Considering Our Options: Reviewing Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option

The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, by Rod Dreher, 2017, New York, Sentinel.*

Jeremiads against the corrupt culture of the surrounding world are nothing new in Christianity. The looming collapse of the social order has been forecast time and again, with a standard of accuracy that would turn meteorologists into clairvoyants. Why, then, consider the subject again? What value could there possibly be in stirring up despair and provoking jeers from those outside the faith?

For one thing, the Jeremiad has fallen out of favor, within the church as much as without. We in the West don’t see the problem. Rather than wringing our hands waiting for the apocalypse, we are often twiddling our thumbs and trying to get the most out of our comfortable lives here and now. In this sense, Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option is not a Jeremiad at all, but more akin to the work of another prophet: “A voice of one calling: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way for the LORD….‘” (Isa. 40:3).

There is a plenty in the book that weeps for the state of our culture, but Dreher focuses his criticisms and prescriptions on the Western church—namely our unwillingness to see how the ground beneath our feet has shifted. The time has come, he argues, to look around, make a strategic retreat from the familiar battlefields of the culture war, and shore up our homes, churches, and institutions against the quicksand of what he calls “liquid modernity.” We can no longer “fight the last war,” attempting to persuade non-Christians through politics and preaching to return with us to the (largely fictitious) halcyon good old days. The majority has turned against the teachings of Scripture, and we must instead build a case for the truth and goodness of Christ and His church, as well as the structures and commitment to live that out.

Dreher’s approach here is neither new nor untried, and he engages in the text with several contemporary authors (Russell Moore, Yuval Levin, James K. A. Smith, and others) sounding similar themes. He has several advantages in this space, though. As a journalist rather than a professional theologian, he has taken the time to observe culture from a more critical remove, seeing the flood rising across denominational and regional lines, and finding stories of silver linings in unlikely places. As an Eastern Orthodox Christian, he has been steeped neither in the culture of hyper-spiritual gnosticism that so often has infected fundamentalists nor the individualism and over-emphasis on relevance that has often hollowed out the mainstream American evangelical worldview. As somewhat of a political “crank”, broadly conservative but standing outside of either major party, his ideas push well past political solutions to the problems he identifies. His even-handed, ecumenical tone acknowledges the divides between the various constituenciesbenedict-option_w-copy he addresses while calling attention to the divide that runs through each of them: their relative unwillingness to acknowledge the dissolution of the faith taking place under their collective noses.

Because Dreher has been talking about these themes in public (largely through his blog at The American Conservative) for many years, The Benedict Option as a book is a chance for him to clarify (and answer critics) of the Benedict Option as a concept. It is rare for a work to come to an audience who have so many settled opinions on it (see here and here for a couple of recent examples), and Dreher’s good-faith effort to make his case here has been broadly successful. In just 244 pages, Rod manages to distill a decade of blog posts, seminars, and conversations into an adroit summation that covers vast ground with earnest clarity while avoiding undue simplification.

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Books of the Year that Was, 2016 ed.

‘Tis time again for the annual stroll down library lane. As always, what follows is not an exhaustive list, but a selection of some of my favorite reads of the year sorted by genre. Also as usual, most of these were not published within the year, but I encountered them for the first time in 2016. Since changing jobs in March, I’m no longer reviewing books professionally, so this year’s list is more stilted to my personal tastes (i.e. literature).

History/Biography/Cultural Observations

The Chip by T. R. Reid
Once in a great while, an invention comes along that upends the settled order of things. The cultural perception that such devices are the result of a “flash of genius,” striking from a clear blue sky, is misguided; often the discovery comes after years of questing to solve a particular problem. Such is the case with the integrated circuit, or microchip. Engineers from all over the world were working to figure out how to reduce the size of computer circuits, and two Americans, Robert Noyce and Jack Kilby came to the basic design almost simultaneously. Reid’s book engagingly narrates this discovery, the resulting patent disputes, and the legacy of rapid technological change that this tiny tool unleashed on the world.

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson
Some biographies inspire by demonstrating the heights to which humanity can soar with the right mix of circumstances, talent, and grit. This is not one of those. Isaacson’s overlong, chatty, and occasionally vulgar portrait of Jobs is not a particularly good book, and tiptoes too close to hagiography even to be a truly good biography. Jobs led groups to accomplish amazing things, but at such a great cost in burned up relationships, one wonders if it was worth it. A role model he was not. Jobs was a Raskolnikov of industry: someone to whom rules did not apply, at least in his own mind. And yet, yet, I can’t help but be a little in awe, especially thinking of the way Apple products and Pixar movies have made my life a little brighter, more productive, and more fun for many years.

Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Hereitics by Ross Douthat
Despite the fact that he’s only a few years my senior, New York Times columnist Douthat has become one of the leading voices for conservatism, tradition, and common sense in the American public square. Bad Religion provides a fascinating take on the history of American Christianity, namely that the slide in religious adherence has less to do with outright rejection of faith than the accommodation of Christian orthodoxy to various cultural ideas, which in turn have lead to various heresies. It is a clearheaded approach to the (real and perceived) challenges to the Christian faith in America, recognizing that they come from within as much or more than from without.

Musing/Memoir

The Supper of the Lamb by Robert Farrar Capon
Capon’s masterpiece is delightfully uncategorizable. It is perhaps the world’s most circuitous cookbook or its most unorthodox work of theology. In either case, it is a must read for every one of us slightly pudgy and shameless lovers of all the tastes God built into His world. Food is necessary for life, but He made it fascinating and delicious on purpose. I’ve seldom come across a book that exudes such unvarnished joy.

Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey
Abbey, perhaps the atheist’s Annie Dillard, evokes with intimate detail the harsh moral clarity of the the wilderness while abandoning mankind to its condemning ravages all alone. Somehow, though, this paean to the vast inhospitality of the Colorado Plateau is more worshipful than Dillard’s glorying in the minutiae of a Virginia mountain stream. I read this (on a friend’s recommendation) before heading out West this fall, and Abbey’s portrait is richly accurate.

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson
Snarky in that particular mien of the Northeastern sophisticate, but heartwarming all the same. I’ve long been a frequenter of the AT for day-hikes, and I always loved chatting with through-hikers on Roan Mountain, Mount Rogers, and the Smokies. Bryson elucidates the exhilaration and exhaustion of walking these mountains with a good mix of humor, disgust, and awe. His relationship with Katz keeps the narrative going, helping the book to rise above mere travelogue.

Theology/Christian Life

Knowing God  by J. I. Packer
From my review: “Though this work has been driving home deep truths about our Triune Lord since well before I was born, it was to my great detriment that I only just recently picked it up for myself. Every accolade Knowing God has received through the years was just praise—I have seldom read such a clear, emphatic presentation of so much Christian doctrine. To ears ready to hear and hearts ready to obey, Packer’s masterpiece is sort of a devotional ‘jet fuel’ to feed the fire of spiritual maturity….This pastoral heart most characterizes Packer’s work. It is a systematic theology (and a good one), but it is a systematic theology for pilgrims. Other books have more academic depth, but few achieve the devotional concern for the holiness, peace, and joy of the Christian.”

You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit by James K.A. Smith
It takes a while to get going (unpacking a philosophy of formation), but eventually Smith gets up a good head of steam and makes some very punchy, helpful suggestions on how to recover and retain the faith in the midst of our self-absorbed consumer society. In brief, he teases out at a more popular level what he has been writing about for years: that culture is liturgy, and the Church cannot combat secularism with knowledge alone. His earnestness comes across rather condescendingly at times, especially when he seems to downplay the intellectual pursuit of God, which can be just as formative as other more “embodied” acts of worship.

Fiction

Laurus by Evgheny Vodolazkin
Hands-down my favorite read of the year. From my review: “What shines in both the words and the story is a voice eerily absent from the world of modern literature—sincere faith. The Orthodoxy of Laurus isn’t merely attached to a character or added for ‘color’, but suffuses the entire work because it is real. The people of this book are, like the rest of us, sinners, but through God’s mercy, many are saints. Most are earthy, some insufferably pious, and a few are wicked, but they all live under the shadow of the Almighty. In this world, the glow of icons by candlelight is meant to inspire, and a Holy Fool throwing rocks at invisible demons is to be expected.”

All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy
My first foray into McCarthy did not disappoint. Horses has doses of his trademark depravity, but the story is tempered with enough tenderness to make it go down. The interweaving of characters into the turbulent political history of Mexico gives a literary and cultural ballast to what is already a fine (if bleak) bildungsroman. As a marginal hispanohablante, I also enjoyed McCarthy’s frequent use of untranslated Spanish dialogue.

The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky
A masterpiece in every way. Why, oh why, do we persist in thinking the classics are somehow less accessible? Human drama explodes from every page, and spiritual significance crackles throughout. “Hurrah for Karamazov!”

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
Powerful, affecting assault on the American soul. Being “colorblind” is not the opposite of racism, but often the same beast in another cloak. Ellison refuses to let any region (South or North), class (establishment, radicals, workingmen, etc.), or race off the hook for our mutual culpability in dehumanizing one another.

