Tag Archives: Church

The Benedict Option, by Rod Dreher

Benedict OptionThe title of this book has been so confusing for so many that I’ll start with what the book is not. It is not about Benedict Arnold. It is about Saint Benedict, the monk who founded the Benedictine order in the sixth century. It is not a political book. There is a chapter about politics, and recent political events may have motivated Mr. Dreher to write the book, but it is not about how conservatives can win elections. Finally, it is not advocating that Christians leave public life altogether, drawing into communities behind walls, reading the Bible and singing Gregorian chants.

Benedict was a man living shortly after the fall of Rome who took a good look around and realized that there were barbarians all over the place, and if the church was going to survive, she would have to take some drastic protective measures. He drew a group of men together and started a community founded on work and prayer, keeping all of their lives centered around God. Eventually, he wrote up a summary of what they needed to do and why, calling the document the Benedictine Rule. Following the rule ordered all of their days and marked out appropriate times of work and prayer, living in asceticism, chastity, and silence. The monks sometimes received visitors, often those in need of healing, whether physical or spiritual, but the visitors had to live under the rule while they sojourned with the monks. As we learned in Thomas Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization, we all owe a debt of gratitude to the monasteries for rescuing many manuscripts of antiquity from destruction, and when the Dark Ages were over, the church emerged strong and resilient because of the disciplined labors of the religious orders that were, by that time, scattered across Europe.

Dreher considers that the Christian church in the west is facing another perilous time, a modern Dark Age. The Christian faith is effectively dead in Western Europe, and religious freedom is rapidly being eroded in the United States. As a matter of fact, if there is one political issue for which we must fight tirelessly, it is religious freedom. Most of this volume, though, is taken up with the ways that twenty-first century Christians—who may be women, men, married, single, parents, working for secular employers, and addicted to their smartphones—might adopt the best points of the Benedictine Rule in their own lives. He offers advice and examples of people who have founded Christian communities ranging from loose groups of church members in a neighborhood to actual modern-day monasteries. Among many, wide-ranging topics, there is a chapter devoted to education, another on sexual beliefs and practices, one on the liturgy of the church, and the last one encouraging us to fast from our technology.

About a decade ago, I read Rod Dreher’s earlier, generously-subtitled book, Crunchy Cons: How Birkenstocked Burkeans, Gun-Loving Organic Gardeners, Evangelical Free-Range Farmers, Hip Homeschooling Mamas, Right-Wing Nature Lovers, and Their Diverse Tribe of Countercultural Conservatives Plan to Save America (or at Least the Republican Party). Not that I cared to save the Republican Party, but otherwise I thought the title was a hoot, and it was good to know that someone out there had identified the tribe among which I lived. This current work is more serious, but it is also calling upon those who are willing to pull away from mainstream America to strengthen a church that is confused, fragmented, and in danger of disappearing into the dominant secular society. I cannot say that I agree with everything Dreher proposes in this book, but many of his ideas are so fascinating, and the necessity of some kind of drastic plan is so obvious, that I’ve gathered a group of readers together to discuss each aspect of The Benedict Option over a series of weeks. We will start in two weeks, and I may write a column or two on TheReaderWrites to give you a taste of our conversations. It wouldn’t be a bad idea for many readers across the country to start some discussion groups on this and similar titles. Let’s find ways to get our ideas together.

Disclaimer: I own a copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer, church, or anyone else. The beautiful abbey on the cover is not Benedict’s abbey in Norcia, Italy, but is actually Mont Saint Michel in France, which used to be a Benedictine monastery. The abbey in Norcia was completely destroyed by earthquakes just a few months ago. All of the monks survived.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Christian Life

Sarah Bessey and Me

Several years ago, a pastor told me that the Bible’s teaching on women implied that women should never supervise men at work. At the time, I supervised two, so I told him it was too late. So he said that I should give them preference over the women I supervised, just because of their gender. I kid you not. Fast forward a few years, and a woman in our small group opined that a woman’s main role in the workplace is to make the men there feel better about themselves. Try as I might, I cannot find this chapter or verse in my Bible. Furthermore, I think my employer would be much more pleased if I followed the Bible’s real admonition to employees, which is to work for your employer with a great attitude, as if you were working for the Lord, instead of other people.* Apparently, though, no one in the room found her opinion sort of creepy except for me. There was more, but you can imagine my state of mind.

Jesus FeministIn my line of work, book titles run past my eyes all day long every day, and one day that title was Jesus Feminist. I tend to turn away from the word “feminist,” since it is so often allied with the hard-left, pro-choice crowd, but this was just too provocative, so I took a look, read the description, logged into my Amazon account, and made my first acquaintance with this Canadian pastor’s wife, blogger, and mommy.

We all have visions of our future lives when we are young, and having a full-time career was not part of my vision. Mother, wife, and maybe writer, yes. But I believe in a sovereign God, and a decade and a half ago, we went through a life-changing chain of events, and here I am, doing what I sincerely believe is the right thing to do—the honorable, loving, and responsible thing to do—and I have found happiness there. All day, every day, I am surrounded by brilliant, hardworking women who find great meaning in their work. I believe in a God who gifts people with the ability to make other lives better, and who puts each person in place for the good of all. The universe is not random. So how can someone else who believes in a sovereign God say that the way I lay down my life is a sin?

I opened Jesus Feminist and wept in the introduction. I sobbed through the first two chapters. I found someone who had been here before me, and she dealt with her wounds by reading the gospels over and over. She reminded me that Jesus treated women like people. He talked to them directly, against the custom of the day, and never treated them as “other.” She reprinted a Dorothy L. Sayer essay that I read decades ago that is still one of the best things I’ve ever read on the topic of Jesus and women. Sarah Bessey reminded me, in her poetic, storyteller fashion, that Jesus truly loved me, and that’s all I really needed to hear. Some of the later chapters didn’t speak to me as much, but those first chapters were so powerful that this bright yellow paperback has sat on my desk, beside my laptop, ever since then. Not that I told anyone, though, because I knew how controversial she was, and I didn’t want to be met with either gasps or outrage.

