Dreher’s ” Benedict Option”: Part 2—A general critique

Ted Grimsrud

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). Continue reading “Dreher’s ” Benedict Option”: Part 2—A general critique”

Refuting the evangelical rejection of same-sex relationsips: A response to James Brownson’s Bible, Gender, Sexuality

Ted Grimsrud—July 5, 2016

Evangelical Christians in North America are evolving—gradually—to become more welcoming of LGBTQ Christians. One indication of this movement is the growth in the number of books that come from a relatively conservative theological perspective arguing on biblical grounds for such welcome. One of the best of these books is Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships (Eerdmans, 2013) by James V. Brownson.

Brownson is a long-time New Testament professor at Western Theological Seminary and an ordained minister in the Reformed Church in America. The RCA resembles Mennonite Church USA in the wide theological diversity among its congregations. As a whole, it appears to fit into an interesting space between the evangelical world and the “mainstream” Protestant world—active in ecumenical relationships on both sides.

However, as far as I know, Brownson represents a minority perspective in the RCA with his argument for the affirmation of same-sex marriage. His views as expressed in this book surely will evoke strong antipathy from many corners of the RCA world.

A parent’s response

One way to situate this book is to see it as a father’s response to his son coming out at gay. This event, which Brownson calls a “dramatic shock to my life,” challenged him “to re-imagine how Scripture speaks about homosexuality” (p.1). Most fathers in this situation (and I know quite a few who made a move somewhat like Brownson’s—becoming affirming of same-sex relationships as a consequence of one’s child coming out) don’t have the expertise to write a 300-page scholarly treatise that chronicles this “re-imagining.” We should be grateful that Brownson does.

Of course, Brownson’s transparency could lead a suspicious reader to dismiss his book as special pleading. Brownson’s bias of acceptance of his son could be seen as undermining his scholarly objectivity, perhaps fatally. On the other hand, for some of us this confession of personal interest actually helps validate Brownson’s work. It shows that he will understand the human issues involved, in particular the pain caused by restrictive arguments that all too often show a profound disregard for the emotional and relational costs of their agenda. Continue reading “Refuting the evangelical rejection of same-sex relationsips: A response to James Brownson’s Bible, Gender, Sexuality

Why we should think of God as pacifist—(4) Experience and history

Ted Grimsrud—June 24, 2014

I believe that we should think of God as pacifist. By the nature of the case, though, this is not something we can prove decisively. This is a kind of value judgment or choice—to see God and the world in a certain way. However, I would not call such a conviction a simple leap of faith that flies in the face of the evidence. In fact, I think we have good reasons for such a belief.

I wrote in a previous post why I believe the Bible, ultimately, teaches that God is pacifist, even if the evidence is decidedly mixed. I would say the same thing about creation. The world we live in and our experience as human beings over time in this world, when seen as a whole, does offer support for thinking of God as pacifist—although, again, the evidence is decidedly mixed.

What kind of connection do we see between God and the world around us? One way to think of this is in terms of God as creator whose creation reflects the character of its source. If the world comes from God, we should expect to see evidence to support the idea that a loving, even pacifist, creator made what is. I think we should expect that as we look ever deeper into the world we live in, we will find signs of the presence of our God there since our God is inextricably linked with the deepest truths that we can perceive.

The way my thinking has evolved has been a kind of moving back and forth between the biblical portrayal of Jesus and God and the call to pacifism on the one side and seeing reality as pacifist on the other. In terms of my conscious thought, when I became a pacifist at age 21 and begin to think about other things in light of that pacifism, I started with the biblical message and in light of that began consciously think of the world differently. But in time I realized that my life had been shaped from its beginning by the experience of love in a fundamental way, experience that surely helped prepare me to see Jesus’s message the way I did. Continue reading “Why we should think of God as pacifist—(4) Experience and history”

Why we should think of God as pacifist—(2) The Bible

Ted Grimsrud—June 4, 2014

For Christians, our thinking about God should have at its core the life and teaching of Jesus. Obviously, what Christians think about God has to do with much more than what Jesus said and did, but part of the definition of “Christian” should be that we understand God in terms of Jesus’s teaching about God and how Jesus showed what God is like by his actions.

Sadly, due to what we could call a “christological evasion of Jesus,” the Christian tradition has all too often focused on doctrines about Jesus rather than on what he actually said and did. Thus, Jesus’s own life and teaching have not played a central role in the construction of the Christian doctrine of God.

As I discussed in my previous post introducing this four-part series of blog posts, Christianity is implicated in terrible spirals of violence characteristic of our culture here in the United States (imperialism, nationalism, militarism, punitive criminal justice, sexual violence, homophobia, et al). I believe one of our most important tasks is to rethink our theology in order to recover the deeply peaceable core message of the gospel of Jesus Christ. And I believe that one important component of such a task is to cultivate an understanding of God as pacifist.

To cultivate such an understanding, we need to wrestle with the biblical materials—source both of evidence for seeing God as violent and of evidence for seeing God as pacifist. In working through the biblical portrayal of God, we must make a decision about how central Jesus’s life and teaching will be—and, of course, develop an interpretation of what we understand the content of the Jesus part of the story to be.

