Christians in Australia need to plan for a Plan B future. That’s surely the takeaway point from the last few months.
And it’s interesting how the discussion about the place of religion in the public square has moved so quickly. That’s why, love it or loathe it, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation is surely the Christian book of the year for 2017. It may indeed be the roadmap needed as we go into 2018.
At the start of the year everyone was scratching their chins, huffing and puffing, and pointing out the problems with Benedict’s/Dreher’s option. But we’re quickly realising that it may be no option at all. Consumers that we all are, we assume we get a choice on this stuff, but what happens if the choice is taken away? Too few people assumed that could be the case even as recently as this year.
Dreher’s book is realistic and humble enough to be offering the church a Plan B. A plan for what we might need to do if the “as you were” Plan A gets derailed. Indeed Dreher does not offer B/O as an option but as a necessity when option is removed.
B/O has created more discussion, received more backlash, been misinterpreted either deliberately or accidentally; and it’s been read by thousands of people who, while they may not agree with the conclusions, are convinced in their gut that the diagnosis of late modern Western culture by Dreher is correct.
The naysayers have fallen in to two camps. Those who like the change they see in the culture, affirm it, and think that the church needs to get with the times. For them there is no need for strategic withdrawal, merely strategic cultural assimilation. After all what’s not to like about an ageing, shrinking, faithless demographic in your denomination?
Others, more likely in the evangelical camp, hear the word “withdrawal” and think “retreat”, “surrender”, “give up”. They fail to hear the words “strategic” or “return”, so loud are their heart palpitations. I’ve been to a conference in which the speaker mentioned that naughty “w” word, and was afterwards surrounded by slightly narky people of the “no surrender” type. May I humbly suggest if that is you, you’d don’t get it?
But two events this year in Australia surely signal that Dreher’s Plan B may indeed be a wise one, and one in which the church chooses to humble itself and quit with the “Yes, but what about Hollywood/Weinstein/Spacey/Clinton?” etc.
And those two events are, firstly, the Yes vote for same sex marriage in Australia, with the signal that this is a precipitous event that will see hard secularists double down on squeezing the church from the public square.
But secondly, and more troublesome, the recent report on sexual abuse by the clergy that was released. You can read the details on the commission’s website here.
And if a picture is needed to paint a thousand words, it’s this:
Two and a half thousand referrals to authorities should say everything. And that’s just sexual abuse, never mind other physical or mental abuse matters that occurred, the victims of which need ongoing support. And there are plenty of the latter whose cases are dealt with privately by psychologists and psychiatrists, all paid for by the Church in order to ensure this stuff is either sorted or goes away.
That both of these events – the Yes vote and the report’s release – occurred within weeks of each other can do one of two things. It can make you see a human conspiracy. Or it can make you see a God-given opportunity.
For let’s face it, the wider culture does not look at the two events separately, no matter how much we say “Yes, but.” We kinda need to stop saying “Yes, but” at some stage. We’re not being heard and we’re not likely to be. The wider culture has signalled that it has made the precipitous move to celebrate sexuality in a manner that the church does not, and will, if pressed, simply state that the church has not been practising sexuality in the way that the church has publicly celebrated.
Don’t say “Yes but.”
For whether or not this is true of all churches, indeed of the majority, is not the point. In this post-Christian culture as far as the world is concerned, we’re all in this together. Our echo chamber conversations are a waste of time. The media conversation sets the tone for the barbecue conversations, so you’d better get used to it.
Dreher has, if we listen, given us a framework for what we may need in such times. And I do not think it is defeatist. Indeed I do not view the church as being on the wrong side of history. I simply view it as being in a particular place in history in which strengthening resources and trimming sails is a wise and godly move.
So I am all for religious freedoms and freedom of conscience in the public square. I am committed to pushing for governments to continue funding faith schools that are not required to sign off on anti-discrimination legislations in terms of employment. I am committed to doing so until it proves impossible. Which it will indeed prove. So we’d better have a Plan B. If we don’t we’re plain stupid and playing stupid.
