Saturday, March 25, 2017

a few observations on the Benedict Option and reactions to it--North Americans struggle with the fact that an American Christian writer takes seriously what Francis Schaeffer claimed 50 years ago about America being post-Christian?

Beck's riff on how progressive Christians need a reminder that participation in the Democratic party is not cruciform life seems a bit on-the-nose and obvious but there's a saying that it's wise to never underestimate the obvious.  Much of the Religious Right from the last forty years simply attempted to commandeer for itself the level of tacit state access the mainlines had in earlier generations, which is why I find it impossible to take the religious right and the religious left seriously, and why I won't be able to take a secularist mainstream seriously, either.  Star Trek is as much an enterprise (pun intended) in a kind of cultural imperialism as Left Behind didn't manage to be.

The Libby Anne reaction mostly sparks a memory, of how Libby Anne had a blog post discussing the "penis home" comments Mark Driscoll made without mentioning where or how she got ahold of those comments.

because the screen cap of an html reproduction of what was once on Midrash got published here back in July 2014.

As some commenters noted at the time to Libby Anne, citing where the information was made available would have been a polite thing to do.

Here in the first year of Trump's presidency it might be worth noting that just last year someone was writing about the end of white Christian America and this year there's worry that a new virulent strain of theocratic thought may have infiltrated the White House.

Yet, somehow, we've also gotten to a point where white women betrayed the sisterhood and voted for Trump.  Since that time evangelicals have also been a useful scapegoat to vent spleen at when it seems that, had the Democrats wanted to (or been able to) they could have tried stopping the systemic gerrymandering that helped make the Electoral College victory possible.  But, apparently, there were other more pressing priorities and there was even a whiff of triumphalism as to whether or not there was even much point in fretting about the RNC.

Until ... perhaps ... a few months ago.

This was not exactly a COMPLETELY surprising direction given the extent to which the two-party system has trafficked in modes of totalizing propaganda but it was apparently a surprise for some people.  For that matter, to the extent that the press focused on the Religious Right in more easily observable, institutional forms, the possibility that modes of theocratic thought can be found in charismatic/Third Stream American Christianity wasn't on the radar.  The bulk of attention seemed to be paid to theonomistic ideas from marginal Calvinist groups.  Calvinists are nothing if not prolix writers but that may have provided an availability bias for journalists because there are probably way more charismatics and Pentecostals than Calvinists in the United States--so any inklings of theonomistic apocalyptic thought in a charismatic scene might go unobserved because of stereotypes on the part of writers and journalists and even scholars as to the level of intellectual or political interest on the part of charismatic Christians.

Over at Mere Orthodoxy a number of pieces have gone up pointing out a number of things that may be best summarized as follows:

1) Christian theologians across the Catholic/Orthodox/Protestant spectrum have proposed that the Western cultural scene has been observably post-Christian for a couple of generations now
2) Rather than attempt to re-Christianize the society Christians are advised to form communities that can sustain Christian life
3) What is regarded as "alarmism" has ben  around for generations.

This third point seems to need a more forceful presentation since Francis Schaeffer asserted the United States had become a functionally post-Christian culture fifty years ago.  The efforts of the Religious Right to re-Christianize the public sphere withstanding, a Rod Dreher proposing that Christians concede that, in fact, the nature of post-Christian American or Western society at large moots the likelihood of such a re-Christianization project ever succeeding shouldn't even be news, not even news for the news cycle of a book roll-out. 

But since even among conservative Christians in the United States the John Connor "There's no fate but what we make!" ethos seems to be the norm ... here we are.

So per the Salon piece about INC ...

You'd think from some of the breathless coverage in the last two years that guys like Rick Joyner haven't, in fact, been around doing stuff for decades.  As a former Pentecostal who disliked the Third Stream/Latter Rain stuff intensely and ended up becoming more Reformed guys like Joyner have been selling their wares since the Clinton administration.  But it seems that journalists have only bothered to keep tabs on this scene when they finally had enough money, club membership and infrastructure to maintain a website presence instead of spending decades spamming people with email. 

That attempts at utopian alterna-communities have been failing on the left and right isn't even really news, it's history, and the failure of the hippies to sustain their own respective counter-culture might suggest that the American Christians who will attempt to do the same are not likely to succeed, either.  The impulse to cultural conformity to "make it" in America is strong and what is also strong is a sustained critique of the mainstream to be as inclusive as possible. 

