Book Review: Strangers in a Strange Land

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Strangers in a Strange Land
Charles J. Chaput
Henry Holt, 2017. 288 pp.

Captain America is a story of anachronism. After being frozen in ice during World War II, he awakes in modern-day New York and quickly realizes how foreign he is. His values aren’t shared, his cause is considered outdated, and his epistemology is challenged (“The world is different now,” he is constantly told). Christians in America are encountering a life not unlike the Captain’s—waking up to a culture that no longer shares our presuppositions about God, reality, and humanity. We are foreigners, or pilgrims, in a world that is not our home.

Charles Chaput adds his Catholic voice to the argument that we now live in post-Christian America, a world in which Christianity is seen as irrelevant, regressive, or even hateful. Some are quick to dismiss such a thesis as an overreaction to cultural changes, or the response of privileged whites to the loss of political power. Chaput—himself a member of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation and the first Native American archbishop—counters these dismissals by spending two-thirds of his book outlining the multifaceted problem facing American Christians.

Tracing the emergence of the problem, Chaput embarks on a journey through American history, culture, and political theory from our nation’s founding through the present. This isn’t a book about politics (see Render Unto Caesar), yet Chaput spills quite a bit of ink outlining early American political thought. He connects the American founders’ reliance on natural law with observations by Alexis de Tocqueville about American democracy’s emphasis on individual freedom. Chaput concludes that democracy without moral guardrails elevates the autonomy of the

individual above all other concerns. Christianity, along with “any other institution that creates bonds and duties among citizens,” hinders self-expression and, therefore, self-fulfillment.

Much of America’s post-Christian worldview is connected, according to Chaput, in one way or another with our views on marriage, sex, and the family. I initially discovered Chaput’s book through an excellent excerpt on marriage. Chaput argues that sex is “intimately connected with how we understand ourselves as human” and the human family connects individuals in bonds of commitment and service.

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Chaput rejects the way that American individualism has relegated sexual ethics to a private matter outside the purview of any authority. He characterizes the sexual revolution as a technological battle against human limitations. Even if Protestants disagree with Chaput on the licitness of contraception, there are many points to find agreement on the ways marriage and family have been twisted by American culture and need to be recovered.

Along the way, Chaput pens a manifesto on the stewardship of truth, as well as an analysis of American culture through the lens of philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue. We are strangers in a strange land because we are made for the City of God, yet live in the City of Man. How are we to live in the ensuing clash of values?

In the final third of the book, Chaput proposes a way forward for Christian countercultural living. As he says, “We can’t simply blame the culture. We are the culture.” The only way to have an impact is to begin living differently. It’s well worth sticking with the book for these exhortations to live like Christ. Chaput unpacks the Beatitudes (Matt 5:3-11) and contrasts each statement with American cultural values. After being inundated by the media’s vision of the good life, I need this reminder that it is blessed to be poor, meek, and persecuted. In addition, he illumines a proper Christian perspective on persecution through an ancient Christian document (Letter to Diognetus) and stories of modern martyrs. I appreciate that Chaput isn’t out to demonize American culture; instead, he is pointing out real problems and calling Christians to love the culture by living uniquely.

It’s easy to sense that Chaput is a man with a deep appreciation for beauty. He regularly references art and literature, and calls readers to recognize the beauty in creation. In a culture where humans are often seen as “interchangeable reasoning and consuming units,” the elevation of human dignity and the imago dei is a stream in the desert.

Jesus promised that following him would appear strange to others. We live in a time where Christian belief and practice makes less and less sense to the rest of our country. And yet, we live as people of hope on a pilgrimage home. I welcome more voices like Chaput who will call “small-o” orthodox Christians in America to live the only kind of life that will present Christ to the world.

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An Evangelical’s Take on The Benedict Option

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Most books that are published come and go with only a narrow impact. Some, however, remain in the cultural dialogue much longer and become a platform for constructive conversation. Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option is in the latter category, and has received much attention in recent months.

Dreher’s book, subtitled “A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation,” emerges from years of blogging and speaking around the thesis that the cultural milieu of the United States is so shaped by secularism, modernism and consumerism that meaningful discipleship necessitates radically countercultural living. The book’s title comes from the sixth-century St. Benedict, whose famous monastic Rule is interpreted by Dreher as a guide for Christians today.

