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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.

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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. (more…)

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Nearly five years ago, in the midst of a lot of argument over the public implications of Christian theology — about the demise of the Religious Right, the rise of Islamist terrorism, Christian signaling (often confused and distorted) by Republican politicians — I set myself a task: to write a series of essays on several New Testament passages that address how one goes about being a Christian in public. The purpose of the series would be to set forth the often startling angles from which the New Testament authors regarded political power, angles that would present some surprises for everyone.

After setting forth the idea, alas, two things happened. First, the arguments, provocations, and occasional atrocities piled up. Second, I became too busy following them, and occasionally responding to them on their own terms. After stating that serious Christian engagement with the world requires “reading, marking, and inwardly digesting” Holy Scripture, the troubles of the world distracted me from that very work. The results were frankly terrible for my soul.

The lesson I learned the hard way, of which I am now more persuaded than ever, is simple: deep reflection on the Bible is the key to remaining sane and hopeful in our decidedly interesting times. Not that following the events is unimportant. St. Luke (to take only one example) is a model of how to think with a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. But ten minutes of perusing the Acts of the Apostles discloses that St. Luke didn’t forget Scripture for the news. And for that reason he neither drifted with his times nor overreacted to them. He could approach issues of his time from surprising angles, and regard them with critical hope.

Moving, then, from introduction to the first essay proper, we leave the pages of St. Luke and the apostolic age and rewind to a small-town scandal preceding Jesus’s birth, as recorded in first pages of St. Matthew:

Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

S Matthew 1:18-21 (ESV).

One of the questions this brief passage raises is “in what did St. Joseph of Nazareth’s justice consist — that he had cause to divorce Mary, or the quiet manner in which he resolved to divorce her?”

The question actually presents a false dichotomy. Joseph’s righteousness consisted in both. For, in his time as in ours, there was no shortage of men willing to divorce their wives on the flimsiest of grounds: to seize upon trivial “causes” to justify themselves when their real motive may have been to marry a richer, more sexually attractive, or more complying wife. In Joseph’s time that was called “any cause” divorce; the contemporary equivalent (now practiced by both sexes) is “no-fault.” Joseph did not practice “any cause” divorce. His cause — Mary’s apparent fornication — was unquestionable. It was a ground for divorce recognized even by the strict disciples of Shammai, and by Jesus himself.

st joseph and gabrielThat said, in describing the nature of Joseph’s righteousness St. Matthew’s accent is on the quiet manner in which Joseph resolved to divorce Mary. He was “unwilling to put her to shame.” In legal terms, what that means is that while Joseph had the right to a for-cause divorce — involving a public trial and whatever shame followed for Mary — he would pursue only the remedy prescribed for “any cause” divorce: privately to procure and deliver a certificate of divorce. That would have meant also that Joseph waived his claim for any monetary compensation for Mary’s infidelity, and any recovery of the bride-price he had paid her family.

I start this series here because in the pages of the New Testament St. Joseph’s kind of forbearance — from pressing claims of righteousness, shame and honor — is not an isolated curiosity. It occurs so frequently as to mark a kind of paradigm shift between the Old Covenant and the New: that while the definitions of moral rights and offenses continued, the approach to remedies — penalties to wrongdoers, compensation to the wronged — changed substantially. The didactic passage most obviously on point here is St. Paul’s instruction to the Corinthians that it’s better to suffer wrong than to have lawsuits among church members (1 Cor. 6:1-8). But this little pinch of leaven leavens the whole of the New Testament, the whole of the Kingdom of God. And in its unemphatic way, this ethic stands as a quiet but powerful witness against the excesses of our rights culture, and the cultural, political, and legal brinkmanship to which those excesses so often lead.

Joseph needed no trumpet, no public assertion of his right, no open vindication. His justice, manifest in the remedies he would and would not pursue, was as regular and quiet as the intake of breath. Like alms given with the right hand and kept secret from the left, Joseph’s resolve is a paradigm of true righteousness. It creates, at the very beginning of the New Testament, a striking new atmosphere, in which we can form the kind of character that alone can sustain faithful Christian public engagement.

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Some time ago a good friend of mine wrote a note, in the midst of a set of truly appalling circumstances, about the importance of non-judgment. For, she said, we don’t really know what anyone is up against. We do not know the history of the one whose action we judge. And, if we were given the history and circumstances of those we judge, would we have done better? 

Nothing in the note, especially given the circumstances it addressed, was wrong. Quite the contrary, in its place it was exactly right. And yet, after reading it through twice, I had a nagging thought that it was incomplete. Yet that’s about all that anyone is willing to say publicly about judgment these days: “Judge not, that ye be not judged.” There is more that needs to be said, though, and hardly anyone is saying it.

Hi Ed Nathan Jr.

Thus saith the kidnappers of Nathan Arizona, Jr.: “Now y’all without sin can cast the first stone.”

