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Missing The Point Of The Benedict Option

My response to critics in the Christianity Today symposium
short ben op bloggable cover

Christianity Today generously published an adaptation of The Benedict Option as its cover story this month. You can read it here.  The magazine asked four prominent Evangelicals to respond to it. You can read their short contributions here. 

I’m going to respond to some of what each has to say below, but before I do, let me say that I assume that none were able to read the entire book — that they’re responding to the adaptation that appeared in the magazine. It would be unfair of me to hold them responsible for things they got wrong, or distorted, if they haven’t seen the entire book, and I apologize in advance if below I inadvertently fault them for something they were not in a position to know. I’m responding because I don’t want those who read the symposium think that the writers have accurately described my book, but at the same time I assume the good faith of all four respondents.

With that caveat in place, here are a few thoughts from me.

David Fitch frames the Benedict Option as a choice between full withdrawal from social life or engagement — and says the Gospel requires us to choose the latter:

We cannot however, make a choice between living in Christian community or being present in our culture. To paraphrase theologian Stanley Hauerwas, how can the church possibly withdraw when by necessity we find ourselves surrounded? There’s no place to go.

The church is made who it is by being the church in the world. The church’s primary reason for being is to be in and among (but not of) the world (John 17:14–15). Just as Israel was birthed to be a blessing to the nations (Gen. 22:18), so also the church was sent by the Spirit into the world to bring all the nations to himself (Matt. 28:19).

We cannot, therefore, extract ourselves from the world without losing who we are. The church does not have a mission. It is mission.

Fitch says that I pose a “false dichotomy,” but the fault is actually his. His response seems to be another example of people imposing their own fears on the Benedict Option. There is nothing in the CT cover story that advocates bunkering down in our own neo-Amish enclaves. Seriously, read it for yourself.  As I have said repeatedly elsewhere (and again, to be fair, without having read the entire book, Fitch may not know this), total withdrawal is neither possible nor desirable. As I write in The Benedict Option:

This is not just about our own survival. If we are going to be for the world as Christ meant for us to be, we are going to have to spend more time away from the world, in deep prayer and substantial spiritual training—just as Jesus retreated to the desert to pray before ministering to the people. We cannot give the world what we do not have. If Israel had been assimilated by the world of the ancient Near East, it would have ceased being a light to the world. So it is with the church.

I don’t know David Fitch, who is a seminary professor, but I doubt he would disagree with that. I would challenge him to consider, though, the extent to which the church, its institutions, and its families are preparing people to witness to the world we actually live in — and that includes being discipled morally and spiritually such that we can be in the world without being assimilated into it. There is ample evidence that we are failing, and failing badly. Sociologist Christian Smith has written several books about this, based on his own research. He is not alone.

Over and over as I travel to Christian college campuses, I hear the same refrain from professors: these are great kids, but they come to us knowing next to nothing about the Christian faith. We’re not talking only about information concerning the Christian faith (though that too is an enormous problem). We’re talking about formation in the Christian faith, which is to say the practices, the way of life that forms stout and resilient Christian hearts.

I recently spoke with an Evangelical pastor who works with young men preparing for seminary. Keep in mind these are men who love Christ so much that they are planning to spend their entire lives serving Him and His people in ministry. And yet, said the pastor, every single one of them has an addiction to pornography. The pastor has concluded that the church is terribly naive about the relationship between its people and technology. He’s right. So many conservative Christians hand their pre-teen kids, or young teenagers, smartphones, and hope for the best. This is crazy! It is unreasonable to expect pubescent boys in particular to be able to control their desire for sexual images. They need help from parents and from their Christian community. They need for us to shield them while we build within them the capacity of character that will allow them to say no to it when they are older. And not only boys: one college professor told me that he’s observed the male students in his classes struggling against porn, but recently, for the first time ever, he’s starting to see his female students doing the same.

Yet many of us sit in judgment over the unbelievers in the world. I spoke with a Christian who sends his kids to public school. His son plays with a Christian kid in the neighborhood whose parents homeschool. The Christian man’s son came home from the homeschooled boy’s house and said, “Guess what I saw today at [name’s] house on a tablet?” It was pornography, of course. Said this father, “And we’re the bad parents who put our kids in the public school, where they’re supposedly exposed to all this stuff?”

That father is correct. So often we conservative Christians are quick to make judgments about the rest of the world, without picking the tablets and smartphones logs out of our own eyes.

We in the church are failing terribly at formation — and, mind you, porn is only one area. Smith and his team found that only nine percent of Christian Millennials said that they see materialism and consumerism as a spiritual and moral problem against which they should struggle as believers. Whatever we are doing to form the next generations, it’s not working. The evidence is right in front of our eyes, if we care to see it. Hear me clearly: we must stay engaged with the world for the sake of mission, and fulfilling the Great Commission. But we cannot give the world what we do not have.

I don’t have any serious objections to law professor John Inazu’s take, though I suspect that the things that most concern him about the CT article are answered in the book in a way that allays some of his worries about the Benedict Option. One thing in his short response jumped out at me:

Tim Keller and I have argued that our confidence in the gospel lets us find common ground with others even when we can’t agree on a common good. This confidence in our own beliefs and the institutions that sustain them is also what I’ve suggested allows Christians to pursue confident pluralism.

