June 29, 2018

I finally read Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option:  a Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation.  It’s a good book, an important book, one that all Christians would do well to read.  I just have a few friendly criticisms.

First of all, he shoots down what he considers to be Christians’ illusions.  We are not going to transform the culture, at least in the foreseeable future.  We are not going to exercise any kind of meaningful political power or influence.  Christians will continue to be marginalized.  Hostility will increase.  Churches will shrink.

Rod (I know him slightly, so I’ll call him “Rod”) says that Christians have lost the culture wars.  The defining moment was when the state of Indiana passed a mild religious freedom bill that would allow for Christians not to participate in LGBT weddings and other actions in violation of their conscience.  As LGBT folks waxed indignant and promised boycotts, big business rallied to their support.  So Indiana, whose governor was our current Vice-President Mike Pence, caved in and revoked the law. This should teach us that America’s problems are spiritual, and political and legislative action will not address them.

When corporate America, which once at least gave the impression of being conservative, supports the LGBT cause, the battle is over.  Christians and other social conservatives who don’t approve of homosexuality are widely considered to be as evil as racists. In the near future, Rod says, conservative Christians can expect to be read out of polite society.  Because of their pro-life beliefs and positions on sexual morality, Christians will likely be excluded from professions in medicine, academia, and other influential fields.  We had better get used to working with our hands.

In that climate, what should Christians do?  Rod draws the parallel with the barbarian invasions that destroyed Rome and ushered in centuries of anarchy.  In those “dark ages,” St. Benedict founded his monastic order.  Christians separated from their disordered society and strengthened their relationship with God.  As they did so, the Benedictines kept education alive, preserved and transmitted the Greco-Roman heritage, and eventually converted the barbarians.

The Rule of St. Benedict, which the Benedictine monks followed and continue to follow today, sets forth an order to life, that countered the disordered world.  It is built around prayer and work (the Benedictine motto being ora et labora).  It includes spiritual discipline and asceticism (acts of self-denial).  It includes reading, particularly the devotional reading of Scripture known as the lectio divina.  Every day includes periods of silence.  Not that the Benedictines are totally separate from the world: they also help those in need and became famous for their hospitality.

Rod believes in cultivating such communities—taking us inside a modern-day monastery and also introducing us to similar communities of both Catholics and Protestants—but he believes that “the Rule” can also be adapted and applied among laypeople.

His main point is that in order to survive and to prevail against the contemporary cultural hostility, Christians need to grow closer to Christ, turn churches into actual communities of believers, and cultivate their differences with the secular world. Instead of waging futile culture wars, Christians should devote themselves to building up Christian culture.

Christians often talk about “reaching the culture” without realizing that, having no distinct Christian culture of their own, they have been co-opted by the secular culture they seek to evangelize. Without a substantial Christian culture, it’s no wonder that our children are forgetting what it means to be Christian, and no surprise that we are not bringing in new converts. (p. 102)

To do so will require changes in our churches and a reinvigoration of our personal faith, an intentional cultivation of order, discipline, and community as an alternative to our culture’s current disorder, hedonism, and individual isolation. He writes,

If today’s churches are to survive the new Dark Age, they must stop “being normal.” We will need to commit ourselves more deeply to our faith, and we will need to do that in ways that seem odd to contemporary eyes. By rediscovering the past, recovering liturgical worship and asceticism, centering our lives on the church community, and tightening church discipline, we will, by God’s grace, again become the peculiar people we should always have been. The fruits of this focus on Christian formation will result not only in stronger Christians but in a new evangelism as the salt recovers its savor. (p. 102)

This is the Benedict option.

Bracing stuff. Hard truths. Motivating exhortations. Inspiring examples.

Instead of the usual “church growth” formula of urging churches to change so that they are more like the non-Christian world, Rod urges churches to change so that they are less like the non-Christian world. And Rod is savvier and less naïve than most “church growth” experts, as he explores just how caustic our culture has become, not only spiritually and morally, but also in the basic elements of being human.

