The World Is Turning Rod and Leaving Tim Behind

The piece on Rod Dreher and the Benedict Option in the New Yorker was remarkable on several levels. It was generally positive, respectful, and long. This was the case despite Dreher’s tendency to sound a tad hysterical about sexual irregularities and deviance. This quote by Andrew Sullivan, a gay man who has gone head to head with Rod over the years, was telling:

Sullivan has a long-standing disagreement with Dreher over same-sex marriage, but he believes that the religiously devout should be permitted their dissent. “There is simply no way for an orthodox Catholic to embrace same-sex marriage,” he said. “The attempt to conflate that with homophobia is a sign of the unthinking nature of some liberal responses to religion. I really don’t think that florists who don’t want to contaminate themselves with a gay wedding should in any way be compelled to do so. I think any gay person that wants them to do that is being an asshole, to be honest—an intolerant asshole. Rod forces you to understand what real pluralism is: actually accepting people with completely different world views than your own.”

In “The Benedict Option,” Dreher writes that “the angry vehemence with which many gay activists condemn Christianity” is the understandable result of a history of “rejection and hatred by the church.” Orthodox Christians need to acknowledge this history, he continues, and “repent of it.” He has assured his children that, if they are gay, he will still love them; he is almost—but not quite—apologetic about his views, which he presents as a theological obligation. He sees orthodox Christians as powerless against the forces of liquidly modern progressivism; on his blog, he argues that “the question is not really ‘What are you conservative Christians prepared to tolerate?’ but actually ‘What are LGBTs and progressive allies prepared to tolerate?’ ” He wants them to be magnanimous in victory; to refrain from pressing their advantage. Essentially, he says to progressives: You’ve won. You wouldn’t sue Orthodox Jews or observant Muslims. Please don’t sue us, either.

“What I really love about Rod is that, even as he’s insisting upon certain truths, he’s obviously completely conflicted,” Sullivan said. “And he’s a mess! I don’t think he’d disagree with that. But he’s a mess in the best possible way, because he hasn’t anesthetized himself. He’s honest about a lot of the questions that many liberal and conservative Christians aren’t really addressing.”

Notice that Dreher, who is outspokenly anti-gay marriage, did not receive the chorus of criticism that Tim Keller did at Princeton Seminary even from such mainstream organs and figures as the New Yorker and Andrew Sullivan.

To be sure, the PCUSA is not the New Yorker, but at a time when the magazine has identified President Trump and his supporters as an alien force in national life, a fair piece about Dreher is not what readers would have expected.

So why does Dreher receive more acclaim than Keller? The reason could be that the former promotes a thick (as he understands it) Christian identity, complete with communitarian obligations, while Keller stands for a Christianity that is chiefly reasonable and appeals to the mind. In other words, Dreher is appealing to a larger conception of Christianity that encompasses more of one’s identity than intellect while Keller is largely about defending the Apostles’ Creed (as he explained a while back in an interview at First Things) — or a Christian minimum. Rod is maximalist where Tim is a minimalist.

Naomi Schaeffer Riley picked up on this difference when she contrasted Dreher and Keller:

Keller sees an integral part of the church’s mission as being present in the big cities — no matter how culturally degraded they may seem. “Christians ought to be present and engaged everywhere that there are people. But across the world people are flocking to cities at the rate of millions per year.

“Christians don’t all need to live in cities, but they should at least be moving there in the same proportions as the people whom they want to serve.”

His approach may be falling out of favor among some more orthodox believers. Last month, the Wall Street Journal reported on a small but growing number of Christians who, “feeling besieged by secular society . . . are taking refuge” in small, often isolated communities away from negative cultural influences and surrounded by other believers.

This “Benedict Option” was named in honor of St. Benedict, who fled the moral degradation of Rome. It’s also the title of a new book by Rod Dreher, who, writing in Christianity Today, calls it a “strategic withdrawal” by “serious Christian Conservatives [who] could no longer live business-as-usual lives in America.”

Though Dreher doesn’t say Christians should all flee to isolated enclaves, those are where such withdrawal would be easiest.

Keller believes Christians in New York cannot retreat into homogeneity. They’ll be regularly faced with people who fervently disagree with them. Keller’s church is a multi-ethnic one and even if the believers have a similar religious outlook, they hail from a variety of different backgrounds.

That fear of homogeneity and retreat also explains, by the way, while Keller is somewhat uncomfortable with going all in on Presbyterianism (from his interview at First Things):

I don’t believe you can reach New York with the gospel if you only plant Presbyterian churches. There are all kinds of people who’ll never be Presbyterians. It just doesn’t appeal to them. Some people are going to be Pentecostals, some people are going to be Catholics. I mean, I know that sounds¯I’m not talking about that certain cultures reach certain people. It’s much more complicated than that. Even though there’s something to that. We all know that certain cultures seem to have more of an affinity toward a certain kind of Christian tradition than others, but I wouldn’t want to reduce it to that at all. I would just say that I only know that God seems to use all these kinds of churches to reach the whole breadth of humanity, and so that’s why we give money to start churches of other denominations, and give free training to it. And we’ve done about a hundred in the New York area, where we’ve helped people. It’s very important to us.

For Keller, apparently, Christianity resists taking overly specific and particular forms (think ecclesiology, liturgy, even creed). His ministry can transcend different cultures and expressions of Christianity. That comes up short against those Christians that Schaeffer identifies as wanting a more than “business-as-usual” faith.

But the Allies at Gospel Coalition back Keller over Dreher when they say they want both a Christianity that is meaty and one that is mainstream:

The Benedict Option is named for Benedict of Nursia, a 4th century monk who launched a monastic movement that preserved Western civilization. Today, writers like Rod Dreher enjoin Christian​s​ to take similar steps to “develop communities based on a shared sense of orthodoxy (right belief) and orthopraxy (right practice), for the sake of forming ourselves and the next generation in the Christian faith.”

The New York Times columnist Ross Douthat has called Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, where Tim Keller serves as senior pastor, an effective example of the Benedict Option for our twenty-first century, post-Christian context. Like other TGC-inspired communities, Redeemer aims to blend countercultural biblical faithfulness with a Christ-exalting, city-embracing vision.

That dual commitment to faithfulness and cultural affirmation did work for the post-World War II world. It was precisely the vision of the Neo-Evangelicals who formed the National Association of Evangelicals, founded Christianity Today, and cheered and prayed for Billy Graham. It was and is a faith that harmonizes well with a nationalism confident of its role in the world, and generally progressive in its estimate of where history is going or at least who the good guys are in that narrative.

But at a time when that post-war internationalist order is under serious strain (think Brexit, Scottish Independence, Trumpian nationalism), the appeal of a rational, enlightened Christianity may have hit a wall. What Christians seem to understand is that they need a faith little more “deep-down diving and mud upbringing,” that can withstand a social order that is not congenial to their religious convictions. It is a faith that bears more resemblance to the politics of identity than to United Statesist Christianity. This faith does not go along but separates. It makes more claims on adherents than a faith that primarily relies on mental exercises demanded by w-w. It recognizes that the world is more hostile than previous generations supposed and that Christians need to be more intentional about their convictions.

Why someone living in New York City, the place that cultivated the boorish Donald Trump, doesn’t see that cities (from culture to economics) may be a problem for the practice of demanding Christianity is a real mystery.

Why Moderation and Charity Are Overrated

In Jake Meador’s review of Rod Dreher’s BenOp, he makes this passing observation of the NAPARC landscape:

A desire to preserve unity at the cost of clarity and an unwillingness to take a stance is not a solution and, in fact, will probably cause as many to drift as will a lack of charity and restraint in our rhetoric. Being in the PCA, this is the concern that occupies my mind more as it seems the greater danger in my immediate ecclesial context. I suspect that it is also the greater danger in most Catholic dioceses and many non-denominational evangelical churches.

Even so, a lack of charity and restraint in our rhetoric will lead some who might otherwise be persuadable to dismiss us. That seems the greater danger in the Southern Baptist Convention, if my read of things is accurate. It is also the greater danger in many reformed microdenominations such as the OPC and CREC, I strongly suspect.

For the record, the books that came out recently about the contemporary cultural bankruptcy had no ties to the micro Reformed denominations. They came from an Eastern Orthodox layman (Dreher), a Roman Catholic archbishop (Chaput), and a Roman Catholic layman (Esolen). Those are churches that have labored under the Christ and culture burden, have tried to make society Christian, and are now showing the effects of that weight.

What has the little old OPC produced about the current crisis (a conference on gay marriage that technical glitches prevented from being recorded?)? Nothing. It is still more or less wedded to J. Gresham Machen’s assessment of the Protestant mainstream and is more or less committed to passing on the faith without the assistance of America’s cultural or political institutions. But when a church simply tries to do what a church is called to do (see 25.3 of the Confession of Faith), it is in danger of showing a lack of restraint and charity?

Not to be missed is the kind of transformationalist vision that has become the PCA’s calling card of late. Perhaps the idea of being a church to the big city is charitable and restrained (though to anyone with half a brain it sure looks delusional to think you can teach Woody Allen’s New Yorkers to become Wheaton’s evangelicals). But from the perspective of the Protestant mainline, the PCA looks downright sectarian.

That may be the single recommendation for Rod Dreher’s book — to provoke those who want a seat at the table (or a mouthful of the Big Apple) to consider what it means to be a stranger and alien. I know Jake Meador already knows this. But sometimes his PCA identity gets in the way of his inner Stanley Hauerwas and he never says “boo” about PCA exceptionalism in the era of Tim Keller.

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.

Imagine if They Had Worried about Syria

Sean Trende (via Rod) on recent U.S. political history:

Democrats and liberals have: booed the inclusion of God in their platform at the 2012 convention (this is disputed, but it is the perception); endorsed a regulation that would allow transgendered students to use the bathroom and locker room corresponding to their identity; attempted to force small businesses to cover drugs they believe induce abortions; attempted to force nuns to provide contraceptive coverage; forced Brendan Eich to step down as chief executive officer of Mozilla due to his opposition to marriage equality; fined a small Christian bakery over $140,000 for refusing to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding; vigorously opposed a law in Indiana that would provide protections against similar regulations – despite having overwhelmingly supported similar laws when they protected Native American religious rights – and then scoured the Indiana countryside trying to find a business that would be affected by the law before settling upon a small pizza place in the middle of nowhere and harassing the owners. In 2015, the United States solicitor general suggested that churches might lose their tax exempt status if they refused to perform same-sex marriages. In 2016, the Democratic nominee endorsed repealing the Hyde Amendment, thereby endorsing federal funding for elective abortions.

All the power of a global hegemon and we use it like this?

If More Rod Drehers Read Machen

Once again, Rod explains the Benedict Option:

Do you think that is generally true about our society and our civilization — that people, whether they are conscious of it or not, and operating in a sauve qui peut (save who you can) panic? To be perfectly clear about the Ben Op: it is based on the idea that Christianity itself within the West is facing this state of affairs, and that believing Christians, therefore, have to build new structures and reinforce old ones to last through the religious crash that is already happening.

If Rod had read Machen and knew anything about the 1920s contest within U.S. Protestantism over modernism, he would know that some Christians were thinking the West faced a difficult set of affairs — wait for it — a century ago.

Should we really welcome someone who is so late to the party?

Benjamin Corey Finds His Inner Thomas Jefferson

John Piper has his problems, but Corey’s objections to the retired pastor’s calculation of sin and punishment show he’s only been reading the Jefferson Bible, the one that cut out all the troubling bits:

Piper reminds me of something I’ve long believed: the Calvinist doctrine of God is far closer to Islam than Christianity. In a Christian doctrine of God, God is restrained in what he can do– for example, he cannot lie, he cannot deny himself, etc. However, Islamic theology, it is believed Allah can do “whatever he wills” which is the same position of Calvinism– God can do whatever God wants, and we have no right to question the morality of any of these actions.

But this isn’t the traditional position of Christianity, and this is where Calvinism steps outside of our tradition and becomes closer to other religions.

Piper’s answer, as he has done on other questions such as genocide of entire people groups, reveals a fundamental flaw in Calvinism: that an all-loving God perfectly revealed in the life and character of Jesus can be the author of acts that would be unspeakably evil if done by any other agent who possessed morality and a conscience.

Obviously, Corey has not read the Old Testament:

And Samuel said to Saul, “The LORD sent me to anoint you king over his people Israel; now therefore listen to the words of the LORD. Thus says the LORD of hosts, ‘I have noted what Amalek did to Israel in opposing them on the way when they came up out of Egypt. Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that they have. Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.’” (1 Samuel 15:1-3 ESV)

But maybe Corey is one of those New Testament Christians. So I wonder what he thinks when he reads Jesus saying this?

“Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles. When they deliver you over, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour. For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death, and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. . . .

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. (Matthew 10:16-22, 34-39 ESV)

Or does Corey think Jesus was John the Baptist for Mr. Rogers?

Rod Dreher noted recently the strange world of evangelical female celebrity and piety. In light Glennon Doyle Melton’s (whoever she is) decision to leave her husband of 14 years for a female soccer star, Dreher wondered what goes on among born-again women. According to the Chicago Tribune, Melton told her followers:

“My loves, here is the good news,” she writes. “You are allowed to think and feel WHATEVER YOU NEED OR WANT TO FEEL! … That is what I want to model now, because that is what I want for YOU: I want you to grow so comfortable in your own being, your own skin, your own knowing that you become more interested in your own joy and freedom and integrity than in what others think about you. That you remember that you only live once, that this is not a dress rehearsal and so you must BE who you are.”

To which Dreher responded:

You are allowed to think and feel WHATEVER YOU NEED OR WANT TO FEEL! What theological codswallop. And yet, this kind of thing is celebrated by a lot of younger Evangelicals. Not even an attempt to base this in theological convictions; only self-worship.

Is this a female thing, this approach to mass Christianity, or is it general to our Christian pop culture today? Asking seriously.

Rod, read Corey. It’s an evangelical thing. Evangelicalism: blow it up.

2K Makes You (and mmmeeeeEEEE) Virtuous

That’s because two-kingdom theology allows you to distinguish between what is and isn’t explicitly a matter of faith.

For instance, Rod Dreher goes batty over Ben Carson’s remark (in support of Trump) that “Sometimes you put your Christian values on pause to get the work done.”

Unless Rod is thinking about joining the Covenanters, his very citizenship is an instance of putting aside Christian convictions — the Constitution, hello! — in order to accomplish a measure of social order among a people with different religious (and other) convictions. Or is Dreher in favor, as an Orthodox Christian, of some kind of Constantine political order? Then please send back the advance on the book on the Benedict Option since the original Benedict Option arose out of a sense that political establishment compromised genuine faith.

A little 2k could also help Archbishop Chaput who seems to be doing his impersonation of college undergraduates who fear the campus of Princeton University is but little removed from Ferguson, Missouri. The wikileaks of emails with critical remarks about Roman Catholic political maneuvering shows a hyper-sensitivity normally associated with 19-year olds (maybe spoiled ones at that). Chaput quotes approvingly an email from a non-Roman Catholic friend:

I was deeply offended by the [Clinton team] emails, which are some of the worst bigotry by a political machine I have seen. [A] Church has an absolute right to protect itself when under attack as a faith and Church by civil political forces. That certainly applies here . . .

Over the last eight years there has been strong evidence that the current administration, with which these people share values, has been very hostile to religious organizations. Now there is clear proof that this approach is deliberate and will accelerate if these actors have any continuing, let alone louder, say in government.

These bigots are actively strategizing how to shape Catholicism not to be Catholic or consistent with Jesus’s teachings, but to be the “religion” they want. They are, at the very core, trying to turn religion to their secular view of right and wrong consistent with their politics. This is fundamentally why the Founders left England and demanded that government not have any voice in religion. Look where we are now. We have political actors trying to orchestrate a coup to destroy Catholic values, and they even analogize their takeover to a coup in the Middle East, which amplifies their bigotry and hatred of the Church. I had hoped I would never see this day—a day like so many dark days in Eastern Europe that led to the death of my [Protestant minister] great grandfather at the hands of communists who also hated and wanted to destroy religion.

Michael Sean Winters thinks that the charge of anti-Catholic bigotry is overheated and shows the calming effects of 2k:

The supposed “bigotry” towards the Catholic Church exposed in the emails of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, released by Wikileaks last week, is nothing of the sort, despite the best attempts of some to make it so. This whole controversy is simply an effort, a stupid effort, to stop Clinton’s ascent to the White House. I say stupid because crying “wolf” is never a smart political or cultural strategy and, besides, anyone who is genuinely concerned about bigotry could not possibly be supporting Trump. This is about Republican operatives who hold the portfolio for Catholic outreach doing their part to ingratiate themselves with Trump.

Even though Winters is Roman Catholic and writes for the National Catholic Reporter, his additional comments reveal that he understands 2k and is willing to employ it:

First, conservative Catholics have every right to be Republicans, to try and play their faith in ways that correspond to their conscience, to reach conclusions that might differ from that of more liberal Catholics. They sometimes leave aside certain concerns that I think are central to the relevance of our faith at this time in history, but as Halpin said in explaining the context of the email, there are those on the left who do the same. The bastardization came when conservative Catholics claimed theirs was the only acceptable application of faith. Second, by aiding the reduction of faith to morals, these conservative Catholics have unwittingly been agents of the very same secularization they claim to oppose. As soon as our faith is no longer about the empty tomb of Jesus Christ, it has no claims to authority and people will walk away.

The only problem for Winters is that his bishops and pope keep commenting on political matters that invite the laity to bastardize the faith by seeking papal authority to back up — like — their own opinions — man.

Even Kevin DeYoung sheds a little 2k light to the allies who are usually tongue-tied by the transformationalist rhetoric of its NYC celebrity preachers:

This does not mean I think every Christian must come to the same decision in order to be a good Christian. There are simply too many prudential matters in the mix for Christians to be adamant that you absolutely cannot vote for so and so. . . . While our church might discipline a member for holding the positions Clinton holds or for behaving the way Trump has behaved, this does not mean we have biblical grounds for disciplining a church member who, for any number of reasons and calculations, may decide that voting for either candidate (or neither) makes the most sense. And if we wouldn’t discipline someone for a presidential vote, we should stop short of saying such a vote is sinful and shameful.

Now just imagine if Pastor DeYoung’s church or those of his gospel co-allies actually disciplined ministers who supported ministries of different faith and practice. It would be like having the Gospel Coalition show precisely the opposite of what DeYoung recommends for Christians when sorting out politics — firm about theology and ministry, soft about policy. But as we now know, the opposite is usually par for the course — indifferent about denominational distinctness and aggressive about civil affairs.

More 2k, more confessionalism, healthier churches, better citizens. Will that fit on a bumper sticker?