The Benedict Option in 43 Propositions

I’m working on a review of Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option, which seems to be all the rage  right now—whether you love it or hate it. While I have no great beef with most of Dreher’s arguments or suggestions, I also can’t see quite what the big fuss is about. You will probably see what I mean from the following list of 43 (or 47, depending on how you count) concrete proposals that I distilled from the book as an initial note-taking exercise:

Church

  • Learn the riches of your theological tradition, rediscover your past (102-5)
  • Liturgical worship (105-13)
    • Refocuses on God speaking to us, rather than us expressing ourselves
    • Involvement of the body as well as spirit
    • A rhythm that disciplines our desires
  • Recover fasting (114-15)
  • Recover church discipline (116-17)
  • Evangelize with goodness and beauty (117-19)

Community

  • Establish the home as “domestic monastery” (124-26)
    • Daily family worship
    • Mutual love and service
    • Show hospitality
  • Be willing to be nonconformist (126-27)
  • Think about your kids’ peer groups (127-28)
  • Beware of idealizing the family (128-29)
  • Live in geographical proximity to your community (130-34)
  • Establish strong social networks in the church community (134-35)
  • Establish, as far as possible, ecumenical ties with other local churches (136-38)
  • Don’t idolize the community (138-39)
  • Start where you’re at rather than trying to make something perfect (139-42)

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The Past for Honesty’s Sake: A Rejoinder to Peter Leithart

In a cheery response to my ponderous (and as-yet unfinished, I am sorry) review of his Delivered from the Elements of the World, Peter Leithart counters my charge of an “addiction to novelty” with a declaration of his commitment to “the past for future’s sake.” It is hard to quibble with the substance of his response; indeed, my organization, the Davenant Trust (which Leithart is kind enough to plug in his post) could almost adopt as its motto “The past for the future’s sake”— maybe it should, come to think of it; Leithart always has had a better flair for marketing than I. Of course we should return to the treasures of the past, beginning with Scripture, “to find resources to edify the church of the present, which is, even while you’re reading this, rapidly becoming the church of the future.” Of course we should seek to “to reach back and rocket forward at the same time,” rather than treating the church’s past as a tunnel to crawl into where we can huddle for safety so as not to face the myriad new challenges that the present assails us with. It should go without saying that there is no disagreement here.

Leithart manages to imply that this is the point of disagreement by omitting the last clause of the sentence which he takes as the summary of my objection: “[novelty theology works by] somehow simultaneously putting us back in touch the original primitive Christianity even while rocketing us into the Christian future by refusing to take its start in the conventional categories that theological discourse has refined over the centuries.” Now admittedly this clause is one that might make my marketing consultant wince, and so perhaps Leithart thought he was doing me a favor by omitting it—“conventional categories” are pretty thoroughly out of style, and “refined over the centuries” sounds like a pretty tedious business. But my complaint is not an antiquarian one; rather, it is a very practical one: the past keeps us honest. Read More


The Search for Authority and the Fear of Difference

A few weeks ago, a friend told me about a guy who, after years of devoted membership (and various forms of leadership) in Reformed churches, had decided to convert to Eastern Orthodoxy.  Not so much because of any deep-seated disillusionment with Reformed theology, or an intellectual decision that Orthodox doctrine on disputed points was more compelling, nor because of the frequently-cited “aesthetic appeal” of its liturgy, icons, etc.; to be sure, that was a factor, but could hardly be the decisive one for someone deeply-rooted in the Reformed faith.  Rather, it was because “he needed someone to submit to”; he was tired of the burden of always making up his own mind about everything, of the Protestant “heretical imperative” (to use Peter Berger’s term) that drove everyone to define themselves over against everyone else, and to elevate private judgment above all else.  Time to put an end to such individualistic arrogance, he reasoned, and submit my judgment to something higher, older, and more authoritative—rather than “let go and let God…” it was a matter of “let go and let the bishop…”  At least, such was the story. Read More


The Fashionable Outcry of Each Generation

Continuing my series on C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters:

“….The use of Fashions in thought is to distract the attention of men from their real dangers.  We direct the fashionable outcry of each generation against those vices of which it is least in danger and fix its approval on the virtue nearest to that vice which we are trying to make endemic.  The game is to have them all running about with fire extinguishers whenever there is a flood, and all crowding to that side of the boat which is already nearly gunwale under.  Thus we make it fashionable to expose the dangers of enthusiasm at the very moment when they are all really becoming worldly and lukewarm; a century later, when we are really making them all Byronic and drunk with emotion, the fashionable outcry is directed against the dangers of the mere ‘understanding’.  Cruel ages are put on their guard against Sentimentality, feckless and idle ones against Respectability, lecherous ones against Puritanism; and whenever all men are really hastening to be slaves or tyrants we make Liberalism the prime bogey.
But the greatest triumph of all is to elevate this horror of the Same Old Thing into a philosophy so that nonsense in the intellect may reinforce corruption in the will.  It is here that the general Evolutionary or Historical character of modern European thought (partly our work) comes in so useful.  The Enemy loves platitudes.  Of a proposed course of action He wants men, so far as I can see, to ask very simple questions: is it righteous? is it prudent? is it possible?  Now if we can keep men asking ‘Is it in accordance with the general movement of our time?  Is it progressive or reactionary?  Is this the way that History is going?’ they will neglect the relevant questions.  And the questions they do ask are, of course, unanswerable; for they do not know the future, and what the future will be depends very largely on just those choices which they now invoke the future to help them to make.  As a result, while their minds are buzzing in this vacuum, we have the better chance to slip in and bend them to the action we have decided on.  And great work has already been done.  Once they knew that some changes were for the better, and others for the worse, and others again indifferent.  We have largely removed this knowledge.  For the descriptive adjective ‘unchanged’ we have substituted the emotional adjective ‘stagnant.’  We have trained them to think of the Future as a promised land which favored heroes attain—not as something which everyone reaches at the rate of sixty minutes an hour, whatever he does, whoever he is.” —C.S. Lewis, Screwtape Letter #25

