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 three posts, by Steve McAlpine, Michael Jensen and Simon Kennedy, here, here and here, and Tim Adeney's appetiser post here.
The need to act in the present
As Tim Adeney points out in his excellent article, all action in the present embeds a hypothesis about the future. The Benedict Option is exactly this: a suggested course of action in the present, based on a hypothesis about the future.
Understood in these terms, we have basically three options: First, Dreher’s hypothesis about the future might be wrong, in which case his suggested course of action in the present can be ignored. Second, Dreher’s hypothesis for the future might be correct, but his proposal for the present might be the wrong response. Or third, both his future hypothesis and his present proposal may be correct, and does anyone know where I can get a Benedictine Habit that won’t clash with my natural skin tones?
The option none of us has is the “Oh, I don’t worry about that sort of thing” option. You might decide that no change is needed to the way we approach Christian life and witness in the West. That’s fine, but that in itself is a hypothesis about the future.
Has something changed?
Central to the Benedict Option is the judgement that something has changed in the modern West and that this change is significant for how Christians operate. Is that true? Is Dreher is in a panic over nothing?
I have noticed at a few conferences and in numerous discussions with conservative evangelicals in Australia a faulty line of thinking on this question. It goes something like this:
Premise 1: Wow, things have really changed. What’s going on?
Premise 2: People are rejecting the gospel because we are by nature dead in our sins and hostile toward God.
Conclusion: As you were.
Premise number two: that unregenerate humanity is hostile toward God, is true. But as an explanation for premise number one it won’t do, precisely because it is always true. It’s true in 2017, it was true in 1517 and it will be true in 2027. But you can’t explain a change with a constant. It does not explain the first premise. Now, you could run the argument that premise one is false. Nothing has changed, and all you need to know about Christianity’s societal and cultural position in the West is embedded in premise two. That’s an argument that could be made in good faith. For what it’s worth, I don’t buy it. I do think something has changed. But more of that below.
A counsel of despair?
I think there is some faulty thinking hidden in the argument above. It implies—or at least seems to me to imply, that the gospel makes no difference beyond those whom it has converted. Imagine a society that at first has no Christians. Then it has one. Then ten. Then one hundred. Then one thousand. At some point we’d expect that the Christians in that society would start to affect the society itself, right? That as they go about loving their neighbours, well-loved neighbours could in the long run produce a better neighbourhood? And what if some of those Christians start applying the fruit of their conversion to their roles in politics, in craft, in education and so on? One could imagine that, gradually and un-self-consciously, institutions and artefacts could begin to emerge that, over time, produce patterns of society and culture and are, in some sense, Christian. Surely?
I think the idea that nothing ever changes is a counsel of despair. Fortunately, I don’t despair on this front because I am convinced the gospel has made enormous changes to the world for the good. Changed lives are the gospel’s signature dish, but changed cultures, societies, arts and institutions have been its happy by-products. I think a biblically optimistic eschatology will be an important theological resource in the years ahead. If we stage some sort of strategic retreat, I don’t think it should be at the cost of a vision for the gospel once again doing good in the society. Indeed, I think a properly conceived Benedict Option should have the good we can do as a central strategic feature.
Dreher’s reading of the West
In his account of how the West secularised, Dreher talks a long, history-of-ideas approach. He traces the rise of unbelief through medieval debates on nominalism through the reformation and the enlightenment through to the modern sexual revolution. He does this well.
I confess, however, to being more open than Dreher is to seeing the process of secularisation as short and sharp. People like Callum Brown and Sam Brewitt-Taylor have argued that the West’s secularisation was not long and gradual, but sudden and precipitous. The pill, changed family structures, and even the use of cars are relevant here. If secularisation was short and sharp, this could also mean that a return to God is not off the cards in our lifetime.
Understanding Western Culture
Western Culture is a complex beast. If you compare Australia today with Australia in the 1950s, we are self-evidently post-Christian. But if you were to say to Edwin Judge that Australia was “post-Christian” he may well fall off his chair laughing. His is a rather eminent chair to be falling off—Judge is the Emeritus Professor of Ancient History at Macquarie University. When you take the long view and compare the West today with its pre-Christian past, there’s a lot of Christian influence still kicking about. Both Michael Jensen’s and Simon Kennedy’s articles are helpful in this space.
