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    Mosaic detail from The Great Catch

    Not the Full Story

    Michael Wear on the Benedict Option

    By Michael Wear

    July 12, 2017

    In 2010, in the midst of the ongoing debate in her country about migration, multiculturalism, and Islamic terrorism, Chancellor Angela Merkel went to a gathering of the Christian Democratic Union party she leads and made a provocative argument. She told her party, “We don’t have too much Islam. We have too little Christianity. We have too few discussions about the Christian view of mankind.” Germany, she argued, should view this moment as an opportunity to have a more robust conversation about “the values that guide us and about our Judeo-Christian tradition. We have to stress this again with confidence….”

    The rot in American Christianity has been much discussed and defined for decades. We could go back much further, but I think of Dallas Willard’s seminal book The Divine Conspiracy.

    In the introduction to that book, Willard writes:

    More than any other single thing… the practical irrelevance of actual obedience to Christ accounts for the weakened effect of Christianity in the world today, with its increasing tendency to emphasize political and social action as the primary way to serve God. It also accounts for the practical irrelevance of Christian faith to individual character development and overall personal sanity and well-being.

    Rod’s baseline analysis, that Americans who identify as Christians, in general, do not have their lives rightly ordered, and that this disorder will not protect them in times of testing, is true and important and of central concern. One of the gifts of Rod’s book is its utter confidence that it is possible to follow Jesus today, and that we can order our lives to make it so. Rod’s willingness to share this conviction so boldly is a great blessing and encouragement.

    Though those who reduce Rod’s ideas to a political engagement or disengagement strategy are not dealing with the book honestly, it is also incorrect to disassociate The Benedict Option from politics. This is a book written by a political commentator and writer that includes both a chapter on politics as well as repeated references to political and social circumstances. As Rod mentions in his introduction, it was his previous book on political conservatism, Crunchy Cons, that introduced his idea of the Benedict Option in the first place.

    Rod sources motivation for pursuing the Benedict Option not simply (or frankly, even primarily) in a timeless call to “love the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul, and mind,” but also, quite explicitly, with the threat of extinction. Again and again, Rod warns that modernity poses an existential threat, and that Christians’ very survival is at stake. And he seems to be primarily concerned with the survival of Christians, as a people group, and Western civilization.

    Rod specifically mentions the threat of the sexual revolution and LGBT rights to Christianity and/or the West/Western civilization in his introduction, and in chapters 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, and 9.

    Disappointment with false hopes, false idols, offers a fresh opportunity for people to find real hope.

    Now certainly, God has used times of testing and trial to draw people closer to him. One common thread through both The Benedict Option and my recent book is an identification that we are in a moment when Christians’ false hopes in politics, in their cultural dominance, have failed them. And disappointment with false hopes, false idols, offers a fresh opportunity for people to find real hope.

    But there is a danger in using fear and anxiety over cultural, civilizational challenges to the faith as motivation for the Benedict Option, and that is that it can lead people to seek Christian community for cultural security, which is just another kind of idol.

    These historical references around American Christians’ current situation work to confirm for the reader the existence and dominance of the threats of secularism, progressivism, and sexual liberation. And by fully affirming the feelings shared by many Christians of isolation, embattlement, and marginalization, feelings that have fueled their political engagement, Rod seems to want to redirect the passions of Christians who feel embattled toward the development of stronger Christian community that will reinforce and support the faith, rather than more general, public-minded efforts.

    Instead of using modern challenges to more simply point us toward ultimate truth and the fact that we ought to be living in a way that is shaped and driven by the faith and hope we have in Christ, The Benedict Option too frequently uses cultural circumstances themselves as the motivation for more intentional living.

    Rod’s chapter on politics reflects this point as well. The chapter A New Kind of Christian Politics provides a necessary rebuke to those who view politics as the primary forum for advancing Christianity and Christian values. He strongly rebuts those who view Trump as a political savior by writing that he is “not a solution to the problem of America’s cultural decline, but a symptom of it.”

    Indeed, I have said before that after decades of liberals telling Christians that America is not a Christian nation, the year 2016 represented Christians’ acceptance of their claim, their concession to a utilitarian, power-based politics. Rod is right to view Trump’s win as offering a reprieve to conservative Christians on religious freedom related to LGBT issues – though Trump offers challenges to religious freedom in other contexts, including Christians’ ability to serve immigrants, and of course, the religious freedom of Muslims, which is inextricably tied to our own.

    Unfortunately, Rod’s vision for the future of Christian activity, here regarding politics, is once again grounded in an assessment of the political and cultural reality and the possibilities that reality offers. Rod writes: “Though there remain a few possibilities for progress in traditional politics, growing hostility toward Christians, as well as the moral confusion of values-voters, should inspire us to imagine a better way forward.”

    In his overview of modern politics, Rod repeats the common conviction of those who placed their hope in the politics of the Religious Right, and refers to the mistaken belief of conservative Christians that they could “focus on politics and the culture would take care of itself.” He continues, “For the past thirty years, many of us believed that we could turn back the tide of aggressive 1970s liberalism by voting for conservative Republicans.” After briefly summarizing the failure of that political strategy, he writes that “the best that Orthodox Christians today can hope for from politics is that it can open a space for the church to do the work of charity, culture building, and conversion.”

