While I’m not the biggest fan of Kaya Oakes (she probably hasn’t read my book, and someone suggested it to her; but then, that’s true of lots of people), she has a very prescient critique of the Benedict Option:

In fact, the Rule of Benedict itself says in Chapter 53, “On the Reception of Guests,” that monastic communities should “let all guests who arrive be received like Christ.” Dreher’s idealistic notion of Christian community life is indeed appealing, but it neglects to understand that the guests arriving right now most in need of welcome are mostly not Christians. Nor does Dreher seem to write about progressive Christian communities that are, in fact, living out their own version of the Benedict Option, although their ideas about community are perhaps more open to female leadership of LGBTQ members.

Evangelicals, who largely lean and vote conservative, might seem to be a natural audience for Dreher’s work, which may be why the editors of Christianity Today invited him to contribute a cover story. They also asked four evangelical writers to respond to Dreher’s story and the question of whether evangelicals should pursue “strategic withdrawal.” Three of these evangelicals are highly critical of the Benedict Option. David Fitch, a professor of evangelical theology at Northern Seminary, writes that evangelicals cannot “make a choice between living in Christian community or being present in our culture. We cannot, therefore, extract ourselves from the world without losing who we are.”

Oakes is right — there is a tremendous lack of hospitality to the stranger, the other, the enemy, in the Benedict Option. (Anyone needing hints for how to encounter enemies should look at the Elijah and Elisha stores.)

I am generally supportive of something akin to the Benedict Option, and I believe the American church takes its Americanness far more seriously than it does being church, and has for some time been incapable of forming real devoted disciples or offering an alternative vision of life together because of that commitment to America. Except by accident.

But I sense, from reading many of the comments on Dreher’s blog (and some of what he writes himself), that Dreher is frightened of the world, that it will take the faith of his children, and their children, and make that faith illegible or impossible. Much of what gets written in comment, about either the Benedict Option or about technology, is usually about protecting children from the corrupting influences of the world.

(Because of my work with Psalm 10 Ministries, I’ve become very aware that this desire to protect “good kids” also creates a category of “bad kids” who merit no protection, because they are irredeemable and their lives have no real value.)

In this, my fear is the Benedict Option will become another reactionary, bourgeois project.

Oakes is also right in saying that the world that comes to the church in search of welcome is non-Christian, and has been wounded — by the church, the world, modernity, and all that comes with the buying and selling of bodies and lives as mere commodities. People wounded by the false promises of self-exploitation, that their lives are theirs and theirs alone to make as they will absent any relationship with God.

My fear is that Dreher and many other religious conservatives who see and appreciate a real problem with the church and its inability to form faithful disciples are, at the same time, so afraid of the world they unwilling to encounter it without judging it and condemning it. (Again, Elijah/Elisha stories for guidance here.) They miss the role the church played in ordering and ruling the world, and won’t be the gracious presence of God in a world that, while it may not believe, on some level often understands it has sinned and fallen short and that God redeems us in and from our sin.

That said, the tolerance and hospitality of liberal Christians is frequently more for abstract categories of human beings — people who can be labeled in one way or another — than it is for actual people. Oakes’ concern is, honestly, another rigid and brittle form of bourgeois piety. It is welcoming only if you are already like the people doing the welcoming or identifiable in a way those who welcome can easily deal with. It knows less and less how to welcome people on the basis of personality, on those differences well all come with as human beings.

I have found a mixed welcome at best in liberal churches, and very poor hospitality at most. (I don’t try with conservative churches because I know I don’t belong there either.) It may be that church leaders are too overworked and risk averse, or far too ideologically oriented in their understanding of who needs to be welcomed (and who doesn’t), and that pastors and congregants are so emotionally worn out at the end (or beginning) of a week that they want comfort and ease, don’t want to have to do anything hard or be with anyone they find troubling when they show up for those 60 or 90 minutes. As our churches increasingly sort themselves out along political lines, it is likely going to be increasingly difficult for congregations and leaders to take risks welcoming strangers or real difference into their midst. Which is a terrible pity. That kind of risk is what the church exists for.

So, in this, the Benedict Option merely mirrors the rest of the church. Which is a pity, but not surprising. That Oakes’ understanding of hospitality in her essay is almost entirely limited to women leaders and queer folks is also not surprising — it’s how she understands welcoming and acceptance, and my guess it constrains that understanding. I suspect I wouldn’t be welcomed at Oakes’ church, would not receive the kind of hospitality she quotes from the Rule of St. Benedict, mostly because they wouldn’t know how, and they’d likely look at me and decide I’m not a stranger who needs or deserves hospitality.

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.

Demanding Mercy, Not Sacrifice

Caleb Bernacchio over at Ethikapolitika notes something important about Rod Dreher’s advocacy for the Benedict Option — it lacks an understanding that we are called to follow Jesus in order to do works of mercy.

Dreher has this all wrong [about Pope Francis]. The Benedict Option is only viable insofar as its proponents are able to learn from Pope Francis. Dreher has been unable to the do this and as a result he has not been able to present an account of the Benedict Option that avoids the mistakes of previous Christian elites.

What are those mistakes? Believing that the Gospel is a “reform movement” capable of holding society to higher moral and ethical standards and of remaking the world in the image of the Gospel.

The Benedict Option is another reform movement, another attempt to hold society to the higher standards of the Gospel, even if it is strategically focused in a narrow scope. [Charles] Taylor [author of the A Secular Age] argues that these movements have lead to the modern “buffered” self, the self that treats the world (including his or her body) as inert material to be made over to the self’s preferred ideals. One commentator notes, “[T]the buffered self can form the ambition of disengaging… and of giving its own autonomous order to its life.” This is precisely the attitude that Dreher laments.

In addition to being an act of will intended to compel the world to conform to the truth that is the teaching of the church, many who support the Benedict Option do so believing the role of the church is only to hold on to and teach right faith and to judge and condemn the world’s failure to hold or adhere to orthodoxy. In short, according to Bernacchio, Benedict Option supporters really want the church — and the pope — to be the world’s Grand Inquisitor. (One reason they miss Benedict XVI, having seen in him a kindred spirit.)

Francis refuses to be the Grand Inquisitor; this attitude underlies his much ridiculed rhetorical question: “Who am I to judge?” Instead of the Judge, the Doctor of the Law, or the Grand Inquisitor, Francis’s paradigm of the ideal Christian is the Good Samaritan. This ideal shifts the gaze of reformer inwardly, from the world that needs to be remade in the image of the ideal, to the reformer himself. The paradigm of the Good Samaritan demands that every Christian look inwardly, asking if one has been a Neighbor to those encountered in daily life and especially to those in dire need. Francis, following the tradition, links this with the notion mercy, which has become the theme of his pontificate, calling mercy “what is most essential and definitive.”

