Monthly Archives: May 2017

Do You Have a Better Idea? What my version of The Benedict Option might look like

I’m ready to wrap up this exercise, and I have no doubt you are too. I hadn’t intended to close by offering an outline of what alternative I would offer to Dreher’s framework, but it seems only fitting, having spent way too many words taking shots at his concept that I at least try to offer what I would propose instead.

One thing I hadn’t much noticed was that Dreher’s work goes from top down, from a subsidiarity perspective, starting with the broadest lens of culture, then politics, then the church, then villages (getting smaller) and education, the family focused (work and love). He closes with tech, which on the one hand seems to widen the lens again, but it’s also the ultimate isolator, the most individualized.

This direction makes sense, because at its heart The Benedict Option is a reaction to cultural and political forces that steer him toward this response. And, as I have said ad nauseum, I’m not as driven by those same forces, even though I admit that to a degree they are real.

In fact, I acknowledge especially that the focus on radical individuality in Dreher’s analysis as a flaw in our culture is spot-on, so war I’d offer as an alternative doesn’t start at the individual level. I don’t mean to imply that there is no individuality, that we have no personal agency, or that we are wholly socially determined beings. But I would say that we can’t find our purpose and fulfillment nor even be really understood without a social context. We are genetically, evolutionarily wired to be social creatures in community. Or, theologically, we reflect the reality of a Trinitiarian God who is community in Godself. Yes, we are individuals, but we are individuals made whole, made free, made real only in community.

That community starts with the family, and while the nuclear family is of relatively recent vintage, and even romantic love a somewhat new expression in family life, I;d start at the level of the vocation to marriage. Just today I came across a couple of essays that reflect a broader theme that commitment, vulnerability, true relationship have been filtered out of modern sexuality; that dating has been fully transactionalized to the detriment of the old-fashioned ideal of love and marriage. Certainly, as Dreher would point out, there are oodles of stats to back that up. It’s not just that Millennials are delaying marriage and child-rearing; it’s that romance has been replaced by a “swipe-left, swipe-right” consumerism that speeds up the process to the point that selecting a partner for romance is even more market-like and even less mystical. So I would start by saying, if the Church is going to change its course and rebuild the fervor for God on which it was founded, it ought consider doing so by reinvesting in helping people develop stable, committed, loving relationships as perhaps the surest pathway to holiness.

And this is where the countercultural nature that Dreher embraces comes in. Strong marriages and strong families exist most abundantly in communities of support. There was a time when extended families made up that community. And there was a time when neighbors created a primary circle of friendship that provided mutual reinforcement. If the Industrial Revolution upset the extended family as close support and the suburbanization of America upset the close-knit neighborhoods of older cities, the evolution of our economy and especially technology to offer an increasing number of people the ability to work from anywhere offers the opportunity to establish functional intentional communities of support. If American cities are also able to tackle the significant inequities not only in employment and income but also in transportation and housing, we can create an environment where those sorts of intentional communities of support need not be reserved for the wealthy creative class. And, while these communities serve a critical function of more closely connecting families sharing a common faith and a deep and broad agreement about the purpose of life, these principles of mutual support and solidarity at a hyperlocal level aren’t tied to creeds. Tight-knit intentional communities of faith can thrive in larger relationships with other such communities driven by other creeds (and perhaps by no creed at all).

So couples build families in relationship with other families in neighborhoods. Those neighborhoods make communities – cities and towns, in which education can focus on the whole person – on developing the virtues and character needed to be a good neighbor, family member, citizen, and economic actor.

Economics, more than politics or religion, has been the tail that wagged the dog these last centuries. There is a nascent recognition that, yes, socialism hasn’t been successful but capitalism hasn’t done all that well by many, especially if you view poverty in relative terms and not solely in absolute ones. This is not my area of expertise, at all, but I am vaguely aware of an economic school of distributism that in a small way is reflected in the ethos of all those “buy local” movements. If communities can create structures in which neighbors are able to support each other, yes, by buying locally, but also by supporting businesses that operate under policies that integrate them within the communities they serve and profit the people who work for them, there may be, if not an opportunity to build an Edenic economy, at least a chance to slow the centrifugal forces that modern global economies exert, pulling communities and families apart.

