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”

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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

[This is the first of a series of four posts. The others are: “Dreher’s ‘Benedict Option’—Part 2: A general critique;” “Dreher’s ‘Benedict Option’—Part 3: Same-sex marriage as the paradigmatic problem;” and “Dreher’s ‘Benedict Option’—Part 4: A Believers’ Church alternative.”]

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”

What kind of Christian politics? Some beginning thoughts

Ted Grimsrud—April 5, 2017

We are living in interesting times. I can remember in the late 1990s having several conversations with progressive friends about the future of Christianity in the United States. Some of my friends thought we were heading into a time of diminishing interest in Christianity and diminishing influence of Christians on the wider society (it is interesting that today, it is more likely to be Christians on the right who worry about Christianity being marginalized in the United States).

Then George Bush got elected and proceeded to help bring the Christian Right closer to the seats of power than ever before. In the years since, for better or worse, Christian politics has remained a significant presence. And then, of course, with the recent election of Donald Trump to the presidency and the strengthening of Republican power in most of the states in our nation, evangelical Christians seemingly heightened their stature and may well now be on the cusp of achieving some of their long sought policy goals—not least the repeal of Roe v. Wade and a return to the criminalization of abortion.

There are other Christians who have strongly opposed the close ties between the Republican Party and American Christianity—including, actually, a growing number of evangelicals. It is even possible to imagine that this moment of seeming unprecedented influence for the Christian Right might in time be seen as a turning point in weakening the broader connection between evangelicals and Republicans. Donald Trump stands for so many values that seem antithetical to traditional evangelical morality that it is difficult to imagine that he will be able to retain the support of all that many.

An interesting book

I just read a book about Christianity and politics that has stimulated more thinking for me. Keith Giles, currently pastor of an outside-the-box congregation in southern California, recently published Jesus Untangled: Crucifying Our Politics to Pledge Allegiance to the Lamb (Quior, 2017). I recommend this book if one if interested in seeing how the evangelical consensus favoring blind support for the Republican agenda is being questioned.

Giles is a birthright evangelical, and this book clearly emerges out his disillusionment with the Christian Right. In a nutshell, he poses “the pursuit of politics” in the contemporary United States as contradictory with a pursuit of the genuine gospel. His agenda is to encourage those who seek to follow Jesus to turn away from a quest for political power. He sees the quest for a “Christian America” as terribly misguided.

Authentic Christianity, as Giles understands it, does indeed hope to contribute to social transformation. But it is not a transformation effected by top-down, state-oriented power but by conversion to Jesus as savior. “Presidents and politicians have much less power than the average Christian when it comes to transformation…. The Gospel of Jesus is still the most effective weapon against evil, corruption, violence, hate, fear, and every other sin known to mankind…. Let everyone know that Jesus is the best Leader anyone could ever have” (p. 185).

There is much that is attractive in Giles’s argument. Certainly, his critique of the Christian Right and its embrace of the American Empire is helpful. I sincerely hope that many evangelical Christians read this book. I can’t help but think it would be better for American Christianity and the country in general if Giles’s position gained many adherents—even if I don’t actually agree completely with his constructive agenda.

Reading Giles stimulated me to think more about the different ways Christians approach politics in the United States. Feeling a bit playful, I decided to create a chart that maps various approaches that Christians have taken in recent years. This is a serious exercise, but not one to be taken too seriously. The “map” is only a quick (and superficial) sketch. But perhaps it has potential to serve as an aid for understanding.

Continue reading “What kind of Christian politics? Some beginning thoughts”

Should Jesus determine our view of God?

Ted Grimsrud—May 26, 2015

The question of how to understand the peaceable message of Jesus in relation to less than peaceable pictures of God in the Bible and in the Christian tradition has challenged ethically concerned people of faith almost since the very beginning.

The arch “heretic” Marcion in the second century after Jesus infamously jettisoned the Old Testament and much of the New Testament in his effort to sustain an authentically Christ-centered faith. Though Marcion’s proposed solution to the problem probably made things worse, his impulse to support a coherent view of God and Jesus together is understandable and perennial.

