Ted Grimsrud—September 21, 2017
[What follows is the text of a paper I presented at Goshen (IN) College on September 15, 2017. It was part of the conference, “Word, Spirit, and the Renewal of the Church: Believers’ Church, Ecumenical and Global Perspectives”—the 18th Believers’ Church Conference. The paper is drawn from a series of blog posts I wrote in May, 2017.]
I want to talk about the book, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation (Sentinel Books, 2017) by journalist, blogger, and religious thinker Rod Dreher. This book that has received an unusual amount of attention. I believe it challenges and helps illumine a distinctively Believers’ Church approach to “Christ and culture”—with both similarities and differences. I have four parts to my talk: First, description and affirmation; second, critique; third, a response to Dreher’s emphasis on same-sex marriage as a paradigmatic issue; and fourth, a sketch of a “Believers’ church option.”
Description and Affirmation
It is important to keep Dreher’s stated agenda and his intended audience in mind as we consider his book. He writes 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. There is a lot to criticize in the book, but I don’t think it should be criticized for not spending much time presenting a careful argument to Benedict Option (or, “BenOp”) skeptics. That is 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, he might say, 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.
I agree that the general question how Christians might practice our faith in life-giving ways in a culture that seems all too bent on death should be at the center for all of us. I see two particularly attractive elements to Dreher’s presentation. The first is that many of Dreher’s concerns and criticisms of contemporary American culture are perceptive and demand respectful attention. The second is that his sense of the calling Christians have to invest themselves in creative countercultural formation seems right.
At the heart of Dreher’s analysis of the current milieu in America is a sharp critique of our materialism (both as in consumerism and as in the modern scientistic view that the material realm is all there is). He rightly points to the many failures of the Enlightenment project and its corrosive impact on communities. He also rightly challenges the spiritually empty dynamics of contemporary sexual hedonism and points to problems with our media/wired/technologized society, especially in relation to young people. Our culture is impoverished by popular scorn for many of our life-sustaining traditional practices. I wished he had said more about it, but Dreher does accurately seem to see capitalism as deeply problematic and complicit in most of these problems, and he is appropriately skeptical of the American empire.
I appreciate Dreher’s call to approach these concerns from a Christian perspective (albeit with a different sense of what “Christian” means than mine). I believe that Christians should always think in terms of living in countercultural communities and having a countercultural sensibility. Though Dreher does not talk about the content of the Bible much, I think he and I would agree that the Bible does underwrite this countercultural impulse.
I understand my ecclesial location to be in the Believers’ Church tradition. The term “Believers’ Church” stems from the conviction that church membership is for believers, those who have chosen to follow Jesus, not all people in a geographical area. I think there could be significant connections between the Benedict Option understanding of faith and the Believers’ Church tradition. Dreher could learn from Christian groups who have such a long tradition of being self-conscious minorities in their cultures, a status that has involved many tensions, conflicts, persecutions, and inabilities to influence the wider society.
A General Critique
However, as I read Dreher’s book, I see some major differences between what he envisions and what I might call the “Believers’ Church option.” In a nutshell, I would say that the “Benedict Option” may ultimately hurt more than help the cause of Christian faith for one main reason: 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 little to say in this book about Jesus or about love.
It is telling that the one clear call to love does not come until near the end of the book, and is not in Dreher’s own voice. He quotes pastor Greg Thompson: The Benedict Option 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.”
Alasdair MacIntyre’s book, After Virtue, is a key resource for Dreher. It provides the metaphor of St. Benedict. Dreher, though, misses a key point in MacIntyre’s recovery of Aristotelian virtues. MacIntyre notes there is a key difference between Aristotle and later Christians. Aristotle did not see love as a key virtue. For biblical Christianity, on the other hand, MacIntyre writes, love “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.” Yet, Dreher’s overall tone and many of his criticisms do not reflect a loving spirit and Jesus and his call to love do not have a noticeably formative role in his moral framework.
For Dreher, the church/world separation seems to be almost ontological. In the biblical and Believers’ Church traditions (at their best), the sense of separation is more strategic than ontological. The separation happens so the faith community might be better able to carry out its vocation to “bless all the families of the earth” (Genesis 12:3). For Dreher, it appears, the quest by Christian communities for purity has more to do with avoiding contamination from the world than with being an agent that contributes to healing the world’s “contamination.”