I especially commend to you his chapter on education, with his advocacy of not just Christian schools but Classical Christian Education (something that I am involved with), and his chapter on sex, in which he says that “it’s imperative that we raise our kids to know that children are a blessing without qualification and that fertility is not a disease” (p. 211).

And yet, as a Lutheran, I have some qualms about the Benedict option. I recall Luther’s critique of monasticism, that we are not supposed to retreat from the world in an effort to build up our own holiness. Rather, we are to live out our faith in the world, with all of the conflicts and crosses this will mean.

Our relationship to God is based on His works for us in Christ, which we receive by Word and Sacrament. Whereupon God calls us in vocation to love and serve our neighbors in the family, the workplace, the church, and the state.

Holiness is not something we achieve through our meditations or asceticism; rather, it is a gift of God. Not that we don’t need discipline, order, and even suffering. We do. That happens not in self-chosen mortifications, but precisely in the world.

It is said that Luther transferred the disciplines of the monasteries—think of the Benedictine motto, “to pray and to work”—and brought them into the secular vocations. Fathers and mothers must pray and work as they carry out their parenthood. The farmer prays and works in the fields. The citizen prays and works in the nation. The pastor prays and works for his congregation.

Now this is largely what Rod is driving at, bringing the Rule of St. Benedict into the sphere of the laity. But he sometimes sounds as if lay people too should be separated from the sinful world in the same way that the monks were attempting. Earlier in the last century, evangelicals and fundamentalists tried that, with their refusal to get involved in the “dirty” world of politics, their parallel “Christian” entertainment industry, and their “Christian Yellow Pages” encouraging doing business only with fellow-Christians. But that kind of cultural retreat was not necessarily wise. For one thing, Christian withdrawal from the culture contributed to the de-Christianization of the culture. And the parallel Christian institutions and artifacts often became just as commercialized and shallow as their secularist counter-parts.

Christians would do well not to seek utopia in this temporal world that will pass away, whether in the prospect of building a perfect society or a perfect church. We will die soon enough, and then we will find that perfection forever.

I think that the separation that Rod is seeking, as well as the Christian influence that he still hopes for, can be found not so much in the monastic model as in the Lutheran doctrine of the Two Kingdoms. Yes, Christians are to be distinct from this world in God’s spiritual kingdom, refusing to conform to the culture and to the deceptions of the devil. At the same time, Christians are to be citizens of God’s temporal kingdom, through whom God works in vocation to care for His creation.

A key insight of the doctrine of the Two Kingdoms is that God is actively present, though in a hidden way, in the so-called secular order. And He is already ruling, even among those who do not know Him. He gives daily bread, grants children, provides protection, and exercises His love in the secular world in all of its secularity.

Which makes me wonder if Rod’s dire analysis completely holds true. As Charles Taylor, whom Rod quotes, has shown, the “secular hypothesis”—that modernity is accompanied by the decline of religion—is not correct. We learn that even supposed secularists have more religious beliefs than we have realized. As we blogged about, LGBT folks, for all of their conflict with Christians, are surprisingly religious, with most of them professing Christianity, though sometimes, ironically, in a closeted way. Even the Nones tend to believe in God and pray. Over 80% of Americans profess Christianity, with most of the rest holding to Judaism, Islam, or some other traditional faith. Only 3% of Americans are atheists.

How is that secularism? To be sure, Rod’s criticisms of Christians not knowing much about their faith and failing to live it out consistently are valid, and rightly apply throughout society.

Can it be that the secularism and the hostility to faith is confined to a tiny culture-making elite? Our ruling class, which dominates the media, academia, and the entertainment industry, but which is out of touch with most Americans? Might this attenuated ruling class eventually collapse of its own internal contradictions?

Already journalism, though it has a loud voice, is in trouble, with the decline in readers and the financial problems of newspapers. Hollywood’s own sexual permissiveness is bringing about its ruin with the #MeToo movement. The prestige of communications technology and social media is tarnished by hacking scandals and the proliferation of fake news. As for academia, the universities have adopted a type of self-destructive Stalinism that shuts down intellectual discourse and undermines learning.

