The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher

About the time I finished writing the essays on A Conservative Christian Declaration, Rod Dreher published his book The Benedict Option. Dreher’s book caught my attention because Dreher mentions two of the authors of the Declaration by name, Scott Aniol and Ryan Martin. Out of curiosity, I borrowed the book to see what he had to say. It is the first book of his that I have read, and I found it complementary (though not exactly the same) to the Declaration.

Rod Dreher is a senior editor for The American Conservative where, according to his bio, he “focuses on social and cultural conservatism, with a particular interest in religion in the public square.” He belongs to an Orthodox church in Louisiana, and his definition of Christian is broad enough to include Roman Catholics and Protestants.

Because quite a few people have written reviews on The Benedict Option, I will not add another one. I will, however, summarize Dreher’s argument in terms of conservative Christianity. I think his book could be distilled to pleading with conservatives to be conservatives no matter what. I define a conservative as one who receives a tradition, preserves it, and perpetuates it to the next generation. Dreher is not so much concerned with what is specifically being conserved as long as it fits within a general rubric of “Western Civilization.” Modernism has begun to erode civilization because it fragments people, especially noticed in city life. How many people in the city have no interaction with the people who live next door. And, unless the postman makes a mistake once in a while, they would never even know their name.

Thus, preserving and perpetuating a certain set of values becomes monastic within our fragmenting society. The term monastic literally means to stand alone. And that is what happens–a group of people stand alone because of the values that unite them. At the same time, however, they interact with others who do not share those values. They work with them, eat with them, drive with them on the highway, do business with them. As long as these interacts share a mutual value of some kind, such as, be kind to strangers, society can survive. But what happens when one set of values are hostile toward another? This question is more to Dreher’s point, and the reason for the urgency expressed in his book.

The Benedict Option can be summarized by this statement of Dreher’s, “[We need] a way to live the tradition in community, so that it can survive through a time of great testing.” When one value system oppresses another by means of hostility, will the conservatives preserve and perpetuate their values? Will they persevere or will they succumb to the pressure? Dreher gives options how conservatives might persevere, and he draws from “The Rule of Benedict” for guidance.

James Matthew Wilson, “Christian Politics Is the Benedict Option Now
Thomas Ascik, “Fearing Dreher: What Many Critics Ignore About the Benedict Option
Edmund Waldstein, “The Mirror of the Benedict Option
Scott Aniol, “The Benedict Option: The Christian Option

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A Conservative Christian Declaration, Part 3

Perhaps you have had the unfortunate experience of walking into a room where a group of friends are in the middle or the end of a conversation. You politely listen for a while trying to figure out what the subject is. What are they talking about? Sometimes a kind person tries to catch you up. Sometimes you leave as lost as you were when you entered. Sometimes you make a foolish comment letting everyone know that you are clueless, to which your friends respond by changing the subject.

If I have one criticism or qualm with A Conservative Christian Declaration, this is it. (And though I mention this criticism here, I am sure that the authors will accept it with the Christian charity with which I offer it.) In the preface, Scott Aniol mentions that these men have been involved in a conversation among themselves for some time. Not only in the events leading up to its publication, but also in the years preceding. If you have been part of this conversation, everything in this book makes sense to you. If you are new, however, I think your understanding might be limit, perhaps severely. This likely confusion is the reason I have written these articles, which I hope “catch you up” to the conversation in progress.

In this post in particular I offer this small piece of advice when reading A Conservative Christian Declaration. For most of us, the first question we ask when reading a book like this is, “Do I agree with it?” I am going to ask you to set that question aside for the moment. You can ask that question later after you understand what is being said, and not beforehand. So, first, ask these three questions while reading each article: 1) What are they talking about? After you have read the article, for example, “On Transcendentals,” can you answer the question for yourself, “What is a transcendental?”

You may find that you need additional help apart from the articles. I would suggest reading my other two posts on the meaning of conservative and Christian. Even more so, I recommend browsing Religious Affections website. These same authors regularly contribute articles there. You will probably find something that will improve your understanding. I think it safe to say that you could also contact any one of these gentlemen, and they would be glad to answer any questions you might have. The first question is what? What are we talking about?

