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, by way of an appetiser, is a post by Tim Adeney about reading the seasons...
The Blockbuster where I used to rent DVDs has now become a gym. When the lease was due (the story goes) the owner of the video store was willing to sign a new 2-year lease, but the landlord wanted 5. The owner, foreseeing the grim future of DVD rentals, declined the 5-year lease. He sold off stock and closed the store. I know people who still run a video shop. They have a very favourable lease, and they’ve found a way to take advantage of other video stores closing: they clean up the defunct stores in return for the old stock, which they’ll sell in their store and at occasional pop-ups. They are doing ok, but they are not down at the bank seeking finance for new stores. They know they can’t sell the business, and when the lease expires, or perhaps before, they too will need to simply close. But they are prepared for that. They can see the future and they’re living accordingly.
The Benedict Option is a suggestion that the Christian community in the West do likewise – that we recognise the future direction of our culture and prepare. It’s named for Benedict of Nursia (c. 480–543 AD), who lived through the fall of the Western Roman Empire. In a culture increasingly hostile to Christianity, he helped form monastic communities committed to living for Jesus.
True, the edifice of our lives today isn’t about to be flattened by a hurricane of Goths, but there may be wisdom to learn from Benedict. The West has grown and will continue to grow hostile to Jesus and his followers; speaking about Jesus will likely cost more, and persuade few. Additionally, we may find ourselves unable to participate in the mainstream life of our respective nations — some pathways of employment no longer available, schooling in the state system problematic, and our capacity to form and operate our own institutions curtailed.
And so, using Benedict’s example as something between a model and a metaphor, we should prepare to do things differently.
Yes, there are ‘in season and out’ activities we must continue to do: stand firm; declare the good news of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ; build strong communities marked by love; bless the world around us, and so on.
But there will be other actions demanded by the season coming upon us.
None of this implies that Christianity won’t survive or indeed thrive; Jesus promised that his church wouldn’t die out. Benedict is suggested as a model precisely because the seed he planted (as the argument goes) led under God to the preservation of Christianity. But the Benedict Option does assume we can know something of the future. And not just the end of time, but the immediate future, and even the season.
This assumption is less grandiose than it might first appear. All action embeds a hypothesis about the future. Whether I’m ordering a coffee, pressing a space bar, shopping for a week, selecting a school for my children, taking out a 30-year mortgage, selecting a bin to put my rubbish in, or invading a country, I do so with a view of the future.
Often this hypothesis takes the form of a view about the present, but if it is an assessment to be acted on, it is also an assessment about the immediate future. Today might be a good time to buy a house, but only if the value is maintained tomorrow. Now might be a good time to buy flowers but only if they will still look good in 20 minutes when I get home.
And these assessments are morally significant. Consider Proverbs 10:5:
He who gathers crops in summer is a prudent son,
but he who sleeps during harvest is a disgraceful son.
The difference here, between prudence and disgrace, is timing. Our lives will of course be punctuated by many inconsequential misjudgements about the future — I find a parking spot 20 metres away from where I thought I would. But if I laugh at a funeral, drive through a red light, go to war when peace is called for, or appease when enforcement is required, then I am morally culpable — stupid, immoral, or disgraceful — and with catastrophic consequences.
In other words, timing matters.
It is worth noting that these judgements are only available through observation — yes, observation informed and shaped by Scripture, but observation nonetheless. Yes, Scripture tells me that kingdoms will come and go, but there is no verse that says this kingdom will end today; there is no verse which will tell the disgraceful son that the harvest is now; no verse to say that now is the time for peace and not war. All this must be, and is able to be observed, and by implication acted on.
One area we are particularly vulnerable is the degree to which our common life intersects with and relies on the favour of the state. Many of us would be shocked at how much. And so anyone with some responsibility for our common life should at least understand our dependence on the favour of the state, and begin to plan for if and when it is withdrawn. Yes, we trust and belong to a sovereign God, but if any activity was worth doing, then we must think there is a loss when it is no longer possible.
My concern is that we won’t observe and won’t prepare. I’m not suggesting we close-up shop, abandon our property, pull our kids out of schools, and stop working for public companies. I’m not suggesting we never speak in the public square, take advantage of historical opportunities, or even fight the odd battle to preserve them. And I’m not suggesting we spend all our time preparing for the future. (Indeed, there is something comically sad about those whose whole life is focussed on preparing for some future catastrophe — watch a couple of episodes of Doomsday Preppers and you will see what I mean.)
But, please, along with those who own video stores, can we recognize that things have changed? The hurricane may not have hit, but it’s a lot windier than it was a few minutes ago.
Image: Consumerist dot com, at flickr.com