May 5, 2017

Two authors call on Christians to be witnesses within a Western culture that is becoming more secular

Reviewed by Sean Gallagher

Left, the cover of Strangers in a Strange Land: Living the Catholic Faith in a Post­Christian World. Right, the cover of The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian NationThe authors of two books that have garnered much attention in the past few months both view the firestorm of opposition to Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) two years ago as evidence of a sea change in American culture that has been developing for several decades.

Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, in Strangers in a Strange Land: Living the Catholic Faith in a Post‑Christian World (Henry Holt, 2017), described opposition to the proposed law, especially among business leaders, as “a social media lynch mob.”

Rod Dreher, senior editor of The American Conservative magazine, noted in his recently released book The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation (Sentinel, 2017) that the RFRA debate was “a watershed event” that showed that the prevailing culture viewed Christians adhering to traditional biblical beliefs, especially regarding sexuality and marriage, as purveyors of “intolerable bigotry.” (Related story: Archdiocesan Catholics embrace principles advocated by author)

Both authors see a need for Catholics and other Christians to be formed more intensely in their faith, and to live it out with much greater consciousness than in the recent past in this emerging cultural atmosphere.

They seem to disagree slightly on the means for doing this and the context in which it can best be done.

Both authors look back to saints who lived some 1,500 years ago during the decline of the western Roman Empire as models of how believers can seek to live out the faith in a culture that is hostile to it, and is losing touch with its more broad human moorings.

Archbishop Chaput calls on the example of St. Augustine (354-430), who served as the bishop of Hippo Regius in what is now Algeria in northern Africa from 395 until his death. A critic of the deteriorating morals of the Roman Empire in his time, Augustine wrote at length in The City of God about the role of Christians in secular society in response to pagan critics who charged that Rome’s political decline was due to its legalization of Christianity.

Dreher looks to St. Benedict (480‑543), who left Rome during his education there because of the moral corruption he encountered in the city.

Benedict then lived as a hermit in the central Italian wilderness and later founded a series of monasteries. He also wrote his Rule that guided their daily life and became the basis for Benedictine monasteries around the world to the present day.

Dreher points readers to Benedict because it was his monasteries and those guided by his Rule after his death that did much to preserve classical Greek and Roman civilization and the writings and culture of the early Church during the social upheaval of the early Middle Ages.

Christians who live their faith more intentionally today, Dreher suggests, and form deliberately countercultural communities based on such Benedictine principles as a sacramental view of the world, the integration of prayer and work, community and hospitality can eventually serve a similar purpose in today’s Western society that he says is jettisoning its Christian roots at a growing pace.

Some of Dreher’s reviewers claim that he wants Christians to shake the dust of contemporary culture from their sandals and head for the hills. They may have gotten that impression from the often blistering critique that Dreher makes on contemporary culture and his sometimes alarmist foreshadowing of challenges that Christians may face sooner rather than later—a charge he has not entirely denied.

In any case, Dreher says in the book that it is imperative for Christians to form communities with like-minded believers that consciously eschew negative cultural trends, especially in sexuality and the influence of digital technology.

In a March 21 speech about the book, he argued that “a strategic withdrawal from everyday life” was necessary for believers in the West today since they are now living in “a hedonistic post-Christian culture,” while still acknowledging that evangelization, hospitality and care for people in need are essential for Christians.

In these communities marked by “virtual walls,” Christians should foster a profound life of prayer and worship and offer, where possible, material and employment support for fellow members.

The last suggestion is a way that Dreher says that Christians can respond in the not-too-distant future when employment with many companies and professional fields will require believers to compromise their consciences.

Christians should also consider, Dreher recommends, starting schools based on a classical model of education that form children strongly in the faith and in the great works of literature of Western civilization.

Working on the local level is how Dreher advises Christians to build a strong foundation of faith to withstand a growing tide of secular opposition. He sees less value in promoting Christian morality through political advocacy than many believers have over the past generation. The “culture wars,” Dreher bluntly states, are over and lost.

The only area of political life where Christians should remain on the forefront, Dreher recommends, is in promoting religious liberty. If that continues to be curtailed, then believers’ efforts to form intentional communities can be hampered.

Archbishop Chaput differs from Dreher somewhat in still advocating Christian political and cultural engagement. In doing this, he draws on the second century Christian writing “The Letter to Diognetus,” which said that “what the soul is in the body, that Christians are in the world.”

“When the world opposes Jesus Christ,” Archbishop Chaput writes, “we may end up against the world for the sake of the world. After all, God so loved the world that he sent his only Son to save it, not to condemn it. If we want to follow Jesus, we must love the world too and remain in it, as he did, to work for its salvation.”

Archbishop Chaput, though, goes on to say, much along the lines advocated by Dreher, that Christians can never be comfortable in the world and that they need places “where the world’s influence is diminished, where we can rest before returning to the mission.

“Practically speaking,” he goes on, “this means working to renew our parishes, schools, and the small communities of which we’re a part. It means making sure that, whatever schools they attend, our children learn to live and think as Catholics.”

In the end, the differences in the approaches advocated by Archbishop Chaput and Dreher aren’t that great.

And that is not surprising if one looks more closely at the two saints they hold up as models. St. Augustine may have been a bishop busily leading his diocese and engaging the broader culture. But he sought to live as a monk, much as St. Benedict later did, before he was called to serve as a bishop. And even after becoming a bishop, Augustine lived in a monastic-like community with his diocese’s priests.

He also wrote a rule for consecrated men and women that many religious communities have since adopted as their own.

One religious he influenced was Dreher’s favorite, St. Benedict. The monastic founder borrowed from St. Augustine’s rule in writing his own.

Although neither Dreher nor Archbishop Chaput refer to each other in their books, their endorsement of each other’s works can be found on the dustcovers to their hardback editions.

Without mentioning Dreher by name, Archbishop Chaput commented directly on the “Benedict Option” concept, which Dreher started writing about in 2006, in a speech Archbishop Chaput gave in March 2016 at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah.

As he would later write in his own book, Archbishop Chaput in this speech pointed to St. Augustine instead of St. Benedict.

“I think we need to think and act in the same way Augustine did,” he said. “Our task as believers, whatever our religious tradition, is to witness our love for God and for each other in the time and place God puts us. …

“It means working with all our energy to make our nation whole and good, even as we keep our expectations modest, and even when we experience criticism and failure. And finally, it means realizing that none of us can do this work alone.”

Dreher soon responded on the website of The American Conservative to Archbishop Chaput, and what he described as his “powerful speech.”

In his comments, Dreher said that those who live out the Benedict Option best know that they can effect positive change in the broader society only by first strengthening their own particular communities of faith.

Slight though their differences may be, the books by Archbishop Chaput and Dreher are thought-provoking enough in their own way that they can both aid Catholics and other Christians in these and future times when living the Gospel may mean being willing to stand out from the prevailing culture.
 

(Sean Gallagher is a reporter for The Criterion. Strangers in a Strange Land: Living the Catholic Faith in a Post Christian World and The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation are available at all major bookstores and online at amazon.com and bn.com.)

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