Sunday, April 30, 2017

Chapter 6: The Idea of a Christian Village

Americans have always fashioned themselves rugged individualists.  As a bulwark against that temptation, Dreher offers the idea of a Christian village.  We don't exist in isolation; the people with whom we interact on a day to day basis may be influenced by our Christian witness, but they also influence us in turn.  Even if a particular family is living out its vocation as a domestic church, they will still need to be supported--by clergy, other families, as well as single men and women.

Nonetheless, it does start with the "domestic monastery" of the home: "That means maintaining regular times of family prayer.  That means regular readings of Scripture and stories from the lives of the saints."  In order to pass on the faith to our children, we must live that faith, and not just on Sundays.  Like the Benedictine monasteries, our homes should provide shelter from the world, and not just for ourselves.  Hospitality is important for lay Christians as well as monks.

Dreher implores us not to be afraid to be nonconformist.  From the beginning, the faith was a stumbling block to the worldly.  We've always been weird, even if we've sometimes forgotten it.  As the culture becomes less hospitable to Christian teaching, this weirdness will become more apparent--at least if we're doing our job right.  This is a hard burden to bear, especially for teenagers, but parents can help by being aware of the peculiarity of Christianity.

A child's friends are of paramount importance.  "Though parental influence is critical, research shows that nothing forms a young person's character like their peers."  The careful work of parents can be undone if a child befriends children who don't possess good character.

Dreher cautions against idolizing the family.  This makes more sense in light of his books The Little Way of Ruthie Leming and How Dante Can Save Your Life but the main takeaway is: even good things can be loved for the wrong reasons.  So a family, surely one of life's goods, can become an idol of sorts if it's not loved based on what it is.  The family exists to help us get to God; it is not an end in itself.  Since all families are flawed in some measure--the Holy Family excepted, of course--we can ask too much of them.  The family remains very important to Benedict Option communities.

He counsels Christians to live close to other members of their community.  It's well and good to drive to a solid parish for worship, but if the church is to truly be the nexus of a parish, it's not enough to meet once a week.  It's far easier to come together when the members live near the church.  Dreher then offers some examples of families who have moved closer to their church and have been strengthened in their faith because of it.

Here I offer, not so much a criticism, as some context.  While it is desirable to live near one's church, this must be balanced against other familial considerations.  No doubt Dreher understands this and would grant the point.  It remains important to remember that often we are seeking to do what's best for our families.  Sometimes, that will mean moving closer to our church; sometimes, it will mean hauling the kids across town to get to daily mass or youth group.

Dreher wants us to make the Church's social network real.  He draws on the example of the Mormons, who ensure every member of the church is part of an active community of coreligionists.  As social pressures intensify, our parishes will need to provide more than the grace of the sacraments.  For instance, if a man is laid off for religious reasons, the parish should be able to help him get in touch with someone to find another job.

On a somewhat related note, Dreher wants us to build relationships across church boundaries.  Real doctrinal differences separate the various Christian churches.  We can't pretend otherwise.  But we can find common cause amidst a hostile culture.  We can also draw inspiration from one another.  I would add that we can pray for Christian reunification, so that the Church can again be one as Jesus and the Father are one (John 17:21).

Just as he cautioned us against idolizing the family, so too with the community.  Some of the pushback Dreher has gotten comes from people who were raised in rigid Christian communities; such an approach failed to nurture people in the faith, and often drove them away.  He quotes one of my favorite lines from Solzhenitsyn about how the line between good and evil runs down the center of every human heart.  No community, no matter how well it lives the Gospel, will be without sin; just as no world, no matter how fallen, will be without goodness or beauty or truth.  We should also remember that we draw inward so as to give us the strength to go out again into that fallen world.

Lastly, Dreher cautions against a perfectionism that renders action impossible.  here is never going to be an ideal Christian community.  We need to "have some sort of vision and a plan but also be open to possibility."  He quotes Leah Libresco (who is now married to Alexi Sargent of First Things): "People are like, 'This Benedict Option thing, it's just being Christian, right?' And I'm like Yes!... But people won't do it unless you call it something different."

