Dreher’s ” Benedict Option”: Part 4—A Believers’ Church Alternative

Ted Grimsrud

In reflecting on Rod Dreher’s book, The Benedict Option, I have: (1) Summarized things I appreciate in his discussion, maybe most centrally his assertion that Christians need to take very seriously how our faith should shape our lives in a deeply problematic contemporary North American culture. (2) Offered a fairly sharp critique of his proposals, suggesting that at its heart, Dreher’s Benedict Option does not make the message of Jesus and his embodied love central enough. And, (3) I lingered a bit on the issue of same-sex marriage that Dreher seems to see as the paradigmatic expression of the anti-Christian dynamics in our society today. I believe that judgment is incorrect and profoundly hurtful. I conclude that third blog post by pointing to the possibility of a “Believers’ Church option” that more successfully embody core Christian convictions in countercultural witness. I’ll complete the series with some thoughts about this “option.”

It’s a measure of my appreciation for Dreher’s contribution that I point to it as inspiration for suggesting a “Believers’ Church Option” that perhaps in some ways complements Dreher’s Benedict Option, also perhaps stands over against it as a quite different kind of Christian approach.

The Believers’ Church Tradition

One way to think of Christian traditions is to make a distinction between “magisterial churches” and “believers’ churches.”

Magisterial churches are those traditions with a history of being, in some sense, state churches that are closely linked with magistrates (or governmental leaders). These include most of the larger Christian groups (Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and many Protestant groups such as Lutherans, Presbyterians, Reformed, and Anglican).

Alongside these state-connected groups, though, numerous independent Christian fellowships have arisen, especially with the break in western Christendom between Catholics and Protestants in the 16th century Reformation. These Believers’ Churches (e.g., Mennonites, Baptists, Church of the Brethren, Churches of Christ, Disciples of Christ, Pentecostals) have typically practiced believers’ baptism and been free from direct linkage with the state, more Bible-centered and less creedal, and non-hierarchical.

Dreher’s Benedict Option seems more closely related to magisterial church traditions (his own connections are mainly Catholic and Orthodox). That legacy may partly explain why Dreher seems unfamiliar with the idea of Christians being content with having a minority status in a given society—and being comfortable with that status. Continue reading “Dreher’s ” Benedict Option”: Part 4—A Believers’ Church Alternative”

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”

Dreher’s ” Benedict Option”: Part 1—What Dreher gets right

Ted Grimsrud—May 3, 2017

The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation by journalist, blogger, and religious thinker Rod Dreher, is a book that has received an unusual amount of buzz. Clearly Dreher both has an excellent ability to garner publicity (fueled by his passionate energy) and an ability to speak to profound concerns shared by many people. [For summaries of the book’s key ideas, see Dreher’s post “The Benedict Option” from 2013, an excerpt published in Christianity Today, an interview with Dreher in Religion & Politics, and a recent lengthy profile in The New Yorker; here’s a link to a list of links to articles critiquing and otherwise relating to the Benedict Option.]

This is my first, a descriptive and largely positive essay, of a four-post series engaging Dreher’s book. Post two will offer a general critique. Post three will focus on Dreher’s concerns about same-sex marriage. And post four will offer what I am calling a “Believers’ church alternative.” I am most interested in engaging Dreher on the level of theological ethics, a focus not shared very many of the multitude of responses The Benedict Option has elicted.

What The Benedict Option is about

The Benedict Option is a fascinating book that addresses important issues—and should be of great interest for all who think carefully about how Christian faith navigates life in 21st century North America. Dreher writes well. See for yourself in the excerpt published in Christianity Today mentioned above and at his amazingly prolific blog.

It is important to keep Dreher’s stated agenda and his intended audience in mind in reflecting on what he has to say. He is writing to and about conservative Christians (politically and theologically—Catholics, Eastern Orthodox and Evangelical Protestants)—so progressives of any kind who read him should expect to feel as if they are overhearing a conversation they have not been invited to join. That is, he is not trying to persuade those who don’t fit into the circle of his intended audience, so there are not apologetics or carefully constructed arguments justifying controversial views. He’s self-consciously preaching to the choir. I don’t mean that as a criticism, just as a descriptive comment about his writing strategy. There is a lot to criticize in the book (see my next couple of posts!), but I don’t think it should be criticized for not spending much time presenting a careful argument to “BenOp” skeptics.  That’s not Dreher’s agenda.

Dreher hopes to inspire a joining together of Christians of like mind in resistance to the downward spiral of American culture heading toward a pit of moral relativism, individualism, and hostility toward “orthodox” Christians. The goal is to inspire a counterculture that will have the ability to sustain “traditional” faith in this world. Continue reading “Dreher’s ” Benedict Option”: Part 1—What Dreher gets right”

The left/right schema must go: The task of moral political analysis

Ted Grimsrud—February 7, 2017

We in the United States enter into uncharted waters in these early days of the Trump regime. It seems clear that in the months and years to come, the United States will be the location of political strive of an intensity not seen for a long time within the boundaries of our nation. The kinds of conflictual social struggles that most of us have only observed from a distance are almost certain to become very close to hand.

I believe it is important to note a couple of qualifications to the generalizations I made in the above paragraph. For people of color in the US, and members of other vulnerable groups, the United States has not been a place of comfort and tranquility. We don’t know what kinds of suffering will emerge as a result of the takeover of the federal and most state governments in all their branches by anti-democratic reactionary forces. However, we do well to keep these sufferings in perspective given our nation’s legacies of the intense violence visited on indigenous peoples, on imported slaves, and on sexual minorities—among others. For those still today who have lived with the consequences of such violence over generations, the word to we frightened middle class mostly white folks could legitimately be “welcome to our world.”

