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Babylon & the Benedict Option

Isaiah prophesies against Babylon (Image by Gustave Doré; Nicku/Shutterstock)

Excerpt from an interview I did with Warren Cole Smith of WORLD magazine, about the Benedict Option:

MacIntyre says, “We’re waiting for a new and doubtless very different Saint Benedict to bring those who want to live the moral life together in community to survive through this current darkness.” I’ve been talking about this for years, but it’s starting to get real now because, with the progression of same-sex marriage and gay rights, we have seen a strong erosion of religious liberty. A lot of Christians think of this as simply a matter of law and politics. It’s not. We have lost the culture. We conservatives, we Christians, did not compete at the cultural level, so culture comes first. Politics and law follow that. …>My argument is that Christians had better prepare for this. We are fighting a losing game. The country is not ours anymore. This is not our culture anymore. Maybe it never was our real home, but we have got to prepare ourselves and our families and our churches through intentional living, through disciplined living, and through an awareness of the cultural moment to deal with perhaps even persecution.

Some people say the Benedict way means separation; it means disengagement. First of all, is that what you mean? Or do you mean prayer, and holiness, and preparing your family to live lives of prayer and holiness?

We don’t have the luxury of disengagement. We’ve got to protect our institutions as best we can. What I’m trying to say, to tell Christians, is it’s not enough to be a knight. You have to be a gardener, too. In the work I’ve done in the past couple years, I’ve talked to Christian leaders in different colleges, Catholic and Protestant, and they are seeing an entire generation of young people who don’t know their faith. Even if they’ve been through church groups, it’s always been this sort of Jesus-is-my-boyfriend, youth pastor kind of stuff that’s about a quarter-inch deep.

They don’t have the strong sense of the faith, not only in terms of what they know, but in terms of the way they live, their habits. They don’t have a strong enough sense of the faith to withstand the power of this culture, and you’re starting to see it, especially in the same-sex marriage thing. When people, young people, so willingly throw over biblical morality to fit in with the culture, that tells you there’s a problem, and I’ve seen it myself in the different churches I’ve been involved with. There’s just this moralistic, therapeutic deism, as Christian Smith calls it, this idea that “God is my best friend; God is the cosmic butler.” That is the real faith of American Christians, young Christians, and some of my generation.

Relatedly, a pastor in California sends me this essay by Steve McAlpine, an Australian Evangelical, in which he argues (from Australia’s experience, which is a little different from the American one) that Christians are about to enter “Stage Two Exile,” for which the “Stage One” version — a pervasive sense of cultural irrelevance, a condition that could be remedied by trying to be relevant — has not prepared us. Excerpts:

There were a set of assumptions made by Exile Stage One-rs that have not lined up with what is going to pan out over the coming three or so decades if the last five years are any indication. Let me map out some of these misplaced assumptions briefly:

1. We Assumed Athens not Babylon

For all of the talk about exile, the language of Athens, and the need to find a voice in a culture of competing ideas, was far more prevalent in Exile Stage One conversation than the language of the true city of exile,Babylon. We were exploring ways to deal with the culture being uninterested in us, not despising us. I well remember myself saying “People are not walking past your church and saying, ‘If I never go to church, that’s the one I am never going to.’ No, they don’t see it at all.” That’s Athens talk, and assumes that if we can just show a point of connection to the culture then the conversation will flow and we will all get along.

I have changed my mind on this one. In the last five or six years the culture (read: elite framework that drives the culture) is increasingly interested in bringing the church back into the public square. Yes, you heard that right. But not in order to hear it, but rather, in order to flay it, expose its real and alleged abuses and to render it naked and shivering before a jeering crowd. It is Shadrach, Meschach and Abednego standing up before the statue of gold, whilst everyone else is grovelling and going, “Pssst, kneel down for goodness sake!” It is officials conspiring with the king to show that Daniel’s act of praying towards Jerusalem three times per day is not simply an archaic and foolish hope, but a very real threat to the order of the society and the new moral order that will hold it together.

If the primary characteristic of Exile Stage One was supposed to be humility, the primary characteristic of Second Stage Exiles will have to be courage. Courage does not mean bombastic pronouncements to the world, not at all. It has to be much deeper than that. It will mean, upon hearing the king’s command that no one can pray to any god save the king for thirty days, that we go into our rooms with the window open towards Jerusalem and defy that king even as our accusers hunt us down. It means looking the king in his enraged face and saying, even in our God does not rescue us from the flames, we will not serve your gods or bow down to your statue of gold. Unlike Athens, Babylon is not interested in trying to out-think us, merely overpower us. Apologetics and new ways of doing church don’t cut it in Babylon. Only courage under fire will.

McAlpine says that Evangelicals burned by the naive Fundamentalism of their parents’ generation embraced an equally naive Irenicism towards the broader culture:

Simply put, we assume that we can have more impact on culture than it can have on us. That is dangerously naive thinking. Jesus never said the culture will misunderstand you; he said the world will hate you. He did not say to his disciples, “Display reckless abandon and go out there and change culture”; he said “fear not, I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33).

The result? All too often Exile Stage One became Exit Stage Left. Post-evangelicalism/post-foundationalism took many people down the path of post-Christian, providing a soft landing for those who wanted to jump out of the plane but were afraid of heights.

How have I seen this play out over the past decade? Sadly in too many ways. Whilst good has come of it, I have watched too often as burnt out evangelicals who are sick to death with fundamentalist infightings drift first from saying we must get back to the source of the gospel for the sake of the culture, to re-interpreting the gospel in the shape of the world. I have watched as a series of questions that began with “What if we changed the perspective on how we look at this traditional issue?” end up with “Did God really say?”. And painful though it is to say, the post-evangelicalSexuality Gospel has simply replaced the Boomer Prosperity Gospel for a generation that idolises the comfort that experience offers, rather than the comfort that money offers.

The result? All too often Exile Stage One became Exit Stage Left. Post-evangelicalism/post-foundationalism took many people down the path of post-Christian, providing a soft landing for those who wanted to jump out of the plane but were afraid of heights.

Read the whole thing. It’s well worth it.

Interesting to me to see that at this point, Evangelicals seem to be more engaged by the ideas of the Benedict Option than do Catholics. Well and good. All of us small-o orthodox Christians need each other, and will need each other more and more. I see a profound point of contact with Pastor McAlpine’s diagnosis and the Benedict Option. Discovering the virtues and practices necessary to find the strength and courage to hold on during what is to come will pose a challenge to all Christians in the West. You may be Evangelical, you may be Catholic, you may be Orthodox, but if you are not Benedictine in your approach to the life of faith, you or your children aren’t going to be Christian for long.


about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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