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Weird Christianity: The Rod Dreher Interview

Tara Isabella Burton's questions for me about her 'Weird Christianity' thesis
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Tara Isabella Burton interviewed me by email back in November for the piece that runs in today’s NYT Opinion section. It’s about “Weird Christianity”. Here are her questions and my answers:


Do you think we’re seeing a rise in “Weird” (aka countercultural, aesthetically/liturgically traditional) Christianity? Why — and what might be the source of its appeal?


Yes, but my sense is that it’s small and hard to quantify. If you only go by Twitter, you’d think that the Millennial Catholic world was crawling with integralists. But really, how many are there? Similarly, at my small Orthodox mission parish in Baton Rouge, we’re seeing more and more converts, almost all men and women in their twenties or early thirties — all former Evangelicals who came to us craving depth and liturgical beauty. This is fantastic, but at this point, it’s only a trickle.


Nevertheless, it’s there. What is the source of its appeal? Let me think about what drew me to it as a young man. When I was around 14 or 15, I got rid of the Christianity in which I was raised. My folks were the kind of Methodists who went to church on Easter and Christmas, and every now and then throughout the year. Our Christianity was cultural, in the sense that Kierkegaard said in his ‘Attack Upon Christendom’. I forget his exact quote, but he basically said that when people are counted as Christian simply by virtue of having been born into a Christian society, then Christianity effectively ceases to exist. His point was that Christianity made constant demands on the believer — that it was something radical, that it required constant conversion. It would be a few years before I read Kierkegaard, but when I finally encountered him as a college student, I recognized the Christianity that I had left behind for agnosticism.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. As a teenager in the 1980s, I thought Christianity was either the boring middle class at prayer, or it was Jimmy Swaggart’s hellfire Pentecostalism. Neither one spoke to me. It wasn’t until I stumbled into the Chartres cathedral at age 17, on a tour group, that I was confronted by a form of Christianity that overwhelmed me. Nothing in my life in small-town America in the late 20th century had prepared me for the grandeur of God made manifest in that Gothic cathedral. What kind of Christianity inspires men to build this kind of temple? That was probably the first time in my life that I was truly struck by awe, in the old-fashioned sense. I remember standing there, in the center of the labyrinth, looking all around at the stained-glass windows, the arches, and the vaults, thinking, “God does exist — and He wants me.”
I didn’t walk out of that cathedral as a Christian, but I did leave on a search. I read Thomas Merton’s “The Seven Storey Mountain,” which knocked me flat. I saw a lot of myself in pre-conversion Merton — an intellectually  curious, slightly louche aesthete — and, along with him, I was completely seduced by the austere, mystical Catholicism he found in Trappist monasticism. It was so radically different from anything I had encountered, or imagined. Eventually I converted to Catholicism, and quickly learned how badly dated Merton’s book was. He wrote it in the 1940s. The Catholic Church that won over young Thomas Merton in fact barely existed anymore.
Of course from a strictly theological perspective, the Catholic Church was, and is, one and the same. But from an experiential point of view, contemporary Catholicism is a lot like contemporary Protestantism. That was a hard thing to get used to, but I did it. A decade after my conversion, I was living in New York and working for National Review. I was covering the Catholic abuse scandal, and just reeling from it all. My wife and I paid a visit to friends in suburban Maryland, the Orthodox Christian writer Frederica Mathewes-Green and her husband, a priest named Father Gregory. We attended the first half hour of the Divine Liturgy at their parish. It was so incredibly rich, aesthetically and spiritually. I remember thinking that this is what I thought I was converting to in Catholicism.
After a short while, though, we had to leave to go up the road to the Catholic parish to satisfy our Sunday obligation. We arrived at some early Seventies church that looked like Our Lady of Pizza Hut. We took our place in the pews, and, having just left an Orthodox parish, with colorful icons covering the walls, long tapered candles burning, and clouds of incense wafting high in the rafters, I was struck cold by the utter bareness of the place. It wasn’t the kind of plainness that conveys spiritual power and depth, as I’ve seen in some Catholic monastic chapels, but rather the absence of something. It reminded me of a dollar store at the end of a going out of business sale. The mass — all altar girls, by the way — was so puny and half-hearted. The elderly priest was delivering his final sermon before retirement, and all he could talk about was how much he looked forward to kicking back in Florida.
We left after the homily to go back to the Orthodox parish. My wife and I both had tears in our eyes. I started to speak, but she said, “Don’t say it.” I didn’t say anything. Three years later, having relocated to Dallas, both of us crushed by the abuse scandal and the total loss of trust in Catholic authority, we took refuge in the Orthodox cathedral there. We were so raw and broken that neither of us knew if we would ever be able to trust the institutional church again. But we knew at least we could rest in the beauty and richness of the liturgy and the church interior itself. After a year, we converted, and never looked back.
