What The Benedict Option gets most wrong: Idolizing Christendom, Neglecting the Spirit, Abandoning Hope

Idolizing Christendom, Neglecting the Spirit, Abandoning Hope

I need to start by getting off my chest the three primary critiques that I see as seriously problematic in Dreher’s worldview. These themes may sound like fighting words; my wife, walking by, saw them over my shoulder and said, “Whoa.” So let me reiterate that while I have serious problems with TBO, the underlying argument once Dreher outlines his take on the problem – that Christians need to focus on being a counter-cultural, “in but not of” faith-centered community – is one I am in broad agreement with. And the comprehensive approach he takes to outlining what that BenOp looks like is well worth reading; again, I will find a lot of value in those sections when and if I ever get to them. But first, the problems I have.

Idolizing Christendom

“He says that like it’s a bad thing.”

My underlying problem with Dreher’s premise is in his approach to Christendom. By using the term “Christendom” I am differentiating it from Christianity, which is the faith of the worldwide church in all its forms proclaiming the same Creed. This is the Body of Christ living in the world throughout history from the time of His Resurrection until today, not only in the West but across the globe.

Christendom, on the other hand, marks the era in Western Europe (and its subsequent colonies, including especially the US) that began with Emperor Constantine’s declaration of Christianity as the official state religion and ended, or began to end, with the end of the Middle Ages. You could make the case that this era of Christian domination continued on in a vestigial, cultural if not legal form, until somewhere between the 1960s and when Dreher published the book, I guess, at least here in the US. While Dreher’s focus is the honest-to-goodness Holy Roman Empire day, there’s a lot of carryover up until the day that people started seriously claiming that we live in a “post-Christian” society.

Dreher’s first couple of chapters make the point pretty explicitly that, in his view, Christendom was the Golden Age of Christianity, mostly by showing that ever since the beginning of the Renaissance and the Age of Enlightenment, secularizing forces have been unleashed with the unavoidable result that Christianity has been unseated from its rightful place at the center of Western culture, replaced by the reign of the individual. The consequences, in Dreher’s view, have been disastrous. The damage cannot be reversed. The culture wars, always doomed from the beginning, have been lost. Christians should prepare for a future as a minority religion in a culture it was central to creating.

“He says that like it’s a bad thing.”

This is the most maddening part of my reaction to Dreher’s point of view. I actually agree, strongly, with his call for Christians to prepare for a future, already here, as a minority religion, and I agree with a good bit of his recipe for building the community created to survive in such a reality. But I would argue a different premise: losing Christendom is actually a good thing for a Church that has for way too long been caught up in a societal role for which it was never intended. And I believe that as we set out to adapt to this new role outside society’s center, we have a blessed opportunity to rid ourselves of the distorted beliefs that came with our faith’s temporal power and refocus on the essence of our faith as lived out in the pre-Constantinian, underground Church. While Dreher believes the future of the faith is in a return to the 6th Century, I believe it’s in a return to the 1st.

Let me not question God’s plan. Had Emperor Constantine’s mother, Saint Helena, not converted to the faith and then converted her son, it would have taken some other Providential act for Christianity to survive the day, much less spread into one of the globe’s major religions. It was for much of the first few centuries a fringe religion, considered an offshoot of the Jewish faith that rejected it even as it found an audience among Gentiles in cities around the Mediterranean and beyond. The shift from persecuted sect to imperial religion did transform the history of the world while securing Christianity’s place in it. (I would add that the value of the individual and the progressive understanding of history, both part of Christendom’s downfall from Dreher’s perspective, are actually deeply rooted in Christian theology and a key contribution to humanity in modernity.) But I would also argue that security came at great cost; by taking on the mantle of state religion, Christianity took ownership of a role in culture that the Early Church not only never imagined but would have expressly rejected, and in the process created a variant sense of our faith, Christendom, that followers have been prone to idolize. Including, I’m afraid, Rod Dreher.

Consider the record of the New Testament. In John 6, Jesus leaves the crowds behind out of fear that they would make him king. On Good Friday, when Pilate asks whether he is a king, he responds “My kingdom is not of this world.” When Paul addresses the Romans, his focus is likewise otherworldly; see Romans 13:1-7 as his case that the temporal power structure in place should be obeyed, not overtaken. While I suspect it’s true that the 1st Century Church, organic, evolving and underground, could not have imagined that their spiritual descendants might some day hold the reins of power, even in their peripheral beginnings they were clear that that power wasn’t something they should be aspiring to.

