Evangelical theologians Bruce Ashford and Michael Bird (who is Australian) recently spoke at a Southeastern Seminary event in which they offered responses to The Benedict Option. From the report, here’s part of what Bird had to say:
The Benedict Option won’t work in Australia and it soon won’t work in other Western countries because even the existence of separate Christian communities is anathema—if we build monasteries, they will attack those too. As a whole, Bird agrees with Dreher about the state of the West—the future looks bleak and culture continues to spiral out of control.
Despite this dreary outlook, Bird did not sink into pessimism. Instead he called for Christians to “turn the world upside down,” much like Paul did when he came to Thessalonica. Rather than capitulate to civic totalism (in which the state holds supreme power and regulates as much of life as possible) or retreat from the public square, Bird calls Christians to “wage a counter insurgency armed with peace and pluralism.” Christians can turn the world upside down by acting as peaceful public nuisances who promote a community of love and freedom and “practice allegiance to Jesus rather than Democratic Caesars and Republican czars.” Christians should expose the hypocrisy, violence and predatory nature of progressivism as well as the political right, which uses Christianity for its own agenda. They have to get creative in their resistance to a culture that demands total surrender to tyranny disguised as tolerance.
Well, Bird would be right if I advocated retreating to gated communities. Good thing that I don’t.
I have to wonder, though, where Bird thinks Christians who are going to “turn the world upside down” are going to find the teaching and the discipline to do this, especially in a society where they are looked down upon, and even persecuted. If he asks himself this question, then he will come to understand the need for the Benedict Option.
This is a fundamental mistake that people who have not read the book keep making: assuming that it’s about building external protections for the church in the post-Christian West. It is to some degree, but it’s mostly about rebuilding the church’s internal culture. This 2004 quote, from the historian of early Christianity Robert Louis Wilken, I cite in The Benedict Option; it’s what the Ben Op is trying to achieve:
Nothing is more needful today than the survival of Christian culture, because in recent generations this culture has become dangerously thin. At this moment in the Church’s history in this country (and in the West more generally) it is less urgent to convince the alternative culture in which we live of the truth of Christ than it is for the Church to tell itself its own story and to nurture its own life, the culture of the city of God, the Christian republic. This is not going to happen without a rebirth of moral and spiritual discipline and a resolute effort on the part of Christians to comprehend and to defend the remnants of Christian culture.
In my book, I cite research showing that Christianity in the United States is, in fact, dangerously thin — even among Evangelicals. Surely it is the same or worse in Australia — and surely Michael Bird recognizes this. Christians cannot hope to change Australia, America, or anywhere else if they are first not transformed in real ways by grace. This is the greatest challenge facing the churches today — even more urgent than the fact that we are living in an increasingly anti-Christian world.
I am always struck by Christian critics of the Ben Op who say, “The Benedict Option is useless because the world won’t leave us alone!” You’re right, the world won’t leave us alone. I expect it to grow more hostile to traditional Christians, and write about this openly in my book. So how are you going to stay faithful when you have to pay a real price for it? And how are you going to raise Christian kids, and support your church, when faith becomes not only a serious social and professional liability, but when it becomes harder to believe in this culture?
What are you going to do when even the kids who go to your church or your kid’s Christian school don’t believe? That’s happening right now, you know. Far too many of our churches are piety factories producing Moralistic Therapeutic Deists, not actual Christians. These shallow, assimilated Christians aren’t going to turn the world upside down; they’re not even going to turn up at church once the going gets tough. As it will.
This is why we need the Benedict Option, not for whatever reason Michael Bird thinks we do.
(Hey, readers, I’m going to be away from the keys for a good part of today. I’m going to do something really neat. I’ll tell you about it tomorrow.)