There is a very American moralistic distrust of aesthetic beauty and ritual in worship. You see it even among Catholics, who ought to know better. We seem to have a suspicion that you can either have moral rigor and doctrinal seriousness, or you can have beauty, but not both. When you go to church in Europe, though, you discover how stupid that is. Of course all that beauty is going unseen and unloved by the masses that don’t go to church, so we have to be careful not to over-emphasize beauty. But Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future Benedict XVI, said that best argument the Church has for the Christian faith is its saints and its art. His point was that goodness incarnate (the saints) and incarnate beauty (sacred art, music, and architecture) open the door for truth. That’s certainly what happened to me. I was incapable of taking seriously apologetic arguments for the Christian faith, but the majesty of Gothic cathedral architecture dramatically challenged my intellectual resistance to Christianity.
And so I think this is why a certain kind of person really is drawn to the older, ritualistic, aesthetic forms of Christian worship. It speaks to something deep inside us, and, I think, it is a kind of rebellion against the ugliness and barrenness of modernity, especially within the churches. Plus, an expression of Christianity that appeals to our whole body, and all our senses, not just to our head, and our abstract reason — that’s really powerful. I’ve been Orthodox for as long as I was Catholic — 13 years — and I’ve been struck too by how attractive Orthodoxy is to men. I finally figured out that unlike most Western churches, Orthodoxy emphasizes self-overcoming, with a strong emphasis on asceticism. Expecting people to master their passions, and learning to do so through ascetic exercises like fasting — you can’t imagine how liberating that is when contrasted to therapeutic Western modes of religion, which so often emphasize feminine traits and modes of expression. Don’t get me wrong — Orthodoxy is not “masculinist.” But it seems to me that it’s more balanced, and it gives men something to do, not just feel.
I have to say, though, that in America, I wonder about the class implications of all this. Here’s what I mean. If you are going to become an Orthodox Christian, or a liturgically traditional Catholic, you are probably going to be the kind of person who is a strong seeker, and willing to be thought weird for the sake of finding God. Ancient Christian weirdness is acceptable, somehow, to intellectuals and aesthetes, in a way that low-church Protestant weirdness is not. I’ve been at monasteries where I’ve kissed the skull of a long-dead Orthodox elder, and I’ve thrown wax facsimiles of body parts onto the bonfire outside of the Portuguese basilica at the Fatima apparition site. Most people outside my Orthodox and Catholic circles would find that sort of thing to be high-octane crackpottery. But you know what I would never, ever do? Go to a Pentecostal megachurch and raise my hands high in the air. I don’t look down on those who do — it’s just unthinkable for me. Way, way too weird. It kind of embarrasses me to admit this, but Christians like me prefer our religious self-marginalization to be, I don’t know, literary. So I think we have to be aware that there might be some snob appeal in all this. I don’t think it is a significant factor at all — taking the old religion straight, and espousing its reactionary social beliefs, as one must if one is not merely an aesthete playing church, is no way to advance socially. Still, I think for some of us, we have to be careful about a temptation to a particular sort of spiritual pride. Oh Lord, I thank Thee for making me a pious weirdo, but not like those fundagelicals.
That said, there is just so much depth and beauty in ancient liturgical Christianity that you feel that you could never touch bottom. It’s like being in the Burning Bush — you are on fire, but never consumed. In Orthodoxy, priests are always referencing the early church fathers in their homilies. Not only am I often amazed by the wisdom and poetry of these saints, but I love that in the Orthodox church, in the ritual prayers, in the icons on the wall, and in the homilies, the memory of 2,000 years of Christian life and worship is kept front to mind. This is true whether you are a professor or a peasant. That continuity is also a great blessing of Orthodox worship, in this world of constant flux. There’s a joke Orthodox people tell:
Q: How many Orthodox Christians does it take to change a light bulb?
A: [heavy Slavic accent] Change? What is this ‘change’?
But it’s true! While everybody else is setting up smoke machines and strobe lights, or rewriting their hymns one more time to be ‘relevant,’ Orthodox priests are swinging the censers like they’ve done for many centuries, and the choirs are singing the same hymns that have been passed down for many, many generations. That is so comforting. It’s such a relief to not have to remake things in every generation, simply to receive what has been preserved for you. It’s a very un-modern, un-American thing, and that’s what makes it so attractive. I hasten to add that it’s not that Orthodox believers are holier than any other believer, but it’s that the Orthodox tradition, both liturgically and spiritually, has given us a reliable map and proven tools to help us along the pilgrim road to unity with Christ. Why would we not use them?
Do you think Christianity must always be countercultural — does it lose something if it allies too closely with the dominant culture?