And how long can we really go against nature, as in our infertile sexual practices and the belief that we can change our sex at will?  Nature always, eventually, asserts itself.

Rod’s book came out last year, when the Christian baker was being punished for refusing to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding, and he warns that anti-discrimination statutes will shut down religious liberty. But now the Supreme Court has ruled in favor of the baker. Other religious liberty cases have been decided that protect Christians exercising their faith in public. And there is the prospect of more conservative justices joining the court. Such developments might mitigate at least some of Rod’s pessimistic predictions.

One of my favorite sections of The Benedict Option is Rod’s discussion of the dissident movement in communist Czechoslovakia, as Václav Havel and Václav Benda created a “parallel polis” of humanity and integrity, in opposition to the inhumanity and corruption of communism. Rod quotes them as saying that they had no idea that their dissident activity would actually bring about any kind of change to communist totalitarianism, at least not in their lifetime, and they were surprised when communism suddenly collapsed. Could something like that collapse happen with the American ruling class and their anti-Christian ideology?

I do appreciate the changes that Rod calls for in American Christianity and its churches. He calls for liturgical worship. He advocates creeds and sacraments. He says that Christians need to recover the sense that God connects Himself to the physical world. Again, all of this can already be found in Lutheran Christianity. In fact, much of what he calls for can be found in the book that I wrote with Trevor Sutton, Authentic Christianity: How Lutheran Theology Speaks to the Postmodern World.

To be sure, Lutherans also need to recover their theological and spiritual heritage. What Rod says about complacent and culturally-conforming Christians applies to Lutherans, as well as to everyone else. But Lutherans, who have arguably avoided political entanglements in their churches—while still promoting pro-life and religious liberty causes—may be in a good position to embody what Rod is calling for. But in terms of vocation rather than monasticism.


April 9, 2015

The outrage from big business (even Walmart!), the media, and the culture at large over Indiana’s Religious Freedom bill has many Christians thinking that America is a lost cause.  The dominant culture is so fixated on gay marriage and sexual permissiveness that it will not tolerate dissenters.  Even religious liberty, in the court of public opinion and likely legal opinion, will have to give way, and conservative believers will increasingly be demonized and punished.

Whether we are actually at that point or not, a number of thinkers–mostly of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox persuasion–are raising the possibility of what they call  The Benedict Option.

After Rome fell to moral chaos and then to the barbarians, St. Benedict formed distinct Christian communities where believers could practice their faith separated from the world.  Similarly, mainstream American culture may become so hostile to Christianity, so the reasoning goes, that Christians must form alternative communities, carrying on an alternative culture, until, as with Benedict, the barbarians are converted.

Rick Strickert posted some powerful quotations on this subject on Lutheran Forum, which I give after the jump.  And then I want to pose a question:  Can there be a Lutheran version of the Benedict Option, and, if so, how would it be different from the Roman Catholic and Fundamentalist versions? (more…)

August 23, 2013

More evidence of Luther’s point about Roman Catholics and Protestant “enthusiasts” being basically the same in thinking God speaks to them directly and experientially, apart from His Word:

“God told me to do it,” the 86-year-old former pontiff told a friend, six months after his decision to step down shocked the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics. (more…)

December 20, 2021

The “institutional church” is derided by just about everybody, from spiritual-but-not-religious Nones to non-denominational evangelicals.  Indeed, many church “institutions” have become floundering and unfaithful.  But few people have encountered a church that has actually functioned as an institution is supposed to, retaining its identity through the generations despite all the challenges and giving its people the Christian formation they need.

One such successful Christian institution is the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod.

So says Rebekah Curtis in a rather remarkable piece for the American Reformer entitled “The Lutheran Option:  Stewarding a Legacy of Institution-Building.”