The spiritual descendants of the 16th century Anabaptists certain have a stake in this on-going conversation. By lifting up Jesus’s life and teaching as normative and by accepting high claims for the authority of the Bible, we really can’t avoid questions about how to harmonize what seem to be powerful tensions among the various sources of information about God.

In recent years, the broader Christian community has seen an uptick in interest in revisiting these themes. Prominent writers such as John Dominic Crossan (How to Read the Bible and Still Be a Christian: Struggling with Divine Violence from Genesis to Revelation) and J. Denny Weaver (The Nonviolent God) are very recent examples of dozens of books that have been written in the past two decades that struggle, often very helpfully, with the theological (as in doctrine of God) implications of interrelating the peaceable impulses of Christian sources with the more violent aspects of how the tradition has presented God.

A welcome contribution to an important conversation

For those, like me, who welcome this conversation and think we still have a ways to go to achieve a genuinely faithful resolution, Bradley Jersak’s new book, A More Christlike God: A More Beautiful Gospel (Pasadena, CA: CWRpress, 2015), will be seen as a singular contribution. Jersak does significant original thinking. Perhaps even more importantly, he writes accessibly in a book aimed at a broad audience. Jersak writes about deep issues in a clear and lively style reflecting the combination of his academic training (a PhD in theology and present vocation as a professor) and two decades work as a pastor and church planter. His own varied ecclesial journey (early life as a conservative Baptist, a stint as a Mennonite pastor, current connection with the Orthodox Church) is seen in his empathetic and inclusive sensibility. Continue reading “Should Jesus determine our view of God?”

“Saving” the Joshua story? An anarchistic reading

Ted Grimsrud

One of the more challenging passages in the Bible is the story told in the book of Joshua. God’s chosen people enter the “promised land,” meet with opposition from the nations living there, and proceed—with God’s direction and often miraculous support—the kill or drive out the previous inhabitants. The book ends with a celebration that now the Hebrew people are in the Land, poised to live happily ever after.

Probably the most difficult aspect of the story to stomach is the explicit command that comes several times from God to the Hebrews to kill every man, woman, and child as part of the conquest. This element of the story is horrifying, even more so in light of the afterlife of this story where it has been used in later times to justify what are said to be parallel conquests—such as the conquest of Native Americans and nature southern Africans. So what do we do with it as pacifists? Or, really, even if for those who are not pacifists, how could an moral person want to confess belief in such a genocidal God?

The dismissal strategy

Probably the easiest response to the Joshua story is simply to dismiss it. To say, this is not part of our story. The God of conquest is not the God of Jesus Christ. One way to think of this is simply to say that the Bible here contains stories that cannot possibly have been true. We can’t know why these stories were included in the Bible, but we can know that we need to repudiate them—or at least agree to ignore them.

I hope some time in the not too distant future to reflect in more detail on this problem. There are various strategies to read Joshua in ways that don’t go to the total dismissal extreme but to in fact see some truths expressed there that may be appropriated for peace theology (this may be said to be the strategy taken by Mennonite scholars such as Millard Lind and John Howard Yoder). And there are other strategies, not necessarily with a peace theology agenda, for coming to terms with the story in ways that do not require its repudiation but still allow us to place our priority in reading the Bible on the message of Jesus.

For now, though, I simply want to reflect on a particular reading strategy I just thought of. To me, it’s quite different than the total dismissal strategy, though since I do not accept the historicity of this story, some might see it as pretty close to dismissal. I don’t actually feel much of a need to protect the Joshua story from dismissal—however, I still tend to want to see if we can find meaning in the story that at the least will help us put it in perspective and protect us from the uses that find in the story support for our violence. More than defending Joshua per se, I am interested in defending the larger biblical story of which it is a part—an essential story for faith-based peacemakers. Continue reading ““Saving” the Joshua story? An anarchistic reading”