The Benedict Option for a Brave New World

Last night I took my sons to a high school soccer game. One of the best teams in the state (my school) was playing an opponent from a rural county.

It was never even close.

We scored within the first minute of play, punching the ball in off a cross. It was almost unfair the way our forwards and midfielders carved up the opposing team’s defense with their speed and footwork — coming together seamlessly to find each other, and the back of the net, time and again.

By halftime the score was 4-0, and it was starting to show in the opposing team’s posture. Their shoulders were hunched. They passed the ball with an air of futility, as if waiting for it to be intercepted by our lightning-fast attack.

Trying to escape the midday sun, I happened to hear some of what the rural team’s coach had to say. He didn’t draw up complicated schematics. He didn’t explain how they were going to come back and win the game in the second half; it was clear to all that that would not be the case. As they sat together on a grassy hill, sweat pouring down their aching muscles, he simply urged them not to give up. “Don’t think ahead to the next game. If you can’t play to win, play for each other. Play so that at the end of the season you can look each other in the eye and say you did everything you could.”

This is one way to look at the Benedict Option. The battle may be lost, but the war rages on. It is later in the game than many of us had realized. We are unlikely to “win” the war for the soul of our nation’s culture, at least not anytime soon. But this is not a cause for defeatism. What we do still matters, as it carries us forward to the next season, the next generation. We can create a vibrant, dynamic counter-culture. We can come together, offering strength and encouragement, so that on the last day we may share in the final victory.

In The Benedict Option, Rod Dreher acknowledges that Americans have a particular aversion to losing. We “cannot stand to contemplate defeat or to accept limits of any kind.”

But American Christians are going to have to come to terms with the brute fact that we live in a culture, one in which our beliefs make increasingly little sense. We speak a language that the world more and more either cannot hear or finds offensive to its ears.

Dreher compares modernity to a Great Flood, one that is swiftly advancing upon our Christian beliefs and institutions. The Obergefell decision was “the Waterloo of religious conservatism,” the moment the Sexual Revolution triumphed over traditional Christian morality and anthropology. But this defeat has been a long time coming. The philosophical underpinnings of modern secularism stretch back to the nominalists of the Late Middle Ages, progressing under the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and the Industrial Revolution.

Today we see its fruits. The nuclear family has broken down. Our system of public education has become militantly secular; as a result, each generation is more secular than the last. Our churches have tried to accommodate the dominant culture rather than resist its advancing tide. In 2011, only 40% of Christian 18-to-23 year olds said their personal moral beliefs were grounded in the Bible or religion.

Rather than piling sandbags, Dreher advises, better to start building boats.

Critics claim Dreher’s assessment is too grim, but to me it rings true. I used to see America as being divided into two great hostile camps – the Left, intent on dragging our country down the road to socialism (and eventually serfdom), and the Right – boldly defending the rights of the individual. Economic concerns predominated, especially during Obama’s first term – stimulus, Obamacare, financial reform. Social issues were on the back burner.

In Obama’s second term, the culture wars returned to the front and center of American politics. As support for same-sex marriage grew to become the new “civil rights” issue, traditional Christian beliefs were condemned as hate speech. Christian business owners came under attack for refusing to toe the line. States like Indiana and North Carolina lost business over relatively modest attempts to defend religious liberty and traditional definitions of “male” and “female.” Economic growth was no longer the priority. In fact, it seemed that no defense of truth or morality could withstand the power of the almighty dollar.

Then came the 2016 Republican primary and the rise of Donald Trump. This time it didn’t seem like my side against the other side. Instead of two giant cruise ships trying to steer the country in different directions, I found myself on a life raft, in search of a more sea-worthy vessel. Who on “my side” actually cared about the moral good of the individual, the strengthening of the family, and the prospect of cultural renewal? And who just wanted the “freedom” to engage in unrestrained consumerism? Who was just eager to be back in power, to once again be on the winning side?

This is not to say that I saw politics as irrelevant or the outcome of the 2016 election as meaningless. I fault no one for supporting Trump in light of the alternative. While not an orthodox Christian himself, Trump’s victory has bought a brief respite from the attack against religious freedom, at least as it comes from the executive branch of our national government. And this, Dreher argues, is the one area of political life in which Christians must stay engaged.

