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By In Books, Culture, Theology

How Optional Is The Benedict Option?: A Brief Review

“It may be the devil,” one Nobel laureate has opined, “or it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody.”

There is an irony, then—and a difficulty—in the title of Rod Dreher’s latest book, The Benedict Option. He paints a bleak picture of Christianity’s future in a “Post-Christian” nation, barring a radical shift in the American Church’s self-understanding. “Is the Christianity we have been living out in our families, congregations, and communities a means of deeper conversion, or,” Dreher worries, “does it function as a vaccination against taking faith with the seriousness the Gospel demands?” (12). If the latter proves true—as Dreher suggests—then at many points the way of life he presents under the auspices of “the Benedict Option” seems like the only viable alternative to cultural and ecclesial death in America. That is to say, the Benedict Option is not, strictly speaking, optional. That fact is not so much a difficulty for Dreher, though, as for his critics.

Dreher really had little choice but to orient his book to the pre-existing scheme of a “Benedict Option,” since it was the tapestry of lively and controversial discussions around the “Option” that created the demand for the book in the first place. Meanwhile, his own understanding of the Option seems never to have been confined to the historical person of St. Benedict or his rule for monastic living. He refers to Alasdair MacIntyre’s discussion of a bankrupt and decrepit Roman society, out of which St. Benedict emerged. “Saint Benedict had taken the proper measure of Rome. He acted wisely by leaving society and starting a new community whose practices would preserve the faith through the trials ahead” (18). Benedict, then, is a fitting figurehead for a Church preparing to radically adjust its way of living in the West. The life may not be optional in Dreher’s mind, but it seems safe to assume the name is. As a result, critics who fixate on the absence of Benedict or Benedictine practices from whole sections of the book will miss engaging with Dreher and his true intentions.

A Benedict Option way of life is one committed to creating and living within ‘parallel structures’ or a ‘parallel polis,’ “separate but porous societ[ies]…in which the truth can be lived in community” (93). Dreher sees these markedly Christian societies existing alongside the dominant sociopolitical order, but engendering a distinct identity among their members. “Think of teachers who make sure kids learn things they won’t get at government schools,” Dreher suggests. “Think of writers who write what they really believe and find ways to get it to the public, no matter what the cost. Think of priests and pastors who find a way to live out religious life despite condemnation and legal obstacles, and artists who don’t give a rip for official opinion. Think of young people who decide not to care about success in society’s eyes and who drop out to pursue a life of integrity, no matter what it costs them. These people who refuse to assimilate and instead build their own structures are living the Benedict Option” (95). Christians aren’t being tortured and killed in the U.S., but in a nation where many Christian University campuses aren’t distinguishable from secular ones and where church services feature Memorial Day sermons on Ascension Sunday, a little cultural antithesis might be in order.

Another reviewer points to a real ambiguity in Dreher’s thinking at this point: are “Christians called to sustain communities of faithful witness within a powerful but hostile Empire for decades and centuries to come, or are we called to establish havens of order and virtue in the chaotic ruins of a collapsed civilization until we can rebuild strong cultural and political institutions?” The answer, I think, is two-fold. If, on the one hand, the exact nature of this option is at times ambiguous, it may be due to the fact that the option encompasses the whole of life. In that sense, it is not easy to wrap one’s mind (or a few clever sentences chapters books around). In that sense, too, it is not, strictly speaking, optional. At one point, Dreher shares this snippet from a conversation about the B.O.: “People are like, ‘This Benedict Option thing, it’s just being Christian, right?’ And I’m like, ‘Yes!…But people won’t do it unless you call it something different. It’s just the church being what the church is supposed to be, but if you give it a name, that makes people care” (142). If, then, ‘Benedict Option’ is simply code for orthodox Christianity, one might expect it to adapt (without compromise, of course) to every new age, as the Church has always done. (more…)

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By In Culture, Theology

Tolkien’s Eschatological Wilderness

TolkiensShireDrawingThis is the last in a series of literary and theological reflections on the nature of the wilderness in Scripture and everyday experience. The previous installments–an introduction, thoughts on Grimms‘ fairy tales, and a few more on Beowulf–though helpful, are not essential before reading this piece.