It's kind of funny, but in some ways, it also sums up the book.  There's nothing really earthshattering here; instead, it's a lot of stuff we should be doing but probably aren't.  If the book helps people start doing some of the things Dreher writes about, it will have accomplished its purpose.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Chapter 5: A Church for All Seasons

The fifth chapter is dedicated to building church communities that can, in theory, stand as pillars of faith through times of challenge.

Dreher starts by laying out the picture of our current situation, in which Christians have neglected to build their own distinct culture and have been essentially co-opted by modern secular culture in the name of reaching out to that culture and being “normal.” Noting that we cannot offer what we do not have, Dreger gives some recommendations for how we can rediscover a distinct, strong Christian culture even as the society around us tries to root it out.

He first notes that as Christians become more of a minority our focus should naturally sharpen to where it ought to be.

This brings back the identity vs. relevance dilemma that we talked about in chapter three, where focusing on being relevant to the culture diminishes a Christian group’s identity, but focusing on a strong identity makes the group less relevant in the prevailing culture. It is clear that Christians over the past few decades have sought so intently to become relevant in the culture that their identity has largely disappeared. It still exists in pockets, but is nowhere near what it used to be on a national level.

At some point, probably more recently, I believe that we began to slide back toward the identity end of that identity/relevance scale without necessarily putting a conscious effort into it. As church attendance and the devotion of the population to any form of Christianity has dwindled, the “pruning” effect has left many churches with smaller but more devout congregations.

Some churches have forsaken that pruning by digging out their roots completely and selling out to modern trends in a drastic effort to be more culturally relevant, effectively making themselves irrelevant to both the culture and Christianity simultaneously.

The churches that have held on to their teachings and traditions have slowly, necessarily been moving in the direction of a Benedict Option style community of strong, well-catechized congregations if they have been putting any effort into sustaining their faith into the future. The current moment in American history seems to beg for a turning point toward stronger Christian identity, and books like The Benedict Option as well as other by Anthony Esolen, Archbishop Charles Chaput, and others all seem to be bringing that call to the people in quick succession.

Dreher provides an outline for what a strong, Benedict Option-like church community must look like in order to withstand coming challenges from a secularizing culture. This includes re-learning Christian traditions, recovering liturgical worship, developing a habit of both individual and communal asceticism, tightening church discipline, evangelizing with goodness and beauty, and embracing the possibility of exile and martyrdom.

Dreher dives more deeply into each of these ideas, but a few points and illustrations stood out to me in particular. I like how I saw Matt Fradd describe this book recently – “Rod Dreher is saying things that, until I read them, were laying half asleep in my mind.” That is how some of these points make me feel.

First, on recovering liturgical worship Dreher has us imagine attending a Catholic Mass in a 1970’s-era suburban church and also in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. While every part of the Mass may be the exact same at the two places, the holiness of the Mass is conveyed much more effectively in the Cathedral than in the suburban pole barn church. The beauty helps lead us to desire deeper communion with God.

I’m not sure what a shrinking suburban Christian community can really do if they are stuck with a horrendous local church building, but I do agree that beauty in the church makes a big difference.

Second, on asceticism, Dreher says that “A church that does not emphasize asceticism and discipleship is as pointless as a football coaching staff that doesn’t care if the team shows up to practice.” On a related note, while talking about church discipline, he says that “The Way leads somewhere, and those who refuse to walk the Way need to be brought back to it or eventually be sent away if they persist in sin.”

Both of these point relate to a level of accountability that is far above any church that I have experienced. It is very interesting to contemplate what it would mean to have this accountability in our parishes, given that it was held in a pastoral and understanding manner.

The thought of asking somebody to leave a congregation is dramatic, and I am not certain that it can be correct. This is probably the first point in the book that I have had a real, hard disagreement with Dreher.

