Why You Should Read The Benedict Option

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Rod Dreher is not an academic.  He has no Ph.D. and does not teach at a university.  Yet, he is able to take complex concepts of philosophy, sociology, history, etc. and explain them in ways that most people can grasp.  He is also not a priest, pastor, or leader of a parachurch organization.  Yet he writes and speaks as a layman with true spiritual depth.  He shares his own struggles, faith, faults, and victories with a transparency and sincerity that we can resonate with.  You would actually like to sit down with him and talk about life.  And this is one of the great things about The Benedict Option:  A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, it is not coming from an academic or denominational leader:  it is coming from the ground up.  And for the Benedict Option to work, that is exactly what is needed to get it going.

Of course, the success of the Benedict Option is also due to its timing.  Though Rod alluded to the Benedict Option ten years ago in his book Crunchy Cons, I don’t know if most Christians would have been ready.  Anyone who read Lesslie Newbingin 40 years ago, or Missional Church almost 20 years go will know the diagnosis of the decline of Christianity in the United States, but during these ten years since Rod mentioned the need for a new Benedict, so much has happened.  The Millennial generation has shifted to the left on social norms and politics, marginal issues like same-sex marriage and transgender rights have become new norms, businesses have become arbiters of family values, sports is a tool for cultural enforcement, and what was once considered out-of-control political correctness on our campuses is now ubiquitous.  I don’t need an academic to explain it to me, I see it everyday.

But there are other forces at work too. Technology like the internet and cell phones have brought us amazing amounts of information, but the ability to literally spend our whole lives on pointless trivia.  The “authentic self” that philosopher Charles Taylor wrote of in his masterpiece The Secular Age, reached its apogee in Caitlyn and Bruce Jenner.  Bruce Jenner, a Cold War hero to us in Generation X, became a cause celeb to Generation Z as Caitlyn Jenner.  Transpose that Wheaties picture of Bruce in 1976, winner of the Olympic decathlon and “world’s greatest athlete” with Caitlyn on the cover of Vanity Fair, and you see trajectory of where we are headed as a nation.

As Christians we did not want to believe the academics.  Developing as a nation under the canopy of our country as a “city on a hill” from John Winthrop’s sermon A Model of Christian Charity, we always told ourselves we could “go back” to ideal times.  Revivals did help, and many truly believed that with the right focus on the right segments of society, we could still transform the culture.   But we finally find ourselves “strangers in a strange land” to steal a line from Robert Heinlein.  Continue reading

Dealing with the new Dark Age: The Benedict Option.

benedict-optionIf you are not familiar with Rod Dreher or his writing, you may not know what the Benedict Option (a.k.a the Ben Op) is.  Rod’s book will be out on March 14th so you do not have long to find out if you want to read it.  In the meantime he has written numerous posts at the American Conservative.  Perhaps his fullest sketch of the Ben Op was at Southern Seminary during the school’s Gheens lectures.  To see his first lecture on The New Dark Age click here.

However, if you don’t have time to listen, I will try to outline a few basics about Rod’s thesis.

  1.  The west is going through a new Dark Ages which will bring challenges to the American church.  This new Dark Ages will last a long time. There will not be a quick fix and it will most likely bring different forms of marginalization and economic persecution to the Church.
  2. The goal of Christians during the this Dark Age should be less about propping up American Imperium and more about building an Ark to survive the flood waters that are going to sweep over the country.
  3. In order to reemerge at some distant point with the Gospel, the Church will have to spend more time educating and disciplining its members in a new more Christ-centered community.  These communities will need to be somewhat removed from culture, but not removed geographically.
  4. All orthodox Christians, whether Evangelical, Catholic, or Orthodox, will need to find common cause, while drawing upon strength in their own traditions to build these communities.
  5. It’s called the Benedict Option after St. Benedict who founded a monastic order at the end of Roman empire.  This order over the next few centuries protected and nurtured the Gospel during the Dark Ages for the West at a later date.

This is the Benedict option in a nutshell.   Continue reading

What Season is the American church in today?

FallWe often hear about a post-Christian America and what that means for the church today.  I think we can get bogged down in definitions, and at times even struggle for a way to explain it.  Sometimes a graphic or image can help make things more clear.  For describing the situation, I really like what Tim Keller says in his book  Center Church.  In that book he uses the concepts of seasons to explain where we are today.  Here are the seasons and what they mean in the relationship of culture and church.

Winter describes a church that is not only in a hostile relationship to a pre-Christian culture but is gaining little traction; is seeing little distinctive, vital Christian life and community; and is seeing no evangelistic fruit.  In many cultures today, the church is embattled and spiritually weak.

Spring is a situation in which the church is embattled, even persecuted by a pre-Christian culture, but it is growing (e.g. as in China).

Summer is what Niebuhr described as an “allied church,” where the church is highly regarded by the public and where we find so many Christians in the center of cultural production that Christians feel at home in the culture.

Autumn is where we find ourselves in the West today, becoming increasingly marginalized in a post-Christian culture and looking for new ways to both strengthen our distinctiveness and reach out winsomely.

