Saturday, July 02, 2016

whatever the Ben Op is, it seems unlikely to be a low church thing in the US--low church Americans are busy trying to salvage the empire that Ben-Opers say we should disconnect ourselves from
The “Benedict Option” refers to Christians in the contemporary West who cease to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of American empire, and who therefore are keen to construct local forms of community as loci of Christian resistance against what the empire represents. Put less grandly, the Benedict Option — or “Ben Op” — is an umbrella term for Christians who accept MacIntyre’s critique of modernity, and who also recognize that forming Christians who live out Christianity according to Great Tradition requires embedding within communities and institutions dedicated to that formation.

Not sure I'm going to grab the book when Dreher's thing on the Benedict Option comes out.  I've read bits and pieces here and there.  What I've read so far has suggested to me that whatever the Benedict Option may be ... it probably won't be possible to formulate within a low church tradition (that's not quite as oxymoronic as it might first seem to be to people from high church traditions).

Why does it seem like the Benedict Option won't be possible from a low church American idiom?  Alastair Roberts got at some of the reasons I think it won't be feasible in his piece for Christ and Pop Culture called "Evangelicalism's Poor Form":

...  There is a sort of evangelical folk religion, most of which is largely unauthorized by pastors or elders.typically experienced as a set of abstract and explicit doctrines or beliefs held by individuals, but more as a distinctive cultural environment within which such beliefs are inconsistently and idiosyncratically maintained. The official beliefs of evangelicalism exist alongside a host of other miscellaneous elements and the cross-pollination from the surrounding society, all sustained within local churches and a shifting constellation of denominations, movements, ministries, groups, and agencies.

In Desiring the Kingdom, James K. A. Smith argues for a movement from the category of “worldview” to that of the “social imaginary” (68). While the former category accents the cognitive and theorized dimensions of our Christian faith, the latter is founded upon the recognition that much of our Christian formation occurs on an affective and non-cognitive level. Our characters and minds are forged through bodily practices, institutions, liturgies, rituals, stories, icons, and the material culture that surround us. In our fixation upon the trickling down of culture from the beliefs in our minds we have frequently failed to appreciate the ways in which our thinking bubbles up from the world of our bodies, via our imaginations.
Evangelicalism’s innocence of or resistance to form has been a key factor in its development and one of the reasons for its many successes. Its characteristic fluidity rendered it more versatile, footloose, and adaptable than many other forms of Christianity, facilitating gospel outreach, missionary endeavour, movement into new contexts and less hospitable fields, and proactive adaptation to new cultural developments. It is also one reason why evangelicalism has widely come to find the core of its identity in the parachurch, rather than in more established ecclesiastical structures.

Where form has become a matter of theological ambivalence, it can become a continual focus of pragmatic concern. Evangelicalism has displayed an immense degree of innovation in the area of church structure for this reason, instrumentalizing ecclesiology for the sake of mission, producing a vast menagerie of ecclesiologies and modes of church: seeker-sensitive churches, purpose-driven churches, house churches, cell groups, megachurches, multi-site churches, Internet churches, pub churches, drive-in churches, etc.

This same protean nature is displayed in evangelicalism’s largely uncritical welcome and adoption of new technologies and cultural forms. Evangelical churches are often distinguished by such features as their use of contemporary musical styles, modes of dress, conspicuous use of state-of-the-art audio-visual technologies, their colloquial manner of speech, heavy online presence, and their ecclesiastical architecture that breaks with tradition to adopt the pattern of modern auditoriums. Evangelical identity is also widely expressed through the forms of a consumer society: through corporate models of Christian leadership, through the production, marketing, advertising, and selling of a Christianity that functions like a “brand” on everything from mints to keyrings. Few pause to question whether these forms of expression might be shaping us in unhealthy ways, assimilating us into culturally prevailing habits, dynamics, and ways of life and perception, all beneath the cover of a thin veneer of Christianity.

When American evangelicalism has spent generations repudiating "dead formalism" and "mere religion" in favor of adaptively assimilating attractional methods refined in marketing, then the informal culture at play may preclude the preservation of those things that those who would resort to a Benedict Option might want to preserve ....

or, far more likely for American evangelical conservatives who might wish to formulate a Benedict Option on their end, inventing such a culture from the ground up.

It's not a big shock that an Eastern Orthodox Christian could propose a Benedict Option.  The high church traditions have traditions and cultural properties they consider worth keeping.  That any of us, if we wanted to, could go listen to the Masses of Palestrina or get recordings of Byzantine chant or look up the Anglican prayer book tells us that these are traditions that have studiously kept their best arts and literature around for safekeeping.  Peter Leithart can blame it on Marburg if he likes but American Protestants may never produce the literature he wants not because they're Protestants, but because they're Americans. 