I agree with this. We conservative Christians live in a pluralistic world, whether we like it or not, and we have to learn how to relate to it. I take God’s instruction to the Hebrew exiles in Babylon, as spoken through the prophet Jeremiah (Jer. 29), to be prescriptive for Christians today: plant yourselves among the unbelievers, raise your families, pray and work for the prosperity of the whole — but do not allow yourselves to be assimilated to their false gods. My argument in The Benedict Option is that very many American Christians today lack confidence in our own beliefs and institutions, and moreover, don’t really know what those beliefs are supposed to be or what they require of us in this extraordinary time and place. Nor do our institutions. We have to reform — individually, in our families, in our churches, and in our institutions — if we are going to form the kind of believers who are capable of engaging in “confident pluralism” without being assimilated to the strange gods of 21st century America.

I’m not quite sure what Karen Ellis’s objections are in her piece. She starts like this:

The impulse of some in the church to focus inward is admirable on the surface. A desire for more robust communities committed to prayer, discipline, study, obedience, and being the church without compromise and at cost, are key to surviving a chilly—and sometimes hostile—cultural climate.

Yet as an advocate for the 250 million global Christians currently living under various levels of hostility, I’ve observed that inward focus is not where New Testament community ends.

And then she goes on to cite various communities who are, in fact, living out the Benedict Option in intense and self-sacrificial ways. Hey, I applaud and encourage those Christians! There is nothing in the Benedict Option that says otherwise. The Ben Op says, however, that if the church wants to produce men and women capable of living those kinds of lives, whether in inner cities, suburbs, small towns, or wherever, it is going to have to work a lot harder on formation and discipleship. My sense reading Ellis’s bit is that she was reacting to what she imagines the Benedict Option to be rather than the thing I actually describe. This is a very common response from Evangelicals, many of whom, no matter how many times I say otherwise, assume that I’m saying that we have to run for the hills and build high, impenetrable walls between ourselves and the world. In truth, I am saying that if you want to present the true face of Christ to the outside world, you have to do much more in the way of prayer, contemplation, and discipled living inside the family, the congregation, and in Christian schools.

Why this is controversial eludes me.

Finally, Hannah Anderson says — wait for it — that the Benedict Option is not something for Evangelicals because it calls on Christians to head for the hills and build high, impenetrable walls between themselves and the world:

Rod Dreher’s call for a tactical retreat to resist secularism may be a viable corrective for Christian faith traditions with a well-established understanding of corporate faith and the role Christianity plays in the common good. But for evangelicals, whose theology emphasizes the individual’s relationship with God, retreat could actually exacerbate our individualism by disabling a key piece of our systematic: the call to actively and intentionally work for the good of our neighbor’s soul.

The. Benedict. Option. Does. Not. Call. For. This.

More Anderson:

Historically, evangelicalism’s individualistic focus has been held in tension by our commitment to the Great Commission. If every individual must answer to God, we must be about the business of evangelizing and discipling every individual. From this shared mission sprang communal institutions: schools, mission societies, local churches, and mercy ministries. For evangelicals, building community must be a form of advance, not retreat.

The point of the Benedict Option is that if the Kingdom is going to advance, we have to undertake a strategic retreat — not wholesale retreat, but strategic retreat — for the sake of strengthening our witness. Take one step back to prepare ourselves to take three steps forward. For Anderson, I’d like to share this good news, from a conversation I had with a monk, recounted in The Benedict Option:

The power of popular culture is so overwhelming that faithful orthodox Christians often feel the need to retreat behind defensive lines. But Brother Ignatius warned that Christians must not become so anxious and fearful that they cease to share the Good News, in word and deed, with a world held captive by hatred and darkness. It is prudent to draw reasonable boundaries, but we have to take care not to be like the unfaithful servant in the Parable of the Talents, who was punished by his master for his poor, fearful stewardship of the master’s property.

“The best defense is offense. You defend by attacking,” Brother Ignatius said. “Let’s attack by expanding God’s kingdom—first in our hearts, then in our own families, and then in the world. Yes, have to have borders, but our duty is not to let the borders stay there. We have to push outward, infinitely.”

Again, I presume the good faith of these critics, who were responding to a portion of the book, not the whole thing. I do hope they will read the book when it comes out on March 14, and rethink their reactions. They will no doubt find things in it to criticize — I would be surprised if every reader agrees with everything I’ve written — but at least they will be criticizing from a more informed position. Let me encourage potential readers, Evangelical and otherwise, to check the book out for yourselves, and not to rely fully on the reactions of others.

UPDATE: This comment from Father Lawrence Farley, in Canada, seems to me really insightful:

Since my life and experience all come from north of the 49th parallel I don’t know how accurate any of my observations might be about American Christianity. It does seem to me, however, that your book is drawing rather a lot of fire before it has even come out, and I have a guess as to why this might be. It seems as if many of your reviewers cannot resist embracing a dichotomy of what you describe as “full withdrawal from social life or engagement” as if these were the only two available options, and then inevitably reading your book as counselling the former. My guess is that American Christianity has always been about cultural power and ascendency– e.g. which groups are invited to National Prayer Breakfasts– and that the current ouster from cultural ascendency is too difficult to bear. The prediction of the late RC bishop of Chicago Francis George about dying in bed and his successor dying in prison and his successor after that dying as a martyr in the public square strikes at the heart of their self-understanding of what American Christianity is about. American Christianity by definition retains its place in the sun. Your book is offensive because it denies this basic principle, and the reviewers respond by reading into it the only alternative to cultural ascendency they know– namely full withdrawal, as if Ben-Op Christians were Orthodox Amish in their bomb shelters. That is not what the book counsels, but for them that is the only alternative to cultural ascendancy, so that must be what you said. If it’s any consolation, there is probably nothing you could have added to the book which would have made a difference in how they viewed it. Protesting that you are not in fact counselling total withdrawal would only have provoked the accusation that the book was self-contradictory. Forgive me if I am too harsh in my view of American Christianity, but that’s how it looks to me in the Great White North.