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Benedict Option Mailbag

Everday obstacles to living an authentically Christian life

The mail I receive from readers is gratifying in part because it helps me understand what life on the ground is like elsewhere. A reader writes:

Virtually everything relayed to you by the guy in your blog post “Benedict Option Baby Steps” applies to me. Mid 30’s, young family, southern evangelical upbringing (I live in SC)…Piper, Keller, Dostoevsky etc…I would add Bonhoeffer and Lewis as well.

This is how I am implementing the BenOp in my own way. After months of following and reading all I can on the subject (both pro and con) I think I get the gist of where we will be going with this.

Example 1: Talking about it. I am the Men’s Director at my (very large, and I say that only to stress its influence) church here in town and the one thing that baffles me is how little Christians, and men in particular, actually read the Bible. In a complete departure from what is normal for us on Wednesday nights, I took the last 3 meetings and simply read aloud from the Bible. Week 1, Philippians; Week 2, I and II Timothy and last night I John; each in their entirety.

“How is this the BenOp?” one might ask. Well, for evangelicals who typically read very little and rely heavily on being “fed”, it was a very strange time. Not strange bad, but strange as in a higher sense of gravity. I didn’t elaborate, I didn’t prompt discussion, we simply read. Paul instructed us, via Timothy to commit to the public reading of Scripture. This reading was a new experience for them, but the ironic part is that this practice isn’t new, its simply forgotten. It is actually one of the oldest things we as Christians have ever done together. Our group used this as a time, not only to hear God’s Word, but to look at it as an opportunity to connect to those who have gone before us. The history of Christianity doesn’t start and stop in 2015. Making a connection with those saints that have gone before and those that will come after simply begins by sharing and cherishing the one Book that we’ve all used to guide and direct us. Scripture shouldn’t be a jumping off point for a lecture on money management or on how to fix your relationships, it is sufficient on its own.

Example 2: Taking the BenOp into prisons. I teach at our county detention center every Thursday night. If there ever was a group that needs a positive sense of fellowship and community, it’s these men. Gangs, drifting from place to place, drugs and the like are all manifestations of the attempt to fill a void left by their lack of community/family. (I realize that this is a generalization, but stick with me here). Giving them a sense of membership in something older, bigger and longer lasting than themselves actually seems to give hope. Jails can be the new monasteries…

Yes, there is more to the BenOp than that and I am anxiously awaiting the book. But I am not inclined to wait, we are to be the hands and feet now.

On another note, I am inclined to punch the next evangelical leader to use the word “winsome”.

Ha! The thing I love most about this post is the correspondent is “not inclined to wait.” Nor should he be! Like Leah Libresco in DC, there’s no reason not to start doing something right now. Something is better than nothing.

Another one:

I am a pastor of an evangelical church in New Jersey. Here’s what it’s like “on the ground” in my evangelical church. For background, I grew up in this church, went away for college and seminary, and then came back on staff in 2013. I was thrust into the role of Youth Pastor about a year and a half ago. I had no desire or intention of doing youth ministry. But, lo and behold, here I am!

Working with the students, I am not sure their parents really understand the crisis that we are in as a church (both locally and nationally). Very few students know the Bible. They don’t even know where to locate certain books of the Bible. There is a “core” of students who grew up in the church who know Scripture well, but I would say it’s less than half the group.

One of the main problems is sheer busyness. The Northeast lies under the dominion of Mammon. In one family, the father makes a ton of money as an executive of some business and works about 80 hrs. a week. The mother is in a medical school and is never home either. The parents don’t come to service on Sunday but just drop off the kids for Youth Group. I am trying my best to teach them the Bible, but I am sorely overmatched due to my other pastoral responsibilities. Teenagers are so emotionally and spiritually needy, but I am so relationally burnt out with caring for the rest of the flock, they definitely get my third or fourth best.

In an attempt to disciple men, I also meet with a group of young married men (25-35). How often do we meet? The only commitment they could make is once per month! And often, at least one or two men don’t come because of work responsibilities…yes, that’s right…work responsibilities…on a Sunday morning.

It sounds sexy to try to call people to a “higher commitment” for Christ, but I am often greeted with skeptical looks when I talk like that to people.

Furthermore, some men do want to commit more, but they are totally dominated by work since they commute to New York City.