She’s talking not so much about doctrine but about church culture and the benefits of being a part of a local congregation that forthrightly and as part of a larger institution believes, teaches, and lives out Christian doctrine.  She is also interacting with the “Benedict Option“:  In looking for a haven for themselves and their families from the increasing assaults of secularism, many Christians are trying to build new institutions; she suggests trying some that are already functioning.  Other Christians are–like the religious migrants of old–moving their whole households, not in search of a job, but in search of a good church, preferably with a good school.  She mentions several specific Lutheran congregations that have become magnets for this kind of migration.

Her article defies excerpting, so let me get your started and you can click “Keep reading” to read it all.  From Rebekah Curtis,  “The Lutheran Option:  Stewarding a Legacy of Institution-Building“:

In 1817, Prussia’s Frederick William III sought to solve religious tensions by making one nice, big Protestant church. There were no memes yet, so the Lutherans (i.e. “Saxons”) didn’t have this to post by way of explanation. Instead, they took a couple of decades to get organized, boarded five boats and sailed to America. One of the boats sank, and when the rest of them got here everything went really sideways. Devastating moral failure in their leader ended with the migrants living in horrible conditions mismatched to their skill sets. Somehow, enough of them made it to make it, and that’s how we got The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.

But in making the LCMS, as it is affectionately known, what did the Saxons make? The church body occupies a peculiar place in American Christianity. Lutherans are sacerdotal softies; doctrinaire Jesus freaks; acerbic jerks who love you so hecking much because they know God does. They can’t deal with Calvinists’ allergy to mystery, or the pope’s allergy to claiming primacy only by human right. Lutherans have been known to laugh at Baptists and cry at baptisms. Lutherans also punch as much below their weight socially and politically as Presbyterians punch above theirs.

Here’s a theory for this latter phenomenon that accounts for what the Saxons made. The LCMS has historically been a major operator of schools. This necessarily means that its body is composed of a great number of teachers, which has consequences. First, that Lutheran teachers have been less involved in other aspects of public life because the life of the Lutheran teacher has a “public servant” feeling and function built into it, even if its service is not broadly public. Second, that many young Lutherans have turned into Lutheran teachers, so the cycle continues. With so much institutional energy invested internally in education, a smaller external presence and recognition cannot be helped. Furthermore, the development of Lutheran schools both occasioned and supported the simultaneous growth of related structures, particularly financial and media institutions and complex internal social connections. The Saxons made not just a community, but an ecosystem.

[Keep reading. . .]

She goes on to discuss the “ecosystem” of the LCMS, not minimizing its problems, but pointing out what it continues to do right.

I suspect that many of us who are members of the LCMS will be surprised and somewhat embarrassed to hear their church body praised so much–one of the many quirks she records is an aversion to “glory” and an awareness of how, as we confess every Sunday, “we are sinful and unclean.”  But, all the same, the article helps us to notice and to appreciate what we take for granted.

Her lesson, though, goes beyond the LCMS.  She concludes, “A congregation with solid dogmatics, real connections to a whole lot of other deep-rooted congregations, and over a century of life is worthy of serious consideration. It has survived complete turnovers of its leadership and membership, while surrounded by external cultural convulsion.”  And she notes, “Historically rooted church bodies with advantages of material and social infrastructure, a culture of commitment to the church, and generations of survival without loss of identity have an opportunity here.”


Photo:  Headquarters of the LCMS, St. Louis, via Facebook.

July 28, 2021

I came across this bit from a discussion of whether it was right for a conservative student group to ban a conservative porn star who wanted to participate:

There’s a scene in Mel Brooks’s 1970 movie The Twelve Chairs, which is set in the Soviet Union in 1927, in which a Russian Orthodox priest played by Dom DeLuise expresses sympathy for communism in a fight with another character. His interlocutor asks him how he, as a priest, could be a Communist Party member since atheism is a requirement for membership. DeLuise shrugs and replies, “The church must keep up with the times.”

