Dear Evangelicals: It’s Not So Bad
Rabbi Yitzschok Adlerstein has some friendly advice for Evangelicals (and all small-o orthodox Christians, seems like) as they (we) get used to being a minority within American culture. Excerpts:
Relax, friends. It is not the end of the world for any of us, and not even the end of America as we knew it. The Jewish experience of almost two millennia demonstrates that a religious group cannot only survive as a minority, but even thrive.
Those in the cultural majority often take too much for granted. You don’t have to explain much to others; often, you don’t have to explain much to yourselves. That changes when you are conscious of holding unpopular positions. You think them through more carefully, and compare and contrast with what others are thinking. You sharpen your rhetorical skills. As a dividend, this improves your ability to reach people outside your immediate group.
As a minority, you pay more attention to the influence of the surrounding culture. You learn that a certain amount of isolation is healthy. Not too much, but not too little. You gradually understand that, much as we don’t like to hear it, you can’t have it all. To be dedicated to G-d means giving up on some options and replacing them with ones that ultimately are much more meaningful. You learn that the best way to inoculate your children against some of the unhealthy influences of the surrounding culture is to turn the home into something between a fortress and a temple.
The rabbi goes on to say that casting aside tradition in an effort to be more “relevant” to the culture will not work, as we see with the withering of the more liberal Jewish branches, and of modernist forms of Christianity. I would add that Catholics and Orthodox Christians, though being older forms of Christianity, are equally at risk and at fault when they either rush to downplay theological distinctives and assimilate, or reduce the faith to little more than communal gatherings. The story of a lot of people I know who quit going to church is not that they ceased to believe in God, but that they quit seeing what getting dressed up on Sunday morning and going out to hear a bland pep talk had to do with Him.
Read the whole thing. I’m posting this early on Tuesday morning because I’m headed out for an overnight retreat with some Evangelical friends who are interested in talking about the Benedict Option. I wish my pal Jake Meador was going to be there; he’s been writing some of the most interesting material about the Benedict Option from a Protestant point of view. For example, this recent essay. Excerpts:
One of the problems in talking about withdrawal or creating separate Christian communities with evangelical Protestants is that many of us have experienced such communities and found them to be relentlessly toxic and dysfunctional. Having grown up in a separatistic fundamentalist church the reality of this concern is not lost on me.
That said, there is an essential piece to this conversation that I think separates old-school American fundamentalist separatism from the emerging idea of a strategic withdrawal as articulated by folks like Rod Dreher. As Russell Moore has noted in several places, most notably in his new book Onward (which I am currently reading and hope to discuss at more length here in the future) one of the main shifts we’re seeing in younger Protestants is toward a greater suspicion of the general American intellectual project.
Where the old fundamentalist retreats were often intended as something harkening back to a lost golden age (and thus always had a weird sort of nationalistic hue to them), the Protestant BenOp can be a withdrawal toward a different kind of future that looks less like standard intellectually vapid American fundamentalism and more like a deeper Protestantism grounded in the historical riches of the faith and marked by the sort of values and orientations that have far too often been unwelcome in the United States historically. I am thinking especially of the “sticker” values that have generally taken a backseat to evangelicalism’s love for all things “boomer.” Whether we can get there when the dominant form of evangelicalism continues to be non-denominational and credobaptistic is an open question, but the possibility for a Protestant BenOp that leads to a richer, historically grounded Protestantism is certainly there.
Thus this separatism need not look like the separatism that has often typified dissident brands of American Protestantism. Indeed, if our current withdrawal ends up looking like the schismatic fundamentalism of past generations we will have failed. Rather, the necessary withdrawal that evangelicals ought to make needs to be defined in specific terms (I’d start with withdrawing from the public schools) and designed to obtain specific goods, namely a more robustly Christian identity that maintains a healthy suspicion of American civil religion and all forms of nationalism.
