Rod Dreher was very kind to put more thought into his response to my joke post at First Things at the Benedict Option. I did have a point—which he gets, and has written about before (although I think Jake summed it up much more succinctly). At the risk of killing the joke, we all agree that the Benedict Option is about the church being the church in a faithful ways that realistically deals with the challenges of modernity and passes on our faith to the next generation—thus, it is about ecclesiology and missiology in the West in our current cultural moment and the decades to come.
However, Rod then doubles down like Hugh Laurie opposite Stephen Fry (which are the voices you should have in your head for maximal enjoyment of my dialogue) and rattles off some distinctives that are part and parcel of both ecclesiology and missiology. The sentence that stuck out the most to me and motivated me to write this post was this: “I don’t believe Loftus needs metaphysics to serve his neighborhood as he’s doing, but I do believe an indifference to metaphysics will hurt Christians trying to figure out how to hold on in the long term.” I do not understand how one could read the Al Jazeera article Rod quoted about my church and get this impression, but there’s more.
I tried to put as few words into Bob’s mouth as possible, but I did mention the Perspectives course because I think it is a valuable introduction to missiological concepts that we need as part of any Benedict Option we commit ourselves to. I would challenge anyone who is seriously enamored with the BenOp discourse to take this class online or in person.
I commend this course and the whole subject of missiology in general because the Benedict Option is a form of missiology; it is a strategy for being a faithful witness in a culture that is increasingly hostile to such faithful witnesses and missiology is a set of tools for making those strategies. I’m a fan of this discourse to the degree that I think we need to take seriously the challenges of our culture and counter all of its demonic stratagems with a counter-culture of discipleship. Where I lose interest is when the dire circumstances of our time overshadow our appreciation for church history or the methods and means by which formation is already happening all around us. Where I start to point and laugh is when anyone supposes that any particular method that is too grandiose for missiology and ecclesiology is going to save us.
Part of the allure of late modernity is that by virtue of its philosophical sophistication or technological progress it somehow sees itself as inherently superior to all other worldviews. If Barack Obama’s Peace Prize and Black Mirror tell us anything, it is that late modernity is actually just superior at finding technologically advanced ways to perpetuate our internal wickedness.
My main annoyance with the Benedict Option as it seems to get tossed around is that it takes modernity on its terms, supposing that Satan has developed the Bomb and so we had better get our boys in the back room to come up with a bigger one. Satan has always sought to keep the people of God from proclaiming the Gospel and living in obedience to Christ. Politics, education, and entertainment are still just as deadly—and as necessary—to the cultural mandate on Christians as they were when the Apostles first dispersed across the Mediterranean.
Western civilization as it stands today is bad for Christendom in unique ways and requires unique tactics, for certain, but it does not seem any worse than many other places around the world where missionaries are strategizing ways to advance the Kingdom of God. It is challenging to communicate the Gospel to elite technocrats and post-everything Millennials, but it is also challenging to communicate the Gospel to nomadic Somalis and urbanized Japanese. In all of these cases, the creative ingenuity, faithful suffering, and fervent prayers of our evangelists will fill up what is lacking in the suffering of Christ.
The Benedict Option rightly sees that there are powers and principalities gunning to bring about persecution in the West like our brothers and sisters around the world face. However, it feels disconnected from the faithful presence of these believers in other cultures as well as the faithful life of the Body within our own. If it feels like the apex of Western Civilization is crashing down on you, well, imagine how an African-American minister in the 1950s must have felt. The Benedict Option is an important discussion, but it will choke on its own fumes if it doesn’t appreciate what a small part of God’s big world it deals with.
Furthermore, I think the project of passing on our faith to the next generation is inseparable from missiology and ecclesiology; there may have been a time when missionaries were willing to sacrifice their children for the sake of proclaiming the Gospel, but that is definitely no longer the case. In our own preparations for South Sudan, my wife and I have sought and received extensive counsel on caring for our family and prioritizing the practices that sustain our own relationship with God above whatever we accomplish beyond our home.
Deeply rooted institutions are making disciples through order, ritual, and metaphysics all over Christendom—praise God! Bob’s befuddlement mirrors mine in that the Benedict Option seems so discouraged by Jezebel’s sword that it has forgotten there are hundreds who do not bow the knee to Baal.
Rod asked for things I have written that flesh out my ideology a little more, so here is a brief list:
I specifically talked about how metaphysics shapes the way my church interacts with our neighborhood here and here.
I wrote more broadly about how critical the practices of communal worship are to cross-cultural friendship here.
I specifically wrote about how and why what Rod calls “action” is integral to discipleship in the context of the Benedict Option here and here.
Here’s everything else I’ve written here if you’re a real glutton for punishment.
Matthew Loftus teaches and practices Family Medicine in Baltimore and East Africa. His work has been featured in Christianity Today, Comment, & First Things and he is a regular contributor for Christ and Pop Culture. You can learn more about his work and writing at www.MatthewAndMaggie.org