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Rachel Held Evans Dismisses Benedict Option

Popular progressive Evangelical blogger condemns book she hasn't read, much less understands
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Hoo boy.

In summary: Rachel Held Evans’s critique fails from the start because its entire premise is based on a fantasy that could only be held by someone who doesn’t know what she’s talking about because she has not read the book.

Then again, if someone who believes the things about Christianity that Rachel Held Evans professes approved of The Benedict Option, I would wonder what I had done wrong. So I take this as a vote of confidence.

But so you aren’t misled by these twittered expectorations, let me assure you that the only “persecution” part of the book is the chapter about Work. It focuses on warnings from law professors and others who actually work in this field sound, based on actual study and familiarity with legal and political trends. Just today I was talking with a professor who teaches in a conservative Evangelical college, and she said that she can’t understand why more Christians aren’t aware of what’s facing these institutions. “For me and my colleagues, the question isn’t if they’re going to take our accreditation away, but when,” she said.

These conversations are happening throughout the world of Christian academia, at least among the colleges and universities that intend to remain faithful to Biblical teaching about sexuality. They know what’s coming. And if you pay attention to this stuff too, you cannot be sanguine about it. Of course no Christian college or Christian small business owner who shares RHE’s views on human sexuality stands to lose a thing. As for the rest? Well, they’re bigots, so they deserve what they get.

I anticipated the RHE reaction when I wrote the book. From the Work chapter of The Benedict Option (which Rachel Held Evans has not read):

The workplace is getting tougher for orthodox believers as America’s commitment to religious liberty weakens. Progressives sneer at claims of anti-Christian discrimination or persecution. Don’t you believe them. Most of the experts I talked to on this topic spoke openly only after I promised to withhold their identities. They’re frightened that their words today might cost them their careers tomorrow.


Similarly, orthodox Christians in the emerging era will need to adapt to an era of hostility. Blacklisting will be real. In Canada, the legal profession is trying to forbid law graduates of Trinity Western University, a private Christian liberal arts college, from practicing law—this, to punish the school for being insufficiently progressive on LGBT issues. Similarly, an LGBT activist group called Campus Pride has put more than one hundred Christian colleges on a “shame list” and called on business and industry not to hire their graduates. It is unwise to discount the influence of groups like this on corporate culture—and that, in turn, will have a devastating effect on Christian colleges.

“The challenges to Christian education—especially higher education—are about to be aggressive,” one legal scholar said. “Degrees from unaccredited universities, or universities that can’t place graduates or receive federal research dollars, are of very low value.”

Does this mean that no Christian should go to medical school or law school or enroll in professional training to enter other fields? Not necessarily. It does mean, however, that Christians must not take for granted that within a given field, there will be no challenges to their faith so great that they will have to choose between their Christianity and their careers. Many Christians will be compelled to make their living in ways that do not compromise their religious consciences. This calls for prudence, boldness, vocational creativity, and social solidarity among believers.

How many law professors, business executives, physicians, college faculty, and others has Rachel Held Evans talked to about what the see now, and what they see coming?

That’s not persecution on the level that the suffering church in many countries abroad has to endure. But it’s not nothing, and the marginalization we’re starting to experience now is not going to stay the same or get better. Last year, K.A. Ellis, whose professional life involves working with the persecuted church overseas wrote in Christianity Today that believers she talks to in those countries express concern about the church in the United States.  Excerpt:

Still, given the terrible persecution of Christians overseas, I wonder whether it’s accurate to say that American Christians are “under persecution.” When I discuss the rise in anti-Christian hostility in the States, I avoid the “p word,” and I don’t make comparisons to other parts of the world.

But listen to a Middle Eastern underground house church leader: “Persecution is easier to understand when it’s physical: torture, death, imprisonment….American persecution is like an advanced stage of cancer; it eats away at you, yet you cannot feel it. This is the worst kind of persecution.”

A Syrian remaining in the region to assist Christians and Muslims cautions, “It wasn’t only ISIS who laid waste to the church; our cultural compromises with the government and our divisions against each other brewed for a long time. We are Damascus, the seat of Christianity; what happened to us can happen to you. Be careful.”

When persecuted Christian leaders overseas warn about how seriously US Christians are marginalized, it’s time to listen.

Ellis goes on to say that there are people (“hostility deniers”) who pooh-pooh the idea of persecution, and also “hostility seekers,” eager to see it everywhere. Both are wrong, in her view. She cites a third option:

Hostility realists understand that anything is possible. Rarely does a nation move from freedom to oppression overnight. Realists understand that while the US Constitution promises inalienable rights to all citizens, those rights are not always guaranteed for the church.