    What this analysis lacks is a clear identification of the lack of Christian formation that was evident in that failed political strategy. The failure of the Religious Right to, for instance, preserve greater space and respect for traditional Christian views on sexuality is not simply because the outcome was predetermined by our culture, but because of the tactical overreach and spiritual malnourishment of that movement. Rod mentions briefly the awful way Christians treated LGBT Americans as a regrettable mistake, as if it was external to the direction of culture and politics he describes. Instead, it is worth considering whether the left might be more forgiving of our counter-cultural views on sexuality now if we had been more forgiving of their counter-cultural views when we were dominant. It is worth considering whether the Christian sexual ethic would be so scorned in our time if it had not been wrongly invoked by some conservative Christians as a justification for the AIDS crisis, as the comeuppance of the American fringe.

    This linear, limited view of recent political history extends to the present. After a couple sentences on Christians working with the GOP on Main Street economics and liberals on “sex trafficking, poverty, AIDS, and the like,” Rod writes that “there is one cause that should receive all the attention orthodox Christians have left for national politics: religious liberty.”

    I agree with Rod that religious liberty is of the utmost importance, and include it as one of two issues of focus in the final chapter of my book. I’ve worked on religious freedom issues intensely, and have serious concerns about the increased pressure on religious freedom in this country.

    Christians can call our national politics to deliver on much more than religious freedom.

    But I would like to raise two issues with such an exclusive focus. First, Christians can call our national politics to deliver on much more than religious freedom. Certainly, there is some constructive guidance in The Benedict Option, particularly when it comes to issues of sexual ethics and life, that investing in institutions for Christian formation, for instance, will likely go a longer way than a political effort that promises to overturn Obergefell.

    Still, this month, the Trump administration and Congress have pushed health reform that the Congressional Budget Office says could force twenty-four million Americans off health insurance. The administration released a budget that would drastically cut the social safety net and slash programs that combat poverty and disease abroad. It’s a budget that cuts Meals on Wheels but increases military spending by $54 billion. Surely, the range of Christian concern extends to these issues. The political witness of Christians in national politics should not be limited to simply advocating for our own personal interests like just another special interest group.

    Watch Michael Wear’s response:

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    The Benedict Option focuses a great deal on a former Kansas legislator by the name of Lance Kinzer who now advocates for religious freedom after a religious freedom bill he supported in the Kansas State Legislature failed to pass, despite strong Republican majorities. The bill would have protected the rights of individuals to refuse services related to gay unions if contrary to their religious beliefs.

    The bill’s failure is attributed to weak-kneed Republicans and a betrayal by big business. Kinzer is quoted saying he “carried water” for big business, and he was disoriented when they didn’t return the favor. Kinzer, again like other right-wing conservatives, does not seem to reflect on whether or not their legislative and political strategy to advance the bill was flawed. Maybe they should have thought about the optics of protecting Christians who disagreed with gay marriage when gay marriage was not yet legal and Kansas offered no legal protections to LGBT people. Or perhaps the fact that the bill was written and promoted by the Kansas Family Policy Council with little consultation of other religious advocacy groups and released prior to adequately educating and engaging Republican lawmakers meant that Republicans were blind-sided twice: by the bill itself, and then by the lack of support they had, due in part to poor coordination by the bill’s supporters.

    As is quite clear, even in Rod’s telling, the bill seemed obvious to those who wrote it, so they didn’t really bother to build a coalition or seek counsel from those outside their bubble. Perhaps, in the past, the bill would have been an obvious success, regardless of the strategic missteps, but Christians should not withdraw from national politics because they can no longer easily impose their will. There is some space between political domination and political futility.

    The Benedict Option also does not tell the full story about the state of religious freedom in this country. With the exception of the reprieve Trump offers, it is odd and unnecessarily burdensome that there is no mention of religious freedom victories or a more holistic picture of the landscape, so that readers might have a view that is more nuanced, a view based in reality.

    For instance, The Benedict Option includes an entire chapter on Christian education, and his religious freedom focus is, rightly, on institutions, but he does not even mention Hosanna v. Tabor, the unanimous Supreme Court decision affirming a robust ministerial exception and faith-based school’s right to hire in accordance to their faith. This decision was notable for two reasons that would seem to suggest that the future of religious freedom is not as determined as Rod suggests. First, the case involved the firing of a single female teacher who was found to be pregnant, and therefore in violation of the school’s sexual ethic policy. In other words, the case struck directly at the intersection of the ideals of the sexual revolution and religious freedom, and religious freedom won. Secondly, the case was decided unanimously by a court that included both of President Obama’s SCOTUS nominees, despite the fact that the Obama administration argued to the court that a ministerial exception should not even be considered. Not only did this court reject that argument; as I point out in my book, they did so with open surprise and incredulity at the administration’s argument. Justice Kagan, in particular, was outspoken during the oral argument for the case.

