Os Guinness will soon be speaking at a prayer breakfast in Australia. Excerpts from an advance interview he did with Eternity magazine there:
Guinness acknowledges a puzzle in his description of America, the lead nation of Western democracies at least, as being in cultural decline. “In America the scandal of the church is that it is a huge majority, 70 per cent of Americans or something like that, and yet minority groups – good groups like the Jews or the LGBT people we might differ with – they are only 2 per cent of the population and yet have more cultural influence than Christians.
“The church is simply not being salt and light at a crucial moment.”
Eternity asked Guinness to flesh out what those words mean.
So he did:
“Our Lord’s words are obvious metaphors for effective penetration and engagement. They are not in favour of a pietism that is privatised, or the current notions in the English-speaking world of the ‘Benedict Option’, which I read as retreating into communities in order to be prayed for. I think that is wrong.
“The reformation reversed Benedict, great though Benedict was with a notion of calling everyone everywhere living as salt and light in the spheres of life in which Christ has put them – whether doctors or lawyers or teachers or homemakers or engineers or computer scientist or whatever.
“That is what we need today. A powerful vision of calling (one of my favourite themes) that thrusts Christians out to engage society. Only the gospel will give a good outcome for the future.”
Man, this is frustrating. The Benedict Option has been out for over a year, and Os Guinness is one of the smartest Evangelicals in the public square … and he seriously misunderstands the book’s argument. He is a man of integrity. He ought to read my book instead of giving interviews denouncing what he imagines its claims to be. He may yet disagree with it, but at least he would be disagreeing with the book I actually wrote instead of the book he imagines that I wrote.
At the risk of killing you regular readers with boredom, here’s what my argument actually is, contra Guinness.
The Benedict Option is very clear that ordinary Christians are not called to live in monasteries. The book takes its name primarily from something the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre — at the time an atheist — wrote in the early 1980s (UPDATE: I just learned that he converted to Christianity while writing the book After Virtue, in which he made his famous observation about Benedict). He said that the West has reached a point in modernity in which there are few if any common beliefs upon which we can build a stable, meaningful society. The Enlightenment (said MacIntyre) tried to do that based on Reason alone, but it has failed. MacIntyre said that our time is like the Roman Empire in the West at its fall. Today, he wrote, we await “a new — and doubtless very different — Saint Benedict.”
Saint Benedict was a pious young Roman Christian who left the city around the year 500, and went out to the forest to pray, fast, and to seek God’s will. He eventually became the leader of a group of men who wanted to live in vowed community life, as monks. When he died in the year 547, he had established 12 monasteries in the vicinity of Rome. Over the next centuries, Benedictine monasticism spread throughout barbarian-ruled Europe, and is now seen has having played a central role in preserving the legacy of Greco-Roman civilization, and building a new, Christian civilization.
What MacIntyre was saying is that today we need a figure like Benedict to pioneer a countercultural way of living, so that the tradition of the virtues (remember, MacIntyre was not a Christian at this point) could survive the chaos around us. MacIntyre believed that whoever that “doubtless very different” Benedict would be, he would have to be about establishing communities that live out the virtues. Individuals cannot do this alone.
My book asks: what would a new and different Benedict have to say to Christians today, in this post-Christian culture? The original Benedict emerged out of a Roman culture in which Christianity was still relatively new. It had only been two centuries since Constantine’s conversion, after all. Today, we have lived through Christendom, and the disenchantment of the world. To be sure, that does not make Christianity untrue — indeed, I have staked my life on its truth — but it does make the ability of people to receive and to live out Christianity much more challenging than in the past.
If we Christians are going to hold on to our faith during a period of accelerating de-Christianization, we cannot live as we have been doing. These times are radical; so must our response to them be.
The Benedict Option draws on the teachings of the Rule of St. Benedict, inquiring what we lay Christians of the 21st century — Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox — can learn from its wisdom, and the lived experience of its contemporary monks. It should be very clear to anyone who troubles to read the book that I do not believe that all lay Christians are called to live in quietist, separatist communities. Some may be, and I don’t want to discourage them — the rest of us have a lot to learn from the Anabaptist tradition — but that will not be possible or desirable for most of us.
So what do we do? My book explores various countercultural ways that we can live, having to do with the way we worship, the way we educate our children, the way we understand and live out Christian teachings on sexuality, the way we interact in the workplace, the way we use technology, and so forth. Os Guinness is condemning the Benedict Option on grounds that it not what it actually is!