I deliberately chose not to write in The Benedict Option about the African-American church, because I didn’t feel right comparing the situation today to what black Christians suffered under slavery and Jim Crow. Besides, I’m a white Christian, and I don’t feel that I have the moral authority to write about that. But Ellis, who is African-American, goes there in her CT piece:

By the century’s end, though, freedoms had been steadily chipped away, race-based slavery established, and the worship, speech, and activities of black churches and gatherings were repressed. Still, the persecuted black church remained active underground, meeting in secret “hush harbors” of slaves and among free, believing abolitionists.

If The Benedict Option takes off, I hope some smart publisher will give K.A. Ellis a contract to write about what the American church in the 21st century can learn about how to suffer faithfully from the black church’s historical experience. And by the way, Ellis is right that “anything is possible.” Historian Peter Brown talked in this lecture about how even Christians living in the (Western) Roman Empire’s final century or two had no idea what was coming. Along the same lines, historian Edward Watts, in his 2015 book The Final Pagan Generation, writes of how prominent Romans pagans in the tumultuous fourth century didn’t see the end of their own world coming either. Even after the Empire became officially Christian, they could not wrap their minds around the fact that the world they had known, and their position in it, was about to end.

So: Are we Rome? Much rides on how we answer that question.

Anyway, I don’t follow RHE, though I know she’s a big deal among progressive Evangelicals. I looked her up after reading her tweets, and see that she was raised in a fundamentalist (or fundamental-ish) church background. I could be wrong, but I get the idea that she interprets the entire American church today from the standpoint of being an anti-fundamentalist reactionary. Hey, not all of us conservative Christians voted for Trump! And for those who did, that’s not the only important thing about them, and probably not the most important thing. It’s a big Christian world out there. Most of us have managed to be orthodox in our Christian belief without ever having been fundamentalist, or even had to deal with it. Sorry if you did, but don’t try to force the rest of us into your narrow dichotomy. Just because the Benedict Option looks superficially like the fundagelical churches you grew up in and rejected doesn’t mean it actually is that.

As people who read the book will plainly see.

Besides, does RHE really think that the Christians overseas whose intense persecution and suffering she would (I hope) deplore — does she think that they agree with her about LGBT issues, or other things so near and dear to the hearts of progressive white bourgeois Christians? When you have such a narrow, parochial, time-bound, uninformed view of the church, it’s easy to think that your own personal problems with it are universally valid. The life of the Christian church, both in 21st century America and in the 2,000 years it has existed on this earth, is not defined by the cultural politics and preoccupations of white middle-class American Christians of the left or the right. And that is what the Benedict Option is trying to fight.

It will surprise people who take RHE’s word for it on The Benedict Option (which she hasn’t read) to learn that the book is not, in fact, focused on persecution. That part is more or less confined to single chapter. Most of the book reads like this:

Asceticism, especially fasting according to the Church calendar, was for most of Christian history a normal part of every believer’s life. “But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face,” Jesus says in the Gospel of Matthew (6:17), indicating that periodically abstaining from food for religious reasons was standard practice. In the first century, Christians fasted on Wednesdays and Fridays, in memory of Christ’s betrayal and crucifixion—an ascetical practice still observed today by Eastern Orthodox Christians.

A Christian who practices asceticism trains himself to say no to his desires and yes to God. That mentality has all but disappeared from the West in modern times. We have become a people oriented around comfort. We expect our religion to be comfortable. Suffering doesn’t make sense to us. And without fasting and other ascetic disciplines, we lose the ability to tell ourselves no to things our hearts desire.

To rediscover Christian asceticism is urgent for believers who want to train their hearts, and the hearts of their children, to resist the hedonism and consumerism at the core of contemporary culture. And it is necessary to teach us in our bones how God uses suffering to purify us for His purposes. Ascetical suffering is a method for avoiding becoming like those monks called “detestable” by Saint Benedict in the Rule “the worst kind of monk,” namely those whose “law is the desire for self-gratification.”

In the teaching of the Desert Fathers, every Christian struggles to root out all desires within their hearts that do not harmonize with God’s will. Brother Augustine explained how this works.

