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The Benedict Option & The Assimilation Apostasy

Matthew Sitman, writing on the Jeremiah Option and the Benedict Option, mischaracterizes (no doubt inadvertently) the Eagle River, Alaska, community I wrote about in my TAC piece late last year: I think those hesitations are largely right, and as a Christian, I’d add that I have to wonder what these kinds of communities do to […]

Matthew Sitman, writing on the Jeremiah Option and the Benedict Option, mischaracterizes (no doubt inadvertently) the Eagle River, Alaska, community I wrote about in my TAC piece late last year:

I think those hesitations are largely right, and as a Christian, I’d add that I have to wonder what these kinds of communities do to reach out to the poor, the sick, and the lonely in the world around them. I’m not sure hunkering down is what Jesus called us to, and when, for example, a member of the Alaska community I mentioned says that “If you isolate yourself, you will become weird,” I wonder how living in a remote Alaska village is not isolation. Christians are given the Great Commission, not the Great Retreat. I’m not trying to demean the people Rod profiled, but rather express that I can’t quite understand Christianity in the same way. Jesus always seemed to wandering around, telling strange stories, mingling with the kind of people Benedict Option types might prefer to avoid.

There’s a reason why it’s not isolation or separatism: because Eagle River is not a “remote Alaska village.” It’s suburban Anchorage. The people live within greater Anchorage, but many who worship in the church live in physical proximity to the cathedral and each other so they can be more of a traditional community. But they’re open to and welcoming of outsiders. I’ve been there twice. My wife and son Lucas spent two weeks there this summer, in the company of a group that was mostly non-Orthodox. It’s fine.

Here’s Alan Jacobs on this point. Read all of it, but especially this passage:

I think individuals and communities often consider the Benedict Option not because they’re trying to avoid the wrong kind of people — a seriously uncharitable assumption on Sitman’s part — but because they feel that their spiritual lives are undernourished and unstable. Benedictine-style communal retreats aren’t usually meant to last forever, or to build permanent barriers to contact with non-Christians, any more than people who shelter under a bridge during a thunderstorm mean to set up housekeeping there.

And typically, even when the retreats themselves become permanent, their population is always in flux: some are always coming in for rest and renewal, others (now well-fed) are going back out into the highways and byways.

Indeed, I’m inclined to think that Christian individuals and communities that fail to build in periods of significant retreat are setting themselves up for disaster. Man cannot live by constant engagement alone. To try is surely to be gradually but relentlessly absorbed into social structures that are at best indifferent and at worst deeply hostile to Christian faith and practice.

Yes, this. I’ll quote from Matt Sitman’s piece once more, then add my own:

While not being uncritical of modern life, I’m not in rebellion against it – and thus don’t seek to escape it. I also resist the notion that Christianity is fundamentally about morality, at least not in the ultimate sense. Christianity is premised on our inability to be moral, and it’s most important idea is that of grace, or God’s one-way love for us, which isn’t premised on how much we have our acts together. So I’m suspicious of religious movements that value purity above all else, which, in a way, I think the Benedict Option does. Withdrawal from mainstream culture can only mean that a desire for purity has trumped the risks of engagement.

But most of all, Christianity teaches us that God is love, that God loved the world and so should we – a notion that I find difficult to square with retreating into a remote community waiting for the world to burn. I actually am hopeful about Christianity’s place in modern life, and seeing the brutality, violence, and indifference to suffering all around us, I can’t help but think the message of Jesus will retain it’s power. But that hope is premised on living in the world, not apart from it, while also letting go of apocalyptic rhetoric and the acute sense of persecution so many Christians feel.

One of the more frustrating aspects of this ongoing Benedict Option conversation is that so many of its critics repeatedly mischaracterize it as hiving off in separatist compounds. I keep pointing out that strict separatism is not the goal of most of these people. In the article I wrote that Matt quotes, I wrote this about the Catholic community around Clear Creek Abbey:

Many Clear Creekers are teaching themselves old-fashioned skills that will allow the community to get by in case of emergency, but they are not neo-Amish. Some work the land, but no family supports itself with farming. The monastery’s abbot tells me relative material poverty exists among the laity, but there’s also a richness in spirit and family life that you can’t put a price on.