A qualified yes to the Benedict Option (or something like it)
Back to those premises above. For what it’s worth, I do think something has changed. I do think action is required. And I do think that some of the basic shape of the Benedict Option is in the right ball-park.
Let me say at once: let’s not panic. Panic often leads to bad decisions. Everything will be okay. There are people in Somalia or Iraq who aren’t talking about the Benedict Option, because they have no options. Let’s keep this all in perspective, people. I think the worst-case scenario for us over the next fifty years would be: church plants closing down unable to hire spaces to meet, people losing their jobs and forfeiting their mortgages, Christian Unions kicked off campuses, Christians unable to work in some State enterprises and a radical re-thinking of how Christians educate their children. These will be huge changes if they happen. And painful. But none of that makes this Iraq.
Steve McAlpine’s article makes the important point that Dreher is not talking about an anti-societal withdrawal. There was a Christian counter culture in the 1980s that said: “Whatever the world is offering, we can offer you that. It will be lamer, but it won’t have any swear words.” A terrible response to the coming years would be to do Christianity lite. To get current Western culture, vacuum up all the nasties and re-package it for Christians. No thanks.
But the option we are talking about is in many ways the opposite of that. It would be to cheerfully face our future in the West for what it is, and get on with producing the best communities, the best institutions, the best discipleship and the best witness we possibly can.
What will we wish we’d done?
So, what should our response look like? A friend of mine proposed this thought experiment to me: What will we wish we’d done ten years from now? For what it’s worth, here are my thoughts:
1) We will regret not doubling down on the discipleship of the next generation.
Being a Christian will be harder for my children than it has been for me. We need to disciple the next generation for challenges that mine did not face. We won’t be able to get away with a lite, ill-disciplined programme of Christian entertainment. They will need a thick, rich, deep and compelling vision of the Christian life and of Christian thought. I’m pretty sure this will also involve a stronger sense of Christian history that was typically imparted to my generation. People will need to know they are part of something bigger. The years ahead are surely the years for our best possible teaching and instruction. If we skimp now on deep thought and a vision of Christianity that is true, good and beautiful we will leave the next generation hopelessly vulnerable.
2)We might regret not buying properties.
If it becomes increasing hard for Christians to hire school rooms, lecture theatres and council buildings, we might be wise to revisit buying properties. I think for church planters, we’ll need to consider the strategic merits of owning space—space that could be used not only for Sunday gatherings, but for a whole host of important activities for the church and the local community.
3) We will regret not forming thick communities.
Our church communities will need to be thick. We will need to build strong counter-cultures. This won’t just involve spending more time together, but spending deliberate time together. They will need to be truly formative communities. And they will need to be communities that make the disciplines of faithfulness in marriage and in singleness more liveable and more plausible.
4) We will regret not pre-empting the loss of state support.
Many of our institutions and churches benefit significantly from the State’s favour. It’s entirely possible that this sort of support will be lost in the coming years. Existing institutions will need to work out sensible and gracious plans for when that support might be lost. And new ventures I think will need to plan as if that support will never be theirs to rely on.
5) We will regret not continuing to share the gospel with unbelievers.
I’m not just trying to kick a goal with the constituency here. In times and places where the gospel is readily received and conversion is common (such as sub-Saharan Africa today) the churches run the risk of being a mile wide and an inch deep. The temptation in revival is to forget deeply formative discipleship. We are, I think, entering an era in which the scarcity of conversions might make us a mile deep and an inch wide. But the gospel is the power of God for the salvation of those who believe. We should continue to trust that the Lord Jesus will rescue people from the coming wrath through his gracious call to repentance and faith. We should celebrate those communities (such as the Persian and the Chinese communities) where conversion is more common, and release resources to meet that responsiveness. And we should continue to hold out the word of life to our generation.