Opting for Benedict

So this comment I made on Rod Dreher’s blog, as he took apart Rachel Held Evans’ tweet storm rant about Rod’ latest book, seems to have gotten some traction:

Progressive Christians and the Progressive Church is still wants American Christendom to work, still cannot tell the difference between state and society and church, and still very much want it to be 1962, when the church was influential and church leaders were listened to and everyone was good and bourgeois and belonged. Oh, they want a far more integrated version of 1962, complete with same-sex marriage. But their church is just as much Christendom, just as imperial, just as Constantinian, as the conservatism they decry. They want to be the chaplains to a well-ordered, relatively just (or justice oriented) state and society.

It does not help any that most progressives are trapped in a narrative of the civil rights movement that leaves them envious, guilt-ridden, self-conscious and with a sense of both deep unworthiness AND a belief the fundamental work of the civil rights movement remains unfinished. The church is the active conscience of the society, a very 19th century idea, and they are the people called upon to do that prophetic work of moving the beloved community forward. Of course progressives are going to hate the Benedict Option, because the Progressive Church exists to reform state and society, not to foster faith or form disciples.

But THAT in a nutshell is THE problem of the American church, one I have written about to much less acclaim or even notice than Dreher. The church in virtually all its forms — Progressive, conservative, orthodox, fundamentalist — demands the culture do the heavy lifting of forming disciplines, that there is no difference between citizenship and discipleship, and that the church’s job isn’t to form disciples but ensure the culture works on their behalf. That, more than anything, is going to mitigate against any kind of faithful Benedict Option in America because the church doesn’t really know how to be counter cultural, or an alternative community, for any great length of time, without aspiring to bourgeois stability and social power. That’s what’s going to be toughest for faithful followers of Jesus — the desire and expectation, almost inbuilt in the American church, that believing and belonging are virtually automatic endeavors in which church teaching and practice are mere add ons.

Nothing I haven’t said here before.

As I have watched the conversation develop around something like The Benedict Option — an idea I’ve had for a long time, given that I was Muslim for part of my life and understand what it is to belong to a religious minority that has little or not social power, and must struggle to affirm and live out both individual and collective religious identifies and confessions — I’ve developed a few concerns.

My first concern is that the those who support the Benedict Option too often ignore the story of Israel in scripture. In particular, the story that Israel is a failed polity, and that God acts to raise or redeem dead or captive Israel. Israel’s story is one of rise and fall and resurrection and redemption, and for us to appreciate our condition we need to understand our history is Israel shaped. That is, the promises God makes to the church through Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, and Solomon, and fulfills in and through Jesus Christ — a home of our own, a blessing to the world, many descendants, and a king on the throne for ever and ever — are realized in our failure and our powerlessness, and not our success and power.

This is, I believe, the struggle of the Hebrew Bible — what do God’s promises mean to us given that everything has seemingly come to naught? That we are a conquered and exiled people, that this is our essential condition. We may yearn for power — “Give us a king, that we may be like other people!” Israel demanded of Samuel — but we are told that power will lead to our enslavement. (And it does.) More importantly, Israel’s wealth and and power, and the things needed to maintain that wealth and power, are what undoes that state. Power and wealth undo themselves.

Our power, and our wealth, undo us. Have undone us.

The history of the church can be understood best by setting it side-by-side with the history of Israel, which rose and fell, which was divided and conquered and sent into exile. Which achieved great things with power, and promises to us were made through that power (Christendom and all its works), but that power eventually undid us. Modernity and enlightenment are Babylonians and Assyrians (I have been meaning to write in some depth about this), and they have come to carry us away.

Without the full appreciation of the story of Israel as our story, our history, our purpose, and our meaning, we cannot really make sense of what is happening to us as church.

And I don’t see a lot of this among those calling for a Benedict Option. Too much of what passes for thought in Benedict Option circles is grounded in philosophy, particularly historical church teaching with a universalist claim, a church rather angrily but impotently trying to tell the world what is true and how to live.

Second, there is a lack of a proper prophetic voice among those promoting something akin to the Benedict Option. Israel may have been overrun by Assyria and Babylon, but they were just instruments of God’s judgement upon Israel’s faithlessness and idolatry. The sin was not Assyria’s or Babylon’s, though they would pay. The sin was Israel’s.

