Faithfulness or Flight? What Should Lutherans Make of the Benedict Option?
There are so, so many books to read... and not enough time. But eventually all the buzz about The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation persuaded me to read what New York Times columnist David Brooks has called "the most discussed and most important religious book of the decade." I've known about Rod Dreher's work from a distance since it was initially published, but a few factors kept me from turning its pages.
For one, I didn't have enough time. My current classes have dished out enough reading that I don't have time to read a la carte. However, my wife bought us a subscription to Audible, and now I've found something useful to do with my drive time and exercise routine - listen to The Benedict Option.
I also to have to admit that my Lutheran instincts initially kept me away from the book. The idea of retreating into monastic seclusion goes against the grain of the "this world matters" thrust of the Reformation. Luther took the service of the monastery and placed it into the service of the world. Strange as the times are that we live in, a book that seemed at the surface to advocate retreat seemed like an abandonment of the public square - an abdication of vocation.
But I was wrong. The book is timely, wise, perhaps even prophetic, and no doubt easily integrated into a Lutheran understanding of vocation. I'll admit that I still have two more chapters to complete in the book, but even before finishing I want to work through some of its implications. There's a lot to chew on here.
If the Foundations Are Destroyed, What Can the Righteous Do?
I think it's fair to say that everyone in biblical, orthodox churches knows that the tides have changed in the past few years. To hold to a biblical worldview, and more specifically to a traditional view of marriage and the family, will no longer be tolerated as a voice in the public square. The predictions of the late Richard John Neuhaus have been realized in an emerging brave new world in which what was once taken for granted is now openly ostracized as obtuse and even offensive. To put it simply, "the naked public square" of which he spoke is here, and it is neither open nor affirming of one man, one woman, and the fruit of that union in the God-ordained institution of marriage. Anyone with any degree of spiritual sensitivity knows this. But how do we live in such a culture? Do we keep our heads down and quietly reminisce about a Christian nation that never was? Do we conform as far as we can without breaking the bounds of orthodoxy? Do we confront the culture with political activism? Or is there another option?
Separation for the Sake of Service
Here enters what Rod Dreher - himself a committed Eastern Orthodox Christian - calls "The Benedict Option." Looking back to the ruins of Roman civilization at the end of 5th century, Dreher locates the preservation of Western civilization in the retreat of the Benedictine monks into cloistered communities focused on prayer, study, and work. Even as a strong society disintegrated into the listless immorality of the barbarians, the light of faith and virtue was preserved for a brighter day when the Christian faith could rise from the ashes once again.
Dreher sees the Western world as already compromised by and caving into a new barbarianism. We are now intellectual and moral savages, happy to pillage traditional forms of thought and virtue, but with no unified structure to replace the ruins. The only agreed upon virtue is now the unbridled pursuit of individual fulfillment on the basis of individually chosen goals - a far cry from the impressive structures of Christian thought that once ordered all of life to the glory of God and the service of others.
The only way that the Christian faith can survive in this new world is to withdraw from the world and cultivate what Czech dissidents once called a "parallel polis" - in other words, an alternate community that stands opposed to the reigning beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors of the prevailing culture. To do so is a form of nonviolent resistance that holds out the option of life to the world by withdrawing from the world. We must become our own monastic communities - a parallel city with entirely different ethics and goals. Solutions cannot be sought in either progressive or conservative politics. In fact, much of the blame for our current situation rests in the fact that Christians spent so much time trying to preserve the integrity of society though political activism that they neglected to tend to the formation if Christian faith and virtue within their own communities - the only place where true heart change can lead to true life change.
What Does This Look Like?
As I ventured into this book, I kept asking myself, "What does this look like? How is this done?" What Dreher lays out is heady stuff for sure, and I often found myself wondering if this thing called "the benedict option" was rooted in reality, or just a nice conceptual way of coping. It turns out that much of what Dreher calls the church to is nothing more than the practice of faithful, biblical Christianity. However, the fact that many Christian communities suffer from a series of blind spots with regard to practices that were once staples of normal discipleship makes their rediscovery seem extreme to some, much like encountering the sun on a snowy day after being in the dark for a few hours.
The best way to preserve our distinct beliefs and practices is through our ongoing participation in the divine drama of liturgy. Liturgy has been a sort of blind spot for many evangelicals, especially as forms of worship began to mimic the consumerism and entertainment focus of the broader culture. Nevertheless, there has been a sort of revival of liturgical forms of worship - even among those branches of the church that have been wary of form and structure. I've seen this firsthand at Southern Seminary, where there is no doubt a renewed interest in worship that is rooted in Scripture, as well as directed by the liturgical tradition of the Western church. Dreher cites the work of James K.A. Smith, who has pointed out that much of what we do in our culture is liturgical - even the act of going to the mall and shopping assumes a narrative about what is good and desirable, and involves the reception of these goods through repeated rituals. In short, if the church is to persevere, it must be oriented around the pursuit and reception of that which gives it life and purpose - namely Jesus Christ, given in the Word and Sacraments.
