Why Isn’t Jamie Smith Alarmed?

Alarm sells more books (and Rod Dreher sells more books than Jamie Smith).

Jamie has a point that Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option traffics in alarmism (does that mean alarm is okay):

And in his much-anticipated book, “The Benedict Option,” blogger Rod Dreher has seen the apocalypse: “There are people alive today who may live to see the effective death of Christianity within our civilization. By God’s mercy, the faith may continue to flourish in the Global South and China, but barring a dramatic reversal of current trends, it will all but disappear entirely from Europe and North America. This may not be the end of the world, but it is the end of a world, and only the willfully blind would deny it.” Note, again: if you’re not alarmed, you’re not seeing things, a circular reasoning to help work yourself into a froth of fear.

But Rod is right that Jamie goes too far and virtue signals to elite journalists in the nation’s capital who may not view Calvin College in high regard these days (think Calvin alum, Betsy De Vos) when Smith trots out the standard Never Trump meme that alarmism is a version of white backlash. Jamie, who promotes charity, really did go here:

But the new alarmism is something different. It is tinged with a bitterness and resentment and sense of loss that carries a whiff of privilege threatened rather than witness compromised. When Dreher, for example, laments the “loss of a world,” several people notice that world tends to be white. And what seems to be lost is a certain default power and privilege. When Dreher imagines “vibrant Christianity,” it is on the other side of the globe. He doesn’t see the explosion of African churches in the heart of New York City or the remarkable growth of Latino Protestantism. The fear seems suspiciously tied to white erosion.

Jamie may work in Dutch-American country, but he’s no provincial.

So Rod feels betrayed:

I cite the research of Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith, who documents the stark decline of American Christian belief, compared to historical doctrinal norms. I cite the more recent findings, by Pew, by Jean Twenge, and by others, showing the unprecedented falloff of religious identification and practice among Millennials. And I cite the recent study by two eminent sociologists of religion who found that the United States is now on the same secularizing track as Europe (I wrote about that also here, on this blog.)

If you are a believing Christian who is not alarmed by this, you have your head in the sand. On his blog the other day, Alan Jacobs observed that some public critics of the Benedict Option seem to be operating from a position of “motivated reasoning” — that is, that they are reacting less about what’s actually in the book than in how the book’s premises, if true, threaten their own biases and interests. In other words, they may be motivated to react with hostility to it, beyond legitimate criticism. To put it more uncharitably, as the saying goes, it is hard to get a man to see something when his paycheck depends on him not seeing it.

Is that happening here? I don’t know. I can’t read James K.A. Smith’s mind. I do know that I find it awfully strange that he turned so sharply on the Benedict Option, in the time he did. And I find it especially dishonest — and, frankly, morally and intellectually discreditable — that he would impute racist motivations to me when the book I wrote, which he has in hand, makes a very different claim.

As I have indicated many times, what bothers me about the BenOp is that Rod only seems to understand a cultural crisis now when some Christians (the mainstream calls them fundamentalists) saw it at least a century ago. My sense is that Rod grew up fairly comfortable in mainline Protestant America and only when the mainline churches went really flaky did he look for Christian sustenance elsewhere — first Rome, then Constantinople. But he seems to have no awareness that Protestants circa 1900 saw trends in the mainline world that plausibly predicted what would happen to the Protestant mainline in the Angela Davis era.

One of those Protestants from the turn of the twentieth century who saw the crisis of modern society was a man who has inspired many of the faculty and administrators at the college where Jamie Smith teaches. The college is Calvin and the old Protestant is Abraham Kuyper. The Dutch pastor, university founder, politician and theologian knew alarm and encouraged it among his followers. Kuyper put the antithesis this way:

Not faith and science, therefore, but two scientific systems or, if you choose, two scientific elaborations, are opposed to each other, each having its own faith. Nor may it be said that it is here science which opposes theology, for we have to do with two absolute forms of science, both of which claim the whole domain of human knowledge…. [They dispute] with one another the whole domain of life.

