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 Statist 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.
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 Christians 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.
D.G. Hart is Visiting Professor of History at Hillsdale College in Michigan, and also serves as an elder for a new Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Hillsdale. This article first appeared on his blog and is used with permission.