I realize that, like the monks setting boundaries to protect their communal life, some boundaries are probably healthy in parish life. However, in the Catholic Church, for example, even those who are excommunicated are still bound by the obligation to attend Mass each Sunday (while foregoing some sacraments until they are reunited with the Church), so preventing somebody from being a part of a congregation, especially if it is the only congregation around that area, is problematic.

I see and understand where he is going with this – it can be scandalous and a blow to the integrity of a church to have somebody living a life antithetical to church teaching involved at the church, but I think a more pastoral approach of limiting that person’s influence in the church by asking them to relinquish leadership roles and public ministries, including liturgical roles, and possibly refraining from some sacraments until a time that the error is corrected, is probably the more Christian way to go. They need to walk through the error, preferably with the pastor, rather than simply being banished.

An increased level of accountability and of communal asceticism, however, I can totally get behind.

Finally, Dreher quotes Russell Moore as saying that in the future we will no longer be reaching out to “baptized pagans” who are already on the church roles, but rather to people who are hearing the Christian message as something new, possibly for the very first time.

This is already happening. Most of today’s college students have no background in Christianity, no knowledge of Christianity and its teachings, and very little Christian vocabulary. At the Catholic campus ministry where I work we have seen an increase in the number of students with no religious background whatsoever getting involved just to learn what this whole Christian thing is about.

This was stunning to me, being only ten years ahead of many of these students. I had the sense that most of my peers at least were raised with a general sense of what religion and Christianity were. It is increasingly clear that I was on the tail end of that reality. Going into the future, Christianity will become increasingly unknown, which may actually help it to attract some interest as people with no background seek to find some of life’s answers. With few preconceptions, they can be more open to learning about it.

Chapter 6 will explore the concept of the Christian village.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Chapter 4: A New Kind of Christian Politics

Although the focus of the book is not political, in this chapter Dreher discusses what we ought to do politically: "The Benedict Option calls for a radical new way of doing politics, a hands-on localism..."

He notes that the 2016 Presidential election was not a hopeful one for committed Christians.  This is not to say that recent elections have been much better, only that in this latest round, even the Republican candidate had given up pretending to offer much to Christian voters. His reward was 80% of the Evangelical vote, and the Presidency.

More importantly, although the State can be a threat to Christians who wish to live out their faith--just ask the Little Sisters of the Poor--ultimately, the State's power flows from the culture.  So long as the culture is militantly secular and treats earnestly held Christian belief as a dangerous superstition, we will need to be on guard.

As he has taken pains to point out, Dreher is not advocating quietism.  We must still do what we can in the political arena, even as we recognize that we may achieve very little.  "The first goal of Benedict Option Christians in the world of conventional politics is to secure and expand the space within which we can be ourselves and build our own institutions."

For all that Dreher has been accused of being too pessimistic, I find the opposite to be true.  It would be a quibble to chide him for misreading After Virtue; his intention is clearly to use MacIntyre as a springboard rather than develop that philosopher's thought.  On the other hand, it is fair to ask whether MacIntyre sees more clearly than does Dreher, at least insofar as the political situation is concerned, for this will alter the political component of the Benedict Option.

The notion that there is any space within which orthodox Christians can build their own institutions is a dubious one.  Clearly, we are still granted that privilege now, and it would be dishonest to suggest we cannot have what we currently possess.  However, one of the contentions of the book is that the State has expanded its sphere beyond any reasonable bounds.  In Obergefell, the court insisted that the State has the right to redefine the institution of marriage, which is to say, human nature itself. That conceit has been on full display in the push for transgender rights.

It's possible that Christians will be left alone, and they probably will--for a time.  But the logic of Obergefell is totalitarian.  To disagree with gay marriage is not to express a different understanding, it is to challenge the ability of the State to decide.  Hence the vitriol over florists, bakers and the like who refuse to acquiesce.

I hesitate to think what people would have thought of Dreher had he cast doubt on the validity of liberalism itself--though that is what MacIntyre did, I think rightly.  Suffice it to say that even the very modest goals Dreher proposes may prove too much for the State to grant us.  Time will tell.  It behooves to do what we can to enshrine religious liberty in law, but we would do well to put no more faith in that than we do in princes.