The book begins with an assessment of “post-Christian America” and a brief intellectual history in which Dreher outlines some of the philosophical and cultural movements that have shifted Western culture over the last seven centuries. Dreher admits that his history only skims the surface. Even so, he chronicles well how these developments in Western thought have challenged the Christian worldview and made historic truths less believable for each generation. This chapter is one of the significant contributions of The Benedict Option. For many in this generation, our neophilia blinds us to the reality that our ideas are shaped by the values and epistemology we inherit. Dreher helpfully connects the dots by looking to these events:

In the fourteenth century, the loss of belief in the integral connection between God and Creation—or in philosophic terms, transcendent reality and material reality

The collapse of religious unity and religious authority in the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century

The eighteenth-century Enlightenment, which displaced the Christian religion with the cult of Reason, privatized religious life, and inaugurated the age of democracy

The Industrial Revolution (ca. 1760-1840) and the growth of capitalism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries

The Sexual Revolution (1960-present)

Much more discussion can and should be had about the intellectual frameworks shaping American culture. This chapter was my favorite in the book and the one I’ve referenced most in conversation.

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Benedict of Nursia

The heart of the book is a chapter on Benedict’s Rule. Dreher explains how practices in the Rule of St. Benedict can help modern Christians recover, maintain, and pass on a robust Christian faith. The practices highlighted in the book are Order, Prayer, Work, Asceticism, Stability, Community, Hospitality, and Balance. As an Eastern Orthodox Christian, Dreher implores Christians of all stripes to structure their lives around these ancient practices. Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD), America’s nefarious “Christianity-lite,” is a primary target of Dreher’s critique. The embrace of MTD stems from a lack of Christian discipleship, thus making the practices of St. Benedict all the more important.

The rest of the book applies Benedict’s Rule to different areas of life including politics, education, sex, and technology. The practical suggestions are helpful, if a little one-size-fits-all. The real meat, however, comes in the stories of people living the Benedict Option. Dreher offers glimpses of communities from Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox Christian traditions living some form of the Benedict Option.

In another book I’m reading (The Tech-Wise Family), author Andy Crouch offers suggestions on the use of technology with the caveat, “You don’t have to become Amish, but you probably have to become closer to Amish than you think.” I imagine Rod Dreher saying something similar, “You don’t have to become monastic, but you probably have to become closer to monastic than you think.” Dreher’s Benedict Option has been criticized by some as too extreme, but he argues that serious threats to the Christian faith demand radical countercultural living.

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Rod Dreher, senior editor and blogger at The American Conservative and author of The Benedict Option

But are the threats that serious? Or are Rod Dreher and his conservative cadre just stoking fear? Many have been quick to denounce The Benedict Option as a fundamentalist head-for-the-hills reaction to a changing country and a loss of political power. In a Washington Post piece that evidences little knowledge of the book’s contents, Dreher and his interlocutors are accused of promoting a “new alarmism.”

I’m optimistic about the amount of conversation The Benedict Option has generated, yet the number of critics commenting on a misreading (or perhaps commenting without reading?) continues to grow. Andy Crouch’s delineation of Dreher’s thesis from the most common misreading is helpful. Archbishop Charles Chaput has written a book like The Benedict Option from a Catholic perspective and argues, “Naming the problems in a culture truthfully, and pointing a way forward for those awake enough to notice, is neither bleak nor negative. It’s called Christian realism, and it’s a virus that’s going around.”

The evangelical fear that Christians will retreat from culture is understandable. Our tradition is deeply rooted bringing the gospel to bear on the issues of the day. And yet, how can a church subsumed by modernity offer meaningful critique of culture? Prophetic critique requires that a better reality be inaugurated and lived among the people of God.

The Benedict Option calls Christians to deepen our discipleship so that we can be the church for the world. Christian mission that disciples nonbelievers into MTD is thoroughly non-Christian. Only by taking hold of the radical self-denying, God-exalting, neighbor-embracing call of Christianity will we continue to “turn the world upside down” (examples of this can be seen in many flourishing churches across the Global South that preach historically orthodox Christianity). The Benedict Option’s proposal of a life oriented around early Christian practices is a welcome correction for today’s evangelicals.

It would be easy for readers to critique Dreher’s Benedict Option prescriptions without engaging the book’s central issue. The most fruitful discussions of this work will be those that take seriously the challenges of modernity and begin to offer contextualized responses. If The Benedict Option awakens Western Christians to the core issues at hand for the future of a robust Christian faith, the book will have served the Church well.