As for the church, building from families to communities of intentional support yield a different model of Church if not a different theology. Reflecting a Trinitarian God of relationship that preaches a Gospel of Love that inspired an early church that served as an extreme example of a community of intentional support (as they sold all they had and held goods in common), a Church that starts not with the top of a priestly hierarchy but with the community of families lends itself to the synodal nature of the Second Vatican Council (which seems to be belatedly emerging thanks to Pope Francis). If holiness is found within family and community, priests play important roles as guides, leaders and supports; but they aren’t a caste of holies set apart, which is a tacit understanding of too many faith communities.

So what of politics? I think oddly enough that working bottom up may yield some similar themes to those Dreher opened his Benedict Option with. Local matters more, which he also said, as each community of neighbors makes its own way in its unique situation (and in a more participatory way). The state and national political role of these faithful families would, it seems to me, tend toward championing a national political system that empowers each community to pursue its common ends (Catholics call this subsidiarity). I would add that it might also encourage the appropriate use of larger governmental structures to ensure that some communities aren’t victimized by disadvantage so that all can prosper (embracing what Catholics call solidarity).

That’s what I have to offers as an alternative to the Benedict Option, at least in the barest outline form. As I said at the outset, Dreher’s book is worth you reading, certainly way more than this. I just sketched out an outline on the electronic equivalent of the back of a napkin; Dreher has invested years in conversation and study. Whether you find his assessment and vision compelling, or you find my critiques more persuasive, I hope you’ll note that we share more in common in our proposals than we hold in contrast, even if we read the signs of the times with different eyes, casting back to different centuries for inspiration.

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Unplug from Technology (says the guy who blogs for a living)

So, there is some irony in Dreher’s last topical chapter of The Benedict Option. It’s not that his points are wrong, but there’s something about hearing about how we need to unplug from our screens in order to save our souls from a writer who came to prominence by blogging and keeps an active Twitter presence. Again, he’s not wrong; it’s just that he probably isn’t the best messenger.

Nor am I. But let me tell you about someone else who is a better messenger on the topic. My wife has no social media presence, and has no blog. She uses e-mail, but judiciously keeps it off her phone and on a computer inconveniently located in our attic/office. No, she’s not 90.

She does this not because she doesn’t have the capacity to use technology, but because she knows better. She is a developmental psychologist who has invested a lot of time in staying current on the research about how social media affects the developing human brain, and like studying the effects of alcohol can urge you to stay sober or studying the meat-packing industry can make you a vegetarian, what she’s seen has convinced her that this is the better way.

As our daughter navigates adolescence, my wife’s friends are beginning to realize she was on to something all this time. As they find their adolescent kids sucked into topics and online experiences they aren’t developmentally ready for, or they see them modeling behaviors that come from hours of screen watching exemplars of “teens with ‘tude,” or they find their kids struggling with issues of body image or other insecurities that are heightened by online pressures, or they experience the drama that teens of past generations suffered through at warp speed without a haven of rest because the slights and spats take place not just at school but on their phones, which are with them forever, those parents are beginning to wish they went another way.

Nor is it just about kids. I mentioned at some point that one of the other things I do is lead Love Not Fear, which stemmed from the realization that our society seeps us in fear that is doing us harm, not just socially but individually. It turns out that we are genetically wired to be social creatures in real life. While we may think that our friends on Facebook or our connections on LinkedIn are real, there’s a growing body of research that shows that their presence isn’t salutary and doesn’t replace face-to-face interaction. An online hug doesn’t carry the same power. (I used to say “you can’t e-mail someone chicken soup when they’re sick,” but I’m pretty sure with meal delivery services you can now.) Some studies show that face-to-face connection, even with strangers, has more power to improve mental well-being than time spent online with friends. So think about that the next time you sit in a restaurant with your head buried in your phone or laptop. Time is finite, and the online vs. real life worlds may be able to complement each other in some ways (like inviting someone online to an in-person event), but there remains a zero-sum component of online-offline activity. Every moment you spend on your phone is a moment you aren’t spending in the company of others.