“It’s like you’re strengthening your will,” he said. “You may be in a time of fasting, and your stomach is growling because you can’t eat until five-thirty. And then you think, ‘If I can’t handle not eating for a few hours, how can I expect to control my more spiritual passions, like anger, envy, and pride? How can I expect to have any spiritual and moral self-discipline if I don’t start with the more tangible, material desires first?’”

Besides, as Father Benedict put it, asceticism can be a wake-up call for the spiritually slothful. “We are often further away from God than we realize,” he said. “Asceticism serves as a healthy reminder of how things are. It’s not a punishment for being so far away.”

And like this:

A generation ago two conservative Christian leaders—Evangelical Chuck Colson and Roman Catholic Richard John Neuhaus—launched an initiative called Evangelicals and Catholics Together. The idea was to foster better relations between Christians in two church traditions that had been mutually suspicious. Colson and Neuhaus realized earlier than many that the post-1960s cultural changes meant that conservative Evangelicals and orthodox Catholics now had more in common with each other than with liberals in their own church traditions. They called their kind of partnership, born in part out of pro-life activism, an “ecumenism of the trenches.”

Times have changed, and so have some of the issues conservative Evangelicals and Catholics face. But the need for an ecumenism of the trenches is stronger than ever. Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, a senior bishop in the Russian Orthodox Church, has on several occasions appealed to traditionalists in the West to form a “common front” against atheism and secularism. To be sure, the different churches should not compromise their distinct doctrines, but they should nevertheless seize every opportunity to form friendships and strategic alliances in defense of the faith and the faithful.

Erin Doom, a longtime employee of the legendary Eighth Day Books, a Christian bookstore in Wichita, Kansas, founded the Eighth Day Institute (EDI) as the store’s nonprofit educational arm. Committed to small-o orthodox ecumenism and to building up the local Christian community, EDI hosts various symposia and events throughout the year. Its signature event, though, may be the Hall of Men, a twice-monthly gathering in EDI’s clubhouse, a kind of Christian speakeasy next door to the bookstore, in which Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant men have been coming together since 2008 to pray, to discuss and debate the works of a great figure of Christian history, then to sit around the table drinking pints of beer and enjoying each other’s company.

The Hall of Men, and its recently launched parallel women’s organization, the Sisters of Sophia, are a way for “mere Christians” to engage the Great Tradition, to root themselves in it, and to go out into the world to renew culture. Doom says the men come together in a spirit of brotherhood, willing to talk about their theological differences in an atmosphere of Christian love. He credits the ecumenical generosity and sense of hospitality of Eighth Day Books owner Warren Farha for setting the tone.

“If we Christians are going to survive, if we’re going to make a difference, we have to be able to come together. Small-o orthodoxy is vital,” says Doom. “I’d like EDI to be a model for other communities. It all begins with Hall of Men, getting the guys involved. Ultimately I want to provide tools and resources for all Christian families to make their homes into little monasteries.”

That’s a Benedict Option community. There are many others. You can meet some of them in my book.

In the interview that RHE cites at the start of her Twitter thread, I say:

Trump is in fact no answer to the crisis. He’s a symptom of the crisis we’re in.

But you know what? So is Rachel Held Evans. In fact, from what I can tell of her thinking and her influence, I think she may be a more acute symptom of cultural breakdown within the Christian church than Trump. Why? Because with her Church Of What’s Happening Now-style progressivism, she represents the hollowing-out of Christianity by Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. I wonder if there’s a single major point on which her theological and moral views clash with the opinions held by secular progressives.

The statistics she quoted in the beginning of her tweetstorm are all but meaningless. Everybody knows that most Americans identify as Christians. So what? Evans indicates that nine out of ten Congressmen identify as Christian — as if that meant anything important about the reality of cultural power in this country. Had she read The Benedict Option — which she didn’t — Evans would have understood the real nature of my critique. Guess what? It ain’t about politics, except tangentially.

Here are some meaningful statistics for Evans to consider. From The Benedict Option:

As bleak as [Notre Dame sociologist] Christian Smith’s 2005 findings were, his follow-up research, a third installment of which was published in 2011, was even grimmer. Surveying the moral beliefs of 18-to-23-year-olds, Smith and his colleagues found that only 40 percent of young Christians sampled said that their personal moral beliefs were grounded in the Bible or some other religious sensibility. Unfortunately, it’s unlikely that the beliefs of even these faithful are biblically coherent. Many of these “Christians” are actually committed moral individualists who neither know nor practice a coherent Bible-based morality.

