This is a particularly telling time in Western culture – a time when Christian values that were once widely accepted and enshrined in law in Western nations are increasingly vanishing from the public square and being replaced by radical individualism. The need for Christians to resist the seductions of today’s culture is real and just as pressing as the need to remain engaged as a public witness to the gospel. The time is ripe for a more robust and dedicated Christianity, similar to the practice of the early Christians, the original Benedict Option. However, the crisis in Western culture must not be conflated with a crisis of Christianity, which is thriving in the global south, particularly in Africa. Indeed, it is essential, even as we discuss the need to resist Western culture, to acknowledge the strength of global Christianity and the black church here in the United States in order not to alienate the fastest-growing segment of the population: non-white people.
Western Christians must seriously reconsider the original Benedict Option, as described in Acts 2:42–47:
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold their property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
The time is ripe for a more robust and dedicated Christianity.
This is really the model for Christian life; we should be doing the things that are outlined here: devotion to prayer, scripture, and fellowship. Our churches have fallen far short of this, instead practicing “cultural Christianity” and becoming very weak as a result. I remember being bewildered at the Harvard Christian Fellowship as an undergraduate. I was a new Christian, and I thought that Christianity was supposed to turn your life upside down, reorder your priorities, and transform you. With these young people, it was warm milk and cookies. Just as Dreher describes in his book, the students were concerned with consumerism, getting a Harvard degree, and going on to be extremely comfortable financially.
One aspect of Acts 2 that I take very seriously is the promise of signs and wonders. In the Pentecostal Church, the belief that God has the power to heal and to work miracles, even in the twenty-first century, is one we take seriously, although this belief is rare in today’s churches.
There’s another verse in Acts we fall short on: “The believers were together and shared everything in common.” Do we care for each other that way? Instead, we lead atomized lives, separated from each other. We don’t know our neighbors, and often church is just a matter of watching the clock: “When is he going to end? It’s one hour and one minute. Church is supposed to be over in an hour.” But there isn’t time for fellowship, for connection, for investing in each other’s lives, for caring for each other radically, as these people did, because they met every day. If anybody was in need, they were ready to sell what they had in order to take care of one another. That is the original Benedict Option. Dreher’s book should be celebrated because it holds up the biblical model for Christianity, which has been overlooked.
But I am concerned that in the book, there is a conflation of Christianity with Western culture. Dreher writes of Christianity’s retreating into the Benedict Option to survive a cultural cataclysm as it did in the Dark Ages in Europe. He presents communal living as a ship to take us across the dark waters to a more friendly time when Christian culture can resurface. But the crisis he describes is really limited to the West. Christianity was born in the Middle Eastern milieu. Of all the books of the Bible, only Luke and Acts were written by a European. Many of the foundational developments in Christianity actually took place in North Africa and moved from there into Europe: think of early church fathers like Origen, Ignatius, and Athanasius. Christianity will survive the fall of the West, because it’s God’s work, not the work of the West. And today, according to a 2011 report from the Pew Research Center, Christianity is truly a global religion: “In 1910 about two-thirds of the world’s Christians lived in Europe. Today one in every four Christians lives in Sub-Saharan Africa, and about one in eight is found in Asia and the Pacific.” In sub-Saharan Africa, the Christian population climbed from 9 percent in 1910 to 63 percent in 2010.