world.

Lent II – Do Not Forget the Giver

Wedding at Cana by Louis Kahan

~ Wedding Feast at Cana, Louis Kahan

11 “Take care lest you forget the Lord your God by not keeping his commandments and his rules and his statutes, which I command you today, 12 lest, when you have eaten and are full and have built good houses and live in them, 13 and when your herds and flocks multiply and your silver and gold is multiplied and all that you have is multiplied, 14 then your heart be lifted up, and you forget the Lord your God…

17 Beware lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.’ 18 You shall remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your fathers, as it is this day.

19 And if you forget the Lord your God and go after other gods and serve them and worship them, I solemnly warn you today that you shall surely perish. 20 Like the nations that the Lord makes to perish before you, so shall you perish, because you would not obey the voice of the Lord your God.

~ Deuteronomy 8:11-20

I have heard the phrase in v. 18, “It is [the Lord] who gives you power to get wealth,” used several times in justification of the pursuit of wealth, which may then enable work for the Lord. While that is not necessarily a poor conclusion to draw, it seems tangential to the larger point of this passage: our wealth–or our talents, abilities, possessions of various kinds, opportunities, etc.–are a gratuitous gift from God. They are unmerited and not guaranteed; and if they become ends in themselves, matters of pride, or idols, they will lead to spiritual deadness, not the resurrection life of abundance, fruitfulness, and joy.

I believe that the pursuit of cultural good, cultural renewal, is a calling for all Christians, part of the redemptive work set in motion with the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. But this passage is a stark reminder that all such pursuits–be they business ventures or artistic ones–must not displace the one they ought to glorify. As at the Wedding Feast at Cana, where the miraculous best wine put Jesus’s glory on display publicly for the first time and became a metaphor for Jesus himself, our redemptive endeavors should point to the glory of the One who is redeeming the whole world; our remaking and reshaping work in the culture a metaphor for God’s remaking of all things.