The Benedict Option?
A few years ago, some of my friends told me that I was a "Crunchy-Con." I had no idea what they meant and they explained that I was one of those socially conservative, nature-loving, environmentally friendly, peace-loving, gun-rights and green-energy-supporting, big-government and big-business-skeptical, thoughtfully traditionalist Christians that a new book had labelled "Crunchy-Con". I was clearly a conservative in many ways, they told me, but I also clearly did not fit the standard mold of the Republican party (in those days dominated by free-market worshiping "Neo-Cons").
The book was written by Rod Dreher, in whom I have taken an interest recently because he has roots in the church I now pastor, though Mr. Dreher has transitioned over to Eastern Orthodoxy.
My friends introduced the idea of "Crunchy Con" to me back in 2006. Another book that I encountered around the same time was MacIntyre's influential book called After Virtue, that proposed that our culture, having lost sight of the value of the classical virtues in favor of an individualistic self-indulgence that we mistakenly call "happiness", was no longer capable of moral reasoning in any cohesive and broadly accepted way. MacIntyre heralds the dawn of a new "dark age" for the Western nations, and hopes to see a new Saint Benedict appear to keep the lamp of faith and learning and virtue burning through the dark night, just as happened in the monasteries after the collapse of the Roman Empire in the 5th century.
Below is a video of Rod Dreher talking about this same idea, what he calls - following MacIntyre - "The Benedict Option" (which is also the title of Dreher's newest book).
This idea of a new dark-age, or a neo-barbarism as some have called it, has weighed on my mind for several years now. It is a very dark topic (no pun intended), and not one that I enjoy thinking about, and yet I haven't quite been able shake the sense - the haunting feeling - that it may just be true.
As much as I hate to admit it (for I really don't want to sound like one of those "alarmists" who seem to rank only a step or two above "conspiracy theorists"), I must say that, after the cultural upheavals of the last couple of years (Dreher mentions the all-out assault on the very idea of preserving religious liberty for conservatives in Indiana; I might add to that almost every aspect of the 2016 election cycle as exemplary of cultural upheaval) I find myself more and more convinced that American culture and American civilization are in steep intellectual, moral, and spiritual decline.
What would James Madison, the principle author of the Bill of Rights who put "Free exercise of Religion" as the very first thing on the list (before free speech; before the right to bear arms) think of faithful Christian bakers being sued out of business, even prosecuted under the law, for refusing to participate in a gay wedding? What would he think about a Fire Chief in a major US city being fired for writing a book about his faith in which he affirmed his belief in traditional Christian sexual morals? What would he think about the online campaign to get Chip and Joanna Gaines and their hit TV show "Fixer-Upper" thrown off the air not even for anything that they have said but simply because the Gaines dare to attend a church whose pastor affirms the traditional Christian definition of marriage that Jesus himself gives in Matthew 19?
On the other end of the political spectrum, what would the noble George Washington think of a vulgar, reckless, "reality TV" star, who once graced the cover of Playboy magazine, ascending to the high and solemn office of President of the United States? What would he think of such a man, who throws temper tantrums on twitter, having access to the nuclear codes?
Not too much, I expect.
As an aside, that one man should have authority to launch our nuclear weapons without any legal checks and balances is itself an affront to our constitutional heritage - a compromise of our political values, a deal we made with the devil, for the sake of winning the Cold War. That is something Congress should address.
If there is a word that comes to mind to describe both the motivations of those on the left and on the right that word is fear. And fear makes it hard for us to be charitable to one another. On the other hand, perfect love casts out fear.
Part of the fear stems from the fact that all levels of the government, through the endless proliferation of laws and regulations, presume to dictate more and more of the most intimate parts of our lives: what should I do when I get sick? Who can I marry or consider "family"? What sorts of religious or political convictions can I express? The government grasps for the power to answer these questions; I know of no philosophical or constitutional reason why that grasping should be accepted as legitimate.
As long as it is possible that people whose views are hostile to one's own values might come to power in such a system (as is always possible in our elected system), it is only natural for people to feel continuously under threat. That is why our politics keep getting uglier. Social media has, I think, exacerbated this sense of fear because it is no longer only the polished professional politicians whom we all hear as the voice of "the other side" but also the more thoughtless and rancorous voices shrieking across the web.
At the end of the 2016 election cycle, when more and more people seem to agree that our political system is broken - so enthralled to the interests of political parties and big donors and special interest groups that it is no longer responsive to the will of the people or the traditions of our American heritage; at a time when our culture seems locked into conflict, confusion, and turmoil, one wonders what to do.
It is at such a moment that what might be called "The Benedict Option" looks more and more appealing to me. What would it look like to do in our times the sorts of things Benedict did and monks have been doing since ancient days? Build deep social connections right on your local level; meet your neighbors; spend less time online. Pray and worship with your family and your neighbors - regularly and frequently in a local church. Read the Bible, hold the grand Scriptural Story before you, and continually celebrate your faith in Christ. Practice the Spiritual Disciplines. Get back to the earth - grow some of your own food. Work toward a more self-sufficient and sustainable community. Get involved with children and youth in your community. Read the classics and the great books of Western culture. Share these spiritual and cultural riches with your children and the children in your community. Endure hardships - perhaps even persecutions - with a joyful spirit, and welcome others (even strangers) with open arms as if they were Christ himself. Look out for the needs of the weak, the unborn and the aged, the orphan and the widow, the poor and the minority, the foreigner and the refugee. Seek to be people of confident, gracious, self-giving love in a world of grasping fear.
The are the sort of things that went on in monasteries (and still do in many places), but as general principles and practices they need not be confined to monastic communities alone.
Another book I read in seminary, The Celtic Way of Evangelism, suggests that, far from being an anti-evangelical retreat from the world, the cultivation of intentionally Christian and (for that reason) intentionally welcoming and open-armed communities on the local level will be the key to relationship-based evangelism in a Post-modern world that is starving for 'rootedness' and deep community.