Protestantism and the Benedict Option

The following is less a long-form essay and more a series of semi-connected thoughts concerning the Benedict Option and American Protestantism. I’ve broken them down with headers in hopes of making it easier for readers to pick out which parts are of greatest concern to them.

So far much of the conversation about the Benedict Option has been amongst American Catholics and Orthodox. Part of this, no doubt, is because the very name “Benedict Option” is drawing on traditions of monasticism that are far more at home in Rome and Constantinople than in the various Protestant traditions.

That said, the problems that the BenOp is trying to address will concern all small-o orthodox Christians and so Protestants must have a way of thinking about this and talking about that is plausible for Protestant believers. (Indeed, it’s worth noting that many of the businesses currently tied up in legal battles appear to be run by Protestants.)

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Fear the Lifestyle that will Kill Body and Soul

I got a lot of responses to my recent Christianity Today article on vaccines, but one of the more arresting ones was from a mother who asked me what I would say to the parents of a child who had clearly been injured or killed by a vaccine. Would I just slap that mother or father on the back and say, “thanks for taking one for the team!” with a solemn nod?

In preparing to go to South Sudan as a medical missionary, I’ve had to spend a lot of time thinking about what would happen if something happened to myself or my children while we’re on the field. My future team leader nearly lost his daughter to a mysterious tropical illness and lost his sight in one eye in the same week. There are real risks that our families face when we travel to a remote place for the sake of the Gospel, though many of these risks are unavoidable to any parent and they’re simply magnified in a malarial war zone. We all want to keep our children safe from physical dangers and most parents (even non-Christians) recognize that there are equal or greater spiritual and moral dangers present in every cultural milieu. Stepping out in faith often requires more direct confrontation with such dangers. How do we think about preparing for such dangers as a community of faith? Continue reading

The Future of Evangelicalism at Patheos

I contributed to the Patheos forum on the question of evangelicalism’s future:

At the heart of American Evangelicalism has always been an unhealthy alliance between the two types of Americans that Wallace Stegner has described as “boomers” and “stickers.” Boomers are the industrialists, the progressives (in the general sense of believing in inevitable social progress, not the more specific political sense), the people who move from work to work, always in motion, always growing, always trying new things in hopes of earning more money or “advancing” society. Stickers are the Hobbits of the world, the people committed to a small way of life who tend to be less concerned with abstractions like “social progress” or even “economic growth,” which is a kind of abstraction as well.

For most of our history and certainly since the Second Great Awakening we have attempted to blend these two approaches, mixing an emphasis on revival, innovative techniques for preaching the gospel, and for growing churches with a desire to retain our commitment to basic Christian orthodoxy and piety. Whether it is George Whitefield, Charles Finney, Billy Sunday, Bill Hybels, or Mark Driscoll we evangelicals, like any good marketer hawking a product, have always had a talent for Americanizing our faith to suit the tastes of our target audience.

That alliance, however, is now collapsing.

To see where the argument goes from there, you’ll need to read the whole thing. And you can read the other contributions to the series, including one from Mere Fidelity host Derek Rishmawy, right over here.

In Search of Sanctuary: Reviewing Young Evangelical Memoirs

“All I wanted was a safe place to be. Like so many, I was in search of sanctuary.” ~ Rachel Held Evans

I. Exhaustion

On a cold rainy day in the suburbs of Chicago, Addie Zierman’s mom pulled into school to drop off her teenage daughter. They were an hour early because Zierman, a student leader in her youth group, planned to attend the annual See You at the Pole event where evangelical students rally round their school’s flagpole to pray for the school and witness to their peers. After assuring her mother multiple times that yes, she really did want to do this, Zierman trudged out of the van to stand by the flagpole and wait for the other students. Continue reading

Schaeffer: Excluding SSA Christians from Church Life is “Cruel and Wrong.”

In 2008 Wesley Hill wrote the following:

In 1947, the great English poet W. H. Auden wrote a letter to his friend Ursula Niebuhr in which he confessed: “I don’t think I’m over-anxious about the future, though I do quail a bit before the possibility that it will be lonely. When I see you surrounded by family and its problems, I alternate between self-congratulation and bitter envy.”

The root of Auden’s fear of loneliness and his envy of the comforts of family is not hard to uncover: Auden was a homosexual Christian. And this dual identity created a tension for him: As a Christian of a relatively traditional sort, he believed homosexuality missed the mark of God’s good design for human flourishing. But as a homosexually oriented person, despite his Christian beliefs, he craved intimacy and companionship with other men. Caught on the horns of a dilemma like that, what was he to do with his loneliness? …

I am drawn to these haunting confessions of Auden’s because I, too, am a homosexual Christian. Since puberty, I’ve been conscious of an exclusive attraction to persons of my own sex. Though I have never been in a gay relationship as Auden was, I have also never experienced the “healing” or transformation of my sexual orientation that some formerly gay Christians profess to have received. But I remain a Christian, a follower of Jesus. And, like Auden, I accept the Christian teaching that homosexuality is a tragic sign that things are “not the way they’re supposed to be.” Reading New Testament texts like Romans 1:26-27 and 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 through the lens of time-honored Christian reflection on the meaning and purpose of marriage between a man and a woman, I find myself—much as I might wish things to be otherwise—compelled to abstain from homosexual practice.