“I think there’s a kind of gratitude we all share,” Pudewa says. “That’s what bonds people together a little more, rather than that we want to push our version of how to be more Catholic on other people.”

Clear Creek’s mothers and fathers bring up their children largely disconnected from mainstream American popular culture. Yet, though homeschooled, the community’s children are not being raised in, well, a monastery. They go to Tulsa for swing dancing twice a week, for example. Still, their relative isolation makes the mission of forming the children’s character easier, Pudewa says.

Stressing that the kids are not being taught to shun life outside the Oklahoma hills, Pudewa adds, “The purpose of the cocoon is not to be wrapped up in yourself forever; the purpose is to prepare the butterfly.”

I don’t know how to make it clearer than that. These are not people running to the hills waiting for the world to burn. So many of these Benedict Option critics are arguing with a straw man. Again, I wouldn’t claim that there doesn’t exist a strict separatist strain within the general line of thinking here, but it’s not something I believe is feasible or desirable for non-monastics, nor do the folks I choose to write about. It happens so often, this cartoon rendering of the Benedict Option, that I begin to wonder why so many of those who criticize it can’t seem to help themselves from framing it that way. I can’t read their minds, of course, but I do wonder if by characterizing it in such an extreme way, it makes it easier to dismiss their concerns. It’s like conservatives who take environmentalists at their most extreme and treat them as if they were normative, and then use that as a reason to convince themselves that everyone who expresses concern about the long-term environmental costs of living beyond our limits is silly and unrealistic.

Pudewa’s comment about the butterfly is exactly what Alan Jacobs is getting at. Benedict Option people believe that the mainstream culture in this time and place is so powerful, and so antithetical to what they (we) believe is true, that we have to engage in some kind of withdrawal in order to hold on to what we know to be true, and pass it on to our kids. Look at the piece I wrote yesterday about how Jews within Modern Orthodoxy are struggling to hold on to their Jewishness in modernity. People don’t want to hear it, but it’s clear that if you are part of a religious community that does not define itself strongly against modern secularist culture, you are all going to lose yourself in it — if not yourself, then your children likely will. It’s just too strong.

An important example: Alexander Griswold runs the numbers on Mainline Protestant churches that have embraced gay marriage (and, more broadly, modern sexuality), and they are in collapse. He says that modern Christians contend that if the church is to remain relevant and attract new believers, it will have to conform to the times. Excerpt:

These arguments often see church acceptance of homosexuality as a carrot as well as a stick. It isn’t so much that denouncing homosexuality will drive people away from church, but that embracing it will also lead people into church. LGBT individuals and their supporters, many of whom hold a dim view of religion after a decades-long culture war, will reconsider church if denominations remove their restrictions on gay marriage and ordination.

But a number of Christian denominations have already taken significant steps towards liberalizing their stances on homosexuality and marriage, and the evidence so far seems to indicate that affirming homosexuality is hardly a cure for membership woes. On the contrary, every major American church that has taken steps towards liberalization of sexual issues has seen a steep decline in membership.

As I wrote in the much-cited Sex After Christianity essay, the cause-and-effect in this dynamic is not one way. We’ve talked about this essay on many occasions here, and I don’t want to go down that path again in this thread. The relevant point here is that for whatever reason, there is a deep connection between the rejection of Christian sexual orthodoxy and the rejection of Christianity entirely. I bring sex up because even though many progressives, especially progressive Christians, don’t want to accept it, sex, more than any other issue, is at the center of our cultural and religious divisions.

The way a Christian thinks about sex and sexuality is a very, very good indication of what he thinks about living out the faith in modernity. The reason it is so central is because it reveals, more than any other question now, how a Christian relates to authority and moral order. Matt is a kind and honest interlocutor, and I sincerely appreciate his attention, so please don’t take this in any way snarky or hostile towards him or Christians who share his viewpoint … but the questions have to be put strongly: Where is the evidence for being hopeful about Christianity’s place in modern life? Why should anyone think that the message of Jesus will retain its power in modernity if a Christian experiences little conflict between his faith and the world as it is?

