Benedict on the Porch 1

Benedict OptionA few months ago, I started reading The Benedict Option, by Rod Dreher, which I reviewed on EatReadSleep here. The book was complex and controversial, yet it dealt with so many of the issues that had been on my mind lately that I wanted to discuss it with a group. Three other women agreed to join me for book discussions, and we’ve met on the porch a couple of times and have had rich discussions on the first four chapters. Last week, we hashed out the politics chapter during a thunderstorm, which is somehow apt. I look forward to our next meeting, in which we will consider the church and community. Here are some notes that might give you a flavor of our conversations.

Who Are We?

We are four women who share a common love for Jesus, but are very different in other ways. Our age span is about twenty-five years from youngest to oldest, although I have not made close inquiries on this question. We are or have been teachers, librarians, homeschooling moms, military officers, and successful entrepreneurs, among other vocations. Our religious backgrounds include Roman Catholic, Southern Baptist, charismatic nondenominational, Calvary Chapel, Lutheran, military chapel, and all of the alphabet soup Presbyterian sects. There are probably more, but suffice it to say, we’re diverse in that respect. We all like to talk, so we have really good discussions, and our copies of the book are full of underlinings and margin notes. One of us bought the ebook first in order to get it quickly, and then bought the paper book just to mark it up.

Why This Book?

Alert readers may have noticed that things are a mess in this country these days. I’m sure that I am not the only Christian who was quite shocked at the behavior of the church during the election season last year, and considering that I was still reeling from some experiences with the church in my own life at the time, this public disgrace really hit me hard. Suddenly, I went from trying to sort out my own beliefs and the local, small “c” church, but now I had to worry about the entire, big “C” Church, as well. This process has been truly beneficial in the long run, since it has given me a firm foundation to weather a new and even more stunning small “c” church upheaval. Human beings never cease to disappoint us, but God is trustworthy and unchanging.

Rod Dreher has chosen to use Saint Benedict, a monk in the sixth century who founded the Benedictine monastic order, as a model for how Christians should conduct themselves in our post-Christian times. Yes, I thought, that’s what we need. We can all draw into monasteries, shut out the world, and only deal with people who agree with us on everything. Furthermore, they are often under vows of silence, which would be difficult for me to carry out, but would be so awesome for everyone around me. I’m assuming that that includes no texting, Tweeting, writing blog posts, and posting on Facebook or other social media. Not that I couldn’t argue with myself in my own head, but at least I wouldn’t be tempted to argue with other people, and then replay my own intemperate remarks mentally for days on end. Think of the benefits to my blood pressure.

Alas, that is not what Dreher is proposing. Rather, he lays out the Benedict Rule, which is the set of rules that the monks agree to obey, as a way of ordering and strengthening our own lives and the structures in which we live: our families, churches, and communities. Just as the monks preserved and built up the church during the many centuries of the Dark Ages, Dreher proposes that the values of the Benedict Rule can do the same in our day. The rules are very simple, such as prayer, work, asceticism, community, and hospitality. Yes, hospitality, because Dreher does not want us to leave our culture altogether, but rather to “embrace exile in place” and form a “vibrant counterculture.” (p. 18)

So, the work begins in our own hearts, and our group has had deep conversations on how to pray and what was preventing us from ordering our lives correctly. Some of us get up punishingly early (Can you tell I’m not one of them?) to read the Bible and pray while it is still dark. We all agreed that we need to spend more time listening and being with the Lord, rather than just doing perfunctory Bible reading and reciting a list of petitions. We discussed lectio divina, a practice that is considered controversial in some circles, yet recommended highly by Dreher and his monk friends. I had a long chat with a co-worker about lectio divina, and he lent me the book Praying the Word: An Introduction to Lectio Divina, by Enzo Bianchi, which I shared with the group and later purchased. It is written in a very Catholic style, but it is thorough and wondrously short: 118 pages, and a lot of them are notes. Our group considered the distractions in our lives that might be keeping us from spiritual order, and there were many, but all agreed that television and smart phones were two of the worst.