It’s more than divvying time between two worlds, though. Much has been made of “filter bubbles”, whereby we choose sources of information and friendship that fit our worldview, which teaches the algorithms that filter our individualized versions of the internet to give us more of those sorts of opinions, attitudes and people and less of anything that don’t reinforce those views. Less has been made of the fact that we are wired to be most responsive to messages about fear – because from an evolutionary perspective, fear is what kept us alive. So the result for many is this: you go online and are more likely to click on stories that sound scary, which means you get more stories that are also scary, until all of a sudden you see your entire online world as scary.

Our fight or flight instincts don’t manage long-term fears very well, so if you live in an environment that is pervaded by constant fear, it will affect your health. We know this about toxic stress – people in war zones, people in areas of heavy crime and even of poverty share shorter lifespans because of the ongoing stress of just being where they are. What we don’t do is reflect on the way we create online worlds that generate a similar (though maybe lower intensity) toxicity.

So online fear + the isolation that comes from choosing online over offline = toxic stress. Add to it that some of what the online culture of fear emphasizes is the scariness of the real-life world, which spins the vicious cycle all the faster.

This is the dynamic Dreher points to in his chapter on technology. It is the dynamic my wife warns fellow parents about and we work to manage in our daughter. And it’s the dynamic that sparked Love Not Fear as a response.

My favorite chapter in The Benedict Option

Let me go back to my prelude for a minute. I’m not a writer by trade; I mean, I write a lot, but it’s mostly in short spurts. I blog a little, but I am prone to the very worst temptation of blogging, which is to dash off a first draft, publish it, and move on. This is my m.o. I have the attention span of a gnat. And while I will read long reads and enjoy well-written books, I lack the discipline, focus and endurance to write anything of length. And if you have for some reason read to this point in my Benedict Option response, you know this painfully well.

So maybe that explains why, having already fussed over my differences with Dreher on so, so many fronts, including just recently on sexuality, I find myself with nothing newly critical to say about his chapter on sexuality. More than that, I actually agree with most of it. If after reading my diatribe you decide on passing on reading Dreher’s book, this may be the chapter you may suffer most from missing.

And I say that not because it is the best explication of the Theology of the Body out there – Christopher West’s Theology of the Body for Beginners is much better, and Greg Popcak’s book Holy Sex not only has a better title but is better written as well. Even so, what I find charming in Dreher’s chapter on Eros and the New Christian Counterculture is that for once, for the most part, he is not focused on bemoaning Christianity’s loss of social and cultural status; he is focused on spelling out the positive vision of how the understanding of sacred sexuality held by the Catholic Church (and, to the extent this chapter applies to others, other little-o orthodox churches) has value worth celebrating.

It is probably the most theologically rooted of Dreher’s chapters. Yes, there is a rant against the Sexual Revolution, and yes, the LGBT and transgender bogeymen re-emerge. But Dreher seems to recognize at the heart of the chapter a truth that would enliven his book overall: that it is woefully insufficient to rail against what is wrong. To have a chance at building a godly counterculture, the BenOps folks need to communicate the beauty and richness of the positive alternative they have to offer.

I could quote heavily from this chapter to make this point, but I’m not going to. It could be, again, because I am too undisciplined and beaten down by this project. But it could be because it isn’t fair to Dreher to lift so much from his work that you, fair reader, aren’t compelled to buy a copy. So you’ll have to see for yourself.

Let me use this chapter, though, to circle back to the topic of gay marriage, because there was one point on the topic that I left out of my previous post. As I argued then, my interpretation of the culture war battle over this was less about the specifics of the issue than what it symbolized vis-a-vis the loss of Christendom’s role as the de facto religion of the dominant culture. So how could this issue have played out differently.

Probably ten years ago, as the debate raged over civil unions, a friend of mine and I (neither of whom was very engaged in the issue) were chatting, and I was surprised to discover that we both had the same solution. It’s one I think a church that recognized its non-dominant status could have accepted at the time, and it might have defused this issue (if that had been the point). Why not get the state out of the business of authorizing marriage altogether? If the point of cultural conservatives was to defend the sacramental, religious nature of marriage, why not push for government to rescind all references to marriage in law and replace them with something like civil unions. The result would put space between secular and sacred family institutions, and it would also reflect the reality that for those married in a religious tradition, it’s the faith community’s blessing of the union, not the court document, that carries value.