The monastic life is a disciplined one. It is simple, focused, and intentional. It practices times of physical deprivation for the sake of spiritual training. By deliberately saying "no" to good gifts that have the potential for idolatry, we are more posed to say "yes" to God in the day of testing. Central to monastic asceticism (which comes from a Greek word related to athletic training) are the practices of fasting and living with simplicity, both of which of go directly against the grain of gluttony and consumerism that eat away at the spiritual life of the church.
Dreher makes a good point. The New Testament and later centuries of the early church seem to assume fasting as a normal practice. But when was the last time you heard a sermon on fasting? Or were encouraged to practice fasting? What was once a normal, expected practice in the church is now the exception and not the rule. Dreher recognizes that if the church is going to be faithful in the dry season that is coming, we'll need to recover the biblical discipline of fasting. In a culture obsessed with more and more, we are called to confess that more is found in less.
One of the challenges that faces the American church is that we no longer live in close proximity to one another. Part of this is incidental. The nature of our work and the way our communities are constructed do not encourage community. However, the church of the future must exist as a closely knit fellowship of believers, much like the church in Acts 2, where the disciples devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching, the breaking of bread, the fellowship, and the prayers. This will not always be easy. It may require a move. But it will no doubt be essential that we are more and more bound together as communities of Word and Sacrament.
At this point Dreher is perhaps the most controversial. I think he could have done a better job of discussing strategies for families in which pubic school is the only option (or perhaps in the case of some families, the best option). Recognizing that any approach to education will always be guided by an anthropology (in others words, what is a human being for?), he finds modern public approaches to education less than adequate - in fact, potentially harmful. Not only does public education exclude God from the exploration of all that he has created, it also anxiously presses children toward no higher ideal than "success." True education not only teaches "what," but also "why" and "what for" - namely the glorification of God and the service of others. Dreher bluntly calls parents to pull their kids out of public school, and to replace it with either homeschooling or classical Christian education. His concern is not so much to shelter and protect children from listless learning, but more to deliberately shape young minds to be the virtuous and thinking kind of people who will carry the bright torch of Christian faith through the looming dark ages of pagan barbarianism.
The Wittenberg Option?
Thus far the Benedict option... but what should Lutherans make of all this? What about my previous reservations? One of the repeated themes of The Benedict Option is that the historic Christian traditions within the orthodox church (small "o" here, not the Eastern Orthodox denomination) possess the necessary resources to weather the storms of modernity, postmodernity, and the ensuing collapse into intellectual and moral barbarism that is and will follow. We get off track and end up floundering - even undermining our own integrity - when we try to mimic the world. What we need is to stay true to our creeds, confessions, catechisms, and liturgies, as well as the intellectual and moral worlds they open up for us in a world that is more and more narrow. We cannot go the path of soft mainline liberalism or glitzy pop-evangelicalism. To do so would be to sell our birthright for a momentary success that will no doubt fade into irrelevance. This does not mean we are bound to only certain types of music or rigid liturgy, but rather that we lose a vital part of our historical faith when our services follow a the format of song-song-song-sermon-prayer-song.
As Lutheran Christians, we have a rich treasure chest of creeds (the three ecumenical), confessions (the Augsburg, the Apology, the Formula), catechisms (a small and a large one!!), and liturgy that oozes with the sweetness of God's Word. In other words, we have what we need already. All of these symbols were drafted for the long haul. They were meant to weather political, moral, and spiritual turmoil until the dawning of Christ's return. Our confessional heritage is our bunker staple - rich enough in nutrition and flavor to see us though any famine, even making it more like a feast - perhaps even our best days.
So, while I heartily agree with the main message of the Benedict option, I think Lutherans ought to opt for a Wittenberg option. We must approach the future by being faithful to what we already have, but so often trade in for much less. What would it look like if we became communities more faithful to the confession that binds us together? What would it look like if we recovered our Reformation commitment to preaching, catechesis, vocation, etc.? I'm sure that we would no doubt preserve the integrity of our faith in Christ without abandoning our commitment to serving the world.
These are my thoughts for now. I still need to finish the book. But until then I would love to hear your thoughts!
Pastor John Rasmussen - Our Savior Lutheran Church - South Windsor, CT