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.

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

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.

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

Renewing the Ruined City

My reading today, Isaiah 61, beautifully describes God’s Servant coming to reconcile God’s people to himself. Jesus explicitly names himself as this Servant in Luke 4:16-21. He is the one who has come proclaiming good news, showing compassion to us – the mourning, brokenhearted, poor, imprisoned. It is He who, in his life, death, and resurrection is redeeming all things. He has set the new temporality of his kingdom in motion now, and even though it is only in the process of being fulfilled and overlaps with the temporality of sin, there will ultimately be a new earth and new heavens in which sorrow and despair and sin have no place.

And in his mercy, he has bestowed on us “a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair” (Isaiah 61:3a). Our grief at the horror we may experience in this world is replaced with the joy that Christ has conquered death and sin and that he is already making us new, for his glory. It is said of us in v. 3b:

Photo credit: Inspirational Storytellers

They will be called oaks of righteousness,
a planting of the Lord
for the display of his splendor.

What follows, though, is the most profound part of my reading today:

They will rebuild the ancient ruins
and restore the places long devastated;
they will renew the ruined cities
that have been devastated for generations.

In the context of Israel’s history, this refers to the return from Babylonian exile and the rebuilding of Jerusalem. But in the context of the preceding verses, we can also recognize these words as referring to us, our role in the world now, and our ultimate place in the new Jerusalem (Revelation 21).

Are we merely passing time as we live here, citizens of God’s kingdom, sojourners on earth? Is not our very understanding of our future hope that it breaks into our lives now? Are we rebuilding those things that have been ruined by sin? Are we agents of restoration in broken places, relational, physical, spiritual? Are we renewing the ruined cities in which we live with the reality of redemption, through relationships, through study, through art, through life?

Am I?

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.”

Grace in the Raw

Review of Les Misérables (2012)

This review was written for Chesterton House and can be found here on their website.

Before attending Les Misérables, I heard from a friend – a long-time fan of the stage musical – that she found the rawness of the cinematography distracted her from the music. Armed with this observation, I did not expect to be as ravished by the film as I was. Most captivating is the way in which the musical and filmic elements work together to create a deeply engaging experience of the narrative and its characters that spills over into life, especially through the portrayal of grace.

Photo credit: NCR online

Film settings necessarily contrast with the expectations established by stage dramas. Many film interpretations of musicals retain a relatively theatrical setting and the perceptual distance of a stage drama.  To say that Les Misérables abandons any theatrical effect would be to entirely mistake the film, but nevertheless, the film takes advantage of the medium’s capabilities. The city is shown in various states of disarray: the prostitutes appear ill, the poor look starved and cold, the inn is chaotic, the streets are dirty. Aerial shots are juxtaposed with extreme close-ups to create a continuum of varied perspectives on the story. The close-ups are especially raw, introducing us to the vulnerability of the characters in an intimate way that is downright uncomfortable. Les Misérables thus eliminates the lens of ironic distance common to popular postmodern perception, much to the chagrin of critics. Put differently, it dares to “treat old untrendy human troubles and emotions with reverence and conviction” (Stanley Fish; NY Times).

Trained musicians tend to disparage the quality of the vocals in this film. Although Anne Hathaway presented a stunning performance as Fantine, other leads have come under some severe criticism. However, with the possible exception of Russell Crowe, I think the vocal issues are balanced and even, perhaps justified, by the circumstances in which the characters find themselves; the raggedness of the physical and emotional states of the characters is much more pronounced in this film than it could be on stage, and the rough edges in the vocals are generally appropriate to the dramatic situation. This trained musician finds that the vocal imperfections contribute to the film’s powerful effect.

Empty Chairs at Empty Tables

One might think a film offers little advantage over a staged production with respect to large ensemble numbers, usually staged as a colorful choreographic spectacle. Yet this film production of Les Misérables balances the spectacle and the underlying character of the events portrayed. Take, for example, “Lovely Ladies,” in which shots of the whole group of prostitutes dancing are juxtaposed with disorienting footage of Fantine as she winds her way through the chaos and is swallowed up by it. The scene becomes grotesque and disturbing–the crude humor of the lyrics offset by Fantine’s desperation. We are not supposed to laugh and the film makes laughing impossible.

Consider also the intriguing contrast between musical time and the “real” time of the narrative. In Fantine’s “I Dreamed a Dream” and Jean val Jean’s “Bring Him Home,” all else comes to a halt. No other characters hear these songs; they are reflections, prayers, asides. This feature is not unique to musical dramas but is perhaps most pronounced in them because words take time to sing and are often repeated in a way that would be nonsensical if unaccompanied by music. The realism of the film setting is what makes these pauses in the narrative so emotionally striking. Combined with improbably close-up cinematography and realistic expression, these “slow” moments drag us into the characters’ inner reality.

Many reviewers have remarked on the pervasive theme of grace in Les Misérables. Here again, the film’s interwoven cinematographic and musical elements provide a suitable lens. The grace of Les Misérables is visceral rather than philosophical. We cannot distance ourselves from the ragged horror of the characters’ circumstances and experience, but are rather invited – even compelled – to empathize with and extend grace to Fantine and val Jean, Marius and the young rebels, even Javert. These are sinners all, yet desperately craving mercy. Freed of ironic distance, do we recognize our own desperate need for grace? Are we not also inspired to empathize with, extend grace to, and even act on behalf of our fellow image-bearers who are suffering in the world around us? The epilogue articulates what it might mean for grace to be extended, for all things to be reconciled, at the moment when Jean val Jean steps into death and encounters the prior dead from the story singing a revised version of “Do you hear the people sing”:

Do you hear the people sing? Lost in the valley of the night.
It is the music of a people who are climbing to the light.
For the wretched of the earth there is a flame that never dies.
Even the darkest night will end and the sun will rise.

We will live again in freedom in the garden of the Lord.
We will walk behind the plough-share, We will put away the sword.
The chain will be broken and all men will have their reward! 

(To start the clip below at the above lyrics, skip to 4:25. However, the whole clip is worth listening to.)

Epilogue (Val Jean’s Death/Do You Hear the People Sing Reprise)

Other reviews of interest:

“Les Misérables and Irony” (Quoted above; Opinionator Blog, NYT)

“Two Cheers for Javert” (Cardus blog)

“Law and Les Misérables Revisited” and “Les Misérables Review” (CT)