Yes, I do. For one, Jesus said that His kingdom was not of this world. We desire to be subjects of the Lord’s kingdom. That means that there will always be some tension between us and the world. If Christianity teaches anything, it’s that this is not our home, that man is a wayfarer here. If you don’t feel uncomfortable in the world as a believer, then you’re missing something.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that when Christ calls a man, he bids him to come and die. And Bonhoeffer did die at the hands of the Nazis! I’ve spent a good part of this year traveling in Russia and the Soviet bloc countries, interviewing Christians who endured communist persecution. It’s incredibly humbling to be in the presence of people who suffered — some of them tortured in the gulag — for their faith. It makes you realize too how very, very easy we have it. I sat in the lobby of the Hotel Metropol in Moscow in early November, listening to Alexander Ogorodnikov, one of the most famous Christian dissidents of the late Soviet period, talk about preparing fellow inmates for execution. His face is partially paralyzed from the beatings he suffered in prison. He fought back tears as he spoke. And to think how afraid so many of us middle-class American Christians are that people at the office will think bad things about us! The world is too much with us, that’s for sure. I believe that persecution is coming, and that most of us American Christians will fall away, because we won’t be able to withstand losing our social status and material comforts. We have become totally assimilated.
I do have a bit of suspicion about Christians who are too conscious of being countercultural. It can be a kind of performance. There’s a certain kind of young Christian who thinks he’s defying convention by getting a tattoo, or some other totally bourgeois form of rebellion, but he would never be caught dead praying in front of an abortion clinic. I recognize some of this in myself, which is why I try to be suspicious of my own outsider-ness within the larger Christian fold. When I was in Russia recently, I interviewed an Orthodox priest who tends to a national shrine and monument on a site where the NKVD executed 21,000 people in a 14-month period, during the Terror. He told me that the real heroes of faith in the Soviet Union were the scarf-wearing babushkas who continued going to church, no matter what. Some of them were illiterate, but they were humble and they were fearless. And, he said, they saved Christianity in Russia.
Are Christian “values” in decline in the USA? What does that phrase — Christian values — even mean to you?
Yes, they are. The phrase “Christian values” has been worn as smooth as an old penny by overuse, especially in the mouths of political preachers. Look, I’m a theological, cultural, and political conservative, but I admit that it has become hard, almost impossible, to find the language to talk meaningfully about what it means to believe and act as a Christian. This is not a Trump-era thing; Walker Percy was lamenting the same thing forty years ago, at least. I think the term “Christian values” has become meaningless. It is taken as shorthand for opposing the Sexual Revolution, and all it entails — abortion, sexual permissiveness, gay marriage, and so forth. Don’t get me wrong, I believe that to be a faithful Christian does require one to oppose the Sexual Revolution, primarily because the Sexual Revolution offers a radically anti-Christian anthropology. But then, so does modernity — and this is an anti-Christian anthropology that clashes with the historic faith in all kinds of ways. I’m thinking of the way we relate to technology and to the economy.
You want to clear a room of Christians, both liberal and conservative? Tell them that giving smartphones with Internet access to their kids is one of the worst things you can do from the standpoint of living by Christian values. Oh, nobody wants to hear that! But it’s true — and it’s not true because this or that verse in the Bible says so. It’s true because of the narrative that comes embedded in that particular technology. It’s not an easy thing to explain, which is why so many Christians, both of the left and the right, think that “Christian values” means whatever their preferred political party’s preferred program is.
The core reason why Christian values are fast fading in this culture has to do with the loss of a sense of the sacred, of the transcendent, of what Philip Rieff called “holy terror” — his phrase for “fear of the Lord,” which is to say, a proper sense of awe in the presence of the divine. In his posthumous book “Charisma,” Rieff wrote:
“Holy terror is rather fear of oneself, fear of oneself and in the world. It is also fear of punishment. Without this necessary fear, charisma is not possible. To live without this high fear is to be terror oneself, a monster. And yet to be monstrous has become our ambition, for it is our ambition to live without fear. All holy terror is gone. The interdicts have no power. This is the real death of God and of our own humanity. It is out of sheer terror that charisma develops. We live in terror, but never in holy terror.”
He said this too, in the same book: “Barbarism is not some primitive technology and naive cosmologies, but a sophisticated cutting off of the inhibiting authority of the past.” This is perfectly true. This is why the dominant form of religion today is, to use sociologist Christian Smith’s phrase, “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.” It’s crap. It’s what people believe when they want the psychological comfort of believing in God, but without having to sacrifice anything. It’s the final step before total apostasy. In another generation, America is going to be like Europe in this way.
But something might change. The problem with the phrase “Christian values” is that it reinforces the belief that Christianity is nothing more than a moral code. If that’s all Christianity is, then to hell with it. The great thing about ancient, weird, traditional Christianity is that it is a lifeline to the premodern world. It reminds us of what really exists behind this veil of modern selfishness and banality and evil. A Polish historian I interviewed this summer likened a civilization to a kite. As long as it remains anchored to the ground by a taut string, it can soar high. But when the string is cut, it falls to the ground. Our civilization is the kite that has cut the cord that anchors it to God, to the realm of the transcendent. That’s why we’re collectively falling. Traditional liturgical religion is the best chance we have to hold on to the cord or what remains of it. As Rieff put it, a true religious charismatic does not save us from holy terror, but conveys it. At their best, the old forms of Christianity do this — not through collective religious ecstasy, but through the prayers and prostrations and hymns that have been purified through many centuries of common use.