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Christian Ghost Factories & Zombie Mills

'Mediating institutions' are necessary but not sufficient
Christian Ghost Factories & Zombie Mills

Writing in First Things, Dale Coulter examines The Benedict Option. It’s mostly positive. Excerpts:

Michael Novak argued that mediating structures, the modern analogues to Burke’s “little platoons,” allow for subsidiarity and reinforce Alexis de Tocqueville’s law of association as a principle of self-governance. The four basic forms of mediating structures identified by Neuhaus and Berger are neighborhood, family, church, and voluntary association. These structures reflect the values of individuals and mediate them to the public, allowing individuals to find meaningful places in civil society.

Neuhaus and Berger also claimed that American liberalism had become blind to the important role of mediating structures and, instead, vigorously defended the rights of individuals over against them. Individuals were elevated over family, neighborhood, and the small town, becoming subject to mega-structures that actually alienate most of the middle class. Dreher’s analysis flows along similar lines. Dreher sees the alignment of mega-structures around LGBT, abortion-rights, and other issues as an attack on mediating structures that translate Christian values from the private to the public sphere.

His solution combines a political minimalism with a cultural maximalism. Contrary to some analyses, Dreher does not call for a retreat from political life at the state or federal level. Instead, he proposes narrowing the agenda to focus on preserving the freedoms that will allow Christians to rebuild mediating structures. The building of these structures is at the heart of Dreher’s call for a cultural maximalism. In Dreher’s mind, Christians should renew their commitment to church and family and begin building new forms of voluntary association through professional and social networks. Most of his examples are forms of voluntary association.

Coulter says my call in the book for Christians to build an “ark” is too imprecise.

The “ark” in question is not the church or any single institution; rather, it’s a fleet of life boats, Burke’s “little platoons,” which together make up Christian culture.

Yes, this is true. I thought my book made this explicit, but I guess not. In subsequent talks, I’ve used the Dunkirk metaphor: that we Christians, in this particular time and place, are pinned down on a beach, with nowhere to go. If we attack the enemy head on, we’re going to be wiped out. If we sit tight and try to wait out the crisis, we’re going to be wiped out. The only real chance we have is to get on a flotilla of little arks, and get ourselves to a safer place (safer, not safe; there are no fully safe places), so that we can train ourselves for the long duration … and eventually going on the offensive again, when the time is right.

Understand I’m speaking metaphorically here! Anyway, yes, a Ben Op flotilla. More Coulter:

Given the divisions among Christians, Dreher knows that he cannot simply appeal to the church as such; in fact, his chapters on the personal and the church may be understood as a call to evangelical Protestants to leave behind their free-church ways and recognize tradition and liturgy as weapons against liquid modernity. Dreher implicitly suggests that the variability in free-church Christianity is part of liquid modernity.

Though I cannot explore it in this piece, the connection between Neuhaus’s and Berger’s call for mediating structures and Dreher’s “Benedict” model reveals some of the weaknesses of Dreher’s approach. For example, it’s clear from the analyses of mediating structures that protecting them will require much more political involvement than Dreher admits. The existence of Christian neighborhoods will almost certainly lead to involvement in politics on city boards, which, in turn, will require more involvement at the state and federal levels. Moreover, a question constantly hanging over mediating institutions is whether they should take federal, state, or even local government funding, and what demands such funding might make upon them. Finally, the constant challenge of voluntary associations that embody Christian values is their being subject to erosion of Christian commitments when they themselves become large (think the YMCA).

Still, it strikes me that the connection between mediating structures and the Benedict Option offers a fruitful point of convergence. It brings Dreher into conversation with those who, following Neuhaus and Berger, call for such structures in order to secure subsidiarity and maintain the local associations necessary for self-governance.

Read the whole thing.

I appreciate Coulter’s piece. I would say that the Benedict Option, as a social matter, is heavily about building mediating structures. The politics chapter is entirely about focusing on religious liberty as a primary political concern, precisely so we can protect our freedom to build and to sustain those structures. I’m not quite sure how much more explicit I could have been.

The thing is, mediating structures do us no good if they don’t actually mediate life-changing grace and truth. So many of our churches are meet-up places for Moralistic Therapeutic Deists — and we Christians want them to be. Our Christian schools are about preparing middle-class conformists who go to church on Sunday, but who in most ways that count, live no different from anybody else. Almost all of us Christians — I’m looking in the mirror here — are complicit in this. We have to do better.

Protecting the possibility of creating those mediating structures is very important. But what worries me, as a Christian, more than that is that we Christians have more liberty than we’ll ever have again to create those structures right now, and we’re not doing it. Building something that looks like a car doesn’t mean the thing can be driven, and counted on to get you where you need to go.

A mind and a soul without a body is a ghost. The emerging secular culture would rather us be ghosts: holding certain beliefs, but not incarnating them in any meaningful way, at least not in a meaningful way that contradicts what the overculture desires. Churches and Christians schools that do not transform their people in concrete ways are ghost factories.

But a body without a mind and a soul is a zombie. Churches and Christian schools that do not transform their people spiritually and morally in meaningful ways are zombie mills.

We Christians must be neither ghosts nor zombies.

This is hard. I personally know pastors and Christian educators who are doing their best to lead in this way, but are discouraged. Why? You can’t lead if you don’t have people willing to follow. The truth is, most of us want church, Christian schools, and other mediating institutions, to comfort us, but not to challenge us, much less to convert us.

Again, I’m talking about myself, and to myself, not just to you readers.



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