This desire for a Grand Inquisitor is probably a reflection of the deep roots the Benedict Option has among disaffected, conservative bourgeois Christians who wish, more than anything, to preserve their children from the sin and degradation of a corrupt, decadent, secular world. Theirs is a stern church of bourgeois Western order, and they forget — Francis did not come from that world.

Because the Benedict Option creates a Christian life that ooks both inward and backward, it has no idea how to approach the world without condemning it or what to do with that world except for keeping it arms length. (Because there are children in need of protecting.) This is not how Francis sees living as a faithful Christian in a post-Christian, non-Christian world:

But for Francis it is not possible to discuss Christian life practically without recognizing the plight of the world’s poor and marginalized. And if Brad Gregory is correct, one reason why medieval Christendom fractured is because the elite failed to acknowledge the injustice that they were responsible for and thus failed to mitigate the tensions that finally boiled over during the Reformation. Dreher recommends that BenOpers put their children in “authentic Christian school[s],” disregarding the fact that such schools often come with a hefty price tag rendering them unimaginable for many. What should people do who can’t afford the Benedict Option? If Gregory is right, proponents of the Benedict Option are repeating the mistakes of past Christians, preaching justice and mercy, but leaving this as a mere afterthought that does not affect their vision of Christian life. As Gregory has shown, this is no way to build a sustainable Christian social order.

In effect, the Benedict Option as conceived in North America is just another effort by bourgeois white Christians to create an ersatz collective movement that lacks any real sense of solidarity — particularly with those who aren’t bourgeois. (Solidarity is something white people shorn of their ethnic identities are very, very, very bad at, especially bourgeois whites, who have become hyper-autonomous whether liberal or conservative, secular or religious, tending to see connection only in and through the state and its institutions.) The focus on a dry and pitiless orthodoxy will create more of the same kind of church that cannot be a meaningful presence of God in the world.

Or as Bernacchio notes:

What Dreher and other proponents of the Benedict Option must learn from Pope Francis is, first and foremost, that orthodoxy is pointless unless it contributes to a life of charity and mercy. As Taylor has argued, reformist efforts to promote (or enforce) orthodox beliefs can backfire – Francis provides an alternative to the reformist model, not by denying orthodoxy but by emphasizing solidarity and mercy. Where Dreher has seen the Benedict Option as a means of distinguishing orthodox believers from liberal Christians and secular society, more generally, Francis maintains that Christians must primarily be distinguished by acts of mercy. In practice this means building communities that are not isolated from the rest of society but which are instead linked through bonds of solidarity even to people with radically different beliefs. The best examples of this are the Catholic Worker Movement and L’Arche communities.

At the heart of this, I think, is a notion among many – including me — that the hard times ahead for the church in Christendom mean that only a remnant will be saved. For the conservative and orthodox, given what they see as the collapse of the theologically, politically, and culturally liberal churches of the American mainline, that remnant is self-evident — them, orthodox believers who hold tight to the true teaching of the church in all things, who change not one jot or tittle of it.

This is one reason I think the story Benedit Option Christians is impoverished without the story of Israel and its conquest and exile. God saved a faithful remnant, but was that remnant saved because it was faithful and found favor with God (like Noah), or did God save a remnant and in its salvation did that remnant realize its salvation and become faithful?

In short, we’re asking the same old questions that Christians have always argued about — does one obey the rules first in order to become part of the community, or does one learn to obey the rules only by becoming part of the community first?

It’s no small question. Because the first is entirely dependent on an act of human will. In effect, it says what religion always comes to say in the face of modernity — “If God isn’t going to save us, we’ll have to save ourselves.” The results of this are usually bad. It’s an effective act of faithlessness because it doesn’t trust in God. As in the books of Esther, Nehemiah, and Ezra, God is an add-on, a thing from the past we reference but who doesn’t live with us in our midst today.

Who doesn’t do great things right here and right now.

I’m more inclined to trust God, in part because I believe the Good Samaritan story and what it tells us about how to love and be grace in the world. In general, the story of Jesus is the story of how live faithfully under occupation, and not a guide to the use of power, something that Christendom Christians have completely forgotten. I may or may not be in this remnant that goes into exile, that weeps at the river bank and tries mightily to pass its faith and practice on to its children. But I’m trying not to care, because my calling is to love the wounded neighbor right in front of me. Yes, it’s hard to trust God, because there’s no obvious return, because too often God stays silent, and because it is hard to see the great things God is doing in our midst. Especially in a faithless, fallen, decadent world.

Honestly, I cannot end this essay any better than Bernacchio ends his. He notes that too many BenOpers deal with “solidarity” and the poor as after thoughts, things to deal with only once correct doctrine and teaching have been settled. But mercy is a first thing, an essential thing, and not an add-on. It is not a luxury of faith once we’re secure in our homes and our children are protected, but an essential, something without which we have no meaningful faith to begin with.

Francis … suggests that solidarity with the poor is the sine qua non of authentic Christian community. Thus Francis challenges proponents of the Benedict Option, and the Church more generally to give up the dangerous fantasy of the Grand Inquisitor whose power will remake the world in the image of our ideals and instead to build bonds of charity and mercy in the manner of the Good Samaritan.

The Call of Elisha

I love this story.

19 So [Elijah] departed from there and found Elisha the son of Shaphat, who was plowing with twelve yoke of oxen in front of him, and he was with the twelfth. Elijah passed by him and cast his cloak upon him. 20 And he left the oxen and ran after Elijah and said, “Let me kiss my father and my mother, and then I will follow you.” And he said to him, “Go back again, for what have I done to you?” 21 And he returned from following him and took the yoke of oxen and sacrificed them and boiled their flesh with the yokes of the oxen and gave it to the people, and they ate. Then he arose and went after Elijah and assisted him. (1 Kings 19:19–21 ESV)

Elijah has just fled into the wilderness, after vanquishing Jezebel’s prophets of Baal (Elijah was no slouch, and after defeating them in a battle of burnt offerings, he slaughtered them all at the brook of Kishron), after Jezebel threatened to do the same to Elijah. This man of God, unafraid to confront 450 men and their false god, unafraid to soak his burnt offering three times, fears the wrath of Ahab’s queen. He ran for his life … into the wilderness.

There, in the wilderness (a journey of 40 days to Horeb, the mountain of God), Elijah meets The Lord. Not in fire, or wind, or earthquake, but in the gentle whisper. And Israel’s God tells Elijah to “return to the wilderness of Damascus” and anoint as new king over Syria (Israel’s enemy), and a new king over Israel.

And a new prophet to succeed him.

Like so many of these call stories, God finds Elisha at work, minding his own business, plowing the field, unaware of what God has already planned for him.

