Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The Benedict Option

I have long been a proponent of the importance of intentional counter-cultural faith practice. I believe deeply the purpose of the Church is not to change the world, but to be changed, living as an example of Christ in the world. So when this new book, The Benedict Option, hit shelves this spring with a lot of evangelical buzz, I was excited. The summary basically said, "Christians need to give up trying to change culture, and live faithfully," and the title implied connection to Benedictine monks, who take this task very seriously, and have for 1500 years.

But Rod Dreher writes a book that so frustratingly inconsistent, I had to take long breaks between chapters. He deftly and succinctly lays out the problems inherent in the world today - big ideas like hedonism and consumerism - even the nationalism and comfort to which so many evangelicals have become blind. He really impressively recounts the developments of western society and points out the ways in which it has diverted from the gospel over time. The Benedict Option lays out the problem so well, it's shocking how poorly it elucidates a response.

His plan is to entirely withdraw from society, not because the conservative Christian movement has finally discovered how misguided was its love affair with GOP politics (or politics of any kind), but simply because that relationship is no longer working. On numerous occasions he says this retrenchment is strategic, to build up the resistance and bide time until Christianity can once again exercise power in the world.

The book sets up as the pinnacle of civilization the late Roman Empire, the age of Augustine, but defends this belief not with scripture, but an enduring love of Greco-Roman philosophy that was Christianity's greatest enemy in the period. Likewise he sets up the family as the core theological center of modern Christianity without recognizing how hopelessly enmeshed that idea is with modern conservative political thought (and how thoroughly it stands contrary to scripture). In fact, there's almost no scripture in the book at all - with his arguments based entirely on philosophical, political, and practical comfort.

Dreher correctly identifies the lost importance of liturgy and community in modern western Christianity, but then defines "orthodox Christianity" so narrowly it's amazing that he, a practitioner of Eastern Orthodoxy, can even fit within it. At one point he says outright that those who believe in Christian Perfection in this life - pretty much the core theological distinctive of my denomination, the Church of the Nazarene - are heretics (his word).

I was unsure, at first, if my aversion to The Benedict Option was strictly because of the Wesleyan-Reformed divide and our different ways of approaching scripture and theology, but I had to conclude that's really a difference in worldview, some core belief about reality and the future. Perhaps Dreher is rooted in an eschatology of destruction, that the world will continue to devolve until God steps in to destroy it, rather than a scriptural understanding of God's continuing work of renewal and love for the world God made, but this book is so pessimistic it makes me doubt his faith in the power of God at all.

The entire argument is based in fear, that everything around you is out to corrupt your children and ruin their lives; he says at one point that if people do not follow his advice in this book, Christianity will, under no uncertain terms, be wiped out of existence. It feels like a furtherance of the culture wars, but with a new tactic that purports to leave electoral politics, but simply re-engages from a different angle. He sets up "religious liberty" as the last bastion of salvation for "real" Christians, which isn't a particularly theological or Christian idea at all. There is no room for theological disagreement - even when he talks of ecumenical cooperation, it's still within this nebulous realm of "orthodox Christianity."

Dreher advocates - no demands - that Christians remove their children from public education, and any Christian education that doesn't follow the "classical" model. He sees the world as Jesus' society saw the unclean - something to be avoided for fear of contamination; we must do the opposite, of course, engaging the world, touching it intimately, the way Christ touched the unclean, secure in the notion that the power of the Holy Spirit working through us is capable of redeeming that which seems lost and foreign.

The Benedict Option sees threat and challenge, almost to an existential level, around every corner. It's a book written out of intense fear - one that is entirely unwarranted in light of the power of Jesus Christ. Why not embrace a world that is simply ignorant of the great freedom available through Jesus' Kingdom of love and grace and double down on our commitment to live this alternative Kingdom in the midst of the world?

This is what Dreher argues for, I guess, but while we can agree generally about the need to combat contemporary notions of work, privilege, sexuality, technology, and sacrifice, the details on which we settle could not be more different. This diversity should be something acceptable, especially since we are each committed to living seriously in the way of Christ, but over and over the book rejects those who differ on key areas of concern - things that are typically on the periphery of orthodox theology conversations, but always on the forefront of the culture wars.

In the end, The Benedict Option just makes me sad. My heart breaks for Dreher and those who will sign on to this movement. My heart breaks in the same way it does for friends and neighbors who've found themselves in the midst of the social and cultural ills Dreher so deftly lays out. I can't think of a more misguided, anti-gospel response to the real problems in the world. I can't help but notice how stark a contrast this book has to the one I read and reviewed last week - Rob Bell's What is the Bible? - a presentation of alternative culture to the hedonism, consumerism, nationalism, and general rootlessness so prevalent in the world today, but one built on a deep foundation of scripture and unfailingly optimistic about the power and love of God's Holy Spirit to transform and redeem everything.

I'm sure there are more than two ways to live faithfully in the midst of the world, but The Benedict Option is not one worth considering - at least not in the detail and with the specificity described therein. We've got access to the same idea described with far better scriptural exegesis and with much more grace in many places.

I got this book from the library and I've toyed with renewing it indefinitely to keep anyone else from having to read it, but then I realized that would just be playing into the fear espoused within. I am confident in the power of God to address the deficiencies of the world through the faithful response of God's people - not in terror and exclusivity, but with radical grace and the brazen, sacrificial, near-impossible love of Jesus Christ. You really don't need to read this book, but please don't be afraid of it.

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