But that wasn’t the way religious authorities chose to play their hand, for better or worse.

Work in the Benedict Option

OK, now I can write about work. And just to mix things up, let me start with what I see as the positive elements of Dreher’s treatment of work.

Maybe this is just a matter of my own place in the world evolving and my filter bubble becoming tighter, or maybe it’s a by-product of the near-total collapse of the concept of work-life balance in exchange for work-life integration, but I don’t hear so much about the idea of faith as something you compartmentalize, worshipping God on Sundays and then putting Him back in His box while you go to work in a godless setting. If that’s still a thing, Dreher is out to dissuade you of it. And rightly so – if faith claims are meant to address the most central questions of our reality – who we are and what we’re here for – it’s unintelligible to imply that the answers to those questions have no bearing on how we make a living, which for many encompasses the majority of how they spend their lives. So go Rod!

And I like the way he does it – by circling back to the Benedictines that inspired him to recapture that work, for monks as for us, is every bit as central to how we grow in holiness as prayer and study. Through work as through love we have the ability to serve others and most fully develop who we are. We recognize the gifts we’re given and cultivate them fully in God’s service and to the benefit of the larger community, and we also do the dishes, learning that humility, a central Christian virtue, means not only working at the roles that most excite our souls, but also handling the thankless chores that serve the community we are called into.

OK, so that’s all good. But most of the chapter focuses on the expectation that Christians will be pressured by society to leave the mainstream workplace as that workplace makes a non-negotiable norm of “not simply to tolerate LGBT co-workers but to affirm their sexuality and gender identity.” He believes it inevitable that Christians will either need to pay idolatrous homage to a god of inclusiveness or resort to a ghetto of Christian-only economy in which believers support each other through Christian employment networks, Christian business directories, and doing trade work like plumbing and HVAC for which there is short supply and in which tradespeople can establish their own businesses and set their own rules.

(Can I point out that this is coming from a guy who makes his living by blogging? OK, just needed to get that out there.)

A couple points on this.

1) Work has always involved moral choices. Dreher is laser-focused on workers having to accept LGBT co-workers or clients, and I’ll come back to that. But abortion has been legal in some form since 1973, and while the tensions continue, it appears that there is space for health care providers who are morally opposed to abortion to continue to pursue their vocation without violating their beliefs. But let’s widen the lens a little. Many of us have worked in jobs that raised moral questions. Have you ever been asked to “upsell” someone something they didn’t need? Or help someone dig themselves further into a debt that they couldn’t afford? Or encourage them to choose themselves over their families? Or contribute to the destruction of our environment, our common home? Or preyed on the fears and insecurities of a customer, colleague or supervisor in order to get ahead? The list can go on, but suffice to say that there are as many ways to lose your soul at work as there are ways to strengthen your vocation. This isn’t really anything new.

2) Talk to Paul. St. Paul spent his days in the marketplace as a tentmaker. Did he make tents for non-Christians? Given how small the Christian community was, and given that he was often the first believer to enter a community as an apostle, he could not have helped but to do so. He didn’t see this as an affirmation of the idoloatries of those around him but as another forum to evangelize while providing material support to his ministry.

3) So let’s talk about florists and cake-bakers, because that’s what this seems to be about. If you, a sinner, can’t see clear to sell your wares to somebody else who is a sinner, then you really shouldn’t have any customers. But if your concern is more narrow, that you would be happy to sell flowers or cakes to people who may not fully ascribe to your understanding of what God wants from us, so long as you aren’t being forced to support a ceremony that focuses on glorifying the very sin they are committing, then I can respect that, if. I can respect that if you are only selling flowers or cakes for sacramental marriages in which the betrothed have fully followed the laws of your faith and are wedding in your faith. If you only do flowers or cakes for wedding’s your church approves of, I can fully defend your right to say no to gay weddings.