According to Keller we are in the Autumn period in the West, though various regions can be a different levels within a season, or perhaps in another season.  Keller’s point in the book is that we can use different methods of engagement depending on the season.  According to Keller it would seem the Relevance and Countercultural positions (the other two are Two Kingdoms and Transformationist) would be the best for an Autumn period.  Of course, one may have theological or other objections to these two positions.  Regardless of where one lands on what position to use, I think that Keller’s imagery is a good one, and a great starting place to think about how the church responds to a culture that is “increasingly marginalized.”

 

 

The Benedict Option comes to Southern Seminary

I have been looking forward to reading Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option for almost a year now.  Though the book is set to come out in March, Rod laid out a large part of the book in several talks given at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary this week.  If you know nothing about Rod, or his thesis to be laid out in his book, these talks will help you get the big picture.  If you want to preorder the book, you will get a copy on March 14th or so.  If you don’t know what this is about, here is an excerpt from the Amazon blurb:

In a radical new vision for the future of Christianity, NYT bestselling author and conservative columnist Rod Dreher calls on American Christians to prepare for the coming Dark Age by embracing an ancient Christian way of life. 

The link is down now while the talks are being edited.  When they are edited, I will post the link again.

 

There is so much here to process.  Hope you listen, read, and talk to someone about it.

Failing Grades of the Modern University

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Dr. Victor Davis Hanson

Though known for his works on military history and political commentary, Victor Davis Hanson spent much of his career as a scholar teaching classical literature and history.  He is at heart an educator having spent years teaching in the California university system.  In this conference video he explains what is wrong with higher education in the United States  today.  Here are a few of his points:

  1. Universities were originally designed to be places of inductive learning and free inquiry.  Students were to study and find answers.  Today, the campus is a place for indoctrination.
  2. Universities used to be filled with a wide variety of views and eccentrics who asked questions and passed on skills to each generation.  Today, the university has become a place of almost monolithic thought with little intellectual diversity.  According to Dr. Hanson, the reason for this is that university leaders and professors see the university as a balance to the evils of religion, the family, patriarchy, and corporate greed.  Whatever, they need to do combat these evils is legitimate since the university is now a guardian for liberal progress.
  3. Universities used to be a place about learning from wise scholars, while today the university has become a top-down technocracy  with evermore administrators who are there to advocate rather than teach.  At a time when the salary of college presidents increased by 58%, part-time instructors only gained about 2% while doing the bulk of teaching.  Increasingly, more and more classes are taught by part-time faculty due to economic factors and the university bottom line.

When we factor in the raising cost of college with the increasingly frivolous and one-sided curriculum, no wonder people wonder if a college education is worth it.  Though Dr. Hanson does not offer an alternative to the demise of the college education system, he does do a good job critiquing the situation and helps us see what is going on behind the scenes at our institutions of “higher learning.”  He makes some great points with seriousness and humor, and clearly sketches the pathologies our students must address in day-to-day life on campus.  Watch his speech, you will be glad you did.

An Age of Authenticity

One of the interesting terms that Taylor uses in his work A Secular Age is “An Age of Authenticity.”  He asserts that we live in an age where we “authenticate” ourselves in order to find meaning.  This age began around 1960 and follows two other ages:  the Ancient Regime, and the Age of Mobilization.  In order to explain how these three ages fit together I want to first look at the Ancient Regime.

Taylor starts by explaining how the Ancient Regime is a mix of Christian and pagan practice based on local communities where everyone has their place, and life moves in tune with an “order of hierarchical complementarity, which is grounded in the Divine Will, or the Law which holds since time out of mind.”  Its just the way things are.

To see a living fossil of the ancient regime, we can look at the enthronement of the British sovereign.  Because Queen Elizabeth has ruled for so long, many people do not remember her coronation in 1953.  But most of it was recorded, and can be seen as an example of Christendom combining the church and state.  You can watch a 4 minute clip here, where you can see a Christian drama enacted.  In great majesty and pomp we see the queen don a “robe of righteousness”, vow to uphold justice and mercy, and act as lord of a realm that ultimately belongs to Christ.  Lords and ladies in their finest crowns and diadems fill the cathedral,like hosts of angles, while higher lords attend to her like seraphim around the mercy-seat of God.  Though not included in this short clip, she also promises to uphold and defend the Gospel and the Protestant form of Christianity, and kiss a Bible before she signs her name to these promises.  This is Christendom in a high and stylized form. As Christians we can connect with this ceremony in a way we do not with a “non-religious” government. Yet it is also the same church that persecuted Catholics, jailed John Bunyan, and vilified the Wesleys.  The royal family brings in tourist dollars, looks great at state funerals, weddings, and diplomatic visits from other countries, but we are not going back to Tudor or Elizabethan England.  It’s over.  How it changed and why we moved to the next phase in Taylor’s theory , the Age of Mobilization (1800-1960), will be coming in a subsequent post.

Till then, I hope you will be thinking what did we lose in losing Christendom and what did we gain?

