I write in this space quite a bit about how conservative Christian parents (and others) are largely — and willfully — clueless about what’s going on in this post-Christian culture, and how they ought to be thinking about it and responding to it. When I talk to pastors, educators, and others about what they’re seeing on the ground, I find this view of mine affirmed with depressing regularity. We are in a terrible crisis, but insofar as far too many Christian parents think, it’s a crisis of a threat from Islam, or from liberal elites, or homosexuals, or any number of villains that are easy to identify. I don’t deny that all of these groups, and many others, do pose a challenge to the Christian faith, but by far the most important and neglected challenge is that posed by the widespread failure of parents and church communities to pass the faith on to their children.
This is not a problem you can address by voting, or by judicial rulings, or by restricting immigration, or by watching more Fox News. Nor is it a problem you can address by going to church on Sunday, dropping your kid off at youth group mid-week, and leaving it at that. Nor is it a problem you can address by simply affirming the correct set of propositions.
Over and over, I hear from pastors and Christian educators that the biggest obstacle to forming the hearts and minds of the community’s children in an authentically Christian way are parents. Parents who want to outsource the job to the school and the church, versus working in harmony with the school and the church to accomplish this mission. Parents who get mad at the school or the church for being demanding of their children (and of them). The plain fact, amply demonstrated by the sociology of religion, is this: there is no single factor more important in determining whether or not a child will keep the faith than the example set by parents.
It’s by no means just a Christian thing. A Jewish reader e-mailed today this essay by Yonason Rosenblum blasting a Jewish parent named Marco Greenberg for a piece he wrote bragging that his son Noam was going to play sports on Yom Kippur, and what a great thing that is that he feels so secure in his Jewish identity — it’s who he is, not what he does — in America that he can do so in good conscience. Rosenblum wrote that one day, Marco is likely to
write another article a decade from now entitled, “My Solomon Schechter-educated Son Is Intermarrying, and I’m Fine with That.” Again, he will console himself that Noam’s Judaism is not determined by what he does, but by who he is (whatever that means). And no doubt he will recall again how Noam “rocked his bar mitzvah.”
I dwell on this pathetic little essay because I see it as emblematic of the larger failure of non-Orthodox American Jewry to provide its young, even its most Jewishly-educated young, with any remotely coherent reason for why they should observe the mitzvos for which hundreds of thousands of their ancestors gave their lives. “It’s an ancient Jewish tradition” won’t do it. Experiencing Yom Kippur as a Divine command from the Creator of the Universe, Who singled out the Jews from among all peoples of the world with a special love, just might.
That failure is inextricably tied to another one: The heterodox movements have not provided their followers with any convincing reason why the collective existence of the Jewish People makes a difference. And as a result, non-Orthodox American Jewry has entered a demographic death cycle.
The same dynamic is playing out among Christians. Most of us have not provided our children with any convincing reason why practicing the Christian faith makes a difference. Being a Christian is who we are, we say, not what we do. But practices, or the lack thereof, are unavoidably catechetical. When you allow your child to choose soccer over Yom Kippur, or baseball over the mass, you teach. I will never forget the time when I was 17 and didn’t believe in God, and told my father I didn’t want to go to church with my mom and sister on Easter Sunday. He demanded that I go. “Why aren’t you going?” I said, knowing full well that he was planning to go wild turkey hunting. He backed down from his demand. I never again took a thing my dad said about religion seriously after that.
As you know, in my book The Benedict Option, I talk about this catastrophe that is overwhelming the Christian church, and the urgent need for believers to understand the scope and nature of the crisis, and to undertake radical changes in their religious lives to cope with it. If not, we’re going to lose the faith in the next generations. This is the handwriting on the wall.
Jefrey Breshears, a Reformed Christian who is head of The Areopagus Forum (where I’ll be speaking next month), tells me that earlier this summer, he sat in on a discussion about the Benedict Option with some serious Christians in his area. He was dismayed by the fact that the group didn’t understand its message, because they were so ignorant about the state of our culture. It’s a very good piece. Here’s a link to the entire essay in PDF form. Excerpts:
In the course of reading reviews and listening to comments over the past couple of months regarding Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option, it has occurred to me that some kind of Preface needs to precede any kind of thoughtful and focused discussion of the book. In particular, there are three basic questions that should to be addressed in order to clearly understand Dreher’s thesis and his seminal arguments. Unless there is a consensus agreement on these issues, any discussion and debate on the relative merits of the book are probably futile.
