This is the second in a short series of articles responding to Rod Dreher’s ideas in The Benedict Option, and evaluating the pros and cons of his proposal as a strategy for Australian evangelicals. You can read the first post, by Steve McAlpine, here, and Tim Adeney’s appetiser post here.
It didn’t take me long to finish Rod Dreher’s book The Benedict Option¸ because I found myself agreeing with so much of it.
I have two thoughts in response, and in response to Steve McAlpine’s response. I’ll get to my two thoughts in a moment. I was disappointed that Steve’s review concentrated on the first two stages of Dreher’s manifesto, which seem to me the least interesting and most tenuous things about it. Steve is most interested in a) the uncertainty of the church’s place in contemporary Western culture, and b) our lack of preparedness for it. But Dreher’s book contains a very rich proposal for what that preparedness should look like, based on his somewhat rosy appropriation of Benedictine spirituality. Christian discipleship and education ought to constitute the formation of a culture in parallel to the secular culture, as an act of witness to the world.
Here’s my two thoughts. The first thing is that while we are naïve about the shifts in culture away from a Christian basis, we are also blind to our own political and social power within that culture as well. In my own experience in local educational institutions and with the NSW Department of Education, I have seen the development of two sets of ethics and two world views. Church schools now don’t look to their chaplains for moral guidance. They import so-called “experts” to lecture their children on sexuality issues. They appointment Directors of Wellbeing who put quotes from Buddha over everything. Any suggestion that a Christian view should be given time is treated with concern and alarm – in Church schools!!
Nevertheless, it is instructive to ask a member of the gay community what their impression of the church’s political power is. And they tend to have the mirror image view of our view of them. They imagine us enjoying special privilege and access to power in our society.
And we ought to think about this carefully. Despite a litany of political defeats over the years, we Christians still hold positions of power and influence in the parliaments of our nation, and in other bodies. The recently departed Premier of NSW was a Sydney Anglican, for example.
But more than that: the recent right-ward trend in politics reveals that the hegemony of the secular left is not as complete as it thinks. There’s been a widespread backlash against a progressive liberal social agenda – not merely from Christians, mind you.
Now, I think the mistake of the US evangelical Right is that it imagines that it can use politics to carry out its service of its Lord. It imagines that the City of Man ought to look pretty much like the City of God. That’s folly, in my view, and leads to support for Donald Trump.
But here’s my point: we Christians do have political and social capital, and power. How are we going to spend it? What responsibility are we going to take for our nation, that it become a more just and truly free society? Christendom is not yet over. I still get to go into state schools and teach my faith. We still get enormous tax breaks. The government, by and large, still recognises the enormous social utility of Christianity, and the very significant contribution we make to welfare and wellbeing in our nation, and makes space for it.
I am not naïve. A couple of elections, and the nation could be run by a bunch of barbarians like the current state government in Victoria. The vile push for euthanasia is gathering steam, with celebrity endorsements to go with it. The intrusion of businesses into social policy has shown us where the real power in Australia lies. Sure. But I am still part of an extremely powerful social group in Australia, called the church. It’s education, professional, well-connected, backed by $$$, has amazing real estate, and while not being an established church has all the habits of establishment. What am I going to do with that responsibility?
The second thought I have is that the church should be following the Benedict Option whatever the case. What Dreher describes is simply inspiring. It’s the creation of a new, civilised culture, which allows not simply for the preservation of the gospel but for its flourishing. I do baulk somewhat at Dreher’s Eastern Orthodox leanings: the Eastern Orthodox churches preserved the gospel during the period of Ottoman rule by drowning it in aspic. That is: they clung to the dead letter, and lost the spirit.
But I don’t see what Dreher is saying as anything like that. What he’s asking us to do is to actually be serious about catechesis and about spiritual disciplines and about liturgy. Now, this is where the evangelicalism of many TGCA readers would simply not buy it. We’ve developed church services that look like TV programmes. We’ve not recited the creeds. We’ve forgotten how to pray in church properly. We don’t read the Scriptures aloud, or take that seriously. We’ve despised culture-makers like artists and musicians and writers. Our current evangelical culture is so deliberately far from what Dreher is advocating here that we should hang our heads in shame. We have colluded with barbarism, to be honest.
Dreher, like Stanley Hauerwas, argues that the church should be the church. Yes, yes, yes. If we want to transform Australia for the gospel, then we need to be a different kind of culture ourselves. If you are concerned about the de-Christianisation of the political sphere, don’t join a political party: turn up to church every week instead of coming once a month. Get serious about discipleship. Teach your kids the gospel and live it out in front of them. Don’t be worldly yourself! It’s no good chest-beating about evangelism (“we should just preach the gospel more”) if you don’t realise that the powerful testimony of a transformed personal and community life is needed to make that gospel plausible (humanly speaking).
Two more points
There’s a couple of other powerful points well made by Dreher that I’d like to share. The first is that we need to teach biblical anthropology. I was told by a colleague once that “all this emphasis on theological anthropology is just an emphasis on ourselves, not on God.” This was a suicidal counsel, in my view (as well as obscurantist). With theological anthropology in place, you are positioned to see what has changed in the culture, and what the Bible has to offer in response in the whole of human life. You are better equipped for evangelism. Dreher is spot on here.
Second, we need church history, because we need to tell the stories of the saints. They are our counter-celebrities: the emblems of a life truly human, truly civilised, truly loving. We have, in the gospel, the beautiful, the true, and the good. We see these things trampled on by the savages that roam the jungles of modern society. How can one counter the hell that is porn (for example) without a better vision, a better story, a more beautiful way?