Honorable Mention: Re-reads

C.S. Lewis wrote in “On Stories” that “We do not enjoy a story fully at the first reading. Not till the curiosity, the sheer narrative lust, has been given its sop and laid asleep, are we at leisure to savour the real beauties. Till then, it is like wasting great wine on a ravenous natural thirst which merely wants cold wetness.” Armed with that exhortation, I’ve made a habit of revisiting books that hit the mark to see if they stick. Here are a few that came back up this year.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Much as I want to find fault with this book (Atticus’ stoicism being an unsustainable ground for real social change is about as close as I can get briefly), it is justly enshrined in the American literary canon. Lee manages to be endearing, but not cloying; profound, but not preachy; childlike, but not childish.

Love in the Ruins by Walker Percy
As an habitual re-reader of Percy, this deceptively deep comedy has wormed its way into my list of favorites. It even inspired an effort at scholarly analysis this summer. From that paper: “This then, is the solution to which Percy points the beleaguered reader. Life, to be genuine and grounded, must find its roots in the reality of Christ, but also in the reality of creation—even in the realistic parameters of the Fall. To attempt salvation by any other means only brings disaster. By God’s grace, change comes to sick men and sick systems through the ordinary faithfulness of doing the next right thing.”

All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren
In the morass of 2016, I reached again for the mother of all political novels for understanding, if not consolation. Warren’s magnum opus is so good, and ranges so much farther than politics, or the South, into the very depths of humanity. Truly, everything worth knowing is covered in blood, and we cannot escape the awful responsibility of time.

*UPDATE
It was suggested that I list the other books I read this year which didn’t make this “hits list” but are still worth a read. Here they are, without comment:

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Elephants Can Remember by Agatha Christie
Godric by Frederick Buechner
The High Price of Materialism by Tim Kasser
Hillbilly Elegy 
by J. D. Vance
Intellectuals and Race by Thomas Sowell
The Jungle Books by Rudyard Kipling
The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks
Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie
Poirot Investigates by Agatha Christie
The Sympathizer by Viet Than Ngyuen
Teacher Man by Frank McCourt
The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John LeCarre

Election Reflection: Burned out, but Building up

Much as this election felt like a long national nightmare—and the wreckage in the rearview mirror leaves me nearly in despair—the outcome and its potential future makes the campaign itself seem merely like the end of the beginning.

I’ve generally refrained from talking partisan politics in this space, and I’ve waited until the end of this cycle to avoid any perception of endorsement or campaigning. This year, though, has so squeezed my principles that they’ve nearly collapsed in on themselves. Whatever spark remained of my younger self’s zest for the intrigues of the political process has been thoroughly snuffed. I’ve watched men & women I respect make apologies for the most reprehensible behavior and diabolical ideas (from both ends of the spectrum). I’ve watched the notion that character matters a whit in any area of life go up in smoke. In an eerily sacramental finale, those of us in the Southeast have had to process these events in a haze of literal smoke.

Though neither party nor their “chosen” candidates (the election was not between two candidates so much as between their anti-matter counterparts—#nevertrump vs. #neverhillary) had anything of substance to offer to most Americans, many projected their desires and fears onto them. Of course this is nothing new, but the level to which fear was the only note played by this year’s band astonished even my inner pessimist.

In the weeks leading up to November, my wife & I both read two recent books that effectively capture two prominent perspectives in the present America. Though undertaken for general interest and learning, reading Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me quickly came to reverberate the two basic fears driving opposition to the two parties. In these two books, two very different cultures with problems and responsibilities that are both similar and wholly different cry out to be heard and reckoned with. Both are being spoken to by certain constituencies. Both are being sold a mess of pottage by the governing elite and ignored by the broader upper middle class (Charles Murray’s “broad elite“).

Both Vance & Coates speak as “insider-outsiders” with unashamed fondness for their cultural background (and baggage) even as they have risen into the same elite class so blindsided this year. True to his chosen title of “Elegy”, Vance raises more questions than he attempts to answer; Coates’ refrain is more of a damning, poetic indictment of the destruction of black men, women, & children by the dominant culture. Both, though, lean hard into the conversations that our culture doesn’t want to  have but soon may not be able to live without. Both name the unspeakable loss that comes from watching what you love being stripped away by forces often completely out of your control.

These books also reflected for us an exercise in empathy. We are given a glimpse into a culture that, for many of us, is simply “other”: former coal miners or factory workers wade through unemployment, drug addiction, and family breakdown; young black men navigate recognition of their fraught history and witness friends and brothers being killed by police. Walking in such shoes is not something that comes easily to a modestly well-off, educated suburbanite like me. In this respect, readings like this are another step in my own journey to making peace with the privilege and responsibility inherent (to some level or another) in each of our lives.

