Saturday, February 18, 2017

The Benedict Option And The Future Of The Church: We Should Look Back But Where And When Is The Real Question

As I have said over and over, we are entering a new period of life for the church. I won't say it is ahistorical or unprecedented because it bears many similarities to the past but it also has many differences.

What is being called "The Benedict Option" is getting more and more airtime of late as the release of Rod Dreher's book of the same name comes closer. I went to a non-related article at Christianity Today and saw that the cover story for the March issue was on the Benedict Option (you need to be a subscriber to read the whole thing apparently). Albert Mohler interviewed Dreher for his Thinking In Public series. If you are interested in these sorts of things, as I am, it is a worthwhile listen. So what is the Benedict Option? As someone who has read a lot of Dreher's writings I confess it is a little confusing. The concept is one thing, the execution is another entirely. The FAQ section on the Benedict Option kind of lays it out but the essence, as I understand it, is that Christians would form intentional communities, far beyond local church life, and become preservers of Christian tradition and thought, acting as an "ark" to preserve Christian culture until such a time as civilization is ready to accept it again. I am sure I am not doing the concept justice but then again given the frequent attempts by Dreher to clarify and to counter what he sees as false assumptions, I am not sure how many people really understand it in the first place.

What Protestants, evangelicals and other Christians need to keep in mind is that it is apparent to me that Dreher's model of "The Benedict Option" is really only compatible with a Roman/Orthodox structure and of late it seems that a lot of what Dreher writes is a) reinforcing what Dreher himself admits, namely that he doesn't know much about evangelicalism in any form and b) in spite of that he frequently cherry picks kind of obscure evangelicals and asserts from their writings that what evangelicals really want is high church, authoritarian, liturgical religion. I don't know many people, evangelical or Reformed or whatever, who are deeply concerned about and engaged in church reformation that are calling for some sort of return to Rome, hat in hand, asking if we can come home (other than perhaps Peter Leithart). Dreher frequently links the Benedict Option with practices and principles that are really only applicable in a Roman/Orthodox church setting so it has pretty limited applicability for Protestants and evangelicals, even though it gets a lot of attention from those groups.

It also is worth stating, yet again, that the traditions and doctrines that Dreher is calling for the preservation of are not Christian. I reject as not only not faithfully Christian but in many ways as anti-Christian some of the central doctrines of both Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. From the blasphemy of the Mass and the anti-Gospel understanding of justification we find in Rome to the use of idols called icons and a similarly errant understanding of justification in Eastern Orthodoxy, I do not and cannot see a connection with Rome or Constantinople and small "o" orthodox Christianity, except to see them as wolves and usurpers. That for me is where I think we need to be cautious with the Benedict Option because it moves the line of "us" and "them" to include in the "us" category religious movements that oppose the Gospel and historically were the leading persecutors of the church when those movements still had the power of the state at their disposal. I think in Mohler's conversation with Dreher, he skirts that line just as he did in appearing multiple times at Brigham Young University, a university named after a blasphemer, staffed and led by heretics and populated by what I can only presume is an entirely lost student body (see my concerns here: Even Daniel only went into the lion's den once ). As Christians we need to be very careful that when we read someone like Dreher, and I intend to once the book is available at our library, that we do so understanding that he is a fellow American, a conservative, a thinker and a devoutly religious individual deserving of no small amount of respect but he is not our brother. Western civilization is incredibly valuable but it is not the Kingdom. Religious liberty is important but it is not a Kingdom virtue. I trust that Mohler understands and is able to distinguish between "learning from" and "affirming" differing groups, as he says here:
I appreciated every part of this conversation with Rod Dreher, but particularly the closing section of this conversation and that’s because we do need without apology to talk openly about what it means to learn from one another without affirming one another theologically. This is an issue of our evangelical responsibility, of our credibility in faithfulness; that is to say, that the issues that have separated historic Protestantism from Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy are not ephemeral, they are not minimal, and they have not gone away.
But I am not as sure that other evangelical and Protestant Christians possess the background and education to make that distinction. I do agree with Mohler in his critique of generic evangelicalism in that it doesn't have the "thickness" to survive the coming era. Mohler here responds to his own question to Dreher about the viability of evangelicalism in the future:
MOHLER: But that’s going to make the point where I would have to answer my own question. I do not believe evangelicalism has sufficient resources for a thick enough Christianity to survive either this epoch or much beyond.
DREHER: So what we you do then? What do you do?
MOHLER: Well it’s because I think evangelical-ism as an-ism, is a particular moment in history. The identity has to be, as I see it, in the best way to describe the conversation between us, as historic Protestant. In other words, it takes historic Protestantism, in other words, I am deeply, unashamedly rooted in that which we mark in terms of a 500th anniversary right now. I do believe in the necessary reformation of the church and what the Reformers taught. But modern evangelicalism lacks the theological substance either of the Reformation or the Reformers because the Reformers themselves, Luther and Calvin amongst them, were not at all hesitant, even as they affirmed sola scriptura and did so with full heart and soul, to go back and cite Augustine. They knew they were standing on the shoulders of those who had come before, and they sought to make that very clear. They stood on the creedal consensus of historic Christianity and thus confessional Protestantism, I would argue, is and must be—can be—sufficiently thick. But evangelicalism? Well, not so much.
I agree with that. Most of what we call evangelicalism is immature, vacuous, inwardly focused and obsessed with the trappings of success and the incessant desire for self-perpetuation. More on that in a moment.