Jacob Klapwijk explains that antithetical vision this way:

Throughout human society, in church, state, and community, the believer is called pro Rege, that is, he is called to follow King Jesus. Pro Rege means mobilizing Christian forces for the battle against idolatrous and anti-Christian powers at work in culture. To build science on Christian principles is part of that calling. The other side of the coin is that every form of s science based on, say, humanistic principles is to be opposed; demanded is a thoroughgoing antithetical attitude toward non-Christian thought.

That is part of the rationale that inspires the institution where Jamie Smith works. It’s the reason why parents send their children not to University of Michigan but to Calvin College. For Smith to act like alarmism is only a card that Rod Dreher plays is to be as historically unaware as Rod himself.

Alarmism happens. It’s even biblical:

For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. (Eph. 6:12)

I do wish critics of modernity like Dreher and Smith would remember that the world went south well before Alasdair MacIntyre or Charles Taylor started writing books. It happened when God barred Adam and Eve from Eden.


23 thoughts on “Why Isn’t Jamie Smith Alarmed?

  1. Not bad Darryl.

    There seems to be a vague spirit of concession to somebody in this piece. A sort of begrudging realization that maybe some folks you’ve been historically critical of were more right after all than you previously recognized. Maybe? Maybe I misread the whole thing too,.


  2. See?

    This is the basic idea behind all four books: “We are living in the last days of western liberalism, a way of understanding the world that treats all human beings as detached individuals free to define themselves in whatever ways they see fit and in whatever ways capital can enable and facilitate. As the system fails, its great shortcomings are becoming ever more apparent. As a result of this, the actions society must take to prop up the system are becoming more extreme and the dangers to the church and to civil society more generally are growing accordingly.”

    But here’s the thing: Thoughtful Christians have been critiquing this sort of individualism and the systems and structures that support it for decades. None of what Esolen, Reno, Dreher, and Chaput is saying is new. They are simply observing the same problems in a later stage of development and their warnings have been adjusted accordingly. But the problems they are seeing are quite old and the church has been talking about them for many years.


  3. Greg, I’ve always been positive about aspects of Kuyper. I’ve been particularly critical of Kuyperian triumphalism, to which the man was prone, but his followers revel in.

    Liked by 4 people

  4. DGH—My sense is that Rod grew up fairly comfortable in mainline Protestant America and only when the mainline churches went really flaky did he look for Christian sustenance elsewhere

    mcmark–Though he gets labeled as Amish or accused of “anabaptist withdrawal”, Dreher sounds more like Hauerwas in still waiting for Christendom to return. Even though Hauerwas sometimes sounded like Yoder in his anti-Constantinianism, Stan is in fact very positive about the theocratic proposals of Leithart and Milbank.

    Those who take the jump back to Romanism or Eastern orthodoxy or to being liberal Anglicans (as Hauerwas did) don’t want to be mistaken for protestants anymore, but their “post-liberalism” still wants to avoid fundamentalism because they still want the POWER of influence. There are things you can’t say at Calvin College or at Baylor Baptist or in First Things because saying them would cause offense to the wrong people and put you outside the camp of those “even in the conversation”.

    If your read Jamie Smith’s “Letter to A Young Calvinist’, you will find somebody almost as alarmed by puritan experimentalism as D G Hart or Mike Horton are. Jamie Smith is willing to use liturgy (or even two kingdom ideology) as means to gain and maintain power in and over every square inch. .

    But to use some of his own slander words against him, Smith’s truncated, myopic, and inordinately hostile rejection of God’s federal imputation of the sins of the elect to Christ (or the imputation of Christ’s death to the elect) puts Smith at war with the gospel (with law-grace antithesis) of the Reformed Confessions. Smith uses the old cliches of “liberalism” to push forensic justification to the margins.

    William Deresiewicz—The most effective form of censorship, of course, is self-censorship—which, in the intimate environment of a residential college, young adults are very quick to learn. One of the students at Whitman mentioned that he’s careful, when questioning consensus beliefs, to phrase his opinion in terms of “Explain to me why I’m wrong.”