Elijah doesn’t even talk to him. There’s no “follow me.” Just a draping of his cloak (אַדֶּרֶת, from אֶדֶר which means majesty, glory, or splendor, and it is the same cloak Elijah hides behind earlier in chapter 19 when he finally perceives the Lord in the small whisper) upon Elisha and an automatic understanding on Elisha’s part what that means. He knows he’s been called. He knows he must follow. He knows — Elisha knows — he has no choice.

Elisha looks back, and Elijah gives him leave to look back. It is one of the Bible’s testier exchanges, and in complete contrast to the words of Jesus in Luke 9:57–62, which end with Jesus saying “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” Whether Elisha kisses his mother and father goodbye we don’t know, because scripture doesn’t explicitly say. But it does say that Elisha takes the tools of his trade — and very likely the sustenance of his family and maybe even his village — and destroys them. He sacrifices the oxen, twelve of them, and cooks the meat on their shattered yokes, to feed “the people” (עָם).

Elisha abandons his family, his people, and he appears to leave them with no visible means of support. His call, to follow — to assist (שָׁרַת, literally to serve or attend or even minister to) — comes first, apparently, and nothing else matters. He goes from being the master of his fate, and likely his family and his people’s wellbeing, to being a mere servant and attendant to a not particularly well-liked prophet of God.

Elisha doesn’t really come into his own, however, until Elijah is taken up into heaven. At which point, he asks for and receives a “double portion” of Elijah’s spirit, which gives Elisha the power to raise the dead and make a tiny bit of oil fill many jars, and even make a poisonous meal safe (giving us one of the Bible’s best quotes:

“O man of God, there is death in that pot!” (מָ֤וֶת בַּסִּיר אִישׁ הָאֱלֹהִ֔ים)

But he is called, and he knows it, and he leaves his people,. He destroys everything, celebrating his call maybe, before he leaves. He says goodbye to the people he has lived with, labors with, possibly loved with, to walk into the wilderness with his newfound master Elijah. Elishah, the son of Shaphat (שָׁפַט) — the judge, the lawgiver, the ruler, the vindicator — is walking away from everything, and quite possibly leaving his people without a way to care and feed themselves. (Though his family may have been quite wealthy and 12 oxen and their tack may have been nothing to them.) To follow a man who found him ploughing a field and cast his glory upon him. To follow a man who angrily asked, “What have I done for you?”

Because it’s a thankless call, holding the powerful of Israel accountable, caring for the poor and hungry in the midst of drought and war, leading the Assyrian army around blinded and delivering it into the hands of Israel and then demanding mercy for the very people who came to attack and kill and plunder. Witnessing in a vision the evil that a Syrian general will do to his very own people and yet proclaiming God’s healing upon that general and anointing him king of Syria.

It’s God’s call for Elisha. It’s God’s call for some of us, this “hard thing” that Elijah says we will be given when we see him ascend. But it is also one way the church is called into the world, to stare violence and desolation in the face without flinching, to wander the wilderness, feed and comfort the hungry, raise the dead, and heal the enemies of God’s people so that world may know “there is a prophet in Israel.”

On Patriarchy and Hierarchy

I have been very busy at work of late, but this has been rambling around my head for a bit, and I finally have some time to commit it to paper.

Rod Dreher over at The American Conservative has recently been writing about religion and family structure, and how essential good family life is to an understanding of God. He quotes here from Mary Eberstadt’s How The West Really Lost God: A New Theory of Secularization, about the role of out-of-wedlock births and even small families has played in the increasing inability of westerners to comprehend the triune God:

The point is that out-of-wedlock births institutionalized on today’s scale work against the churches in a different way. Once again, at stake here are some fundamental issues of religious anthropology, or how people come to understand, believe, and practice religion in the first place — or not. And one thing that the experience of illegitimacy does is to pit a great many people’s actual experience of the world — say, of growing up with an absent or delinquent father — against the very foundation of the Judeo-Christian tradition: to repeat, the notion that God can be understood as a benevolent, protecting male parent. How can that relationship between creature and creator be understood when the very word “father” may be associated more with negative than with positive characteristics?

Similarly, how can the story of the Holy Family be understood in a world where a family is increasingly said to be whatever anyone in possession of voluntary associations wants it to be? It was one thing, say, for children to understand the figure of the adoptive father Joseph at a time when most came from traditional homes, and Joseph was easily grasped as someone “like” one’s own father. But to ask children who do not have such protectors to understand what it is like to have one, and to encourage them to build their lives and souls around a concept that some will find elusive or even incredible is a very different conceptual challenge — and one that, to repeat, has not been faced by Christian leaders of the past, because it did not exist in the past on anything like today’s scale. Once again, the realities of today’s intentionally created and often fractured family life potentially impede grasping Christianity or finding it appealing, often in subtle and unexpected ways.

This piece, and a couple of posts on parenting and cell phones (I commented twice on this post) and the decline of parental solidarity describe to me one of the features of conservatism that I find my most troubling — the protection of our own, especially if one’s own are untainted (or be kept untainted and untouched) by impurity or undamaged by the sinfulness or wickedness of the world.

Eberstadt says here that it takes a natural family — a proper family — to fully understand both the Holy Family (Joseph assuming his responsibility despite Mary’s “unnatural” pregnancy, though it took divine intervention to prompt him, according to Matthew 1:18–25) and, I’m guessing, God as Father. This is the kind of natural theology I have come to expect from conservatives deeply interested in the right ordering of the world largely for its own sake. Our material order reflects a divine order, and our sinful attempts to re-order the world merely de-orders the world, sets us against our natures, and by doing so, furthers the distance between us and God.

(This assumes I understand the conservative position correctly.)

To be blunt, the longer I work with wounded, traumatized, and abandoned kids, the more I have become convinced that this conservative understanding is right — or at least is more right than it is wrong. I do think having a father, or some kind of very real father figure, helps grasp the love and role of God in our lives and in the world. As Christians who believe and confess an incarnation God, we cannot believe otherwise — to know self-giving, self-sacrificing human love is to know something of the love of God.

And, sadly, to not know that love is to not know something of the love of God as well.

Last year, a friend gave Jennifer and me a reprinted copy of a charming little Catholic children’s book from the 1950s, Manners in God’s House: First Prayers and First Missal. The language is simple (“Heaven is God’s home. God wants us to be with Him in heaven some day. Nobody cries there because everybody is happy. Jesus has a place for us in heaven. If we love Him, we will go there and be happy too.”), the pictures are wholesome (even of dead Jesus), and Mary is sweet and pure and blonde. It describes a gentle but firm hierarchy which encourages and rewards obedience, in which there is a place for everyone, everyone is in their place, and all are honored being good children of God. Jennifer was especially fond of this little book, and even cried, because this was the world she wanted to grow up in. This is the world as she wished it worked. I’m a little more dubious, if only because the book’s relentless focus on our happiness as something that is God’s top priority (behaving properly in church will let you take “His happiness with you. He will help you be happier than ever.”) has more than the whiff of Moral Therapeutic Deism to it. (I also object to the rules for behavior in church, which ignore almost entirely why we gather, or who we gather to meet — Jesus — and make keeping the church beautiful as a primary focus, and helping the poor a kind-of accident we do with whatever is leftover.)