Among what Dreher calls “traditional Christians” or “little-o orthodox Christians,” there is a centrality to the structures of life developed, or inspired by, the Medieval Church. There is a great emphasis on sin as deviation from the norms of the Church as expressed in a society in which the Church ruled, sometimes directly but also as the arbiter of culture. I’ll come back to those structures in more detail later; many of them continue to have merit for a Church-on-the-periphery. All of them, from Dreher’s perspective, have direct linkages to the central questions of faith which will endure: Who is God? Who are we humans? Why are we here? How are we to treat ourselves, God, and each other?

And yet, there is a temptation to put this set of structures on a pedestal reserved only for God Himself. There is a temptation to assume that these structures, developed at a moment in history in a specific geographical context, have the eternal weight of the Divine. At that point, I would argue, Dreher and his compatriots have overstepped the devotion to God to which we are all called, and have instead drifted into the too easy realm of idols. God deserves our worship; medieval Christendom does not.

In contrast, I would argue that the evidence indicates that, while God may imbue the structures that govern our lives, He is by far the most noticeable in the outcasts. Someday, I will get around to writing the study “God of the Losers,” because to look at the Biblical record, and perhaps to look at the history of the Church, there are not many builder-accepted cornerstones. It’s the stone that the builder rejected that ends up being the key, as the Psalmist and many throughout the New Testament tell us. Abraham was too old. Jeremiah was too young. Tamar. Ruth. Moses was an abandoned baby. David was the youngest. Jesus was improbably born to an inconsequential girl from Nazareth. Peter was a fisherman. Francis and Ignatius we’re failed soldiers. In our own times, John XXIII was to be a short-term transitional pope. John Paul II was from Poland. Pope Francis topped that – a Jesuit from Argentina. And so it goes. The sum of it can go back to one of the central stories of our faith – the parable of the Good Samaritan. It’s not just that the priests and Levites fail to live up to neighborliness; it’s that Jesus uses a despised religious and ethnic minority, not even an acceptable Jew, as his exemplar. The faithful don’t save Samaritan outcasts; it’s the Samaritan outcasts who save us.

And it’s with that in mind that I challenge the notion that God can only be found in the acceptable, that He only blesses the hierarchy, that He can only be known in tradition as it is found in Medieval Christianity. That’s putting God in a box, and it is only our idolatrous problem, not His.

This shows up throughout, and I’ll try to flag when I saw it as I go. And, to be clear, I am just as prone to fall into this trap. I don’t feel particularly comfortable pointing out the idolatry of another because I am painfully aware of my affinity to do the same. Whether we veer toward the traditional or the contemporary, the act of idolatry is always really the same, I think; it is simply a matter of assuming that God is on MY side in my interpretation of the truth, instead of humbly hoping that my interpretation of reality is somewhere close to GOD’s side. Idolatry is putting ourselves as the ultimate arbiter of truth, which in essence tells God where He is and is not allowed to be. Ironically, this is Dreher’s central critique of modernity – that the individual has been wrongly enthroned as defined of truth. And yet my biggest critique of Dreher is the same – he has as an individual enthroned Christendom as the yardstick of truth.

This has played out for me just in the last week (I write this a full month after I started this project, in late May). Yesterday I (a relatively faithful Catholic) was having coffee with a “church planter” – a pastor of a start-up, non-denominational church – and he raised this point, somehwat sheepishly because of my Catholicity. The Gospel isn’t about endorsing the power structure. God’s radical love doesn’t work as a model for political and economic hierarchy. And by adopting the duty of playing the inside game in culture, either as a ruler (as state religions were), or by positioning church membership as another product or service to be marketed to a target demographic (as many evangelical would-be mega-churches do), we get distracted from God’s central message to love that comes through the Gospel and got caught up in what’s practical. Just today, a priest I follow on Twitter reacted to the latest act of terrorism by saying that dialogue is good, but “thugs only respect those with a big stick.” When I pointed out that I didn’t recall Jesus saying that, exactly, what I got back from his followers was that my “Church of Niceness” doesn’t belong in the real world. (If that’s the worst Twitter has to dish out at me, boy, I’ll take it.) But the earliest Church was not practical. A faith rooted in a crucified savior isn’t realistic. That it survives at all is a testament to God’s ability to transcend practicality, not an endorsement of the status quo.