Few authors have portrayed both City and Wilderness environments as vividly or expansively as J.R.R. Tolkien does in his legendarium of Middle Earth. A cultivator and culture-maker himself, Tolkien brings us so close to the life and spirit of his environments that one cannot help but love them, lament their fall and decay, and wish fervently for their redemption and renewal. Perhaps, too, in Tolkien more than in the other works examined up till now, the relationship between City and Wilderness matches best the thematic movement and relationships exemplified in the Scriptures.

Now, where to begin? Ah yes, concerning hobbits…or rather, the home of the hobbits. The Shire is a small, green country in the Northwest of Middle Earth. Rather like a network of rural neighborhoods, the Shire is a little too agrarian and too loosely connected to be considered a proper city, but by now that shouldn’t be a problem for us. If we let the familiar concepts of cultivation, dominion, and community direct our thinking, the Shire is a perfect example of what I have been calling “City.” It is a well-cultivated locale where the furry-footed green thumbs exercise a healthy dominion over the earth and manage to coax from it all manner of produce. The Shire is misunderstood by some to be a kind of hippie environmentalist paradise where its residents can live in nature, free from the influences of civilization (and relishing their pipe weed). That kind of reading is simplistic at best, sinister at worst.

The neighborhoods of the Shire, while lacking tall towers, the military fortifications of a fortress-city, and the smoky furnace works of an industrial town, is far from undeveloped or uncultivated. Frankly, the Shire is very much an Edenic environment. The earth does not simply do what it will; the hobbits till the earth and manage the multitude of growing things. Although the tiny Halflings do live underground, they are not living off the land and sleeping under bushes; homes are designed and carved out of the earth like they might be anywhere else. There is also a very clear distinction between where the Shire ends and where the wilder country beyond begins. Frodo and company learn from the Dunedain Rangers that the Shire is only kept safe and isolated from the dangers of The Wild by the ceaseless efforts of unseen guardians. The lands surrounding the Shire are dark and deadly and, in comparison, the Shire is not a wilderness by any stretch of the imagination.

Also bordering the Shire is the Old Forest, an ancient forest as old as Middle Earth itself. Like many of Tolkien’s forests, the Old Forest is a kind of living entity with its own will, temperament, and moral character. This particular forest has grown pretty nasty and antagonistic toward anyone or anything representing civilization. In time forgotten the Hobbits erected a large hedge between the Shire and the forest, only to have the trees press against it and actually begin to tear it down.  As the Wilderness personified, the Old Forest has been making war against all Halfling efforts at cultivation and dominion. “You won’t have any luck in the Old Forest,” warns Fatty Bolger when Frodo talks of traveling through it, “No one ever has luck in there. You’ll get lost….I’m more afraid of the Old Forest than anything I know about: the stories about it are a nightmare” (FotR 118). It is a wood of wandering, like Dante’s, but unlike that selva oscura, this one really is actively and maliciously out to get folks. Out of desperation, the Hobbits enter the forest and immediately feel the ill will of the Wilderness bent toward them. Finally they are drawn to the heart of the forest and attacked by Old Man Willow. The Shire is city enough, by all accounts, and a good city too. However, when the Nazgul come for them, the city is no longer safe for Frodo and company, and they must seek their deliverance in the wilderness. Exiles, the Hobbits have been driven into the Wilderness and they are perishing there, but they meet someone they did not expect.

