A reader writes this pretty great letter:
My name is Matt and I come from an American, evangelical, Southern Baptist background in Louisville, KY. In early October I was going through a kind of spiritual crisis (“crisis” may be too strong of a word), not in danger of losing my faith, but in search of some foundations. I was asking myself questions like: at bottom, what does my faith stand on? Why do I believe what I believe? If my final authority lies in the sacred writings, how do I defend that belief? Is it circular? Isn’t everyone’s ultimate standard of truth defended in a circular way? If so, what tips the scales to the Bible? Is this way of thinking even the right way? The best way? I was asking questions about epistemology, but also another kind of question: What does the Christian life look like? I told an older friend and church member I meet with twice a month for coffee, “There has been over 2,000 years of people writing about this, someone must have passed this wisdom on somewhere.”
I had just finished reading James K. A. Smith’s book, “How (Not) to be Secular” (the first book I’d read by him) and I also was reading Esther Lightcap Meek’s, “Loving to Know.” I have listened to hundreds of John Piper’s sermons and I sat under the preaching and professorship of Dr. Russell D. Moore for a couple years (just more background information to clue you in to the kind of teaching I’ve absorbed). Somehow I ended up at the Mere Orthodoxy blog and read Jake Meador’s post from 10-7-15 titled, “The Benedict Option and the Pace of Middle Class Life.” The paragraph that got me was this: “The problem Gumm is getting at is a sort of awful cycle that many middle-class Christians will likely understand: We feel the absence of a spiritual rootedness in our lives that exists not only in our hearts and minds, but in the stuff of daily life. We feel a sense of aimlessness or purposelessness in our work; we feel frustrated by the lack of intimate relationships in our church; we feel isolated in our attempts to raise and educate our children.” When I read that I said to myself, that is me.
From there I discovered your blog and the things you’ve been discussing about the Benedict Option. I had never been to your blog before, but I did have “The Little Way of Ruthie Leming” on my “to-read” list for a long time (it’s on my desk now). I immediately gravitated to the things you were saying and it felt like someone had reached out a hand as I was being pushed along by a raging current. Thank you for that! After reading the James Smith book I decided that I wanted to try, within my family, to focus more intently on the church’s liturgical calendar to create a rhythm in our lives that might shape the social imaginaries we develop. I continued to read your blog and then I read “Desiring the Kingdom” by James Smith. I felt like I had been primed for many years for that book. Between John Piper’s focus on the affections, your stuff on the Benedict Option, my growing love of literature (like Dostoevsky, Hugo, David Foster Wallace, Flannery O’Connor, etc.), a church I started attending in 2012 that is the most liturgical Baptist church I’ve ever seen (I didn’t know what the word “liturgy” meant before I started going there), my move away from television (because of the way images powerfully shape the way we see the world), and my deepening friendship with a co-worker that has led me to seeing the importance of face-to-face human relationships over mediated ones. All of that made “Desiring the Kingdom” everything I wanted to express but didn’t have the words for plus a holistic human anthropology to support it.
So, I am now attempting to do what Jake Meador brought up in his blog post: small steps for a busy family with a 3-year-old toward something like the Benedict Option for us. That means a focus on the liturgical calendar (actually celebrating Reformation Sunday with my family crafting our very own Luther’s Rose while eating gingerbread cookies and listening to “A Mighty Fortress is Our God”). Also, structuring my day around prayer (morning, noon, and evening) by praying through the Divine Hours (http://annarborvineyard.org/tdh/tdh.cfm). I’ve added a time of simple family worship at the end of our day at home (read a text of Scripture, recite the Apostle’s Creed, pray). I’ve taken up praying the Jesus Prayer, which I heard about from you. This was especially new to me. Praying through pre-written prayers is one thing, but the Jesus Prayer especially goes beyond the traditions of my background. But once I tried it, I knew that there was something to it. The way it centered my mind on Christ was unlike any other spiritual practice. I recently purchased a prayer rope as well.
Now, this gets to the main problem in all of this. One of the things you emphasize in your writing is belonging to something bigger than yourself that defines you, as opposed to the casting off of all authority and becoming whoever I decide I want to be. Yet I feel like I’m making this up as I go and not stepping into a pre-existing tradition. Though the calendar, the Divine Hours, and the Jesus Prayer are old traditions, there is a sense in which it feels like these things don’t belong to my tradition and I’m just grabbing things from here and there. Then there is the fact that there isn’t anyone in authority guiding me in this (at least not in my church, like a spiritual Father instructing me to pray 500 Jesus Prayers each day). If I told my pastor what I was doing he’d probably say, “Way to go!” I’m not sure what he’d say about the Jesus Prayer and prayer rope. I should probably ask him. On top of that, it isn’t like many other people in my church are doing the same things. I mean, maybe people are praying (are they???), but it’s so unstructured that everyone just kind of does their own thing with prayer. This, in my opinion, separates each individual member to “do” Christianity in wildly differing ways such that it’s difficult to feel a connection, spiritually, with the people around you. The connection is mainly that we believe the same doctrines. If we talk about prayer, we are much more likely to talk about how we really should pray more, and how we will try to do better at that this week. Of course, what the Christian life looks like may be different from person to person, especially given various vocations and family dynamics, but shouldn’t there be practices that connect all of us? That we should be able to assume everyone else has participated in because they are Christians (and not just on Sunday)? Practices that we have in common because we have a history in common? Practices that are passed down to us from the church that function broadly as discipleship, such that every Christian would be comfortable telling an unbeliever to look at their life as an example of what a Christian life is about. Maybe I’m wrong about this.
