Rod Dreher’s much anticipated new book, The Benedict Option: A Strategy For Christians In A Post-Christian Nation, is officially to be published next week on March 17 and I am lining up. I did not receive my pre-order copy to review in the mail. I put this down to two things: the tight publishing schedule, and the fact that no one who matters has ever heard of me.
My review would be short. One word in fact: Finally!
The B/O conversation has been so prevalent and so all pervasive in the past few years; Dreher has written so much about it; so many have responded to it, that it all feels as if the book has already been published and all of our conversations are the follow up.
The fact that all of our conversations precede the actual publication date means that this idea has grasped our collective imaginations. Dreher is not trying to start a conversation or movement, he’s been documenting where it has been going for several years now. Take it from me, this book is not predicting a trend, but mapping a movement. I predict it will top not a few best seller lists.
Let me lay my cards on the table. I had been convinced of the necessity of a B/O approach in the face of the coming excrement storm about to hit the West, long before I’d heard of such an option. Something had to happen. Something! The emergent movement claimed it was the future, but much of it promptly submerged into the cultural stew of leftist nonsense within a few years, always watching nervously what the progressive agenda was before reacting to it with a shouty “Me too!”.
That the same Rob Bell who called his church Mars Hill Bible Church, could, not a few years later, claim that a bunch of ancient documents shouldn’t be allowed to set the sexual direction of the culture, is not so much ironic as tragic.
And those harrumphing in furious agreement at this point should well remember the other Mars Hill church, one in which Mark Driscoll proudly preached the Bible, before he too blinked in the face of the conservative cultural extreme, adding in a strain of patriarchal muscularity on steroids that broke more hearts and more witnesses than many in living memory.
This confused many of us, who while we aligned ourselves with Driscoll, would prefer Bell as a guest for dinner. At least he wouldn’t tip over the table and demand to know where the smoking room was afterwards.
Of course there will always be the steady-as-she-goes conservative evangelicals who pooh-poohed both of those movements over the past twenty years, all the while saying “just keep preaching the Bible and it will all work out.” No need to change anything. No need to critique what ever else it is we are doing. Just keeping running evangelist outreaches to which no one who isn’t Christian turns up, and one day it will all magically change. Magic would be the right word, because that’s what they are going to need if they don’t face up to what is happening.
For my money this last position is the most dangerous place to be, because it sounds so right, and is so close to being right. But whenever I write on this issue, promoting the B/O as viable, it is those who are my theological friends who are most suspicious of anything that smacks too much of communitarianism.
But despite the naysayers, despite those who claim that the B/O is just about bunkering down and becoming home schooling, butter churning weirdos in the mould of The Village, Dreher’s work in recent years has proven eerily prescient.
Having just read the Christianity Today article by Dreher that outlines his argument, I suspect too that this will become more than a book to read and shelve, but a handbook to carry around in one’s spiritual backpack, an ecclesiastical map for Christian communities as they navigate through an increasingly complex post-Christian west.
The key word in the subtitle is “strategy”. We don’t need another “top-ten list of the ways Christians should”. We don’t need another “if you just sort out your music/building design/lighting/length of sermon” suggestion. We don’t need a “churches must stop preaching about same-sex marriage/sin/atonement/abortion/refugees/guilt-for-having- money” blog posts. We need a strategy that is totalising and that goes beyond the surface all the way down to our very life practices. Forget worldview, we believe what we do. That’s the way humans are put together. And the B/O’s strength is that it makes no short-term claims, but admits that it took time to get us into the mess and it will take time to get us out.
In other words there are thousands (millions?) of Christian pilgrims hungry for a direction in an increasingly directionless church and culture landscape who are very nervous right now. Nervous not just for themselves, but for their progeny whose are fast losing the language of the faith. Religion is, at one level, primarily about language and who gets to define which words. The deconstructionist movement of the past decades has proven this – that is why it has spawned so much secular religious zeal.
Meanwhile myriad Christians are looking for a way to do life that makes sense of the faith once for all delivered to the saints, but which now needs to be lived out in this increasingly nasty, aggressive, secular post-Christian context in a way that does not make a mockery of its language.
For we live in a church landscape that is all too often a day late and a dollar short, grasping for acceptance by either secular progressivism or secular conservatism, without the ability to critique the deeply anti-gospel frameworks that lie at the heart of these two extremes, and thereby break the mould and set an agenda rather than follow one.
From my reading of Dreher so far, this will be no book for the pick-‘n’-mix Christian ready for the next thing in a long list of next things, and I’d be disappointed if it did given his work so far. Dreher will, of course, undoubtedly disappoint the individualistic mindset that has spread like canker through so many believers in our age.
So for the spiritual children of the Options Generation, don’t look at the title and see the word “Option” in bold font, and think this is your next quick fix. Dreher is drawing our attention to the word “Benedict”. From my reading of him so far, the option is not much of an option at all, but more of a necessity that will require time, commitment and, you know, like effort; a much maligned quality in our current culture.
So if you like your Christian church smooth and processed like a milkshake, or a side dish that you consume while staving off the hunger waiting for the main meal, then walk away now.
And neither is Dreher talking about reactionary cyclone-fenced compound ecclesiology, which is often maligned among the well heeled conservative evangelical set, who don’t realise that the high seat they have at the table and the influence they still have is the exception that proves the rule in the West, and an exception they are inevitably bound to lose.
No, this is about creating viable, “thick” alternatives to the thinned out communities in the West, a thinning out process that can be blamed on neither the late-modern political Left and Right, but on them both. In fact his CT article heads off this sectarianism at the pass:
The greatest temptation for a tight-knit community is a compulsion to control its members unduly and to police each other too strictly for deviation from a purity standard. It is hard to know when and where to draw the line in every situation, but a community so rigid that it cannot bend will break itself or its members.
Whether its rampant globalisation that cannot countenance the need for community, or it’s the push to atomisation of the family through a return – or acquiescence at least – to a (rose-tinted) pagan sexuality, the pincer move of hard and soft power has been depressingly effective at dismantling the energy and focus of faith communities. And the B/O is a counter to this.
But not just “counter” in a reactionary manner. Faced with a threatened capitulation of churches to either the language and vision of the secular Right, or the language and vision of the secular Left, Dreher has consistently posited a recovery of language and vision that provides a viable, positive, and joyful alternative. And in that he finds friends in the likes of a range of writers, thinkers and practitioners: people that include the likes Jamie Smith (his cultural liturgies ideas), and Mark Sayers in his latest work “Disappearing Church: From Cultural Relevance to Gospel Resilience”.
As I read Dreher (and the likes of Smith and Sayers for that matter) the tone is not merely a sense of urgency, but of urgent excitement. The gospel at the foundation of their call is one steeped in resurrection hope, a hope that cannot be shared by the resurrectionless eschatologies of the progressives, the conservatives or the libertarians. These all posit – and stridently at that – future communities that have no Spirit led unity to maintain, no common identity formed by belonging to a new creation, and, most importantly, no power to transform the hearts of those who disagree with their idea of what the future should look like, other than the naked aggressive power of threat and coercion.
And if that is the future we are staring down the barrel of, regardless of political or sociological stripe, then someone somewhere soon will begin to pen the follow up book. I fear it will be entitled The Benedict Necessity: A Strategy For Christians In An Age of Tyranny.