The Benedict Option Wrap Party

Benedict OptionLast week, the few of us who persevered to the end of our meetings to discuss Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option had a little party to sum up what we had gleaned from this important book. We gathered on the porch, and there were calories and perhaps a little wine involved. With candles lit, we shared favorite parts and even a few criticisms.

We all agreed that Dreher forced us to get serious about our personal spiritual lives. We are more diligent to set aside certain times for scripture reading and for prayer, and we desire to pray more deeply, rather than abruptly addressing the Creator of all the universe with a checklist of our requests. On a related note, we have all attempted to ratchet back the amount of time we spend with technology. For some of us, that means being more deliberate about our television viewing, both the content and just the pervasiveness of the noise. For all of us, it means social media use and the brain-fracturing effect of smartphones.

One member pointed out the lack of scripture in the book. We have been aware throughout the study that Christians cannot base their lives on any movement that came about after the book of Acts. We can learn from church history, but all people have had blind spots, even monks in the Dark Ages. On the other hand, Dreher’s history of philosophy and culture encouraged us to rip off our contemporary American glasses and attempt to turn our minds to a time when Christians saw every atom and every moment of their lives as soaked in God’s presence.

Dreher writes from a post-Christian perspective, and here in the American South, we have not quite arrived. Almost, but not quite. Therefore, when he writes about community as taking place only within the church, we are still more in the mind of The Turquoise Table, working hard to bring our neighborhoods and towns into community together. Even over the course of the few months that we have spent on this book, however, we have seen still more movement to silence and isolate people of faith, and so we discern that Dreher writes prophetically.  Perhaps we will soon see a day when we should board those little arks of which he writes in his excellent New York Times article, just as the boats rescued the soldiers at Dunkirk so that they could regroup to fight another day.

Unlike many of the books written within the past couple of decades decrying the collapse of religion in the West, The Benedict Option is refreshingly non-political. Rather, Dreher’s work is spiritual and ecclesiastical, pulling the church back to a deeper understanding of living as the people of God on earth.

Portions of The Benedict Option would be even more valuable for young families, particularly the wide-ranging chapter on education. Furthermore, pastors and church leaders would be in a position to put at least some of these ideas into practice within their congregations. One member of our group plans to suggest this book as a small group study in her church. Whether read alone or discussed with others, this title will awaken American Christians to our current status in our country, while offering thoughtful ideas to strengthen our spiritual lives, our families, our churches, and our communities.

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Benedict on the Porch 2

The Church

Benedict Option 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.

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!