Anti-Politics

The political discussion is based on Dreher’s assertion that “the culture war as we know it is over” (p. 79), and that Christians should establish and build parallel structures within their own communities instead. He believes that unless Christians are called to work within the government as a vocation, the church should only fight for religious freedom on a federal level. From my perspective, it will be frustratingly difficult to convince the American church that they are completely wrong-headed in their idea that this is their country, and that they are part of a silent majority. This is not true, and it has never been true, although patriotic virtue—which often masquerades as religious faith— was certainly more widespread and encouraged a few decades ago than it is now. I grew up as a Roman Catholic and attended Catholic schools (a parallel structure) almost all of my life. Although they make up almost a quarter of the population, Catholics have always had an understanding of their identity as outsiders in what was a WASPy culture during the waves of Catholic immigration a century or so ago. After I became a Protestant, I was surprised by their assumption that they owned the culture, and convincing them that devout Christians are now a despised minority—and not just in the news media— may take some time, particularly for those who socialize only within their own circle of Christian friends.

Dreher uses an extended example of the Czech resistance to the Communist party in the twentieth century and their devotion to preserving their religious faith in the face of a harsh secular government determined to crush them. They knew that they might never live to see the results of their labor, but they were willing to wage a generational struggle so that their grandchildren might once again be able to practice their religion openly and freely. In a similar way, we need to be committed to resistance in our times. Not the so-called resistance of those who already own the government, the media, and academia, but the true resistance of a despised minority, facing the oppression of those in power with an example of a loving community, living separately but not in a ghetto, open to any who wish to join.

Are we willing to withdraw from the mainstream? Dreher gives a list of ways to do just that, and, interestingly, many of them are also found in secular books on mindfulness. It’s not just about giving up things in our lives, but also about good things to put in their place. It is so offensive in our world to hold strong religious views without wearing signaling costumes like the Amish or Orthodox Jews. If we wore a hijab, like Muslim women, the world could see us coming and adjust their expectations accordingly. Finding out that your conversational partner is religious when they look just like regular people is so annoying. Dreher encourages us to leave our secular culture even more pointedly, insisting that neither political party is fully consistent with Christian truth. (p. 96) Let us concentrate instead on “the everyday, thankless, and never-ending struggle of human beings to live more freely, truthfully, and in quiet dignity.” (p. 97)

Moving Forward

Next time, we will talk about the church and, hopefully, community. That should be lively. The members of our group have made some changes in our personal and spiritual lives, but we have not yet decided on concrete steps for public issues. I may have an update on that later. I encourage you to read The Benedict Option for yourself, and even to gather your own group for discussion. None of us agree with everything Dreher proposes, and I have a feeling that there will be a good bit of debate in the chapter about church, but it is very beneficial for believers to get these topics out in the open and to make some conclusions about the direction of the Christian community as a whole. As a matter of fact, the only way forward is together. Join the discussion!

No, I Would Not Like to Buy a Vowel

Years ago, I was working in a library, doing some fun reader’s advisory for the mother of a teen, and after extolling the virtues of a young adult novel, I also warned her about the profanity inside. She brushed it off, saying, “Oh, I’m sure it’s nothing he hasn’t already heard in school.” I remember this incident vividly, as it was my wake-up call that the world that I’d left behind for my years as a cloistered homeschooling mom had changed dramatically in my absence.

Fast forward a decade or so, and it is becoming increasingly difficult for those of us who would prefer to go through life without a constant barrage of filth to participate at all in American public life. Witness the increasing number of books whose covers scream four-letter words, often—but not always—with an asterisk or other symbol in place of the vowels. Isn’t that cute? Before you can look away, the word is in your head. The ladies in pink hats featured speakers who vomited a barrage of foul language into the TV cameras. This is what our foremothers fought for? The right to prove that women can curse better than men? The latest news story is that the new DNC chairman is choosing a slogan with a curse word in it, cheered on by adoring crowds, including a woman with her young son. Fox News says, “Isn’t that terrible? Here, we’ll play the clip again. And again. Read his lips for the barely-bleeped part.”