These three concepts are the basis for most all of the challenges, responses and solutions that Dreher addresses in The Benedict Option:
(1) American culture is rapidly degenerating into a new Dark Age marked by spiritual, moral, social, economic, and political chaos and collapse;
(2) A culture war has been raging in America for decades, and the forces of secular humanism are winning (or have already won) decisively; and (
3) True Christianity has always functioned as a countercultural presence and a witness in opposition to a decadent world system that celebrates narcissism, hedonism, consumerism and materialism.
In lieu of a firm grasp of these truths, many readers, including many reviewers and critics of The Benedict Option, will flounder about in a perpetual state of mystification. These are those who constantly complain, “Why can’t we all just be nice and get along!” These are also those who constantly cry, “Peace! Peace!” when in fact there is no peace.
If you are a Christian, I urge you to read the whole thing, especially if you have dismissed the Ben Op in your mind as groundless alarmism. You honestly don’t know what you’re talking about. The Benedict Option might not be the solution, but the problem it attempts to address is massive, and real. Reality doesn’t cease to exist because it is emotionally and psychologically hard to confront.
Meanwhile, take a look at this short piece by David Goodwin, president of the Association of Classical Christian Schools, one of the two national networks of classical Christian schools. Earlier this year, David and I were talking in person about how very difficult it is to get parents engaged in the mission of educating their children in a countercultural Christian fashion, because so many well-meaning parents prefer to keep their heads in the sand. They tell themselves they want their kids to have the faith, but in fact they really want their kids to be successful according to contemporary American standards.
About that: Today I had a great two-hour conversation with Chris Arnade, whose forthcoming book about Trump, politics, class, and America is bound to be a blockbuster along the lines of Hillbilly Elegy. Chris is on the secular left, but we agree about a lot of things. He was telling me how hard it is to teach young people to be self-sacrificing and to live for something greater than themselves when everything in our economy and culture is geared towards looking down on those who don’t gain money and prestige. Chris has spent a long time on the road with the American poor, and sees it from the down-and-out point of view. But the same dynamic is present in middle-class religious families!
Anyway, David Goodwin has long been a supporter of The Benedict Option, and helped us get a copy into the hands of each headmaster in his association. That’s how serious he thinks the crisis is. This week, David sent out the following to his e-mail list. I share it with you with his permission:
#ScottYenor: It may be time to sound a retreat
You may have heard, or may see (tonight on Tucker Carlson, for example) a controversy regarding an Idaho Professor at Boise State University—Dr. Scott Yenor. I’m sending this for two reasons. First, Dr. Yenor also happens to be the Chairman of the Board of the ACCS school that I once headed, thus it is relevant to ACCS schools. Secondly, I think we should consider warning parents about college more aggressively.
Here’s the story on Scott: http://www.weeklystandard.com/the-purge-scott-yenor-and-the-witch-hunt-at-boise-state/article/2010104
To the second point, we’re all watching as college is unraveling. Actually, it’s more like a building fire inside a brick building. We’ve seen the flames through the windows for a long while, but we underestimate how hot it is inside. We’re sending students into college—including many Christian colleges—believing that their classical Christian ‘fire suit’ will protect them. But, as any fireman will tell you, that suit won’t help when all the oxygen is sucked out of the building. I’m convinced that’s where we are in mainstream colleges.
I graduated (twice) from BSU. It’s a modestly liberal university, conservative by state university standards. What surprised me is the rage and fury that has risen, and the structural support that has been given to the diversity crowd. I also attended Seattle Pacific University and watched the early rise of this same nonsense on that campus (which, if alumni newsletters are any indication, has grown to full-fledged PC). I know professors at several other large Christian universities and they tell me it’s an endemic problem. The air is being sucked out.
At the ACCS, we continue to align with conservative colleges (to the degree we can tell). For now, that’s our best option. Please consider directing your families to these colleges. But realize, even some of these might now fall. Be praying and thinking about how we might direct our young people in the future. I know that many of us direct our graduates to ‘excellent’ colleges. One student of mine reports back from a top 5 college this year that he had a week of ‘trans’ training, and is forced to live in a co-ed dorm with co-ed bathrooms. I think there are reasons for us to push students away from the colleges we want to put on our web-page (ACCS included). I’m not suggesting an answer. But, we should pray and let parents know that wisdom dictates that they not overestimate the strength of their graduate’s commitment to Truth.
Please read the piece about Scott Yenor. This is not a drill, folks. If you want your kids and their kids to have a living faith, if you want them to be strong enough to withstand the trials to come, you cannot be lukewarm about this stuff. Whether you are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or whatever, you cannot be a soccer-on-Yom-Kippur (so to speak) kind of believer. If you will not choose to be consciously countercultural — if all this sounds too scary and weird to you — then whether you know it or not, you have made your choice for assimilation. It is just a matter of time.