Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Yesterday marked the 230th anniversary of the 1787 Constitutional Convention at Independence Hall in Philadelphia. And so, to mark the occasion, I present three alternate versions of an #OTDminus1.

Version One: A group of self-dealing aristocrats and men of big commerce who had, without authorization, convened a convention in Philadelphia to create a national government, enacted, under a convenient blanket of secrecy, a form of national government that served and extended their own interests.

Version Two: The Spirit of Nature’s God descended upon Philadelphia’s Independence Hall and delivered to the convention delegates the blueprints for the Perfect Union. James Madison interpreted, and Gouverneur Morris transcribed.

Version Three: The Philadelphia delegates, in the fiery furnace of free argument, forged a workable, artfully-ambiguous framework for a large Republic. They settled a few disputes, but did subsequent generations of Americans the more important service of *framing* others: setting the parameters within which good-faith advocates could advance, or oppose, arguments about the proper scope of government, the relations between the central and State governments, and how the three branches might authorize their separated powers.

The Convention’s actions, it is true, were more than a little cheeky and not really authorized in advance: the delegates were supposed to amend, not replace, the Articles of Confederation. But the delegates’ chutzpah, and the essential wisdom of the thing they produced, were ratified and blessed after the fact by the States’ conventions, proving that guts and sound judgment are always authorized. A grateful realist can look back at the Philadelphia Convention’s work — a mixture of boldness, compromise, cunning, and wisdom — and marvel at its cleverness and durability.

Advertisements

Fifty years ago, the main cultural tension of being a Christian in the United States was that the Christian believed things regarded as naive and false by the general culture: that believing in an omnipotent creator required the checking of your brain. Now the main tension is that the Christian’s tradition is regarded by the general culture as immoral: that the God of scripture is a bad character, and those who adore him are misshapen by the company they keep.

Consequently the work of the apologist today resembles more closely that of the early church’s apologists. The Romans, to be sure, regarded the Way as false, but (more gravely) they regarded it as dangerous — a thing that produced bad citizens.

In each of the last two weeks we’ve seen a story that has made manifest the anti-Christian bigotry that exists on the front lines of British and American politics: last week, on this side of the Atlantic, Bernie Sanders’s unconstitutional imposition of a religious test for office* in his questioning of Russell Vought; this week, on the other side of the Atlantic, Tim Farron’s resignation as leader of Britain’s Liberal Democrats.

What makes both cases interesting has been the extent to which the facts of each dispense with the usual pretexts and red herrings. Sen. Sanders, for example, could have found ample grounds for rejecting Mr. Vought’s nomination as Deputy Director of the Office of Management and Budget in the nominee’s views of the federal budget. But in his remarks during the committee hearings Sanders was crystal clear: he was voting “no” because Mr. Vought had expressed belief in certain scriptural declarations about Jesus and eternal life. The final kicker in the Vermont Senator’s rejection of Mr. Vought was that Sanders didn’t just deem Vought an unsuitable nominee for OMB, he deemed him un-American: “this nominee is really not someone who is what this country is supposed to be about.” Hello, national covenant shaming.

Mr. Farron’s case strips away the usual pretexts even more perfectly: he was a political liberal who had consistently (so far as I know, without exception) defended the establishment of abortion rights and same-sex marriage in civil law. He had also, however, expressed faith in Jesus Christ, and this profession made him suspect to the Pharisees of Secularism in the media. These questioned him at every turn. Why? It couldn’t be because they disapproved his record of voting and public advocacy. It could only be that he didn’t hold to Correct Thinking.

This kind of thing isn’t new; neither are these episodes cause to sound the alarms. They are, however, cause for clear thinking and measured action among Christians in the English-speaking world. They reveal that the French Revolution’s laïcité is making a play to become a kind of Religious Establishment, and that its adherents have made great strides toward achieving that end.

 

* U.S. Const. art. I. sec. 6

Michael Wear’s Reclaiming Hope is a fascinating read — in large part because the author is one of the few surviving members of the Obama 2008 campaign. Not that many of the other members have died, of course, but the vast majority either (a) revealed subsequently that they had never believed the unifying, third-way rhetoric that featured in the famous 2004 DNC Convention speech and the Obama 2008 campaign, or (b) ceased to believe it. Michael Wear is a true believer, and the best kind of true believer: a chastened one. He can see expedient shifts, cynicism, and outright treachery, and still believe.

One of Mr. Wear’s most helpful statements in the book, about the contrast between a healthy political party and an unhealthy one, is badly needed today: a healthy party seeks converts, while an unhealthy one hunts heretics. And heresy-hunting — which gunks up political discourse as few gunks can — is now a thoroughly bipartisan phenomenon.

On pretty much every high holy day, I could say “American Christians need to recover the fullness of the wonder of . . .”: at Christmas, the appreciation of downward mobility; at Epiphany, that the doors of the kingdom of God are now flung open; on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, the ethic, sacrament, and theology of the cross.

But I’ve come around to the idea that the most overlooked day, the one overlooked as a middle child, is the one we mark today: Holy Saturday, Easter Even, the Sabbath of Sabbaths.

The Ancient Creeds of the Church Catholic, and the early Litany of the Church of England, did not overlook the day: “crucified, dead and buried” say the Creeds; “by thy precious death and burial” reads the Litany. The burial is more than a beat on the way to the glorious Resurrection. It is the narrow way that leads to life.