And Israel’s sin was idolatry. The worship of other gods. Faith in its own power to save itself — its mighty men, its armies, its wealth.

While I look upon Modernity and Enlightenment as akin to Assyrians and Babylonians, they aren’t external to the church. Christendom birthed them, raised them, made them possible. Our idolatry is our surrender to Modernity and Enlightenment and their truth claims. It is likely there could be no other way — God, through Moses, pronounces blessings and curses upon Israel in the Torah, and outlines the history of success, failure, and most importantly, redemption. The appreciate the Israel shape of our history, we must also appreciate the sins we are paying for are ours, and not the world’s.

We are paying for the idolatry of our ancestors. We are paying for their faithlessness. We are paying for the things they put into motion when they believed in power, privilege, and position, when they accepted without much struggle the truth claims of modernity. (Again, as I have said before, resistance to modernity and enlightenment was and is both pointless and futile.) The sin is ours — I cannot emphasize that enough. We are not at war with a sinful world. We live under the judgment of God.

In this, we have to remember God’s last word on our sin, our idolatry, our faithlessness, is always redemption and resurrection.

Finally, there is the matter of remnants. Does God save the remnant because they are faithful or is the remnant faithful because God has saved it?

This is not a small question, because at work among the Benedict Option folks is a belief that only the truly orthodox will survive. Maybe. However, God’s stipulation for redemption from the disaster he tells Israel it will face for its faithlessness is not rigor and right faith, but sincere repentance. We don’t what of Israel’s faith and faithfulness survived Babylon, but we do know the command to the faithful wasn’t “believe rightly!” but “flee Jerusalem!” (A teaching echoed by Jesus later.) Remember, we are a people called and gathered by God, and not our faith. God is in control, and so if we are truly going into exile, we have no real idea what our descendants will inherit.

Which also reminds me — if a Benedict Option is about saving children from the pollution of the world, that vision is both too large and far too small. It fails to trust God. It fails to see where we are called to meet that sinful world and proclaim good news. And it fails to appreciate that we can only pass on what we have inherited as faithfully as possible, but we have no say about how any of that gets used.

And it will also become one more bit of bourgeois reaction that will happily reach for any club offered to keep a sinful world at bay.

We are faithful failures, we followers of Jesus. Scripture gives us lots of examples of how to live under occupation or when facing Assyrians and Babylonians. From Jonah to Elijah and Elisha to Daniel to the disciples Jesus called to follow. And that’s all we can do … follow.

Follow wherever God leads. Even into exile.

2 thoughts on “Opting for Benedict

  1. I did read your comment when it appeared. I left a couple comments of my own on today’s “Protestant Low-Grade Civil War” Dreher post today. The second one included this paragraph, which touches on a more elementary aspect related to your insight that we need to understand the church through the history of the Israelites:

    “The essential gospel is that the nations are (as Paul says) also heirs to the promise made to the Patriarchs. If they don’t understand the promise (or covenant), they aren’t going to get the rest of it. Even Jews who aren’t quite sure they believe in God anymore still have a vague gut sense of the meaning of the covenant. For everyone else, it’s a learning experience. You have to understand what it meant for Abraham to be blessed and to go when called. You have to understand the agony of the epiphany of Moses, and the spiritual-historical impact of the liberation which followed. Neither Jews nor Christians have faith unless they have experienced God delivering them personally from bondage in Egypt. You have to kill Goliath with David, and then go into exile as a mercenary living off the land when Saul goes psycho-jealous. You have to be baptized with Jesus in the Jordan River around AD30, and then be forced into the wilderness to be tempted. Unless those things have happened to you – and unless those experiences have quickened your soul – you won’t get the Psalms or Isaiah or the Gospel of John or any of it. You certainly won’t get Romans and Galatians.”

    It puzzles me that people can apparently believe that “what is happening now in Christianity” consists of their books,and arguments and conversations (and organizational innovations or restorations, etc.), and somehow leave out of account the God who, as you say, is in control of everything.

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