The second question is, Why is it it important to conservative Christianity? In other words, why did the authors put it in this book? If you recall, a conservative as one who preserves and perpetuates a set of ideas. A conservative Christian preserves and perpetuates Christianity. And as I discussed before, Christianity is more than the gospel, though no less than the gospel. The authors do not always explain the reasons an article is included. We know they believe it is important to Christianity because they included it in the book. We have to reflect on the question, Why is, for example, beauty (Article 6) important to conservative Christianity? What does it add to Christianity, and What do we lose if we give it up?

The third question to keep in mind while reading the articles is personal. Now that I understand what they are talking about, and I know why it is important to conservative Christianity. How do I–if I want to be a conservative Christian–incorporate these affirmations and denials into my life? What does this look like for me? If the whole counsel of God (Article 2) is important to Christianity, then how do I incorporate the whole counsel of God in my life. An easy answer is that I make reading the entire Bible a priority in my personal life. No law commands it. The authors are not requiring every believer to read through their Bible in one year. Yet, the Bible is of great importance to my spiritual well-being as a Christian. Therefore, I make it so.

In summary, to understand A Conservative Christian Declaration, ask yourself these three questions: What? Why? and How? I think it will help you make more sense of the discussion you have just walked into. I am thankful for the book, though the authors too know that it is not perfect. Regardless, it is worth considering.

Collingwood, The Principles of Art

I have quite a few books on art and aesthetics, but I did not have Collingwood. A number of years ago, I was introduced to Collingwood’s Idea of History. He is an Oxford fellow from the early 1900s who has a pleasing rhetorical style. The Principles of Art is not disappointing. His erudite style can be a little difficult to understand at times. He frequently quotes from different languages without translation (Greek, Latin, French, German, &c.). His rhetoric is also a bit old-fashioned I suppose for our uneducated, American ears. The second part of the book is a detailed philosophical thought experiment, which quite easily bogs down the reader. Given those caveats, Collingwood is rewarding to those who labor to understand him.

The first section of the book describes what art is not and what it is. The final section gives a conclusion and definition of art. Collingwood’s main argument is that art is a conscious expression of emotion. While art includes craft or skill, skill alone does not make art. Art is also not a copied or fabricated emotion. Collingwood admits we often call these works art, but wrongly.

Collingwood explains art like this. A person–the artist in this case–considers something, a person, an event, an idea, what have you. His reflection on said thing causes an emotional response inside him, unconsciously. It is not an idea or image that he can articulate or describe. As an artist he feels the need to express this emotion–to “let it out” we might say. So he does: he paints, sculpts, composes, &c.

Then we, the audience, come along, and we see or hear this work of art. As we reflect on it, we begin to feel the same type of emotion that the artist felt and expressed. We, in turn, become artists, seeking a medium of expression. The ability to enter into this participation with art is called refinement.

Perhaps a more concrete example will illustrate the point. The aria “Bist Du bei Mir” is a song about the love two people share that is steady and strong even in the face of death. More accurately, it is love that grows all the stronger at death. Here are the words in English:

If you are with me,
Then I will gladly go
Unto death and to my rest.
Ah how pleasing were my end
If your dear hands
Then shut my faithful eyes.

The poet, considering love and death, responds emotionally, has an emotion idea, as it were. He expresses that emotional idea in the poem. Then the soprano sings the aria. While singing it, the emotion wells up within her also. In her singing she communicates the same to the audience who in turn participates, the emotion being evoked (drawn out) from them. To Collingwood, the poet, soprano, and listener are all artists in this process.

I mentioned early on that Collingwood is one we should be slow to disagree with. Yet, I think in one place he has a wrong assumption, and consequently his conclusion comes a little short or is not quite complete. The wrong assumption is that the artist always expresses a noble affection, a right emotion. He never expresses a bad or evil emotion. In other words, whatever we feel is always right. Because of this, it is the artist who will save civilization, according to Collingwood.

