When You’re Not Countercultural Enough
It’s been a long time since I wrote anything about the Benedict Option—permit me one more foray. Maybe I’m just beating a dead horse here, but it seems to me that this ongoing conversation gets at important issues surrounding the turbulent relationship between faith and civic participation in the modern West.
Anyway, a few days ago, an anonymous blogger posted an extended review/critique of Rod Dreher’s “The Benedict Option” that’s worth engaging. It’s highly erudite and the author is clearly well versed in the relevant subject matter. I don’t want to rehash the entire piece (it’s far too long for that) but want to comment more generally on its startling central argument: Dreher’s Benedict Option is insufficiently radical. It would appear that, according to the review’s author, traditional Christians really ought to evacuate the modern world at all costs—adopting an approach akin to the Amish or Hasidic Jewish communities.
Obviously, this is an extreme response to the challenges of contemporary culture, and many will write it off on that basis alone. Nevertheless, the piece got me reflecting on a more fundamental point: there’s a certain implicit causal relationship often being suggested in arguments like this. This is, in effect, the assumption that one’s failure to make a radical political break from the mainstream necessarily spells the death of their faith and the collapse of organized Christianity. This assumption is often rooted in the hypothetical “doomsday scenario”: it’s 2024, you’re at your job, and you’re asked to be complicit in some action about which you have moral reservations. Or, more simply, what happens when XYZ test comes and you simply go along with the crowd? Made the wrong decision? That’s the ballgame, folks—enjoy nihilistic modernity.
For theological reasons, though, I’m profoundly skeptical that this causal scheme really holds.
I take as a given that radical separatism is, quite simply, not feasible for everyone. For the vast majority of people, the basic requirements of life demand some engagement with “secular” spaces (not everyone knows how to live off the land, or can afford to acquire their own property). Many Christians, if not the vast majority, must live and work in the world as we find it—flaws and all.
In navigating that world, we will make mistakes. Put bluntly, I am not convinced that every Christian who stumbles when faced with an unpleasant choice—who “sells out” to the surrounding culture in some way or another—has thereby automatically assimilated to the point that their failing jeopardizes Western Christianity itself. Is such a stumble wrong? Yes. Is it fatal to the project of Christianity? Decidedly not. (Recall, for instance, the Donatist controversy.)
For instance, as I go through life, I try to often recall Jesus’s words in Luke 9:26—“Whoever is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his glory and in the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.” Yet I am certain that I routinely fail to live up to this standard.
A few years ago, I was out jogging one morning on the streets of New Haven. My route took me, as it did every day, across the Yale University campus. On the corner of a busy intersection I saw an older gentleman in his mid-fifties, wearing a neatly pressed suit and handing out Gideons New Testaments. He wasn’t standing on the corner with a bullhorn screaming about Charles Darwin’s lies (yes, this did happen). In fact, he wasn’t proselytizing at all. He was just offering New Testaments to anyone who might want one. Most of the passersby simply ignored him. As I ran down the street, he extended one to me. I took it as I passed, thanking him with a quick “God bless you.” I never got his name, and I never saw him there again.
I’ve thought a lot about that man since then. No doubt it took a great deal of courage to simply stand there, in the center of a fairly hostile academic climate, and offer the Word. There was no ironic detachment or attempt at subtle “winsomeness.” There was only sincerity.
Because of him, I’ve carried that New Testament with me every day since then. It lives in the black messenger bag I take with me almost everywhere I go. It reminds me to have courage when the time is at hand, no matter what people might think—to go beyond simple “niceness” or vaguely defined theism and identify as distinctly Christian.
Do I fail at that task? Yes. Am I standing on the Georgetown campus handing out New Testaments out of my concern for others? No. Am I almost certainly too much of a slave to my own desire for “elite” approval? Yes. But I know this much: my failures—my inevitable lapses into cultural assimilation at the expense of integrity—do not overthrow the Christian Church.
Over the last few months I’ve been dabbling in the works of Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, and certain other thinkers of the Frankfurt School—often blamed for creating the monster of “Cultural Marxism” (a term of dubious intellectual provenance). Reading their writings, one is struck by their absolute despondence over the suffering and violence associated with global capitalism, a system in which they all know themselves to be deeply complicit. Crucially, however—as Stuart Jeffries argues in his recent biography of the School’s thinkers—they saw no better way forward, since the horrors of Nazi Germany and Soviet Communism had disabused them of utopian thinking. As a result, their sorrow—their shame over their complicity in the world’s evil—was an experience of guilt without any possibility of absolution. That graceless vision is certainly not a Christian one.
I think Martin Luther perhaps expressed it best in his famous letter to Philip Melanchthon:
God does not save those who are only imaginary sinners. Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong, but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world. We will commit sins while we are here, for this life is not a place where justice resides. We, however, says Peter (2. Peter 3:13) are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth where justice will reign. It suffices that through God’s glory we have recognized the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world.
In other words, our weaknesses are inevitable, but stronger still is the force of Christ’s redemption.
None of this should be construed as disparaging the importance of standing on principle, even when there are ugly consequences. Rather, what I’m arguing for is a clear-eyed view of our own imperfectability—one that acknowledges that we will sin and make compromises we shouldn’t, regardless of the environment in which we find ourselves.
Does this perspective entail total cultural assimilation, to the point of dissolution in liquid modernity? I don’t think so. Perhaps it reflects a distinctly Protestant cynicism about human beings—fair enough. But I do think this perspective acknowledges the inherent challenges of the contemporary world without lapsing into either utopianism or defeatism.
And, most critically, it offers hope beyond oneself.