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.


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.

REVIEW: Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson

GileadGilead by Marilynne Robinson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I don’t usually think of reading fiction as an overtly spiritual experience, much less a devotional one, but this book was. Poignantly written, these letters from an old and dying reverend to his very young son tell a story of every day midwestern life, but they also tell the story of Life in its everyday beauty and brokenness, which basks in the hope of redemption. Theology and doxology and mystery all intertwine in the frustration and poignant pleasure found in both human relationships and mortality itself. Please read.

View all my reviews

Beauty in an Ugly Time | Books and Culture

Beauty in an Ugly Time | Books and Culture

An article by David Lyle Jeffrey addressing the deeply embedded preoccupation with human suffering prevalent in modernist art. He provides an analysis of Rouault and Chagall, each an example of an artist engaged with the horrifying reality of suffering and the redemptive reality of God’s love for us and his offer of life to us.

Chagall’s prophetic art is thus a splendid complement to the confessional work of Rouault. Rouault invites us to give up our masks, to accept the identification that Christ’s suffering affords as the “true image” of God’s love for us. Chagall’s work encourages us to choose life, and to nourish ourselves deeply, whether by day or by night, in the Word of the One who bade us to live in the joy of his giving. Each series is striking; when seen together we know how joy is an answer to sorrow, and beauty is made all the more urgent a choice when so much ugliness abounds.

A Response to Heidegger’s “The Origin of the Work of Art”

Art is the setting-into-work of truth. In this proposition an essential ambiguity lies hidden, in which truth is at once the subject and the object of the setting…art is in its essence an origin: a distinctive way in which truth comes into being, that is, becomes historical.  ~ Heidegger, “The Origin of the Work of Art,” Basic Writings, 202

The beautiful circularity of the structure of Heidegger’s essay and the self-consciously circular nature of the argument itself by its very nature gets at something that is impossible to describe: a work of art brings forth the concealed, earthly, mysterious, all that which resists explicability and unambiguous definition, by creating a world in which the concealed becomes unconcealed — but not before its concealed nature reasserts itself! The conflict between these two creates an ambiguity that is nevertheless construed as a kind of truth, in that the art somehow demystifies the mysteriousness of being. I find myself slipping into the same circularity that Heidegger does, in repeating myself over and over again, although perhaps it is a spiraling more than a circling, so that we are actually nearer to the origin of art, or at least its nature.

Caught in the Act of Creating

Strikingly, beauty is only one manifestation of this process in art. But this aligns with another issue in aesthetics: we almost need to redefine beauty in order for Kantian or Hegelian theories of the beautiful to apply to any modern art, or perhaps even any art. In spite of the inherent inexplicability in the argument, Heidegger’s ideas may actually have a significant amount of payoff for an aesthetics of music. Instead of focusing on the beautiful, the theory focuses on the meaningful, but specifically on the ambiguously, spontaneously, non-rationally meaningful, the unknowable, but perhaps the partially graspable. This ties into the question of musical meaning, a question that occupies me in the context of both aesthetic and semiotic concerns.

We might be able to agree that extramusical, associative meaning, as palpable as it can be, is certainly contingent. In addition, it might be fair to say that the explicable aspect of meaning found in, for instance, tonal tendency, expectation, and fulfillment or denial, is, if not contingent, at least incomplete with regard to the nature of musical meaning. In other words, no matter how detailed or imaginative my explanation of a particular tonal event, even an explanation that draws on supposedly secondary elements such as timbral and registral effects, the result of the explanation is not ultimately the same as the meaning of that moment in the music. Many people speak of music as a sort of “communication,” but as Peter Kivy (in The Fine Art of Repetition) argues, claiming to communicate without being able to give an equally clear sense of what is being communicated is suspicious.

And yet, in a certain sense, this is what Heidegger is claiming for art in general. Could it be that music opens up vistas onto otherwise inexplicable parameters of being, becoming truth in both its revealing of those vistas and its concealing of the content from our rational grasp? And in so doing, is it creating an awareness of our own being that cannot be created in any other way?  This could explain the sense of “communication,” of “meaning,” of the value we place on music and the arts in general. Of course, we never can explain what exactly it is that music means, and certainly our knowledge of musical structure and style and historical context, along with our own situation in history and culture, affects our response to the individual work of art. I, like Kivy, am inclined to be somewhat suspicious of the truth claims of something I cannot grasp in words, and yet I wonder if our study of music and our study of aesthetics implicitly relies on an assumption something along these lines — whether we like it or not.  And as a Christian, this view of art coincides with my faith in a God who has created a universe that is so much more than what I can see and touch empirically and rationally, my belief in the existence of the soul and the depth of spiritual things.

The Artist’s Role

As I was working on my reading for my history seminar on the music of East-Central Europe in the 20th century, I came across the following quote in the context of the influence of Eastern Orthodox spirituality on Arvo Pärt:

It is not enough for art simply to register the horror or re-enact the details of our fall.  In our aesthetic imagination we have become like wounded beings crawling among the remains of our broken civilization–which Ezra Pound early in the [20th] century described as ‘botched’–clutching perhaps a single token of beauty, a line or two of poetry, a Bach prelude, a white canvas, which must now symbolize everything…

Like an ancient monastic order, we carry within us the seeds of renewal–the grain of hope–which we plant again and again after each fresh disaster, digging ever deeper into the past to re-establish only what is essential, that which alone can endure across time.  In such times (and therefore at all times) the role of the artist is the preservation of spiritual values, a role which demands exploration and sacrifice, quite as much as conservation. ~ Paul Hillier, Arvo Pärt, OUP: 1997

In the context of the horrors of the 20th and 21st centuries and the sometimes debilitating individualism of ‘post-modern’ culture, such a statement seems to reflect both the potentially dangerous preoccupations of contemporary art and music as well as the potentially healing power of hope if it were expressed among the ruins of our fallen state.   Perhaps Begbie’s and Seerveld’s call to incorporate redemption into artistic expression might be a more explicitly Christian call of this sort to spiritual responsibility in the arts.  In any case, these ideas are worth pondering, and to that end, any comments are welcome.