In our second cycle for 2017 (starting Thursday 27th July), we turn to explore the challenge of a community sustaining its faith in a secular culture toxic to deep commitment:
What practices preserve our witness [& identity] in a post-Christian context?
Our conversation partner is American conservative and Eastern Orthodox devotee, Rod Dreher. His book, The Benedict Option (BenOp for short), has drawn a lot of attention, especially on the Catholic forum, First Things. It has been identified by New York Times bestseller and cultural critic, David Brooks, as “the most discussed and most important religious book of the decade.” Facing an increasingly hostile culture, Dreher offers “a strategy for Christians in a post-Christian nation”. As for how wise this strategy is—though at risk of spoiling the surprise and poisoning the well—you might want to check out some of the following reviews:
- For a taste of Dreher’s rationale, alongside four wise critiques, see the Plough/First Things/American Conservative forum, “Time for the Benedict Option?” (recording and transcript)
- For the most succinct summary, see Bruce Blackshaw’s “Yet Another Benedict Option Review“. For the most balanced (though much longer) review, see Nathan Campbell’s (aka St. Eutychus) “Benedict Option or Golden Rule?“
- John Stonestreet, from Breakpoint Forum, ran a symposium on the Benedict Option, out of which he compiled over a dozen two-paragraph responses to Dreher’s strategy from leading evangelical thinkers: see here. And for an Aussie reply by the ever-provocative Mike Bird, tweaking this conservative strategy toward more radical love and confident interaction with pushy politicking, see his “Turning the World Upside Down, Down Under“.
- For my money, and while these reviews perhaps major on the faults of this strategy from the perspective of pluralism and mission, the most important critiques are offered by John Inazu, “The Benedict Option Falls Short of Real Pluralism” (Inazu joins three other key voices in this Christianity Today feature) and Jamie Smith, “The Benedict Option or the Augustinian Call?“
Okay, the tone of these reviews not-so-subtly communicates that I’ve stopped short of the monastic gates to Mr. Dreher’s Benedictine retreat. I’m not particularly conservative, I detest self-concerned protectionism, and this book is far more right-leaning than most of Open Book’s offerings here-to-fore. So, why bother with this diatribe?
Well, two reasons come to mind, one short and sweet, and the other as complex as statistical analysis.
For one, it records the seismic shifts shaking the western world, and represents what many people (especially conservatives) find to be a compelling vision for a re-imagined church that has fragmented and lost its way. It challenges our individualistic, consumerist and thin spirituality at its core, and turns our attention to corporate and classic practices that enrich our identity. Given that Christ’s Pieces seeks to grapple with what it means to follow Jesus at this post-Christendom juncture, BenOp is sure to provoke rich discussion, wherever we land on Rod’s particular strategy. It will help us form our own “rule of life” that keeps us in Christ, come-what cultural changes may. So, we’ll drop the protectionism, but redouble our efforts to form a communal spirituality for the sake of the world … one that resonates with Jamie Smith’s embodied and imaginative worship project in You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit, and Dallas Willard’s The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives. Think less Christian conservatism worried about its own survival in a secular state, and more of an outward looking shalom seeking community captured by Mike Frost’s B.E.L.L.S. in his Surprise the World: Five Habits of Highly Missional People (sample here; we’re called to Bless, Eat, Listen, Learn, and be Sent) and David Fitch’s Faithful Presence: Seven Disciplines that Shape the Church for Mission. Our selfie-society needs kingdom citizens who have the virtue and vision necessary to serve the holistic flourishing of all in today’s pluralistic democracy, most especially when hostility is directed to followers of the world’s only saviour.
And for two, it asks questions Aussie Christians must answer. How can we sustain faith in an increasingly secular context—one which corrodes contemporary Christianity faster than an iron ark on a salty sea? Since the Australian Bureau of Statistics released its 2016 Census results, many Christian leaders have been in a spin. While 52% of Aussies still loosely identify as Christian, this is a massive slide from the 88% in 1996 and 74% in 1991. This loss neatly parallels the increase in those shunning any religious identification, up from 0.8% in 1996, 12.9% in 1991, and 19% in 2006, to nearly 1/3 of the population (30%) in 2016. If we compare this demographic to Christian denominations (termed ‘religions’ in the census), then NRI (“No Religious Identification”) is the largest “religious” group, overtaking both Catholicism (22.6%) and Anglicanism (13.3%).