Dreher comes close valorizing what he calls “our Western cultural heritage”—a heritage, I would say, of Christian hegemony. A Believers’ Church angle questions whether Christian dominance of the West was a case of Christian faithfulness. The way of Jesus that emphasizes love of neighbor (including the enemy) and compassion for the vulnerable stands in tension with the dynamics of Christendom with its tolerance for slavery, imperialism, patriarchy, and economic exploitation.
In contrast to Dreher’s despair at the loss of Christianity’s dominance, the biblical perspective, in my view, allows for a more positive acceptance of a minority status. When the Hebrew kingdom was destroyed by the Babylonians, a vision for an embrace of exile emerged—a vision reiterated by Jesus’s message of a kingdom that stands over against the empires of the world rather than seeks to dominate them and transform them into a “Christian culture.”
For Dreher, Christians are not only not in charge (tragically, in his view), but our culture, even more, actively shows hostility toward “orthodox Christians.” However, I am not so sure. It is not clear to me that the negative reactions that, say, those who oppose same-sex marriage face are best seen as Christian persecution. They seem more to be reactions against perceived discrimination than against Christianity. Dreher seems to find it deeply offensive that Christians would be persecuted. He would perhaps benefit from learning from the Believers’ Church tradition with its long history of accepting that they will face persecution for practicing their conviction to love their neighbors—love even when the neighbors have persecuted them.
Same-Sex Marriage as the Paradigmatic Issue
Throughout the book and other recent writings, Dreher mentions same-sex marriage as the paradigmatic expression of deeply problematic Western culture. He suggests the main manifestation of the dangers “orthodox Christians” face in our society is to be persecuted for not accepting same-sex-marriage face, and they are sure to face such dangers even more in the days to come.
Dreher links same-sex marriage with what he calls the “sexual revolution” that emerged in the United States beginning in the 1960s. At the heart of this “revolution,” according to Dreher, lies an individualistic hedonism that overly celebrates sexual pleasure and personal desire and that scorns traditional morality. One thing, though, that Dreher does not explain is why he sees same-sex marriage as the paradigmatic case of enslavement to sexual pleasure and individualistic hedonism.
One could argue, to the contrary, that so many gay and lesbian people commit to marriage actually as a reaction against promiscuity and a “hooking up” culture. Dreher’s a priori assumptions exclude the possibility of same-sex-marriage as a morally faithful choice for Christians—though he seems ignorant of real-life gay and lesbian Christians who approach marriage as an expression of commitment, fidelity, shared vocation, and communal accountability.
I know from numerous personal acquaintances, that gay and lesbian couples commonly see getting married as an opportunity publicly to pledge their lifetime commitments to fidelity and mutuality. They are intentional about the commitments and disciplines of marriage. In many cases, they also desire to expand the circle of their family to include children. All of this is the opposite of “individualistic hedonism” and “sexual license.”
Based on a recent blog post, Dreher rejects the perspective of Christian supporters of same-sex marriage for four reasons: (1) It is clearly anti-biblical. (2) It shows that we think the meaning of sexuality is whatever we say it is (as opposed to what God says it is). (3) It is an impoverished way of thinking about the gift of sexuality. (4) It will never work.
Interestingly, about the only place in all his writings where I have seen Dreher invoke the Bible as an important source of authority is when he (without discussing actual texts) asserts that same-sex-marriage is “anti-biblical” and talks about “biblical sexuality.” He writes as if the Bible and Tradition up until fifty years ago gave a clear, univocal, and essentially timeless portrayal of human sexuality and the meaning of marriage. I would argue that the meanings of sexuality and marriage have always been dynamic and varied over time and cultures. Simple assertions of a single notion of marriage based on the Bible are not warranted given the evidence of how marriage is seen in various ways in the Bible itself and over the past 2,000 years.
Numerous times in The Benedict Option, Dreher refers to a thinker who I also admire, Wendell Berry. Dreher even cites Berry’s insightful writing about sex. However, Dreher here ignores that Berry is in favor of same-sex marriage. My point in mentioning this is not to say that Berry is some kind of authority the Dreher should bow down to. Rather, I want to point out that someone that Dreher cites as a person with impeccable credentials on sexual ethics recognizes the difference between the “hedonistic sexual revolution” and the actual practice of same-sex marriage.
