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Benedict’s Ark

Fighting the soft apostasy of assimilation

That’s the cover of Saturday’s Wall Street Journal Review section. The story is behind the subscriber paywall, but if you’re a subscriber, click here. Otherwise, you might be able to access it by clicking on the link in this tweet by Ian Lovett, the story’s author:

So the Ben Op is attracting the attention of the national media now. Great! The cover story in the March issue of Christianity Today is adapted from my book The Benedict Option: A Strategy For Christians in a Post-Christian Nation. I’m not sure if it’s behind the subscriber paywall or not, but here’s a link to CT’s piece. It starts like this:

For most of my adult life, I have been a believing Christian and a committed conservative. I didn’t see any conflict between the two until my wife and I welcomed our firstborn child into the world in 1999. Nothing changes a man’s outlook on life like having to think about the kind of world his children will inherit. And so it was with me. As Matthew grew into toddlerhood, I began to realize how my politics were changing as I sought to raise our child by traditionalist Christian principles. I began to wonder what, exactly, mainstream conservatism was conserving. It dawned on me that some of the causes championed by my fellow conservatives—chiefly an uncritical enthusiasm for the market—can in some circumstances undermine the thing that I, as a traditionalist, considered the most important institution to conserve: the family.

I also came to see the churches, including my own, as largely ineffective in combating the forces of cultural decline. Traditional, historic Christianity—whether Catholic, Protestant, or Eastern Orthodox—ought to be a powerful counterforce to the radical individualism and secularism of modernity. Even though conservative Christians were said to be fighting a culture war, with the exception of the abortion and gay marriage issues, it was hard to see my people putting up much of a fight. We seemed content to be the chaplaincy to a consumerist culture that was fast losing a sense of what it meant to be Christian.

In my 2006 book, Crunchy Cons, which explored a countercultural, traditionalist conservative sensibility, I brought up the work of philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, who said that Western civilization had lost its moorings. MacIntyre said that the time is coming when men and women of virtue will understand that continued full participation in mainstream society was not possible for those who want to live a life of traditional virtue. These people would find new ways to live in community, he said, just as St. Benedict, the sixth-century father of Western monasticism, responded to the collapse of Roman civilization by founding a monastic order.

I called the strategic withdrawal prophesied by MacIntyre “the Benedict Option.” The idea is that serious Christian conservatives could no longer live business-as-usual lives in America, that we have to develop creative, communal solutions to help us hold on to our faith and our values in a world growing ever more hostile to them. We would have to choose to make a decisive leap into a truly countercultural way of living Christianity, or we would doom our children and our children’s children to assimilation.

Today, Christians who hold to the biblical teaching about sex and marriage have the same status in culture and, increasingly, in law, as racists. The culture war that began with the sexual revolution in the 1960s has now ended in defeat for Christian conservatives. The cultural left—which is to say, the American mainstream—has no intention of living in postwar peace. It is pressing forward with a harsh, relentless occupation, one that is aided by the cluelessness of Christians who don’t understand what’s happening.

I have written The Benedict Option to wake up the church, and to encourage it to act to strengthen itself, while there is still time. If we want to survive, we have to return to the roots of our faith, both in thought and in deed. We are going to have to learn habits of the heart forgotten by believers in the West. We are going to have to change our lives, and our approach to life, in radical ways. In short, we are going to have to be the church, without compromise, no matter what it costs.

Read the whole thing. And please, pre-order the book, which will be published on March 14.

Traditional Christians ought to see Barronelle Stutzman as one canary in the coal mine (and there are many). The State of Washington, the ACLU, and two gay plaintiffs are trying to crush her, financially and otherwise. They may succeed in taking away her livelihood and then bankrupting her. The only hope she has now is the US Supreme Court, which may or may not take her appeal, and which may or may not rule in her favor. Whatever happens to her, they will not take away her faith and her dignity. She is a rock. She is so quiet, humble, and gentle you might not realize how strong she is, until you talk to her.

Here’s the especially amazing thing about her: she loves her persecutors. She told me in our interview that she “loves Rob” — Rob Ingersoll, one of her tormentors — prays for him every day, and would happily serve him again if he came back into her florist shop. I am certain she means it, and that is the thing about her that most fills me with awe. As she will tell you, she believes that as a follower of Jesus, she has no other choice.

The Benedict Option has a number of components to it, but the example of Barronelle Stutzman is close to its heart. We Christians have to have families, churches, and Christian schools that turn out men and women like Barronelle Stutzman: Christians who are willing to suffer any form of persecution without bending, and more than that, willing to do so without yielding to hatred of our persecutors. Because persecution is here, and it’s going to be getting significantly worse. Today it’s Stutzman’s florist shop; tomorrow it will be your Christian school, church ministry, religious order, or Catholic hospital.

We have to fight as hard as we can in the legal and political arenas for religious liberty. But what happens if we lose? How do we stay faithful then, under duress? These are not new questions for the church, nor are they new questions in contemporary times. Tens of millions of Christians the world over live under persecution or some other form of danger right now. But they remain faithful. 

We in the American church are facing a time of testing. Our testing may not look like the testing of what the church in China is undergoing, or the church in Nigeria. But it is still a test. This anecdote, which I repeat in The Benedict Option, is more typical:

True story: a couple in suburban Washington, D.C., approached their pastor asking him to help their college student daughter, who felt a calling to be an overseas missionary.

“That’s wonderful!” said the pastor.

“Oh no, you misunderstand,” said the parents. “We want you to help us talk her out of ruining her life.”

Christians like that couple won’t make it through what’s to come. Christians with sacrificial hearts like their daughter’s will. But it’s going to cost them plenty.

When Father Cassian of Norcia told me that Christians who don’t do something like the Benedict Option aren’t going to make it through the time of trial to come, he was talking about just this kind of thing: the soft apostasy of assimilation. Most of us Christians will not face a Barronnelle Stutzman moment, in the sense of being directly and harshly challenged in our faith. But nearly all of us will face pressure of some sort to give in, to yield, to compromise on essentials, to burn that pinch of incense to Caesar, because it would allow us to continue to live our safe, secure, middle class lives.

Here in exile in American Babylon, if we are going to retain the vision and build the inner strength to resist assimilation, we are going to have to build the institutions and the practices (that is, ways of life) that prepare us for the world that is and is to come in the next decades. The world of comfortable Christianity is over. Those with eyes to see and ears to hear know that a great flood is coming, indeed is already here, and that it’s time to build our arks.



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