An astonishing 61 percent of the emerging adults had no moral problem at all with materialism and consumerism. An added 30 percent expressed some qualms but figured it was not worth worrying about. In this view, say Smith and his team, “all that society is, apparently, is a collection of autonomous individuals out to enjoy life.”

These are not bad people. Rather, they are young adults who have been terribly failed by family, church, and the other institutions that formed—or rather, failed to form—their consciences and their imaginations.

MTD is the de facto religion not simply of American teenagers but also of American adults. To a remarkable degree, teenagers have adopted the religious attitudes of their parents. We have been an MTD nation for some time now, though that may have been disguised.

“America has lived a long time off its thin Christian veneer, partly necessitated by the Cold War,” Smith told me in an interview. “That is all finally being stripped away by the combination of mass consumer capitalism and liberal individualism.”

Trump has come and Trump will go away, but the information Smith’s research has turned up about the real state of American religious life ought to terrify people who believe in authentic orthodox Christianity, as opposed to MTD dressed with a light Jesus sauce. I wrote The Benedict Option to address this crisis, and addressed it to conservative Christians, my own tribe, in an attempt to wake them up to the reality of what’s happening, and to get busy preparing for a long period of resistance. The historical experiences of the Benedictine monks have a lot to teach us lay Christians concerning how to build faithful communities of resistance, rooted in Biblical truth and traditional Christian practices. The Benedict Option concept is based on the belief that the faith is under unprecedented threat for a wide variety of reasons, most of them from beliefs and practices within the church, which has compromised too much with popular culture. We can no longer shore up that culture, but instead have to focus on building communities within which we can live out our beliefs as best we can.

Look, I really don’t mind at all that progressive Christians like Rachel Held Evans are freaking out over the Benedict Option. I would have expected that. If you want to read a really intelligent critique of the Ben Op from the perspective of a liberal believer, ignore RHE’s trite tweets and be sure to check out Russell Arben Fox’s review essay on Front Porch Republic. 

I’m not worried about what Rachel Held Evans has to say about The Benedict Optionthough if she actually reads it one day, it would be interesting to see if she still stands by her erroneous prejudices. No, what I’m worried about is that far in the future, should the police come looking for dissident orthodox Christians hiding out from state persecution, the Rachel Held Evanses of the world will point helpfully and patriotically, and say, “They’re in the basement, officer.”

UPDATE: A reader comments:

As I’ve said in the past, progressives (Christians or otherwise) need to deny that orthodox Christians are experiencing any hardship in the west. When your entire moral worldview is about valorizing victims and shaming oppressors, it suddenly becomes very important that the people you dislike and oppose can’t possibly belong to a victim class. The result is an obstinate denial of the lived experiences of orthodox Christians even when the same denial, were it applied to other groups, would be unthinkable from a progressive worldview.

UPDATE.2: Charles Featherstone comments:

Progressive Christians and the Progressive Church is still wants American Christendom to work, still cannot tell the difference between state and society and church, and still very much want it to be 1962, when the church was influential and church leaders were listened to and everyone was good and bourgeois and belonged. Oh, they want a far more integrated version of 1962, complete with same-sex marriage. But their church is just as much Christendom, just as imperial, just as Constantinian, as the conservatism they decry. They want to be the chaplains to a well-ordered, relatively just (or justice oriented) state and society.

It does not help any that most progressives are trapped in a narrative of the civil rights movement that leaves them envious, guilt-ridden, self-consicous and with a sense of both deep unworthiness AND a belief the fundamental work of the civil rights movement remains unfinished. The church is the active conscience of the society, a very 19th century idea, and they are the people called upon to do that prophetic work of moving the beloved community forward. Of course progressives are going to hate the Benedict Option, because the Progressive Church exists to reform state and society, not to foster faith or form disciples.

But *THAT* in a nutshell is *THE* problem of the American church, one I have written about to much less acclaim or even notice than Dreher. The church in virtually all its forms — Progressive, conservative, orthodox, fundamentalist — demands the culture do the heavy lifting of forming disciplines, that there is no difference between citizenship and discipleship, and that the church’s job isn’t to form disciples but ensure the culture works on their behalf. That, more than anything, is going to mitigate against any kind of faithful Benedict Option in America because the church doesn’t really know how to be counter cultural, or an alternative community, for any great length of time, without aspiring to bourgeois stability and social power. That’s what’s going to be toughest for faithful followers of Jesus — the desire and expectation, almost inbuilt in the American church, that believing and belonging are virtually automatic endeavors in which church teaching and practice are mere add ons.



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