A Letter To The Congregation
A reader sent me the following piece he wrote in response to the men’s group at his church reading The Benedict Optiontogether. I thought it was quite good, and asked him for permission to republish it here. It has been edited slightly for privacy reasons. I hope you find it helpful. This is exactly the kind of thinking and conversation I was hoping the book would spark in congregations.
“We all want progress. But progress means getting nearer to the place where you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man. There is nothing progressive about being pigheaded and refusing to admit a mistake. And I think if you look at the present state of the world it’s pretty plain that humanity has been making some big mistakes. We’re on the wrong road. And if that is so we must go back. Going back is the quickest way on.” — C.S. Lewis
I just finished reading The Benedict Option last week. The controversy surrounding this book is both puzzling and predictable. It is puzzling because Dreher is reiterating in layman’s terms what Jesus, the apostles and Christian thinkers have said for centuries: that the church must remain the church and should beware of the wiles of the world, whatever the cost. The book’s controversy is predictable however because the course of action Dreher suggests to “remain the church” is so contrary to mainstream American culture, and even mainstream church culture, that any of us living in this mainstream are bound to feel the BenOp sting somewhere in its pages.
It’s easy enough to say that the church must remain the church, and as long as say, [our church] continues to conduct worship services on Sunday mornings we may safely assume that we are “remaining” just fine. But when the suggested means to remain the church look quite different from how we actually do church, the implication can be unflattering, either for our church or for the suggested means. I felt the sting of Dreher’s words often, namely in my often thoughtless and increasing dependence on technology and the internet for so many of life’s necessities and, perhaps more troubling, the complicated dance I enact to sidestep revealing my Christian beliefs in the secular (and sometimes Christian) circles I inhabit. But despite the sting, I felt that I was reading a book I would have liked to have written myself. And, though not able to reach any final conclusions, I nonetheless found Dreher’s illustrations of Christian life painfully pertinent to our culture, and the consequent implications on how we do church in [our town] to be unflattering.
What strikes me most about many reactions to The Benedict Option is the persistent supposition that its main thrust is the separation, retreat, and cloistering of the church. It seems that even those who I assume are careful readers of this book, like James K.A. Smith, nonetheless fall into the same misconception: that the book is about withdrawal from society. Similar accusations (though of much more gravity) were leveled at the early church by Roman authorities for their antisocial behavior—that they wouldn’t take part in civic celebrations and feasts in which pagan deities were honored. And if we as Christians seem maladjusted or separatist because we’d rather not embrace certain practices of a transient, materialistic, sexually immoral and individualistic culture, then I’d say there’s something wrong with the culture and not the church.
However, I found the book refreshing because of its positive message: a call to the church to come together. In addition to a lot of railing and complaining about modern society (a practice I am quite fond of) Dreher gives many helpful and time tested examples of how to live differently. In every example given, whether in actual monasteries or in intentional communities, Dreher highlights the increasing need for Christians to resist the isolating individualism of our culture and to live our Christian lives more intimately with God and our brothers and sisters. I believe that if we who are squeamish about accusations of church isolationism were to even temporarily embrace some of the concepts in the Benedict Option we would find ourselves living much more socially and with time, much better equipped to share our faith with those both inside and outside the circle of our brethren. We must also ask ourselves if our fear of church isolationism is really driven by a concern for our non-believing neighbors and non-church communities, or by our own fear of intimacy with our Christian neighbors and church community. So to extend Lewis’ analogy above, Dreher is certainly calling for an about-turn in relation to our intrenchment in secular culture, which has led many to view the Benedict Option as negative and backward, but the book’s thesis is both positive and progressive regarding the church; that we must fulfill God’s purpose by strengthening our ties to one another and to God.
I’m not sure if Dreher’s talk of small-o orthodoxy and traditional Christianity betrays a weak ecclesiology, or if so, that a stronger ecclesiological explanation of these terms would have changed his book very much. He acknowledges the inexactitude of these terms and defines them a little better here. But I found Dreher’s ecclesiastical ideas springing fresh from a view of the universe with the church at the center. He reminds us in The Benedict Option’s last chapter of Ezekiel’s vision of a stream of water flowing out from the Temple altar, spreading into a river, and that this vision “was fulfilled on Pentecost, when God poured out the Holy Spirit on the gathered disciples, inaugurating a new era with the birth of the church. Through the church—the restored Temple—would flow the living waters of salvific grace.” This church-centric view is one of the most radical claims of scripture and one of the most subversive to non-Christian cultures. Peterson’s translation of Ephesians 1:22-23 puts it nicely: “[Jesus] is in charge of it all, has the final word on everything. At the center of all this, Christ rules the church. The church, you see, is not peripheral to the world: the world is peripheral to the church.”
