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.

Footnote

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.

Posted by Matthew Loftus

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

  • hoosier_bob

    It’s unclear to me why there needs to be a missiological focus at all. So long as a church’s worship is open to the public, it is fulfilling its missiological purpose. After all, the non-ordained are no more free to “proclaim the Gospel” than a non-attorney is to practice law. In fact, our problem today lies precisely in that we have focused too much on missiology, and have focused too little on maintaining a distinctive ecclesiology. As a result, the terms of our fellowship in the church are generally based on race, social class, and politics. I’d suggest that the Mormons do a much better job of being salt and light than we do.

    • texascy

      “After all, the non-ordained are no more free to “proclaim the Gospel” than a non-attorney is to practice law.” Where does it say this in the New Testament?

    • Paul Fry

      …the non-ordained are no more free to “proclaim the Gospel” than a non-attorney is to practice law.

      Wha’??

      …terms of our fellowship in the church are generally based on race, social class, and politics.

      Sounds like a protestant problem.

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  • 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.

    There was a time at which Lesslie Newbigin judged your “not … any worse” to be false:

        The weakness, however, of this whole mass of missiological writing is that while it has sought to explore the problems of contextualization in all the cultures of humankind from China to Peru, it has largely ignored the culture that is the most widespread, powerful, and persuasive among all contemporary cultures—namely, what I have called modern Western culture. Moreover, this neglect is even more serious because it is this culture that, more than almost any other, is proving resistant to the gospel. In great areas of Asia, Africa, and Oceania, the church grows steadily and even spectacularly. But in the areas dominated by modern Western culture (whether in its capitalist or socialist political expression) the church is shrinking and the gospel appears to fall on deaf ears. It would seem, therefore, that there is no higher priority for the research work of missiologists than to ask the question of what would be involved in a genuinely missionary encounter between the gospel and this modern Western culture. Or, to put the matter in a slightly different way, can the experience of missionaries in the cross-cultural transmission of the gospel and the work of theologians who have worked on the question of gospel and culture within the limits of our modern Western culture be usefully brought together to throw light on the central issue I have posed? (Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture, Kindle locations 41–48)

    Now, he wrote this in 1986. Surely Newbigin’s ideas have been tested. However, having been raised in pretty solid Bible-believing churches, there’s a tremendous amount in Foolishness that would have been new to me, had I not already started reading up on modernity from works like Toulmin’s Cosmopolis and Taylor’s Sources of the Self. In searching for citations, I did find Walking with the Poor, which has 16 search results for “Newbigin”. Furthermore, if Newbigin were correct in 1986, surely many currents will not have caught up even by today, rendering your “not … any worse” hard to believe for those paddling in such currents.

    Personally, I think the problem is that we need a better vision of heaven than a healthy community filled with white picket fences. I’ve been criticized for saying we lack a “theology of prosperity” (not to be confused with the Prosperity Gospel), but I cannot help feeling that there is something deeply wrong with setting our goals on social justice, equality of condition, and physical/​mental health. I’m reminded of C. S. Lewis: “Aim at Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in’: aim at earth and you will get neither.” (Mere Christianity, 134) Are we aiming at heaven, in places in the West which are well off? I could go into a number of reasons I think the answer is a very strong “no”. Where I expect God to be most able to act (due to humans least limiting him) is in raising people up to a state of social justice, equality of opportunity, and physical/​mental health. But there seems to be a sort of ceiling, one which many Christians are tempted to characterize as, “as far as we’ll get, this side of the eschaton”. I’ve gone on far enough, but I suspect that the kind of character formation which would go on in BenOp communities could be crucial for breaking through this ceiling. Do we not rigorously drill our soldiers in a location separated from civilians?