    WD–“Campus protesters, their frequent rhetoric to the contrary notwithstanding, are not the ones being silenced: they are, after all, not being silent. They are in the middle of the quad, speaking their minds. The ones being silenced are the ones like my students at Scripps, like the students at Whitman, like many students, no doubt, at many places, who are keeping their mouths shut. ”

    WD–“The assumption on selective campuses is not only that we are in full possession of the truth, but that we are in full possession of virtue. We don’t just know the good with perfect wisdom, we embody it with perfect innocence. But regimes of virtue tend to eat their children. Think of Salem. They tend to turn upon themselves, since everybody wants to be the holiest. Think of the French Revolution. The ante is forever being upped”

    WD—“So it is with political correctness. There is always something new, as my students understood, that you aren’t supposed to say. And worst of all, you often don’t find out about it until after you have said it. The term political correctness, which originated in the 1970s as a form of self-mockery among progressive college students, was a deliberately ironic invocation of Stalinism. By now we’ve lost the irony but kept the Stalinism—and it was a feature of Stalinism that you could be convicted for an act that was not a crime at the time you committed it. So you were always already guilty, or could be made to be guilty.”

    WD–” Regimes of virtue produce informants (which really does wonders for social cohesion). They also produce authorities, often self-appointed authorities…. Whenever I hear that you aren’t supposed to say something, I want to know, where did this supposed descend from? Who decided, and who gave them the right to decide? And whenever I hear that a given group of students demands this or says that, I want to ask, whom exactly are we talking about: all of them, or just a few of them? Did the group choose its leaders, or did the leaders choose themselves?…So much of political correctness is not about justice or creating a safe environment; it is about power.”



  5. If I understand what I’m reading and hearing correctly nowadays, it goes beyond just what one “says” on campus. It’s also what one “doesn’t say” (as those “in power” deem to be appropriate) about certain aspects of culture, history, etc. This is inclusiveness beyond “reason,” spiraling to “fascism” (or what might be called post-modernism more currently) to the point where one simply can’t saying anything either positively or negatively about literally anything without being castigated for it … unless, of course, what one says fits the agenda of whoever happens to be in power at any one given moment.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. McMark says: “…Smith’s truncated, myopic, and inordinately hostile rejection of God’s federal imputation of the sins of the elect to Christ (or the imputation of Christ’s death to the elect) …”

    Is this true? Do you have a link? I’m not doubting you. I would find that information very useful.


  7. ” remarkable growth of Latino Protestantism”
    That’s an odd charge to make against an EO Christian with strong RC sympathies. Should the mass exodus from the RC church into prorestant (mostly pentacostal and not a few with atrong prosperity leanings) be a cause of alarm for someone like Dreher? Isn’t most of the growth in the global south prosperity preaching? Does jkas really want to point to that as a sign of health? Does he really want to say that the mass consumerism that has characterized the last 50yrs in the west and is now a global phenomenon is not corrosive to biblical Christianity and that the church has done a poor job responding to this challenge? I suspect not which is why I suspect jkas criticism is less than intellectually honest. But maybe not. Perhaps he thinks all is well and the displacement of more traditional forms of Christianity with mtd in the west and the health/wealth prosperity preachers is a sign of health. Neither possibility speaks well of jkas.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. While the USA may be a crazy quilt of Christian cacophony, we are not Europe. Our spiritual demise, if it happens, will be for different reasons. So let’s get out there and Make America (spiritually) Great Again.


  9. The dishonesty of trotting out the “evidence” of the “explosion of Christianity” in Africa gets to me. If what is going on in Africa is called “Christianity”, then they (JKAS and Co.) need to acknowledge the “godly” works Benny Hinn and the rest of his Ilk in taking the gospel to the third world and bring them into their fold.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. GG, the flip side of when some in non-American parts of the world lose their heads or are forced underground because of their professed Christian faith and those in American parts who would normally doubt their Christian claim all of as sudden find fellowship in order to vicariously claim persecution.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Dreher a petulant narc.? Hardly moreso than any other self-appointed blogger, and he has been an almost lone voice in calling for clarity in sexual morality issues in the church. I for one would say it’s more accurate to call him a godsend, as well as an amazingly clear wordsmith. But to each his own….


