Fundamentalism vs. the Benedict Option
Lots of Benedict Option stuff to write about today! I promise to answer Noah Millman’s post later, but I’ve got a lot of plates spinning in the air right now. Here’s an easy one to post, though. It’s some very helpful advice from a friend who is an Anglican pastor, who is broadly sympathetic to the Benedict Option project, but who says my inexperience with fundamentalism blinds me in key ways to how it is being perceived, and will be perceived. The pastor said that what I’m talking about is not fundamentalism, but it’s easy for people to think that it is:
It strikes me that fundamentalism is, in many ways, parasitic on the dominant culture, but what you’re seeking and envisioning is something that might be transformative of cultures–I don’t mean changing America really, I mean communities which are able to create a culture where life –and a culture of life– can thrive (whether or not that changes things outside of a particular community). I think of that example you used of the fundamentalist you met who only had Thomas Kinkade art, as opposed to a community that is capable of producing real beauty and real art, not just “safe” art on one hand or shocking-for-the-sake-of-shocking art on the other.
The other example I was thinking of is alternative Christian kids programming. I didn’t grow up with this because my family wasn’t super steeped in any kind of Christian sub-culture but I know kids who were only allowed to watch Psalty the Psalmbook, which is kind of like Barney for Christian kids I think. It’s basically kids entertainment with a Christian twist. I don’t have any problem with Psalty (I’ve literally never watched it so I have no strong feelings about it either way) but I was thinking about the difference between something like that and the story you told me about your kids keeping vigil before Easter (or wanting to…did they all actually do it?) [Yes, they did — RD]. The former (my kids only watch Psalty) is this thin, individualistic reaction against bad messages in our culture, the latter is this thick, ancient, beautiful, communal, meaningful ancient practice that your children can get swept up in and that will teach them, profoundly, about truth and life and goodness. The former teaches kids to be different sorts of consumers, the latter teaches kids to be worshippers.
The Benedict Option is formed, I think, in your imagination by your own participation in ancient, layered, community practices of worship and counter-formation, but many of the people who are hearing about the Benedict option do not even have an imagination for that–they’ve never seen it–so it can sound like a thin sort of retreat and fear-based wagon circling. Part of your task will simply be to help their imaginations along, to help us to think of what an alternative community might look like and how it must be different than the sort of “Moral Majority” (except in community) or other reactionary movements in our recent past. The Benedictines were were not a parasitic or reactionary sub-culture but a true alternative, a people who were seeking together to learn to suffer well and serve others and pray and work and live well.
I think of Richard Rohr’s quote from Falling Upward: “The best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better….I learned this from my father St. Francis, who did not concentrate on attacking evil or others, but just spent his life falling, and falling many times into the good, the true, and the beautiful. It was the only way he knew how to fall into God.”
Anyway, I’m not sure if this is helpful to you or not. I know you have thought about all of this way, way more than I have. But I thought I’d share these additional thoughts just in case they are at all helpful. I think you have to keep in mind the guy who has never thought sacramentally, who has never imagined children keeping vigil or the beauty of a Maundy Thursday service or the thick layers of grief and hope in a Christian funeral liturgy, and who only hears “Flee!” Unfortunately, the church has often done a poor job of displaying a really earthy, gritty, palpable alternative vision of the good. And that’s what is needed.
This is so good, and so helpful. I am at a real disadvantage trying to advocate for the Benedict Option because I don’t have a precise idea of what it looks like. As I’ve said, I have partial ideas, based on various actual communities in the world. But I’m not going to be able to say, “Do what they’re doing” until I actually go see them and talk to the people in them. Mostly, I think this is going to be a new thing for most Christians, but something we’re going to have to experiment with out of necessity.
The impulse comes from these facts:
1. Our culture is post-Christian, trending anti-Christian. This is in the nature of secularism, and in the nature of liberalism — “liberalism” being not specifically the philosophy of the Democratic Party, but the philosophical assumptions arising out of the Enlightenment. Christians in America have been coasting on pre-Enlightenment capital for a long time. Those days are over.