In the early days of the Obama administration, the president was talking to reporters and other fans about something I can’t remember that he found reprehensible, and as he talked, he dragged his middle finger down his face. The crowds went wild. I didn’t get it; I am just that naïve. Someone told me that he was surreptitiously giving the finger to his opponent, but I disagreed. “He is not!” I exclaimed. “He’s the president of the United States! He would never do something like that.” I was wrong. Not only did he mean to do that, but his gesture was greeted with glee by his adoring crowds, and America fully entered into a prolonged adolescence. We are all twelve now.

This is by no means confined to the left. Our current president is certainly no model of refinement. Milo Yiannopoulos, who is often called “alt-right,” gives interviews in which every fifth word starts with an “f,” and P.J. O’Rourke, who is an old-style, fiscal Republican, writes books and gives speeches that are minefields of salty language. Examples are legion. As a librarian and wide-ranging reader, I am completely opposed to censorship, but we used to be able to choose whether or not to go into the bar with the sailors. Now, profanity is mainstream, and the choice does not extend to everyone. Men and women who would like to make well-reasoned arguments on college campuses (OK, Milo is not an example of this) are kept away with curse-laden protest signs that we all get to enjoy for days on the TV screen. One could argue that I could turn off the television, but why should I be forced out of daily American life?

In his book Black Rednecks and White Liberals, scholar Thomas Sowell decried that the African American demographic that is celebrated in mainstream media is the lowest rung of the ladder, the ghetto dweller who listens to gangsta rap and sells drugs on the corner. More than ten years later, the portrayal of the entire nation is full of bottom-dwellers. Our mass media blasts out professionals and politicians rejoicing in coarseness and nauseating bilge, as if we’ve all been waiting to burst forth from our bondage to politeness and reasoned discourse. We just can’t seem to grow up. The more outrageous and profane a celebrity is, the more he or she is lauded in popular culture.

The reasons for our mutual descent are myriad, but surely social media takes some of the blame. I recoil from my Facebook feed sometimes. Apparently, since we surround ourselves with our chosen echo chambers, we forget that some of our “friends” don’t talk like that. Or maybe we just don’t care. The strangest phenomenon to watch is that of the receivers of the filth. They cheer at lewd speeches and giggle at swaggering profaners. “Oh, we are so cool. Oh, we are so edgy.” Oh, we are such children.

I was driving along yesterday, thinking about this topic and composing in my mind, when I pulled up to a red light. Before I could stop myself, I glanced at the car in front of me. The license plate frame had a big, bold f-bomb on it, with the “u” replaced by a cute, daisy-shaped asterisk. No, I would not like to buy a vowel.

Southern Easter

Easter tomorrow.

We’ll celebrate the Lamb with lamb,
and eggs, and tender green and growing things.
New life for all of us.

Like Martha, I dig in to prepare
with whipping and with chopping, and with
scrubbing, scrubbing, scrubbing.

Exhausted, I slip into the shower and luxuriate with
bubbles, and with lotion, and with
clean and dripping hair,

and with heat.

It’s far too late for Easter.

It’s far too hot for Easter.

All alone, I steal some time,
limp under the ceiling fan.
Just a few moments.

The blinds are drawn, but a breeze drifts through
the open windows.
It’s dim, but my eyelids flicker red and black
as the sun slips in and out of clouds.

The hum of mowers near and far
as men beat back encroaching entropy.

The whoosh of bathroom fans
sucking steam from sweet-scented air.

My head is full of drowsy buzz.

I am cooling.

I am drying.

I am dreaming.

