This is the third 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 two posts, by Steve McAlpine and Michael Jensen, here and here, and Tim Adeney's appetiser post here.
In troubled times like these, Christians ought to start by finding points of agreement. Here’s where I agree with Steve McAlpine. Yes, the culture is doing poorly and is getting worse (although things aren't as grim as they could be, nor is it happening at rollercoaster speed). Yes, the church needs to take stock, think strategically and biblically, and deepen discipleship practices (which I assume and hope reformed and evangelical churches have been doing anyway). But there is something amiss in his rendition of the Benedict Option. In fact, there is something amiss with the Benedict Option itself.
Rod Dreher’s strategy for the church in a post-Christian world is obviously somewhat monastic. It’s Benedictine, after all. It involves making hard choices about what Christians invest their time, money, and other resources into. Steve’s own reflections on this seem to suggest that we should withdraw from certain activities. As he writes elsewhere, we need to stop sending troops into the public square in front of the Gatling guns. And Dreher’s book ends with an image of contemporary Benedictine Monks escaping into the hills to safely watch an earthquake wreak destruction beneath them.
It is this monastic riff which gives Dreher’s big idea power. But it also sounds like a withdrawal. Let me clear: neither Dreher nor McAlpine advocates for a hermetically sealed Christian community, removed from public sight. They don’t argue for withdrawal. But the effect, the implication of the Benedictine strategy, is that the church is understood as separate in order for it to be safe. Sure, Dreher says clearly that we can’t vacate the public square entirely. But I’m afraid that the Benedict Option will lead to a kind of separation or withdrawal from the dangers of the cultural earthquake happening around us. This mindset, this political theology of separation, will likely result in Christian political quietism. And that, I’m afraid, is not a real option. Let me explain why.
The Dutch polymath, Abraham Kuyper, conceived of two churches: the Church as institution, and the Church as organism. In the first conception of the Church, as an institution, the Benedict Option assumes an ecclesiology of separate, “prophetic” witness. The Church speaks the truth to power “prophetically.” And I gather we speak prophetically and witness to the truth from the sidelines while avoiding the dangers of public life. Otherwise, how would we avoid the secularist totalitarian Gatling guns? At best, there seems to be the assumption of selective participation in civic life in order to keep out of the way of harm.
However, this misunderstands the nature of the Church as an institution. Kevin Vanhoozer rightly points out, in the book The Pastor as Public Theologian, that the Church is the public embodiment of God’s truth in the public square. The church is a visible form of public theology. We have a Centre for Public Christianity based in Sydney but, with all due respect to John Dickson, the real Centre for Public Christianity is the Church of Jesus Christ. How can the Church absent itself from the public square when the Church is by definition a public institution? How can God’s people gather for worship on the Lord’s Day without making a public, even political, statement about what is true? I would suggest they can’t. The Church is necessarily public. I don’t think we can avoid the secularist guns.
The second church Kuyper conceives of is the organic Church. This is the Church spread throughout the world, an organism going out to the nations to evangelise and do good. This is the Church sent out to follow their vocations, their callings, and fulfil their duty to do the goods works which God has prepared for them to do (Eph. 2:10). Dreher (and McAlpine, elsewhere) appear to suggest that Christians focus on vocations and acitivities that, to some unknown extent, avoid public life. Gatling guns and all of that.
But as Christians spread out in the world we are to be concerned for our neighbour. Indeed, Jesus commanded Christians to “Love your neighbour.” It’s one whole table of God’s Law. Are Dreher and McAlpine calling for Christians abandon the vocation to love their neighbour in public and political life? I doubt it, but I think their overall strategy might lead to this. Sure, Dreher makes it clear that politics is more than Washington and Canberra. I couldn't agree more. But one implication of his ideas is that Christians ought to abandon fighting for better healthcare coverage, education, and against abortion laws and same-sex marriage.
However, is it really the case that, as Steve suggests, because people think we’re a “strange animal” for opposing sexual revolutionary weirdness at the local public school we should stop speaking up? Or another example: So what if we can’t join the Labor Party because of their policy on same-sex marriage? Join a different party instead. What about religious liberty? Dreher is right that we should protect religious liberty. But we can’t do that from cultural and political exile, especially a self-imposed one. I’m not convinced anyone should care what Christians think about religious liberty if we're not already busy loving our neighbours in parliament, policy development roles, public advocacy, and picket lines.
In short, whether or not Dreher and McAlpine have this intention, I think the idea of the Benedict Option will amount to a strategic political withdrawal. If so, the strategy is theologically confused. It ignores the reality that the Church as an institution is inherently public. It also ignores the reality that the Church as organism is commanded to go to the nations with a message that King Jesus is on the throne and that it is to love others sacrificially and deeply. That command surely includes activity in the public square.
The Mephibosheth Option
I’ll finish with an illustration. In 2 Samuel 9, we learn about a chap called Mephibosheth. And we only hear about him because he is blessed enough to be related to Saul. Mephibosheth was Jonathan’s son. And David, desiring to show kindness to Saul's remaining family, invites this obscure man—“a dead dog” in his own eyes—to dinner (for the rest of his life). Previously a member of the royal household, but now outcast and hiding in a backwater town, Mephibosheth is suddenly invited into the palace again. He gets a place at the king’s table.
I think that the picture of the Church that Dreher and McAlpine end up painting is something like poor old Mephibosheth. That is, a Church strategically, thoughtfully, removing herself from harm until things look better. But I also think that Steve would agree with me on my ecclesiological reflections. If so, we might need a clarification of the terms of the particular Benedict Option that is being argued for. It looks to me like Steve wants us to keep a low profile in a country backwater until the secularist kings ask us to return to the palace dining room. It is the Mephibosheth Option. I’m afraid that I won't be taking it.
Image: Maciejowski Bible, Leaf 40.