  12. Zrim you are correct. I am always hesitant to believe the number of faithful, professing Christians is as big as the number in a particular group. Whether it’s good news (growth) or bad (intersection). To me, the faithful are always small in number.


  13. GG, perhaps, but it’s also when denominationalists (i.e. those like Dreher and Smith who draw particular lines to define the faith) point to alleged explosions which don’t align with those boundaries that my own scepticism kicks in. Agenda alert.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. How can forgiven sinners without rights be victims?

    Zrim—Some in non-American parts of the world lose their heads or are forced underground because of their professed Christian faith and those in American parts who would normally doubt their Christian claim all of as sudden find fellowship in order to VICARIOUSLY CLAIM persecution.

    mcmark—Amen. The time lag between Kuyper Reformed folks presuming birth within the covenant and them becoming “realistic” and “political” is not all that long a time lag. Remember the New England puritans (even John Cotton caved into the Reformed culture when it came to Roger Williams. ) It must be God’s sovereign grace that we are now in this age born American Christians and thereefore have a right not to be exiles but part of “we the magistrates”



  15. Don’t forget how many people had to be excluded in order for so many people to be included.

    Martin Luther and Calvin and Zwingli are not the only ones who left some “collateral damage” behind them as they came through the door.

    If you did not yet come through the door where the church catholic is going , that’s your fault and the only thing anybody will know about you is what the winners write in the history books (enthusiast, seditionist, scholastic).

    We all know Christendom is going to be at least not Protestant again. This is no time to “come out”.



  16. Here‘s why (without cheap shot):

    What makes Dreher’s book both puzzling and frustrating is this over-the-top alarmist tenor coupled with a highly selective focus on matters of sexual ethics as “orthodoxy.” More specifically, while there is only one chapter on marriage and sexuality, the entire argument is framed by what he calls “the Waterloo of religious conservatism”: the Obergefell Supreme Court decision that legalized same-sex marriage. If Dreher has earned the label “reactionary,” it’s because his proposal—this “strategy”—is predicated on a response to cultural conditions. It starts from environmental factors in “the culture” instead of being catalyzed internally by the logic of mission. It makes this “option” sound like a new thing demanded by “the times” rather than a way of life that has always been called for by taking up our cross and bearing witness to the gospel. The irony, then, is that The Benedict Option, though inviting us to consider a “classic” example in the Rule of St. Benedict, is a proposal that feels entirely parochial to a time (post-2015) and place (the United States).

    In the end, my worry is that what you get in Dreher is fundamentalism minus the rapture. He’ll protest otherwise or deflect by suggesting the fundamentalism charge bounces back onto evangelical critics who are pathologically hungry for “relevance” or credibility because of an inferiority complex. That’s a red herring I’m not buying. The question is whether the shoe fits, not whether critics used to wear them.

    The ark trope is one I first learned in the basement of a Plymouth Brethren assembly hall where a mammoth version of Clarence Larkin’s dispensational charts hung across the wall like a mural. There I was inducted into John Nelson Darby’s doctrine of “separation from evil as God’s principle of unity.” So when Dreher worries about a time when “Christians are forbidden to buy or sell,” I was transported back to Bible prophecy conferences that explained to us the real meaning of “the mark of the beast.” (It was the chip-and-pin system, if I recall.) Or when Dreher celebrates those who know they need to “come out of Babylon and be separate,” he’s rewriting a script I’ve seen played out before. And his specific proposals in the book—for alternative employment networks, homeschooling, secluded communities—look and sound familiar. Merely asserting this isn’t fundamentalism doesn’t make it so. The question is whether the analysis and proposal fit the template of cultural demise and sanctification by separation.

    Of course, what Dreher lacks is the full-blown declinist history that is part of the dispensationalist package. In the more typical, dispensationalist rendition of fundamentalism, the floodwaters are not receding until the Second Coming. Things are not going to get better. So get in the ark, stay in the ark, and ride it out till Jesus comes back. (Remember: never get out of the boat.)