I bet these parents, in the years to come, will be shocked and saddened when they find out they have raised Nones. I keep banging on the point here of how wrong it is for parents to outsource the spiritual formation of their children to the church (or to religious schools). Yes, parents should be able to count on their church and, if applicable, their children’s religious school to be partners in the serious formation of their children, but no institution can hope to be as effective as parents themselves. I’ve mentioned in this space before the reprimand a Catholic friend and I rightly received from a Catholic priest back in 2000, who tired of listening to us complain about all the catechetical failures of the RCC. He told us that we were right, but that did not relieve us of our responsibility to take matters into our own hands with ourselves and our families, when we had them. The resources are out there, he said; you can’t sit back and wait for the institutional church to do this for you.

Anyway, in this pastor’s situation, I think what he will see in that church is a winnowing away. People in the congregation — young people and their parents — who don’t embrace that “higher commitment to Christ” will not make it. They will drift and drift until sooner or later, they are lost to the church, and completely assimilated into the world. A church that changes itself to accommodate people like that will lose its core members who really are committed to Christ. Forget “seeker-friendly”; a church needs to be “finder-friendly” above all, and serve first those who really do embrace the faith in its fullness. A church that sees its mission as being a life coach to the bourgeoisie will not make it.

This part of the pastor’s letter got to me:

In an attempt to disciple men, I also meet with a group of young married men (25-35). How often do we meet? The only commitment they could make is once per month! And often, at least one or two men don’t come because of work responsibilities…yes, that’s right…work responsibilities…on a Sunday morning.

I have written in the past about how the Benedict Option doesn’t call on people to relocate out to the desert to a compound, or anything like it, but this letter reveals the limits of that approach. In a situation like the one this Evangelical pastor describes, I believe it will be necessary — not optional, necessary — for families to relocate and/or find another profession, for the sake of their own souls.

A friend who lives in a highly secular part of the country tells me he’s thinking of giving up his good job there to move with his family down to south Louisiana. He believes it may be necessary to give his kids a better shot at holding on to their Catholic faith, because despite all our problem here in Louisiana, the culture is still a lot friendlier to Christianity, especially Catholic Christianity, than where he lives now. I would add that to live in a culture that expects family men and women to work so hard and so long that they have no time, or insufficient time, for religious life is a culture that will exterminate faith within its participants and their children. If that degree of commitment to one’s job is what is necessary to “succeed” on middle-class America’s terms, then Christians caught in that kind of culture are going to have to decide between God and Mammon. You cannot serve both.

Finally, here’s a good tweet reflecting on the Christianity Today cover piece by Michael Gerson and Pete Wehner, advocating what they call the “Wilberforce Option” (in contradistinction to the Benedict Option):

I hadn’t thought of it in quite that way, but Peter Edman is right. Wilberforce and the Claphamites were able to sustain their level of engagement with the world for the cause of abolishing slavery and other social reform because they lived by thick practices. The Wikipedia entry on the “Clapham Sect” speaks to that in its opening paragraph:

The Clapham Sect or Clapham Saints were a group of Church of England social reformers based in Clapham, London at the beginning of the 19th century (active c. 1790–1830). They are described by the historian Stephen Michael Tomkins as “a network of friends and families in England, with William Wilberforce as its centre of gravity, who were powerfully bound together by their shared moral and spiritual values, by their religious mission and social activism, by their love for each other, and by marriage”.

That right there is a terrific example of the Benedict Option, and I appreciate Peter Edman bringing it to my attention. Another aspect of the Claphamites that I like from a BenOp point of view is that they did what they did from within an established church and tradition, thus avoiding the strains and the pitfalls that come with starting a new church.

In the Washington Post column he wrote about the Wilberforce Option, Gerson said:

But this set of legal challenges [to religious liberty, by Obergefell] does not translate into social apocalypse. By many (though not nearly all) indicators, American culture is getting better. Divorce rates and abortion rates have declined in recent decades. Rates of violent crime and homicide are down dramatically from historical highs. Many religious conservatives mistake alarming legal trends for across-the-board cultural decay.

