The Benedict Mandate and the Need for Faithful Presence

41QY+zZAzfL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_In a refreshingly honest moment on page 142 of The Benedict Option, Rod Dreher quotes Leah Libresco Sargent saying,

“People are like, ‘This Benedict Option thing, it’s just being Christian, right?’ And I’m like, “Yes! You’ve figured out the koan!’ But people won’t do it unless you call it something different. It’s just the church being what the church is supposed to be, but if you give it a name, that makes people care.”

Leaving aside the fact that I’ve never in my life heard the word koan before, this captures my ambivalence about Rod Dreher’s blockbuster new book better than anything. With all the buzz surrounding the book, I opened my review copy with some excitement and trepidation, but the more I kept reading, the more mystified I became what all the fuss was about. Fans and foes alike seemed to been taken in by the publishing event into thinking that something earthshaking was afoot.

But when you look at the forty-seven (or forty-three) concrete proposals that make up Dreher’s blueprint for the Benedict Option, you find instead a primer on thoughtful Christian discipleship. Dreher encourages churches to pay attention to their history, relearn liturgical rhythms, work together with other local congregations, and try to live as real communities. He encourages parents to put God at the center of their families’ lives, enforce moral norms, and think about who their kids are hanging out with. He proclaims the importance of Christian education, of Christian sexual morality, and of a Christian sense of work as vocation. In light of proposals such as these, one is forced to wonder just what is motivating the Christian intellectuals who contemptuously dismissed the book. Not only are most of these proposals simply mere Christianity, but a good number are mere common sense (for instance, “Think about your kids’ peer groups”; “don’t give your kids smartphones”; “don’t use social media in worship”; “fight pornography aggressively”). Now, to be sure, just because something is common sense does not mean it is necessarily common; in a world gone mad, stating the obvious can come across as revolutionary. But I really do think we all need to settle down and realize how ordinary and obvious most of the proposals in The Benedict Option really are.

Read More


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)

Read More


Letter to a Christian Climate Skeptic

 

Dear Incertus,

In your last communication, you offered three main reasons for your reflexive skepticism about climate change. As each of these reasons, in my experience, reflects deep-seated suspicions and doubts among many American Christians on this issue, I wanted to take some time to address each of them at some length, before touching on a fourth point that I think is much misunderstood and should be given serious weight.

Objection 1: The Science is All Political

You said that much of what passes for science on this issue is politics, or at any rate heavily politicized. I think several things can be said in response to this.

First is, “well sure, of course.” If by “politics” we mean something like, “the deliberation by a society about justice and the common good,” well then one could hardly expect a phenomenon like climate change not to be a political issue right off the bat. After all, if some parties (and indeed some nations) are in fact profiting off of the production and use of fossil fuels while their actions are having destructive effects on other human beings (including disproportionately the most powerless, namely, those yet unborn and the poor and those in third-world countries), then that is surely a matter of concern for justice and for the common good. Of course, if you don’t think that is happening after all—if there’s nothing there science-wise—then, by the same token, there’s nothing there politics-wise. But in that case, to say it shouldn’t be politicized is to beg the question. If the problem is real—if the science is right—then it is a political problem, and we should expect the political issues to get entangled with the science pretty quickly. Read More


A Primer on the Meaning of Political Opposition

As Trump’s shocking campaign promises have given way to the even more shocking realization that he actually meant them, our country’s already fevered political polarization has intensified to the boiling point. This polarization, and its occlusion of the possibility for meaningful political discourse, is in my view considerably more dangerous than anything Trump himself is likely to do. Trump is, as Alastair Roberts has recently reminded us, much more a showman than a conniving dictator, and although his autocratic leadership style is sure to undermine the rule of law (ironically, the very “law and order” he claims to re-establish), those who worry about a repeat of Hitler’s Germany are, I think, giving Trump way too much credit. The Art of the Deal is not exactly Mein Kampf.

However, an individual leader is always considerably less dangerous than the mindset he instills (or helps capitalize on, or both) among his followers and the society at large. And the greatest danger for a political society, one that does tend to prove conducive to the emergence of totalitarianism, is the illusion of the binary choice: there are either two options here, and if you are not for X, you are against it. If you are not for me, you are against me. While such a binary choice is often real in the realm of truth, it is rarely so in the realm of politics. Demagogues, however, are a master of reducing the complexities of politics to the simplicities of the binary choice, and Trump is, in this at least, the arch-demagogue.

Up through Trump’s actual inauguration, though, most thoughtful conservatives seemed to be resisting the pull of Trump’s all-or-nothing framing—after all, nothing is more antithetical to the true conservative mindset (though this has become something of an endangered species in recent decades). Nothing has been so disturbing to me about the past couple weeks as how rapidly this seems to be changing. In true progressive fashion, many “conservatives” have reflexively greeted concerns about policy by changing the subject to questions of sweeping (often caricatured) principle. This was of course the standard liberal move during the Obamacare debate: “You think this isn’t good policy? Wait a minute—are you telling me you don’t care about poor people getting healthcare?” We are in danger of witnessing the exact same drama play out in reverse: “You think Trump’s executive orders aren’t good policy? Wait a minute—are you telling me you think that unrestricted immigration is a good thing and we should have totally open borders?” Of course, progressives are making this much easier by too often playing right into it, and voicing their opposition only in the shrillest and most sweeping terms of humanitarian sentimentalism.

Amidst all this, it is important to remember what a complicated and nuanced thing political opposition is, and in the manifold debates to follow in the coming weeks and months and years, to do others (and ourselves) the favor of rigorously distinguishing exactly which form we are facing or seeking to articulate.

Of any proposed policy, we must ask the following questions: Read More


Nine Priorities for a Christian Politics

In my lecture in Richmond, VA a couple weeks ago on “What Does it Mean to be a Christian Citizen,” I pushed back against the idea that Christian politics was primarily a matter of particular Christian policies (see the previous two excerpts here and here), and I also emphasized that as our political duties are rooted in creation, many of the principles of justice that Christians seek can and will often be shared by unbelievers.

However, I did distill what I thought were nine priorities for a Christian politics, principles that while perhaps recognizable by the light of nature, were particularly clear by virtue of revelation, and which must guide any Christian citizen or representative. All of these will remain quite general, reflecting the limitations of time in my lecture, and my conviction that politics is more often a realm for careful discernment and prudential improvisation than for detailed dogmatic blueprints.

They are as follows:

1) Limited aims and aspirations

A Christian politics recognizes the limits of politics. We have already seen that the Christian’s dual citizenship serves as a warning against investing too much hope and meaning in political identity, expecting too much what good politics may achieve or fearing too much what evil it may bring about. A Christian politics recognizes that the true fruition of our human life together lies outside the bounds of history as we know it and beyond any human power to bring about; it also recognizes that God will bring about this fruition no matter how much we might seem to screw things up along the way. It might seem like an obvious and banal point to say that politics can only achieve so much, but in fact, it is something of a uniquely Christian contribution, since the natural human tendency is to look to earthly powers for our redemption and fulfillment, investing nations and rulers with a religious significance rather than recognizing that their authority is derivative and limited.

Read More