But if you’re also willing to do that wedding on the beach by the couple that lived together for a couple years, has never been to church, features their dogs in prominent roles and is being officiated by someone who got their ordination out of an ad in the back of Rolling Stone, I think we need to talk. Because that’s not about adhering to a sacramental understanding of marriage. That’s just an excuse for being a bigot.

And, to push just a little further, if you’re willing to do flowers for a prom where you know a lot of couples will be doing things your church says they should save for marriage, because sex within marriage is too awesome to be wasted on drunk adolescents? I’m thinking maybe you drew the line on what in your business is immoral a little too tightly.

 

The Elephant in the Room: Sexuality in The Benedict Option

My intention had been to wait until I got to the chapter on family before dealing with this, and I got oh so close. But the reality is that the culture war battles over gay marriage, transgender rights and abortion run through the entirety of TBO, and I don’t think I can do justice to Dreher’s chapter on work without having addressed this. I’ll save abortion till that chapter; let’s deal with the other two here.

For me, it was 1998 when my perspective on the culture wars began to change. That was the year when Dennis Rodman and Carmen Electra got married. If you’ve forgotten this, I’m sorry to remind you, but there was a time when the former NBA player and former Baywatch actress used to be celebrities that pop culture paid attention to. After seeing each other for 9 months, they showed up at a wedding chapel in Las Vegas in the wee hours of the morning to get married. They wavered on whether to have the marriage annulled when they came to, and ultimately decided (as best I can reconstruct) to give it a go. It lasted a few months.

Rodman and Electra weren’t the first or last or most famous to marry with less than full appreciation of what they were getting into. Nor were they the first, last or most outlandish in seeking media attention by promoting an image of rebelliousness in their sex lives, a forwardness that now probably seems tame.

But what struck me was the lack of reaction by the culture warriors. There seemed to be, if anything, almost a palpable sense of relief that Rodman was marrying a woman, since he had been wearing dresses as a way to get attention previously. Better he make a joke of heterosexual marriage than crossdress, was the takeaway I got from the buzz of the day.

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There is a theological story to tell about sacramental marriage that I find compelling. Perhaps this is a surprise, but the person most responsible for articulating the sacramentality of marriage was Saint Pope John Paul II, who dedicated more than 100 of his weekly audiences to weaving the Biblical threads together to present a sense of why sex between a man and woman in the context of marriage is a sacrament – a tangible sign of who God is and how we are related to Him, as well as a means of bringing us closer to the reality we were destined for as God’s children. The “Theology of the Body” as its called, teaches that, contrary to the general perception people have about Catholic teaching, sex isn’t bad at all; instead, it is so incredible within the sacramental context for which it was intended that we shouldn’t settle for anything less. This is a vision well worth embracing, and I’ll come back to it in commenting on the chapter on the family. But at this point, what’s relevant is that, in the culture wars, this concept doesn’t often appear as the primary motivator for debate.

If it were, then there would be a couple of potential applications. One would be to draw a bright line around sacramental marriage and call for condemnation of any alternatives equally – rejecting any other form of sexuality than that expressed within sacramental marriage with equal fervor. There are some cultural conservatives who still throw a few stones at premarital sex, and Dreher worries about the sexualization of our culture broadly. But I don’t see any evience of culture warriors applying judgment uniformly — and I state that absolutely because I’m hoping someone can prove me wrong.

Another approach that I don’t see evidence of is putting more pressure on those deviations from the sacramental norm that might be most likely to waylay those called to marriage as a sacred vocation. In this approach, you would expect more scorn for the normalization of non-marital sexual relationships between heterosexual couples than for same-sex couples, under the theory that those hetersexual liaisons are more likely to distract people from pursuing the perfection of sacramental marriage. By this theory, those inclined to same-sex relationships are less likely to be candidates for sacramental marriage anyway. Again, I don’t know of anyone who takes this approach.

Another, less combative approach, would be a form of gradualist, highlighting the elements of non-sacramental relationships that bear witness to the beauty of “the real thing.” A couple that learns to sacrifice self-interest for their beloved, that focuses on helping their beloved the best possible version of themselves, even in a non-sacramental union, could be celebrated as a sign of hope that others could follow, or a sign of God’s ability to work with us imperfect souls in imperfect settings.  But in this case, you would expect more welcome to a stable, loving same-sex relationship than a deeply flawed opposite-sex one. And that’s not where the culture war has been at all.