This assumption leads consequently to a short coming in Collingwood’s conclusion. While I agree with him as far as he goes, I think the artist does more than express and evoke emotion. The emotion he expresses is always toward something. He asks us not only to feel something, but to direct that feeling toward something else. In the example of the aria, “Bist Du bei Mir,” the poet expresses an emotion toward love in death. He wants us to feel the same sentiment towards love in death, not just the sentiment.

A good artist draws out from us the right emotion toward something. A bad artist evokes from us the wrong emotion toward that thing. Another example is to contrast requia. Requia are liturgical songs written about death. Mozart’s requiem evokes a terrible fear of death. Should Christians fear death? Is Mozart making us feel the wrong emotion towards death? I think so. (Brahms on the hand helps us feel the right emotion towards death.)

In spite of any disagreement on these two points, I was pleasantly surprised by The Principles of Art. I am glad it has been added to my collection, and I look forward to reading it again.

Agatha Christie and Worldview: An Adendum

In a previous post, I mentioned my quandary in placing Agatha Christie’s mysteries within the spectrum that places G. K. Chesterton on the one extreme and Arthur Canon Doyle on the other. Sherlock Holmes is perhaps the most famous of all detectives, and other fictional detectives often reference him, as does Chesterton himself. Christie sets herself apart from both Chesterton and Doyle, too.

Since my last post, I have finished Christie’s A Murder at the Vicarage, another mystery by a different author, and then a Poirot novel, Murder on the Links. Through not so subtle hints by Miss Marple and Hercules Poirot, I have made two observations about how Christie thinks we come to know the truth.

First observation: One and only one theory makes sense of all of the facts. We find this sentiment in both Miss Marple and Hercules Poirot. In Murder at the Vicarage, Miss Marple actually states that any good theory must account for all the facts and only one theory can explain all the facts. Poirot, likewise, in Murder on the Links, states that if a fact does not fit one’s theory, it becomes a most significant fact, so that it may change the theory itself.

I tend to disagree with Christie on this point, and I would say Chesterton does as well. On the one hand, this assertion assumes firstly that we are capable of recognizing all of the facts. Within the confines of a murder mystery, the author is omniscient, that is, she knows everything. Thus, she can plant all the right clues in the story; all the clues are knowable. In real life, however, this is not the case. We cannot handle every fact that attacks our senses at every moment of every day. Consider now as I write this. I blank out the background noises; I do not pay any attention to other sights than my computer screen and notebook. I do not feel the weight of my clothes against my skin. By our very nature, we filter our sensory perceptions of the world around us. If we didn’t, we would go mad.

Secondly, if we are not capable of knowing all the facts, we are also not able to make sense of all the facts even if we had them. Christie’s way of thinking puts a lot of pressure on the minds (the little gray cells, as Poirot calls it) of the common man. Even though we know the truth of the matter, we still have unanswered questions. This is G. K. Chesterton’s point in “The Tremendous Adventures of Major Brown.” Major Brown certainly learns much about the world at the end of his adventures, but he clearly does not understand all.

Finally, more than one theory always exists to explain the facts. The current scholarly debate over any subject demonstrates this principle. For example, two of the most intelligent scientists disagree as to the origin of life on earth. One holds to the theory of evolution, while the other believes the earth was populated by aliens. Is it not the task of the scientist to prove such theories to be either true or false, to provide evidence (more facts) in favor or against? Chesterton, in a light-hearted way, argues that many theories are capable of explaining all the known facts in “The Honour of Israel Gow.”

Second observation: The right method always results in the right interpretation of the facts. I observed this principle much more openly in Poirot that in Miss Marple, partly because their characters are quite different. Poirot constantly chides Hastings about Hastings’ lack of method, lack of observation, and for letting his emotions blind him. In one place in Murder on the Links, Poirot says this: “Method, you comprehend! Method! Arrange your facts. Arrange your ideas.” Later he demonstrates his method to Hastings.