What follows is a brief account of why I see the Jesus material in the Bible as decisive in discerning the pacifism of God. Continue reading “Why we should think of God as pacifist—(2) The Bible”

Why we should think of God as pacifist—(1) Introduction

Ted Grimsrud—June 3, 2014

Christianity for too long has been too implicated in violence. Wars, rumors of war, preparation for war, violently punitive criminal justice practices, violent child discipline practices, violence toward women, sexual minorities, and other vulnerable people, the exploitation of non-human animals and the natural world. There may be no issue as pressing for the viability of the Christian tradition than breaking the spiral of violence that Christians have been all too active in sustaining.

We may easily think of various components of a violence-overcoming expression of Christian faith—including growth in skills of nonviolent conflict resolution, cultivating love for our neighbors (and expanding the definition of neighbor to include even enemies), cultivating peaceable ways of raising children, enhancing the celebration of biblical bases for peace in our congregations, growing in abilities to deny the violence-empowering dynamics of “othering,” and so on.

In a series of four blog posts, I want to reflect on an underlying issue: how might the ways we think of God contribute to overcoming the curse of violence? I will start with a bold hypothesis. We should actually think of God as pacifist. One way we might define how we use the word “God” is that God is what we worship, what constitutes the core of our sense of what matters most in life, what is most essential to our existence, and what empowers us to feel at home in the universe. Thinking of God as pacifist, then, would be a pretty big deal. Continue reading “Why we should think of God as pacifist—(1) Introduction”

John Howard Yoder and anarchism

Ted Grimsrud—July 10, 2013

A number of years ago when I read George Woodcock’s classic history of AnarchismI found the thinking he described quite attractive. I spent some time considering how compatible anarchism would be with my Christian pacifism. I have believed it would be, but never quite found time to pursue the issue in more depth. At some point, though, I was struck with the thought that John Howard Yoder’s “politics of Jesus” could perhaps be understood as a version of anarchism.

I have resolved to spend some time pursuing this line of thought in the months to come. I just started reading a massive, well-written, wide-ranging and fascinating history of anarchism, Peter Marshall’s Demanding the Impossible: A History of AnarchismI plan to write more about that book as I read through it. This fall, when I teach my “Biblical Theology of Peace and Justice” class (which includes reading Yoder’s Politics and Walter Wink’s Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination), I expect to devote quite a bit of attention to thinking about anarchism in relation to Yoder’s and Wink’s ways of reading the Bible.

Happily, I encountered a recent article that encourages me to pursue this project. This article (Ted Troxell, “Christian Theology: Postanarchism, Theology, and John Howard Yoder,” Journal for the Study of Radicalism 7.1 [2013], 37-59) came to my attention at just the right time. It’s already one of my favorite essays on Yoder’s thought.

Troxell helps me understand quite a bit about the current terrain in discussions about anarchism, and better yet confirms my sense that bringing Yoder and anarchism together is a good idea. Continue reading “John Howard Yoder and anarchism”

On thinking like a postmodern Anabaptist (if that’s possible)

Ted Grimsrud—June 25, 2013

What do you get when you put together an appreciation for well-known postmodern thinkers such as Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Emmanuel Levinas with a self-identification with Anabaptist theology, membership in a Mennonite congregation, a (tentative) commitment to pacifism, and an affirmation of the core theological project of John Howard Yoder? Then you add an academic location that combines the field of social theory with a professorship at a notorious bastion of libertarianism and Republicanism (Hillsdale College)? And for good measure, include some rock and roll….

Well, you could get an incoherent mess. Or, if the person who embodies all these disparate influences (and more) is intelligent and clear-thinking and a good writer and has a whimsical sense of humor, you might get a remarkable and pathbreaking collection of essays. Happily, Pete Blum’s For a Church to Come: Experiments in Postmodern Theory and Anabaptist Thought (Herald Press, 2013) fits in the second category.

The value of experiments

Perhaps the operative term in the book’s title is “experiments.” The seven essays here are each characterized by an openness, a tentativeness, and a gentleness of spirit. Blum addresses challenging issues. He’s an amazingly clear writer even as the themes he addresses are not easy or superficial. But there is a humility here, a sense of invitation to a conversation. There is no show-boating or disdain. No sense of seeking to shock or intimidate.

This is a collection of conversations—Blum talking with his thinkers and trying to get them to talk with each other. Some of the conversations are maybe a bit surprising—pairing the biblicist Mennonite pacifist Yoder with the French revolutionary atheist Foucault and then Yoder again with the only slightly less notoriously radical Jacques Derrida. Continue reading “On thinking like a postmodern Anabaptist (if that’s possible)”

How Pacifists Should Read Christian Sources (Part Two)

[Ted Grimsrud]

I wrote in the first part of this post several weeks ago (“How Pacifists Should Read Christian Sources [Part One]”) that even though most Christians are not pacifists—and in fact being a Christian seems to make it less likely that a person would oppose war, at least in the United States—we “Christian pacifists should double down and intensify our emphasis on the pacifist aspects of our belief systems.” I went on to mention eight areas where too many Christian pacifists (it seems to me) accept non-pacifist ways of approaching key sources for our theology and ethics.