Likewise, an awareness of political turmoil around the world over the past 125 years reminds us that for many areas of the world that have suffered from interventions from the American Empire, such turmoil has been fostered by the projection of American force. The words from such locations to us might also appropriately be “welcome to our world.”

However, even as we don’t magnify our own sense of uncertainty and anxiety with claims for their unprecedented significance, it should be cold comfort to those who already know the dynamics of vicious prejudice, authoritarian governance, economic dislocation, and environmental degradation. That’s because they will also likely have their suffering enhanced in the days to come. The Trumpian agenda surely will not be tempered by compassion for the historical sufferings of the vulnerable.

The left/right analytical framework

It seems to me that one important element of resistance for all of us is to think carefully about how to frame our political dynamics. One framework that has become conventional wisdom is to think in terms of a left/right spectrum. Some are saying that after eight years of a leftist government with the Obama administration (admittedly greatly constrained by the legislative power of the right) we are moving to a rightest government with Trump. One’s response to Trump, et al, is said to reveal where one stands on the left/right spectrum. Continue reading “The left/right schema must go: The task of moral political analysis”

What would Jesus say about the Russians?

Ted Grimsrud—January 29, 2017

“What would Jesus say?” is a common questions Christians ask when they are in the midst of discerning what they themselves should say or do. For it to be a helpful question, I think we do better to think in terms of Jesus’s general moral outlook more than looking for specific verses to apply directly to our time.

I’m not sure I would say that people of good will (not only professing Christians) must ask this question—but I think it would almost always serve us well. And, clearly, if we draw from Jesus’s general moral outlook, we retain a large measure of responsibility to think and reason and act for ourselves. Jesus’s moral outlook gives us guidance but it does not give us a direct blueprint.

Currently, in the United States, we are badly in need of careful moral discernment. We are badly in deed of a moral outlook that gives us a stable set of moral convictions that will resist our tendency to look for guidance that justifies our own actions or simply allows us to condemn our enemies because they are our enemies. That is, we are in need of moral guidance that demands that whatever criteria for morality we use apply equally to ourselves as they do to our opponents.

It is risky right now to appeal to Jesus because so many people in power present themselves as “Christians” while acting and speaking in ways that are very much in tension with the actual life and teaching of Jesus. So, to evoke Jesus makes one vulnerable to be dismissed as simply another pious-sounding hypocrite. At the same time, appealing to Jesus’s actual moral outlook might provide a basis for challenging the approaches of self-professing Christians. That is what I hope to do with this blog post.

Continue reading “What would Jesus say about the Russians?”

Ten books for radical Christians: Faithful living in the Trump era, part 6

Ted Grimsrud—December 14, 2016

One of my responses shortly after Trump’s election was to think about a reading list of books I have found helpful as I seek to understand how my Christian faith might help me understand and respond to this new phase in American history. My thought in sharing this list is not that I am providing any definitive guidance. As with my previous post on helpful news sites, here I am also hoping to stimulate sharing. What is a book (or few) that you think would be helpful for these times?

This is a fairly random list. I thought about it just long enough to come up with ten titles I feel good about. In time, with more thought, I would formulate a much different list. My hope though, is simply to get some ideas out there. I am confident that each of these books is worth paying attention to. I don’t actually think they are the ten best or most important books. If we’re serious about understanding our situation, along with listening to each other, along with keeping up with the news and analysis, we will need to read more than ten books.

As a rule, these books are quite readable and written for educated non-specialists. A few are overtly theological; the others provide useful awareness of our setting where Christians are trying to live out our theology.

(1) Walter Wink. Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in an Age of Domination. Fortress Press, 1992.

This remarkable book still stands as a unique multi-disciplinary effort. A quarter of a century after its publication, it remains the best example of the fruitful combining of biblical theology, social analysis, and transformative activism I’ve ever seen. Wink writes out of a passion for nonviolent social transformation that he expressed through his own activism. He understands the social dynamics of the “domination system” within an America enslaved to the myth of “redemptive violence” (Wink coined both of these quoted terms in this book). Like precious few other thinkers, Wink combined a commitment to social transformation (and a profound structural analysis) with an awareness of the need for a vital personal spirituality. Though a long book, Engaging the Powers is quite readable, and it’s inspirational. It’s scholarly and practical at the same time.

(2) Walter Brueggemann. The Prophetic Imagination, 2nd ed. Fortress Press, 2001 [original edition 1978].

Brueggmann is a wonder, an extraordinarily prolific writer still going strong well into his ninth decade of life. Probably his main importance for this list is that like no other writer, he gives us message of the political radicalism of the Old Testament as a necessary resource for present-day Christians (and all other people of good will). Just about any of his books is worth reading for this message. I cite this older volume (the second edition adds little to the first) as a basic introduction to a prophetic reading of the Bible. One of his key insights (if a bit simplistic) is the distinction in biblical writing between the “prophetic consciousness” and the “royal consciousness.” The Bible itself contains a debate between these two viewpoints, though in the life and message of Jesus it ultimately sides decisively with the prophetic—a crucial insight to keep in mind in our day.

Continue reading “Ten books for radical Christians: Faithful living in the Trump era, part 6”