For me, Plan B is Plan Benedict. And the reason is simple: I believe that the current hard secular context will push and push and push, and then find that the pendulum swings back against it somewhat. True there may be irretrievable losses for the church in terms of state favour, but if the goal is a strong church that can demonstrate in word and deed that it runs counter to the culture, and that it is, in my term, “repellently attractive”, then that is a win as far as I am concerned.
Of course you will only see that as a win if you’re prepared to put in the hard work for a generation. If you want it all sorted out now, then just say “Yes, but” a bit louder every day to drown out the opposing voices. I do worry about the direction our post-Christian culture is going, as it is naively optimistic that it can enjoy the fruit of the gospel while not enduring the root of the gospel. That will not be sustainable. The Post-Christian West will be angry, fractured, zealous and frustratingly unsatisfiable.
True, the apocalypse that arrives may be a beautiful one for a time, but since it is a facade, the cracks will appear at some point – they already are. The point of the Benedict Option is not that we hide away as the culture gets worse and worse, but that we prepare ourselves for the new landscape that we will have to negotiate; a landscape that will be harsher and that will require a deeper commitment to a seemingly less plausible, more marginalised counter culture – the church of God.
It’s about toughening up, creating alternative institutions for our children to learn and grow in. Think Star Wars and Jedi Knight training, as opposed to hill-billy fundamentalists. B/O-ers are planning on coming back, if Jesus doesn’t first.
And will the cultural aggression die down to a point where we can find a non-contested place in the public square again? Perhaps, perhaps not. But my French friend Daniel is in Australia again (he wrote a great piece for me a few years ago about living as an evangelical in hard secular France).
His comment to me the other day was that he noticed Australian secularism is strident, loud and aggressive, compared with the situation in his homeland. That, no doubt, is partly to do with Australianism and partly to do with what stage the battle is at. To put it crassly, French secularism – or laïcité as they call it – has won. It doesn’t have to be shouty because the contest is seemingly over. In other words, our Plan B is French Christianity’s small “p” plan. There simply were, are and will be no other options in the near future.
And are the secularists magnanimous winners? Daniel shrugged when I asked (as the French do!). In one sense there is no crossover. Religion is not allowed into the public square, but the authorities take no interest in it, or in controlling it, beyond that.
Now that sounds terrible. I want a religious discussion in the public square. But, as Daniel observed about Australia, the idea of open-minded discussion is well in the past. We’re kidding ourselves if we think the public square in Australia is open-minded, fair and tolerant. And our opponents would simply say, that’s exactly how we felt and now we’re getting our own back. And we can protest that all we like, but it’s what is playing out. If you’ve got no Plan B, you’re in trouble.
But here’s the interesting thing. Daniel said that French people are both perplexed and intrigued when they hear he is a Christian, especially a Protestant one. They are perplexed because they can’t conceive of a younger French person being a Christian.
And they are intrigued when they hear he is a Protestant. They assume puritanical and austere, but when they meet his family or his Christian friends and church people they see something radical, loving and intriguing.
Getting on with being a strong gospel community that loves God and loves others, and is a marginalised creative community that forms its own networks and starts to build its own institutions, is Plan A if you think about it. If those things are not your Plan A, or if you only want to commit to them under sufferance, then chances are they won’t be your Plan B either!
In a context in which the gospel has been suffocated and removed from the public square altogether, Daniel and his ilk are creating small counter-cultures that freely breath the oxygen of God’s Spirit, and that accept their public and cultural limitations.
But the fresh shoots are there. Interest is piqued among those who know nothing about Christianity. And even French Catholicism of the crunchy variety is making a comeback among a younger crowd for whom Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité are pretty much empty slogans designed to justify the increasingly isolated French elite.
Daniel would read The Benedict Option and say, yes, that’s exactly what we have done in France, and we have survived. Thrived even. It is hard work, they’re still small in number, but they are clear-eyed, determined, focussed and joyful.
The pace of change in Australia has moved quickly. Benedict is not the only Plan B. But you’d better have a Plan B and it better be able to survive and thrive in hostile conditions – and return to help rebuild when the time comes.
Perhaps it’s time for us in the church in places such as the US, Australia and to a lesser extent, the UK, to look to places like France as our example. Because that’s the future that is coming. 2018 might be the year to look to hard secular Europe and do some reconnaissance (another nice French word!)