    The Obama administration, on the positive side, also defended the National Day of Prayer in court, rejecting pleas from secularists that they not intervene. Also, after eight years of lobbying from the ACLU and other groups, the administration did not take substantive action on the hiring rights of faith-based social service providers who received federal grants… a move that some considered to be inevitable. In California, a state dominated by progressives, Bill SB1146 was stopped in its tracks by a diverse religious coalition who stood up for religious colleges’ right to exist and students’ right to attend them without discrimination. The Supreme Court sided with religious freedom in Hobby Lobby, and in my view, the Little Sisters of the Poor case. Rod finds time to mention the bakers and the florists. He cites an anonymous Christian college professor who has no cited authority other than the fact that she works at a college, who insists the question of whether Christian colleges will lose their accreditation is a matter of when, not if. But he does not mention anything or anyone outside of Trump that cuts through the doom and gloom.

    This week in Washington D.C., we were warned of sixteen inches of snowfall. Supermarket aisles were empty. People stocked up on supplies in desperate panic. It took until just hours before the snow hit for it to become clear that we would only receive about two to four inches of snow. The city would be strained, some people would lose power, there would certainly be a cost, but the challenge could be overcome. It’s a good thing people didn’t go underground, convinced that utter desolation was inevitable, that a Great Flood was coming, or they might still be eating Spam in a storm cellar – or an Ark – instead of helping shovel their neighbor’s driveway.

    Which leads me to the primary critique I have of The Benedict Option: while Rod draws significantly from Charles Taylor for his historical analysis, he neglects one of Taylor’s principle conclusions, which is that this secular age is not a time of the domination of the secular, but a time of contestation, of cross-pressure.

    If you take our age to be one of an inevitably victorious, viciously aggressive secularism with no worthy counterweight, then perhaps out of a perspective of scarcity we might be led to downgrade our public participation, build an ark, and ride out the storm. But if our time is instead one of contesting claims, we are facing a very different proposition. If you accept that in previous eras of American history, Christian truths were assumed by the general public, then where was the risk and the worth of proclaiming the truth of the gospel? How separate was the proclamation from trading in on the currency of the accepted narrative supported by political and culture power?

    It is today, at the very moment when the questions are being asked: What is truth? What is justice? What can I hope for? What am I made for? that Christians can enter the public square with joyful confidence, for the flourishing of our neighbors, and come alongside them to help them seek the answers we know are available to them.

    Christians cannot offer what we do not have.

    And this is where Rod offers his most valuable contribution to us. Christians cannot offer what we do not have. And, as he writes, the church’s mission is not political success, but fidelity. For Christians do not seek victory, but faithfulness. We seek these things not because of cultural circumstances, for the call to follow Jesus transcends culture, geography, and time. The Benedict Option, stripped of its cultural baggage, drawing on the movement of God in history, rather than the history of Western civilization, is an option for all orthodox Christians. It is an option we should take up, insofar as the Lord leads us, guided not by legalisms but, as one of the models in Rod’s book explains, only that which is to the benefit and flourishing of the individual and the community in drawing nearer to God.

    We need not take shelter for the Great Flood, if it comes, for the Lord is our Shepherd, and as he meets our needs we will constantly be sent out in all things to meet the needs of others. Our political engagement will not be constrained by an insecurity caused by pressures on religious freedom; instead, we’ll find our security in the kingdom of God, against which the gates of hell will not prevail, and we will seek the good whenever we can. If that means expanding religious freedom for all, we will seek it. If that means pursuing a more equitable criminal justice system, we will seek that. Grounded more firmly in the gospel, we will be free to affirm what is good in our politics and culture, and reject what is bad.

    Despite the challenges of modernity, the kingdom of God is available to us. Many of us in this room were found by God even in this period of liquid modernity Rod described tonight, and God knew exactly where to find us.

    Dallas Willard wrote later in the introduction to The Divine Conspiracy: “Individual Christians still hear Jesus say, ‘Whoever hears these words of mine and does them is like those intelligent people who build their houses upon rock,’ standing firm against every pressure of life. How life-giving it would be if their understanding of the gospel allowed them simply to reply, ‘I will do them! I will find out how. I will devote my life to it! This is the best life strategy I ever heard of!’ and then go off to their fellowship and its teachers, and into their daily life, to learn how to live in his kingdom as Jesus indicated was best.”

    There is nothing wrong with American Christianity that would not be fixed by American Christians becoming more deeply transformed into the image of the Christ whose name we claim as our own. Insofar as this is the Benedict Option, it is one I fully endorse, that I consider myself a co-laborer in promoting, and which I believe will be considered a great gift from Rod to us all, and a blessing to the nation. Rod, thank you for this book, and for your willingness to so openly share it, and discuss it with us this evening and over the last decade.

    Images on this page: The Great Catch Mosaic (detail) © 2001 John August Swanson / Eyekons. Courtesy of Concordia University Irvine

    Mosaic detail from The Great Catch
    Contributed By MichaelWear Michael Wear

    Michael Wear is Chief Strategist for The AND Campaign and co-author of Compassion (&) Conviction: The AND Campaign’s Guide to Faithful Civic Engagement.

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