The popular assertion that the Dark Ages referred to the West after the fall of the Roman empire and before the Renaissance seems more than a bit sloppy.  There was a renaissance a millennium ago, if not the kind of one that modern secularists might want to recognize as such.  But let's just concede that the "dark ages" lasted from the fall of the Roman empire to whenever a contemporary secularist wants things to have gotten better.  The emphasis would still be on the fall of the Roman ... empire. 

This could be one of those times where the fall of a centralized military/political empire as the start of "dark ages" seems counterintuitive, if our intuition has any moorings in what's known as traditional liberalism of either a non-Marxist or even a Marxist variety. 

If people want an era in which there's no imperialism the Dark Ages should be our most favoritest era in the human history ever.

To cycle back to Dreher's description "The “Benedict Option” refers to Christians in the contemporary West who cease to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of American empire [emphasis added], and who therefore are keen to construct local forms of community as loci of Christian resistance against what the empire represents."

The reason the low church traditions in the United States will probably never successfully embrace or formulate a Benedict Option is they're too busy trying to maintain the American empire on the one hand, or to wrest social prestige or control within it back to the level they feel they deserve on the other.  In a variety of ways Americans to the left and the right within the context of an American empire are laboring to make Christianity conform to the American ideal rather than considering themselves aliens and strangers to this land.  So in that sense I just can't even find the possibility of feeling bad for the Southern Baptist Convention if it is seen as hijacked by neo-Calvinists or as losing influence.  To the extent that Christians on the left and right have seen fit to ally themselves to the American empire in the hopes of socially engineering the kind of empire they want America to be, that's not going to be a Benedict Option, whatever the Benedict Option may be.

Ironically there are those who lean right as well as left who believe that the future of the United States should stop being an imperial one.  Thanks to the propagandistic narratives the left and right have been busy spinning about each other within their own respective echo chambers there will be no common ground.  One of the weird ironies of reading political commentary from across the political spectrum is that the left and the right have had some agreement, in some circles, on the problem of the United States having become to imperial.  I've tended to describe myself as a moderate actual conservative rather than a neo-con, and for at least a decade (or more) I've felt the Department of Defense should be one of defense rather than offense.

All empires die.  The United States is going to wither.  My skepticism about revivalism over the course of my life is that generally revivalism has always had at its surface, not even as a subtext, a lament that America has stopped being great and that if we would just turn to God in prayer that America would be great again.

Well, Babylon was described as great.  What did God do to Babylon?  Christians, whether leftists or rightists, who think that America is an empire worth saving are making the same category mistake.  The focus is on the empire of this world rather than Christ.  By all means contriute as positively as you can within the system in place as you feel led by conscience. 

But the American low church tradition, with its emphasis on revivalism, will probably never formulate a Benedict Option.


Cal P said...

My problem with the idea of the Benedict Option is that it functions as a kind of cultural sleeper cell. It sounds like a more sophisticated, and level-headed, version of those agrarian theonomists who have retreated to their farms in order to breed and overtake the country in following generations.

The problem is that the Benedict Option is not an act of repentance or contrition. It's only now, after Obergefell and the visible casting down of Christian ethics, that Dreher thought Christians should leave? What about African slavery, Indian extermination, wage-slavery/factory system ala Upton Sinclair, mistreatment of immigrants, Jim Crow, the crushing of labor, Imperial ambitions in the Americas etc etc etc. Why only now? There doesn't seem to be any thought that perhaps the Church in America has been in the wrong game all along.

I think the general thrust of what Dreher wants is right, but his reasoning is completely flawed.

2 cents,

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

I'm thinking it was over at Mockingbird DZ (was it?) was writing that Christians have to ask themselves if what we're called to do is to build a culture or make a proclamation. If we do the former we may lose sight of the latter. Some of my friends are Eastern Orthodox but one guy, contemplating conversion many years ago, told me that he liked the core teachings of Orthodoxy but felt that what they were really asking you to convert to was an entire culture and this he was not sure he was comfortable doing. So it's not a big surprise to me if the people most game for the Benedict Option come from high church traditions.

But if we talk in advance about how we're going to do it then doesn't that, by definition, negate the possibility of it being done? :) Wasn't Dreher talking about how this original B.O. was done without realizing it was going on (which could be like the other kind of BO where people don't notice it about themselves but others do).

Noah Millman had a non-sarcastic question a while back asking how a Benedict Option could work for an evangelistic faith. Jews, for instance, are not evangelistic and so the kind of internality and preservation that has happened in Judaism has been feasible because their core mission isn't to evangelize but for a Christian you're SUPPOSED to go out and make disciples.

The problem of the B.O. as a sleeper cell seems like a good way to frame an objection--it's little wonder that to secularists a B.O. would seem no better than an al-Qaeda cell. The Benedict Option could be revivalism by another name and an engineered hothouse growth that's expected to be planted in the wild forest later with success.