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The “All I Really Meant…” Syndrome

Lately, I’ve been having to field a lot of questions along the lines of “Your pastor just said WHAT?” with the expectation that I have to come up with something to say in their defense.  Sometimes, frankly, there isn’t much to say in their defense, but that’s OK, because, as my wife said pertly in answer to such a query from a Catholic friend yesterday, “We’re Protestants, so we don’t have to agree with everything our church leaders say.”  Indeed, I have the Christian liberty to stand up (respectfully) and say so if I think they’ve just gone off their rocker, while remaining a happy parishioner all the while.  Sometimes it’s better to just let love cover it and let others carry on the controversy, if controversy there need be.  But as I’m increasingly troubled by the rhetorical trend—the “All I Really Meant” Syndrome—and as I’ve blogged extensively in the past to reflect on the challenges to responsible rhetoric posed by new media (i.e. here), I thought I would weigh in with a few reflections.  (IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER: This post should not be taken by anyone as my “firing a salvo” against either of my pastors or “throwing them under the bus.”  I refuse to be sucked into the “If you’re not with us you’re against us” mentality that dominates in so many circles.  Friendly critique can and should go hand in hand with love and loyalty.  This is a point I want to elaborate on in a post hopefully later this week: “The Guru Syndrome and the Fear of Difference.”)

The particular posts that prompt this reflection (though many examples of similar rhetorical bent could be found) were by my current pastor Toby Sumpter’s “Free-Range Gluten-Free Yoga vs. Jesus” posted just yesterday, and, to a considerably lesser extent, my mentor and former pastor Peter Leithart’s “The End of Protestantism” posted a little over a month ago on First Things.  Although very different in subject area, intended audience, and quality, both had at least this in common: both created quite the online kerfluffle of controversy (Leithart’s, of course, in a wider sphere), and both knew they would do so, and intended to do so.  Both, for the sake of maximizing rhetorical effect and provocation, avoided defining their terms, and indulged in broad generalizations.

I am not interested in evaluating or critiquing those original posts in any detail (for excellent, simultaneously charitable and hard-hitting responses to each, with which I largely agree, see respectively here and here), but rather in assessing the interesting follow-up posts, the “All I Really Meant, Guys…” posts (see Toby’s here, Leithart’s here).  In both cases, the author admitted that the original post had clearly caused offense, but insisted that he thought it had been misunderstood, and defended it on the basis that there was a genuine problem out there that he was trying to critique, and those to whom the critique didn’t apply should just relax.  What both conspicuously lacked was a recognition that much of the offense caused may have been their fault, and accordingly needed to be recanted of. (Leithart’s, I should note, did strike a humble note, and made concessions at several minor points, but it unfortunately did not do so on the really key points.  Leithart admitted that there was probably a lot of unclarity in his choice to designate contemporary American sectarian Protestantism as simply “Protestantism,” but maintained unapologetically that this helped give him the “rhetorical edge” he was looking for.  And when confronted over the fact that his article had conflated historical Reformational Protestantism with contemporary pseudo-Protestantism, he simply denied ever making any historical claims, despite several lines in the original article that could hardly be read as anything else.)

And this, it strikes me, is a major problem.  Let’s assume that the follow-up posts, in each case, cleared up all the potential misunderstandings and dealt with all the objections (I don’t think, in fact, they did in either case, but leave that aside).  First, the fact that such follow-ups were necessary is still probably evidence that something had gone seriously awry in the initial salvos.  To be sure, that isn’t necessarily the case.  It’s possible for people to take offense when none has been given, or to misunderstand and misrepresent what has been very clearly set forth.  But when you have a large number of intelligent charitable folks who know your work quite well taking offense or misunderstanding your target, then odds are, you didn’t put things as clearly as you should.  Especially if you admit that you were intentionally being rhetorically edgy.  So such follow-up posts need to strike a more penitential tone.

Second, even if the follow-up clears everything up, that doesn’t mean, “Ok, we’re all good now.”  There seem to be a lot of bloggers out there (and I’ll be the first to admit I used to be one of them, and still can get worked up and fall prey to the temptation) who think they can be as provocative as they want at the front end, so long as they’re ready to qualify and clarify and soften things later on.  Unfortunately, the medium doesn’t work that way.  You can’t throw a verbal grenade into a crowded e-audience and just plan to clean up the pieces afterward anymore than you can throw a real grenade into a crowded audience so long as you have paramedics on hand nearby.  The fact is that follow-up posts almost never get anything like the hit count of the original post.  Even after the follow-up has been posted, there are still plenty of people out there sharing and re-sharing the original and taking offense at it (or using it as ammo to generate offense, just as likely) heedless of all the ex post facto qualifications.  Moreover, studies show that our minds have a very difficult time forgetting first impressions and overwriting them with subsequent corrections.  Like it or not, your first take is likely to stick in most people’s minds, especially given that it is going to be the more rhetorically explosive and the more likely to appeal to those of short attention span.

So, all of that to say, adding clarifications after the fact is nice, but it’s a heck of a lot nicer to speak clearly in the first place.

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