So what to make of this? Many have chalked up the cultural conservative focus on homosexuality as simple bigotry. Some have argued a psychological case that it is easier to stand in judgment over someone whose sins you aren’t tempted by than to speak loudly against the sins that you suffer as well. (And of course some argue the reverse, that many who are loudest in opposition of same-sex relations are masking their own attractions.)

Let me offer a different angle, a sociological one. It has been a very long time since I studied sociology of religion, but my recollection is that what anthropologists and sociologists found across cultures is that virtually every culture’s dominant power structure enlists a religion that serves to legitimate the power structure. This is a cross-cultural finding that relates to each culture’s norms for marriage and family, politics, economics, art, and all sorts of other norms. The “state religion”, whether by official designation or by custom, takes on the role of enforcer for what the dominant culture calls acceptable, either directly or indirectly by equating transgressions against those norms with sins or moral failings. Because family norms are most central to any culture, religion and marital rights are most central to the sociological understanding of the role of religion in society.

So while I would affirm that there is valid theological grounds for understanding marriage from the perspective of faith, the what I can only describe as outsized reaction to issues of sexuality in Western culture may have less to do with the theological underpinnings of the faith. It may instead be an outgrowth of the pining for Christendom, the subconscious recognition that if a culture know longer aligns with Christendom on core social structural norms around sexuality and the family, than the rest of the religiously sanctified order is lost.

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Let me revert to my premise – that Dreher goes astray by falling in love with Christendom instead of falling in love with Jesus Christ. If you look at the earliest Church, the pre-Constantinian sect that was aligned with no power structure or dominant hierarchy, you may not see a different view of sexuality, but you certainly see a different level of prioritization. In the earliest church, the expectation was that Jesus would return from heaven to usher in the end of time at any moment, and in that urgency to prepare for His coming by spreading the Good News, a lot of  cultural norms were either ignored or at least de-emphasized. I am often struck by the evidence that Peter had a mother-in-law, but there is never a mention of a wife or family. Paul writes to the Corinthians about sexuality, but primarily from the perspective of warning early Christians against practices that would sow dissent in the community or distract from the mission or establish barriers to others from coming to faith. Engaging in culture wars, then as now, pulls focus from spreading the Gospel and gets in the way.

I find Dreher’s hypothesis, that Christianity’s lost place as the de facto state religion, worth discussing separate from his views on sexuality, but it’s unavoidable that his expectation that Christians will become a persecuted minority relies heavily on the degree to which Christians continue to claim opposition to gay marriage and transgender rights as central parts of their faith. I would suggest that there isn’t Biblical grounds for those issues to be in the very core definition of the faith, and that Christians can operate in a pluralistic environment in which the dominant culture supports gay marriage and transgender rights without sacrificing core values of the faith.

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I’ll talk about this more in the work and marriage chapters, but before I do, let me say a little more about transgender rights and gender theory, because it was a significant factor in the education chapter that I just skipped over in hopes of dealing with it later. (And, hey, this is later!)

To a pretty significant degree, Dreher’s book suggests a retrenchment by cultural conservatives around the issues of gender theory and transgender rights. This isn’t surprising, as these have been hot issues in America since the Obergfell ruling rendered the debate over same-sex marriage moot. There is a sense, not only here in Dreher’s work but more broadly among cultural conservatives, that between court rulings and polling they recognize that the ship has sailed on the fight over honoring same-sex marriages, and that the next bulwark in the culture wars is around transgender rights and gender theory.

There is a distinction worth making here because I see both sides failing to understand the view of the other that I think is avoidable. While mutual understanding wouldn’t resolve all the issues at play here, it might take some of the heat out of the discussion. (Or it might just ensure both sides were fighting over the same issue.)