2. Barring some kind of unforeseen catastrophe, secularism and liberalism are not going away any time soon. We have to figure out how to live with it, and in it.
3. But the evidence is that trying to harmonize Christianity with secular modernity does not Christianize secular modernity, but de-Christianizes Christianity. If the churches continue on this path, we are headed toward oblivion. Business as usual is managing decline into oblivion.
4. What, then? How can we hold on to what is distinctly Christian in an increasingly alien and even hostile culture, and not only hold on to it, but thrive? Fundamentalist, head-for-the-hills withdrawal is a non-starter, but so is what we’re now doing. How can we come up with a compelling, attractive alternative way of living out the faith in families and in communities? If secularism really is leading to the de-Christianization of the West, what do we who wish to resist what Pope Benedict called the “dictatorship of relativism” do about it?
I don’t have the answers. I don’t think anybody does — and I think this accounts for much of the fear and even loathing of this inquiry. But I think I know where the answers can be found, and this is what my planned book is going to be about. As I foresee it, the Benedict Option book will be an in-depth analysis of the problem, an examination of actual communities living a countercultural faith, followed by an analysis of what we can all learn from them. My intention is not to end discussion by saying, “Here is the formula,” but to define the problem and set a framework for creative, imaginative, yet practical discussion in the church about how to meet this challenge unprecedented in American history.
The Anglican pastor’s e-mail helps me to understand why I have had so much trouble convincing many people that I’m not talking about a fundamentalist running-away from something bad. They can’t conceive of strategic withdrawal in any other terms, because they don’t have any experience of what that might look like, and can’t imagine it. I have lots of work to do. I need your help on this. Collaboration and crowdsourcing with you all through this blog has helped me with my last two books, and it will be a tremendous help with this one.
UPDATE: This e-mail from a Millennial reader, slightly edited to protect his anonymity, is exactly what I mean by “a tremendous help”. I know nothing about the world of which he speaks, but I want to understand:
I have to agree with your Anglican friend. I come from a evangelical/pentecostal background myself, and now that I’m in my early 20s, and starting to question my faith (I’m no longer comfortable with my parents church, and have been flirting with Eastern Orthodox and Anglican paths), I’m noticing more and more how very badly we’re put together as evangelicals. Even here in [my very red state], it would seem many who belong to certain denominations do so out of tradition, as a civil religion, and those who belong to non-denominational groups are at best familiar with the Bible as taught to us in Sunday School. Christianity is so ingrained into the culture as a cultural hallmark rather than a way of life, than anything else looks ‘Fundi’, and that’s met with a cold reaction.
I tried recently to talk to two of my friends about your idea of the Benedict Option, and the reception was like I had tried to offer them a baby on a silver platter. Both had back histories with [a culty, scandal-plagued, now-defunct Fundamentalist ministry], and thought it would end up just the same.
It’s incredibly difficult to explain why we need the BO, because there’s no point of reference for us. I can’t speak for all Evangelicals, but knowledge of our church history practically is blank aside from the book of Acts, the Reformation, and the 20th century. St, Augustine, St. Francis, and Martin Luther mean nothing to my peers (meaning those in my age bracket). To be honest, I’m not even sure if we know what real Christianity looks like either. Everyone of my friends who take their faith seriously, is looking to leave their church home for better pastures—-if only we can find them. So many Churches are bland, blind, and unchallenging, and very few seem at all concerned with where the body of Christ might end up in the coming years. While no one can be judged on the faith, by outward appearances, I’d say that very few Christians I see actually live out their faith. The idea of daily prayer, Scripture reading, and reflection is at odds with what we actually do (myself included).
While I don’t think it was in the intentions of the Reformation, I’m starting to wonder if abandoning (or at least making it optional, which of course means it won’t get done) the older ideas of prayer books, ropes/beads, and daily application of Christian living was setting us up for the state we’re in now. Certainly we’ve held on to the Bible and the basics better than those in the Mainline, but if we don’t grow out of our ‘Baby Christian’ stage and mature as a believer what good will it do when the troubles come?Perhaps we might need a third Great Awakening, and perhaps this Benedict Option might be a candidate.