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Benedict Option as Meanness?

Building a boat to ride out the flood does not mean one hates water

Oh good, another throwdown over the Benedict Option. Greg Forster thinks it’s mean:

The overarching problem, however, is the Benedict Option’s failure to love the unholy world. The holiness of the church has crowded out its divine mission. The Benedict Option projects the same spirit of resentment and hostility toward the world outside of Christian identity. The only change is to identify “the culture” as being in the possession of those outside rather than those inside, and to adjust strategy accordingly. That may feel like a momentous change—we go from understanding ourselves as guardians of a Christian (or “Judeo-Christian”) culture that is under attack from secular invaders to understanding ourselves as victims who are under attack by a secular culture. But if we still turn a face of hostility rather than a face of grace toward the unholy world—if we still try to fight enmity with enmity—how much has really changed?

Er … what? Here’s what Alan Jacobs said about the Ben Op:

The Benedict Option, as I understand it, is based on three premises.

1. The dominant media of our technological society are powerful forces for socializing people into modes of thought and action that are often inconsistent with, if not absolutely hostile to, Christian faith and practice.

2. In America today, churches and other Christian institutions (schools at all levels, parachurch organizations with various missions) are comparatively very weak at socializing people, if for no other reason than that they have access to comparatively little mindspace.

3. Healthy Christian communities are made up of people who have been thoroughly grounded in, thoroughly socialized into, the the historic practices and beliefs of the Christian church.

From these three premises proponents of the Benedict Option draw a conclusion: If we are to form strong Christians, people with robust commitment to and robust understanding of the Christian life, then we need to shift the balance of ideological power towards Christian formation, and that means investing more of our time and attention than we have been spending on strengthening our Christian institutions.

Yep, that’s pretty much it, though I would add several things. Christians have to change our practices for the sake of stronger discipleship formation. We have to adopt a more radical awareness of how different we are from the world, and act on that awareness. And we need to focus on creating the kinds of communities — in our families, our schools, our churches, and elsewhere — that produce faithful, resilient, orthodox Christians.

We need to remember our story in a time and a place which is bound and determined to make us forget. And we need to embrace that story, in all its freakiness — or we will be assimilated, as is rapidly happening.

Carl Trueman responds to Greg Forster. Excerpt:

Well, could this alternative [Ben Op] culture be resentful and hateful and revel in its victim status? It certainly could—think of that group of Klansmen holed up in the local ranch at war with the federal government—but again, I did not hear Rod advocating that on Friday night. In fact, I consider him to have said the opposite: that these new communities within the community are to be open and loving and to model what it means to be truly human.

Seriously, whatever criticisms one might wish to make of the Ben Op, it does not seem to me to be resentful or unloving. Nor, I might add, is understanding it akin to mastering rocket science.

No, it’s not. More Trueman:

This afternoon I speak at an official gathering of my denomination, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, on the matter of sexual politics and its impact on our society. I close this brief post with the last two paragraphs of that lecture, which I believe capture Rod’s and my common vision on this point. The reader can decide how much resentment and lack of love these contain (even though the initial image I use is that of warfare):

I believe that the battle at the national level is lost and will remain lost for at least a generation or more. But I also believe that the battle can be prosecuted successfully at a local level. Ironically, I am reminded at this point of a criticism the late New Left intellectual, Edward Said, made of Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” thesis. Said’s point was simple: At the local level, where people live next to each other, where they speak to each other, where they have to make their communities work because perpetual street fighting is not an option, the situation is always more complicated and hopeful than a collision of ideologies. Indeed, I might add to Said’s thoughts this paraphrase of something George Orwell said in another context: It is much harder to hate a man when you have looked into his eyes and seen that he too is a human being as you are.

Therein I believe might lie our glimmer of hope. As we go about our daily business, as we make the church a community of the preached Word yet marked in practice by openness and hospitality for the outsider—indeed, as the church reflects the character of the one about whom she preaches, the one who loves the widow and the orphan and the sojourner—we may not be able to transform national legislation or the plots of sitcoms and movies. But we will be able to demonstrate to those around us in our neighborhoods that we do not fit the caricatures that the media present, that we do care for those who are in active rebellion against the God we love. And there, in that local context, we might be able to start building our counter-offensive to the dominant culture of Psychological Man and his Reichian sexual revolution.