A Secular Age

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I first came across James K. A. Smith’s book, How Not to be Secular, about Charles Taylor’s book A Secular Age in the Christianity Today Book Awards for 2015.  The title looked interesting but I did not have time to order it.  Then this past December I ordered it and started reading.  I couldn’t put it down.  This was partly due to the fact that some parts of this book need to be read several times to be understood.  Smith wrote his book explaining Taylor’s book partly because A Secular Age comes just shy of 800 pages.  Neither books are what I would call an easy read.  But I was hooked.

I have been hearing about “post-Christian” American since the 80’s with some of Francis Schaeffer’s works.  But I had not found anything that really explained it in a broad sense with terms and themes that could help me get a handle on the concepts involved.  But Smith’s book really opened a window up for me to explore Taylor.

There is no way to explain all about Taylor’s work in one post.  However, I hope to explore several of his themes over several posts.  Some themes may even need to be broken down into multiple posts.  But as the title of his book suggests, Taylor is interested in breaking down what it means to live in a secular age.  For Taylor, this is ultimately to live in an age when it is conceivable to not believe in God.  Of course there is a lot more to his work than just this one concept, but this is an important concept to grasp.  He is not saying that a huge majority of people do not believe in God, but that it is now possible for this to happen.  So, how did we get from Christendom to where we are now?  That history is what the book chronicles, and I hope to reflect on this over time in several posts.  I think that Taylor’s work is important not just so we can understand how we got here, but also so that we can use a common language as campus ministers, pastors, collegiate leaders, and students as we explain our position to nonbelievers on our campus, and process what is going on in society around us.  I hope these posts will peak your interest and get you to dig deeper with Smith’s book or Taylor’s original work.  Keep checking in for this continuing discussion.

 

You are What you Love

You Are What You Love:  The Spiritual Power of Habit

(James K. A. Smith)

IMG_2920This small gem of a book is a needed tonic in discussions about discipleship.  Discipleship is a buzz-word in evangelical circles right now with a plethora of titles I will not even attempt to list here.  But what is compelling  about James K. A.Smith’s angle is his focus on our hearts and not our heads.  Drawing on Augustine in contrast to Descartes, he reminds us that we are primarily  lovers and worshipers, not just thinkers.  According to Smith these loves will ultimately play themselves out in habits which will shape us and mold us in certain directions.  These habits he calls liturgies.

We can’t escape liturgy according to Smith.  We all worship something in some way, whether we are Christian or not.  One of the most fascinating  areas of the book is his exploration of secular liturgies that call out to us.  Think shopping malls teaming with those looking for the newest in fashion, or wild-eyed fans in a sports stadium.  There you will find liturgies inviting all to worship  false idols.   But believers too can be wooed by these false temples.  To counter this, Smith argues that we need Christian liturgy that grabs our imaginations and hearts.  Calling worship the “imagination station that incubates our loves and longings so that our cultural endeavors are indexed toward God and his kingdom”, he guides us to think about the missing link in so many discipleship programs and schemes:  worship.  It is here, in worship, that we are re-storied into God’s story.

But don’t think Smith is just some old fuddy-duddy who doesn’t like modern music.  What he really focuses on is form, not style.  For him, “Christian worship is the heart of discipleship just to the extent that it is a repertoire of practices shaped by the biblical story.”  For Smith the best worship is one that follows the grand arc of the Biblical story and forms us through the repetition of poetic and imaginative cadences (think The Book of Common Prayer).  It is such worship that makes the drama of redemption sticky and caught, not just taught.

Drawing on traditional forms of worship from the church through the centuries filtered by Reformed theology, Smith reminds us that worship is not bottom up, but top down.  Worship is initiated by God as we are called by God into worship, not by our desire to express ourselves.  Through the gathering, listening, communing, and sending of the body of Christ we are reformed, and re-storied in order to “inhabit the sanctuary of God’s creation as living, breathing images of God.”

Having laid out his vision for biblical reforming worship Smith goes on to explore in other chapters liturgies of the home and vocation.  These are short essays in and of themselves, but make for intriguing reading pushing and pulling us to think about the meaning of family, home, and work, and what are we actually doing regardless of what we think we are doing.

Why I like this book is that it challenges us to examine our hearts while offering balance to flow charts, schedules, and pyramid schemes that imply that discipleship is merely a task we master and pass on to others, without really examining the place of communal worship, art, and imagination in the life of the disciple.  Don’t get me wrong, we need to memorize scripture, tell others about Jesus, and fulfill the great commission, but we also need to think about the issues that Smith raises as well.  In the end, we are lovers, and what we love will profoundly shape who we are, and who we worship.

In a collegiate context I can see this book as a great small group read, gift for a worship team, or a graduating senior.  A senior pastor or worship leader would also benefit from thinking how to frame the preaching of the word with the reinforcement of liturgy.  Small groups would have a creative time mapping secular liturgies on the campus, whether humanism’s  sacred cows, sports fanatics’ stadium temple, or the acolytes who constantly chase any new fashion or entertainment craze.  Most of all, however, it will make all who read it pause, and ask, what are the habits (liturgies) that are most profound in their lives..

For those who are intrigued by this book by Smith, you may also enjoy his trilogy (it is still in progress with only two books out) that explores worship, discipleship, and cultural liturgies in Imagining the Kingdom:  How Worship Works, and Desiring the Kingdom:  Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation.