Sunday, September 2, 2018

Unbelievable


In what he describes as his last book, John Shelby Spong concludes his writing career with a cumulative work that echoes many of the challenges he has suggested throughout his career in various forms.  This particular work is a concise argument with regard to the fact that many of the doctrines, creeds, and theological ideas that the Church holds simply do not and, he would argue, cannot engage the modern mind – even the minds of Christians any longer. 

He opens the book with a short summary of his writing career and then lays out some of the questions he seeks to address, “which cover everything from God to Christ to prayer to life after death.”[1]

His opening point is that the church is dying.  Christianity is dying.  His conclusion as to why this is is that the church has become so inflexible that it holds to doctrine and dogma far more than it dedicates itself to the experience of God.  He then sets out to examine some basic tenants of the Christian faith and argue that they don’t have to be dogmatic, they don’t have to be taken literally, and that if we can consider some of the terms of the Christian faith without the theological and traditional baggage attached to them, we might find that there is still a living faith to be found inside and, perhaps more importantly, through the Christian faith.

To that end, Spong does what he does best: he shakes the reader up with what might seem deliberately antagonistic, anti-religious sounding chapter titles.  Even some of his writing sounds like well-rehearsed heated rhetoric, which is likely is, drawing from his own journey in the faith as well as his past writings and weekly column.  His words are well practiced and, though troubling for some to read, have a sense of genuineness that is both charming and threatening.

He beings with a chapter titled Why Modern Men and Women Can No Longer Be Believers.  It is of no surprise that Spong does not find readers from the more fundamentalist wings of the Christian faith. 

-

To begin his book, Spong makes reference to the question of the authority of the Bible.  “One learns quickly in such an environment [church] that claims for the “authority of the Bible” – filled, as that book is, with stories of an invasive, supernatural deity performing miracles – are ignored, and all attempts to define “the true faith,” or to pronounce anything that deviates from a traditional understanding to be “heresy,” is more a conversation-stopper than it is a way to dialogue.”[2]

There is, he goes on to say, a desire for a real experience of God on the part of the faithful, but that the church is often not the place that provides that.  There is also, he argues, “a game being played in contemporary church life where truth is suppressed in the name of unity.”[3]  His point here is that there are points, ideas, theologies, and historical understandings that are taught in seminary that, for the sake of the unity of the congregation (one might surmise) are not discussed with the general populace of the church.  Why not?  Because the education of the pastor and the faith of the congregation may be on two very, very different levels.  Therefore the pastor, who might seek dialogue, can only keep silent for the sake of those who claim the “authority of the Bible” while not being completely aware of what that Bible does or does not say.

Spong then moves to “Stating the Problem.”  To do this, he offers a short history of the reformation and explains that Luther, he believes, was seeking to enter into a debate about the church and suggesting reforms.  However, these suggestions were not received as such and the debate turned into something unexpected and completely different.  The reaction to Luther was anger, violence, and upheaval.  Not the intention of Luther, but, as Spong is seeking to point out, it is the reaction of those entrenched in ideologies to react strongly against those who would state a different claim or challenge the authority of the status quo. 

Spong is seeking, in some way, to make this last book his own 95 Thesis and challenge the rank and file Christians to seriously consider a top to bottom revisioning of the faith.  This comes, Spong explains, from the fact that the amount of human knowledge that has accumulated since the time of the writing of the Bible has far outstripped some of the thinking that the Bible contains.  From geology to astronomy, we know things about our universe that the Biblical writers simply could not.  As such, we have to come to recognize that many of the ideas in scripture “rise out of a world that no longer exists.”[4]

The question Spong asks is this: can the Christ experience be separated from the dying explanations of the past?[5]  To begin to answer that question, Spong states that there has to be a jettisoning of a tremendous amount of theological baggage.  “People need to feel the dead weight of traditional theological claims before they can open themselves and their ancient words to new possibilities.”[6]

Spong then lays out his 12 points of contention:
1.       God – what does this word even mean?
2.       Jesus the Christ – can we lose the idea of the incarnation?
3.       Original Sin – a pre-Darwinian mythology that is post-Darwinian nonsense.
4.       The Virgin Birth – we have to stop thinking of this as a literal possibility.
5.       Miracles – not magic.
6.       Atonement Theology – these (and there are more than one) are theologies that present a barbaric God and Jesus as a victim as well as turning us into guilt filled creatures.
7.       Easter – what does it mean that God raised Jesus?
8.       The Ascension – This assumes a three-tiered universe.  Is there any other way to consider this idea?
9.       Ethics – ancient codes can no longer hold weight.  We must become situationalists.
10.   Prayer – we need to think of it in terms of transcendence, not the means to get God to do something on our behalf.
11.   Life after Death – must be explored as transcendence and love vs. the idea of a place.
12.   Universalism – “Sacred tradition” must never provide a cover to justify discrimination.

Each “thesis” has its opening argument, followed, usually, by a chapter or two of arguments.  The difficulty of the text is that some of these thesis questions are so interwoven with each other that his ideas aren’t always fully developed until later chapters, the best example being the section on “Original Sin” which necessarily has ties to the later thesis on “Atonement Theology.”  In his work, dealing with one deals with the other.

In other chapters, his arguments are not as clearly articulated nor do they seem to be as well thought out.  Some of them seem to be more filler than substance, though they are logical offshoots of his larger points.

Conclusions

John Shelby Spong is no stranger to controversy – either in addressing it or, in many instances, creating it.  His outspokenness on issues of human sexuality and his willingness to radically redefine traditional elements of the Christian faith is nothing new.  His most recent and, according to him, last book Unbelievable is something of a conclusion to his larger body of writings.  In some ways, though, it would make a good introduction to his collected works.  Like the letter to Ephesians which scholars believe was written by a disciple of Paul to introduce the collected epistles of the Apostle, Unbelievable is a concise work that provides a quick articulation of Spong’s theology, rationales, and conclusions to adapting the Christian faith for the modern world.

Spong has clearly come to believe in the conclusions he presents.  As I have said, it is a good summation to his larger written works.  If it were not, I would suggest that this book should have been a multi-volume tome in which he truly takes the ideas presented to task in a way that is not as quick or as simplistic as they are presented here.  What one does find is that in this work, Spong takes for granted that the scientific arguments he puts forward are fact, are inescapable, and that religiosity has nothing to offer. 

Granted, there are clearly places in the Bible that cannot be justified scientifically such as the sun being stilled in the sky in Joshua, the three-tiered universe, or even some of the miracles.  However, their truth is as true as any story in which one finds direction or meaning.  A person who pours over Shakespeare and finds that all of life can be encapsulated in the words of Hamlet or that the Tempest is a parable for living are not refuting the realities of the world, merely defining the world via a particular lens.  So too is the work of religion.  When religion becomes absolute, however, it is dangerous. 

What Spong is arguing for is a non-theistic (perhaps a-theistic) religiosity.  This is not new.  It is, perhaps, one of the more succinct arguments for his point of view.  Combining such ideologies as expressed by Tillich, Hans Küng, and Joseph Fletcher as well as some of the more radical views of Robert Price, though not going as far as he would, Marcus Borg, and Franklin and Shaw (The Case for Christian Humanism).  Spong’s arguments are far more centralized and quickly accessible, but not necessarily original.

Spong is something of a signpost to other authors, though he does not always give them a name or point directly to them, which is a weakness.  This book is a primer for so many other works and a digest of some heavy topics within the Christian academy.  Spong could have used this book as a launching pad for discussion by offering bibliographies at the end of each chapter to point to books that have already discussed his points in depth should the reader wish to explore more.  Instead, one gets the sense that Spong is attempting to pass his conclusions off as something new.  They are not.  They are, likely, summations of his larger and previous works.  These works may have indeed provided the bibliography or suggestions for further readings.  Unbelievable does not and is, therefore, a weaker work.

The writing style of this book has some flaws.  There is a sense of delayed gratification with the opening chapters as Spong lays out the issues he will set out to tackle.  He sets up more and more questions like a History Channel docu-series before a commercial break: “Could this be the proof of King David in Jerusalem?  Does this tomb hold the bones of Jesus?”  This may be, in part, because his Thesis 3-8 all, in some fashion, are extrapolations of Thesis 2.  Thesis 3 is more fully answered in Thesis 6.  This could have reduced his thesis from the Biblical number 12 down to 6 or less if he had pulled them all into tighter groupings. 

What this leads to is a book that is unbalanced.  Some of the works are strong and well thought out, but others, especially Thesis 5, 7-8 are lackluster, quick, and seem quickly thrown together.  Some of these passages have great passion, especially his thesis on ethics.  His arguments about prayer, life after death, and his conclusion therein are more personal (perhaps more pastoral) than scholarly.  This is not to denigrate them, but to point out that there is passion here, but that doesn’t always make for a good argument.  It is more his own personal conclusions than it is a reasoned-out articulation of an argument such as he offered in the passages about God or ethics.

Likewise, his quick nods to textual critical approaches to the Bible, Darwin, Freud, and the “irrationality” of some of the Christian doctrines are, it seems, expected to be enough to convince the reader.  What we find is that Spong is writing from the point of view of someone who is already convinced of the merit of his argument, but does not, apparently, wish to share all of his work in reaching those conclusions.  He couldn’t have done so and hoped to have created a popular best-seller.  To that end, a book like James the Brother of Jesus by Robert Eisenman which clocks in at a massive 950+ pages is a profound work of scholarship with profound implications but not a page turner or a tome written for the New York Times booklist.  Spong throws out only enough to give credence to his views, and hints that in some of his previous books, he took more time in formulating the arguments than he has for this one.

As for his opening argument, Spong was not attempting to provide a roadmap to a new Church.  “I am not ready to surrender Christianity to a secular future.  I am not willing to abandon the Christ experience, which I still find real, simply because the words traditionally used to describe that experience no longer translate meaningfully into the language of our day.”[7]  However, by the end of the book, one wonders just what Spong would consider a modern Christianity.  Like some early critiques of Christianity during the time in which it was seeking to articulate itself within the bounds of Judaism, if what you suggest is a radical redefinition of the latter to explain the former, then you aren’t talking about the same thing anymore.  Likewise, to say that you were a capitalist as defined by a communist reading, one has to conclude that you really weren’t a traditional capitalist at all.

Spong seems to want to have his cake and eat it too.  To remove all that he suggests within his book is to so deplete the Church of traditions that there is little that remains to connect what is left with the ancient church at all.  In his suggesting to be rid of supernaturalism, he throws out the ritual and liturgical uses of the Biblical texts.  One need not accept them as literal – a claim Spong does make repeatedly.  But one doesn’t have to excise them as Jefferson did to find meaning within them.  Spong surely wouldn’t seek to remove the fantastic from Aesop’s fables because to do so removes the point.  However, given this example, Spong would say that if we can read Aesop’s fables without feeling the need to take them literally, we can find meaning.  Likewise, Spong is arguing, we can engage the Christian faith without the need for literalization or supernaturalism.  Yet, as he tends to do, his recommendations are more of a carpet bomb approach than that of a scalpel. 

In review, there are other books and authors that articulate similar ideas as that of Spong.  None, it would seem, offer the radical push that Spong seeks, otherwise he would need not have written.  Like the opening verses of the Gospel of Luke, “it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you.”[8]  As such, it could be better.

Spong was intending to write a closing book to his career.  This is it, though it could have been stronger.  This feels more of an extended epilogue than it does a self-sustaining work.  If one were to read it as a series of farewell sermons, on the other hand, then the book would be exceedingly provocative.  As it is, it seems more of a pastoral musing on a series of theological arguments which are quickly indexed and should point to a larger reading list as well as a deeper appreciation of the fact that for many reading this, it will be something of a first exposure to ideas that have long circulated.  However, given the style of Spong’s writing, it feels less like an introduction than a conclusion.  “I decided that the time had come to put all those theses together in a primer – this book – and to invite a vigorous debate.”[9]Perhaps that is how he intended it to be read.





[1]  Spong p. 13.
[2]  Ibid p. 4-5.
[3]  Ibid p. 7.
[4]  Ibid p. 25.
[5]  Ibid.
[6]  Ibid p. 26.
[7]  Spong p. 14.
[8]  Luke 1:3
[9]  Spong p. 14.

Unbelievable
John Shelby Spong
2018
San Francisco: HarperOne
336 pages


Wednesday, May 9, 2018

A Wrinkle in Time


With the recent release of the movie "A Wrinkle In Time," I thought I might take a moment to look back on the book.

"A Wrinkle in Time" by Madeleine L'Engle first hit the shelves in 1962.  I wouldn't hear about it until my mother read it to me in the early 70s.  I do remember that I was enthralled with the story.  It was part fantasy, part science fiction, and part theology.  The story centers around Meg Murry and her brother Charles Wallace Murry as they encounter strange neighbors in their tiny, remote town in Connecticut.

The character of Charles Wallace is an interesting one.  He is only five, but has the vocabulary and intellect of a much older genius.  He, of all the characters, is perhaps ironically the most rational.  In some cases, his attitudes and actions reflect a person more akin to the Star Trek Vulcan Mr. Spock.  Meg, on the other hand, can be quite the emotional wreck.  At times, she is her own worst enemy and Charles can be too distant.

Added to the mix is the athletic Calvin O'Keefe, a young man who embodies athleticism, but comes from a terrible home life.  These three, Calvin, Meg, and Charles Wallace embark on a strange quest to find Meg and Charles' missing father.

Here is the bigger plot: Mr. Murry has disappeared.  Both Mr. Murry and his wife Kate are brilliant scientists working for the government.  Mr. Murry has disappeared and the Murry family have no idea as to his whereabouts.  As it will turn out, he has been whisked off to another planet through a method of travel known as the tesseract, a means of bending time and space to travel a great distance in a short time (and for Marvel Comics fans, this word is sometimes applied to the Cosmic Cube - a major plot device in the more recent Marvel movies).  Unfortunately, he is trapped and cannot return.

The children, sneaking out into the night, find themselves meeting the closest neighbors they have in a remote and seemingly abandoned house.  The neighbors, suspected to be either eccentric sisters, homeless squatters, or perhaps even witches, turn out to be something far more spectacular than that: they are stars - as in the thing that the earth orbits.  More importantly, they are powerful and ancient creatures who only take on human appearance in an attempt to contact Meg and her brother Charles Wallace.  It is they who will enable the three children to venture through the tesseract and eventually find Mr. Murry.

I won't go into to much more detail about that plot, but I will say that what they find on the planet on which Mr. Murry is trapped is not the kind of planet one would associate with evil.  It is a well ordered, meticulously structured society in which there is nothing but conformity.  One thinks it may be a reference to communism given the time in which L'Engle wrote.  However, it is far more of the Orwellian dystopia: the end result of a totalitarian dictatorship obsessed with security.  In that respect, there is something still chillingly modern about this story.

As I remembered it, I found that the story was imaginative and accessible.

At least it was in the 1970s.  After re-reading the book just a few months ago, I found that I didn't identify with the characters as I had when I was a child.  Perhaps because this was and is a children's book.  Sometimes those ideas just aren't as easy to access with an older mind.  I did also find that the main character was hard to get behind.  She would often refuse to allow explanations to sink in and would react strongly towards things beyond her control with what would seem to be over-emotive episodes.

However, it is her emotion, especially her willingness to love her brother Charles Wallace, that breaks from the conformity of the dark powers that control the alien planet.  It is also their childishness that enables them to speak the truth about the situations around them in a way that the conforming adults of the lands cannot.  In that respect, I found that the story still holds up rather well.

The other issue is that of the theology of the book.  This is where some might have the bigger difficulty with the book.

L'Engle's work is quite similar to C.S. Lewis in his "Chronicles of Narnia" series.  It is best described as a liberal or progressive Christian view, a term that, in 1962, meant something quite different from 2018.  Her prominent theme seems to stem from the Gospel of John, a book quoted in "A Wrinkle in Time" by the star-creatures as they try to explain the larger (universal) struggle between good and evil.  Jesus is named, as are Moses and Buddha - all as exemplars of righteousness.  For some Christians, including anyone else with Jesus is too far.  But within the narrative, the point is that the exemplars of righteousness are just that: exemplars.  L'Engle makes no claim that one is equal to or greater than another.  They are exemplars and are therefore worthy of veneration and emulation.

But more modern conservative Christians would likely balk at the use of crystal balls (even if it is by an alien), witches, or the idea that science and religion need not be opposing forces.  In fact, the point is larger than that: science and religion can work towards a common good and for the betterment of humanity as well as working against that which is evil or promotes darkness.

As I re-read "A Wrinkle in Time" I found myself not as taken with it as I was when I was about the same age as the character Meg.  But I didn't find it impossible to read or difficult to appreciate.  In fact, what I found was that L'Engle wrote a book for an educated reader.  The biblical quotes, the passages from Latin, the references to world classics were not dropped in to "smarten" the book.  They were there because there was an expectation that the reader was one who read to elevate themselves and their minds.  It may be a children's story, but it wasn't dumbed down to say the least.

What I also found was that I was interested in reading the other books that dealt with the Murry family that L'Engle had written.  Like Garrison Keillor, L'Engle created more than just characters, she created a world in which she continued to write for all ages.

I would also add that the book is probably still too much to be able to effectively make into a movie.  There are too many themes and too much expectation on the education of the audience.  The book will likely always outshine any theatrical attempt.

A Wrinkle in Time
Madeleine L'Engle
(There are several editions of the book.  The one I re-read and described above was from the following publisher)
Harrisburg: Square Fish, 2007
232 pages



Friday, February 9, 2018

They Poured Fire on Us From the Sky


Between 1987 and 1989, thousands and thousands of children, many who were young boys, traveled on foot to flee from the brutality of the civil war in Sudan.  Those children became known as "The Lost Boys."

In 2005, the book They Poured Fire on Us From the Sky came out detailing the plight and trials of three of these young boys.

I bring it to your attention now because the crisis behind the story, the civil war in Sudan, is still a crisis that threatens that country.  The United Methodist Church - in particular the Holston Conference of the United Methodist Church - has taken special interest in this part of the world and its struggles.  We still send mission teams, pastors, volunteers, doctors, and aid to Sudan.  But for many, we have forgotten the struggles and the trials that created such a humanitarian crisis.

And with the growing number of refugees from wars and violence across the world, this book should probably be back on our radar.

I found this book to be an engrossing read.  It is full of suspense, danger, escapes, and close shaves.  If it were an action film, it would be tremendous.  Yet when we come to realize that this was a real story, a real series of events, the idea of an action film becomes a thin means of escaping the brutality that this really happened.

The struggles these boys went through is almost beyond belief.  They had to endure hatred, warfare, the elements, the heat, and all without knowing what awaited them, if anything, across the next patch of sun-baked land.  It is truly an amazing story and one that will have you both inspired by the resilience and tenacity of these young men and the triumph of the human spirit as well as brought to tears by the fact that humans can treat one another so horribly.

It presents a story of life that many of us will likely never know or have to know.  Yet it makes one wonder - how would I fare in such conditions?  How would I hope to be treated?  Likewise, it makes one ask, "How do I treat the stranger?  The sojourner?  The refugee?"

Towards the end of the book, there is the story of some of the survivors in a Sunday School class.

"The children danced, narrated poems, and composed a lot of simple but reasonably good songs to entertain the audience.  My favorite song was the one below.  To sing it, the teacher stood in front of the children who were organized into groups representing continents or countries.  The teacher began the song by asking the question.  'Who are you?'

One group of children would answer, 'We are the Africans.
And you?
We are the Asians.
And you?
We are the Americans.
And you?
We are the Australians.
And you?
We are the Europeans.
And you?
We are the Arabians.
Forget those names.  We are all the children of God."

Perhaps if we could learn this lesson, stories such as They Poured Fire on Us From the Sky would become a thing of the past.

I would encourage you to visit the website for the book and for the Lost Boys of Sudan who continue to speak around the world.  It can be found at www.theypouredfire.com

They Poured Fire on Us From the Sky
Benson Deng, Alephonsion Deng, Benjamin Ajak, with Judy Bernstein
New York: PublicAffairs
312 pages


Monday, October 30, 2017

The Benedict Option



Christianity is losing its influence and, therefore, facing the future is a tremendous issue.  Christianity is also losing its pull both politically and theologically – and author Rod Dreher would argue that it is also losing its moral influence.  While it can be argued that most world religions are also experiencing this decline, the focus in Dreher’s work is exclusively on the Christian faith.
Dreher argues that Christian beliefs and living by them “makes increasingly little sense.”[1] Somewhat refreshingly, Dreher points out that this shift in opinion towards the Christian faith did not happen overnight or during this or that presidential term.  He lays out eight reasons why there is a spiritual crisis in the West: 1. The breakdown of the natural family. 2. The loss of traditional moral values.  3. Secular nihilism (nihilism being the belief that life has no intrinsic meaning or value). 4. Culture turning against Christians. 5. Advancement of gay civil rights.  6.  The perception that there is no safe place to be a Christian. 7. Dying churches.  8.  Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.[2]
Dreher then describes or prescribes a solution: Christians should follow the example of St. Benedict and the Benedictine monastic model corporately and individually.  This isn’t a fix-all solution for Dreher.  In fact it is presented more as a bunker mentality: society is too far gone to be saved – therefore the faithful must isolate to survive and then, after society collapses completely, the faithful will remain and re-emerge to being the process of rebuilding.

So begins Rod Dreher’s book The Benedict Option.  After addressing the problem and pointing out that “nobody but the religious right thinks things can be turned around,”[3] Dreher then sets out to outline the events over the last several centuries that have, in his opinion, eroded the Christian faith, witness, and church establishment.
Yet the proposal to withdraw from the world is not just abandonment from it.  “This is not just about our own survival.  If we are going to be for the world as Christ meant for us to be, we are going to have to spend time away from the world, in deep prayer and substantial spiritual training – just as Jesus retired to the desert to pray before ministering to his people.”[4] To that end, Dreher lays out the historical watershed moments that have led to the conclusion that the church needs to regroup.
According to Dreher, there are five major moments whose consequences have led to the loss of the predominance of the Christian faith:
1.       In the 14th Century when the belief in the integral connection between God and Creation was lost.
2.       The collapse of religious unity and religious authority during the Protestant reformation (sometimes called “revolution” by Dreher).
3.       The 18th Century enlightenment.
4.       The industrial revolution and the rise of capitalism.
5.       The sexual revolution.
Dreher then sets out to explain in detail how each of these long-term events has in some way led to the decline of the Christian consciousness and efficacy.
In this list, though, the reader begins to see the theological, ideological, and methodological approach and views of the author.  Dreher begins to come across as one who is deeply rooted in the “orthodox” traditions of the church: Roman Catholicism, Easter, Greek, and Russian Orthodoxy and not the Protestant traditions.  This is not a negative, but it does make the arguments Dreher attempts to make a little harder for Protestants to understand as for many the veneration of Saints, especially St. Benedict, is a though process that is unfamiliar.  Dreher’s call to faithfulness is one that sees the 18th Century as a time in which Christianity was displaced by “the cult of Reason, privatized religious life, and inaugurated the age of democracy.”[5]  From a Protestant point of view, this might not sound like a bad thing – and it does sound very American.
But for Dreher, this democratization of the faith collapsed the authority of the church.  People need not heed the Bishop, Pope, or priest as religious authority was de-centralized.  This is a point the reader needs to consider, especially as Dreher begins to set up his thesis and strategies for moving forward as Christians – they will almost all sound like a return to monastic Catholicism based on a Benedictine model of isolation and monastic existence.  Dreher’s arguments sound, in many ways, as if he is advocating the creation of Amish-like Benedictine societies that deliberately choose to set themselves apart living near each other around a centralized place of worship.
Dreher’s idea isn’t a new one.  For monasticism to be the “answer” to which we are to return, one has to realize, as Dreher does, that this form of Christianity has existed for some time – and even in pre-Christian times there were religious traditionalists and cloistered communities.  So Dreher isn’t creating a new idea, he is merely advocating its contemporary necessity.
Dreher seems to be opposed to what he might call extreme individualism in which the individual is valued over the community.  This isn’t a new idea either – even for Protestants.  As John Wesley wrote, “Christianity is essentially a social religion, and that to turn it into a solitary religion is indeed to destroy it.”[6] Yet for Dreher, it was Martin Luther who stripped away the collective identity of Christianity.  “The Reformation destroyed that unity and stripped those under its sway of many symbols, rituals, and concepts that had structured the inner lives of Christians.”[7] This point of view should be no surprise from a writer who wishes for Christianity to gather around the teachings and Rule (the Benedictine Rules of Order) of “the old master,” St. Benedict.
For someone who champions a “return” from one thing to another, there has to be the something from which to return.  In this case, Dreher argues, it is modernity or contemporary post-modernity.  Again, Dreher stresses that the modern church has lost its ties to community, both inside and outside the church walls.[8]  To return to that proper sense of community, Dreher advocates a return to the Rule.
The Rule of the monastic order, Dreher argues, is “to free you.”[9] It is at once interesting and ironic that Jews felt (and feel) this way about the Torah and that early Christians felt this way about Christ.  Dreher, not articulating a return to Judaism or a Judaized understanding of the Torah and/or New Testament, feels that it is a return to the Rule that will draw Christians back to a thoroughgoing Christian life – or orthopraxy.  Citing the Pastoral Epistle of 2nd Timothy and 2nd Peter, Dreher demonstrates that the rules for orthodoxy and orthopraxy are lined out in the New Testament and these ideas are the basis for the Rule.[10]
Interestingly, Dreher seems to overlook the tradition of the Didache, which was a first-Century document that “unfolds the comprehensive, step by step program used for the formation of the gentile convert.  By following the order [Rule?] of the Didache, mentors training novices were assured of following the progressive, ordered, and psychologically sound path that master trainers had effectively culled from their own successful practice in apprenticing novices.  From the vantage point of the novice the ordering of events within the Didache reveals how a candidate came to progressively enlarge those habits of judgment and ritualized experiences required for a full and active participation in the community.”[11]
For Dreher, who seeks for the “sacred apartness”[12] of Christianity, submission to authority lends order and order leads to peace.[13] Authority for Dreher is in the Rule and, one would assume, whomever heads the Christian community.  Dreher never sets out the full hierarchy in his book, but the fact that this idea is imbedded on the Rule suggests that there will be at least one person in the role of Abbot.  At a later point in the book, Dreher does detail what he feels Christians in general and the following of St. Benedict in particular should do with their time, money, and social arrangements.  The point for Dreher is that the community be organized around the Benedictine monastic model which would, in Dreher’s opinion, foster appropriate ethics and apartness for Christians.  This is borne out by his statement which both expresses and confirms his point: “For the Christian who follows the way of Saint Benedict, everyday life becomes an unceasing prayer, both an offering to God and a gift from Him, one that transforms us bit by bit into the likeness of His son.”[14]
The Rule, in Dreher’s opinion, will foster a community that is ethical, moral, and is focused on the community and its needs.  Reflective of the ideal of Acts 2:42-47, Dreher has some very cogent ideas about the community of faith, including mutual accountability[15] and hospitality.[16]
A potential point of contention comes from Dreher’s argument that for there to be community and order, those who do not conform within the community must be put out of that community, either for a short time or permanently, depending on the level of the offense committed.[17] Again, this isn’t an idea that is new with Dreher.  It is one that is unfamiliar to many Western minds and, therefore, will sound harsh.

In his chapter dealing with politics, Dreher bemoans the previous administration, though he never mentions Obama by name, and the fact that conservative Christianity was continually threatened and marginalized.  He does, perhaps surprisingly, also take issue with the current Trump administration, saying, “The idea that someone as robustly vulgar, fiercely combative, and morally compromised as Trump will be an avatar for the return of Christian morality and social unity is beyond delusional.  He is not a solution to the problem of America’s cultural decline, but a symptom of it.”[18]
Dreher continues by arguing that the threats against Christians are very real and very serious.  Though he refers to religious liberty taking a “pounding from the business lobby” and that Christians are in for “hard times,”[19] he doesn’t go into specifics other than that which he mentioned earlier in the book – challenges going back to the 14th Century.  This is not to say he is off point so much as it appears to be a rhetorical device often used by the conservative Christian point of view: light on specifics but heavy on threat.
Yet Dreher does make a powerful and understated point in contrast to that rhetoric: “If protecting religious liberty requires us to compromise the moral beliefs that define us as Christians, then any victories we achieve will be hollow.”[20]  His point: the ends do not justify the means.  Faithful Christians, Dreher argues, may have to decide between being a good American and a good Christian.[21]  Still, Dreher feels that Christians are going to be a “powerless, despised minority.”[22] Why?  Because Christians will become internal exiles “from a community we thought was our own.”[23]
While speaking with Amos-like rhetoric about the decline and what seems to be the pending vilification of Christianity in the near future, Dreher argues that Christians, following the Rule, can develop life which will, in time, develop a better system of governance.
It is here that Dreher’s rhetoric becomes more militant.  Dreher, speaking about those who will not conform with structural norms, writes, “Those people who refuse to assimilate and instead build their own structures are living the Benedict Option.”[24]  He continue, quoting Václav Havel, “The best resistance to totalitarianism is simply to drive it out of our own souls, our own circumstances, our own land, to drive it out of contemporary humankind.”[25]  With this as his background idea, Dreher argues that “the same is true for the corrosive anti-Christian philosophy that has taken over American public life.[26]  This idea is central to Dreher’s arguments about what he calls anti-political Christianity.  For Christians to rally against a political system, they cannot be right, left, or a-political.  They must become anti-political. 
Dreher describes the true church as follows:

Instead of being seeker-friendly, we should be finder-friendly, offering those who come to us a new and different way of life.  It must be a way of life shaped by the biblical story and practices that keep us firmly focused on the truths of that story in a world that wants to obscure them and make us forget.  It must be a way of life marked off by stability and order and achieved through the steady work, both communal and individual, of prayer, asceticism, and service to others – exactly what liquid modernity cannot provide.

A church that looks and talks and sounds just like the world has no reason to exist.  A church that does not emphasize asceticism and discipleship is as pointless as a football coaching staff that doesn’t care if its players show up for practice.  And though liturgy by itself is not enough, a church that neglects to involve the body in worship is going to find it increasingly difficult to get bodies into services on Sunday morning as America moves further into post-Christianity.

Benedict Option churches will find ways within their own traditions to take on practices, liturgical and otherwise, for the sake of deepening their commitment to Christ by building a thick Christian culture.  And Benedict Option believers will break down the conceptual walls that keep God safely confined in a church-shaped compartment.  That’s because a church that is a church only on Sunday and at other formal gatherings of the congregation is not only failing to be the church Christ calls us to be; it is also not going to be a church with the strength and the focus to endure the trials ahead.[27]

The author then turns his attention on what a true Christian home should look like, which will probably be the first place conservative Protestants will find shared ground.  It involves putting the life of the church first, even if that means removing children from sports programs,[28] limited media engagement, and a hierarchy.[29]  Here we have to imagine what Dreher means specifically.  While he does not express his meaning other than the traditional role of adults over children, it seems that it would not be a stretch to think he would resonate with the language of the Promise Keeper movement as to the rightful place of male-female relationships and the role of women in the house as well as in the church community.
Dreher encourages believers to move into communities close to other believers.  Jobs are not to be the driving force behind where families live: they need to circle the wagons, so to speak, to provide a larger community of believers for the sake of Benedict community growth – home schooled, Christian-based communities that share resources, grow their own food, and worship and study together.  Should that mean a loss in pay or a different job, then so be it, because the church “is to be the center of your life.”[30]
Interestingly, Dreher warns against idolizing the community, even though he comes very close to doing that himself.  Perhaps this comes as a warning not to be too cult-like[31] or too rigid.  Again, though, we find a paradox with Dreher.  Do not be too rigid, he warns, while at the same time he argues that the Christian community has to be prepared to excommunicate members as well as saying the community has to be ready to withdraw from the world.
This idealized Benedictine community is the end goal for Dreher.  It is to become something of a closed community.  Build furniture, be entrepreneurial, and network with other Christians to create a microcosm of a Christian society.  This is because one is to be, in Dreher’s estimation, Christian first.
This community must also reject anything that teaches sexuality other than heterosexuality as normative.  It must create a network of home-schooled children that revolve around Christians and Christian teachings.  This is in response to the fact that, as Dreher sees it, Christians are being robbed of their beliefs and moral values by media, LGBT agendas, and public education.  To make this point, Dreher spends most of two chapters writing against the sexual revolution of the 1960s and the LGBT community and agenda.  To be pro-LGBT is to be un-Christian.[32]
For Dreher, sexuality is the issue that defines the contemporary struggle for faithfulness.  “Rightly ordered sexuality is not at the core of Christianity, but […] it’s so near the center that to lose the Bible’s clear teaching on this matter is to risk losing the fundamental integrity of the faith.”[33] “Indifference towards sexual issues is going to mean the end of Christian orthodoxy.”[34]
It is interesting that this was not Dreher’s opening argument for the book, as impassioned as he is on the topic.  A reader of Dreher’s book can find themselves distracted from the larger point of his work in the Benedict Option as his writings on sexuality seem to come to the foreground like Elihu in the book of Job.  He comes on strong with strong points, but it does not feel well integrated into the larger whole of the text.  Perhaps Dreher utilized this work as a means to include what is evidently a subject about which he feels strongly.  While it is in keeping with points he makes earlier in the book, it does come across as more sermonic than the rest of the book. 

Dreher uses the last passage of the book to warn of the varying dangers of technology.  Though no Luddite, Dreher sees the Christian community as one that needs to limit their use and exposure to technology both as individuals and within the church community.  His points are solid, and the chapter reads as a good essay, though it feels somewhat tacked on to the larger work.
Dreher concludes the final chapter with a page long summation before an epilogue-like official concluding chapter.  In this one page we find a clear distilling of his aim for the book.
“If we don’t take on everyday practices that keep that sacred order present to ourselves, our families, and our communities, we are going to lose it.”[35]  That which threatens the Christian faith is the liberal secular order.  “Our failure to understand this reinforces our cultural captivity and the seemingly unstoppable assimilation of the next generations.”[36]  The Benedict Option as a response is “a call to understanding the long and patient work of reclaiming the world from the artifice, alienation, and atomization of modern life.”[37]

Some of the issues that stand out after reading The Benedict Option are some of his larger claims about Christianity and society.  For example, the assumption that America was “theirs” [read Christians] to begin with is a strong one.  While Christianity has had a predominant role in the history of the country, it has never been a Christian country.  It was dedicated to the ideal of religious freedom.  If religion loses its influence in the American way of life, then that comes from the fact that the country did not set up one particular religion as the state religion.  Christianity has enjoyed and profited from its popular status, but that status is changing.  And to think that this community “was our own” is also to perpetuate the myth that this has always been a Christian nation – except when it was native and we had a divine mandate to bring the faith to the Native Americans.
In saying that Christians will be exiles from communities they thought were their own, though, Dreher provides clear and unvarnished insight into how he views the place of the faith and the idea that Christian community is to be considered as the only true community.  Its displacement is unsettling because for times to have changed, Christianity has to have lost its power in Dreher’s opinion.  Once the reader grasps this idea, then the whole argument of Dreher’s book fits – agree or disagree.  The framework for the book is what provides the sense of the Benedict Option argument.  If one is convinced that the bombs are on their way, then the argument for bomb shelters makes sense, even if the person listening isn’t convinced. 
One of the problems Dreher creates is that of definition.  In his argument for Christians to become anti-political, he argues that culture has become anti-Christian.  The problem with this is twofold.  First, what defines anti-Christian?  Is it that which can be demonstrably shown as anti-Rule?  Because Christianity, as Dreher sees it, does not look Protestant and one could wonder if any post-Reformation church and congregation would thereby be viewed as anti-Christian.  Likewise, does anti-Christian suggest anything not expressly Christian (Jewish, Muslim etc.) is automatically to be understood as anti-Christian?  It is language that is too open-ended.  It would need to be defined, which would be the right of the Rule based Christian community, one would suppose. 
Secondly, Dreher’s statement in favor of those who would not assimilate to culture is a double-edged sword.  Refusal to assimilate is akin to living the Benedict Option.  Yet as Dreher has demonstrated, society itself has refused to assimilate to the Christian orthodoxy.  In that regard refusal to assimilate is a bad thing.  Assimilation into a Rule based Benedictine community, though, is a positive.
This, or courser, is the point for Dreher.  The Benedict Option is the only option.  “The best witness Christians can offer to post-Christian America is simply to be the church, as fiercely and creatively a minority as we can manage.”[38] One has to wonder though, that if this mission is successful, how long before the minority as majority finds itself facing a new Reformation.  Because the minority church of the Benedict Option is one of tightened discipline that kicks out people who will not assimilate to its Rule,[39] holds to increased asceticism, and focuses on living in a monastic fashion.
Another point of contention is Dreher’s description of a true Christian community which sounds, not surprisingly, like a cult.  It certainly sounds like the FLDS communities that revolve around patriarchal rule and the sharing of communal goods, life, schooling, and church.  While Dreher would not likely appreciate the comparison, certainly not the theological one – Dreher would be in vehement opposition to the idea of the Book of Mormon being the center of the religious community – the idea, plan, and layout do sound strikingly familiar.
Janja Lalich and Madeleine Tobias, in their book Take Back Your Life: Recovering from Cults and Abusive Relationships  (Berkeley: Bay Tree Publishing, 2006) created a list of characteristics associated with cults and cult-like groups.  Lalich and Michael Langone published a list of those characteristics.  And while Dreher’s book and ideas do not cover them all – I seriously doubt Dreher would advocate abuse or abusive tendencies to keep people in line – there were some interesting parallels.
1.       The group displays excessively zealous and unquestioning commitment to its leader and regards his belief system, ideology, and practices as “the Truth.”
2.       The leadership dictates, sometimes in great detail, how members should think, act, and feel, including where to live, how to raise children, and what jobs to hold.
3.       The group has a polarized us-versus-them mentality, which puts them in conflict with the wider society.
4.       Members are encouraged to associate and deal with only other members.
5.       The most loyal members feel there can be no life outside the context of the group.  They believe there is no other way to be, and often fear reprisals to themselves or others if they leave or consider leaving the group.[40]
I would point out that there are a large number of characteristics of cults that Dreher’s work does not resemble – abusive tactics, focus on making money, mind altering practices and so forth.  Yet the idea of cult, at its heart, was not an evil idea but the term that referred to a system of religious veneration and devotion directed toward a particular figure or object.  Christianity, in its earliest days, was a cult.  Only when it became more than just a few did it move to becoming a religion rather than a sect or cult.  Yet Dreher isn’t too far from pushing the idea of cult-like behavior as the normative for Christians. 

What we find late in the book, after the description of the Benedict Community and the true Christian home and community, is that the driving force behind Dreher’s argument seems to be sexuality.  He asks, “is sex the linchpin of Christian cultural order?”[41]  The answer seems to be “yes.”  Sexuality, as does everything else, has to be brought in line with “the Rule” as well as the scriptural teachings of St. Paul.
For Dreher, it is sexuality properly understood as heterosexuality that truly defines Christians.  “Anything we do that falls short of perfect harmony with the will of God is sin.”[42] This is a truly unattainable standard.  But Dreher sees it as applicable to Christian life and, in this particular case, sexuality.  Sex within marriage is “an icon of Christ’s relationship with His people, the church.”[43]  Therefore sex is to be utilized properly.  Dreher suggests that sexuality is not to be understood as something to be done for pleasure, as, he intimates, homosexuals understand it.[44]  As Dreher sees it, procreation is the goal and therefore if procreation is not an option, sexuality is being misused.
Dreher’s views on sexuality are troubling to me.  And I don’t mean his views on homosexuality.  I mean his views that sexuality is only for procreation and not pleasure.  Though he doesn’t say it, I assume he means sex outside of marriage when he speaks of it in this way.  Yet to say that also suggests that the proof of true sexuality is either complete abstinence or several children.  One has to wonder how Dreher would view someone who could not bear children or had had a vasectomy.  Would they be subject to some rule that prohibits their having sexual relationships within their marriage?  If so, then Dreher has strayed far afield of what might be called Christian sexuality.  If homosexuality is understood to be the misuse of sexuality because there is no chance at procreation, then sexuality in general has to be understood in this light.  Therefore, contraception is likely anathema (which would be in keeping with Dreher’s leaning both in the book and theologically akin to Catholicism) as would be sexual relationships within a marriage.  Or so it would seem to me if Dreher’s points are pushed.
Homosexuality, for Dreher, is clearly the point at which culture has pushed its agenda upon Christians.  For Dreher, this is a question of assimilation – here a bad thing – where culture is pressing Christians to assimilate to a cultural opinion.  Dreher’s basic argument is that “they” want us to conform to their beliefs, but “they” won’t conform to our own.  Of course anyone who has ever had a Saturday morning visit from a Mormon or Jehovah's Witness has met with that scenario.  It is only threatening if one of the parties involved is armed and forcing acquiescence.
Dreher’s argument is to set up the scenario to be an us vs. them argument to which one has to be on one side or the other: for or against.  There is no middle ground.  I don't believe it would be too far of a stretch to propose that for Dreher there could be no acknowledgement or acceptance of the possibility of Christians on the side of gay marriage nor could he hold the possibility that gays might be anything other than agenda drivers.
For Dreher, as he said, sexuality is at the center.  It is, in his words, a clear issue.  The biblical teaching is clear[45] for Dreher, but I would argue it isn’t as clear as he might like for it to be.  While one could make compelling arguments against homosexual behavior from scripture, one could also argue favorable for polygamy.  That's why 'your neighbor's wife' is listed with the neighbors cattle, servants, and land.  Women were often thought of as merely commodities, not partners in the marriage.

The question then is this: is the biblical model of polygamy the ideal?  Certainly the fundamentalist wing of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints thinks so.  Or is the idea of levirate marriage the ideal?  This is where the brother of a deceased man is obliged to marry his brother's widow, and the widow is obliged to marry her deceased husband's brother.  That is certainly a biblical witness and one to which Jesus doesn't seem to object.  Of course, this sheds light on one objection we might have to Dreher’s book in general is that Jesus is only tangentially connected to the narrative.  The Benedictine Rule is the center, as is “the old master” St. Benedict. 
According to the Benedictine order, being unmarried was a higher state of existence and that life in the monastic view was a life of community, for men and, sometimes, women who weren’t interested in the opposite sex.  This was because sexuality was a distraction.  Dreher seems to be right in line with this idea.  I don’t know that he sees it as a distraction, but it is, in his opinion, certainly something that has to be brought in line.
This is certainly how Paul seems to feel in the 7th chapter of 1st Corinthians where he writes, “To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single, as I am. But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion.”  Not a resounding advocation of marriage.  On the other hand, neither does Paul articulate that sexuality is strictly for procreation. 

The Benedict Option is an interesting read.  For Protestants, many of the ideas will sound too much like a pre-Reformation call to return to the arms of the “true” church.  Dreher’s concerns may come from a far more conservative point of view that may not completely resonate with some readers, predominantly the idea of separating out from the general society in home, in trade, and in a desire to be faithful.
While many of his points are legitimate, and his concerns genuine, the book has a negative feel towards society that is, it seems Dreher believes, already lost.  The Christian is to set themselves apart and, as exemplified in Dreher’s conclusion, be ready to rescue the perishing when society collapses.
The book is reminiscent, though not on the same level, of St. Augustine’s The City of God.  And while Dreher is very much a critic of society, he does see an opportunity to reset culture or to at least be prepared to do so in the future.  However, his book may articulate a stance of discouragement, albeit not his point, that might become the thrust of his book rather than the idea of a structured Christian community.
In some ways, Dreher’s book is little more than another “get back to basics” tome that echoes Brian McLaren’s Finding Our Way Again and Robin Meyers The Underground Church.  Dreher’s concerns are not new, as books like Francis Chan’s Erasing Hell or LeRoy Eims The Lost Art of Disciple Making would make clear.  Eims argues many of Dreher’s points, but he does so from a much more positive point of view (changing society is a possibility) without the use of “the Rule” or a return to Benedictine monasticism.
Though his concerns are not new, Dreher articulates them well.  Of particular importance is the almost easily overlooked point that part of the problem Christians face is the lack of understanding Christians have regarding their own religious traditions.[46]  In this vein, Dreher echoes Stephen Prothero’s book Religious Literacy.
The point, ultimately, for Dreher is to form new monastic communities of faith.  His bemoaning of culture is not new (and one I sympathize with), but his response seems to be.  Echoing the Qumran community, Dreher advocates a separatist posture for the faithful that they might remove the influence of secularization, liberals, and all that are seen as powers that threaten to assimilate Christians into culture.  His conclusions are stark and will likely not resonate with all readers.  At times one gets the feeling that to disagree with him would merely point out one’s status as already lost and not aligned with “the Rule.”
Yet his point is well taken: Christians cannot conclude that being American is to be Christian or that to be Christian is to be Republican.  Augustine argued that humans are citizens of Rome and the Kingdom of God.  Eventually they will have to decide to which they ultimately belong.  Dreher would argue that we have to decide now.

The Benedict Option
Rod Dreher
New York: Sentinel Press, 2017
ISBN # 9780735213296
262 pages









[1]  P. 12.
[2]  This list is laid out from pages 8-10.
[3]  P. 12.
[4]  P. 19.
[5]  P. 23.
[6]  Thomas Jackson III ed. The Works of the Rev. John Wesley (London: Wesleyan Methodist Book Room, 1872), vol. 5, p. 296.
[7]  P. 32.
[8]  P. 50.
[9]  P. 51.
[10]  P. 52-3.
[11]  Aaron Milavec The Didache (Minnesota: Michael Glazier/Liturgical Press, 2003) p. x-xi.  Interestingly enough, this book was copyrighted by the Order of St. Benedict, in Collegeville, Minnesota.
[12]  P. 54.
[13]  P. 56.
[14]  P. 75.
[15]  P. 68
[16]  p. 71f.
[17]  P. 68-69.
[18]  P. 79.
[19]  P. 85.
[20]  P. 88.
[21]  P. 89.
[22]  P. 91.
[23]  P. 94.
[24]  P. 95.
[25]  P. 97.
[26]  P. 97.
[27]  P. 121.
[28]  P. 125.
[29]  P. 126.
[30]  P. 131.
[31]  P. 138.
[32]  P. 180.
[33]  P. 203-4.
[34]  P. 204.
[35]  P. 236.
[36]  P. 236.
[37]  P. 236.
[38]  P. 101.
[39]  P. 117 – compare with p. 95 where refusal to assimilate was lauded.
[40]  The complete checklist is found at http://www.csj.org/infoserv_cult101/checklis.htm.
[41]  P. 198.
[42]  P. 200.
[43]  P. 200.
[44]  P. 203.
[45]  P. 203
[46]  P. 85.