 

The thing more that needs saying has to do with the distinction between appraising and condemning. The connotations attached to these two words are quite different, though both can be used as synonyms for judging. Appraising and condemning may sometimes be distinguished in their effects, but more often in their respective intentions and underlying assumptions. The condemning man, when pointing a finger at a wrongdoer, doesn’t stop to think whether he’d have done any better — but probably assumes he would have. The appraising man also does not stop to think whether he’d have done better, but for a very different reason: what he would have done isn’t the standard.

There’s a reason the demanding teacher — the relentlessly critical appraiser of thoughts and words — is an archetypal character. And it’s no accident that under that archetype’s crusty exterior is a heart of gold. The exacting teacher is the one who cares. It is precisely because he does care that he will push his students to and just beyond the point they think of as “the limit” — but not so far beyond them that the students will break. The teacher knows the standard for all is wisdom, virtue, and high beauty, and that only great exertion will get us there.

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“Is national grieving still possible?” Russell Moore asked yesterday, for good reason. The Orlando shootings have unmasked a sad reality which, if it continues to spread, doesn’t bode well for the United States going forward: that for many Americans, exploiting the angles of cultural identity politics is more important than expressing common humanity and compassion (e.g., by offered prayers, cries of lament, calls for aid). Not a few words of unqualified, unreserved grief and kindness have been met with something like: “Until you support legislation/programme X, your expressions of grief aren’t worth a single molecule of spit from your vile mouth.”

Also unsettling: several important facts from Orlando — like what the killer’s precise motives and associations were — are only just now being established with something like solid precision. But in many quarters the commentary, spin, and blame cycles ran faster than the investigative and reporting cycles. Instead of digging up and beholding the stubborn facts in all their terror and sordidness — and complexity — the priority of the day was to transform just outrage at a profoundly evil act into hatred against Group X.

Such responses haven’t, thank God, been universal or even predominant. But they have been common. Far too common. Where the expression of human grief and the practical alleviation of human pain are less weighty matters than which Reichstag Fire Narrative wins, there is a disease in the public mind. If you have been smacked down by Bizarro Nation for expressions of grief and sympathy, even for organizing or participating in relief efforts, do not be discouraged. Carry on. You are the sane ones.

That said, since it is imperative that our love “abound yet more and more in knowledge and in all judgment,” none of us ought be obtuse about the following realities:

(1) The fifty persons who have died, and the one-hundred and three who were shot, were shot at a gay nightclub. The killer targeted his victims because they are gay. Therefore, while constructive responses to this act of terrorism must be general and national, not factional, it will not do to blind ourselves to the fact that all persons and communities which identify as LGBT, and friends and family of LGBT persons, are and for some time will be suffering from particularly acute grief for their loved ones and fear for their safety. Note that, respect it, and act accordingly;

(2) The murderer-terrorist in Orlando was a Muslim. Therefore, it will likewise not do to blind ourselves to the fact that Muslims and Muslim communities in the United States are and for some time will be uniquely subject to, and suffering from elevated fear of, backlash. Note that, respect it, and act accordingly;

(3) Whenever terrorists strike, two opposite errors will appear to tempt us: first, “the killer was a totally unique monster, an unhinged lone wolf”; second, “the killer is the true face of Bogeyman Group X which, given half the chance, stands ready to mobilize an army of people to go and do likewise.” Note both errors well, note that they are in fact errors, and avoid them.

May the recently departed rest in peace. Grace and peace to those whose homes and communities have been and will be particularly affected by this evil.

Christ, have mercy upon us.

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This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.

The New Testament is full of sentences that are the gospel in shorthand. I have always found this one from John (1 S John 1:5) the most striking. Not only because it directly confronts the heart of both open unbelief and Christian crankiness and fear — the suspicion that God has a sadistic and miserly side — but because this message really does run through all of Jesus’s conversation. The way of life and renovation of the heart prescribed in the gospels are amazingly difficult. And yet very often Jesus’s portrait of his happy, lavishly generous Father might make one forget the difficulty: “It is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

When the world slanders Jesus, or remakes him after one of its own patterns, the Christian’s impulse is often to defend his elder brother, to “set the record straight.” Commendable impulse, but wrong: the “Christ’s defender” ethos is misleading. He needs no defense, unless it be the defense of our example — that we delight in listening to our Elder Brother and learning of him.

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Suppose one reads a story of filthy atrocities in the paper. Then suppose that something turns up suggesting that the story might not be quite true, or not quite so bad as it was made out.

Is one’s first feeling, ‘Thank God, even they aren’t quite so bad as that,’ or is it a feeling of disappointment, and even a determination to cling to the first story for the sheer pleasure of thinking your enemies are as bad as possible?

If it is the second then it is, I am afraid, the first step in a process which, if followed to the end, will make us into devils. You see, one is beginning to wish that black was a little blacker. If we give that wish its head, later on we shall wish to see grey as black, and then to see white itself as black. Finally we shall insist on seeing everything — God and our friends and ourselves included — as bad, and not be able to stop doing it: we shall be fixed for ever in a universe of pure hatred.

C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity 91 (1952).

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