The emphasis on method comes from the earliest modernist thinkers like Bacon and Descartes. Prior to them, the truth, or the explanation of the facts, was given to men by a higher authority, namely, the church. Even the facts of science were theologically interpreted. Even though men like Galileo set aside the authority of the church, they still believed that God had created the world orderly and that truth was still out there within their grasp. They sought the truth of things in the things themselves. Galileo knew that the moons of Saturn orbited Saturn because he saw it for himself, with his own eyes. In order to discover the truth, and to make sure truth did not become relative to the one perceiving it, the early modernists emphasized method. The right method was necessary to determine objective truth.

The scientific method, as it became known, follows a fairly simple process. Observe facts around you. Make a hypothesis that seems to explain all the facts. Perform an experiment to test the hypothesis. Observe the results of the experiment. And begin again. This is Poirot’s method of solving crimes. His hypothesis supplies a reasonable answer to who committed the crime and how. He is not satisfied until all the facts are accounted for and all the questions answered.

So, I find in Christie a very strong modernist world view. Interestingly, to me anyway, in Murder on the Links, Christie distances herself from Doyle also. Perhaps I will pursue that observation in a future post.

A Conservative Christian Declaration: Part 2, “Christian”

In the previous post, I discussed the term conservative as the authors of A Conservative Christian Declaration use it. I concluded that post by defining a conservative as someone who preserves and perpetuates a certain set of ideals. In this conversation, that set of ideals consists of Christianity. Hence, a conservative Christian declaration. In this post, I would like to examine more closely the idea of Christianity that the authors have in mind.

The first article is titled, “On the Gospel.” On this point we return to the idea of theological conservatism that I mentioned in the previous post. The gospel, as the Bible describes it, defines what can rightly be called Christian. Without the gospel, there is no Christianity. In a nearby town, there are three churches that claim to be Christian but I know for a fact teach a false gospel. They teach that good works or particular rituals will save them. They may call themselves Christian, but they are not. On the other hand, I know of another church where the pastor has said that he preaches only the gospel and avoids preaching doctrines and other issues that divide. While I rejoice that the gospel is preached, I am also concerned because Christianity is more than merely the gospel.

Allow me to start with an analogy. Let’s say that I am a doorman at a huge mansion, and you stop by to visit the owner. You knock on the door, and after I open it, you ask if I could show you around the mansion. So, I begin by pointing out how nice the front door is. “We can enter the house through it. The glass of the window was cut by hand. The doorknob was fashioned by a local blacksmith.” All the while, you are standing outside. You interrupt my monologue to say, “Maybe, I can come into the house and look around?” “Of course,” I say. I let you inside the door, and then I pull up two nice, plush chairs where we sit down and look at the inside of the door with our backs to the rest of the mansion. I continue talking about how the wood panels were hand carved. In exasperation, you exclaim, “There is so much more to the mansion than the door! Why are we talking about the door?” And I retort, “Well, that’s all that’s really important. Don’t concern yourself about anything else.”

As the mansion is so much more than the door, Christianity is much more than the gospel. The gospel gets you in, as it were, but it is only the threshold. What more is there to Christianity than the gospel?

First, we know that Christianity includes right doctrine. The gospel itself, the fact that Jesus died for our sins and that he was raised on the third day, is a doctrine. Christianity is rightly called a doctrinal religion. For example, we believe that Mary was a virgin when she conceived and gave birth to Jesus Christ. Matthew goes out of his way in his Gospel to make sure we understand this point. Luke, the author of Acts, states that Jesus is going to return to the earth. Paul, in the letter to the Romans, teaches that every person has sinned. Doctrine is part and parcel of Christianity.

Secondly, we know that Christianity includes right behavior. The commandments in both the Old and New Testaments remind us of what we should and should not be doing, what behavior is and is not becoming a Christian. Paul emphasizes this point when writing to Timothy, “you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God.” Furthermore, he writes to the church in Corinth rebuking them for not behaving themselves when they gathered for communion. Ephesians 4:28 states, “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands.” Even stronger, in 1 Cor. 5, Paul implies that regardless of a person’s doctrinal confession, if his behavior is bad enough, his confession should not be accepted. Instead, the church should discipline him out of the membership. Thus, a Christian’s behavior is just as important as his doctrinal confession.

