Nearly thirteen centuries ago, my ancestors, the people east of the Rhine, were tribal, pagan savages. They were not nice people. They worshipped the Norse gods like Thor and Odin and had tattoos all over their bodies marking their devotion to him and their devotion to their tribe. Like most tribal societies, anyone who was not part of the tribe was more or less subhuman and fit for being robbed, murdered, and/or raped. They practiced human sacrifice. They weren’t all that different from ISIS today.
Into this world went a humble Benedictine monk named Winfrid. He left the cloister to become a missionary. Pope Gregory II appointed this missionary monk as bishop of then-pagan Germania and gave him a new name: Boniface. Boniface went through Germania preaching the gospel and destroying pagan idols and shrines and leaving churches in their place. The pagans he converted were my ancestors.
And to their great shrine venerated by these people Boniface went: to the Oak of Thor, where my ancestors sacrificed to their god of thunder. They believed that if anyone touched this tree, Thor would respond to this sacrilege by killing him with a bolt of lightning. Boniface, trusting that Christ had triumphed over all the demons of the prince of the power of the air, declared that he would not only just touch this tree, but he would chop it down. So word went out and many pagans gathered to watch Thor fry this foolish Christian. Instead they saw their idol fall to the earth and they were all baptized that day.
Boniface was preaching to other pagans many years later when he finally poured out his blood for Jesus Christ. A band of raiders attacked Boniface and his large group of companions. Though he and the 52 others who were with him could have resisted, the elderly missionary ordered them all to desist. At the age of 79 he received his crown of glory.
The monastic order St. Boniface came from began about two centuries before his birth and was called “the Order of Saint Benedict.” It is Saint Benedict, who, during the calamity of the collapse of the Roman Empire, formed monasteries. These monasteries became communities of Christian thought and worship which helped bring stability to Christendom.
Today, the West (and the American Empire in particular) like Rome in Benedict’s day, is in a state of slow, seemingly inexorable decline. Soft times have created soft men. So God has given us hard times. These hard times, this great decline is what the big, important book of the moment, The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher, was written to address. Several GBs of data have been spilled critiquing it, analyzing it, and praising it. Kuyperian Commentary’s own Sean Johnson has a review here. What I am offering is not a review or a critique. If anything it is a personal addendum. In poker terms: I see Rod Dreher’s St. Benedict and raise him St. Boniface.
To start with, if you don’t know, what is The Benedict Option? My summation of it is this: a movement to emphasize the formation of intentionally Christian communities centered around spiritual and intellectual development as opposed to massive religious right coalitions fighting the culture war on a national scale.
I don’t find this to be objectionable. Anyone can see that the church has less influence in American culture than at any point in this nation’s history. The heyday of evangelicalism, where evangelicals were a voting bloc that the creatures in Washington had to appease, is no more. In hindsight, it is easy to see what went wrong. All the capital spent on voting a man we considered “one of our own,” George W. Bush, was wasted on his disastrous tenure as president, like Heath Ledger’s Joker lighting his pyramid of cash on fire. We made our deal with the devil and lost. And even if things had gone well, we still would have lost. The Christianity that fueled the religious right was 1,000 miles wide and half an inch deep. The vast majority of our churches are the descendants of the Second Great Awakening and Charles Finney—and these are the conservative ones! There is no way that this kind of Christianity that preaches a gospel of cheap and easy vending machine grace (not to mention apathy toward and neglect of the world which Christ reigns over) could build and sustain a culture that could last centuries. So, instead of fighting quixotic national political campaigns to oppose sodomy and abortion, shifting our emphasis to building local communities of Christians where we can grow strong in theology and liturgy (and be strengthened by good theology and faithful worship) is what we ought to be doing. Doing what actually worked in the past seems right, especially when we consider the other option—continuing to do what we are currently doing with the same result—is the definition of insanity.
Therefore, if we are going to embark on forming local Christian communities in the face of the chaos of imperial decline, which I think we should, it is of the utmost importance that we have an idea of the kind of men we should be forming. We need men who would trade the cloister for confrontation. Men who would trade the relative comfort of the monastery for missions and martyrdom. We need hard men for hard times. Thor’s Oak wasn’t felled because Boniface got the pagans to like him and think he was a pretty cool guy. These people hated him and his God. Thor’s Oak was felled because of the truth—the Jesus Christ is God, Thor is not. We have to learn not to care what unbelievers, people who are going to spend eternity in hell for their hatred of God, think. We ought not to care what their opinion of us is. These are people who desperately need to hear the truth. The truth about a God-man who was murdered for speaking the truth. We have to understand, every unbeliever would have killed Jesus if they had the chance. What is sin if not attempted deicide, after all? Yet the Lord loved them and gave His life for them. As He was going through the agony of the cross at any instant with a single word He could have eviscerated those responsible for His murder. Instead, He forgave them.
We need to be forming men like Christ. We need to be forming men like Boniface. Men who boldly spoke the truth, no matter the cost. And men who sacrificially laid down their lives for their enemies when the cost came due. Love for our enemies means: 1. recognizing we have enemies. 2. telling these enemies the truth. 3. laying down our lives for them. Most evangelical cultural engagement replaces steps 1 and 2 with: 1. make no distinctions about anything 2. be winsome and try to get everyone to like you. There is only one direction an approach like this can go. Those who adopt it do so out of a mix of apathy, pragmatism, and cowardice.
Not so with the Boniface Option. This isn’t to say we have to go out of our way to be hated. Picketing the funerals of soldiers telling people “God hates fags” is despicable and obviously not the Boniface Option. But if the culture is increasingly becoming anti-Christian (it is), you won’t have to go out of your way to find enemies. Faithfully worshipping Jesus and leading a godly life will draw them to you like flies to honey. And the Thor’s Oaks they worship won’t be chopped down with pathological niceness. They will be chopped down by men who are ready to lose their careers, reputations, 401ks, etc. for faithfulness to Jesus. Men who chose what is hard because they believe their God. Men who, like their Lord, won’t break a bruised reed, but who follow a God who executes kings in the day of His wrath. The soft times of Pax Americana created soft men. It appears our Lord has given us hard times. It is time to forge hard men.