You can imagine my frustration. What’s more, in the book I quote Evangelicals who are engaged in this kind of work. As I point out there, Evangelicals are going to have to work out what the Benedict Option means for them as Evangelicals. I talk about the importance of evangelism — something that all Christians are obliged to do — but also how the forms evangelism should take in the world today should be more incarnational. For example, I talk in the education chapter about a group of Evangelical undergraduates in group houses at the University of Virginia who are trying to live out what you might call a form of monasticism, in that live in small community, discipling each other, and opening themselves and their houses to those eager to find out what gives them hope.
From the book:
The sad truth is, when the world sees us, it often fails to see anything different from nonbelievers. Christians often talk about “reaching the culture” without realizing that, having no distinct Christian culture of their own, they have been co-opted by the secular culture they wish to evangelize. Without a substantial Christian culture, it’s no wonder that our children are forgetting what it means to be Christian, and no surprise that we are not bringing in new converts.
If today’s churches are to survive the new Dark Age, they must stop “being normal.” We will need to deepen our walk with the Lord, and we will need to do that in ways that seem odd to contemporary eyes. By rediscovering the past, recovering liturgical worship and asceticism, centering our lives on the church community, and tightening church discipline, we will, by God’s grace, again become the peculiar people we should always have been. The fruits of this focus on Christian formation will result not only in stronger Christians but in a new evangelism as the salt recovers its savor.
Reading the Os Guinness interview, I think I understand better why he doesn’t understand the Benedict Option (aside from my doubting that he has read the book). He laments that something like 70 percent of America claims to be Christian, but America is drifting into post-Christianity. Shouldn’t that be a clue right there that the salt has lost its savor? In The Benedict Option, I marshal evidence that the church has been heavily co-opted by the ambient culture. Besides which, surveys (for example) repeatedly show that the faith is collapsing among the young. We are rapidly becoming more like Europe, in that people will no longer feel a need to be Christians in name only.
To be fair, Guinness does concede that “the church is not being salt and light at the moment.” But why is that? Perhaps Guinness believes that the church is simply failing to evangelize. It seems so, given that he laments our lack of “effective penetration and engagement,” and demands “a powerful vision of calling (one of my favourite themes) that thrusts Christians out to engage society.” OK, but look, I can’t say this often enough: We Christians cannot give the world what we do not have!
My claim is that the problem is not that we aren’t articulating our faith clearly enough in the public square. My claim is that we aren’t living it out strongly enough either in private or in public. We are terrible at discipleship. My travels and conversations with Evangelicals and other Christians make this abundantly clear. If we are going to be salt and light in the world, we have to first get our own house in order. That’s not simply a matter of being clearer about what we believe; it’s also about being more faithful in how we live every day.
But that’s not all I claim. I believe that it is too late to try to turn things around. De-Christianization has been building for a very long time in the West, and it is not going to be arrested anytime soon. This is not a reason to panic, but it is a reason to stop thinking in outdated categories, and to get serious about preparing to live as despised minorities. What are we going to do when we cannot go into certain careers without compromising our beliefs? (How are you going to be “salt and light” in the workplace when you won’t be allowed to keep your job, or run your business?) What are we going to do when we are pushed to the margins of society? When we are not allowed to run our own schools according to our beliefs? When we are made to be poor, and to suffer? This is all coming. If we are not ready for it, we are going to apostatize for the sake of protecting our status. I don’t think this is true of Os Guinness, but often these days, when I hear Christians talk about the importance of being “salt and light” in the culture, I assume until shown otherwise that they are trying to rationalize avoiding hard choices.
The remnant of European Christians have already lived through this. They know what it’s like. In my travels on the Continent, middle-aged and older Christians still labor under the belief that if they just behave more winsomely, or keep their heads down, or in some way adjust their public stance, they can still be relevant to their secular societies. They’re dreaming. The younger Christians are free of this illusion. They’re not running off to form communes, but they are trying to figure out how to live and to raise their children in post-Christian societies, and doing so accepting that they will be outsiders as such for the foreseeable future.
This week, a young conservative Evangelical pastor reached out to me privately, saying that he’s a fan of The Benedict Option, and that it speaks to his own experience ministering in Red America. He pastors a congregation in a fairly small town in a very conservative part of the US, and gave a couple of examples about how gender ideology coming on strong in his town, especially among the young. The Christians seem to be paralyzed in the face of it.
He told me said that most of the Evangelicals he associates with, if they aren’t in total denial, are either the kind of people who think that if they’re winsome enough, everything will sort itself out, or the kind of people who harbor this idea that some kind of evangelism explosion is going to turn things around. He worries that they aren’t remotely prepared for the world they and their kids and grandkids are going to live in … and that they’re not doing much of anything to get ready.
I don’t want to judge Os Guinness’s entire approach based only on what he said in a single interview. I welcome correction from readers who may have a better informed take. But if he believes the problem is chiefly a lack of “effective penetration and engagement,” then I would say the 76-year-old Christian writer — a very smart, very good man — is working from a badly outdated cultural paradigm.
Look, don’t take it from me, an Eastern Orthodox Christian. Take it from Stephen McAlpine, an Australian Evangelical pastor, who has called my idea “not an option, but a necessity” for the church.
In a different post for Australia’s version of The Gospel Coalition website, McAlpine humorously compares the Christians who deliberately misread The Benedict Option to Homer Simpson:
There’s an episode in The Simpsons in which, having been forced to go into witness protection, Homer is coached by federal agents to naturalise his new identity. Each time his handlers go through the process; telling him his new details, spelling out his new name, before stopping and drilling him on it. Each time he says in a monotone, “Homer Simpson, my name is Homer Simpson.”
When it comes to the Benedict Option, and specifically Rod Dreher’s much anticipated book on the subject, too many are Simpsonesque.
So Dreher makes statements such as:
“We are not looking to create heaven on earth, we are simply looking for a way to be strong in faith through a great time of testing.” (p. 54)
To be sure, Christians cannot afford to vacate the public square entirely. The church must not shrink from its responsibility to pray for political leaders and speak prophetically to them.” (p. 82)
Communities that are wrapped too tightly for fear of impurity will suffocate their members and strangle the joy out of life together. Ideology is the enemy of joyful community, and the most destructive ideology is the belief that creating utopia is a possibility. (p. 139)
Yet at every turn what do I hear? Homer Simpsons monotonously stating, “It’s about withdrawing into a locked compound”; “It’s a return to disengaged fundamentalism.” And these Homers are drawn from a variety of theological backgrounds, ranging from staunch five point Calvinists all the way up/down to scary Incarnational types. United around a common enemy perhaps?
This is not a review of the book—you can go elsewhere for that—but a defence of Dreher’s view of the future, or more to the point, how the future arrives. For too long we have viewed the future like a cable car; a steady upwards—or downwards—ride; predictable and headed in a direction that has been set. We may like that direction, we may not, the key is that we believe we have time to respond to it.
McAlpine says that the culture is collapsing so rapidly around us that the Christian sense of control and crisis management are proving to be illusions:
Our Christian communities are constantly left scrabbling around, reacting. Dreher is calling us to take stock, make changes now that seem slightly odd but which will be vindicated, and build resilience into our people for whatever lies ahead. For our sons are never addicted to sexting and porn until they are. Our church-raised daughters never announce to us that they are pro-SSM until they do. Our men never walk into church with a new lady on their arms instead of their wives and expect us to okay it, until in they so walk.
And the point of this is not about sex, though Dreher shows how the Sexual Revolution is the highpoint—or low point—of a cultural collapse, but about how poorly we are placed for rapid discontinuous change in a world in which the high point of extreme individualism trumps every other narrative about the nature of humanity.
Read the whole thing. Next year, Stephen McAlpine ought to be invited to speak at the Sydney Prayer Breakfast. He may not have all the answers (neither do I!), but at least he grasps what the pressing questions of our time are for the church.
A friendly question to my Evangelical readers: why is it so hard for so many Evangelicals to understand what I’m talking about in The Benedict Option? Is it something particular to Evangelicalism that blocks the concept? Note well that I’m not asking, “Why don’t so many Evangelicals agree with me?” but rather why they don’t understand what they disagree with?
(My view is that most Christians, Evangelical and otherwise, who misunderstand the Ben Op do so because they find it too threatening to their own position. My question is: are there theological reasons why Evangelicals in particular don’t understand the concept.)
UPDATE: Lots of good insight from various camps in the comments below. Thanks. I want to point out that in general, here in the US, Evangelicals have been more enthusiastic about the Ben Op than Catholics. That is to say, in my personal experience. I’ve been invited to speak to many more Evangelical institutions and forums about the Ben Op than I have been to Catholic ones. I think I’ll do a separate post on that.