Neglecting the Spirit

This leads to my second critique. By pining for a time when faith was interwoven with a static and predictable structure, Dreher’s worldview runs counter to the nature of God as it was expressed in the earliest Church through the Divine person of the Holy Spirit. I don’t mean to say that Dreher’s worldview is ungodly or contrary to God’s nature; the mystery of the Trinity reflects the very different way that God is manifest in the world and experienced by us humans such that His creation of orderliness and His wild inbreaking into that order reflect different dimensions of the same God. Dreher’s assessment of the world tends, I believe, to favor the orderliness of God, to the detriment of the history of God’s spontaneity.

Though I am a Catholic convert from mainline Protestantism, it is an evangelical, author and pastor Francis Chan, who has most shaped my thoughts on the radical nature of the Holy Spirit in his book Forgotten God. But you don’t have to read Chan to see what I think Dreher is missing; you just need to read through the Book of Acts. That chronicle of the first generations of the Church captures the wild, spontaneous, unpredictable and evolving nature of God’s people as it seeks (along with the Gospel writers) to reconcile how the Messiah of the Jews might so inspire a community that found its footing in the Gentile community. Beyond the miraculous works in the lives of the apostles, the very nature of who God is choosing as His people and what that means for faith and practice is the unpredictable element to be reckoned with by the early Church. As it should be for us.

This is undoubtedly a reflection of my own biases, just as Dreher’s worldview reflects his. As he outlines how worship, or education, or family structure must be just so, I instinctively hear the voices of the scribes and Pharisees challenging Jesus for not following their expansions of Mosaic law just so. I imagine the debates of the Council of Jerusalem over how much of Judaism Gentiles needed to adopt in order to be included in the Christian community. I see how the Spirit led apostles to follow Jesus in embracing people on the peripheries who don’t fit in, leading with mercy, not law.

So how do you judge between the hierarchical, traditional worldview and the spontaneous, unpredictable one? In “liquid modernity,” as Dreher (rightly) bemoans, each of us plays judge; the individual’s proclivity serves as arbiter of truth, and we end either in stalemate or (more likely) by rewarding whichever of us is most powerful. We embrace the “truthiness” that accepts the explanation that best sits in our gut.

Dreher’s alternative is that, because the tradition of Scholasticism has so meticulously constructed a model of the whole that, like a towering cathedral, overwhelms with its impressive architecture, it wins.

Let me suggest another way. Look where you see the Spirit is moving, and if it’s not where you are right now, then accept it as a challenge to move yourself. If you can’t see your way clear to come to where the Spirit glows, at least sit humbly in the possibility that you might be wrong. How can you tell where the Spirit is working? As much as I would like to say it’s by looking to the peripheries, embracing the things that make you most uncomfortable, and listening for a still, small voice, here’s another rule that, rooted in St. Paul’s teaching in Galatians, might offer us a transcendent yardstick outside us all: the fruits of the Spirit.

When I was in Vacation Bible School as a kid, I learned a song about Galatians 5:22-23 that was my original earworm. As a result, even today I can tell you what the fruits of the Spirit are: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, generosity and self-control. Against these there can be no law.

For most of my life, I thought what I should be striving for, if I wanted to live in the Spirit, was to live so that I felt these things in myself. To which Dreher would rightfully sigh and throw up his hands – because it’s an intrinsically self-validating measure no better than truthiness.  What I’ve come to realize is that to fully extend the principle that it’s not about you, as Pastor Rick Warren so famously wrote, the fruits aren’t measured as an individual customer satisfaction measure. It’s where you see people who can spread love, joy, peace and the like in the lives of the people they encounter that you see the Spirit at work.

That measure sounds soft, but it is not. Use it as your examination of conscience the next time you go to the Confessional and you will see what I mean. At the same time, when you are in the presence of a person who exhibits these gifts – who is so loving that you feel love, so patient that even you gain perspective – you know the Spirit is at work.

By this yardstick, Dreher can and should defend the best of BenOp communities. As he cites throughout his book, there are examples of communities today that embrace traditional Christianity in ways that empower them to show love, joy and peace.