This sharp divide between the church and the world is often portrayed as the “separation of church and state” which today usually means that the church can have its private opinions (just like the KKK or AntiFa can have their opinions) but ultimately the State decides on public policy and matters of real import. But this (mis)understanding of the separation of church and state does not represent the Biblical distinction between the church and the world. The Biblical view of the world—not the creation or the material world, but what Paul calls the rulers, authorities, and powers of darkness—is antithetical to the church, or as [our pastor] preached from James’ epistle this morning, “anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.” And the church, namely us, is at the center of God’s plan for the renewal of the world and ultimately the universe. The Benedict Option seems to grasp this almost obscenely grandiose calling for the church and says, “so let’s start living like it!” But, that’s not entirely right, what it actually says is, “Christians have lived like it for centuries, so let’s learn from them!” Meanwhile, we at [our church] are asking, “Aren’t we living like it?”
In his acknowledgements, Dreher praises the work of Ken Myers, who through interviews with Christian thinkers (including James K.A. Smith and Dreher himself) has sought to illuminate the problems of modern secular culture for decades. It was interesting to me to hear Benedict’s name come up a few times in Myers’ most recent Mars Hill Audio Journal, quite apart from Dreher’s work. One interviewee, Philip Turner, an Episcopal priest and former dean of Yale’s divinity school was asked if there was anyone from the patristic era whose vision of the church might speak to our post-modern predicament. He answered: “My great example of someone who anticipated in a remarkable way many of the things we now need to learn is Saint Benedict. He knew that to be formed in Christ you had to live in a community over time in which you subject yourself to various practices… I think that he understood what I understand to be the major function of the Church; to become a community in which Christ is taking form.” Both Turner and Dreher look to Saint Benedict for guidance in our current church predicament, and they commend not primarily Benedict’s retreat from the surrounding culture, but his robust vision of Christian fellowship and community.
In this interview, Turner had some cogent insights into the decline of the modern American church. Turner was a missionary in Africa between the years of 1961 and 1971. To say that our culture underwent dramatic changes in this decade is an understatement (e.g. Vietnam, sexual revolution, civil rights activism, etc.) When Turner left America, the church still functioned as a “chaplain” to a culture that regarded itself as Christian. He said that one could travel from church to school to the town square without ever leaving a largely uniform culture. This was a culture where prayers were said in public schools and Biblical principles could be invoked in public discourse without controversy. Turner struggled in Africa to form a church community in a culture that was largely hostile to Christianity. Meanwhile he watched the American church from afar and saw that it too was clashing with an increasingly hostile culture, and consequently becoming more culturally marginalized. The American church’s reaction to this marginalization however troubled Turner. He observes:
“I came to believe that the churches in the United States were addressing their changed circumstances in exactly the wrong way. They were expending enormous energies to maintain their social position, and in so doing they failed to realize the extent to which their previous attachment to social positions and cultural relevance had actually compromised their integrity. I came to believe that the most immediate calling of the churches is to form a culture in which Christ is taking form rather than to transform a culture.”
I hope that it is clear from this passage that Turner is not lamenting the good old days when Americans could pray in school. But rather, in those tumultuous years he began to understand that the American church had largely failed in developing a strong enough individual culture to withstand increasing public hostility. I imagine Turner thinking to himself at that time, “If that’s how the American church reacts to hostility in America, they’d never stand a chance here in Africa.” Again, given what the Bible says about the church, its marginalization within any secular culture is hardly an obstacle to God’s purposes. Consequently, when churches begin to obsess about public opinion it reveals weakness of character and misunderstanding of its identity.