I have come to believe in a functional hierarchy, in a well-ordered world in which all are valued and in which there is a place — a useful, important, protected, and respected place — for everyone.

But there’s the rub for me. One of the great gifts of the 20th century has been the tearing down of patriarchy and hierarchy for its utter failure to even get close to its ideals. Patriarchy and hierarchy exist not just as natural consequences of human beings living together, they are not just “good order,” but they exist for a purpose — to protect and nurture the weak, to foster the well-being of children, and to wisely rule our collective and communal affairs. And what the 20th century showed is that far too much patriarchy and hierarchy is self-serving, abusive, self-righteous, and utterly uninterested in the well-being of those who are not deemed properly virtuous, or don’t belong, or whose lives are not worth being nurtured, fostered, or protected.

What if your father is brutal and indifferent? What if your father rapes you repeatedly? What if your father has no kind words for you? What if your father ups and leaves and you one day and you never see him again? These are real experiences too, and what is the child who lives with and through these to make of God as Father?

Take Dreher’s post on cell phones. Nowhere in that discussion, that I could see, was there any understanding that there might be young people whose lives were something other than good, who belonged to families where something other than the ideal would reign (save for my two comments). It was all about protecting our kids — good kids — from evil. There was no possibility or prospect of evangelization, of adoption, of protecting others, of where technology might make any of that possible. And it is because of this kind of thing that I am still deeply suspicious of social and cultural conservatism — it seems to demand a base virtue that becomes an identity, and no one who has fallen can be redeemed or is redeemable in their fallen state. No kids with broken lives, in violent families, in shattered communities, need apply to be protected — because their lives simply aren’t worth protecting. They’ve already fallen by the wayside. There’s no point in trying to pick them up.

Conservatives seem intent upon defending, protecting, and restoring a hierarchy which abuses, which discards, which serves itself rather than weak and vulnerable, and which determines worth, value, and status and allows those deemed without any of those things to be abused with impunity.

Sadly, I think this is a reality of patriarchy and hierarchy too. It can protect, and defend, and nurture, and give of itself. I am trying to do that as a father figure to what has now become a volleyball team of teenagers who rely on me for strength, security, kindness, and empathy. As I have become a patriarch, I have come to believe in its good possibilities.

But I do so for kids who live in a very nearly wrecked world, in which hierarchy encourages, justifies, hides, and ignores abuse. In which those with power take, but do not give of themselves. Who command, and do not listen. Who break, and do not heal. This too is a reality of patriarchy and hierarchy.

The progressive critique of hierarchy and patriarchy is to replace it with a full-fledged egalitarianism that demands no distinction between people. As a critique, it says something important about arbitrary power and position. But like most progressive and leftist critiques, it is an impossible foundation, it cannot built upon, because it ignores how people actually organize ourselves (or it demands so much coercive and even violent re-education to achieve anything that it is just as brutal as what it replaced). It will be difficult, as we go forward, to square the conservative ideal of patriarchy and hierarchy with what we know to be its all-to-frequent reality. But we will have to live in that tension. And we will have to make it work.

Something I think will help will be to remember obligations. We live in a rights-obsessed world. Everyone is aggrieved, and everyone has rights. Even the wealthy and powerful, who sometimes come off sounding like the most aggrieved and put-upon people in the world. We forget that with power and position come responsibility and obligation. The patriarch has a responsibility to protect and defend. The conservative seems to love when Paul writes in Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3 that wives should obey husbands, children should obey parents, and slaves should obey masters, but almost always forgets that husbands should love and sacrifice themselves for their wives as Christ sacrificed himself for the church, that fathers should not provoke their children to anger or cause them to be discouraged, and that masters should stop threatening their slaves and treat them justly and kindly.

These obligations matter, and they can be the ideal too. They will never be fully lived into, but they are worthy of aspiring to.

And we also have an obligation to the lost, to those whose lives have been thrown away. Jesus left the 99 to fine the one, lost and alone in a cruel and threatening wilderness. The early church created an ethic of life in part because early Christians saved and raised and cared for as their own newborns exposed on the garbage dumps of the Greco-Roman world. (So did slave traders, though for an entirely different purpose.) I’ve said this before and I will say this again — conservative American Christians have become so concerned with preserving the natural family they have completely forgotten that the church itself is a fictive family, made of broken bits and pieces scavenged from the world, and that we are all mothers and father and brothers and sisters in Christ. Kids who don’t come from stable, proper families may not know a father as a protector, but they still hunger for it. (There’s your human nature right there.) They can still meet that God if they can meet people who will care for them. I understand the desire to build a wall around all that is good and pure and wonderful, and to protect it from a world that seems intent on stripping us of our ability to connect with each other, to love and care for each other or even ourselves, in any meaningful way. But we will betray our calling, our history, ourselves, and our crucified and risen Lord, if the only people we care about are “our own.”

 This is What Radicalization Looks Like

Paul Woodward over at War in Context echoes a point I made a couple of days ago:

The term radicalization has been pathologized, thereby divorcing it from its psychological meaning. It’s viewed as a disease, with the implication that if the right steps are taken, the contagion can be controlled.

But to be radicalized is to rebel and anyone who has taken up such a position of defiance has, in the case of ISIS, already reached a conclusion about the West. Indeed, they have most likely reflected more deeply on the West than the majority of their generational counterparts who, being less likely to engage in cultural critiques of any kind, don’t have a particularly coherent view of the West — good or bad.

The problem here is not one [of] inadequate availability of positive images of the West.

The point, Woodward notes, is “the willingness to die for a cause,” though I think he also touches on something very important — it is having a cause worth suffering and dying for.

The societies of the West are no longer unified by a common narrative and common story, and the leaders of those societies are themselves no longer able to sacrifice or suffer for a cause, and thus they cannot ask any of the people they govern to sacrifice and suffer either. (Well, this isn’t quite true — the globalized elite are more than happy to compel suffering and dislocation for neoliberal and progressive aims, but they themselves don’t pay any price for immigration, the relocation of jobs, or the financialization of the economy.) Woodward writes:

Most states don’t overtly recruit would-be martyrs and yet all states promote the idea that anyone who dies for their country has died in the name of a noble cause.

At the same time, this has become an increasingly ambiguous value as professionalized military forces promote their ability to minimize their own loses. They want their soldiers to remain willing to die and yet decreasingly fearful that they might face such a risk.