A serious problem I see for the various iterations of the Benedict Option is that it fails to take into account that just retreating into communities, or "arks" as Dreher describes them, to preserve the faith and religious tradition doesn't really work when the broader culture is not going to be willing to leave us alone to practice our faith. As an example, we see the lie of the homosexual movement in stark display. They are not seeking to be left alone or allowed to "love" who they want. They demand that everyone who is not homosexual either become a vocal cheerleader for homosexuality or keep their mouths shut. We are already seeing moves to make the simple stating of accepted basic, historic Christian understandings of topic like human sexuality being labelled as "hate speech" and that is not going to diminish with victories by the secular forces. To the contrary it seems that every victory emboldens them. If you think you can retreat to a commune in some barren corner of America and preach the Gospel without molestation you are either naive or dumb. Perhaps Dreher has addressed this or will in his book but I don't recall seeing it.

So if not the "Benedict Option" of a renewed laity-based monasticism of sorts, what should the future look like? My vision for the church for the coming era would be a much smaller but far more engaged and dedicated community of faith. Instead of breaking down barriers and seeking commonality with former foes, I would propose an even starker line in the sand. What we stand for and why we stand for it must be front and center. I know this will turn off a lot of people on the fringes of the church but I don't see that as avoidable and I don't even think it is regrettable. I don't see the years and decades to come as a welcoming place for people with only a tenuous connection to the faith. If your connection to the faith is occasionally showing up at church, I don't see how that will leave you grounded enough to deal with real persecution. We owe it to people to present nothing less than the most robust, full-throated and unapologetic Kingdom manifestation we can manage. As part of that I would return to a couple of critical issues that will make or break the church in the years to come, a renewed local church based intellectualism and a vigorous life of discipleship. As I have so often in the past I would draw from two wells primarily for these twin keys to the church in the future, the Reformers and the Anabaptists. This is what I mean:

A robust intellectualism practiced by elders and non-elders alike (as all men in the church should be striving toward the qualities that make one an elder), the sort of robust intellectualism that is also practical and pastoral as we saw from many of the Protestant Reformers (although not necessarily just Reformed theology even though I would hold to that), as well as a deeper discipleship of the sort we see in historic Anabaptist groups manifested in genuine community and brotherhood.

I wrote previously that I think the historic model of the Anabaptists is a better guide, at least for evangelical/Reformational Christians than the Benedict Option (see: The Anabaptist Option > The Benedict Option ). My critique of both groups tend to offset one another. While the Anabaptists live out discipleship far better, in my opinion, than the Reformed, their theology is often pretty flimsy. That doesn't mean that conservative, historic Anabaptists don't have firmly held beliefs, it just means that, again this is just my opinion based on personal observation, they are not very well-formed. On the flip-side, the Reformed have the theology, deep diving on doctrine, the connectedness to church history, mostly on the mark but all too often seem like they would rather sit at home alone reading Owen's The Death of Death In The Death Of Christ than spend time with the Body outside of scheduled, mandatory church meetings. That is an obvious bit of hyperbole but I hope my point is made that in my experience discipleship seems lacking, especially outside of church events.

There is also of course the issue of ecclesiology and here I think both groups could use a healthy reevaluation. How the church functions is integral to how the individual Christian functions. Both traditions could use a refresher on ecclesiastical practices but as I have learned to my chagrin you cannot just focus on church models at the expense of broader questions of orthodoxy. There are lesson to be learned from the house church movement in spite of some pretty sketchy "leaders" and from the Restorationist churches but again never to the detriment of solid orthodoxy.

To me the Benedict Option is a schtick, something that sounds good and can be used to sell books and drive web traffic but it misses the mark on a lot of levels. There is some good to be learned from the propositions Dreher lays out and from groups like the Hutterites and Bruderhof and other intentional Christian or religious communities (check out this article from the Wall Street Journal: Wary of Modern Society, Some Christians Choose a Life Apart). I think we can learn a lot more from the Protestant Reformers and especially the Anabaptists. Ultimately though the real question of our survival and thriving in the years to come will not be based on modeling ourselves after some obscure monk or John Calvin or Menno Simons or Jacob Hutter. The real gauge of our faithfulness and the only measuring stick that matters will be how faithfully we live out the Kingdom in our lives. If we are not faithful first and foremost to the Scriptures, none of the rest of this stuff will matter.

1 comment:

Aussie John said...

So much to agree with! I'm concerned that evangelicals,especially, don't seem to understand what "the church" is.