When things look bleakest for the Hobbits, a funny little man in a big hat and yellow boots comes skipping to the rescue. Who and what he is are best communicated in his own words:

Hey dol! merry dol! ring a dong dillo!
Ring a dong! hop along! fal lal the willow!
Tom Bom, jolly Tom, Tom Bombadillo!
…………………………………………………………..
Old Tom Bombadil is a merry fellow,
Bright blue his jacket is, and his boots are yellow.
None has ever caught him yet, for Tom, he is the master:
His songs are the stronger songs, and his feet are faster.
……………………………………………………………
Hop along, my little friends, up the Withywindle!
Tom’s going on ahead candles for to kindle.
Down west sinks the Sun: soon you will be groping.
When the night-shadows fall, then the door will open,
Out of the window-panes light will twinkle yellow.
Fear no alder black! Heed no hoary willow!
Fear neither root nor bough! Tom goes on before you.
Hey now! merry dol! We’ll be waiting for you! (FotR 130-132)

With a word, Bombadil rebukes Old Man Willow and subdues him. When Tom is around, the Hobbits need “fear no alder black,” nor “heed no hoary willow.” Frodo and his friends have met an Adam whose dominion over nature is manifest even in the sound of his voice. Tom’s wife, Goldberry, tells them simply, “He is. He is the Master of wood, water, and hill” (FotR 135). His house is at the edge of the Old Forest, standing in stark contrast to it. There are animals, gardens, a beautiful female helper—this miniature Eden, with yellow light twinkling out of the window, is like a bright beacon on a hill to the Hobbits who emerge from the dark wood just before nightfall. Tom’s very existence emphasizes the antithesis between Eden-City and Wilderness. And yet, his rescue from the wild still came to the Hobbits in the wild.
TolkienMirkwoodDrawing
As bad as the Old Forest had become, Tolkien loved trees and would never place the bulk of the blame upon the forest itself. Anyone with ears to hear and eyes to see will hear and see, again and again, Tolkien trying to show his readers that as bad as wilderness is, no forest is created evil. It is implied within The Lord of the Rings that The Old Forest was scarred by ancient wars between Elves and Melkor, Sauron’s predecessor and one of the Satanic figures of Tolkien’s mythology. Mirkwood, home to Legolas and the Green Elves, receives a similar treatment. Originally known as “Greenwood,” Mirkwood took its new name when Sauron took up residence in his fortress there. Before the time of The Hobbit, while he was still disguised as the Necromancer, Sauron came secretly to the Greenwood, and with him came a number of unnatural blights. The water in the forest turned poisonous, an unnatural darkness settled over the canopy of trees, and an infestation of giant spiders developed, to the point that the Green elves who once subdued and lived peacefully within the wood were forced to recede into a corner of the forest small enough for them to control and defend by sheer numbers. When the dark lord Sauron came to the forest and it became the Mirkwood, the elves lost much of their natural influence over it. The presence of evil is what made the Greenwood into a mirk wood; evil creates Wilderness.

Evil does not just make a wilderness of the natural world, either. As we have seen, Garden and City are intimately connected through Eden and Tolkien shows us that evil, given the right opportunity, is just as capable of reducing a thriving city to wilderness. Consider the city of Minas Tirith. Built as a watch-city to keep the forces of Sauron in check, Minas Tirith had a sister city built right on the border of Mordor. For a time the two cities fulfilled their purpose and Sauron’s minions could gain no foothold outside of the Black Lands. Eventually, though, vigilance wavered, men grew complacent, and the active defense of Gondor became a purely passive effort no longer concerned with reclamation of the Wilderness. The enemy seized their opportunity and overthrew the second city, Minas Morgul, turning it into a powerful outpost for evil. Like the Northern and Southern kingdoms of Israel, these two cities, once existing for the same purpose, were now locked in a permanent struggle. The one city, “City’s” only stronghold left to stand against Sauron; the other city, un-citied and reduced to a wilderness made with hands. Both strove for control of Osgiliath—Gondor’s capitol city, situated directly between Minas Tirith and Minas Morgul. And it is important to note that both sides strove actively. Tolkien effectively proves to us that cultivation versus atrophy is a false dichotomy and Wilderness is not simply what you get when you do nothing to the world. While it’s true that the abdication of Adamic culture-makers can play a major role in the spread of Wilderness, it is not because the world functions on a natural gradient sloping downward from buildings to flowers to weeds…to lots and lots of weeds. Rather, it is because evil is manifest in various agents desiring, as their wicked father desired, to make a wasteland out of what could have been a paradise, and could be again.
TolkienMinasTirithShadow

Had we but world enough and time, I would discuss the Elves and their eschatological significance as culture-makers, or the connections between Gandalf’s transfiguration in Fangorn Forest and Christ’s many works in the Wilderness, or a hundred other relevant elements within Tolkien’s myth, but such discussions must wait for another time. As a last remark on Tolkien’s works, I will say a word about the Dunedain Rangers, though. The Dunedain are a faithful remnant of a once great race that worshipped God and then fell into wickedness and was nearly destroyed in a great deluge. Is any of this ringing a bell? Good. Masters of the Wild, the surviving Dunedain are wanderers, waiting for something, and content to live largely apart. What are they waiting for? They wait for a king to come from their midst who can put things to rights, unite the races of Middle Earth, strike terror into the heart of the enemy, and accomplish what Samwise Gamgee also dreams of: make the wild places safe and turn the whole world into a garden…and a city.

If Scripture and literature have taught us anything concerning the Wilderness, they have taught us that it takes a King to unmake it. From there, we can conclude the ultimate fate of Wilderness. When the King of this world returns in glory, Eden will be restored and perfected; the New Jerusalem will descend as a Garden-City, with the Tree of Life at its center and, like Ezekiel’s vision, streams of water will flow out of it into the corners of the earth, carrying life and culture with them, making a paradise and an Un-Wilderness of the whole earth. As Gandalf tells the Innkeeper at Bree:

There is a King again, Barlimann. He will soon be turning his mind this way. Then the Greenway will be opened again, and his messengers will come north, and there will be comings and goings, and the evil things will be driven out of the waste-lands. Indeed the waste in time will be waste no longer, and there will be people and fields where once there was wilderness. (272)

And as the Lord has said to His people:

The Lord will comfort Zion, He will comfort all her waste places; He will make her wilderness like Eden, and her desert like the Garden of the Lord; Joy and gladness will be found in it. He will make a covenant of peace with His people and cause wild beasts to cease from the land; and they will dwell safely in the wilderness and sleep in the woods. (Is. 51:3; Ez. 34:25.)

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By In Scribblings, Theology

Does the Moon Exist if Doug Wilson Can’t See It?

If the Bandwagon of Reformed Pop-Theological trends were a Jewish family, they would always set an extra place at the dining room table for big names willing to sock it to N.T. Wright. Tonight, Doug Wilson’s coming to dinner. In the interest of full disclosure (and, more importantly, of honest charity), Wilson is a former teacher who taught me many valued and treasured lessons, as well as a man I still harbor a great respect for. However, any man who can consider his heroes honestly will be able to identify not only the qualities he admires in them, but those he does not. Wilson is many things–most of them admirable–but he is not always as careful or consistent as one would like. In his recent blog post, “In Which N.T. Wright Discovers the Moon Again,” Wilson complains that Wright makes the same urbane revelations over and over again, all the while asserting their novelty (more…)

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By In Culture, Theology

God’s Not Dead: The Film’s Crisis of Confidence

What follows are notes on one element, the narrative confidence, of God’s Not Dead; for a more complete treatment, see my review at FilmFisher.

Nearly seventy-five years after his death, Sigmund Freud is still taught and studied continuously on the average university campus, but where might surprise you. It isn’t in the Psychology departments, where they have largely dismissed him as liberal and antiquated, but in the Literature departments, where his theories of the subconscious will (the id) are brought to bear on literary texts. The real meaning of a work of literature, say the Freudian readers, is not the meaning intended by the author, but the meaning unintentionally communicated by the author; i.e. read between the lines, and don’t bother yourself about the lines at all. As anyone but the most committed Freudian will readily admit, this is a flawed, unbalanced approach to art, but it does get at a kernel of truth—it is simply an over-application of a timeless observation. Men didn’t need Freud to tell them that a whole lot of human communication is nonverbal and, yes, unintentional (more…)

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By In Culture, Theology

This Easter, Dig A Grave

churchyard

How often do you see cemeteries? Do you know, off hand, where the closest one is? Do your children? It is a sad state of affairs when we can’t answer these questions with certainty and, if you’ll allow me to indulge in a few preliminary comments, I’ll tell you why.