The religious zealot who is willing to die for what he believes in, will inevitably have a sense of superiority over the non-religious soldier who has submitted to the commands of the state rather than the command of God.

Woodward speaks of a conflict between “divine authority and human design.” And I think this suggests the greatest problem anyone seeking to be a truly faithful Christian (in Benedict Option terms) — the states of the modern West are going to becoming increasingly intolerant and even fearful of any commitment to a truth that is not made by the state, and that can compel the kind of sacrificial devotion that is the response to the call of God (and that, in the first two-thirds of the 20th century, was also demanded by the state).

Technology and economics seek to make sacrifice and struggle — the kind of sacrifice and struggle I believe is essential to being meaningfully human (even under antihuman conditions) — irrelevant and unnecessary. Some people yearn for the clarifying meaning of struggle and sacrifice, and some people just simply find it given the brutality and mercilessness of Modernity, but however that happens, the banality of modernity is simply not enough for some people.

And I suspect, even as we seek to live faithfully and peacefully, “to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands” as Paul writes in 1 Thessalonians, we will still find ourselves the objects of much suspicion and hostility simply because we fervently and passionately follow a truth that is not proclaimed by the state. A truth that makes demands of us that will be increasingly seen as irrational, unbalanced, and dangerous.

Even if all we proclaim is love.

The Failure of American Christendom

James Rogers over at First Things nails it hard in this essay on the failure of the church in America to properly teach the faith, and teach Christians what it really means to sustain a Christian life. Because they could rely so heavily on the culture formed and created by American Christendom.

American churches grew up and developed in a context in which the culture played a significant role in policing moral behavior. Churches could ecclesiastically free-ride on this cultural moral consensus. Churches and congregations did not need to invest heavily in developing and policing their own moral boundaries. The culture did a large part of the moral heavy lifting for them. In parts of the U.S. today one can still hear echoes of this old consensus. “Why of course I’m a Christian. I’m a Texan.”

Because churches could depend on culture to police moral boundaries, they did not develop—because they did not need to develop—ecclesiastical mindsets and practices to inculcate and sustain basic Christian moral expectations. The moral membrane between church and culture was relatively permeable, but that was relatively safe at the time. This is not to say that they were the same. Nonetheless, it was relatively easy for individual churches to gin up the moral heat for their congregation when the starting point was a culture that kept things at least morally lukewarm.

Rogers holds the 1960s accountable for a cultural shift in America in which formerly prohibited activities suddenly became morally acceptable (though he acknowledges this began long before the 1960s rolled around), leaving the church incapable of addressing its problems because “the Church contracted out moral discipleship and church discipline to the culture. American Christians had gotten used to and easy-going, non-threatening permeability of church and culture.”

Fast forward to today when we hear about the need for churches to exercise the so-called Benedict Option. Basically, it means little more than churches need actually to reflect the full reality of what they’re supposed to be in the first place. But American churches are out of practice, ironically because of the power they once exercised over American culture.

As a result of developing the last 200 years of a “nation with the soul of a church,” Christians don’t have the ecclesiastical practices and habits that allow them easily and naturally to be fullness of the church.

These habits and practices, or the lack thereof, created all sorts of problems, even ignoring how they obscured the Gospel. Evangelicals naturally, if idolatrously, turned toward politics rather than to ecclesiology for the solution to the moral disorientation they saw in society. The Moral Majority, school prayer, “Take back America for Christ” campaigns, all reflected more of an attempt to reassert ownership of America’s moral public space than to save souls or spread the Kingdom or strengthen the life of the community of disciples in the churches. Recovering a full-orbed ecclesiology for the Church—not for the Church in the abstract, but for the practical lives of Christian layfolk and leaders in the churches—must be in initial imperative for the Church today.

This is in line with what I have come to think on the subject — too many Christians, liberals and conservatives, still confuse discipleship with good citizenship — and so I don’t really have much to add. But there’s an interesting point here that Rogers makes when he notes that the problem stems from “the power [churches] once exercised over American culture.”

Temporal power seems to be its own comeuppance in scripture. The fall of the powerful can frequently be traced to the very height of power — the division of Solomon’s empire into civil war and two competing polities can be traced directly to the costs associated with maintaining Solomon’s court and the massive army needed to hold the empire together. The people of Israel seek relief from both crushing taxes and conscripted labor to maintain the state, and when Solomon’s successor Rehoboam arrogantly refuses — even increasing the tax burden — half the kingdom follows the rebel Jereboam as he denounces the house of David and takes the northern portion of the state for himself.

Israel’s very wealth and power is the place where its downfall begins. The American Church is paying for its long period of power and influence with collapse, with idolatry, and is now metaphorically besieged on all sides by (metaphorical) Assyrians and Babylonians. I do believe there is a very biblical lesson about power in this — trust not in mighty men or in treasure, but rather in the promises of God. By the time prophets come, however, to tell the people of God to actually trust God, as opposed to their own devices, it’s usually too late.

What Exile Looks Like

A few weeks ago, a reader of this blog asked,

Charles, what would exile look like today (or in the future). Can you sketch out what exile would (will?) look like?

I think I can, and I would like this to be my contribution (such as it is) to the conversation on The Benedict Option — the talk about what preserving the church from an age of “barbarism” might look like.

First, let me say this: I don’t like the term “Benedict Option.” I don’t like the term because, while it draws from church history — specifically from the centuries immediately following the collapse of the Roman state — it doesn’t draw enough (or at all) on the biblical story. It sees the situation the church is in as something potentially preventable (in the ways that the collapse of Roman civilization could have possibly been better managed), and thus the product of bad policies. It doesn’t diagnose the problem, the situation the church finds itself in, properly. It is, sadly, little surprise to me that the Benedict Option was concocted largely by Catholics more interested in the teaching and history of the church than the story of God’s people in scripture. Because the Bible isn’t so much a story of a people and their encounter with the divine, but the foundation for a series of moral and philosophical precepts.

Exile, however, draws upon a rich and deeply meaningful biblical story. It tells us who we are, who God is, and how to cope and have faith in the promises of our God in the midst of our inevitable and inescapable failure. It also helps we know how that story ends. So we do not need to to worry in the interim about our clear and apparent defeat. It is not a permanent thing. We know that our redeemer lives. And that we are redeemed.


What follows is a sketch, and the product of roughly eight years of thinking about this on my part. This isn’t as systematic as I would like, nor as thoroughly researched. I don’t have all my i’s dotted and t’s crossed.

The most important thing to remember is that exile is the end result of God’s judgment upon Israel’s idolatry and faithlessness. Israel, through it’s worship and service of false, foreign gods, will suffer God’s brutal and violent judgment. This is laid out in Leviticus 26, Deuteronomy 28–30, again in the Song of Moses in Deuteronomy 32. In each of these, Israel’s future is laid out, blessings for Israel’s obedience and curses for Israel’s disobedience. In both Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28–30, the curses are far more detailed (war, death, destruction, deprivation, suffering, slavery, expulsion from the land), with Deuteronomy contained both/and language — that Israel will be both blessed and cursed but after all is done, Israel will be redeemed. This is not, as it first seems, an if/then set of promises. Rather, it is a forecast of the entirety of Israel’s coming future. Blessings AND curses, not blessings OR curses.

So, the coming judgment of God on Israel’s faithlessness cannot be escaped. And it will manifest itself in history as Israel is conquered, plundered and ruled by its enemies (Deut 28:45–51). It begins during the conquest of Canaan under Joshua and the period of the Judges as Israel refuses to fully drive out the Canaanites (whatever that might mean, anything from expulsion to extermination) and instead simply enslave them (Joshua 16:10). (Actually, God promised to do the work if Israel made the effort. Israel stopped trying after a bit.) The failure to expel or exterminate the Canaanites mean their presence in the land will be a constant distraction for Israel — including that of their gods (Judges 2:1–5). Thus, Israel falls into a pattern of serving Canaanite gods, יהוה gives Israel over to its enemies, and then after a time, יהוה hears Israel’s suffering and raises a redeemer to rescue Israel. This is the pattern for Israel’s history and ours — God gives, Israel eventually responds faithlessly, God imposes judgement and consequence, and then hears Israel’s groaning and redeems Israel, frequently violently judging those who were the very agents of God’s own violent judgment upon Israel.

This is the history that matters. And it is the only history that matters. Jesus altered how this works, bringing it to a final end, and I will get to that. But when we who are Christians look at history, we need to remember that this is the only history that contains any meaning. It is the only history that has any real moral value for us. Everything else might be a good story, but no other history truthfully tells us who we are, whose we are, what we are promised, or where we are going. If we fail to read the history of the church in light of this story — in light of the truth — then ST. Benedict doesn’t have much to tell us.

Eventually, after the united Kingdom of Israel collapses in rebellion and civil war, God adds a rejection of David and his patrimony — through which the promise of final redemption of Israel (and eventually the world) is made — to the things that will curse Israel. The northern kingdom, formed by the rebel Jeroboam, rejects David utterly (1 Kings 12:16), and goes its own ways, worshiping false gods in much the same way Israel did in the wilderness while Moses was atop the mountain engulfed by the Glory of the Lord. Kings of Israel and Judah were frequently faithless, sometimes faithful, and their conduct could determine the fate of the nation for a generation or two. Eventually, Israel succumbs to the Assyrians, and disappears from history.

7 And this occurred because the people of Israel had sinned against the Lord their God, who had brought them up out of the land of Egypt from under the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt, and had feared other gods 8 and walked in the customs of the nations whom the Lord drove out before the people of Israel, and in the customs that the kings of Israel had practiced. … 22 The people of Israel walked in all the sins that Jeroboam did. They did not depart from them, 23 until the Lord removed Israel out of his sight, as he had spoken by all his servants the prophets. So Israel was exiled from their own land to Assyria until this day. (2 Kings 17:7–9, 22–23 ESV)

Exile and annihilation are the direct consequence of Israel’s idolatry.

Judah eventually suffers this consequence at the hands of Babylon, a promise God swears for Judah despite the faithfulness of King Josiah, who cannot — despite his efforts — undo the faithlessness and idolatry of a previous king, Manasseh:

And the Lord said, “I will remove Judah also out of my sight, as I have removed Israel, and I will cast off this city that I have chosen, Jerusalem, and the house of which I said, My name shall be there.” (2 Kings 23:27 ESV)

2 Kings ends with the conquest and exile of Judah’s elites (the poor were allowed to remain to till the land) after Babylon successfully besieges, captures, loots, and destroys Jerusalem. It is this long war against Babylon that several of the prophets — particularly Jeremiah — address. And I will get to that in a bit.

Israel’s story is our story, the story of the church. If we are facing conquest and exile — and I believe we are — it is because we are dealing with the consequences of our idolatry. Nothing can be done to escape this.

What do I mean? Enlightenment and modernity are false gods, idols to which the church has committed itself to serve. I don’t mean just some portion of the Enlightenment or modernity — I mean the whole damn thing, from the nation-state to economics to the social sciences to progress to the sexual revolution. The church could no more accommodate modernity, or come to terms with it, than Israel could successfully defeat Assyria and Babylon. As church, we grew comfortable with our wealth and power in Christendom, and like Solomon, we modern Christians were careless and promiscuous in who we “married,” allowing and accepting false worship (of science, of moral progress, or reason — name your idol) of gods who could do nothing for us but demanded much bloody sacrifice on our part.

There is no saving the church. Not now. Babylon is at the gates, surrounding the city. Like Jeremiah told the people of Jerusalem, and as Jesus repeated, anyone with any sense will flee. Will surrender. Because there will be nothing left when the Babylonians are done with their siege. Resistance is futile.

Now, at this point, I need to say that this reading of our history is purely metaphorical. It’s a metaphor because I think history — in the sense I’ve outlined it here, as the story of God’s redeeming acts in history — came to an end with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. There are no new redeeming acts to follow. Everything was accomplished on the cross and in the empty tomb. We await the promised new heaven and new earth, but in this long moment between the ascension and the parousia, nothing else can or will happen. No judge will redeem us. No king will rule us in justice and mercy. Human history is fun and interesting and effectively meaningless.

Nonetheless, I do believe the crushing forces of modernity and enlightenment on the church do represent God’s judgment upon a faithless and idolatrous church. We will, at some point, stand powerless before our conquerors, and we will be sent into exile. This is has been long coming, and there’s nothing we can do about it.


This realization frees us, I think, from thinking we need to save ourselves. That somehow we can. There are several ways to approach what living in exile means, and I think all of them will and should work.

The first is contained in Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles in their Babylonian settlement of Tel Aviv in Jeremiah 29:

4 “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. 6 Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. 7 But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” (Jeremiah 29:4–7 ESV)

This letter comes a response to false prophets who are predicting a quick return. That everything will soon be as it was. God, speaking through Jeremiah, says it will not. Do not live like a people waiting. Wait like a people living. Because even as an exiled people, God tells Israel:

11 For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. 12 Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. 13 You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. 14 I will be found by you, declares the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, declares the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile. (Jeremiah 29:11–14 ESV)

Patience. In the meantime, live like this place of exile is your home.

This is not a small thing. When God calls upon exiled Israel to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you,” God is asking Israel to seek the welfare of the very people who have captured and enslaved Israel, who taunt and demand songs! (Psalm 137) Seek the welfare of your enemies, your conquerors, your captors, your tormentors. Not for their good (we are asking God to bless their conquerors, remember?), but for ours. And our posterity. Because our children may inherit our captivity, but their children (or some descendant of ours) will be redeemed. Will go home.

