The other day I expressed on my Facebook page my disenchantment with the choices on offer in our presidential and senatorial races and that I may, for the first time, have come to the place where I cannot in good conscience vote for any of the presumptive candidates in these races. I struggle with this because I have always voted since I was 18 (shortly after the amendment that gave 18 year olds the right to vote).
One of the comments to this post pointed me to the writing of Rod Dreher, who for several years has been writing and talking about what he calls the ‘Benedict Option.’ The Benedict he has in mind is Benedict of Nursia, who in the early sixth century AD fled what he saw as the decadence of Rome and formed a monastic order that preserved everything from the practical skills of farming to literacy, morality, order, learning, and a vibrant faith while these were lost in the collapse of Roman culture.
Dreher, drawing on philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, contends we may be in a parallel situation to the late Roman empire in the West, and particularly in the United States. He sees much of the church as having been assimilated to the wider culture, it’s theology reduced to what sociologist Christian Smith has described as “moral therapeutic deism.” And he believes that the only way the church can preserve both its own identity, and preserve “the good, the true, and the beautiful” is a form of strategic withdrawal into the equivalent of Benedict’s monastic communities. In his original post, he gives two examples of religious communities, both in remote locations, which have done just this. He also advocates for the disengagement of the church from all but the most local of politics.
My initial reaction to this proposal is to push back against it. I come out of an ethos of Christians living as ‘salt and light’ in society, of being ‘in’ but not ‘of’ the world. I have always preferred conversation to confrontation or cloistering. I’ve seen numerous examples of people of faith whose “faithful presence”, to use James Davison Hunter‘s phrase, has transformed neighborhoods, businesses, and institutions. I’m not ready to give up on that.
What Dreher does emphasize is that the current state of Christianity in America is in a parlous state, often more captive ideologically, morally, and politically to the culture than to the gospel. Both youth and adults often lack substantive formation in belief and practice and their world views are often shaped more by YouTube, social media, and talk radio (and TV). We are often far from being the “Christian counter-culture” John Stott described in his exposition of the Sermon on the Mount. At best we are a subculture.
Do we need to withdraw to save our souls? Are “the barbarians at the gates”, where it is time to flee to the hills? While I don’t think such a time has come, Dreher’s proposal is a challenge to our congregations and parishes and the place these have in the lives of people of faith. Often, these are at the periphery of life. Almost everything else in our lives get greater attention from the condition of our lawns to the fitness of our bodies to the academic and athletic success of our children. Should it then surprise us to find our faith and practice so flabby?
I would propose an alternative to the ‘Benedict option’, one that might be called ‘the Redeemer option’ after Redeemer Presbyterian Church, operating in the heart of New York City. On its website, the church articulates its vision in these terms:
“As a church of Jesus Christ, Redeemer exists to help build a great city for all people through a movement of the gospel that brings personal conversion, community formation, social justice, and cultural renewal to New York City and, through it, the world.”
This is a congregation characterized by theological integrity, intellectual rigor, artistic excellence, and a robust engagement with the needs and culture of New York City. While I will not deny the importance of the monastic tradition in the history of the church, I would contend there is another tradition, from the first “urban Christians” to their contemporaries in our great urban centers nurturing both a vibrant life and cultural engagement in supposedly ‘decadent’ places. Might not the call of our time be just as much ‘the Redeemer option’–a counter-culture of the people of God in the city?