St. Benedict, standing tall in Norcia today

Sometimes I wonder if I’ve been too alarmist with The Benedict Option. I don’t really think that, but at times, when I see the lack of a sense of alarm around me, among Christians, I can’t help wondering if I’m missing something.

And then I’ll have a conversation like the one I had yesterday. An Evangelical friend and I found ourselves talking about education. She told me that her son attends a conservative Christian school, but is struggling. The classes are fine; it’s the other students that are so difficult for him to deal with.

She explained that the overt sexuality among the kids is shocking. I asked her to explain what she meant. I won’t go into detail here — you’re welcome — but one thing she said that really made me freeze: that a number of the teenagers in her son’s school are open to experimenting with their sexuality. Boys and girls both.

I responded with a story I told in this space recently, about how I’d heard from an old friend, a liberal who teaches in a public school deep in Red America, and who said how amazing it is to her that the kids in her small town’s school are so progressive on sexuality and gender fluidity — and their parents have no clue.

My Evangelical pal said that this is true at her son’s conservative Christian school. I asked her how this can happen at a school whose ethos is, by in her description, conservative. She said that it’s all about lazy Christian parents who are allowing the culture to raise their kids, and who think writing a tuition check is doing their part for character formation.

I was surprised, but I shouldn’t have been. After all, I have been learning from talking to professors at one conservative Christian college after another over the past few years that so many of their own students show up hooked on pornography, and struggling with the same collapse of sex and gender categories that are turning up in the mainstream? These kids are the mainstream.

A couple of years back, the political scientist Dale Kuehne, who studies the family in politics, wrote a Q piece about “the gender tipping point.” Excerpt:

The students with whom I associate—from middle school to college students—have understood for several years that we now reside in a world beyond gender. The youngest of them probably don’t realize that TIME’s article announced anything “new.”

For many of them, gender discussions, even of the transgender variation, are just so yesterday. When we talk about personal identity, we don’t include the mundane questions about being male and/or female. A person can certainly identify as male or female if they wish, but there is little expectation that one would do so.

After all, today Facebook gives us over 50 “gender” identities to choose from. (Conversations about this can involve questions about why there are so few options.) And rather than looking to gender or variations on a gender, more and more young people are seeking to discover their identity by widening the options to include “otherkins” (people who consider themselves to have a non-human identity, such as various animals, spirits, mediums, and so on).

Young people today are much less binary when it comes to understanding identity because “male” and “female” as categories don’t express a unique or comprehensive identity.

When I tell this to many adult audiences, they laugh, believing that young people will grow out of this “stage.” They’re surprised that I don’t share their sense of the immaturity of our youth.

That’s because the young people with whom I interact are extraordinarily perceptive, compared to adults. As one high school student recently asked me, “Why does our school demand that we figure out if we are male or female or some variation? How could we figure it out even if we cared about gender? Can you tell me what it feels like to be woman? Can you tell me what it feels like to be a man? Of course not. No one knows.”

Precisely.

If everything is reduced to gender—even liquid gender—then how can anyone know by a solely internal exploration if they feel male or female?

What does it feel like to be a man? It can’t just mean that I am attracted to women, because it is okay to be attracted to men. It can’t just mean I feel like a lumberjack—because what does it mean to feel like a lumberjack? It can’t simply mean to be drawn to women’s clothes because what makes some garments women’s clothes?

In short, if the ultimate source of reference is the self, and if no other self than the individual is a reference point, how can you know who or what you are?

Indeed. The kids are right.

Today I had lunch here in town with a new Evangelical friend, one with decades of pastoral experience, though he hasn’t been in ministry for a few years. Crucially, he has not read The Benedict Option, nor has he even heard of it — which was good for me, because it gave me a chance to learn from someone fresh.

I asked him what he thought the worst problem facing American Christianity is. He didn’t hesitate for a second: “Complacency.”

He explained that from his point of view as an Evangelical, the churches are filled with complacency and moralism (that is, the reduction of the Christian faith to following the rules of bourgeois niceness). He said he sees so many Christians who think showing up at church and holding the “correct” opinions are enough. They don’t have any sense of discipleship, and why it’s necessary.

I told him that diagnosis is at the heart of The Benedict Option, and that the book is essentially a call for much more intentional discipleship and countercultural formation. He said that he tries to form his kids to be engaged with culture. I told him that I agree with him on that, but in order to engage effectively, without being overwhelmed by the post-Christian culture, our kids — and we — have to be deeply grounded and strongly formed.

Driving away from lunch, I thought about how that complacency manifests itself in the life of American Orthodox Christians. I don’t have much direct experience of this, given the parishes I’ve been a part of in the 11 years of Orthodox life, but generally one hears that many US Orthodox parishes are complacent in their ethnic identity. They think it will last forever. Five years ago, Orthodox priest Father Steven Solaris wrote about why Orthodox youth leave the practice of the faith. Excerpts:

Orthodoxy has been in America for over 200 years. Yet too often our parishes live with the notion that the Church’s primary function is to be an ethnic preservation society. Far too many people go to church not to encounter Christ, the Son of the living God, but to talk in or listen to foreign languages and eat ethnic foods. Why do we attempt to spiritually raise our children in an atmosphere of dead liturgical languages and the equally dead cultures from which they came?