To get to the heart of it: What is Christianity for? 

This is why the Moralistic Therapeutic Deism critique is so powerful: it reveals that for modern Christians (and for most modern religious people), religion is not meant prophetically, to guide and correct our failings, and to show us what it means to live faithfully to God’s order, but rather to give us a peaceful, easy feeling about reconciling ourselves to the world. I’ll give you a right-wing version of this kind of thing. Martin Luther King Jr., in his Letter From Birmingham Jail, directly challenged local religious leaders to repent of their indifference to the grave injustices Jim Crow inflicted on Negroes. Note this passage:

I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

In this prophetic Letter, King accuses the Birmingham religious establishment of paying lip service to Judeo-Christian morality as a way to assuaging their own religious consciences in the face of their personal and collective failure to do right by the standards of their own professed faith. Those pastors and rabbis were moralistic, they were therapeutic, and they were deist — but they were not behaving as Christians and Jews ought to behave, according to the Scripture and traditions of their faiths.

Do you see what I’m getting at? Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor and anti-Nazi martyr, addressed the same exact mentality in his book The Cost Of Discipleship. Excerpt:

Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. We are fighting today for costly grace. Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheapjacks’ wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices. Grace is represented as the Church’s inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands, without asking questions or
fixing limits. Grace without price; grace without cost! The essence of grace, we suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing….

Cheap grace means grace as a doctrine, a principle, a system. It means forgiveness of sins proclaimed as a general truth, the love of God taught as the Christian ‘conception’ of God. An intellectual assent to that idea is held to be of itself sufficient to secure remission of sins…. In such a Church the world finds a cheap covering for its sins; no contrition is required, still less any real desire to be delivered from sin. Cheap grace therefore amounts to a denial of the living Word of God, in fact, a denial of the Incarnation of the Word of God.

Cheap grace means the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner. Grace alone does everything they say, and so everything can remain as it was before. ‘All for sin could not atone.’ Well, then, let the Christian live like the rest of the world, let him model himself on the world’s standards in every sphere of life, and not presumptuously aspire to live a different life under grace from his old life under sin….

Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.

… The price we are having to pay today in the shape of the collapse of the organised church is only the inevitable consequence of our policy of making grace available to all at too low a cost. We gave away the word and sacraments wholesale, we baptised, confirmed, and absolved a whole nation without condition. Our humanitarian sentiment made us give that which was holy to the scornful and unbelieving… But the call to follow Jesus in the narrow way was hardly ever heard.

Christianity is a call to die to the world, even as we live in it. If Christians ever grow too comfortable with themselves in the world, they risk losing their faith. The particular challenges facing Christians in second-century Rome are not the same as the particular challenges facing them in 14th-century Constantinople, 1930s Germany, or America in 2014. But the universal challenge is always the same: what does it mean to live as an authentic follower of Christ? That is, what does it mean to think as a Christian, and to act as a Christian? The answers are rarely clear, but the answer can never be, “Whatever seems right to me must be right with Jesus.”

I recall a friendly argument I once had over religion and racism with a white man who expressed truly appalling opinions about black people within a general conversation about the life of the church. I pressed him on how he reconciled those opinions with Scripture, and he didn’t even try to. Here’s what amazed me about that conversation: he didn’t see that it was necessary to reconcile his own opinions and behavior with what he professed to believe about the Bible. He wasn’t even defensive about it. He felt at liberty to write off core elements of Biblical teaching because it just didn’t seem right to him, as a white man. I realized quickly enough that I was a guest in this man’s home, and that it would have been rude to have pressed it further, but I did ask him, “How do you know that you are a Christian?” — by which I meant, tell me about your conversion, and the difference it made in the way you saw the world and lived your life.

“Well,” he said, “I was baptized as a baby, and I guess I’ve always known I was a Christian because of that.”