The situation is markedly more dire if you delve below the superficial ABS data, and dive into the 2016 NCLS “Australian Communities Study” and especially the 2017 McCrindle “Faith and Belief in Australia” study (faithandbelief.org.au; 4 page infographic + 60 page report). Claiming that roughly half of Aussies are Christian is massively overstated, better reflecting low-commitment “moralistic therapeutic deism” (a distant God just wants me to generally be good and feel good) than a community living under the Lordship of Jesus, which based on regular church connection is closer to 15%. As Stephen McAlpine argues, “sexing up the statistics“only makes us slower to accept our minority status, wherein we do better to become a well-formed counter-culture that can prophetically speak truth to power from society’s margins, without claiming historical privilege.
The media has seized on these stats, highlighting that this slide away from religion will only accelerate as more-religious older generations shuffle off this mortal coil, and younger less-religious generations take their place, such as Gen Y (those presently 18-34 years old) with 39% distanced from traditional religion. Secularists have renewed calls for the government to “End Australia’s Religious Bias“, damning any public funding and governmental support even for churches contributing to the common good, garnering support through op-eds in leading national newspapers.
Whatever your take on these stats, Aussies Christians have some tough questions to answer, for—as the 2017 Morling College Symposium theme suggests—we are “Not In Kansas Anymore“.
What is the role of God’s people in an increasingly post-christian West? Are we activist exiles or quaint keepers of an ancient flame? Are we to lean in to culture and insist on our right to act as chaplains to a fading Christendom, or should we withdraw and exercise the ‘Benedict option’? What is a creative and biblical strategy for how the church is to be in a context where God’s people feel increasingly marginalised and overlooked.
So, for at least these two reasons, it’s timely for Christ’s Pieces to grapple with The Benedict Option. As Ryan Messmore of the The Millis Institute observes, we are simultaneously called to be both “salt and light“. And this raises two pressing questions:
Question #1. For those promoting engagement with the world, the question is: how can Christians expect to offer their neighbours a different way of thinking and loving if they fully immerse themselves in their neighbours’ ways of speaking and acting? … [and] Question #2. For those promoting a distinct countercultural community, the question is: how will those who live according to a different worldview be able to see the Church’s distinct witness as intelligible and attractive?
Which brings us back to the core question driving this series: “What practices preserve our witness [& identity] in a post-Christian context?” Interested? Then come along, whatever your religious conviction or none.
Over 5 fortnightly Thursday sessions (July 27 – September 21) at Nik & Dave’s house (152 Tanderra Way, Karana Downs; directions here) we will dialogue with Dreher and each other, learning how to sustain our faith in a secular culture toxic to deep commitment.
Check out the calendar below for key dates, and pdf links to carry you through until you get your own copy of the book (purchase asap on Amazon.com).
We have a soft-start from 6:30pm—feel free to rock up early and eat your dinner or share a cup of tea. (Park up top, on the left-hand side of our circular driveway.) At 7pm sharp we get into the night, finishing each night by 9pm with supper together and an unrushed chat over coffee. OPEN BOOK includes some basic spiritual practices and prayer, before unpacking the pre-reading scheduled for that night.
For each week, it helps to think through how the reading provokes you in 4 ways:
1) Questions: what didn’t make sense?
2) Challenges: what did you think was wrong?
3) Implications: if this is true, what does it mean for being the church today?
4) Applications: what does it look like for you to live out of this vision as part of the community of God?
OPEN BOOK, THURSDAYS 7PM | Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option (BenOp)
(Click session # hyperlink for liturgy/ppnt slides)
August 10 | BenOp 2, pp. 48-99: Ch. 3 A Rule for Living (48-77) & Ch. 4 A New Kind of Christian Politics (78-99).
August 24 | BenOp 3, pp. 100-143: Ch. 5 A Church for All Seasons (100-121) & Ch. 6 The Idea of a Christian Village (122-143).
September 7 | BenOp 4, pp. 144-194: Ch. 7 Education as Christian Formation (144-175) & Ch. 8 Preparing for Hard Labor (176-194).
September 21 | BenOp 5, pp. 195-246: Ch. 9 Eros and the New Christian Counterculture, Ch. 10 Man and the Machine (218-236), & Conclusion—The Benedict Decision (237-244).
October 19 | Restart for the final series of 2017, exploring Pope Francis’s Laudato Si’ for what it means to care for our common creational home (also drawing on “The Uluru Statement” for an Indigenous perspective of our connection to the land).
Hope to see you there!