Yep. Last night I was re-reading the great little 1989 book Resident Aliens, by Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon. Man, that’s an invigorating blast. I’d say 80 percent or so of what I think of as the Benedict Option is in that book. The relentless message its authors propound is that we Christians do not live as if we really believe what we say. Our pastors don’t act like they are trying to get us from one place to the next. We are so busy trying to conform to the world that we have forgotten that we are “resident aliens” here. And it shows.

As an example, Eric Sammons at the Catholic blog One Peter Five writes about “Amy the Average Catholic,” the kind of lukewarm believer he has encountered over and over again in his evangelizing work:

From this experience, I have come to the inescapable conclusion that how the Church has been teaching and proclaiming the Gospel for decades isn’t working. It doesn’t bring people into a deep relationship with Christ, it doesn’t change their lives for the better (or at all), and it doesn’t change the world in any measurable way.

Instead of proposing the Church as an alternative to the world, Church leaders for decades have preached non-confrontation with the world. This skewed emphasis has had its impact: Amy cares more about her parish’s recycling program than she does about the eternal salvation of the person sitting in the pew next to her.

This problem isn’t confined to leaders who promote heretical beliefs. Of course hierarchs such as Kasper or Cupich cause terrible harm. The deeper problem, however, is one of emphasis. Our Lord said, “Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well” (Matthew 6:33), but too often church leaders seek first earthly acceptance. They avoid topics deemed “controversial” by worldly standards, and in doing so, stick with a spectrum of subjects ranging from “be kind” all the way to “be nice.” They treat topics like sin and damnation like embarrassing relatives at a family gathering. Thus, for years Amy hasn’t heard a word about her eternal destination, or been challenged to live differently than the world tells her to live. Into that void her mind has been filled with the priorities and mores of this world.

You know good and well that this is not just a Catholic problem. It’s a problem for all American Christians.

Hauerwas and Willimon say that the best way to love the world is to be the Church, which is to say, follow Jesus, the man who was crucified for saying things the world did not want to hear. They’re right about that. I am a spectacularly mediocre Christian, but to the extent I’ve made any spiritual progress over the years, it’s because the Church challenged me to come out of myself and be transformed. Reading Dante was a revelation to me, because he made me feel in my bones what it means to order one’s life around the love of God, and service to Him. The experience of the Church is a pilgrimage through life, one in which we invite others to join us on the journey towards wholeness, towards holiness, towards redemption and transformation.

The culture war is over. We lost. But that does not mean we can give up bearing witness to the truth, in our words and in our deeds. It seems like half the Church is falling all over itself to be collaborators, and the other half is desperately trying to pretend that things are basically okay, not to worry. Neither one will do. Christianity is being routed in the West. What we’ve been doing is disastrous. The Benedict Option, in whichever forms it takes within different Christian traditions, is for Christians who intend for themselves and their descendants to make it through the long Dark Age upon us.

One more thing: yeah, the name “Benedict Option” is faddish, but it’s what we’ve been using for over a decade to talk about this general idea. Besides, it has a point: to compel believers to face the truth about our time, and what it requires of us. Pope Benedict XVI himself said in 2012 that the West faces a crisis unlike any it has seen since the fall of the Empire in the fifth century — a calamity that produced St. Benedict. That’s the historical reference. If we are in a similar situation today — and I believe we are — then what would a new and very different St. Benedict do in response? The “option” is there to press the point with readers: you have to choose — either continue living as you are, or take radical steps to build a community within your parish, your schools, and so forth, in which authentic Christianity can be lived under these conditions. In truth, I believe the Benedict Option is the Benedict Mandate, but the fact remains that nobody can compel anybody to choose to live this way. The choice is theirs.

Recognizing that one has to build a boat in which to ride out the coming flood does not mean that one hates water.



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