As the nature of the modern attack became more apparent, I began to put matters of faith before matters of politics. Instead of talk radio, I started listening to EWTN. Instead of Austrian economics, I started reading books about religion and culture. I stopped following the news of the day and started educating myself on the classics. Why listen to Limbaugh and O’Reilly when one has Shakespeare and Aquinas, Lewis and Chesterton? It was probably just a matter of time before I encountered Dreher’s work.

A couple years ago, I read Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics. Having grown up as a Catholic in Southwest Virginia, I had never experienced the kind of institutional and social support for religion that Douthat describes during the postwar mid-century revival. But Douthat’s account of the decline of institutional religion resonated, especially how it has been replaced with a range of “heresies,” from nationalism to Gnosticism. The uncomfortable truth is that we can’t blame the secular Left for what ails society. We need only look in the mirror.

A couple months ago, I got the chance to see Ross Douthat speak at a local college. While his work was only five years old, he began by acknowledging that its basic thesis may need modification in light of recent events. In Bad Religion, Douthat argued that though we were a “nation of heretics,” we were still a Christian nation. In this sense he was hopeful; maybe bad religion was better than no religion. But after Obergefell and Trump, it was worth considering whether we were living in a post-Christian society, as Dreher contends.

Again, this is not a cause for despair. Instead of accepting defeat, we must focus on our continued capacity for action. Watching the endless stream of cable news, we often experience a sense of hopelessness. What can I do about the Supreme Court? What can I do to stop North Korea? What can I do to fix the healthcare system?

The obvious answer: not much.

So turn off the TV, take a good, hard look at your own family, your own community, and you will find something you can do. Environmentalists have a saying: “Think globally, act locally.” As Christians, we should think other-worldly and act locally. The point is not to elect more Republicans to political office; the point is not even to ensure America’s global dominance. The point is to get into heaven, and to help lift as many of our fellow man as we can along with us.

We don’t need to save the world – Someone already did. And He left some pretty clear instructions on how we are to act in light of His sacrifice and its meaning.

We don’t all have to move to little faith-based communities and send our children to private classical or religious academies. We don’t all need to withdraw from society and live as Benedictine monks. But we can all find ways to put religion back in the center of our lives instead of letting it languish on the periphery. We can get involved in our religious communities and seek out like-minded individuals for discussion and support. We can unplug from our iphones and use the extra time to cultivate deeper prayer lives.

I recently reread George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, the twin classics of dystopian literature. Both describe a world in which objective reality is denied; thus, they have much to teach us about our present cultural moment. But today Huxley’s prophesy rings more true. Our lives have been taken over by technology and sex. It’s not that we don’t have access to the wisdom of the past, it’s that we simply don’t care to seek it. To quote the title of Neil Postman’s famous work, we are too busy Amusing Ourselves to Death. Postman makes the following comparison:

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one… In 1984, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we desire will ruin us… What Huxley teaches is that in the age of advanced technology, spiritual devastation is more likely to come from an enemy with a smiling face than from one whose countenance exudes suspicion and hate.

In Brave New World, John the Savage is so disgusted by society that he withdraws to live an isolated existence as a self-flagellating monk. He can’t go back to the “savage” reservation, where he was never really welcome, and yet neither can he accommodate himself to modernity, where “nothing costs enough.” But the pressures of the outside world are too much for him to withstand alone. He eventually meets an unfortunate, though predictable end.

We are truly living in a brave new world — a radical departure from the traditional understanding of what it means to be human, facilitated by technology. But our fate need not be that of John the Savage. In the foreword to the 1946 edition, Huxley expresses the regret that he did not give his protagonist a third choice – to live in a community of other social “misfits.” There they could have assisted each other in seeking out the good, the beautiful, and the true, in a world that had long-since abandoned such pursuits for creature comforts and radical autonomy.

Fortunately for us, we still have this choice.

In Defense of Matt Walsh and Jesus Christ

I am a follower of the Matt Walsh blog. While I would not always use his choice of words, I tend to agree with about 95% of what he has to say. I like the fact that we are both young, Catholic conservatives and parents of small children. Reading his posts reminds me that I am not completely alone in my generation, which is reassuring to say the least. I often wish I had Matt Walsh’s courage. As his site claims, he is a “professional speaker of truths,” someone who doesn’t care about making friends or being universally adored. Unfortunately, I know that this sort of honest, no-holds-barred approach to blogging could easily cost me my job as a teacher at a secular public high school. Since my blog provides approximately $0 in income, I need to be very careful about what I say and how I say it. Some topics I have to avoid altogether.

