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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On Tinder and Why It’s OK to Commodify Sex

In the aftermath of last week’s Vanity Fair story on Tinder and the end of dating there was no shortage of hand-wringing by many readers who were, rightly, appalled at what they found in the story. But upon reflection it seems odd that it would be this particular story that elicits such strong reactions from readers. In many ways the story being told is not new. We have had dating apocalypse stories for far longer than we’ve had Tinder, after all. And when you shift from the anecdotal approach used by Nancy Jo Sales, the author of the original piece, and toward more comprehensive data sets the resulting picture is much more complex than Sales’s story would suggest. Continue reading

Twitter Is Like Elizabeth Bennet’s Meryton

I’m quite pleased to feature this piece from Mere Fidelity contributor Alastair Roberts today. You can follow him on Twitter here or read his personal blog here

‘A Truth Universally Acknowledged…’

In a 1997 article on communal judgment in Pride and Prejudice, William Deresiewicz observed that Pride and Prejudice is, at first glance, an apparent exception to Austen’s practice of opening her novels by introducing a central character.(1) Indeed, Elizabeth Bennet’s character doesn’t truly come to the foreground until around the sixth chapter. Closer examination, however, reveals that there is a central character introduced at the beginning of the novel: the community, with its values, expectations, conventions, and practices. The opening sentence of the book—‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife’—is a ‘mock aphorism’, which is swiftly exposed to be nothing but a judgment that is ‘well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families’ of the neighbourhood. The earlier episodes of the story focus upon the neighbourhood of Meryton and its collective consciousness, which emerges as Mr Bingley and his friends move to Netherfield and become known to the community of the local gentry, most particularly in the opening ball. Deresiewicz remarks: ‘Elizabeth cannot appear until well into this initial story because it is that story—the story of how a community thinks, talks, exerts influence—that produces her plot, that produces her’ (504). Continue reading

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 End of Sexual Ethics: Love and the Limits of Reason

Dianna Anderson (no relation) recently penned a very spirited critique of my recent essay on why I am opposed to gay marriage. I had been notified about the essay a while ago: in fact, a reader asked me about the comments and I suggested that I would not be responding because I didn’t think it allowed for any meaningful conversation.* Why now? Therein lies a tale, which I will take up below.

While she alludes to other concerns she has with my essay, Dianna takes issue with my suggestion that in the debate over gay marriage, someone is deceived. As she puts it:

[Matthew Anderson] is allowed to say what he wants because he is positioned as having a monopoly on the moral rightness of his married love. I, as a single, bisexual woman, have not the moral authority to speak on the issue because I am deceived, I have interpreted my own life incorrectly, and I am necessarily wrong – not because I am an inhuman beast, but because “objective” moral reasoning necessarily carries dehumanization of the subject as a consequence.

You can read the part that Dianna is referencing for yourself, in section six.**  The criticism is surprising to me, as I actually meant that section as something of a unifying moment in the piece. Having made the bulk of my argument against gay marriage, my intent was to highlight a puzzle about the debate that everyone has to address. I think those who approve of gay marriage are wrong to do so—but I think it’s possible I’m self-deceived as well. That possibility is one that unites us all. 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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The Inevitability of Same-Sex Marriage

There can be no meaning apart from roots. –Walter Brueggemann

For astute cultural observers, nothing about the recent SCOTUS decision on same-sex marriage should be surprising. Though there was widespread popular opposition to redefining marriage as recently as 10 years ago and though 30 states voted on and passed constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage, there was still an inevitability to what happened in 2014. This was no triumph of big government or judicial activism going against the popular opinion of the people. As the Onion noted, the question wasn’t whether marriage would be redefined in the USA, but merely when.

In the aftermath of this decision conservatives should focus less on the question of same-sex marriage itself and more around the issue of how something considered a categorical impossibility for much of human history has come to seem not only possible, but an essential part of a just society for most of our peers. Continue reading

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.”

Oliver O’Donovan against Decline Narratives

I’ve finished Oliver O’Donovan’s latest book, which I have mixed feelings about. However, in light of my recent musings on the rhetoric of ‘decline’ within the evangelical world, I was intrigued to see O’Donovan offer his own critique of those approaches.

The following is part of one long paragraph, broken up into smaller bits for ease of reading online.

If on looking back we fail to see the order and history of the world presented to us normatively, we shall fall into a historicist despair of world-time. “Say not, ‘Why were the former days better than these?’ For it is not from wisdom that you ask this” (Eccles. 7:10). We cannot not see goods in the past, for the world God has made is good as a whole, and it is full of goods.  But we may see these goods from a distorted angle, as doomed to be swept away by time, constantly succumbing to entropy, by their impermanence attesting the triumph of de-creation over the good hand of the Creator.

We must look on the past not only as history but as the history of God’s world, a goodness sustained and upheld to the end. Thus in framing normative laws prudence becomes a way in which we can remain constant to the vision of God’s goodness that has been given us. Jesus connects “remaining in my love” with “keeping my commands” (John 15:10). In the goods of earth and heaven we find provision for our present agency, affording resources for the moment in which we are given to act.

The unwisdom which asks why past times were better than these has assumed a false position, that of an aesthetic observer valuing goods of different ages from some supposed time-transcending viewpoint. Our position in time is not capable of judging the present against the past, any more than it can judge the present against the future. It is a moment of deliberation, of making up our mind to act.

Many detailed cultural comparisons between different times are, no doubt, not illusory: if it is said, for example, that the examinations routinely passed by eighteen-year-olds in Britain half a century ago are too difficult for university graduates today, the claim may be put to proof But even if we validate it, we cannot extrapolate from one moment of proven decline to universal entropy. It is not wisdom to pretend to do so. Luxuriating with morose aestheticism in the decadence of our times, we rob ourselves of the normative significance of our knowledge as law, showing the ends and modes of action we may presently conceive: to teach the young, and teach them carefully!

I’m actually curious how that final paragraph squares with O’Donovan’s emphasis on the unwisdom of comparing the goods of various ages. O’Donovan’s main worry seems to be the architectonic approaches to history, and while the emphasis here is against ‘decline’ narratives, he might easily have critiqued ‘progressive’ approaches from the same point of view.