Empathy goes a long way toward explaining how hard it’s been to watch this political year unfold. The level of my emotional reaction to Trump’s win surprised me. As I’ve tried to tease that out, I’ve joked with friends that “I didn’t know I had an inner liberal before this year, but I do, and he’s angry.” More truthfully, what’s changed for me is having forged real friendships over the past few years with people with very different stories from mine. Blessed with a life full of ladies (I have two sisters and three daughters; no brothers and no sons), I already had a built in revulsion to the way Trump treats and talks about women and the way Mrs. Clinton has thwarted her husband’s accusers, and no desire to see that kind of behavior rewarded and empowered. Watching Trump’s bumbling bring out some of the worst elements of our culture helped me see that the racism (both tacit and virulent) I thought was dead and gone is a part of daily life for my African American brothers and sisters.

Added to that, I’ve been working since March for a ministry focused on equipping churches to alleviate poverty. You can’t spend your time & energy teaching others to recognize and respect the God-given dignity of all people and then sit idly by when the platforms of those who would strip it from so many of them get mainstreamed into American political life.

What I have in common with all of the rest of my compatriots this year is fear. It is written on so many faces; scribbled as the subtext of every commentary on our fractured politics. Fear, powerful motivator though it may be, is most dangerous when we allow it to define our hope. They are natural opposites, these two, but they always tag together. As Paul wrote to the Corinthian church: “Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God.” When our fear is properly placed in the Lord (who holds our destinies), our hope is found in him as well. Letting fear reside elsewhere (say, in a Hillary Clinton Presidency) allows hope to attach to utterly untrustworthy objects (such as Donald Trump). All of us struggle to keep this divine perspective, living in quiet terror of losing our spot in life’s queue.

As frustrated as many are with the situation we find ourselves in, I’m forced to wrestle with what a luxury political angst is. Apocalyptic rhetoric has always been a feature of politics in a free society, but (however much it may be justified) it always distracts from the worthwhile endeavors of actually building the communities that build a country. What is worth our time? What will last? What are we willing to give up to gain what is not so easily lost? If each of us (pointing the finger at myself first) spent half the time getting to know and serve our neighbors that we spend digesting national news and wringing our hands, what could be built? The day after the election, a group of us (black and white) sat across the breakfast table from a South Sudanese pastor (whose church is in a refugee camp) talking about the future of his ministry, and our “justifiable” despair at the state of our nation began to look a lot more like petulant self-absorption in the grand view of God’s kingdom.

As 2016 comes to a close and the sorrows of national life mingle with the joys our family and friends have experienced this year, the memory of this apparent annus horribilis may be sweeter than I have capacity to see. Taking time to think and feel and process all that has passed will, I hope allow me to someday tell my children how God is faithful in things big and small, working out His plan despite our penchant to accuse Him of unconcern.

May we all see that, despite the apparent priority of political life, “your life doesn’t change by the man that’s elected” nearly as much as we might think. God is on His throne, and our daily marching orders are still posted as ever.

Percy’s Love in the Ruins: A Dystopia for Our Time

The 1970s have a curious aura, especially to those of us born in the early 1980s. Not quite far enough before our time to feel like “history,” Vietnam, Watergate, stagflation, and all the associated malaise were so much a part of our parents’ formative experience that they taste to us rather of a half-remembered bad dream—especially given the relative peace and prosperity we enjoyed throughout childhood. Perhaps it is only natural, then, to associate that 70s vibe with our own grave misgivings about the present.

Facing as we do a national election between a habitual liar under investigation by the FBI (is anyone more Nixonian than Mrs. Clinton?) and a much-married misogynist, racist, and paragon of petty machismo, we see a strong political overlap between the two eras. The nausea goes much deeper too—into sex, race, religion, and society itself. All around, our souls give way, yet no solution presents itself. The exhaustion is palpable, even papered over as it continues to be by our blithe consumption and entertainment.

Into such troubled times, the prophets of old spoke even greater trouble. “On account of you, Zion will be plowed as a field, Jerusalem will become a heap of ruins, and the mountain of the temple will become high places of a forest.”[1] This indicts us just as much as it happens to us. Perhaps the prophet we need to hear thunder today is the unlikeliest of anointed men—nearly three decades dead and always unassuming in his own time.

Walker Percy, Louisiana novelist and essayist, keenly felt the dislocation of man in the modern age, and set his face toward exploring and explaining that pain in nearly everything he wrote. In Percy’s own telling, a serious novelist (one as much concerned with plumbing the depths of existence as with telling a good story) is by nature a sort of prophet:

“Since true prophets, i.e., men called by God to communicate something urgent to other men, are currently in short supply, the novelist may perform a quasi-prophetic function. Like the prophet, his news is generally bad. Unlike the prophet, whose mouth has been purified by a burning coal, the novelist’s art is often bad, too…. Like the prophet, he may find himself in radical disagreement with his fellow countrymen. Unlike the prophet, he does not generally get killed. More often, he is ignored.”[2]

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