    . . . This is probably my biggest concern: that Dreher’s idiosyncratic repackaging of the historic disciplines and formative practices of the church retroactively makes newcomers and outsiders mistake the Great Tradition with the narrowness of the Benedict Option—that the catholic heritage of the faith gets owned by the BenOp™, thereby associating the treasures and riches of the tradition with a particular take that is ultimately parochial and reactionary.

    For example, was John Calvin extolling Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option when he hoped that the entire city of Geneva could be reformed as a magnum monasterium? When Abraham Kuyper founded a Christian political party, a Christian newspaper, and a Christian university, was he unwittingly a practitioner of the Benedict Option? When Reformed communities in Michigan or Ontario built Christians schools alongside their churches, were they building arks in despair of the culture around them? Is Stanley Hauerwas merely an early adopter of the BenOp™? No, because they all had a fundamentally different posture and hope. Their proposals and actions grew out of the logic of mission and not merely as a “strategy” reacting to the times. They had fundamentally different understandings of the relationship between the church and the world.


  17. Smith—The ark trope is one I first learned in the basement of a Plymouth Brethren assembly hall where a mammoth version of Clarence Larkin’s dispensational charts hung across the wall like a mural. There I was inducted into John Nelson Darby’s doctrine of “separation from evil as God’s principle of unity.”

    It seems that James K Smith did not grow up Lutheran like the children of Carl Truman. James k. Smith grew up idiosyncratic and separatist, and that may have something to do with why James K Smith now sounds the alarm for us all to be separatist against separatists and fundamentalists. Instead of making a positive case for Augustine’s use of violence against Donatists, James K Smith is worried that some of us might become Donatists. Since James K smith Smith has overcome his sectarian past, he warns the rest of us not to become apostates from Christendom. Any would be “fundamentalists “Darbyites” must be excluded so that many and more may be influenced to go in the proper direction, which is the post-liberal way now traveled by James K Smith.

    The Donatists sounded the alarm about those who converted in order to avoid persecution. Augustine called in the magistrates to kill Donatists who attempted to add in notions of conversion and who were not content with assurance by water administered to them by apostates who still knew how to repeat the Trinitarian formula. Those who presume to be “Warrior Children” in our day do not need to be killed. All you have to know is that they are dispies who teach two different gospels, one for the children of Abraham but also a different gospel with a baptism not with water.

    David Gordon– “The Auburn theology (of Norman Shepherd) cannot describe covenant theology without reference to dispensationalism, despite the historical reality that covenant theology was here for several centuries before dispensationalism appeared. My own way of discerning whether a person really has an understanding of covenant theology is to see whether he can describe it WITHOUT REFERENCE TO dispensationalism.” By Faith Alone, edited by Gary Johnson and Guy Waters ( Crossway, p 121)

    Norman Shepherd, Call of Grace, (Presbyterian and Reformed, p 89)—-“The Reformed evangelist can and must preach to everyone on the basis of John 3:16 –Christ died to save you…John 15 is often taught by distinguishing two kinds of branches. Some branches are not really in Christ in a saving way. Some are only in Him externally…If this distinction is in the text, it’s difficult to see what the point of the warning is. The outward branches cannot profit from it. because they cannot in any case bear genuine fruit. And the inward branches cannot help but bear good fruit. The words outward and inward are often used in the Reformed community…to account for the fact that the covenant community includes both elect and non-elect. But when Paul uses the terms Romans 2:28-29 , he is NOT referring to the elect and non-elect. The terms define the difference between COVENANTALLY LOYAL Jews and…the others



  18. I’m waiting for a full-throated, explicit 2K response. One can be BenOppy on Sundays? That seems fair.


  19. I console myself with Isaiah’s “A Remnant will return.” If God wants to start all over with a non Western Christianity, some aspects of it may make me nervous, but over all, fine with me. And there will be a remnant (the 7000) even in the West.


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