Technically speaking, he was right. He may have been a bad Christian, but a Christian he indeed was because of his baptism. But that wasn’t the real meaning of his statement. What he was saying was that he believed he was an authentic Christian because of his formal membership in the Christian church. He was raised a Christian in a small-town culture where people went to church, and nearly everyone professed Christianity. That was all he needed to know. There was no chance that the message of the Bible could reach him, because his conscience was untroubled; cultural Christianity had inoculated him against the possibility of conversion.

Soren Kierkegaard had this man’s number. Excerpts from his Attack Upon Christendom, a jeremiad against the Danish state church and the comfortable bourgeois Christianity of 19th-century Denmark:

In the New Testament the Savior of the world, our Lord Jesus Christ, represents the situation thus: The way that leads to life is straight, the gate narrow—few be they who find it!

—now, on the contrary, to speak only of Denmark, we are all Christians, the way is as broad as it possibly can be, the broadest in Denmark, since it is the way in which we all are walking, besides being in all respects as convenient, as comfortable, as possible; and the gate is as wide as it possibly can be, wider surely a gate cannot be than that through which we all are going en masse.

Ergo the New Testament is no longer truth.

All honor to the human race (p. 115)!


The Christianity of the New Testament rests upon the assumption that the Christian is in a relationship of opposition, that to be a Christian is to believe in God, to love Him, in a relationship of opposition. While according to the Christianity of the New Testament the Christian has all the effort, the conflict, the anguish, which is connected with doing what is required, dying from the world, hating oneself, etc., he has at the same time to suffer from the relationship of opposition to other men, which the New Testament speaks of again and again: to be hated by others, to be persecuted, to suffer for the doctrine, etc.

In “Christendom” we are all Christians—therefore the relationship of opposition drops out. In this meaningless sense they have got all men made into Christians, and got everything Christian—and then (under the name of Christianity) we live a life of paganism. They have not ventured defiantly, openly, to revolt against Christianity; no, hypocritically and knavishly they have done away with it by falsifying the definition of what it is to be a Christian. It is of this I say that it is: (1) a criminal case, (2) that it is playing Christianity, (3) taking God for a fool.


The apostasy from Christianity will not come about openly by everybody renouncing Christianity; no, but slyly, cunningly, knavishly, by everybody assuming the name of
being Christian, thinking that in this way all were most securely secured against … Christianity, the Christianity of the New Testament, which people are afraid of, and
therefore industrial priests have invented under the name of Christianity a sweetmeat which has a delicious taste, for which men hand out money with delight.

The situation of Christians in 1850s Copenhagen was not the same as that of Christians in contemporary America. But then again, it was.

There’s a great line I once heard: “If someone put you on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict?” There is no Christian alive who can ever afford to quit asking himself that question. Ever. We are faced with a culture that became apostate in exactly the way Kierkegaard predicted it would, and is now moving into post-Christianity. Benedict Option people see what happened to “Christendom” Christianity — think 1950s America, for example — and see that it led to people abandoning Christianity. The wiser ones do not seek total retreat, because to cut a culture off entirely from the world, and to attempt to preserve it under glass, is to suffocate it, and to ensure its death. But to accept assimilation into a broader culture that embraces beliefs and practices that are so opposite to Biblical Christianity is suicide by a different route. As far as I can see, nobody yet has the answer, but those who don’t even see that there’s a question are at great risk of seeing their faith parish, if not in their own lives, then in the lives of their children. Again, Alan Jacobs’s post is worth reading in full, and this excerpt from it worth repeating:

Indeed, I’m inclined to think that Christian individuals and communities that fail to build in periods of significant retreat are setting themselves up for disaster. Man cannot live by constant engagement alone. To try is surely to be gradually but relentlessly absorbed into social structures that are at best indifferent and at worst deeply hostile to Christian faith and practice.

I am a prosperous middle-class Christian living like the King of Exurbia in the freest and richest nation that ever was. And if the Christian faith exists to make me comfortable with myself and my American way of life, instead of struggling every day to see the world and myself as God would have me see it, and repent of my sins against Him and my neighbor — well, then, to hell with it. The questions asked by the Benedict Option people do not become meaningless because some believers — angry fundamentalists, say — have answered them badly. Nor do the questions become meaningless because their implications are radically disruptive to the way we wish to live.



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