Pope Francis is probably the most LGBT-friendly pope in history. (No, this is not a high bar to hurdle. I know.) In several of his celebrated public statements, he has made a point of offering welcome to LGBT Catholics and sought to emphasize their value as children of God just like “the rest of us.” He has seemed to say, even if homosexual activity is sinful, it is worth treating the person  who commits it with understanding and mercy as we should treat any person who commits any sin. I can understand why gay rights activists would reject this as no better than the condemnation of his predecessors, but I suspect there are some who recognize this as a potential opening. Should the Church develop more sensitivity to, say, those who divorce and remarry, or those who engage in sexual activity before marriage, Francis’ attitude, extended across the Church, might also offer openings for fuller inclusion of LGBT Catholics. It isn’t overt acceptance; but it isn’t nothing, either.

Yet even Francis rails against gender theory, so what gives? In the pope’s statements, there are examples of him suggesting that there is a Christian call for support and understanding for those who experience a transgender identity – people who are biologically one sex but fully identify with the other. But at the same time, Francis joins cultural conservatives in opposing “gender theory”, which they define as an ideology that asserts that gender is wholly socially constructed and subject to the choice of the individual, regardless of their biology.

Maybe there is a discussion to be had about whether gender theory is really a thing. Dreher et al can identify examples of it – and there are anecdotes in Dreher’s education chapter in which he relates stories of parents whose public schooled children are in classes where 1/3 if students identify as bisexual, and a high percentage of teens seek hormone treatments to assist them in transitioning to the opposite gender. Those parents are told that gender is fluid and non-binary, and there are plenty of blog posts circulating around the conservetive internet to support the belief that our dominant culture is encouraging this point of view.

(And I would say that I, though no social scientist, can appreciate the claim that gender is socially constructed and not solely biological, even if I also see biology as a central determinant in almost every case.)

Is this what LGBT advocates are pushing for? Or is their goal for society to recognize that for some people, being transgender is a reality that should be protected from discrimination? Is it possible to affirm the latter without accepting a fully subjective theory of gender? I think it is, and while I don’t think Dreher has much interest in it, I do think it’s a reasonable middle ground for a pluralistic society.

 

Education in The Benedict Option

Next Dreher moves to a discussion of education. Here’s the short form of his argument: Public education is horrible. Christian schools are really not Christian. Unless they are classical Christian schools that immerse your child in Scripture and the Western classics. If you don’t have a classical Christian school, you should start one or homeschool your child using classical Christian methods. Or else you are a horrible parent.

Maybe I overstate that last part. Here’s what he says of a Christian parent who leaves their child in public schools to be “salt and light”:

It brings to mind a father who tosses his child into a whitewater river in hopes that she’ll save another drowning child. (p. 157)

Maybe I understate that last part.

The thing is, I share his essential critique of the current education system, if not his cultural critique or his solution:

Every educational model presupposes an anthropology: an idea of what a human being is. In general, the mainstream model is geared toward equipping students to succeed in the workforce, to provide a pleasant, secure life for themselves and their future families, and ideally, to fulfill their personal goals — whatever those goals might be. The standard Christian educational model today takes this model and adds religion classes and prayer services.

But from a traditional Christian perspective the model is based on a flawed anthropology. In traditional Christianity, the ultimate goal of the soul is to love and serve God with all one’s heart, soul, and mind, to achieve unity with Him in eternity.  (p. 147)

I am a big fan of a liberal arts education. I cringe when I hear so often about the aim of education being primarily workforce readiness. I agree that the goal of education is the development of the whole person, including and especially the soul, and that the outcome of a successful education is not the ability to keep a job but the ability to fully love another. And I agree that for people of faith, a holistic education integrates the religious tradition and theological constructs into the foundation for developing that capacity to love. And, by the way, that education isn’t just the formal K-12 or -16 or -20 but lifelong.

In a religiously pluralistic world, Christians should seek to cultivate ways to educate themselves across the lifespan in this direction and toward this end, and to the extent that they can do so through a formal educational system for children, they should. I would even say that the Western canon of a classical education can be used to develop the skills that orient a soul toward this end.

But as much as Plato and Shakespeare are valuable in this respect, they aren’t exclusively so, and they aren’t even explicitly Christian. So, again, I differ with Dreher on how tight to draw the line around what’s central to the faith. Scripture, yes. Plato’s Republic? No.