Thirdly, Christianity also includes the right affections or emotions toward God, other believers, and the world. The great commandments are to love the Lord your God and to love your neighbor as yourself. John reminds us not to love the world or anything in the world. Not only do we find these commands, but we also are told to be joyful, to be at peace, and to worship with fear and reverence. These are emotions, and, according to many places in the Scripture, there are right and wrong emotional states. One well-known example of a wrong affection is Paul’s warning to those coming to the Lord’s table flippantly.

Christianity, therefore, is at minimum the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It includes, however, much more than the gospel. It includes right doctrine, moral behavior, and right affection or emotion. This idea of Christianity forms kind of an outline to A Conservative Christian Declaration. The first article addresses the gospel. The rest of the book tries to explain the much more of Christianity. At the end of the day, the authors are describing a Christianity worth preserving and perpetuating. In the next post, I would like to give the reader some help on how to read these articles.

A Conservative Christian Declaration: Part 1, “Conservative”

Although I read A Conservative Christian Declaration a couple years ago, I recently began reading it closely as my pastor and I are teaching through it in Sunday School. I encourage anyone to read the book; it is certainly worth your time in considering the points it makes. Nonetheless, as I read through the book again, I observed three points that I think require clarification for anyone who might be reading it for the first time. I believe the authors assume the reader already understands a couple of ideas which, if not, the book might not make much sense. My goal is to try to fill in these gaps to help you as you read it. This first post defines conservative as in A Conservative Christian Declaration. The second post will look at what is meant by the term Christian, while the third will suggest questions to keep in mind while reading the articles.

The six authors of the book articulate affirmations and denials that someone who calls himself a conservative Christian will hold, like these authors do. One thing they never do, however, is to define the word conservative. Yet, I think they leave enough clues as to what they mean that we can define it in a way they would agree with. Thus, the question I want to entertain in this post is, “What do the authors mean when they use the word conservative?”

In the American Christian vernacular, conservative is usually employed in one of three conversations. The first is politics: conservatives verses democrats, (and in 2017, conservatives verses republicans). The second is social or cultural issues: conservative verses liberal. The third is theological as it pertains to the message of the gospel. A caveat: Even though I am using political and social examples to help us understand how we normally think of the term conservative, I am not putting forth any political or social opinion of the authors of the book.

Within the world of politics, conservatives are often thought of as those who prefer small government; they prefer local governments to make laws and to limit taxation and government spending. They also, generally speaking, believe the Constitution and Bill of Rights ought to be interpreted and applied as their authors originally intended them. Democrats, on the other hand, generally hold that the founding documents should be re-interpreted given we live at a new time and in new circumstances. Conservatives, then, are trying to hold certain ideals and principles to be true regardless of time and place. This is what makes them conservative.

Within the realm of politics, a word should be said about neo-conservatives. Neo-cons, as they are often called in the media, differ from conservatives in one important respect. They often find a particular time in history–a “golden era” if you will, that they want to return to (usually the Reagan administration). Neo-conservatives have certain criteria by which they judge the best golden era, but these criteria may differ from one to another because their is no overarching principle that governs their decision making. Conservatives understand this problem. Not to make this post all about politics, but this lack of timeless principle has given rise to the Tea Party conservative movement. That being said, though there are parallels between political conservatives and conservative Christians, the two should not be equated.

The second conversation in which the term conservative appears is society or culture. The distinctive sides of the debate are often called conservative and liberal. A conservative in this sense holds to an older moral standard and believes the older standard is relevant to today. Liberal takes its original Latin meaning as “free from” such traditions. For example, a social conservative defines marriage as between one man and one woman, a liberal between any two consenting adults. A conservative is against selling alcohol on Sundays; liberals are in favor. Conservatives are against abortion; liberals argue that women should be free to choose. I will state the caveat again here. I am not speaking of the authors’ stances on those issues. Nonetheless, I think we might glean something from the usage of conservative in these contexts.