Anyway, I thank you for your insights. I’m currently reading through Dante’s Divine Comedy while listening to the Great Courses lectures on it. Then I plan to read your book on Dante. I’m curious what you think about my Benedictine baby steps, but I am not assuming you will be able to write back. Mostly I just wanted to share my story with you and my gratitude.
Pax et bonum!
This letter gets to a core question of the Benedict Option. I will repeat the e-mail I received the other day from an Orthodox Christian reader, a longtime convert from Evangelicalism. I’ve slightly edited it for the sake of privacy:
I am fascinated by the move toward and longing for “traditional” Christianity amongst Evangelicals. My experience concurs that these folks are hungering for a more traditional faith and church life, and are disenchanted with what they have received from Evangelicalism. That is my observation from over 20 years … only that I find that most such folks hunger for a “traditional” Christianity but ONLY on their own terms. A “traditional” Christianity, but one which leaves them as the sole authority and judge over what that “tradition” actually is. For example, on such foundational things as church authority, worship, sacramental life (eucharist, particularly the major stumbling block of “closed communion”, confession, ordination (particularly women’s ordination, and which I believe will inevitably include homosexual as well), and such fundamental paradigm shifts such as what it means to be the “Body of Christ”, with respect to membership thereof. Most of the members of these congregations move freely in and out of “traditional”, or on to the next fad, depending on their needs and desires of the moment).
For many Christians like this, “traditional” is but a thin veneer of the “historical” that soothes the spiritual conscience by remaining utterly “Evangelical Protestant”, only now offering weekly communion, saying a creed together, putting on a stole for the “historic/traditional” portions of a service, proof-texting a few select Fathers of the church quotes here and there to legitimize the “traditional” branding. But otherwise, keep rock bands, sola Scriptura, hip, coolness and cultural relevance as supreme values — but above ALL the tyrannical reign of the “individual” and one’s “personal relationship with Jesus” over and above any real traditional concept of “Church” and life in Christ.
The question, it seems to me, is whether it is possible to do the Benedict Option without submitting to an authoritative Tradition. The answer to that — well, my answer to that — is that I don’t know. I am doubtful about it, for precisely the reasons the Orthodox reader said. I could be wrong. That’s why I am looking forward to doing the real reporting for the Benedict Option book: so I can see what people are actually doing, and how it’s working for them. I must repeat here that in my experience, most American Christians, even those who are communicants of an ancient church, are just like the Evangelicals criticized by the Orthodox reader. That is, they don’t want to submit to their authoritative tradition either, but reserve the right to pick and choose as suits their sovereign Selves.
Plus, I do not want to discourage folks like the Baptist reader, who longs for what the ancient Christian tradition offers. It is wrong, I feel, to make the perfect the enemy of the good. I am strongly encouraged by the Baptist reader’s “Benedictine baby steps,” as he calls them, and want to strongly encourage him in the project. I would also encourage him to talk to his Christian friends about these practices, and ask them to join him and his family in committing to doing them. He’s right: we need to be able to pray like this together. One of the things I’m going to have to do in the Benedict Option book is to demonstrate how necessary structured prayer and worship, and sustaining traditions, are to holding on to the faith across the generations. I wonder, though, what the Baptist reader believes about the strength of his tradition in the face of the dis-integrating forces in the broader culture. I don’t ask this in a hostile way; I genuinely want to know.
We know from the Pew surveys that Evangelicals are doing a much better job than Catholics in holding on to basic Christian moral teachings. A Catholic friend wrote to me last week, “I keep wanting to agree about Evangelicals and Tradition” — that Evangelicals, lacking an authoritative tradition, aren’t going to be able to hold on through what’s coming — ” but on the battles of the moment, it’s still the case that they’re hanging tougher than the RC by far. Sola Scriptura has big, big long-term weaknesses, but at the moment their lack of a ‘development of dogma’ idea that can be exploited by, well, Jesuits is actually a big strength.”
And yet, when I praised an Evangelical friend recently for the strengths within his tradition, regarding raising kids with a strong knowledge of and commitment to Scripture, he told me that this is no longer the reality on the ground. I keep hearing this from other Evangelicals, who indicate that their churches have really suffered from the whole “seeker-friendly” approach, which downplayed or all but dismissed Evangelical distinctives, in particular a strong knowledge of and submission to Scripture.
Anyway, I getting far afield. I’d like to know what you readers would say to this Baptist reader, a man who is eager to connect to ancient Christian traditions and practices, but who is feeling stymied by the lack of believers walking with him on this path within his church and tradition. I don’t have strong, clear answers now, because I simply have not done the deep research and thinking to give him one. I thank you readers in advance for your insights. Because this reader’s letter, and his questions, are so serious, I’m going to be selective in which comments I publish. Be critical if you like, but if you aren’t genuinely interested in what this Evangelical man is struggling with, don’t bother commenting, because I’m not going to post it. Letters like this reader’s, and comments from other readers on it, really do help me in my book projects. I take them seriously, and ask you to do so as well.