One of the persistent challenges to the ongoing discussion of the Benedict Option is the claim that the BenOp is primarily a retreat from public life and is, therefore, wrong-headed. Though they are presented under separate names, this seems to be the essential critique of both the “Jeremiah Option” and the “Patrick Option” as best I can tell. (In the mean time, can I propose a moratorium on all other “(Name) Option” formulations? And if a writer does insist on inventing a new option, can we at least have a bit of fun with it? I saw “Benedict Cumberbatch Option” on Twitter and like it enormously. And yes, the title of this post is an Eddie Izzard reference. Incidentally, hopefully the fact that I’ve referenced Benedict Cumberbatch and Eddie Izzard in back-to-back sentences should establish that one can be aware of popular culture and think the BenOp is a move in the right direction.)
In any case, the counsel of many people is that this is not a time for any sort of withdrawal from public life, but rather committing ourselves to a new level of “engagement,” although engagement, very like retreat, is a generally nebulous term in these conversations.
Assuming that “engagement” means living in the city, having your kids in the public schools, putting a strong emphasis on outreach and social justice work, and so on then I think we’re actually already doing that in many places. It’s certainly a popular line amongst younger reformed evangelicals in denominations like the PCA and Acts 29. But I also know of many Baptist churches with a similar focus on the city—indeed, you could argue that Bethlehem Baptist fits this model quite neatly given their downtown location and the fact that they’re planting other churches focused on specific regions of the Twin Cities. While there are many good things in this approach, there are four main issues that still need to be addressed:
The BenOp is not primarily a strategy for the church’s interaction with popular culture. So there may not actually be any necessarily conflict between the BenOp and something like the city-church model so popular in the PCA right now.
Doubling down on engagement when your previous attempts at engagement have failed will also fail unless you understand why those attempts failed.
We probably shouldn’t make assumptions about how healthy our churches are.
You cannot give what you do not have.
We’ll go through each one below.
First, as Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove noted the other day in his conversation with Dreher, the BenOp isn’t primarily about strategies for engaging public life. Rather it is an attempt to recover a more robust understanding of church life and Christian piety so that we can simply be faithful, obedient Christians living out the ordinary vocational calls God has given to us.
What the BenOp is, or at least what it can be at its best, is an attempt to set our own house in order. That we need to do this should not be hard to discern—according to every study I know of, mainline Protestantism and Catholicism are much diminished in the United States. (Catholicism would be experiencing a comparable demographic decline to that of the mainline were it not for Catholic immigrants entering the US from Mexico and Central America.) The latest study to demonstrate this is this Pew report issued earlier this year.
Evangelicalism, though on firmer footing than any other Christian tradition, is in a somewhat precarious place as well as we attempt to wrestle with thorny questions of sexual ethics and how to think about difficult questions concerning both sex ethics and religious liberty.
In addition, although there is some debate about how bad things actually are, there is reason to think that a considerable number of young people who grow up evangelical will leave the faith when they hit adulthood. If I’m reading the Pew study linked above correctly, 24% of Americans grow up evangelical and about 1/3 of them end up leaving. (If I’m misunderstanding that study, please let me know in the comments.) If that is the case, then it’s not out of line to suggest that something about our catechetical process is failing and needs to be addressed.
Turning to the second point, one of the ways in which cultural engagement can easily go wrong is if we enter into it naively without understanding how institutions work and what the terms of our engagement will be.
To take a practical example, let’s apply this to public education. As best I can tell (and correct me if I’m wrong in the comments), the Patrick Option as applied to the public schools would say that we need to demonstrate to educators that we care about education too, that we actually like the people in the public schools, and want to help them. And we do this by putting our children in the schools, volunteering in the schools, and so on. If we do this, then the problems in this particular arena will begin to be resolved.
Unfortunately, the issue between the church and the public schools was never the headline-grabbing issues connected to the classic talking points—teaching evolution, sex ed classes, prayer in schools, etc. The issue is in the curriculum broadly speaking and with, to borrow from James KA Smith, the sort of catechesis that Christian children will undergo in public schools that will shape them toward a sort of market-focused individualism. If we engage more in this arena without understanding that issue, then we may have more positive relationships with some people (and that is a good thing), but the net cultural effect is likely to be minimal.
This, as an aside, is also why the sort of anti-public school thinking that has often gone on in evangelicalism has often failed to produce a robust alternative to our public education. We have often withdrawn from these schools out of purely defensive concerns with minimal understanding of the good which we hope to obtain through a more properly Christian education. And so what we often end up with is our own version of the same sort of materialism that reigns in the public schools.
Moving to the third point, we need to think carefully about the preparation that goes into being an effective evangelist or being capable of engaging well in a given arena. For instance, if we had any sense at all, we generally would not throw a brand new believer into the pulpit of a church in a phenomenally challenging context.
Of course, we actually did do that and it didn’t end well. For a challenging pastoral position, you don’t want a new Christian. You want someone who is experienced and mature. For example, you might compare Tim Keller’s time at Redeemer to Driscoll’s at Mars Hill. Prior to starting Redeemer Keller had been a Christian for many years. He had received extensive pastoral training. He had been a pastor in a church before. He had a good group of supporters around him both relationally and institutionally. 26 years later there hasn’t been even a whiff of scandal as far as the general public is concerned—a remarkable thing given the prominence of Keller’s ministry.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that all acts of evangelism, neighborliness, and outreach need to be put on hold until we reach some sort of magical maturity level. But no one is suggesting that. Dreher himself, it is worth noting, is heavily involved in what evangelicals would call a church plant. The problem is that evangelicals often have a hero complex and so we can easily bite off far more than we can chew. The spiritual fruit of this is almost always ruinous, as should be obvious to anyone who has read any of the young evangelical memoirs that are currently so popular.
It is telling, I think, that of the fad writers that many evangelicals were reading 10 years ago the only ones that still seem to be in a spiritually healthy place are the ones who built up their ministries quite slowly over many years. Those who saw too much success too fast typically burned out as quickly as they surged to life. And given that this critique applies as much to Rob Bell as it does Mark Driscoll it is worth noting that this problem will not magically be solved by simply having the right theological ideas in one’s head. What is needed is the thing Eugene Peterson was calling for 30 years ago in the book that, somewhat ironically, made him famous—a long obedience in the same direction. Or, to borrow from another theologian of that generation with a similarly harsh critiques of evangelicalism, we need maturity.
Finally, the church’s great gift to the world is the proclamation of the love offered to us in the Gospel by Christ. It is this love, embodied in the life of the church and of individual Christians, that can be “the final apologetic.” In our efforts to showcase this love in recent times, evangelicalism has often failed quite spectacularly.
It’s striking that one of the few areas where evangelicals have been more successful in recent years is the pro-life movement, which is a place where we generally have shown this love in beautiful and sacrificial ways through providing adoptive homes, counsel and medical treatment for expectant mothers, and a place of support and encouragement for mothers who choose to keep their babies. That said, the pro-life movement may turn out to be an exception to the rule with 90s and 2000s-era evangelicalism. Certainly the number of people leaving, per the Pew Report, suggests institutional sickness, as does the horror stories that many who have left are able to tell. (This story comes from the church that I grew up in.)
At its best, the BenOp is simply a call for repentance and renewal, a call to turn away from fads and buzzwords, and to set aside our never-ending quest for relevance. It is a reformational movement, one that ought to be deeply familiar to evangelical Protestants whose own roots, after all, can be traced back to previous eras of decadence in the church. It is a call to be transformed by the love of Christ and to take up the virtues of charity, fidelity, and perseverance rather than chasing short-term success. It is a call we desperately need to hear.
Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).