I am no education policy expert, but I would offer a third way. An educational system that orients students toward the development of the whole person – not just economic but political, social, relational, physical, emotional – would produce healthier graduates in all senses of the word health who are better prepared not just to get a job but to be active contributors to our common life. Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed focuses on character traits that help kids get along in school and adults get along in life – Grit, Self-control, Zest, Social Intelligence, Gratitude, Optimism, Curiosity. Tough outlines examples of educational systems that, contrary to Dreher’s straw man of schools that just teach memorization of facts, actively cultivate these character traits.

Could a Christian school fully integrate these into a curriculum that is truly focused on the development of the soul? You bet; the similarities to the fruits of the Spirit are strong. Could other faiths do the same? I’m no expert, but I’m betting so. Could a public education develop these skills without an implicit or explicit overlay of religious doctrine? Apparently a few already do.

Dreher’s classical Christian schools could (and should, and probably do) draw on Scripture and the Western classics to develop these traits. Others could use other tools to do the same.

Would the products of such a system be employable, as is the focus of today’s educational system? More so, as employers speak about the “soft skills” as the biggest challenges in filling their workforce needs and economic developers highlight the creative class for the strengths of its entrepreneurs in just these areas.

But more than that, would the products of such a system be marriageable? Would they be good neighbors? Would they have the capacity to love fully? I have to believe so.

Villages, Christian and otherwise

Villages, Christian and otherwise

I am all about Dreher’s chapter on how Christians need to rebuild the concept of a village – a tightly knit social network rooted in a connected geography that is deeply committed to the good of each member. In fact, the village concept has rebounded across any number of fronts in the US as people recognize the value of interconnectedness and the barriers of the isolating lifestyle of our recent past. Aging Baby Boomers are forming villages, which were once inartfully called Naturally Occuring Retirement Communities (NORCs, which is a pretty clunky acronym), wherein in people choose to live in a supportive relationship with each other as they age, chipping in to provide services that they need, whether by helping each other directly with chores and rides and the like or contributing financially to pay for them. On the other end of the adult spectrum, city planners are re-emphasizing walkable, connected communities as not only a positive infrastructure model to enable community formation but as a feature to attract Millennials who value carless convenience and interconnectedness.

So while by no means the norm, there is a growing group of Americans who long for the relational scale of a village, and there is a trend toward providing the physical environment in which that can flourish. Books abound on what this means, and I am no expert but can still expound for days on the elements that facilitate the formation of community and the impact that a community of neighbors can have on their individual health and their common society.

Of course, in this setting, Dreher is emphasizing the need for the village to be like-minded and reinforcing of a common set of Christian values, and I can’t really argue that. His reference to Orthodox Jewish communities which spring up around synagogues because of the need to be able to walk to worship on the sabbath reminds me of my days living near such a community. While I always felt sorrowful concern for their safety, as they walked on roads with no sidewalks and significant traffic, I was taken by the sense of commitment to their values that the men and women of the community showed as they walked to worship.

About the same time, my wife and I came to a point in our faith lives when we realized the need for a strong connection to our own faith community. Living in academic circles, it was easy to separate from a parish community, and being young, childless and married, we found it hard to connect with others in our stage of life within the Church. Since then we have prioritized being involved and connected to a faith community that is more family than membership organization and in which we seek to build stronger ties of interdependence (despite being  pair of exhausted introverts). It is hard for me to argue with Dreher’s call for others to do the same.

I will raise only this point. The tension between inward and outward facing groups is real. Robert Putnam of Bowling Alone fame refers to bonding and bridging social capital, with bonding being like-to-like and bridging being between-group. Too much bonding pushes you down the road of cliques and (in extreme cases) cults. Too much bridging risks losing the identity of the group within a larger mass. As much as that sounds like a more tolerable risk, I recognize that in order to become a diverse community we need also to be individuals confidently rooted in our different cultures. I suspect I would favor a more diverse village than Dreher’s, but I fundamentally agree with him that even within that diversity, there is a need for a uniquely Christian (or Jewish, or Muslim, or atheist) subgroup in order to encourage growth in our particular walk. I would ague that that subgroup, that mini-village, ought recognize its calling to be “salt and light” to the broader village in such a way that builds up the whole; I would think Dreher would agree.