I promised a sequel where I would briefly discuss how these areas could be viewed in more consistently pacifist ways. I don’t have time or space to develop these alternative perspectives very fully, but I will go through the list. I don’t even have time to cite examples of how these alternative perspectives have been articulated except to point to several of my own writings.

Let me quote from my introduction to the first post: “My main concern in this two-part post is to suggest that Christian pacifists should actively resist the tendency to see our pacifism as something extraneous to our core theological convictions, as a kind of overlay in relation to the ‘common beliefs’ we share with other non-pacifist Christians. Part one [gave] examples of how pacifists read Christian sources non-pacifistically.” Now, part two will give examples of how we might read Christian sources pacifistically.

What I offer here is a bare outline of what may in the not-too-distant future expand into a more carefully detailed essay. I would greatly appreciate responses that could help me in developing the piece.

Reading Christian Sources as Pacifists

(1) Old Testament. Too often pacifists simply accept as a given the assumption that the Old Testament contradicts Christian pacifism. The task then becomes a defensive one, trying to make a case for pacifism in spite of the Old Testament. Continue reading “How Pacifists Should Read Christian Sources (Part Two)”

How Pacifists Should Read Christian Sources (Part One)

[Ted Grimsrud]

It’s not easy being a Christian pacifist. We make extraordinary claims (that war is never acceptable) on the basis of our faith convictions, even in the face of the reality that the vast majority of people who share many of those convictions reject these claims. It seems quite quixotic to argue for Christian pacifism when the facts seem to show that being a Christian makes a person less likely to be a pacifist.

Rather than quailing before this scenario, I propose that we Christian pacifists should double down and intensify our emphasis on the pacifist aspects of our belief systems. I think it is a terrible mistake for pacifist Christians to accept as normative the ways of reading Christian sources that ignore or actively oppose pacifism—no matter how widespread and institutionally embedded these non-pacifist readings are.

My main concern in this two-part post is to suggest that Christian pacifists should actively resist the tendency to see our pacifism as something extraneous to our core theological convictions, as a kind of overlay in relation to the “common beliefs” we share with other non-pacifist Christians. Part one will give examples of how pacifists read Christian sources non-pacifistically. And part two will give examples of pacifist readings of these sources.

Reading Christian Sources Non-Pacifistically

(1) One of the most common steps that immediately puts pacifists on the defensive is the acceptance of the assumption that the Old Testament is ultimately a problem for Christian pacifism. What matters most, it is assumed, in reading the Old Testament in relation to issues of violence, peace, and justice are the stories of God commanding warfare and exercising violent judgment. The God of the Old Testament is violent, vengeful, and practices punitive, retributive justice.

With this starting point, the pacifist must explain away the obvious normativity of violence. This is a challenging situation, to say the least. Pacifists have tried various strategies to retain their pacifism, but in general they allow the assumption of the Old Testament as a problem to stand. At best, it seems, the Old Testament is “messy” and gives us mixed messages. We will have to ground our pacifism on other sources—a resignation that invariably weakens the bases for that pacifism.

Continue reading “How Pacifists Should Read Christian Sources (Part One)”

Are pacifists moral relativists?

[Ted Grimsrud]

I first read Nicholson Baker’s controversial book, Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization, in the summer of 2008, shortly after it was published. At the time, I thought it was a brilliant book (I reviewed it here). It obviously met with innumerable hostile reviews from both academics and general readers. This was not surprising given how the book challenges head on the assumptions so many make about American and British goodness in entering and fighting World War II. I can hope that many people open-minded enough to question those assumptions found Human Smoke helpful. I sure did.

Partly inspired by Baker’s book, I spent my sabbatical during the 2010-11 school year researching and writing a book on the moral legacy of World War II in the United States (here is some early fruit of that work—I hope to finish the final draft of the book by May 2013). After reading dozens of books and thinking strenuously about these issues and writing several hundred pages, I believe even more in the value of Baker’s work.

The assertion that pacifists are moral relativists

I was just recently stimulated to think more about Baker’s argument while reading Michael Burleigh’s book, Moral Combat: A History of World War II (I have the original British edition—the book was later published in the US as, Moral Combat: Good and Evil in World War II). Burleigh is one who dismisses Human Smoke out of hand—which is not at all surprising or unusual. In seeing his dismissal this time, though, I paused to reflect a bit.

This is from Burleigh’s brief comments about Baker’s book: “A . . . fear of armed force has resulted in a dubious moral relativism, exemplified by Nicholson Baker’s pacifist tract Human Smoke, in which all belligerents were as bad as one another. . . . He implies that because Churchill may have drunk too much, or because Eleanor Roosevelt was an anti-Semitic snob in her youth, they were on par with a dictator who murdered six million Jews. The leaders of the English-speaking democracies allegedly went to war to benefit a sinister arms-manufacturing military-industrial complex, a view which much appealed to extreme US isolationists in the 1930s, and which resonates with the international left nowadays. This [is an] exercise in extreme moral relativism (and crude conspiracy theory)” (p. x). Continue reading “Are pacifists moral relativists?”