Last summer was another life-changing time. Everyone knows that it was a summer of grief over my mother’s death, as well as months filled with unrelenting physical pain from the compressed discs in my neck causing nerve pain all the way down my arm, but I’ve never told the story of the deep wound gouged into my soul during this rough time.

David and I have moved around a lot in our lives. For the first twenty years of our marriage, we moved about every five years for David’s work. Sometimes the transitions were heartbreaking, but we met all kinds of people and learned a lot from them. We studied loads of theology, visited dozens of churches, and had long, intense discussions late into the night with some folks who are deeply lodged in my heart forever. By my best count, we have been members or long-term visitors of ten separate denominations, and more than one church for a couple of those. I feel old just saying that. We’ve hosted church in our house and helped to start a couple of churches from scratch. We’ve driven long distances to church for years a couple of times, just to be sure that the teaching and fellowship we were receiving were truly biblical. We knew of a small denomination that agreed with us that two seemingly opposing ideas were both Biblical, but we never lived near one of their churches until we lived here. We were passionately devoted members of this church for seven years—until last year. When my mother died last summer, my church did—nothing. I received sympathy cards from individuals, and I treasured each one, but as a church: nothing. No meals, no visits, not even a phone call from my most beloved church of my whole life.

In the year since my mother’s death, I have had time to reflect on what God may be teaching me through long nights of grief, pain, and loneliness. I have worked and prayed to forgive, and I have come miles down that road by his grace. I have learned that love, in God’s eyes, is the most important thing, and I’ve repented for the times I didn’t love others as I should have. “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” I’ve realized that those first three verses of 1 Corinthians 13 cover all the kinds of churches in the world, from charismatic to reformed to legalistic to liberal, whereas I had only seen individuals in those verses before. The last verse of that chapter, “So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love,” has become my heart’s cry. I am doing my best to love now, having people in my home, supporting everyone I can, and praying for the most unlikely people. I will never be good at this—it is not my gift—but it is everyone’s calling.

At the same time, other things have become less important. I have started taking stock of the ways that I have fit myself into someone else’s mold, rather than reading the Bible without filters and living what it says. We live in a world full of noise, with someone telling us what to think about everything, and when we agree with one side about an issue, we’re thrown into a box with dozens of other opinions that we’re expected to believe as well. But I don’t, and it’s becoming bewildering to think that I’m the only one who holds nuanced opinions that don’t fit neatly onto a bumper sticker.

Out of SortsAnd along came Sarah Bessey again. When I saw her new book title, Out of Sorts: Making Peace with an Evolving Faith, I thought, “Yes, that’s where I am.” Truly, if your faith is not evolving, you are just not paying attention, and considering the political events of the past year, I think most Christians are not thinking deeply enough about their faith. The idea that our religion can be co-opted into a political cause is tremendously disturbing in its own right. Combining the events of my personal life with the national, even global, turmoil has caused me to be discouraged and almost despairing for particular churches, but also for the universal Church. Heaven knows the answer doesn’t lie in creating yet another denomination.

Ms. Bessey is one of a growing group of believers who think that the church is ripe for a new reformation, and my heart resonates with that idea. She points out that a major upheaval happens about every five hundred years in the church. In other words, we’re due. We just can’t continue in the splintered, contentious fashion that we now tolerate. Who is for Paul, who is for Apollos, and who is for Jesus?** The world has changed since Martin Luther nailed a paper to a cathedral door to ask for a discussion. Thousands of discussions are taking place every minute on social media with no moderator whatsoever, and in the church, we have no leader. Pope Francis? Jerry Falwell, Jr.?

Sarah Bessey writes by telling stories, and every one is soaked with her passionate love for Jesus. I read this book like drinking a life-giving elixir. I consumed it. To paraphrase Roberta Flack, I felt she’d found my letters and read each one out loud. If I had time, I would go right back to the beginning and read it again. She pulls out one topic after another and encourages the reader to examine it honestly, leading us to be courageous by telling her own life’s stories. She has also been a part of different kinds of churches in different parts of the continent, and she has drawn truth and beauty from each experience, but she now realizes that she cannot fully assent to the beliefs of any one church. No one is right about everything, after all, but neither is everyone else wrong about everything. You may as well tell the truth about how you feel and what you think, rather than making yourself believe something in order to please someone else, because when it comes right down to it, if they don’t love you because you disagree, what do you gain by hiding the truth? The only one who matters already knows what you think, and he can take it. You may not agree with Sarah Bessey on every issue—or, like me, you may not know what you think about some of them—but she will take you gently through all of the things that need sorting out in your heart and mind.

I do believe that the future is hopeful for me and for the church, but I believe just as firmly that there is suffering ahead. The Lord has used my pain to force me to change, to let go of things I held dear, to work harder for the kingdom, to forgive and to love. As Switchfoot’s new album*** says, the wound is where the light shines through, where the grace pours in, where he reaches in to heal. Be courageous! Lean into the pain and love well.

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It was not my intent to hurt anyone with this post, but rather to tell my story so that others who have been deeply wounded can find comfort here. Scripture quotes are from the ESV Bible.

*There is a reference for this! Ephesians 6: 6 & 7.

**Riffing on 1 Corinthians 1:12.

***It always come down to Switchfoot, doesn’t it? I am here freely making inferences from the song “Where the Light Shines Through” and the album of the same name.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Christian Life, Life's Travails- Big and Small, Men and Women