As a result, I feel, more often than not, desperately lonely.

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Why Toleration is Not Enough

Bryan McGraw is Associate Professor of Politics at Wheaton College and lover of all things smoked BBQ.

Two groups lately have found themselves on the defensive politically and socially, and seem deeply befuddled as to why—and why it seems to have come out of nowhere.  Consider first our moral conservatives, those increasingly rare birds who think that not only is there some objective set of moral standards but also, generally, that those standards should be publicly recognized.  They’ve have been shocked (not as in “shocked, shocked!”) that lots of folks want to follow through on the premises of the sexual revolution and reorder how we think about marriage—and that, as with most social revolutions, if you don’t get on board, you’ll find yourself the object of social, economic, and political ostracism.  But consider also free-speech liberals, who also increasingly find themselves besieged as the places they once thought citadels of free expression—our colleges and universities—talk more about psychological safety and comfort than how the rough and tumble of opposing ideas benefits us all.

What gives?  Why can’t we just come to some reasonable disagreement about the many matters that divide us and figure out how to tolerate those differences?  Why can’t same-sex supporters just leave the marriage traditionalists alone?  What’s so terrible about having someone on campus who thinks things you find terrible?  Whatever happened to our traditions of principled toleration, both ask? Continue reading

Evangelicals and the Search for Credibility

There’s a sort of American Christian (almost always white and middle-to-upper class) who seems to think that the American church’s biggest problem at the moment is the previous generation of the American church.

There are various sub-groups within this broader camp. The radicals, of whom Matt has written in the past, want to critique the suburban comfort of the previous generation and replace it with a Christianity focused on doing hard things and rejecting the supposedly easy life of material affluence embraced by the previous generation.

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What Proximity is Worth

In my mind this post began as a recap of Q Boston, an attempt to make connections between the disparate array of presentations and conversations that took place during its 2.5 stimulating days. Much has been made of the focus of this year’s Q conference on the church’s “gay dilemma,” a subject explicitly addressed by at least six speakers and implicitly by several more. I’ll say more on that later, but there was more to Q than LGBTQ discussions, and the myriad of ideas, problems, provocations and prophetic calls offered from the Q stage each deserve far more analysis than could be offered here. Plus, I wouldn’t know where to begin.

One of the downsides of a conference like Q (but also one of its selling points) is the overwhelming nature of its programming–a fire hose of as many trending topics as can be squished into two and a half days. The idea, I think, is that something will stick with each attendee in a profound way, or that the cumulative effect on the influencers present will be to go back home to spread the “stay curious, think well, advance good” ethos in existing communities and networks. A valuable aim, to be sure.

But I think there can be a bit of a numbing effect too–a “where do I begin?” paralysis that results when one Most Important Idea after another comes at you with little context, little time to process (aside from a meal conversation here or a coffee break there) and little connection to the sorts of long-term relationships where real change happens. In a way it’s reflective of how one experiences the world through the “feeds” of Facebook and Twitter: an article about ISIS followed by an op-ed on religious freedom followed by suffering in Syria followed by an opinion on gay marriage followed by a joke and a video and statistics and personality tests, and so on… A schizophrenic stream of passionate ideas embedded in only the loosest of social ties capable of spawning tangible action.

In On Christian Doctrine, Augustine writes about what we are to do with the “where do I begin” dilemma in the face of all the problems and suffering in the world:

“Since you cannot do good to all, you are to pay special regard to those who, by the accidents of time, or place, or circumstance, are brought into closer connection with you.”

Proximity. The needs, the people, the relationships right in front of you.

This is an idea I’ve been pondering a lot lately, from a variety of different directions. Since being married, my wife and I have seen our respective friend groups change; the people who’ve emerged as the most important have (surprise!) turned out to be the ones who are most proximate in our church, workplace and city.

Being a blogger and writer on the Internet, there are many amazing people from all over the world who I “know” and have occasional online exchanges with. On rare occasions I get to meet them in person at things like Q, and it’s a delight for which I am very grateful. But more and more I see that the relationships that matter most are the ones right in front of me: My wife, church, neighbors, co-workers, the members of the life group I lead, the college students I teach or mentor. These are the people who inhabit my incarnational reality, who show up in my daily and weekly rhythms, who know me in an integrated way. These are the people I grow with. If any of the ideas I gleaned from Q are to develop into good-advancing action, it will be in collaboration with these people.Q Ideas

This is not to diminish the goodness of my digital friends, contacts and social network; nor the value in attending annual conferences like Q. It’s just to say (and it probably goes without saying) that the “back home” relationships, particularly in the local church, should be the priority. But this is harder than it sounds. It’s easier to find a tribe of like-minded kindred spirits online or at national conferences; much harder to make community work with the “hand you’ve been dealt” in physical proximity. As my pastor likes to say, it’s often harder to love and serve the guy across the street, the crotchety landlady, the awkward coworker, than it is to go on a mission trip to Myanmar or support a cause on the other side of the world. People who go to the ends of the earth or take up “radical” calls are to be commended, of course, but the “ordinary” calling of domestic faithfulness and commitment to community is never to be diminished. Augustine is right: We should show “special regard” for what and who is right in front of us.