Dreher's examination of Czech dissident Vaclav Havel is more valuable.  For Havel, the essential thing was to live in truth. Dreher borrows Havel's example of a greengrocer who refuses to display the sign: "Workers of the World, Unite!" in his shop window.  He will be punished for this, precisely because his act addresses the lie inherent in the communist propaganda.  For Havel, this wasn't a foolish protest; it was authentic and important.  Comforting words, one hopes, for the aforementioned beleaguered bakers and florist.  Havel wrote that: "Only by living a better life can a better system be developed."

Dreher also draws inspiration from the pro-life movement.  They haven't stopped trying to overturn Roe v. Wade. But they have focused their efforts on creating a culture of life, for instance, by opening crisis pregnancy centers to give mothers a better option for them and their child.  Whatever the State may do to us, in the meantime, there is urgent work to be done.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Chapter 3: A Rule for Living

To start chapter three Dreher introduces us to the monastery at Norcia, the hometown of St. Benedict, and the monks who live there. He gives us a glimpse into their lifestyle and purpose and then uses this as a springboard into the “Rule of St. Benedict,” which is the detailed instruction for organizing and governing a monastic community.

Dreher notably points out that the Rule, “far from being a way of life for the strong and disciplined…was for the ordinary and weak, to help them grow stronger in faith.” This doesn’t apply just to head knowledge about the Faith. Rather, the Rule helps to “channel your spiritual energy into conversion of heart and putting beliefs into practice.

In short, the Rule is “an instruction manual for how to form one’s life around the service of Jesus Christ within a strong community.” The main point of the Benedict Option is that we can use this Rule, at least in adapted form, as a guide to building strong Christian communities that will preserve the Faith in the West through a time of testing and antagonism.

There are seven main element to the Rule, and Dreher shows that we can apply each of them to form a strong Christian community. The first is order, which is really a recognition of the order that God has written into creation. The effort of Christians to hold onto order and truth stands in stark contrast to a world of disorder and constantly changing values. This order keeps us focused on God and prevents us from wandering away with the latest fashions in theology and culture.

The second element, not surprisingly, is prayer. This includes both private and communal prayer, and both structured prayer like the Liturgy of the Hours and less structured prayer like lectio divina. This prayer is simply time spent being with God and communicating with Him. Without this explicit element in community it is easy for the community to simply become a social circle which can lose its rudder and drift off with cultural trends.

As ridiculous as it sounds, it is extremely easy to find Christian groups in which none of the members have a deep or regular prayer life or relationship with Christ. The element of prayer is one that has to be fought for on a daily basis and at an individual level. It is too easy to think that there is not time in the schedule to fit in prayer, and soon enough prayer disappears completely. This is when Christian identity starts sliding easily into the realm of moralistic therapeutic deism or conforming to whatever the prevalent cultural trends may be.

The third element is work. There are two primary views of work in society today – for some it is a source of identity, for others it is simply a means to make money so that we can do whatever we wish. The Benedictines show us that neither of these views is correct. Our work is not supposed to serve us, but rather it should serve God. Our work is an opportunity to glorify God.

Dreher suggests that we need to reorient to this view of work as glorifying God, especially as we move toward a time when Christians will lose their careers and be blocked out of certain professions due to their faith. Seeing our work as serving God rather than serving or defining us will help as some proportion of Christians are forced to work in a field other than their chosen profession.

The fourth element of the Rule is asceticism, or the taking on of physical rigors for the sake of a spiritual goal. An obvious example of this is fasting. Asceticism trains us to put God ahead of ourselves and helps to prevent against self-centeredness by saying no to our desires and yes to God. As one of the Benedictine monks mentioned to Dreher, “We are often further away from God than we realize. Asceticism serves as a healthy reminder of how things are. It’s not a punishment for being so far away.”
A great illustration that Dreher uses when discussing asceticism is that of an athlete training his body for competition. In the same way, asceticism trains us in the love and service of Christ and His Church.