I often write, reread, rewrite, and rearrange my posts for hours before I feel like I have finally gotten my point across in a way that is both effective and safe. I try to be objective and dispassionate, to the extent that this is possible. Still, my best blogging (or most popular, at least) usually pours out in a stream of consciousness when I am particularly ticked off about something. So far I’ve had two posts garner over 2,000 hits. Both were quickly-written and barely-edited pieces on “controversial” topics making points so obvious they would have once been considered common sense (birth control is your own responsibility; Bruce Jenner is not a woman). But until I can actually quit my day job and make a living as a professional truth-speaker, I will be forced to engage in some level of self-censorship.

Well, a few days ago something really ticked me off. I saw on my blogging site that someone had written a viral hit-piece on Matt Walsh entitled “Jesus Would Hate This Christian Blogger Just As Much As You Do.”

The title alone pretty much identifies the piece as complete and total bullshit. The dead give-away is that it puts “Jesus” and “Hate” in the same sentence. Author Jennifer Martin goes on to adopt a format she must think is extremely clever: contrasting excerpts from Walsh’s blog that have been completely taken out of context with verses from the Bible that have been completely taken out of context.

True to form, Walsh has already written an excellent response in which he utterly destroys Martin’s “logic,” so I’ll let him speak in his own defense. As a fellow Christian blogger with about 1/1,000,000 of his audience, I know a bit of what it’s like to be attacked for your views, and the courage it requires to go against the cultural mainstream. Whether liberal or conservative, Christian or atheist, blogging on controversial topics is always a risk. Being attacked on the Internet isn’t just an occupational hazard; it’s a job requirement. If you’re not being slammed by someone, chances are you’re doing it wrong.

No, my irritation is not on Walsh’s behalf—a man I don’t know and have never met. He has clearly done very well for himself and is quite capable of handling the daily attacks launched in his direction. Rather, my frustration is on behalf of Christians everywhere who are tired of being told what Jesus would do by people who so clearly don’t know and don’t care. I’m tired of the innate openness and understanding of many Christians being used against them in a sort of cultural jujitsu. I’m tired of Christians feeling like they have to constantly prove their tolerance to their progressive friends, lest they be labeled a bunch of bigoted haters. Most of all, I’m tired of the true message of Christ being watered down into an impotent, wishy-washy compilation of slogans better suited for bumper stickers than leading anyone to salvation.

By now we are all familiar with the liberal line on Christianity. According to progressives, Jesus was basically a bearded, peace-loving hipster who came to earth just to tell people to “Chill, man! Be cool! Don’t judge, and all that.” We are told that, were he around today, hipster Jesus would be picketing with Occupy Wall Street or leading a Pride rally.

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I’m sorry, but that is not my religion. Jesus was not about going along to get along, and neither is my faith. When reading the Gospel, I have never been struck with the revelation of “Oh! So we’re just supposed to let people do whatever they want and mind our own business!” That kind of understanding of Christianity can only result from a very minimal and selective reading of the Bible, if in fact the Bible is consulted at all. If that was all there was to Christianity, why did much of Jesus’ society and the most powerful empire in the world find it so threatening? Conversely, why did his early followers find it so appealing that they were willing to lay down their lives in His name? If all Jesus wanted was for people to be tolerant and get along, why was he put to death? You would think Caesar would have wanted him front and center.

Instead, Jesus was publicly humiliated, beaten, and ultimately put to death for his refusal to compromise or water down the truth—that He is the Son of God. Pilot did not want to kill Jesus. He offered him several chances to take the easy way out. But the real Jesus of the Bible—not hipster Jesus of the liberal imagination—was not afraid to rub people the wrong way. He was not afraid to call people out for their immoral behavior at the risk of personal ridicule (much like Matt Walsh, though I’m obviously not proposing his deification). Jesus was unpopular, controversial, and at times confrontational. He lived and dwelt amongst sinners, showing them great love and compassion, but He never condoned their sin.

The truth is, Christianity is a very demanding religion, a radical creed that is not for the faint of heart. I realize this may come as a surprise to some, as what passes for Christianity these days can seem like nothing more than feel-good, prosperity-Gospel platitudes, but that was not the original message. True Christianity requires even popes and kings to acknowledge their sinfulness and to humble themselves before the Lord. True Christianity makes no promises of worldly success; rather it risks great persecution and suffering. True Christianity demands the radical giving of oneself to others and accepts nothing less. (Recall the wealthy man who could not bring himself to give up his riches to follow Jesus.) Like Judaism and Islam, Christianity demands adherence to a system of moral laws that must be followed, even when they contradict one’s personal desires or ambitions. If you want a religion that allows you to make your own rules and just do whatever feels right, you should look elsewhere and leave Christianity alone.