The third conversation where conservative is employed is theology. This usage might not come to every reader’s mind, but I am sure it will come to some who are pastors or theologians. Theological liberalism, springing up in America in the late 1800s, has a form of Christianity, but it is not Christianity. It uses the same terms as Christianity; it calls itself Christian, and yet it has redefined the gospel in such ways that it no longer espouses or teaches the same gospel that the Bible teaches. The opposite of theological liberalism is theological conservatism. The authors argue that a conservative Christian must be a theological conservative. The converse is not necessary true: not every theological conservative is a conservative Christian.

Having reviewed three ideas as to how we commonly use conservative in our everyday conversations, I now want to clarify how I think the authors of A Conservative Christian Declaration are using it. Like the political conservative, the authors believe certain ideas and principles pertain to every time and place. In the introduction and preamble, they call these ideas transcendentals. Also like political conservatives, they disagree with neo-conservatives, in that they reject the idea of picking a “golden age of Christianity” and trying to conserve it. Moreover, like the social conservative, they look to learn from the past. We might call this tradition with a lower case ‘t’. In other words, godly men and women have wrestled with these same ideas and principles, and these authors believe that we can learn from them, either from their example or from their mistakes.

An illustration may help tie these ideas together. My wife’s grandfather, working in the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, learned how to farm trees. The idea was to take a section of the forest that already existed and make sure that it remained healthy. At risk of oversimplification, it seems to me that it involved planting new trees, pruning existing trees, and at times cutting down defective trees. The idea of conservative in this sense is more like our English word preserve. In fact, we often speak of forest preserves. The idea is to accept what has been handed to you, preserve it, and pass it along to the next generation who will then repeat these steps.

This idea of conservation leads nicely to this conclusion: A conservative seeks to preserve and to perpetuate a certain set of ideas, principles, and practices. In this particular case, that set of principles and practices is Christianity. In the next post, I will answer the question, “What do these authors mean by the term Christian?

Mystery and Worldview

In my younger days, I was enamored with Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. I wanted to be the guy who walked into a room, put all the pieces together, and was fooled by no one. (In retrospect, it was just pride.) Then, I was introduced to G. K. Chesterton. First, I read The Club of Queer Trades, followed by the Father Brown mysteries. While I found these stories to be quite enjoyable, I also found that Chesterton was actually arguing with Doyle by setting up a polemic against Holmes. It was a matter of atmospheres, says Chesterton in the “Tremendous Adventures of Major Brown.”

In Doyle’s world, a fact (sometimes referred to as a brute fact) needs no interpretation. In essence, fact equals truth. Holmes could always arrive at the truth inductively by means of gathering the facts; they always pointed him in the right direction. This worldview could be summarized with the sentence, “Seeing is believing.” Chesterton, in contrast, argues that facts require interpretation, and that the interpretation of the facts can be judged as true or false, depending on whether the interpretation corresponded to reality. One of the best examples is the Father Brown mystery, “The Honour of Israel Gow.” Unless we know the truth ahead of time, we cannot make sense of the facts. And in a sense, is that not how we read Holmes? It is only after we read the last page that all the pages that came before make sense. We can summarize this view with, “Believing is seeing.” (I believe this to be the correct worldview for reasons I cannot elaborate on here.)

I have read all of Holmes, and I have read all of Chesterton. This past summer, I picked up the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries of Dorothy Sayers (I recommend reading them in chronological order.) Sayers wanted to perpetuate the ideas of Chesterton, and she is a descent writer. The worldview she presents is like that of Chesterton. After finishing those, I decided to look at other famous British detectives. I started with some Agatha Christie mysteries and finished two of them: Then There Were None, and her first Hercule Poirot, The Mysterious Affair at Styles. I am currently working through Christie’s first Miss MarpleThe Murder at the Vicarage.

While I am reading them, I cannot help but try to pigeon hole them between Doyle and Chesterton. Is there a spectrum of worldview in the world of mystery writers? Do the little grey cells of Poirot match the wits of Holmes? Is Miss Marple’s powers of observation keener than Father Brown’s? Or, as my wife say, am I just over thinking it, and maybe I should relax and just enjoy them? Regardless, I want to know what Christie’s writings are teaching me about the world around me, and whether she is right or wrong, near or far. So far, I am uncertain, and so, I will continue to read with my eyes open.