I thought of this too in the controversy among Catholics, with Pope Francis essentially banning the traditional Latin mass.  The  big convocation in the 1960s known as Vatican II sought to make the church “keep up with the times.”  So they jettisoned old identify-forming traditions like abstaining from meat on Fridays and  installed a new mass that was not only in the vernacular–something we Reformation types would certainly support–but also made it possible to tone down the mystery by incorporating contemporary Christian music and a host of informalities.   The post-Vatican II mass can still be reverent–there is even a Latin version–but in many parishes it comes across as far too casual, with 1960s-Peter-Paul-and-Mary style guitar music (not referring to the saints of those names but to the folk singers) and trying-too-hard attempts to be up to date.

(One problem with trying to “keep up with the times” is that, to paraphrase Bob Dylan, the times they are always changing.  By the time one style of “contemporary” music gets incorporated into a church service, it will have gone out of fashion.  There is nothing that seems more outdated than yesterday’s fashion, especially when older adults try to do it.  This is why, when the church tries to be contemporary, it is generally a step or two behind and thus comes across as old-fashioned.)

So some Catholics pushed for a return to the old Tridentine Latin mass (named for the council that launched the counter-Reformation), with all of its genuflections, prostrations, incense, rituals, and symbolism, and Pope Benedict XVI gave them permission to do so.  The return of the old mass, in parishes that chose to go that route–at least for some services–did attract die-hard traditionalists, including those who disapprove of Pope Francis, but it also attracted young people, who were captivated by how different it was from the pop culture they were used to and yearned to escape from.  This kind of worship seemed to them to be mysterious, transcendent, and holy.

But now Pope Francis, who is interested in modernizing the church, has reversed his predecessor’s permission.  In the name of church unity, he says, we need to go back to the vernacular, contemporized mass.  We must keep up with the times even when the times want to go back to something better.

Lutheran that I am, I don’t mean to defend the mass, whether traditional or modern, which is shot through with theological errors.  But we too have had our worship wars between those who want the traditional Lutheran liturgy–a form of the mass purged of its errors, but keeping the structure, the set-pieces, and the chanting–and those who want a more contemporary service, similar to those of evangelical megachurches.  There are also those in between, who blend some contemporary elements and contemporary music into the liturgical structure.  The debates were fierce a few decades ago, but my impression is that the worship wars among Lutherans have died down.

Our confessions actually allow for variations in “ceremony.”  The main issue for Lutherans is doctrinal unity.  And this is where the desire to “keep up with the times” is most caustic to Christianity.

The notion that the church should keep up with the times is perhaps the best definition of liberal theology.  The idea is that for the church to be relevant, it must change its teachings to accord with the beliefs of the day.  Thus, liberal theology has championed at various times, the social gospel of 19th century progressivism, New Deal liberalism, Marxist liberation theology, and now post-Marxist critical race-sex-gender theory; also, enlightenment rationalism, romantic emotionalism, civil religion, existentialism, feminism, queer theory, etc., etc.  Also psychology, the self-esteem movement, encounter groups, New Age, and becoming “woke.”   Paradoxically, just about every secularist idea can be found in churches; that is, among liberal theologians and the mainline Protestant–and liberal Catholic–churches they call home.

In fact, some liberal theologians have made a reality of what Mel Brooks intended as a joke, actually adopting what they call “Christian atheism”!

So in what sense should Christians “keep up with the times”?  The Bible commends the men of the tribe of Issachar, “who had understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do” ( 1 Chronicles 12:32).  I think that Christians should try to keep abreast of what is happening–the news, the new ideas, emerging worldviews, and contemporary issues.  Not only because of their vocations of citizenship but because awareness of “the times” can help them from being unduly influenced and can identify areas that call for a Christian response.  Orthodox theologians should follow the new trends in their field, not to adopt them, necessarily, but to answer them.  And “the times” might also bring up trends, ideas, and technologies that Christians can put to good use.

How else might Christians keep up with the times without selling out to the times?  Are there some lines that can be drawn between accommodations that are acceptable and those that aren’t?


Photo:  The Tridentine Latin Mass  by the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Peter, available from http://fssp.org., Attribution, via Wikimedia Commons

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