Unfortunately, the progressive attempt to redefine Christianity is working. We have become so thoroughly secularized that even many Christians are uncomfortable with public displays of faith or prayer (“I’ll pray for you! Um, I mean, I’ll send you good vibes!” “Merry Christ— er, Happy Holidays!”). Many Christians now truly believe that it is not for them to judge anything anyone else does. You do you, and I’ll do me. But here’s the truth: sin hurts. Sin hurts the sinner, and sin hurts everyone else. There is no such thing as a “victimless sin.” When we stand by and ignore sin, when we “tolerate” it, we are letting people hurt themselves. If you saw someone preparing to slash their wrists or fall off a bridge, would you stand aside and think, “Hmmm, maybe not the best idea, but it’s not for me to judge?” Or would you at a bare minimum point out the harm that person is about to do to themselves and others who might copy their example? Aristotle recognized that there is no happiness outside of virtue; likewise, there is only pain in vice.

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Sorry Jennifer Martin, but you do not get to redefine Christianity to suit your progressive purposes. No, Jesus was not an early supporter of the transgender movement (a conclusion you support pretty weakly with His acceptance of eunuchs and celibacy). Jesus was not a radical feminist, or a communist. You are free to be all of these things, but don’t project your secular values onto Christ.

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Liberals like Martin are particularly fond of quoting Luke 6:37, “Judge not, and you will not be judged.” There are 807,361 words in the Bible, but these eight are their favorite. However, then as now, there are two different meanings of the word “judge.” One meaning is to discern between two things (i.e. good and evil); the other is to condemn. Given the full context of this verse, and the context surrounding Matthew 7:1 (“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.”), Christians are clearly instructed not to judge only in the second sense of the word.

The rest of Luke 6:37 reads “Condemn not, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.” The point is clearly that we are to show forgiveness, love, and mercy to our fellow man; not tolerance of their sin. It is not our place to condemn others. We sit in final judgment of no man’s soul. However, we are specifically instructed on numerous occasions to discern between good and evil, and to act accordingly. Take the following examples:

“Do not judge according to appearances, but instead judge a just judgment.” John 7:24

“And why do you not, even among yourselves, judge what is just?” Luke 12:57

“The mouth of the righteous speaks wisdom, and his tongue talks of judgment.” Psalm 37:30

“You shall not do what is unjust, nor shall you judge unjustly. You shall not consider the reputation of the poor, nor shall you honor the countenance of the powerful. Judge your neighbor justly.” Leviticus 19:15

“Open your mouth, judge righteously, and plead the cause of the poor and needy.” Proverbs 31:9

“Whoever despises me and does not accept my words has one who judges him. The word that I have spoken, the same shall judge him on the last day.” John 12:48

How can anyone read this and still believe Christianity is just about tolerance? My guess is Jennifer Martin has not read the entire Bible, or even the majority of it. Rather she has sought out a few odd verses to assist in her condemnation of Matt Walsh, thus engaging in the very sort of judgment Jesus actually proscribes.

Dictionary.com defines a hypocrite as “a person who pretends to have virtues, moral or religious beliefs, principles, etc., that he or she does not actually possess, especially a person whose actions belie stated beliefs.” Martin compares Walsh to the Pharisees, but he is no hypocrite. He judges in the proper sense of the word—that of discerning between good and evil—while always acknowledging his own sinfulness. Ironically, Martin and others like her are the real hypocrites. They loudly proclaim their tolerance, and yet refuse to tolerate Christians. They attack conservatives for their arrogance, but they have the arrogance to believe there is no law greater than their own. They feign outrage at “judgmental” Christians, but are the quickest to judge all who do not agree with them.

Secular liberals know that true Christianity is the largest obstacle standing in the way of their quest to radically transform society and human nature itself. They know they cannot defeat Christianity outright, so they seek instead to neuter it—to deprive it of all its power and beauty by reducing it to a handful of feel-good platitudes. They have been trying to redefine the Christian faith for the last 2,000 years, and they will continue to do so until the final Day of Judgment. We cannot let them.