Living the Truth in an Age of Lies

On July 28, 2017, in America, Belief, Books, Christianity, Culture, Faith, Future, by Derrick G. Jeter

Rod Dreher is a bespectacled prophet. He even has the iconic beard of a prophet. And like most prophets, Dreher’s latests pronouncements have fallen on deaf ears. Many in the Christian community have accused Dreher of preaching a gospel of surrender and retreat. They say he is advocating a new monastic movement—a withdrawal from a hell-bound society that no longer tolerates a heaven-bond people.

It is clear from Scripture that God has placed believers in the world to be salt and light of gospel truth (Matthew 5:13–16). They are to impact the world for Christ, not retreat from the world by remaining in holy huddles with an “us four and no more” attitude (1 Corinthians 5:9–10). Obviously, Christians must keep themselves from being corrupted by the sin-saturated world (John 17:15; James 1:27)—not being of the world, Jesus said—but still very much in the world (John 17:14–16).

This is where Dreher and his Christian critics collide. They say his book, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation is a call for Christians to huddle up and cloister themselves together far removed from a corrupted and corrupting culture. But I think not. I suspect that those who think Dreher is advocating a surrender of the public square to progressive and aggressive secularism either haven’t read the book or haven’t understood what they read.

He does advise parents pull their kids from public schools, monitor television and Internet consumption, and hold off giving kids smart phones. But his overall argument is more nuanced than that. “We are not trying to repeal seven hundred years of history, as if that were possible,” he writes, referring to the time between Saint Benedict’s monastic order to the present.

Nor are we trying to save the West. We are only trying to build a Christian way of life that stands as an island of sanctity and stability [and I might add, sanity] amid the high tide of liquid modernity [where everything is fluid, including truth and human sexuality]. We are not looking to create heaven on earth; we are simply looking for a way to be strong in faith through a time of great testing.

Followers of Jesus should hardly argue with these goals, since they reflect many of the goals of the early church. But perhaps some of Dreher’s blowback comes from with the fact that his model for achieving these goals is from Saint Benedict’s Rule—“a detailed set of instructions for how to organize and govern a monastic community”—and not directly from Scripture itself. As an evangelic Christian, I would have much preferred Dreher take me back to the Word of God more than he does in building his case for how to live Christianly in a post-Christian culture. But as outlined by Dreher, Benedict’s rules adheres to biblical principles. For example:

  • Order—the mindset that all things point to Christ
  • Prayer—the attitude that we are to be in intimate relationship with Christ
  • Work—the belief that we must labor for our food and that our actions must glorify Christ
  • Asceticism—the practice of denying self to ensure the preeminence of Christ
  • Stability—the intention of remaining where planted in obedience to Christ
  • Community—the commitment to live in harmony with others for the sake of Christ
  • Hospitality—the opportunity to love others like Christ, so they might see the reflection of Christ
  • Balance—the determination to keep all of life in harmony for the praise of Christ

Of course this doesn’t address the central criticism that the Benedict Option is a recipe for retreat. To address that concern, Dreher employs a twentieth-century Czech playwright and Communist dissident. Using Václav Havel’s “antipolitical politics,” Dreher encourages Christians to focus more on “living the truth.” Citing Havel’s famous essay, “The Power of the Powerless,” Dreher says Christians should become like a greengrocer who lives under Communist rule. The greengrocer could place a sign in his shop window that reads, “Workers of the World Unite!” He doesn’t necessarily believe such Communist drivel, but he doesn’t want to invite trouble either. So what’s the big deal if the greengrocer puts up a sign?

Summarizing Havel, Dreher writes: “Fear allows the official ideology to retain power—and eventually changes the greengrocer’s beliefs. Those who ‘live within a lie,’ says Havel, collaborate with the system and compromise their full humanity.”

Every act that contradicts the official ideology is a denial of the system. What if the greengrocer stops putting the sign up in his window? What if he refuses to go along to get along? “His revolt is an attempt to live within the truth”—and it’s going to cost him plenty. . . . But by bearing witness to the truth, he has accomplished something potentially powerful.

He has said that the emperor is naked. And because the emperor is in fact naked, something extremely dangerous has happened: by his action, the greengrocer has addressed the world. He has enabled everyone to peer behind the curtain. He has shown everyone that it is possible to live within the truth.

Did you catch what Dreher said there? In greengrocer’s refusal to cooperate with the prevailing culture—his silence, which is really an act of defiance—he “has addressed the world.” This isn’t retreat. Rather, it is strategic engagement unlike what Christians have thus far known. Christian engagement with culture, certainly within evangelical circles since the late 1970s, has primary focused on politics. But truth be told, this hasn’t worked out for us too well. In fact, much of our involvement has bordered on the idolatrous, trusting more in the power of electing the right kind of people so they can appoint the right kind of judges, instead of trusting in the sovereignty of God.

