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.

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“A Modern Day Sage” Reblog

This post expresses very well the exact things I find incredibly appealing about G.K. Chesterton’s writing style. If you have never read anything by him, consider doing so. If you are interested in apologetics, I’d recommend starting with Orthodoxy, as it is beautifully written, extremely applicable, and short. If you are interested in fiction, I’ve heard the Father Brown stories are wonderful.

Lost In Grace

Have you ever read an author from the distant past whom you felt was responding to your news headlines and fighting your present-day battles?   Most likely not.  Have you ever read an author who transported you out of your own present situation only to bring you back with the realization that they had given you more than just a couple hours of escape; they had actually said something that you think could influence the course of people’s lives today?  The list of such authors is very small, but one who has and continues to have such an impact is G.K. Chesterton.  Gilbert Keith to be exact.  When did British authors begin using initials?

If you have been enriched by C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and even J.K. Rowling, you have been influenced and enriched by G.K. Chesterton.  He is one of the most engaging, witty and insightful writers of…

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Selections from my bookshelf

(re-)Read in 2012

  • Photo credit: SPCK Publishing

    be not afraid (Samuel Wells) – A slim but encouraging volume on the nature of fear, whether it is all bad, what kinds of things we are afraid of, and why and how our hope in Christ should influence the way we handle fear. I found this volume particularly helpful in my own struggles with anxiety this past year.

  • The Chronicles of Narnia (C.S. Lewis) – A re-read item, but I don’t actually remember the exact time I last read these lovely books. As an adult, I found returning to these fanciful stories with a greater understanding of Scripture, literature, and the other writings of C.S. Lewis to be both delightful and stimulating. The Last Battle is especially puzzling yet illuminates some of the glorious ideas Lewis had about eschatology and the community of believers.
  • Cranford (Elizabeth Gaskell) – I am a long time fan of 19th and early 20th century British literature, especially of novels written by female authors (e.g. Jane Austen; Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Bronte). Elizabeth Gaskell is a relatively recent discovery of mine through her books (and their recent film adaptations) Wives and Daughters and North and South. Cranford is less a single narrative than a collection of intertwining stories of the residents of the sleepy town of Cranford. The narrator – Mary Smith – records events with a partial eye, but her participation in the story is the window into the light and yet serious matters of the unimportant characters in the story.
  • An Acceptable Time (Madeleine L’Engle) – The finale to the Time series engages in questions about the nature of time, how we interact with past and present and future, how God’s presence might have been known (if at all) among those who had no opportunity to hear of him. If you’ve never read the children’s series (A Wrinkle in Time, A Wind in the Door, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, Many Waters, An Acceptable Time), I’d highly recommend it to any adult reader. Some of L’Engle’s ideas about time and the universe are fanciful, but her imagination brings a breadth and depth to our engagement with things we don’t understand about the cosmos. Perhaps creation is singing, and has been sung into existence, and we just can’t hear it unless we listen.
  • A Series of Unfortunate Events (David Handler, a.k.a. Lemony Snicket, narrator) – Another
    Photo credit: Goodreads.com

    Photo credit: Goodreads.com

    children’s series… I read many “easy” books this year due to my need for rest from my studies, but this series, along with The Chronicles of Narnia and An Acceptable Time, is very interesting to read as an adult. Based on the premise that the three Baudelaire siblings face many unfortunate events, most of which are perpetuated by the villain, Count Olaf, the series follows the siblings as they face questions about the nature of good and evil, the difficulty of making a decision when all the options are poor, and the potentially deceptive nature of language. The tone is actually comedic – somewhat darkly so – but the undercurrent of hope in familial bonds, trust in each other, and forgiveness draws these books together in an unexpectedly redemptive narrative.

  • Orthodoxy (G.K. Chesterton) – Another re-read item, this book is one of the most charming, well written, and compelling defenses of faith I have ever read. I would highly recommend it to anyone interested in how one might find belief in Christ and God a foundation and a rock in the swirling turbulence of ideologies and uncertainty in our day. Another great book in a similar vein is C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity.

Current/To-read queue

  • Theology, Music, and Time (Jeremy Begbie) – I’ve tried to read this book a few times, but in the middle of the dense readings of my degree program, I had not found the energy or concentration I needed to delve into the meaty prose of this work. Now that I have the opportunity, I’m intrigued by the coincidence between many of the issues Begbie deals with and the broader issues I encountered in Contemporary Aesthetics (Spring 2012). Begbie critiques and expands on Zuckerkandl in an effort to explore the dimensions of time in music and how these might affect our understanding and experience of time through a theological lens.
  • Northanger Abbey (Jane Austen) – The Jane Austen novels are dear friends; I return to them on a regular basis, especially to Pride and Prejudice, which I read every year. Northanger Abbey is the closest in tone to Austen’s juvenilia, even though it was published posthumously. I re-read it less often than most of the other novels, so I found returning to it this time to be a very fresh take on the story. Austen’s satire and wit is closer to the surface in this novel, which makes it both a pleasant read and a window into the ideas that informed her writing style in her later novels.
  • Wisdom and Wonder: Common Grace in Science and Art (Abraham Kuyper) – I’ve heard so much about Kuyper in my readings and discussions about the way our theology should impact our engagement with culture. This translation of a partial volume of Kuyper’s is exciting and approachable – I’m looking forward to exploring it further.
  • Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Plan for the World (Timothy Keller) – One of my favorite reviewers says this about Every Good Endeavor:

it … remind[s] us that we join our work to God’s work because of God’s gracious overtures and the gospel’s effective power in our lives… From the good plan of God to the hard news of sin to the exciting news of a Kingdom approach, these three units offer a great structure for a great book, and Keller plumbs this well.  It isn’t a cheap structure or a casual one, it is profound. His astute teaching about all this helps us see that.  Like other things in life — from sex to art, science to politics — we can see what is good and wondrous, what is sinful and broken, and what is being redeemed by gospel transformation, and how to take up our vocations into the world in wise and proper ways.  This is the story of the God’s redemptive work in the world and is how we take up the calling, as in his subtitle, to relate our daily work to God’s work. ~ Byron Borger, Hearts and Minds Books

  • Photo credit: Tyndale

    The Just Church: Becoming a risk-taking, justice-seeking, disciple-making congregation (Jim Martin) – If I’m honest with myself, I’ve let much of the conversation on social justice in the church pass by me. This book just came out last year and appears to be grounded in the gospel and practical. Again, I quote Byron Borger: “this incredibly useful book does just what its subtitle promises — it helps integrate justice advocacy into ordinary discipleship, and helps ordinary churches realize they must be proactive in building wholistic disciples.  Dare our churches not take risks for the cause of justice, dare we sit on the sidelines of the great historical battle for justice and liberation, dare we continue with church-life as usual?” 

  • Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World (Richard Mouw) – I’ve been wanting to read this book ever since it came out, and I just haven’t gotten a hold of it yet. One of my biggest frustrations with public conversation (and private conversation sometimes) is the tone – we are so quick to condemn others, to be angry, to insist that we are right – we are so often uncivil and unwilling to hear others. This book calls us Christians to a totally different mindset.

Alongside this last book, I’ll just mention that this weekend is the Institute for Biblical Studies in Ithaca, NY, and Richard Mouw is the speaker this year. If you are nearby, I’d encourage you to attend.

For other book ideas this year, see my friend Bethany’s recent post: The year in books: 2012