Then there is the call of Jonah. God sends him to Nineveh, the sprawling capital of Assyria, the enemy of conqueror of Israel, to preach doom. And Nineveh repents! (Nahum lays out the sins of Nineveh in great detail, and it is worth reading his small book.) It is possible that our enemies may hear sweet reason, may understand and take to heart the warning of God, and turn their lives around. Enough so that God will relent. Because God cares even about a corrupt and idolatrous modernity. So, there will be those called to speak words of judgment and impending doom to the modern world — it may be they will listen. (It is likely they will not, but we cannot simply take that for granted.)

Finally, and most intriguing for me, there are the examples of Elijah and Elisha, who as prophetic figures spend most of their time engaging the enemies of Israel rather than Israel itself. This shows me that we can be the faithful presence of God amidst our enemies — people at war with us — and yet still be grace to and for them.

In the call of Jeremiah to live ordinary lives, the preaching of Jonah and Nahum, and the deeds of Elija and Elisha, I see Jesus — we are called to be Jesus in the world. Not a kind, generous, compassionate world of friends, but a world in which we face murderous enemies bent on our destruction, enemies who have conquered us and torment us, enemies who do not share our faith or our understanding. We are not to be defensive, or combative (I know Catholics and Orthodox have Bible books that go beyond Daniel, Ezra, and Nehemiah, to show God present in Maccabean war of liberation against the Seleucids, but I’m not sure that understanding of our fate is all that helpful or hopeful, given that ends up with Roman occupation and the eventually destruction of Jerusalem), but rather hopeful, humble, and faithful. Our attempts to save ourselves through the deeds of our own hands end in failure and tears — our history shows us this. We are to wait upon the redemption of the Lord, knowing we already have both the reality and the assurance of redemption in Jesus Christ.

Toward that end, I see several characteristics of an exile church.

First, we are to lives intensely and intentionally relational lives with each other and with those around us. One of modernity’s great sins — a human failing that mass, industrial modernity amplifies a thousand-fold — is that human beings are mere things to be managed. Objects to be used and discarded. It is not to be so among us. We must be fully human and fully children of God to each other. This will be hard, and we will regularly fail. But in order for this to work, the structures we build must be small, places where we can purposefully engage each other as persons united in and by Christ. It may be we are going to create networks of small churches, communities, businesses — an easy thing to do in any age, but especially in ours. We won’t all like each other, and we won’t always get along. But it is important that we not treat each other or ourselves as things for pleasure or profit.

Which means we need to reclaim Christian friendship. And deal with the tyranny of the erotic that so defines our age by learning to properly restrain our passions. (Note: we will fail.) I think the fictive family that life in Christ creates — “Whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother” — is the place to start with this. Conservative Christians have idealized and focused so much on the biological family that they cannot appreciate the tragic aspect of family life. The fictive family, created by (likely informal) adoption and acclamation, united in friendship and common love, becomes a place where the unwanted, the unloved, the abandoned can find a home and belonging.

Second, we are not to care about the political order of the world. Because our salvation and redemption does not lie in governing arrangements. Partisan politics in the United States has long been a dead end. I personally do not vote, and have not voted for years. I won’t recommend that, but I will suggest it. This does not mean we do not work with government, to seek protection for ourselves and our institutions, but we do so remembering that the city whose welfare we seek is the city of our conquerors, and we have little or no say in its governing arrangements. As Christians, we are free riders on the order of the world — we have no obligations as citizens even as we have obligations as Christians to love our neighbor. We are solely to be subjects of order, and not participants in crafting it. The realities of exile will make this easy and likely make it very clear.

Which means we are called, I believe, to live profoundly non-ideological lives. Ideologies are incomplete truths, and they tell us almost nothing worth knowing about the world. They can be useful — like the other tools of modernity and enlightenment — but they pretend to be truthful ways of explaining how the world does and should work. An exile church should be neither conservative nor liberal, progressive nor reactionary, in any meaningful sense. An exile church should have no partisan political attachments or desire a say in how political or social power is used. Rather, as followers of Jesus, it is our call to show the world there is another way to live, a way of life grounded in the truth of a God who sacrificed himself for us, rather than demanding we sacrifice for him.

Power is being taken from us. So, let us lay it down our own accord. And walk away from it.

Third (and I forgot this initially), we need to embrace liturgy and the unreasonable/irrational things our call imposes upon us. And proclaim them. Jesus was God, he died, and he rose from them dead. He will come again. Every claim we make in the Apostles Creed is an absurd faith statement, none of which can be supported by anything remotely resembling reason or evidence. Too many Christians, from argumentative Evangelicals to wanna-be Thomist Catholics believe our faith is rational and reasonable — in fact, Christianity is the definition of what is reasonable. It is not. Nothing we believe is reasonable. And we should revel in that fact.

As part of this, we need to stay grounded in the liturgy of the historic church — that practiced by the church catholic and apostolic. This way of worshiping is as old as the church, and the form keeps us linked to each other in space and time. When we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, time ceases to exist, we are one with Jesus and the disciples in the upper room, and one with the church triumphant. Again, nothing about this is reasonable, but everything about it is true. Liturgy is a drama and story telling that connects us to God and to each other, a truth we tell every week that forms us as a people who wait like we’re living. Our redeemer has come. And he will come again.

Finally, we live with hope, knowing that if Enlightenment and Modernity are God’s judgment upon a faithless and idolatrous church, then our descendants will be redeemed. Babylon fell to Persia (it was Persian soldiers bashing the infants of Babylon against rock!), which allowed Israel to return from exile and rebuild Jerusalem. Rome, which was God’s judgment on faithless Israel, fell to the church. (This, I have come to believe, is the promise of Revelation.) We have both the promise and the realization of redemption in Christ, and we can know faithfully that modernity, enlightenment and secularism will themselves be judged, and will fall. This is how our history works. Even if Christ brought an end to any meaning in secular history, we still have the story, and we still know that the history that matters is shaped that way.

Exile, as I envision it, means living purposefully in the world and with each other. It means living know we have a redeemer, a future, and hope. We plant trees, beget children, and love our neighbors and wish the best for our enemies knowing that what is really important all belongs to God.

Christian Habits 

Rod Dreher notes something very interesting today over at The American Conservative as he contemplates something his priest, Father Matthew — who sounds like an amazing pastor based on what Dreher wrote about him in the Dante book — preached last Sunday:

Yesterday in church, Father Matthew in his sermon made a comment that struck me as highly relevant to a rationale for the Benedict Option. He was talking about the risks of evangelizing when we have not been properly discipled. Yes, we are called to share our faith with the world, he said, “But you can’t share what you don’t have.”

