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Another Ben Op Know-Nothing

Why do I bother? Because I’m a masochist. Shaun Kenney at Ethika Politika today:

This is my problem with the Benedict Option in a nutshell:

The Benedict Option is about forming communities that teach us and help us to live in such a way that our entire lives are witnesses to the transforming power of the Gospel.

This statement is totally meaningless. The Church does this. Why do we need a Benedict Option?

In what dream world does the church do this?  Some parish churches do this. The “church” — Catholic and otherwise — doesn’t do this. It is supposed to do this, but by and large it doesn’t. If you said, “The Benedict Option sounds like nothing more than the church being the church,” I would say yes, that’s mostly it. Be the church! But the church — I’m referring to the institutional church in all branches of Christianity — hasn’t acted like the church in a long time. Which is why we are in such a mess. Which is why Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is the de facto religion of American Christians. Which is why Americans who identify as Evangelical divorce at a higher rate than the US average, and why 40 percent of US Catholics oppose their own church’s teaching on abortion, and 70 percent oppose their own church’s teaching on homosexuality. It is almost certainly true in both cases that well-formed Evangelicals and Catholics are more faithful in belief and practice to Christian norms, but the fact that there are so many nominal Christians surely says something about the ineffectiveness of the institutional church.

(And before anybody rushes to their keyboards to say, “Butwhatabout Orthodoxy, huh? Why are you not criticizing your church,” let me say that I have no reason to believe that Orthodox Christianity in the US is in any better shape. It varies from parish to parish. There is not nearly as much research on Orthodox America as Evangelical and Catholic America, because there are so few Orthodox Christians. Nearly every critical thing I say about the state of Christianity in America also applies to members of my own communion.)

I wonder if Kenney has talked, as I have, to numerous professors at both Catholic and Evangelical colleges who tell me that their students arrive knowing next to nothing about the faith. Since Ethika Politika is a Catholic website, let me focus on the state of young Catholics. Christian Smith is a Catholic, a Notre Dame professor, and one of the leading sociologists of religion in the US. He has written a book on the spirituality of young Catholics. He says: “The situation regarding Catholic youth and the church is indeed very grim.”

About American Christianity in general, Smith says:

Reflections: What does religion mean to people these days?

Smith: In the emerging adult years, what many think about “religion” is: It’s just not something that matters to them. Religion is seen as something they might take an interest in later in life, like life insurance. They aren’t angry about it. It’s just given a presupposed dismissal.

Reflections: Wasn’t it always this way with rising generations?

Smith : I’m not a good-old-days sociologist, but I do think former generations were religiously more engaged, more literate. The digital, social media revolution has created a new world. It affects what young people’s eyes are focused on – the world of screens – and what matters to them and how they form community. Technology has consequences for epistemology, the nature of authority and trust.

Reflections: Can churches be a counterforce?

Smith: Yes, churches ought to be able to create an alternative community, an open-handed community where people can encounter each other, network, and hear a different word, but without necessarily being expected to sign up as members for the next 30 years. People are sucked into the dominant culture, but many sense the dominant culture isn’t ultimately fulfilling. They know mass consumer capitalism isn’t enough. Churches are in a position to confirm this hunch.

Young people – teens – are under incredible pressure to perform. Intense expectations are placed on them. As a colleague of mine has suggested, social media appears to be all about social performance, creating a personality that isn’t real, and teens are experiencing a deep unhappiness about this. I think churches are in a position to create a social space where people can be accepted for who they are and not be expected to perform. I’ve seen some congregations that do this.

Reflections: Still, you find apathy about church.

Smith: If there’s one thing I know about younger people, whether they are 13 or 28, nearly every last one of them thinks of Christianity as a set of rules and regulations, do’s and don’ts. They aren’t necessarily fighting against that. That’s simply what they think Christianity is – a set of moralisms. The church is a place of moralistic requirements.

And that’s very understandable. Parents want their kids to turn out okay, and they rely on the church for moral guidance so they learn to behave. Parents are trying to cope with a world where lots of things can go wrong. There are lots of threats. But I think it can lead to a form of idolatry to treat the church this way. I feel for pastors. They are faced with this expectation from parents.

Smith says he doesn’t “blame” the church, and doesn’t really blame young people either. He says that we are living in radically different times, where the old ways don’t work:

In the mid-20th century you could say there was a map in place that helped organize society. It featured well-defined units – family, religion, education, government, the military. Each had boundaries. Each had a role and respected the others. But those boundaries have broken down. The map isn’t in place. All of life is now being ordered by narratives and images that don’t reflect the old boundaries. Churches have something to say about this. They should go back again and again to the drinking well of the gospel and offer a true alternative transcendent story. If they can’t do that, if they remain saddled with moralism, then they better hang it up now.



Read the whole thing. 

Shaun Kenney continues:

Proponents of the Benedict Option would perhaps offer us the solutions of “hard” and “soft” options, contrasting a series of crunchy Christians scratching out a living on a distributist co-op with a much more charitable and accurate view of a parish emphasizing the Liturgy of the Hours and a more Benedictine charism. Yet that softer variant exists today within many families; it is how our grandparents worshiped and prayed. Do such mores really require the communitarianism more familiar to “revolutionary Aristotelians” whose ears are attuned to the irresistible siren song of conflict as an inevitable feature of history? Again, we come back to the core problem of the Benedict Option in esse: either it is a vertical and closed call to retreat, or it is a horizontal and open call back to the prayer life of the Church. The latter seems reasonable, the former much more in line with tradition.

Oh, for heaven’s sake, this again. If people would make even a slight effort to read what I’ve actually written — here’s the Benedict Option FAQ — we could have a real argument about this stuff, instead of arguing about someone’s distorted idea.

If you won’t take it from me, take this recent summation by Alan Jacobs:

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.

I have more work to do to put more meat on the bones, so to speak, but there is enough out there in the public square now to have an actual meaningful discussion, if people are genuinely interested in doing so. As I told a Catholic critic this past weekend, I prefer the flawed work I’m doing trying to address a situation that actually exists than the work he is not doing, which ignores the reality small-o orthodox Christianity faces in 21st century America.

UPDATE:This blogger at Perceptio has his (her?) head in the game. Excerpt:

It is possible that the thrust of the past decade or so is part of a generational shift. In which case, one need only wait for the pendulum to swing back the other way. It is equally as possible that the West is heading for the point of cultural exhaustion that brought Rome to ruin – it is simply a matter of waiting it out until a new beginning. In either scenario, the immediate need remains for Christianity to determine a way forward as a counter cultural phenomenon running parallel to the dominant culture and offering a contrary moral code and conception of reality. With this in mind, I believe Dreher hits the nail on the head – the secular state realigned the terms and conditions upon which Christianity engages the culture. It is only fair that Christianity realign the terms and conditions upon which the culture deals with Christianity.

The culture war is lost. It is time to become counter-culture. This will only happen with a radical re-appropriation of the ethos of the first three centuries: the praxis of Christian life in defiance to the desire of the state.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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