How this applies historically to our church is probably better suited to some of our church historians and elder(ly) members. Our church being founded in [the 1940s] was certainly begun in a time of relative Christian American cultural uniformity. And it weathered the cultural changes of the ‘60s and ‘70s without too much consequence. We have seen many changes in our denomination and watched both liberal and conservative Christians duke it out for continued cultural market share in their parishes, the [national meetings of our denomination] and in our country. Meanwhile our church in [this town] has for the most part quietly gone about its business, striving to live peacefully and to proclaim the Gospel. We have sought to stay true to Scripture and not to fall into the traps of legalism or heathenism. We can deduce that as a congregation, we never formed inordinate attachment to social positions or cultural relevance (we never had much anyway) and thus feel no need to retain these things as public life becomes more secularized. To return to Lewis’ analogy, is seems that our church is on the right track and need only press on toward the goal. But it warrants asking (as we often do), what is our goal? And furthermore, what about this business of “forming a culture in which Christ is taking form?”
While it’s safe to say that we have a “church culture” at [our church]; i.e. we are not demonstrative in worship, informal but not “loose” in temperament, generous with food and money, preferring dry humor over boisterous humor, loving, humble, friendly but not smothering, slow to change, quick to eat, etc., one would still not claim that our church is the source of our daily lived culture. I’d dare to say that our church plays a more supplemental role in most of our lives. And, I’d say that most of us live more or less good, chaste, wholesome lives. Nonetheless, church is a part of our lives and not the center. This doesn’t even mean that we don’t regard church and God as the center of our lives. It just means that [our church] is not the most practical, formative, ubiquitous and influential source of our day to day experience. Should it be? If so, how?
It seems to me that we at [this church] inherited a liturgical rhythm—a way of doing church—that is distinctly American and characteristic of the age in which our church was founded; those “happy golden” years when America was largely considered a Christian nation. This liturgical rhythm is not very demanding as most of us meet only once a week, and it functions very similarly to other social clubs which need not be Christian, who also have their roots in the era described above. This is perhaps justified if the surrounding culture is generally Christian and harmonizes with that worldview and sense of destiny. But Dreher’s book (and common sense) makes the case that this is not the world we live in, not even in [our town]. It’s clear to me that our church culture is dictated more by popular American culture than by anything else, mainly because of the church’s marginal, supplemental character. This doesn’t mean that we are all superficial, materialistic, self-centered people. It just means that we view ourselves as the ones who choose how and to what degree we outsource all the elements of our lives—our health, vocation, education, entertainment, prophetic knowledge (news media), family life, and religion. Our church culture, both explicitly and implicitly, caters to and upholds this worldview.
As I’ve been thinking about the differences between the Benedict Option communities and my own lifestyle, I’ve been asking myself, “maybe we’ve just never known what real Christian community is?” But, I realized that many of us have had little tastes of living in Christian community, particularly if we’ve been to Christ-centered camps or been on similar retreats or mission trips. Many of us know what a transformative experience it is to wake early in the morning and have strictly imposed devotion times, followed by working or playing side by side with others, living if only temporarily under the care and authority of strong leaders, observing specific rules, sharing meals with brothers and sisters, learning about the Bible, developing relationships and capping off the day with worship and fellowship. Then you wake the next day and do it again! Even in that short time you sense that you are becoming a different person, and it’s likely you actually are. This is a great example of living sacramentally in an almost liturgical daily rhythm. Is this possible in our normal, daily lives?
However, on the final night of camp comes the inevitable “mountaintop experience” sermon that goes something like, “this week has been an incredible week for us and that’s great, but you can’t expect life to be a continual mountaintop experience. What matters is how you live in the valleys, when you return home to your families and schools, take what you’ve learned here and make a difference in the lives of your siblings, your parents, your classmates.” This message is also implied or flatly stated in our church too. In other words, all the external supports of this mountaintop experience will be dismantled on returning home, but take the internal reality of it into your secularly ordered life and “make a difference.” Now, sometimes this is exactly what we are called to do as Christians. We have to faithfully maintain the inner reality of our relationship with God when everything in our circumstances try to pull us away. But is that what Christian community is about?
Again, is it possible to live in a daily rhythm of fellowship, study, discipline, work, submission and worship, not just individually, but with other Christians who are doing the same thing and (here’s the clincher,) can we do this in a way that is more potent and comprehensive than our participation in the surrounding culture, so that we can say with utmost confidence that “we are no friends of the world?”
Back to the Lewis quote—I do believe that we at [our church] are at an impasse. I don’t know if it’s because we have taken a wrong turning, or because God has lead us here for some other purpose. And, I acknowledge our increasing wealth and membership and [our pastor’s] leadership as a blessing from God. But I don’t foresee our church maintaining its saltiness as long as we attempt to function for all practical purposes as one cog in the wheel of our outsourced American lives.