So, for Dreher not to recognize this difference and to lump together same-sex marriage and the “sexual revolution” is deeply problematic. It seems a manifestation of the lack of love as a core conviction in Dreher’s Ben Op. I would not insist that affirming love as a core conviction would itself mean that Dreher should necessarily have a different view of the moral validity of same-sex-marriage. Rather, my point would be that if Dreher were more motivated by love he would be much more careful in how he talks about the issue. He would not reduce same-sex-marriage to “sexual license.” And he would be much more likely to be respectful of the motives and experiences of those who see their marriages to people of the same sex as having the same kind of religious and moral weight as Dreher would surely have concerning his own marriage.
A Believers’ Church Option
So, what about a “Believers’ Church option”? The problems that arise from Dreher’s lack of emphasis on love as the heart of the gospel—seen, for example, in his antipathy toward LGBTQ people—underscores the challenge for Believers’ Church communities to live as if love and non-coercive welcome are central to their ecclesiology.
One way to think of Christian traditions is to distinguish between “magisterial churches” and “believers’ churches.” Magisterial churches have a history of being closely linked with magistrates (or governmental leaders). Alongside these state-connected groups, free or believers’ churches have arisen, especially following the break in western Christendom between Catholics and Protestants in the 16th century. These Believers’ churches have typically practiced believers’ baptism and been free from direct linkage with the state and been more Bible-centered, less creedal, and less hierarchical.
Dreher’s Benedict Option seems more closely related to magisterial church traditions (his own connections are mainly Catholic and Eastern 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. So, the Benedict Option and the Believers Church option differ in their sensibilities about how Christians understand themselves in relation to the wider culture. Believers’ Church adherents would not have the same kind of longing for the heyday of what Dreher calls “the West” with its Christian hegemony. In fact, some Believers’ Church Christians welcome the breaking apart of “Christendom,” seeing an opportunity to witness to a kind of Christianity more authentic to the message of Jesus.
The actual message of Jesus gets little attention from Dreher—something typical of magisterial Christianity since the 4th century. In contrast, Believers’ Church Christianity has always placed the gospels at the center. As a consequence, the call to love the vulnerable and even enemies has had a priority—a calling to witness to the wider culture of the way of love. This sense of calling has existed side-by-side with a sense of separation from the problematic dynamics of “the world”—particularly an economics of wealth acquisition, a politics of domination, and an inordinate nationalism.
The Believers’ Church offers those interested in the Benedict Option a tradition that has lower expectations of the wider culture’s moral soundness, that leads to less disappointment with the practices of the wider culture, and that actually allows a more hopeful encounter with the wider culture based on optimism about the possibilities for a minority witness (rather than a desire to retain a kind of cultural hegemony). The Believers’ Church model empowers a kind of distance from any particular nation-state. With this distance from nation-states also comes more of an attitude of welcome and openness to peoples of all nations and walks of life. The distance from nation-states actually empowers a greater potential for connecting with people in loving and respectful ways. The distance is not a call for withdrawal from the wider world but for a different kind of engagement with the world, service and witness more than seeking to run it.
The theology of mission in Believers’ Church traditions (though not always the practice) has opposed strict boundaries of in and out. Theologically, the boundaries must be porous in order to invite new people in. Since membership is determined by a non-coerced decision to follow Jesus, the communities will seek to be invitational and non-boundary marker oriented.
So, Dreher’s Benedict Option seems not to make a priority of witness and invitation to the wider world. In contrast, the Believers’ Church option is committed to struggle maintaining both a sense of difference from the wider world and a sense of welcome toward and mutual give and take with that same world. We may be hopeful that amidst the terrible things in human societies, people still have the capability to respond to God’s mercy. We don’t require a “Christian culture” in order to have a positive impact.
A Believers’ Church option seeks to find an (admittedly elusive) balance of sustaining a distinct identity for Christian communities while simultaneously engaging, in love, the wider world. Holding a tension between identity sustenance and engagement has been a way to understand and implement the founding vocation of “blessing all the families of the earth” (God’s strategy of calling a particular people to be channels of healing for all). This tension has been the genius of the Believers’ Church vision for embodied Christian faith.