Yesterday in church, Father Matthew in his sermon made a comment that struck me as highly relevant to a rationale for the Benedict Option. He was talking about the risks of evangelizing when we have not been properly discipled. Yes, we are called to share our faith with the world, he said, “But you can’t share what you don’t have.”
What he meant was that you can talk about the Christian faith all you want to, but if you don’t fully understand it, and haven’t been to some meaningful degree shaped by it, you should consider whether or not you’re really sharing the faith at all. He is an Orthodox priest talking to an Orthodox congregation, and what he specifically meant, I think, is that Orthodox Christianity can’t be reduced to a formula you can print on a pamphlet. It is not only a set of beliefs, but a set of practices. Becoming more deeply Orthodox is less a matter of accepting the right beliefs and deepening your understanding of them (which is important) and more about living the faith and allowing its regular practice to change your heart.
When he said that line, though, I thought about something an Evangelical professor I met last week in Tennessee told me about the challenge I’ll face recruiting his fellow Evangelicals for the Benedict Option. Many Evangelicals, he told me, think of evangelism as solely a matter of transferring a message — that is, spreading information. If the information is received and affirmed, they have made a convert (“led someone to Christ”). The problem with that, he said, is that Evangelicals are often weak on follow-up — on “discipleship” (that is, growing in a disciplined way in embedding the Gospel in our hearts and lives). If you can help Evangelicals see that the Benedict Option is really a matter of taking on more rigorous discipleship, they will be a lot more open to listening to you.
That’s really helpful to me. When Father Matthew says that we can’t pass on what we don’t have, he’s saying that we have to pay much closer attention to deepening our own faith if we want to share it with others. The two aren’t opposed to each other, but work in dynamic relationship with each other. Remember, in the Gospels, Jesus often retreated to the desert to pray after meeting with crowds. In order to be active in the world as Christians, we must also be contemplative.
The Benedict Option is required at this time and in this place because we Americans are in very serious danger of forgetting what it means to be Christian. We have exchanged Christianity for Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, and don’t know it. Just as being Christian is more than just mentally and verbally affirming a certain set of propositions, evangelizing for the Christian faith is more than just communicating a message. Life-changing information is passed on in more ways than mere words.
A reader passes on this BenOppish comment from the conservative writer Gary North, who ponders what the people who donated $17 million to conservative Christian Rick Perry’s failed second bid for the presidency could have done with that money instead of sending it to a long-shot Republican presidential candidate:
What causes could they have funded?
What books could this have published?
What free online K-12 Christian curriculum could this have funded to compete with the Khan Academy?
What Christian research organization could this have launched?
Of course, he could not have raised this kind of money for any of these alternatives. Conservative Christians think that national salvation will come through politics. They will donate to an obviously lost cause until the lost cause hits the brick wall. They will write those checks in hope of a short-term political victory in Washington. Congress does not change. The courts do not change. The federal bureaucracy does not change. “But if we can just elect a President…”
Reagan failed to change Washington. Why would anyone believe that Rick Perry could do this… especially Rick Perry?
The futility of national politics should be obvious. But it isn’t.
North urges his readers to read a 1999 letter by the late Religious Right founding father Paul Weyrich, in which he declared that the culture war had been lost, and more or less called for a Benedict Option in a time when social conservatives like me were still holding out hope for politics. North includes the text of the letter in his link. Here’s an excerpt:
I believe that we probably have lost the culture war. That doesn’t mean the war is not going to continue, and that it isn’t going to be fought on other fronts. But in terms of society in general, we have lost. This is why, even when we win in politics, our victories fail to translate into the kind of policies we believe are important.
Therefore, what seems to me a legitimate strategy for us to follow is to look at ways to separate ourselves from the institutions that have been captured by the ideology of Political Correctness, or by other enemies of our traditional culture. I would point out to you that the word “holy” means “set apart”, and that it is not against our tradition to be, in fact, “set apart”. You can look in the Old Testament, you can look at Christian history. You will see that there were times when those who had our beliefs were definitely in the minority and it was a band of hardy monks who preserved the culture while the surrounding society disintegrated.
What I mean by separation is, for example, what the homeschoolers have done. Faced with public school systems that no longer educate but instead “condition” students with the attitudes demanded by Political Correctness, they have seceded. They have separated themselves from public schools and have created new institutions, new schools, in their homes.
The same thing is happening in other areas. Some people are getting rid of their televisions. Others are setting up private courts, where they can hope to find justice instead of ideology and greed.
I think that we have to look at a whole series of possibilities for bypassing the institutions that are controlled by the enemy. If we expend our energies on fighting on the “turf” they already control, we will probably not accomplish what we hope, and we may spend ourselves to the point of exhaustion. The promising thing about a strategy of separation is that it has more to do with who we are, and what we become, than it does with what the other side is doing and what we are going to do about it.
Finally, we need to drop out of this culture, and find places, even if it is where we physically are right now, where we can live godly, righteous and sober lives.
Again, I don’t have all the answers or even all the questions. But I know that what we have been doing for thirty years hasn’t worked, that while we have been fighting and winning in politics, our culture has decayed into something approaching barbarism. We need to take another tack, find a different strategy.
It was hard for mainstream conservatives to see that back then. Certainly I did not. In 2015, though, you have to work hard not to take the prospect seriously.
Say, readers, if you live in the Washington area and want to come out to talk about the Benedict Option, you will have a couple of opportunities next month. On October 9, I will be giving a noon talk on Capitol Hill to the Faith and Law group for Congressional staffers. The next day, the great Ken Myers and I will be onstage at Georgetown on Saturday October 10, in lectures and conversation sponsored by the Tocqueville Forum at the university. Here’s a link to the site. Info:
Saturday, October 10, 2015
10:00 a.m. – 12:30 p.m.
Gaston Hall, Georgetown University 3700 O St. NW
It’s free and open to the public. Stay updated on Twitter by following @benedictoption. If you have never heard Ken Myers speak, you are in for a treat. The world is made up of two kinds of people: those who have never heard Ken Myers and who therefore do not subscribe to his Mars Hill Audio Journal, and those who have heard Ken Myers, and therefore become passionate about him and his work. There is not one thing I can say or ever will be able to say about the Benedict Option that Ken has not been saying in some form for years, with vastly more erudition and eloquence. From his Mars Hill Audio Journal site, this description about the basis for his work:
What is culture?
The word “culture” can be used in many different senses, and thinking clearly about cultural matters requires some initial clarity about how the word is being used. Most anthropologists and sociologists define a culture as a way of life informed by and perpetuating a set of assumptions or beliefs concerning life’s meaning.
What is distinctive about modern culture?
All cultures convey a set of assumptions about the kind of creatures human beings are and the kind of world in which they live. One of the defining characteristics of modern Western culture is that its artifacts, practices, and institutions convey the belief that there is no intrinsic meaning in the universe.
What is the Church’s interest in culture?
Defining the relationship between the Church and the thing we call “culture” requires an understanding of the nature of the Church and its mission. It also requires discernment about what cultures could and should do, as well as what the actual cultural forms that we live with are doing.
Also, this past weekend I agreed to drop down to Charlottesville, VA, to give a talk about the BenOp on Monday October 12 at the Center for Christian Study at UVA. We haven’t locked in a time yet, but stay tuned.
These are exciting times for small-o orthodox Christians. Tough ones, but exciting all the same. Read this, and read this; both will give you a deeper idea of the challenges the Benedict Option will attempt to meet. I hope you will come be a part of the discussion at Georgetown, and wherever I am talking about it, and others are talking about it. We needs to brainstorm this.