I believe that Rod Dreher, in his book The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, identifies some genuine problems in American society and proposes a response that in some important ways resonates with biblical faith (see my affirmative first post in this series). However, that he is partly right actually makes the problems with his proposal more troubling.
The problem: Not enough love
In a nutshell, I would say that the “Benedict Option” ultimately hurts the cause of Christian faith because it does not take Jesus seriously enough. The very core of Jesus’s message points to the path of love—for God, for neighbor, for enemy, for self, and for the rest of creation. Dreher has very little to say in this book about Jesus or about love. It’s fine that this book is about our present day and not a biblical or theological treatise. At the same time, I find it significant that when making his case for what matters most for Christians navigating life “in a post-Christian nation,” Dreher barely references Jesus and the biblical story at all.
It is telling that the one clear call to the path of love does not come until near the end of the book. In the book’s conclusion, Dreher quotes Pastor Greg Thompson, a Presbyterian minister: The Benedict Option ultimately has to be a matter of love. “The moment the Benedict Option becomes about anything other than communion with Christ and dwelling with our neighbors in love, it ceases to be Benedictine” (page 237).
Thompson’s call surely is sincere, and it surely reflects Dreher’s own convictions. However, in the structure of the book, the call to love is clearly on the periphery. Dreher never finds the space to reflect on the meaning of love or to bring Jesus’s life and teaching into the picture. There are other reasons to perceive that love is not the driving force in this project. As I will discuss at more length in my next post, Dreher’s way of focusing on the “problem” of same-sex marriage reflects that marginalization of love.
Ironically, Dreher seems to miss one of the key points in the book that provided him with the image of St. Benedict as standing at the core of his project. In his book After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, Alasdair MacIntyre seeks to recover the Aristotelian emphasis on the virtues as what is needed to overcome the moral disarray of modern Western culture. But he points out key difference between Aristotle and later Christian appropriation of virtue ethics. Aristotle did not include love (or, an older term, “charity”) as a key virtue. In Aristotle’s moral universe, an emphasis on love is inconceivable. Whereas, for biblical Christianity, “charity is not … just one more virtue to be added to the list. Its inclusion alters the conception of the good for [humankind] in a radical way” (page 174).
As I suggested, I’m sure that Dreher would agree that love is central to what Christianity is about. But that belief does not appear to have an operative role in his argument. That is, his overall tone and many of his criticisms do not reflect a loving spirit and Jesus does not seem to have a noticeably formative role in his moral framework.
The church/world duality
Another way to get at this problem is to note that for Dreher, the church/world separation seems to be a kind of ontological separation. In the biblical and Believers’ Church traditions (at their best), the sense of separation is more strategic than ontological. The separation happens so the faith community might be better able to carry out its vocation to “bless all the families of the earth” (Genesis 12:3, see my book God’s Healing Strategy for an introduction to a way of reading the Bible that places this sense of vocation at the center). The biblical hope, borne out of love, is that through establishing a healthy counterculture that separates from the wider world in order to know God’s love might then be enabled to share that love with the world. In contrast, Dreher’s attitude toward his “post-Christian nation” seems more to one of repulsion.
That is, for Dreher, it would appear that the quest by Christian communities for purity has more to do with avoiding contamination from the world than with being an agent that contributes to healing the world’s “contamination.” This is a tension over the meaning of holiness that is actually embedded in the Bible itself, but which Jesus decisively resolves with his entering into life in a contaminated world as an agent of love and healing. Jesus’s response to “impurity,” especially on the part of vulnerable people (women, poor people, etc.), was compassion and an initiative to bring healing and transformation—not disgust and condemnation.
What is “orthodox Christianity”?
It’s not clear to me what Dreher precisely means by his use of the term “orthodox Christian.” Though he now identifies as part of the Eastern Orthodox communion (he grew up nominally Methodist and converted to Catholicism as a young adult before making the move to Orthodoxy), he makes it clear that his sense of “orthodox” also includes Catholics and Protestants. But he doesn’t explain precisely what makes “orthodox” orthodox. This is a problem because though he presents Christianity as his core concern, he seemingly considers quite a few Christians outside the circle of “orthodoxy” (such as progressives and liberals).