In a lot of ways the critical reactions to Dreher's proposed Benedict Option may hinge on taking for granted that, somehow, because of a river of journalistic coverage that somehow evangelicals got "their guy" in office.  That's not necessarily a given, because the point at which Rick Joyner can be described as "evangelical" by a mainstream media outlet in the same way that someone like Tim Keller might get described as evangelical could well demonstrate how completely useless the term "evangelical" has become.  It may be the new journalistic equivalent of "fascist", a short code word for anyone who's too religious for the cares of a reporter who suspects that this religious person may have a set of political and social goals the journalist doesn't like.  And that's as may be!  But the differences between evangelicals and charismatics, though they may seem pedantic and pointless to outsiders, are not pedantic or pointless for people who have been in those religious scenes and communities. 

The likelihood that any evangelicals or charismatics will or could get the Benedict Option to work seem relatively slim given how anti-liturgical both groups tend to be and because a Benedict Option will, for want of a better way of putting things, constitute a meta-liturgical liturgy for social life.  This is why one of the refrains regarding the B.O. is that Catholics and Orthodox and "maybe" high church Anglicans could swing this but it seems unclear how or why evangelicals and charismatics would or could. 

Libby Anne's riff on the pre-existence of the Benedict Option is a useful observation but there's a simpler reason why the Benedict Option is unlikely to work in the United States.  Americans tend to want to conform like ordinary people do and the Benedict Option, even if it could succeed in physical and geographical terms, has to deal with the reality of mass media.  When the prototype for Dreher's Benedict Option did work it was well before what we call the internet was even a possibility.

I've floated this idea before but the lately defunct church movement that was known as Mars Hill Church could be a case study in what was a failed attempt to create a Christian counter-culture that could thrive within an urban secular/liberal context.  It even did pretty well for itself over the course of twenty years but it foundered as a movement and it remains to be seen how robustly the split-off campuses survive as individual churches.  They might go the distance.  We don't know yet. 

What may tell most against the viability of a Benedict Option is not the insularity part but the obvious impossibility of sustaining that insularity, which may have been what Libby Anne was trying to articulate.  The red and blue partisanship of the internet suggests that people get along just fine existing in their respective partisan bubbles.  The trouble comes when people want to assimilate into the consumer mainstream to have more opportunities to get what they want from life.  Which is to say it's not intellectual honesty or bridling at insularity that draws people out of something like a Benedict Option, it's the allure of branding the stuff that people want from life around ways of getting those things that don't depend on the communal ideals of whatever passes for a Benedict Option not merely among fundamentalist Christians but Marxists or Democrats or Republicans.  Whether from a religious right or a secularist left, the  center has a way of overpowering and subordinating attempts at utopian alternative communities.  If so many of the hippies ended up mainstreaming by the time Reagan got elected what's the reason the kids of a would-be Benedict Option won't do the same? 

1 comment:

Cal of Chelcice said...

I've said this before, but I find the Benedict Option kind of silly from a historical point of view. Benedict did not go to a monastery because Rome was falling apart or the Roman Empire was post-Christian, being overrun by barbarian hordes. He created his fraternal communities because he, like other monastics, wanted to live a life seeking God. The idea of preserving the best of Western/Roman culture or that society was too decadent (as if it could be otherwise) and the Christians needed a way to survive or that it was even a functional form of a community were all complete accidents. Benedict did not follow the Benedict Option.

My own research and studies have shown me, time and again, that the currents that move through history, the real meat and potatoes of historical change, are never what people intend. I don't mean that Human choice is not relevant, but most historical narratives of glory are always read backwards, and things tumble out contrary to the motivation. I don't agree with it as a defense of Capitalism, but there's something to Mandeville's Fable of the Bees. It is the lazy, cutthroat, and corrupt hive that accidentally produces a benevolent society, certainly not by design. I find it certainly easy to believe holy Joseph's statement, "you meant it for bad, but God meant it for good".

So, the Benedict Option will be one more "intentional" community that will, with all the awkwardness and planning that accommodates it, will flop. Somehow God will preserve His people in the midst of it all anyhow.