In our self-sufficiency, we call tales of self-improvement “redemption stories” — as if a prisoner on the auction block could redeem himself from slavery. In our impatience, we heal wounds lightly, proclaim “peace” when there is no peace, and pass off resuscitation as “Resurrection.” In our desperate, shallow optimism, we grasp any set of spectacles that will allow us to overlook the vaporous nature of life under the sun.

For this constitutional impatience and self-sufficiency, the only remedy is a season of meditation upon the fact that Christ was buried. On the seventh day, God rested in the tomb. In its darkness, the body of Christ rests with nothing “but the bare hope of resurrection.”*

* Austin Farrer, The Crown of the Year: Weekly Paragraphs for the Holy Sacrament (paragraph for Lent V).

Having dispensed yesterday with the idea that Donald Trump’s election made The Benedict Option moot, I turn in this post to the book’s actual content.

The Benedict Option addresses how American Christians should face two pressing challenges today. The first challenge is external hostility toward traditionalist Christians and Christian institutions. This hostility has burrowed into powerful institutions in business, education, media, entertainment, politics, and law. Once upon a time, upon lands not far away, the Christian strategy for dealing with this hostility was a national culture war, waged chiefly through the Republican Party and an assortment of national political and legal organizations. The Benedict Option‘s assessment of the culture war’s outcome is simple: Christians lost. It’s time to move on from the business of trying to gain the world — because it’s futile, and because the consuming intensity of national culture war campaign has for too long distracted us from cultivating our own souls, homes, churches, personal relationships, and local organizations.

Which leads to the second challenge facing American Christians addressed in The Benedict Option: internal rot in teaching and practice. That Mr. Dreher recognizes this as the graver threat is evident by the relative space he devotes to it. In doctrine, too many Christians and churches are given to a watery deism that holds that God wants us to be good and to be happy — with the definitions of “good” and “happy” left vague enough to be filled in with definitions from the broader culture. As far as the churches’ practice, too often their members are given to the desires of the flesh, the desires of the eyes, and pride in possessions, rather than to the application, adornment, and spread of the Christian Gospel. Where The Benedict Option really comes into its own is in its proposals for how American Christians should act to clear the rot out of their houses and replace it with sound, firm timber.(1)

In taking on the American churches’ internal problem, The Benedict Option is consistently practical. The book’s emphasis on consistent, ordered, local practices is characteristically Benedictine. The prescribed practices require discipline and re-orientation toward more uniquely Christian goals, but they are within the layperson’s reach. In this, the spirit of The Benedict Option very much aligns with what Fr. Robert Hart wrote of the Anglican Common Prayer tradition:

The average working man or woman, or the average child in school or young person in college, can read daily Morning Prayer and daily Evening Prayer and at least keep up with the schedule of scripture reading. It is true that the Prayer Book contains services for the Church, sacramental rites for Baptism, for Confirmation, for marriage, and the Ordinal added in 1550. It contains a funeral rite. Yes, the book is the book for all public services. But, it is more than that. It is also a simplified Benedictine Rule for the common man (emphasis added), and this is the tradition of English prayer that has been made available to everyone through the Anglican Common Prayer tradition.

The Benedict Option is not itself “a simplified Benedictine Rule for the common man,” (2) but it is an earnest exhortation to Christians and churches to adopt and practice such a Rule, and a collection of practical proposals for how to make it happen. Fittingly, the book (mostly) arranges these around the same principles that appear in St. Benedict’s Rule: ordered prayer, work (especially labor with hands), community, stability (i.e. commitment to one community), and hospitality to outsiders (“let everyone that comes be received as Christ”). In these proposals and principles, one can see reflected the practice of the Jerusalem Church in the Book of Acts — “they devoted themselves to thBenedict Optione apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” — and the fulfillment of Jesus’s Great Commandment.

The end of The Benedict Option‘s proposals, including the proposed “strategic withdrawal from public life,” is focus upon forming a culture whose members may better love God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength, and their neighbors as their selves. As in the first century, however, such ends, and the means prescribed for achieving them, are apt to arouse critics. The next post will address them.

 

Notes:

(1) For a helpful index of The Benedict Option‘s practical propositions, see Brad Littlejohn’s summary and collection here.

(2) The reason The Benedict Option couldn’t itself be a Rule: the book is intentionally ecumenical in the sense that it’s addressed to all “small-o orthodox” Christians — Eastern Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant. Each of those traditions has distinct resources for practicing some form of the Benedict Option, but the forms that may grow in each branch of the Church will look quite different.

Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option contains more than a few vestiges of a book written for a Hillary Clinton Administration. Indeed the author has openly admitted that he wrote it anticipating (as most did) a second Clinton presidency, with all the hardships for religious liberty that the Clinton presidency had implied (1). The hasty revisions Mr. Dreher made to the book in light of Donald Trump’s election could hardly have been more satisfactory to the author than they have been to some of his critics — several of whom have argued that the election of Donald Trump, with the support of four-fifths of voting evangelicals, proves that conservative Christians are not so powerless in American national politics as Dreher says.

So did reality outflank The Benedict Option — subtitled A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation — and make its message moot on arrival? Only if one reads the book as the kind of reactive current-events commentary it isn’t.

Between the enemies threatening the American churches from outside, and the rot in doctrine and practice threatening it from inside, The Benedict Option focuses far more attention on the rot inside. Continue Reading »