I tend to think of the term orthodoxy implying a theological core, some sort of stated doctrinal framework that allows the orthodox to differentiate those who belong from those who don’t. Again, even though Dreher is not writing a theological treatise nor a work of apologetics that tries to persuade those on the outside the truthfulness of his position, it is problematic when he uses “orthodox Christian” (and, often, simply “Christian”) in a boundary-marker enforcing kind of way without giving a clear sense of what he means. The main effect of this kind of dynamic is simply fostering a sense of antipathy that seems quite contrary to the biblical dynamics of love.
History as a trajectory
I think Dreher rightly critiques the Enlightenment/modernity sense of inevitable progress as a kind of secular idol. However, it strikes me that he still wants to see history as a trajectory. Only, for Dreher, it is a descent trajectory. History does have a direction for him, a downward regression.
This assumption about inevitability of things always getting worse in relation to the wider culture seems fatalistic. It also seems to underwrite a sense of alienation and even hostility that may well lead to self-fulfilling prophecies—such as his expectation that “orthodox Christians” are only going to be persecuted more and more. As a consequence, he misses counter-evidence that maybe some things are actually getting better. And it may be possible that some of what he sees as evidence of descent may actually be reflecting society becoming more loving and respectful (see the next post for a discussion of Dreher’s strong opposition to same-sex marriage).
Probably more significantly, Dreher’s emphasis on history as trajectory (either in critique modernity’s optimism about this trajectory or in affirming the sense of a downward trajectory) is the kind of thing that can distract a person from the biblical emphasis on living in the present. One example in the Bible, from an often misunderstood text, is the picture in the book of Revelation where readers are called to follow the Lamb wherever he goes in the present, to participate in moments of worship, and not to worry about the direction history seems to be going. And, contrary to many readings of Revelation, the book actually suggests that these lives of faithfulness to the Lamb make a significant contribution to the healing of the nations (which are, prior to Revelation 21–22, portrayed as the paradigmatic human enemies of God).
Part of the reason for Dreher’s descent narrative is that he valorizes what he calls “our Western cultural heritage” (page 153). And he sees the descent being movement away from the heritage. A Believers’ Church angle on the history of Christianity would question whether the Christian dominance of Western civilization was a case of Christian faithfulness. There is a tension between the way of Jesus that emphasizes love of neighbor (which includes the enemy) and compassion for the vulnerable and the dynamics of Christendom with its tolerance for slavery, imperialism, patriarchy, and economic exploitation.
It seems as if part of Dreher’s animus in this book links with his feeling traumatized with the loss of Christian cultural hegemony. I believe it is true that there are many dynamics in our current North American culture that are hostile to the way of Jesus—and those dynamics are deeply problematic. However, such dynamics have been present throughout history. That does not mean that they should not be resisted (I agree with Dreher about the strategy of working at countercultural resistance). However, the problem is not the loss of a formerly more authentically Christian culture, with the implication (not discussed by Dreher but lurking in the background) that should the opportunity arise to regain cultural dominance after weathering the current storm with the help of the Benedict Option, Dreher would be delighted.
The biblical perspective, though, allows for a more permanent sense of acceptance of existing with a minority status. When the ancient Hebrew kingdom was destroyed by the Babylonians, a vision for an embrace of exile emerged—a vision reiterated by Jesus’s message of a kingdom that stands over against the empires of the world rather than seeking to dominate them and transform them into a “Christian culture.”
The dynamics of “persecution”
One gets the sense that part of the sense of offense that Dreher conveys follows from his longing for a return to Christian cultural hegemony. But the current reality, as he perceives it bitterly, is not simply that Christians are not in charge, but that the wider culture actively shows hostility toward “orthodox Christians.”