The Upside of Terrible Technology

twcFollowing up my article below about cutting the cable, I can happily report that saying bye-bye to Time Warner (now Spectrum!) was a good decision. We still have internet with Spectrum, but we decided to stick with the DirectTVNow app and Netflix, which saves me $65 per month overall. We dropped Hulu, since there was nothing on it that I really wanted that I couldn’t get somewhere else. If they had had CBS Netflix logoprograms, it may have been worth it for a while. Once I finish all seven seasons of Gilmore Girls, plus the new episodes, I plan to drop Netflix streaming for a while and pick up Netflix disc when all the regular television seasons end, so that I can catch up with Elementary and Big Bang. Netflix is wonderfully flexible about sudden changes, and for $10 a month, they offer a lot of value. Plus, there are several movies I want to see that never made it to either Netflix streaming or Amazon Prime. Oh, yes, we have Amazon Prime, but that’s mostly for the free, fast shipping, because I want to get books in Verucha Salt fashion: “I want it now!”

directtvnowSo, is DirectTVNow a great app? Not really. It buffers a whole lot sometimes, and it may even shut off at the most irritating moments, but other times it is just like having cable TV. Is it worth $35 a month? Oh, yeah. Just having live news has been essential lately, and except for CBS, it offers us all of the channels that we want to watch, although I do miss my DVR. A lot of the shows that I miss, though, are available by going to the website on my smart phone and “casting” them to the TV a day or so after they air live. That’s how I’ve watched Masterpiece Theater and BookTV this year.

fire-stick-imageThe Amazon Firestick, however, is quite wonderful. If you need a simple, easy way to manage all of your connections to various media, Firestick is great, and the remote is amazing. You can just talk to Alexa. It’s not expensive, and we got one free by signing up for DirectTVNow. Amazon will help you with customer service over the phone, or even take over your screen while you’re talking to them and solve all of your problems. Customer service for DirectTVNow is an online chat with someone who is definitely struggling with the English language. Frustrating.

Even with all of these avenues for entertainment, however, we’ve found ourselves watching much less television that we did with cable and DVR. When I had series stacked up in the DVR, I felt obligated to watch them all. Now, I have to make a deliberate decision to sit down and watch a show, and often, I’d rather stick with whatever else I’m doing. Combined with a real effort to separate from social media a bit, I have much more time for music and especially reading.

Benedict OptionRight now, I’m devouring one book after another, in all kinds of genres. Since I read to live and read for a living, that’s a great thing. I just finished a wonderful children’s book (Ghost), I’m a few chapters into a new adult nonfiction book (The Benedict Option), and just picked up the new Pulitzer Prize-winning adult fiction (Underground Railroad). Of course, I still have stacks of unread volumes on my nighttable and piles in the guest room, too. For the moment, though, I’m really enjoying working through each one. I have a tendency to hit a wall with reading every once in a while, but I hope it doesn’t happen before I get a chance to read Thick As Thieves, by Megan Whalen Turner, or to finish several nonfiction books that I have lined up.

So my advice to you is, go ahead! Cut that cable! Read! Or— as my mother used to say to me when I was a kid— go outside!

A Tale of Two Movies

As a general rule, David and I rarely go to the movies, but we’ve been to see three movies already this year. The first one was Hidden Figures, which is a must-see for everyone, but the other two were explicitly Christian movies that made it to the general box office: The Shack and The Case for Christ. What a contrast!

Shack MovieI did not read the book, The Shack, because I had heard that it contained all sorts of heretical teachings, and since my opinion of inspirational novels is so low already, it was easy to skip. The hubbub went on for quite a long time, however, and people were so excited about the movie that I decided that I could spare a couple of hours of my life to see it. It’s tough to criticize something when you’re not really sure what you’re criticizing. We showed up half an hour early to the evening showing on opening night, and it was sold out! We bought tickets in advance the next day, and the theater was completely packed. I braced myself to be outraged by ignorance and heresy…, but I wasn’t.

There is so much wrong with the theology in this movie. For an iconoclast like me, one could start with just the portrayal of God in a movie, but I had known about that going in. The main scriptural problem is that there seems to be no identification of sin or expectation of judgment, which sounds great, but since the plot deals with wife beating, child abuse, and the kidnap and murder of a child, most humans would be seeking justice.

