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 in the period after the 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, Crunchy 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.

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.

 

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.

Art for Lent

I have to share this beautiful gallery from Image Journal’s website. It combines images of artwork, poetry, essays, short stories, etc. in a gallery for Lent and Easter. I invite you to peruse this at your leisure.

from-issue-65-_2

~ We Are One in Jesus Our Lord, Soichi Watanabe, 2008

Culture: Retreat or Renew?

Is It Time for Evangelicals to Withdraw from the Culture?

This series of articles on Christianity Today offers four responses to Rob Dreher’s article–The Benedict Option’s Vision for a Christian Village–in which Dreher calls for a tactical, circling-the-wagons approach to dealing with the evangelical church’s inability to be a powerful counterforce to both the decline of virtue and the over-enthusiasm for the market present in various segments of our culture today:

The idea is that serious Christian conservatives could no longer live business-as-usual lives in America, that we have to develop creative, communal solutions to help us hold on to our faith and our values in a world growing ever more hostile to them. We would have to choose to make a decisive leap into a truly countercultural way of living Christianity, or we would doom our children and our children’s children to assimilation….  If we want to survive, we have to return to the roots of our faith, both in thought and in deed. We are going to have to learn habits of the heart forgotten by believers in the West. We are going to have to change our lives, and our approach to life, in radical ways. In short, we are going to have to be the church, without compromise, no matter what it costs.

While there is much to be taken note of here–Christianity should be a way of life, and Christian community should be more than a social club, instead encouraging and growing us theologically and spiritually–these responses detail various reasons why retreat from culture, even for the good reasons of developing community and intentional spiritual practice, is perhaps not what we are called to:

The church is made who it is by being the church in the world. The church’s primary reason for being is to be in and among (but not of) the world (John 17:14–15)…. We cannot, therefore, extract ourselves from the world without losing who we are. The church does not have a mission. It is mission.

~ The Benedict Option’s False Dichotomy, David Fitch

Too often, our well-intended efforts to deepen Christian community leave us with people who look just like us, perpetuating divisions in the church over race, politics, and class. But the church of every tribe, tongue, and nation—and the church of every tax bracket, political party, and musical taste—requires more. Christians are called to overcome these barriers, for the sake of the church and the sake of the world.

~ The Benedict Option Falls Short of Real Pluralism, John Inazu

Robust theology will yield robust communities…. God’s story from Creation to Revelation is of a Covenant God empowering his beloved to persevere through hostility leveled specifically against them. The New Testament tells the beautiful story of persevering community, faith, and creativity in the context of cultural adversity…. [It] provides a model of persevering faith, creativity, and community. Anyone seeking a more dynamic, transformational, risk-taking church in America will humbly learn from both global and local leaders who are living its reality.

~ The Benedict Option’s Blind Spots, Karen Ellis

As counterintuitive as it sounds, evangelicals strengthen their local Christian communities by recovering a sense of responsibility for the larger communities in which we exist. It is the Great Commission that corrects the effects of secular individualism, actively confronting our consumerism, racism, sexism, xenophobia, and classicism. It is the Great Commission that gives us a reason to exist beyond the solipsism of our own hearts.

~ The Benedict Option Isn’t an Evangelical Option, Hannah Anderson

Making Culture in a Small Town Storefront (Daniel Bowman, Christianity Today)

If “architecture is frozen music,” as Goethe said, then beautiful architecture left for dead is doubly frozen. What if we can unfreeze it? Maybe, somehow, we can reclaim one of these buildings, rescue the power of its design and history and integrity, reshape it so it can, eventually, re-shape us…

I became well-steeped in the ideas of the book [Culture Making, Andy Crouch] and began to believe them: I wanted not just to critique or consume culture but rather to make culture. I committed to applying those principles to my writing. I focused not on lazy online criticism of others’ published work, or incessant consumption of books and ideas, but rather on carefully building my own poems and narratives, improving my craft in ways that may not be obvious according to standard measures of success.

Photo credit: Wikipedia

But when I came to Indiana, I saw clearly the need to make culture in my town. I’d never stayed anywhere long enough to try it. Seeing those storefronts in Hartford City made me wonder if this was the time. To put theory into practice where I live would take imagination, hope, and hard work. And of course, I couldn’t do it alone…

In making the Arts Center, we [a group of volunteers] would add tangibly to the stock of reality available to the citizens of Hartford City, Indiana, and the surrounding area. We would bring some poetry to town…

In the coming days [after the Newtown, CT tragedy], many would debate gun control, increased security, and mental-health-care awareness. But I couldn’t help thinking that this work was, for me, the most appropriate reaction to the tragedy in Newtown. I saw the Arts Center with a new urgency: not just as a renovated old storefront, but as a place where people of any age could come and create, make culture—and make friends—in a world that needed more than ever these safe spaces. It would be one strategy against isolation and anger, a place made for the appropriate expression of those emotions, a place that might finally have the power to, as Alain de Botton says, “rebalance our misshapen natures.”