But there are also people who find traditional Christianity desiccating. And there are other communities wreaking all kinds of loving, joyful, peaceful havoc without following any of the rules Dreher leans on. To which I would say it would be best for us to take the advice of Gamaliel, the Pharisee in Acts 5 who dissuaded the religious leaders from slaughtering the apostles in the wake of their scandalous teaching:

But a Pharisee in the Sanhedrin named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, respected by all the people, stood up, ordered the men to be put outside for a short time, and said to them, “Fellow Israelites, be careful what you are about to do to these men. Some time ago, Theudas appeared, claiming to be someone important, and about four hundred men joined him, but he was killed, and all those who were loyal to him were disbanded and came to nothing. After him came Judas the Galilean at the time of the census. He also drew people after him, but he too perished and all who were loyal to him were scattered.

So now I tell you, have nothing to do with these men, and let them go. For if this endeavor or this activity is of human origin, it will destroy itself. But if it comes from God, you will not be able to destroy them; you may even find yourselves fighting against God.” They were persuaded by him.

Let us be similarly persuaded, even if it hurts us to do so. To say that someone who doesn’t live or worship as I would choose nevertheless exhibits the fruits of the spirit is not a matter of succumbing to a laissez-faire, anything-goes abdication of judgment; it is to humbly admit that God can do what He wants. It is to attend to the Spirit.

Let me say explicitly what this leads to implicitly. Somewhere in Chan’s Forgotten God, he talks about how the fruits of the Spirit are such that Christians should be more loving than Mormons, more patient than Muslims, more peaceful than the Dalai Lama, etc., because we aren’t achieving these things ourselves but reflecting a divine manifestation in our lives. And, sure, I agree.

But just to lay it out there, maybe we should also have the humility to say that if others, even those of another faith or of no faith we understand, are able to spread those same fruits, then maybe, maybe, God is working through them, too. So let’s ask God for the inspiration, literally, to outdo others in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. But let’s also humbly honor God’s right to work through other people in His own way to those same ends and treat them with respect for it.

Abandoning Hope

There is an overwhelming, pervasive dark grayness to TBO, and it is the nature of reactionary literature. Pining for a time irrevocably lost is hard to put a happy face upon. I get it.

But we are called to hope. With faith and love, it is one of the triumvirate of virtues that mark the Christian. Hope is not naive optimism, and it does not ignore the darkness in our fallen world.

But neither does it accept brokenness as an unfixable state, sin as an irredeemable barrier, death as the final answer. It does not pretend that we live in Paradise today, but it also does not forget that we are promised Paradise by the One who is trustworthy.

I am pretty sure Dreher would agree with this, but it seems like he forgets it a lot. He may well be saying, “Yes, we have been promised that if we stay faithful, we will see his glory. But I am preparing the flock for the suffering that is to come.” And that is probably fair.

But we have gotten here against all rational odds, as a faith, as a country, as individuals in many cases (including mine). We can, even in dark times, weave a narrative of hope that recognizes that God does not only wait for us on the other side, that He is not just watching us from a distance. God makes a way today, even in the most horrific situations. While I will stand in line behind the many with more standing to ask the Divine for the wisdom to understanding why reasonably decent people experience such dehumanizing evil, I can also see how the light, while sometimes flickering something wicked, never extinguishes. And this sense that “God’s got this,” is absent in Dreher’s book.

I would cede to Dreher every point about the awful state of Christianity today. (Well, most of his points, anyway.) And yet I would say his data points lead me to this narrative: God will make a way. Maybe it will be that, after shedding the cultural leadership that attracted so many to a falsification of the Christian faith, an Americanism that somehow swapped out the mercy and redemption of the Resurrection, and the dependence and interdependence of the Church of Acts 2, for a hardy libertarianism crossbred with petty moralism and unreflective exceptionalism, the faithful remnant will be able to reestablish the primacy of the true Gospel of the broken and redeemed. As God has always shown up on the peripheries and seems to love playing from behind, so the next era of the Church may show that God can do His best work when working with those not already atop life’s leaderboard. (Indeed, a look at the global Church’s dynamism in areas we used to call “Third World” might say this future is already here.)

Or maybe not. Maybe God will go another way, as is His wont. But He will not abandon us. And if Dreher saw this a little more clearly and said it a little more often, he might have come to the same prescription, but with a more graceful accent.

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