What he meant was that you can talk about the Christian faith all you want to, but if you don’t fully understand it, and haven’t been to some meaningful degree shaped by it, you should consider whether or not you’re really sharing the faith at all. He is an Orthodox priest talking to an Orthodox congregation, and what he specifically meant, I think, is that Orthodox Christianity can’t be reduced to a formula you can print on a pamphlet. It is not only a set of beliefs, but a set of practices. Becoming more deeply Orthodox is less a matter of accepting the right beliefs and deepening your understanding of them (which is important) and more about living the faith and allowing its regular practice to change your heart.

It’s this set of essential practices, I think, that the American church has forgotten, when it doesn’t — in my words — know what to do with converts.

Something I’ve concluded — American Christians do not really know how to welcome converts. None of them do. They do not know how to to do the work of showing people how to live as Christians. … the church is so tied to culture in this country, and it has no idea what to do with outsiders and non-conformists. The American church still expects the culture to do almost all of the heavy lifting, still thinks the skills that make someone a good citizen ought to make them a good christian too.

I think for too many American Christians, Christ is something one slips over an otherwise properly formed life, like a poncho. This following Jesus is an add-on for most, I think, a veneer or a sheen or an overlay that just is supposed to fit an otherwise well-adjusted and properly lived bourgeois life.

We’ve forgotten that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is supposed to form and shape us, and the historic practices of the church — daily prayer, a church calendar, liturgy, the life stories of Jesus told over and over and over again, along with the stories and laments and celebrations of Israel in which Christ’s life is so thoroughly embedded it cannot be comprehended without. Habits. Lives lived in, with, and under this story of an incarnate, suffering, crucified, and risen Lord.

Instead, we’ve boiled it all down to set of ideas that can allegedly be grasped and understood, and then held apart, in a bubble, as we go about our days habituated to things that aren’t Jesus and aren’t his church. Moderns are good at reducing things to mere ideas. It’s one of the hallmarks of modernity. But we forget that “you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free,” (John 8:32 ESV) isn’t said about a fact, or a notion, but a person — God incarnate, the Lord Jesus Christ.

How we are supposed to live is the work of habits, of memorizing, of doing, repeatedly, over and over again. I’ve always appreciated that Orthodox worship has one liturgy (well, two, an ordinary form and a long one), so it is something that can be learned and repeated by memory. (By contrast, the latest ELCA hymnal has ten settings for holy communion — TEN! — and while it’s nice someone is thinking of the diversity in the church, our infatuation with novelty means no one can effectively memorize much of it.) This is why I love the simplicity of the Catholic mass. I always appreciated that everything Muslims did in worship — including the recitation of the Qur’an — was done by memory. It was a simplicity rich with the forming of habits. I hate worship bulletins and overhead projectors and wish our hymnals were as simple as my Swedish great-grandmother Sophia’s, a tiny, bound collection of words in which the tune name was printed at the end of hymn in lieu of musical notes. Because how many tunes were there, anyway?

(She also had her own hymnal, which she brought with her to church.)

I’m lousy at the habits part, and I lack the self-discipline to do that. I want to be good at cultivating habits, but I need a community of people encouraging me, disciplining me, discipling me. I was better as a Muslim, but then Muslims have preserved more of their habits — especially communal prayer that is supposed to break into and interrupt secular time. But even Muslims are losing their habits (when I was in Jeddah, I noticed that lots of Saudi men would just sit, not praying, during prayer times), their practices, and for many, Islam is the same kind of veneer affectation it is for many American Christians.

Or it is simply an ideology which promises all things and justifies all things.

There’s Complicity, and There’s Complicity…

Apropos of a conversation of sorts taking place in the comments section (thank you Laurie and Doug), yes, we are all complicit in the societies in which we find ourselves. To some degree, which is why I don’t go anywhere near as far as some of the radical reformers (anabaptists) in saying society or community must be morally pure or else the believer’s salvation is at stake. It’s not, and nothing from a smart reading of scripture — especially the New Testament, and exilic documents like Daniel and Esther — suggests that if you understand that Christians/Jews were a minority living in a society whose terms they could not dictate.

Remember, in Matthew 25, the sheep and the goats are distinguished by acts of kindness and love for the weak and the vulnerable, not support for policies, politicians, governments, or regimes. That sort of thing he’s been beyond control of most people anyway (even in allegedly democratic polities).

Rather, what the “Benedict Option” for me is a state of mind, a realization of who the people of God really are. Modern Christians, especially Americans, have a deep and troubling problem of not being able to distinguish the moral order of the created (or redeemed) cosmos with the actual order they find themselves in. Americans in particular have theologized the American founding, and turned it into a kind of natural theology that seeks to, or should, order and govern the world.

Or, to put it another way, Western Christians have never entirely been able to tell the church and the state apart. Not as institutions, but as spacial entities. I am both a citizen of the United States and a baptized follower of Jesus Christ. Americans, especially (but are not alone in this), have confounded and confused the two, mistaking American values for Gospel values and a certain reading of scripture as supportive of the American endeavor in ways God does not seem to support God’s people in scripture. (Remember, Israel is “chosen” but also bears the worst of God’s judgment.)

Yes, Jeremiah passes God’s instructions on to exiled Israel:

4 “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon:5 Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. 6 Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. 7 But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. (Jeremiah 29:4-7 ESV)

Do good, love your neighbors, and seek the good of the place you live, and the people amongst who you live, but never forget — you are an exile, a subject, and this is not your land. It can entail participation in politics (though I think that’s a distraction), but it must always remember — we are a subject people, and that is not ours to change. To quote Ezra and Nehemiah’s prayers, “we are slaves this day.” And this describes Israel’s relationship to Persia, the nation that ended its exile, whose king, Cyrus, was God’s “anointed.”

This is also the essence of Paul’s instructions to the church in Romans 13, especially when he reminds that church that *love of neighbor* and not love or loyalty to the state is what is at stake when he writes, “Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.”(Romans 13:8 ESV)

So, for me, the Benedict Option is a reminder that, as Christians, we cannot and should not expect that the moral order of the universe will or should reflect itself in the physical ordering of the world. And that exile, not dominion, may be the natural state of the church on this side of the eschaton. Israel wept for its exile, but lived in exile nonetheless, and ever after, Israel’s sovereignty was constrained.

It means remembering that America is just another contingent part of the natural order, an accident of history which has come and will, at some point, go. Because all things pass away. It is the church — and America is most definitely NOT the church — that will remain. To the extent that too many American Christians have deeply confused the two, struggling more for an American order rather than to follow Christ as Christ called us to follow, well, this is why we need something like the Benedict Option.

It is to remember what Paul wrote to the church in Philippi. That was are, in the end, citizens not of any earthly polity, but of a heavenly one.

17 Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us. 18 For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19 Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. 20 But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself. (Philippians 3:17-21 ESV)