It is a mistake to assume that positive social trends — less divorce, less abortion — signal cultural health from a Christian point of view. Gerson is absolutely right that Christians like me, who tend to cultural pessimism, need to deal realistically with the fact that the country might not, in fact, be going to hell, but actually to heck, if that. I accept that caution from Gerson, but would make one of my own: the quality of life in the Scandinavian countries is, by most material measures, superlative — and these are pretty much godless societies. If we think of Christianity as primarily a social reform movement, as the early Social Gospellers did, we deny the core of the religion, and lay the groundwork for its dissolution. The anthropologist Mary Douglas, in her book Natural Symbols (thank you to Father Peter Funk for recommending it to me), writes about “three phases in the move away from ritualism.” She’s talking here about reform within the Catholic Church of the 1960s, in which Catholic reformers sought to do away with what they took to be dead rituals, such as Friday abstinence from meat. She writes:

First, there is the contempt of external ritual forms; second, there is the private internalizing of religious experience; third, there is the move to humanist philanthropy. When the third stage is under way, the symbolic life of the spirit is finished. … The reformers who set low value on the external and symbolic aspects of Friday abstinence and who exhort the faithful to prefer eleemosynary [that is, charitable] deeds are not making an intellectually free assessment of forms of worship. They are moving with the secular tide along with other sections of the middle classes who seek to be justified in their lives only by saving others from hunger and injustice.

The point is that even from a secular, anthropological point of view, to consider fidelity to Christianity as a matter of good works, downplaying the difficult-to-accept moral and theological aspects, is to open the door to secularizing the religion. I don’t think that this is what Gerson intends, but to cite positive social statistics as a counterargument to decline-and-fall-ism may be read as implying that Christianity is thriving because indicators of social health are improving. We would certainly hope, as Christians, to see believers building more stable, prosperous lives, but it is certainly possible to build a stable, prosperous life without having religious faith. That cannot be the primary measure of spiritual health.

Of course I agree with Gerson (and Wehner) that “religious conservatives must learn to operate in a same-sex marriage world,” and that that means at times “work[ing] cooperatively alongside people in gay marriages. This is not moral compromise; it is the normal practice of democracy.” But I disagree here:

Pulling back from the practical, religious conservatives will need to recover some perspective. For most of the past 2,000 years, Christians have lived in societies that did not reflect their sexual ethics. And sexual ethics is not the sum total of Christian ethics, which, at its best, affirms the priority of the person and the defense of human rights, well-being and dignity.

No, sexual ethics is certainly not the sum total of Christian ethics, but they cannot be set aside, either, for the sake of peace with the post-Christian world. It is precisely on this point — sexual ethics — that the greatest attacks on the Christian faith are coming in this culture. It is precisely that which draws lawsuits and government action against us and our institutions, and that will continue to do so. Nobody is going to sue Christians for proclaiming the countercultural Christian teaching about wealth, and trying to live it out. No Christian individual or church is going to be called a hater for insisting that the Bible means what it says about Mammon.

Not long ago, I heard a very sincere Evangelical say, “When can we get away from this stuff and go back to preaching the Gospel?” This is a trap. The Gospel can no more be sanitized of its hard sexual teaching for the protection of moderns who don’t wish to hear it than it can be sanitized of its hard teaching about wealth. True, Christians today can make an idol of sexual purity, but the answer to that is not to minimize its importance. Authentic Christian living is irreduceably ascetic, meaning that it requires all Christians to struggle against the passions of the flesh. This does not mean all Christians must give up all material goods and pleasures (though monastics are called to that), but it does mean that they must be rightly ordered — something that can only be accomplished by ascetic practices, as the Orthodox Church still teaches, and the Catholic Church understood until the Second Vatican Council.

Anyway, I think C.S. Lewis gets it right here. Sexual ethics are not the point of Christianity, but in an erotomanical culture such as ours, we had better be careful about downplaying them:

Finally, though I have had to speak at some length about sex, I want to make it as clear as I possibly can that the centre of Christian morality is not here. If anyone thinks that Christians regard unchastity as the supreme vice, he is quite wrong. The sins of the flesh are bad, but they are the least bad of all sins. All the worst pleasures are purely spiritual: the pleasure of putting other people in the wrong, of bossing and patronising and spoiling sport, and back-biting; the pleasures of power, of hatred. For there are two things inside me, competing with the human self which I must try to become. They are the Animal self, and the Diabolical self. The Diabolical self is the worse of the two. That is why a cold, self-righteous prig who goes regularly to church may be far nearer to hell than a prostitute. But, of course, it is better to be neither.

To return to Peter Edman’s point: we will only be able to sustain the strength to live out the Wilberforce Option in public if we are living the Benedict Option in private. I would take this a bit further: the Benedict Option entails the Wilberforce Option as public witness. If we neglect the Benedict Option, though, in time, we will find no basis for the Wilberforce Option either.

By the way, if you haven’t seen the documentary Into Great Silence, about the Grande Chartreuse, one of the most ascetic Catholic monasteries in the world, it’s well worth your time. These men live in another world:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sgNj2Sf_mgo?rel=0]



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