As idea heavy as Q Boston was, one of the thematic main ideas of the conference was that people should matter at least as much as ideas, communities as much as concepts. One speaker suggested that entrepreneurs build successful businesses not by thinking of ideas but by focusing on people, observing them and caring for them. This was evidenced in speakers like Dana Tanamachi, a graphic designer who got her start designing chalk art for her friends’ parties in Brooklyn, and parlayed that into a business with clients like Nike and Oprah.

Michael Gerson’s talk (one of my favorites) suggested Pope Francis as a model of cultural engagement for contemporary evangelicalism. Why? Because while Francis holds firm on certain convictions and concepts, he is resolutely people-centric and relationally oriented. Too often evangelicals have chosen principles over people, Gerson suggested, but Francis is a model for balancing both.

The false dichotomy of “people vs principles” was on fascinating display during the LGBTQ discussions, particularly a panel that included Gabe Lyons interviewing David Gushee and Dan Kimball. Both Gushee and Kimball have felt the tension of being relationally proximate to LGBTQ people while wanting to hold to biblical principles that preclude same-sex marriage. Gushee started with the traditional view but then changed his mind after he came to have relationships with gay people. Kimball grew up with gay friends and didn’t think anything of it; only after he became an evangelical and encountered Scripture’s witness on the matter did he feel any tension between what he believed and the people he knew. While Gushee decided he couldn’t hold the two in tension and ultimately re-interpreted Scripture through the lens of his relationships, Kimball concluded that he must hold Scripture’s authority above the authority of relationship/experience, but that this did not foreclose the possibility of having loving, profound friendships with LGBTQ people.

The idea that two people cannot be in relationship with one another and simultaneously hold conflicting convictions is simply silly. Loving, civil, productive disagreement is admittedly a hard thing, but it’s possible. It’s necessary. People like Robert George and Cornel West, Princeton friends and colleagues who hold vastly differing views on most things, model it well. Just watch their recent discussion at Biola. The Biola University Center for Christian Thought also models it well, holding entire conferences on the value of collegial disagreement and living it out each year by bringing scholars from varying backgrounds to campus to pursue truth together (note: not always agreeing). Gabe Lyons and Andrew Sullivan, who spoke together on stage at Q Boston, are another model. They’ve become friends in spite of their agreeing to disagree on matters of sexuality (among other things).

Each of these examples showcases mutual respect, empathy, listening and love. But note how each is born out of proximity. These people are not online-only friends, speaking to each other from behind screens and trading tweets and blog barbs. They have offline relationships. Their connections are premised on more than just principles. They are to one another more than just @names who hold opinions. They are image-bearers of Christ, the fleshly neighbors we are called to love.

It can be easy in today’s world to live, breathe and lose oneself in ideas. Profound think-piece articles, fascinating documentaries, books, blogs, even entire college courses, have never been more abundant and accessible. There are great things about this, but also risks. We risk becoming bored, disenchanted or disconnected from the everyday rhythms and proximate communities that actually shape us.

Because make no mistake: It is the proximate that shapes us most. The physical, embodied rhythms of worship in community shape our desires (see Jamie Smith). If we lose the proximate community because we are distracted and lost in the chaotic maelstrom and unintelligible multivocality of Internet community, we lose everything. Perhaps that’s why calls to embrace more localized, intentional communities (for the sake of preservation, among other things) ring so true. It’s what Rod Dreher spoke of with “The Benedict Option” at Q Boston (another of my favorite talks).

To be able to grow in mind and character as part of a community with shared convictions, to have weekly rhythms with the same church family, to be able to sit around a table with people regularly, to embrace them, to cry and laugh and grow together, to disagree in love and debate without starting a flame war … this is what proximity is worth.*

*The title of this post is inspired by a lyric from one of my favorite songs of last year, “Parade,” by The Antlers: “When the streets get flooded, we know what proximity’s worth, ‘cause we’re already here, in the same place when our phones don’t work.”

A Brief Thought on the Benedict Option

Rod Dreher continues to do important work over at TAC writing about the Benedict Option ahead of a book he hopes to write on the topic. In one recent post, he defined it this way: “a limited, strategic withdrawal of Christians from the mainstream of American popular culture, for the sake of shoring up our understanding of what the church is, and what me must do to be the church.”

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