A couple of weeks ago, our group met again to discuss Rod Dreher’s insights on the church and community. Please see my earlier post, “Benedict on the Porch 1,” below, and the review of the book, The Benedict Option, on EatReadSleep, here.
Dreher believes that, just as everything that we do in our personal lives should be an outgrowth of prayer, everything that Christians do in the world should start in the church.
Our session started off with an energetic conversation about Bernie Sanders’ interrogation of Russell Vought for Deputy Director of the White House Office of Budget and Management. In case you really didn’t believe that the church is under attack, Senator Sanders will undeceive you here. He concluded by saying that Mr. Vought was ineligible for any post in the government because he truly believes that human beings are only saved by faith in Jesus Christ, and that therefore Muslims are condemned. The senator did not, however, inquire as to whether Muslims believe that Mr. Vought is condemned because he does not believe as they do. Following the senator’s logic, only those who do not have any real beliefs are eligible to serve in the government, although claiming a religion as ethnic identity can be charming. We all know that really nice people are secular.
Tradition and Liturgy
Rod Dreher argues that “we are seeing the collapse of Christian civilization because Christians in the West have badly neglected sustaining their own distinct culture.” (pp. 100-101) The very word “culture” comes from a Latin word that means emerging from the common worship of a group of people. Our traditions are important because of the wisdom our ancestors had in creating them. One suggestion that our entire group agreed with was Dreher’s call for a return to worshipping with the whole body. We are physical creatures, and ancient worship services, now preserved in liturgical churches, used motion and all of the body’s senses. Changing positions in appropriate ways—kneeling, standing, sitting, even prostrating oneself—built muscle memory into the entire church at once. Incense, ringing bells (“smells and bells”) appealed to the senses, just as beautiful artwork, traditional prayers, and songs will do. The sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper were given to us because they are tangible signs to earthly creatures, and our current worship traditions should follow that pattern.
On the other hand, we were not as convinced by Dreher’s firm stance on the superiority of liturgical worship over lower-church services. We had some interesting discussions about the meaning of liturgy, and the point at which an order of worship crosses over into liturgy. I took the opportunity to share one of my favorite Annie Dillard quotes, from Holy the Firm.
The higher Christian churches – where, if anywhere, I belong – come at God with an unwarranted air of professionalism, with authority and pomp, as though they knew what they were doing, as though people in themselves were an appropriate set of creatures to have dealings with God. I often think of the set pieces of liturgy as certain words which people have successfully addressed to God without their getting killed. In the high churches they saunter through the liturgy like Mohawks along a strand of scaffolding who have long since forgotten their danger. If God were to blast such a service to bits, the congregation would be, I believe, genuinely shocked. But in the low churches you expect it any minute. This is the beginning of wisdom.
My problem with this chapter is that Mr. Dreher seems to see Christianity and Western civilization as either the same thing, or at least inextricably intertwined. Although I am very concerned about the disaster taking place in the West, and I consider European culture to be extraordinarily valuable and foundational to our own nation, I fear that only a white person would believe that Christianity itself could only be saved through European and American institutions. The church is growing fastest today in southern Africa and Asia, and the roots of Christian faith are in Asia, not Europe. As I’ve said before, Mr. Dreher takes us back to 600 AD, while 100 AD would be so much more supportable. So, while I would enthusiastically join efforts to save Western civilization, one must think even more deeply to purify the church.
Asceticism and Discipline
The author also advises entire churches to practice asceticism together as a regular Christian discipline. Greek Orthodox believers, like Dreher, fast every Wednesday and Friday, all year long. In addition, he feels that churches should practice biblical church discipline. If the church is truly an organism, as Paul calls us all members of one body, should we not remove diseased parts of the body if we wish to be healthy? Discipline of any kind is anathema to Americans, especially when imposed from without, but church discipline, properly applied, is a bracing tonic both to the members inside, who can breathe more easily without fighting evil on an individual basis, and to the observers on the outside, who may be surprised and heartened to find authority exercised righteously in a culture with no absolute standards.
Goodness and Beauty
The church should draw people in with goodness and beauty. Art is a tough one. True art may be in the eye of the beholder, but I don’t see a lot of great art coming out of the church today. The church that once produced Bach and Dürer now puts out “Got Jesus?” bumper stickers based on a secular ad campaign for milk. When we do find writers, musicians, or other artists producing great work, let us support them!
Finally, goodness should be the mark of every Christian. “The greatest of these is love,” as Paul says in the famous 1 Corinthians passage. However, the wider world may not see goodness and love from us these days. Let us repair that breach. If, as Dreher believes, we may increasingly experience suffering, let it be while we are serving others in the love of Jesus, in goodness and self-sacrifice.
Next time: Community. It wasn’t what we thought.