On the one hand, I honestly found Dreher’s claims about the profound level of persecution being faced by “Christians” to be surprising. He has an awareness of active targeting of “Christians” that I don’t share. It’s not clear to me that the negative reactions that, say, those who oppose same-sex marriage face is best seen as Christian persecution. It seems more to be a reaction to perceived discrimination than to Christianity. And from reading this book, one would get the sense that active hostility toward LGBTQ people is a thing of the past (a hostility that Dreher professes to regret). It’s hard to see evidence of Dreher’s portrayal in the actual world we live in, what with the still all too high suicide rate among LGBTQ teens, for example.
On the other hand, let’s grant for the sake of making a point, that Dreher does accurately reflect reality when he writes of persecution toward Christians due to their remaining committed to their strong convictions about the ungodliness of same-sex marriage. Isn’t the biblical call one to “take up your cross and follow me”? Isn’t the picture in the Book of Acts and elsewhere in the New Testament one of “rejoicing in your persecutions”? Dreher seems to find it deeply offensive that Christians would be persecuted. Again, he would perhaps benefit from learning from the Believers’ Church tradition with its long history of facing persecution with a renewed conviction to love their neighbors—even when the neighbors are hostile toward them.
Is religious liberty in jeopardy?
One of the elements of Dreher’s argument that was new to me was his claim that “religious liberty” is at risk in the United States like never before. It appears to me that he redefines religious liberty. I have understood religious liberty mainly to be about the right to practice one’s religion (or not to practice any religion) without restriction from the state. The Believers’ Church tradition has often sought the freedom from state churches or coercive acts by the state such as conscription to military service or being compelled to pledge allegiance to the nation’s flag. That is, religious liberty has mainly to do with the freedom for minority faith communities to practice their religious convictions. This sense of liberty still seems intact in the United States.
Though Dreher does not explicitly describe what he means by religious liberty, he seems to have in mind the “rights” of Christians (who still make up the large majority of the American population) to discriminate against people (mainly LGBTQ people) who they believe are acting in ways that go against Christian truth.
That is, the locus of concern changes from being the freedom for me and my community to worship as minority religious groups to the freedom for me or other Christians to discriminate in the public square against, say, LGBTQ people. In practice, this is a claim for a kind of liberty that actually justifies “orthodox Christians” taking away liberties from others based on their identities as sexual minorities. It has changed from being a largely defensive dynamic of protecting the rights of minorities to being a more assertive dynamic of reducing the rights of minorities.
I find it difficult to believe that a large number of “orthodox Christians” are under threat of severe coercion by the state. Dreher seems to assume that such a threat is quite real, but he does not provide much evidence to support that assumption. On the other hand, it does appear that the invocation of “religious liberty” has proven in some contexts at least to be an effective strategy for resisting the expansion of civil rights for vulnerable sexual minorities.
Now, it is certainly the case that many present-day Christians who are part of Believers’ Church communities do not affirm same-sex marriage or other ways that LGBTQ people have gained acceptance in our society. However, it would seem to be hypocritical for such Christians to invoke their own “religious liberty” as a basis for limiting the liberty of others. I suspect that Dreher and others who approach “religious liberty” the way they do don’t actually have much memory (in their families or religious communities) of being persecuted minorities. If they did, one would hope that they would be much more cautious about how they try to use that motif.
As I read Dreher’s invoking of “religious liberty,” I again tend to see a marginalizing of love. I suspect that the issue is not so much a new concern about religious liberty in general as an important value. More so, I have the impression that the “religious liberty” emphasis actually masks an attempt to hold on to an animus toward people in same-sex intimate relationships (I’m not alone in thinking this).
I agree with Dreher that churches’ response to LGBTQ people is at the heart of the gospel. I think this, though, not because I agree with Dreher’s claim that “sexuality is so foundational to Christian anthropology” but because I believe that love is so foundational to the very meaning of the gospel. And I think that Dreher’s antipathy in the name of Christian faith actually undermines the gospel. I will reflect more on these concerns in my next post.