Dreher is not saying we should abandon the political sphere—after all, he makes his living writing for a conservative political online journal. And besides, as he writes, “because they are public, the greengrocer’s deeds are inescapably political.”

What Dreher is saying is that we ought to be more realistic about what politicians and politics can or will do to protect (to say nothing of enriching) the Christian community. Extending the illustration of the greengrocer, Dreher argues that our simple grocer has done something more important than determining or defending which “party or . . . politician holds power.” The greengrocers has in fact borne “witness to the truth of his convictions by being willing to suffer for them. He becomes a threat to the system—but he has preserved his humanity.”

Further, Dreher contends, “religious liberty . . . depends on strong religious communities.” Again, this isn’t withdrawal. It is, however, an attempt to refocus our efforts away from the merely political, which, Trump notwithstanding, is increasing hostile to Christian expression and actions in the public square.

In many ways, Dreher is advocating localism (as opposed to nationalism) and the creation of unique cultures on a smaller scale. This is not unlike what Andy Crouch wrote about in Culture Making, or what Wendell Berry writes about in his novels and essays. Quoting Chris Currie, who helped revitalize a dying neighborhood in the inner-ring of a Washington DC suburb, Dreher’s thesis is summed up nicely: “Ultimately I think Christians have to understand that yes, we have to be counterculture, but no, we don’t have to run away from the rest of society. We have to be a sign of contradiction to the surrounding society, but at the same time we have to be engaged with that society, while still nurturing our own [faith] community so we can fully from our children.”

Nurturing our own community and fully forming our children are things the church has neglected far too long. Too many churches—again, I speak as an evangelical—have tended to focus on making church “relevant,” in hopes of attracting more members. But the come-to-me-entertainment-sit-and-soak model of church belies the command of our Lord to go and make disciples throughout the world (Matthew 28:19–20; Acts 1:8). That model has also enculturated the church with more worldliness than the world with churchiness.

It is an odd notion, then, to believe that the church can change the culture when the church no longer demonstrates a distinctly Christian culture. Dreher is calling us to rebuild such a culture, not by calling us to reimagine contemporary culture in a spiritual sense—Christianizing contemporary culture, as many Christian nationalist suppose—but by calling us to reimagine older, even ancient Christian cultures. In other words, his is a message of reorientation—(re)familiarizing ourselves not only with the writings of the Bible but also with the writings of the early church fathers, engaging with more liturgical worship, actually practicing church discipline, being more active in evangelism, and paying greater attention to goodness and beauty in art. Some of my evangelical friends will say, “That sounds awful Catholic.” I say, “Get over it; it’s not.” We are part of a rich history, and if these practices were good for those who came before—who were known for turning the world upside down (Acts 17:6)—then perhaps we should go back to go forward.

Dreher is offering a strategy for how Christians can live Christianly in an increasingly post-Christian society. We can quibble over his conclusions and solutions, but there should be no argument over whether this is a retreat from the world. Nor should we argue over the future of Christianity in America: Christians are increasingly being pushed to the margins of American life. At least Dreher has done the heavy lifting. What are others proposing? (I confess, I haven’t yet read Anthony Esolen’s Out of the Ashes, or Charles Chaput’s Strangers in a Strange Land to see how they compare.) To simply do what we have been doing—politicking—and expecting better results because Donald Trump is president isn’t merely insanity, it’s foolish and destructive; it is to commit cultural suicide.

Dreher makes it clear that the Benedict Option is not some “Make America Great Again” or “Take Back Our Country” vacuous mumbo-jumbo. Nor is it a strategy for a renewed monastic movement, what he calls, “a plan for constructing communities of the pure, cut off from the real world.” Rather, the Benedict Option “is a call to understanding the long and patient work of reclaiming the real world from the artifice, alienation, and atomization of modern life. It is a way of seeing the world and living in the world that undermines modernity’s big lie: that humans are nothing more than ghosts in a machine and we are free to adjust its settings in any way we like.”

“In the end,” Dreher writes, “it comes down to what believers are willing to suffer for the faith. Are we ready to have our social capital devalued and lose professional status, including the possibility of accumulating wealth? Are we prepared to relocate to places far from the wealth and power of the cities of the Empire, in search of a more religiously free way of life? It’s going to come to that for more and more of us. The time of testing is at hand.” And if you don’t believe Dreher, then believe the Apostle Paul, who made a similar claim in 2 Timothy 3.

I invite you to follow me on Twitter @derrickjeter.

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