One of the best ways to engage literature is to pick a work you want to be shaped by and to read it again and again. I was recently rereading G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy with that end in mind, and the following passage struck me:

“But if it comes to clear ideas and the intelligent meaning of things, then there is much more rational philosophical truth in the burial at the crossroads and the stake driven through the body…there is a meaning in burying the suicide apart.”
“….And then I remembered the stake and the crossroads, and the queer fact that Christianity had shown this weird harshness to the suicide. For Christianity had shown a wild encouragement of the martyr. Historic Christianity was accused, not entirely without reason, of carrying martyrdom and asceticism to a point, desolate and pessimistic. The early Christian martyrs talked of death with a horrible happiness. They blasphemed the beautiful duties of the body: they smelt the grave afar off like a field of flowers. All this has seemed to many the very poetry of pessimism. Yet there is the stake at the crossroads to show what Christianity thought of the pessimist.”

It struck me not because of the particular topic but of the more general implication. Regardless of your convictions about the burial of suicides, these remarks demonstrate something powerful, and something contemporary Protestantism (at least in my circles) has begun to forget—our treatment of the dead translates into a meaningful theological statement. (more…)

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By In Culture, Theology

Beowulf’s Triumphal Entry

As the Church celebrates the feast of Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem, my series of comments on the nature of Biblical wilderness [see part 1 and part 2] reaches its discussion of the Anglo-Saxon poem, Beowulfand its titular hero, who also emerges from a wilderness in order to liberate a spiritually beleaguered city.

Beowulf

Because the world is still, largely, a fallen one, corrupt cities are far more common than righteous ones, but Heorot—Beowulf’s incarnation of City—is best located in transition between the two. Heorot is the golden mead-hall of Hrothgar, king of the Danes. Hrothgar is known the world over as a valiant warrior, noble ruler, and a good man, and his mighty hall stands as a bastion of goodness and dominion in a cold, dark, wild country. Nevertheless, there is hidden sin in Heorot, and Hrothgar’s righteous rule is tainted by a long inherited history of kin-slaying. So, while a good king sits enthroned in the City, and evil is confined to the murky fringes of that country, a house divided against itself cannot stand and the presence of sin—especially the sin of brother killing brother—leaves man’s cultivated realm open to attack from the darkness.

In Beowulf, this attack comes in the form of the demonic creature, (more…)

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By In Culture, Theology

The Wilderness of the Brothers Grimm

GrimmHanselGretel

In a previous post, I laid out my thesis for City-Wilderness typology in Scripture, and now intend to trace that same typology through the works of several non-biblical authors. To equip ourselves for that endeavor, let’s quickly examine evidence of these City-Wilderness themes in Scripture. Scripture already draws direct contrast between the wilderness and city, garden, and Eden itself:

Until the Spirit is poured on us from on high, and the wilderness becomes a fruitful field, and the fruitful field is considered a forest. Then justice will dwell in the wilderness; and righteousness will remain in the fruitful field (Is. 32:15-16).

I have been in travels often, perils of rivers, perils of robbers, perils from my countrymen, perils from the Gentiles, perils in the city, perils in the wilderness, perils in the sea, perils among false brothers (2 Cor. 11:26).

I saw, and behold, the fruitful field was a wilderness, and all its cities were broken down at the presence of Yahweh, and before his fierce anger (Jer. 4:26).

For Yahweh has comforted Zion; he has comforted all her waste places, and has made her wilderness like Eden, and her desert like the garden of Yahweh; joy and gladness shall be found therein, thanksgiving, and the voice of melody (Is. 51:3).

City is Eden and Eden is objectively good, but when the City is corrupt, righteousness is found in the Wilderness. History is full of falls: time and time again, the Serpent makes his way back into the City, (more…)

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