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One Benedict and Many Homers

Over the next few weeks we'll be running a short series of articles responding to Rod Dreher's ideas in The Benedict Option, and evaluating the pros and cons of his proposal as a strategy for Australian evangelicals. Here is the opening salvo from Steve McAlpine...

There’s an episode in The Simpsons in which, having been forced to go into witness protection, Homer is coached by federal agents to naturalise his new identity. Each time his handlers go through the process; telling him his new details, spelling out his new name, before stopping and drilling him on it. Each time he says in a monotone, “Homer Simpson, my name is Homer Simpson.”

When it comes to the Benedict Option, and specifically Rod Dreher’s much anticipated book on the subject, too many are Simpsonesque.

So Dreher makes statements such as:

“We are not looking to create heaven on earth, we are simply looking for a way to be strong in faith through a great time of testing.” (p. 54)

or:

To be sure, Christians cannot afford to vacate the public square entirely. The church must not shrink from its responsibility to pray for political leaders and speak prophetically to them.” (p. 82)

and even:

Communities that are wrapped too tightly for fear of impurity will suffocate their members and strangle the joy out of life together. Ideology is the enemy of joyful community, and the most destructive ideology is the belief that creating utopia is a possibility. (p. 139)

Yet at every turn what do I hear? Homer Simpsons monotonously stating, “It’s about withdrawing into a locked compound”; “It’s a return to disengaged fundamentalism.” And these Homers are drawn from a variety of theological backgrounds, ranging from staunch five point Calvinists all the way up/down to scary Incarnational types. United around a common enemy perhaps?

This is not a review of the book—you can go elsewhere for that—but a defence of Dreher’s view of the future, or more to the point, how the future arrives. For too long we have viewed the future like a cable car; a steady upwards—or downwards—ride; predictable and headed in a direction that has been set. We may like that direction, we may not, the key is that we believe we have time to respond to it.

Rollercoaster 1168670 960 720

Yet if anything is true, the future is a discombobulating roller coaster ride; twisting and turning and leaving us giddy with its unpredictable and explosive changes. And from where I sit, as Christians we are woefully unprepared. Our loins are ungirded, or to keep the metaphor going, we’re bracing ourselves for a cable car descent, not strapping ourselves in for a roller coaster ride.

If Dreher’s call is to reach across the mix of Western settings (North America, UK, Australasia, even Continental Europe), then it cannot simply be read flatly, as if the US political experience is identical to the Australian one. But at the same time, for all of our dismissal that we are not the US, we spend an inordinate amount of time comparing ourselves to it, and focussing on how US politics is played out, looking for similarities among all of the differences.

What is important is the pendulum swing—or at least the bob on the end of the rod. If the bob that is the cultural and political trajectory of the US experience swung out hard for the Christian and conservative frame in the past, then its restoring force will swing back just as hard. A law of metaphysics if you like. In pendulum parlance that complete swing is what is known as a “period”. For us, in Australia, the period is not so pronounced. The Christian frame, by and large, occupied a lesser place in the public square, hence the push back will be less intense.

Perhaps. Why only perhaps? Because of Dreher’s view of the future. Cultural collapse is by definition chaotic. Occurrences are unthinkable until they occur. Decisions outrageous until they are decided.

An example from all too close to home: I remark on a regular basis how, in the midst of all of the gender identity issues being pushed at government schools, my son’s primary school, located as it is in our strongly working class area, would not touch such issues with a barge pole. There would be an outcry from the hedonistic, but conservative Bintang-singlet-wearing brigade. Those progressive western Perth suburbs by the city and near the beach? They’d be right in to it, but not us—not yet anyway. Two gay men holding hands in our area would, tragically, still be putting themselves at risk in 2017. For all my talk of roller coaster futures, I was prepped for a cable car ride.

But just this week? Wham! The roller coaster took off and nearly put my neck out. As I write we are two days away from having an “Opposite Gender Day” at school. The lovingly coloured in posters depict cross dressers with queries such as “man?”, “woman?”, “boy?”, “girl?” Just in case we missed the point there are appropriately angry baddies with grim faces in the background, with one figure shouting back to them “It’s all right!”

At assembly yesterday the students were told that everyone who cross dresses will win a prize. There’s something to win, and something to lose—a lot to lose.

My point is not to express outrage, or even to be horrified at how unsafely this process at the school has been worked out, but to say that even with my cultural eye on the ball this blindsided me. I don’t even know how to respond to the school in a way that would remotely engage with how they thought this one through.

If I even raised an objection it would be read through the cultural filter as merely outdated religious dogma. They would gaze at me as one does an animal one has never seen before. The argument is over before I have even gotten to say anything. The cultural narrative is hermetically sealed from contradiction. If you’re looking for fundamentalism, there it is right there.

Our Christian communities are constantly left scrabbling around, reacting. Dreher is calling us to take stock, make changes now that seem slightly odd but which will be vindicated, and build resilience into our people for whatever lies ahead. For our sons are never addicted to sexting and porn until they are. Our church-raised daughters never announce to us that they are pro-SSM until they do. Our men never walk into church with a new lady on their arms instead of their wives and expect us to okay it, until in they so walk.

And the point of this is not about sex, though Dreher shows how the Sexual Revolution is the highpoint—or low point—of a cultural collapse, but about how poorly we are placed for rapid discontinuous change in a world in which the high point of extreme individualism trumps every other narrative about the nature of humanity.

If all we do is read Dreher through our Homer Simpson filter then we’re doing our people a great disservice. The thick cultural liturgies that James K. A. Smith speaks of are vastly more enticing than the anaemic cultures we are trying to counter them with. And then we’re surprised when desire for these hardier liturgies so often trump ours.

You don’t have to agree with everything Dreher says, but to simply state “anything but Benedict” betrays a misplaced confidence that the levees you have built are adequate for the level of flood waters heading your way. And you only get to make that mistake once. The flood is coming, you need an option, whatever that is.

My final thought. Read Dreher in one hand, with Mark Sayers's Disappearing Church in the other. It’s like reading Smith with Taylor.

Image: Pixabay.com

Steve is approaching an age which would be a more than useful Test batting average. He is a pastor of Providence Church in WA, is married to Jill and together they have two children, Sophie and Declan. Steve grew up in Northern Ireland, but apart from rolling his “r’s”, and talking too fast, is a West Aussie through and through. He has degrees in journalism and theology and enjoys combining the two through writing and blogging, especially on matters of church planting and cultural negotiation for Christians in the increasingly complex West.

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