A reader writes:
You asked about the urban evangelical leaders’ dismissal of the Benedict Option. I go to an urban evangelical church in Deep Blue America. Recently a sermon on Community came from the passage in Roman 12, which starts “Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. etc” The pastor started with “be devoted….”, skipping over “hate what is evil” and “keep your spiritual fervor” until he landed on “serving the Lord”, exhorting us to love our neighbors, be welcoming, forgiving, etc.
I think that is the crux of your urban evangelical problem. We don’t do “hate what is evil” any more and your book is rife with it so it makes some evangelicals twitchy and uncomfortable. (Red America evangelicalism is a whole other kettle of fish; I’m referring only to the urban angle.) Why don’t we do “hate what is evil”? I’m not really sure–evangelicals used to–but I have some theories.
When I read your book, it all sounded like stuff I’ve heard my entire life, neither earth-shattering or radical (or too negative) to my ears. So the evangelical leaders’ response was a surprise to me also. The saddest thing I feel about the Benedict Option conversation is how alone I feel for the first time in my own church, with my “own people.” After one too many eye-rolls, I find that I’ve begun to use the same entry into conversations that I apply for my secular liberal friends–like a secret handshake–when discussing “the culture” until I suss out exactly where this particular Christian stands. I think of it in terms of Dreher vs JKA Smith, and you probably don’t want to revisit that sordid Washington Post debacle, but it was a very clarifying moment for me, in that it highlighted the fact that something (Ben Op) which seemed so obvious and a way of life to me caused such a negative reaction among many I assumed were of my tribe. But I think the distinction applies precisely because it is the leaders (theologians, professors, public speakers) who take the Smith side, while those few who are invigorated by BenOp, or could be, tend to be “middle management” or laypeople. Unfortunately, without the leaders taking it seriously, it doesn’t make it to the masses, who tend to wait to be led.
On the surface, I guess it shouldn’t have surprised me that Evangelicals, whose primary purpose is outward-looking, would blanch at the Benedict Option, especially if they only read the WaPo piece for a definition. But I come from a long line of evangelicals (before the term was used. Frankly, my parents, in ministry all their lives, were bemused when it became the go-to description of so many types of protestants who previously never would have agreed to the term being applied to them). One of the strengths of that era’s evangelicalism was the ability to hold in tandem a sober understanding and articulation of the depravity of man and a deep reliance on the inerrancy of the bible with the joy of sharing the Good News, the gospel. Clear-eyed and hope-filled, the best way to go through life, in my opinion.
However, since that time, the first two qualities have been watered down and diminished to such a state that all we have left is the evangelizing part. (To be sure, there are some within the community who have come out of the myopic “hate what is evil” school of thought’s singularity, have seen the pain and divisiveness that it caused and understandably, keep it at arm’s length. But they’ve inadvertently thrown the baby out with the bathwater, hence this toothless evangelicalism.) In urban centers, with recent successes by a few key players inadvertently enticing them, Winsome Evangelicalism™ became an intoxicating lure, but not always in a good way. While these new guys correctly saw that Falwell and Focus on the Family had failed badly in their attempt to affect change via political pressure, it feels like instead of discerning the root cause of that failure, they just pivoted, deciding to go after the movers and shakers a step away from our representatives in Washington. So when some ministries began to have success with leaders from these areas of influence (finance, entertainment, media, science, academia, etc), it got a certain strain of evangelical leader excited, they saw fallow ground, ready for growth and they wanted in on the action. And not in a cynical way, at first. There have been real successes, inroads made into areas of culture that historically had been unreceptive. But for some reason Winsome rarely leads to depth.
So you now have a couple problems. There are those who are simply insufficiently girded theologically to understand what you’re saying. Then there are those who count up the fruit of their labors and think either a) they already are doing BenOp so can dismiss you as a fear-monger or b) they think they’re proving, by the inroads they’ve made, that while there’s some truth to Ben Op, it’s ultimately the wrong approach. And to answer your initial question, they don’t think they’re “being absorbed by the culture” because, look! They just converted the CEO of NextBigThing Corp by the pool at their place in the Hamptons! They know the culture is going to hell in a hand-basket but attendance is good, proof that God’s using them–they can’t possibly be foundation-less. And, boy, it’s heady to be in the company of all those powerful influencers, so it becomes harder and harder for evangelicals to tell their new friends, the very ones who are shaping the culture, where they’re wrong. And for these guys, the culture is their bread and butter. If Michael Gerson were to “hate what is evil” in his op-eds, he’d be out of a job.
Frustratingly, I think evangelicals should be some of the best-equipped to lead the BenOp way. When you look at those few leaders whose evangelism flourishes and has depth, you find an ability to articulate and engage, while still never giving an inch on the bible’s teachings. Tim Keller and the Kuyper Prize kerfuffle is a good example. But he’s a rare bird, able to give equal weight to both the joy of the gospel and the evil in our hearts. My guess is when all is said and done, true revival will not come via the urban Christian evangelical.