That being said, a further point should be made to avoid some of the worst anabaptist excesses that can easily creep in with this kind of Hauerwasian language. The point of this move is not simply to establish some sort of pure Christian counter culture or to embrace a kind of permanent exiled minority status. The church is not somehow made more pure simply by virtue of being a cultural minority. We should not aspire to a permanent fringe status in the culture. This brings us to one of the chief difficulties with the BenOp which is its emphasis on withdrawal. As I’ve noted elsewhere, I think this emphasis is probably mistaken, even if I understand why the specific language has been used so far. But whenever I hear someone get specific about what this withdrawal means in anything resembling a useful way, I come away thinking “well, we should’ve been doing that already.”
It might be helpful, then, (and it would certainly be Protestant) to frame this movement less in terms of withdrawal and more in terms of reform. We must begin with reforming the church to address many of our persistent issues, particularly those concerning family life, education, place, and home economy. But the purpose of that reforming is to equip us to carry out the mission given to us by Christ in the Gospel. Put another way, we’re reacquainting ourselves with normal Christian orthodoxy so that we can then reacquaint our neighbors with normal Christian orthodoxy.
Similarly, from a Catholic point of view, Timothy P. O’Malley argues that Catholics should engage in a strategic retreat to fortify themselves for outward engagement. Excerpt:
Hence, a retreat of Catholics away from public institutions and the cultural norms that such institutions presume is not a choice between withdrawal or engagement. Rather, it should always be a retreat into Catholic particularity so that the Church might be better prepared to offer the fruits of her life for the world.
Perhaps now is the right time for the Church to once again retreat into Catholic particularity for the sake of deeper engagement in the world. In the context of Catholic education, it has become the case that many institutions once established to pass on a Catholic worldview have bought in wholesale to secular paradigms that deconstruct the Catholic genius. Theological education, rather than an encounter with the discipline of faith seeking understanding, becomes a thin introduction to generic spiritual principles. Many Catholic schools, once established to educate the least among us, are now recognized as premier places to climb the social ladder toward success. Mission statements, except for an occasional reference to God or the Church, are seemingly taken verbatim from secular peers. Catholic identity, in the end, is not a free-floating term, reducible to a series of universal principles. Rather, it is the result of immersing oneself into a series of narratives and practices found within the Church that constitute a way of life. To maintain these narratives and practices will necessarily involve, at times, a retreat away from those other narratives and practices that compete with the Catholic worldview.
Yet, this retreat into particularity can never become sectarian. The ecclesial vision of the Second Vatican Council is not a Church radically against the world, attempting to construct an alternative community apart from the human family. Rather, the Church must retreat into particularity precisely because it is only in the particularity of our vision of human life taken up into Christ that we have anything to offer the world to begin with. The Catholic school is a witness to the world that the disciplines of mathematics, science and engineering are not the only authentic ways of knowing something (but they are authentic ways of knowing!). The Catholic school proposes that the purpose of education is not some vision of worldly success but first and foremost the awakening of the human being to wonder and gratitude. That theological education is not a pleasant diversion from real forms of education but is instead integral to what it means to have knowledge of the world in light of the triune God’s involvement in human history. That faculty, staff and students in such a school find their deepest identity in the Eucharistic gathering, where we receive and are invited to become the self-sacrificial love of Christ for the world.
It is often only in the context of such a retreat into particularity that we can return to those core principles of the Gospel, which might support us in our missionary engagement to the world. The purpose of this retreat is not about creating a community that will be able to survive the onslaught of secularity, waiting the very moment in which the world desires to turn to us as savior of culture. Rather, the Church in a particular place turns inward for the sake of contemplating the riches that she seeks to pass on. A retreat, in this sense, is always preparation for authentic engagement in public life.
And so, blogging will be light today as I retreat briefly into private life to spend time with new Evangelical friends, and talk about how the Benedict Option can prepare us and our children to be more faithful servants of the world by being servants of Christ first.