And:

Christian youth come out of years of Sunday school and still don’t know the basics of their own faith. I know of students educated in Catholic schools that think the Holy Trinity is Jesus, Mary, and Joseph! I know Orthodox Christians who think that the Holy Trinity is God, Jesus, and Mary. An organic living knowledge and internalization of the Orthodox Christian faith cannot happen in 45 minutes on a Sunday by cutting and coloring paper doll clergy and iconostases. There was no Sunday School in the early Church and yet families – parents and children – were martyred together bearing witness to the Christian faith (read the life of the early second-century martyrs Sophia and her three children…if you dare). Perhaps a radical re-thinking and new approach to Christian education needs to be developed by those who specialize in the field.

There is more from Father Solaris, including a lamentation about Orthodox who obsess over externals, but who do little or nothing to cultivate their relationship with Christ. You get the idea.

This blog has written a lot lately about the latest sex scandals at the top of the US Catholic hierarchy, so I won’t dredge them up again in this space. But let me say that aside from the spiritual and moral corruption in the hierarchy, the same complacency and lack of discipleship that my Evangelical friends identified in our conversations these past two days are fully present among the American Catholic laity. There is no church that is free of them, because it is the condition that we all live in. 

Thinking about all this, I couldn’t help recall the Benedictine monk Father Cassian Folsom’s warning, spoken to me outside the monastery in Norcia three years ago: that the times are such that families who don’t do some version of what I call the Benedict Option are not going to have what it takes to make it through the darkness upon us now and for the foreseeable future. The photo with which I illustrate this blog entry came to me earlier today by an Italian friend who is on pilgrimage now in Norcia. It’s the statue of the saint, born in that town in 480. It stands in the center of the piazza of that mountain village, devastated by earthquake. The monks there, who lost their basilica and monastery to the earthquake, are rebuilding, as is the town. That photo of St. Benedict is a sign of hope, of God’s presence with us.

We need God, and we need the prayers and example of Benedict, because things really are as serious as I’ve been saying. Complacency is the deadly enemy of the faith in this time and place. Hope is not the same as optimism, and complacency is not the fruit of real faith.

The late Flannery O’Connor really is an uncanonized saint for our age. This essay from America magazine about her religious vision really is excellent. It quotes her thus about the strict moralists in her own church (the Catholic Church):

I know what you mean about being repulsed by the church when you have only the Mechanical-Jansenist Catholic to judge it by. I think that the reason such Catholics are so repulsive is that they don’t really have faith but a kind of false certainty. They operate by the slide rule and the Church for them is not the body of Christ but the poor man’s insurance system. It’s never hard for them to believe because actually they never think about it. Faith has to take in all the other possibilities it can.

Strong and needed words for all Christians. Here’s more, from the essayist, George Niederauer:

The betrayal of religion is downright diabolical in O’Connor’s view, and so it is portrayed in her fiction. For her, the crucial choice facing each of us is between the “lost” life with Christ and the worldly “saved” life without him. Thus, the most fiendish of temptations is to offer a saved, worldly life, but to offer it under the guise of being generically “Christian,” though with no Christ content whatsoever.

In this connection [author Paul] Elie describes a type of character that appears over and over again in O’Connor’s stories: “the middle-aged busybody who knows exactly what she thinks, who sees all and understands nothing.” One example is the character of Mrs. May in the story “Greenleaf.” At one point Mrs. May comes upon Mrs. Greenleaf in the woods, murmuring over and over again, “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.” O’Connor wrote: “Mrs. May winced. She thought the word, Jesus, should be kept inside the church building, like other words inside the bedroom. She was a good Christian woman with a large respect for religion, though she did not, of course, believe any of it was true.”

O’Connor had much to say about living together as church in the midst of modern culture, but finally we should turn to one simple statement she made about herself: “I write because I write well.” Nearly 45 years after her death, believers and unbelievers alike agree with her more than ever. She wrote well. But there is so much more than that to be said of her. One point will suffice here: How wonderfully different Flannery O’Connor was from Mrs. May. She thought that the name of Jesus, the reality of Jesus, belonged everywhere, indeed was everywhere. Regarding the Christian faith, Flannery O’Connor was the polar opposite of Mrs. May, because she, of course, believed all of it was true.

The betrayal of religion is downright diabolical in O’Connor’s view. The crucial choice is between the ‘lost’ life with Christ and the worldly ‘saved’ life without him.

Do you believe all of it is true? Then live like it. Let’s live like it together. We have no choice. The bishops aren’t going to save your faith, and the faith of your family. The priests won’t either, nor will the pastors and evangelists, nor will the Christian school teachers, nor will the popular Christian authors. At best, all of them will be fellow pilgrims who help you along the way. But if you are counting on the world — even the Christian world — to carry you against the powerful currents of the dominant anti-Christian culture, you’re lying to yourself. The Tipi Loschi in Italy like to quote G.K. Chesterton:

A dead thing can go with the stream, but only a living thing can go against it.

Look around you: you see who and what the dead things are. Let them go. Choose life. Those who aren’t choosing to live, and fighting to live, every day of every year, are resigning themselves to die. There is no middle ground, not anymore. I’m telling you the truth, Christian.