Shack castOn the other hand, there is so much right with this movie. If you know someone who is struggling with guilt and unforgiveness, or who feels that God has abandoned them, this is the story for them. And that’s just it: it is a story, one person’s way to portray particular attributes of God and his own emotions about God.  Even though it deals with such tragic subjects, it manages to be—dare I say it?—charming, sweet, and heartwarming. Furthermore, how many movies portray the Trinity? When the main character walks into the shack, I knew from the trailers that we would see Octavia Spencer portraying God the Father, which is already interesting, and I immediately figured out that the young Israeli man was supposed to be Jesus—a great casting choice, by the way. It is so nice to see a portrayal of Jesus without the long, flowy hair and bland expression. However, when a young Asian woman walked into the room, I thought, “Who’s this chick?” The Holy Spirit! That took some adjustment, but I did rejoice to see the Trinity depicted in a popular work of fiction. I also enjoyed the metaphor of a garden representing a person’s life. It looks like a random mess from the ground level, but from above, it forms a beautiful pattern. The story tries to answer the problem of evil, and whether or not it is successful is up to each individual. There were many tearful scenes, and the writers play straight to the heartstrings, but when the audience left the theater, everyone felt happy and beloved.

Case for Christ movieThe Case for Christ was a much more cerebral movie, as well as being the first movie I’ve seen this year without the wonderful Octavia Spencer. However, this one did star Erika Christensen, which was great for these two Parenthood fans. The movie is based on the book by Lee Strobel, telling the true story of his effort to disprove the resurrection of Jesus. Strobel was a reporter for the Chicago Tribune in the early 1980s, when his wife was converted to Christianity. Lee considered this to be insane and a betrayal of their marriage, and he set out to gather evidence to turn her back to “the way she used to be.” He visits archeologists, clergymen, medical doctors, and others in his obsessive drive to destroy his wife’s faith, which almost destroys his marriage, instead. There are several subplots— since this is real life— that deal with Strobel’s relationship with his own father, his job at the Tribune, and his success in jailing an accused cop killer. To paraphrase a reviewer, since the movie title is The Case for Christ, we know how it will end. All happy, with updates before the credits to let the audience know where all of these people are today.

Case for Christ husband wifeIf you want to have facts to back up your faith, or if you have a beloved unbeliever of an intellectual bent, this is the movie for you. Some scenes are unabashedly didactic, but certainly informative. There are also scenes of Chicago’s famous Willow Creek Church in the early 1980s, with long-haired women and hairsprayed men in wide ties enjoying early contemporary worship music. It was interesting that this movie connected with two books that I reviewed recently on EatReadSleep. Shauna Niequist, who wrote Present Over Perfect, is the daughter of Bill Hybels, founding pastor of Willow Creek Church. Secondly, the main topic of Strobel’s research is Jesus’ resurrection, which is also the subject of N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope. The movie’s release is, of course, perfectly timed for Easter viewing.

Something for the heart, something for the mind. As a movie, The Shack works better, although it has a bit of a cheesiness factor. For theological points, go for The Case for Christ. Either way, grab the popcorn and enjoy.

The Perfect Day

It is a day that one keeps in reserve as the perfect day. While going to work, accomplishing necessary tasks—housework, cooking, grocery shopping—it is the day in one’s daydreams. Sitting on the much-anticipated screened porch, rocking in a cushioned chair, reading, reading, reading, in perfect silence.

Except that it isn’t silent at all. Always, in the distance, the shush of cars and trucks on the interstate, miles away, yet persistently present. Hundreds of little birds, chirping away continuously, sweetly transforming me into Disney’s Cinderella. Less euphoniously, my neighbor’s chickens add a comic note, and occasionally, the barred owls in the woods confuse the day with nighttime calls. Even the breeze adds a murmur, lifts my hair, forces me to put my bookmark under my phone on the peacock table.

The screen door is on the latch, but it still voices a tiny creak in the wind. When David leaves it open, it blows back and forth. It opens on a rising scale, “Creeeeeeaaak!” and closes sliding down, “Creeeeeaaak. Bam!” The sound stirs an ancient memory somewhere deep within, although I can’t remember a time in my life when I’ve had a screened door. Why is it so familiar, so soothing?

I can’t sit for another minute. Even though the cushion is soft, and the rocking soporific, I must move. I get up, walk through the house, up the stairs, into the dim family room, and plunk into another chair to write.

A perfect day.