The fifth element of the Rule is stability. For the monks this means spending their entire lives in the same monastic community. For lay people, stability means setting roots and investing in community. Moving from city to city from one job to another to climb the career ladder, or eschewing family and community for the sake of travel and novel experiences cuts off the roots that build community. There is great value in the lifelong relationships of a deep, stable community in times of trouble, but also in everyday tasks of supporting one another, raising children, etc.

This leads into the sixth element of the Rule, which is in fact community. In a deep, strong community the individual members are really part of an organic whole, a spiritual family. These communities allow for accountability between the members and deep levels of support. This level of community is difficult to achieve and even more difficult to maintain, especially among a variety of families from differing backgrounds, and it can take some reckoning.

The social interaction within a strong community leads to bonds that are hard to match in any other way, though. This interaction is glaringly absent from society today. Much of human interaction has been reduced to pixels on a screen, and this can never replace the bonds between real people, especially those formed over a long time in community.

The seventh element of the Rule which Dreher focuses upon is hospitality. This is the part that many reviews and discussions of the book seem to miss. While the element of stability and community that he recommends require us to draw back a little bit from society to augment our closeness and cohesion with others that share our faith, we still must reach out, welcome, and serve outsiders.

The Rule requires monks to welcome outsiders, at least to a point. That hospitality cannot interfere with the community’s way of life. As one of the monks puts it, “If we let visitors upset the rhythm of our life too much we can’t really welcome anyone.” Even so, the goal is to be as open to the outside world as possible.

I like how another of the monks describes the balance between preserving the community and welcoming outsiders: “Yes, you have to have borders, but our duty is not to let the borders stay there. We have to push outward, infinitely.” He states that this is done first by changing our own hearts toward God, and then our families, and then the world.

The final element of the Rule is balance. The Benedictines strive to be rigorous but not extreme. As one of the monks says, “If a community relaxes its discipline too much it will dissolve. But if it is too rigid, it will make people crazy.” He says that a balanced community should show good fruit – they should be cheerful and happy, growing, doing good, and helping people.

It is also pointed out that balance is not to be confused with spiritual mediocrity. This is where some amount of rigor comes in, especially in prayer. The balance is not between good and bad, but between different goods. The end goal, given to us by God, is to be perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect. This is a goal that requires balance in the approach, but really requires total abandonment of self-will to the will of God.

Applying all of these elements to the building of strong Christian communities, Dreher suggests, is what will help to build strong fortresses of the Faith to stand in contrast to the culture, and against its onslaughts, in the coming years when orthodox Christianity becomes increasingly unwelcome in the West.

The conundrum faced by a community that begins to implement the various elements of the Rule is the identity and relevance dilemma, as pointed out by Bishop Robert Barron. This theory states that the more we emphasize the uniqueness of Christianity, the less is seems to speak to the wider culture, and the more we emphasize the connection between faith and culture the less distinctive Christianity becomes.

The Benedict option is asking us to move to one end of this dilemma, or perhaps to the opposite end than we have been: emphasize the uniqueness of Christianity and let the culture view it as irrelevant for a time. Keep it alive until the culture is looking for what Christianity has to offer, and then offer it in spades.

Bishop Barron also offers an example of this being done very successfully, one that I had not heard connected to the Benedict Option before. Growing up in Poland under Nazi and Communist rule, Karol Wojtyla (later Pope John Paul II) was a part of an underground theatre group that kept Polish literature, poetry, and faith alive in an environment of dramatic oppression. Later on, as a priest, then bishop, then Pope, he was able to help bring the Polish culture back from the ashes to become one of the more prominent Catholic countries today.

Perhaps the difference in this example is that the Polish people were trying to outlast an outside force that was controlling their country, while the West is moving into a self-inflicted oppression of Christianity in the sense that it is our own country and culture that is secularizing. Even so, I think this is a great illustration of how the Benedict Option can be effective.

The coming chapters will break from the macro-level examination of the Benedict Option and start digging into some of the specifics for how the Benedict Option can be carried out.