Friday, June 16, 2017

Benedict Option Wrong for Down Under?

In a week where days fly past and major issues in Kiwiland remain untouched herein, notably further developments re the Christchurch Cathedral and the imminent question of legalisation of euthanasia, the least I can do is point you to a superb and, for me, persuasive, argument from Michael Bird (Ridley College, Melbourne).

Against a background in Australia of increasing hostility towards Christianity, Michael Bird argues in a North American magazine, Christianity Today, that the Benedict Option being debated there - concerning engagement between Christianity and secular society - is not apt for the Down Under context.

NZ is not Australia. They are not as good as us at rugby (for instance!). So I am interested in readers' comments about the Benedict Option versus the Thessalonian Option for consideration in our Kiwi situation.


Brendan McNeill said...


I’m not sure how many of your readers are familiar with Rod Dreher over at or are familiar with his latest book The Benedict Option, but I image many are.

I have read the book recently and agree that it has much to say to us in the NZ context, particularly in the world of Anglicanism. Rod’s thesis is that we can no longer rely upon the culture to support the Christian narrative, or defend religious freedom. That it’s now time for Christians to ‘strengthen those things that remain’ and become intentional about building resilient faith communities that are (by definition) counter cultural.

However, it appears that a considerable proportion of the Anglican Church in NZ is heading in entirely the opposite direction. These Anglicans desire a church that better reflects prevailing cultural norms than one standing opposed to them.

We are not going to convince the ‘progressives’ that they are the new totalitarians, (the Thessalonian Strategy) when they already know we are the bigots. It’s pointless to try.

I’d say Rod’s book is a ‘must read’ for those who have not yet done so.

Michael Reddell said...

A somewhat related question is whether Tim Farron's conclusion - that is wasn't possible to be faithful Christian and a party leader - is also true in New Zealand.

Perhaps Bill English is a counter-example, but it is almost impossible to envisage someone like Farron being able to lead one of the parties of the left. I'm not convinced a younger Bill English could get promoted to a position from which he could lead National now.

Of course, Rod Dreher argues that it doesn't really matter, and the focus should go on Christian formation - as individuals and communities. I"m sympathetic but might commment again when I've read the Bird article.

Michael Reddell said...

Having read Bird, I'm not sure where he is really diverging from Dreher (whose book I haven't read, but whose blog I read daily). Rod doesn't suggest ignoring the public square, fighting to (eg) defend religious liberties where we can, and perhaps even managing the odd other stalling victory. But he counsels - as he has for years - that humanly speaking it is impossible to be hopeful of such a strategy succeeding in gaining much ground, or even holding it. And even if it could succeed, it would be pyrrhic victory if the Christian formation (individual and community) was so weak that all that was left was the descendants of the sort of moral therapeutic deism that too often substitutes for the gospel in all its richness and depth. As he highlights, even in the US context, the rate of loss of church-raised young people is already large, as it has been here for decades.

For all that, I'm not sure about the NZ situation, in terms of the threats to the legitimacy of orthodox Christians in the public square. As noted above, a fairly traditional Catholic is Prime Minister. And we haven't yet had the extreme cases seen in Australia (per Bird) or in the US - CEOs ousted for once opposing same-sex "marriage", or florists driven through the courts for refusing to supply such a "wedding". I'm not really sure why it hasn't happened here yet. Is it perhaps in part because the church is already so much more enfeebled here? But I suspect it is only a matter of time, and that resistance will ultimately - in human terms - fail. Which leaves me with Dreher's challenge to the church to focus on being the church - the best witness, and the best and only safeguard of a body always just one generation from extinction.

Peter Carrell said...

There could be room for both options, Michael!

It is both an interesting and an intriguing question why NZ is (so far) a bit different to Australia re threats to legitimacy of orthodox Christians in the public square.

It could be that the church is more enfeebled here. But might it be that the church has quiet residual strength (think full Catholic parish churches, still strong church going among Pasefika communities, role of churches in Maori communities (and importance politicians place on ties with Ratana) as well as quietly continuing links between church leaders and government?

Or ...?

Anonymous said...

The Anabaptists got this right: those in Christ may not identify his kingdom with the social order of any local time and place. Nevertheless, a Christian is as apt as any other individual to imagine that, with his own arrival, the world was at last completed, and that all that has changed since that blessed hour has been a steady declension from perfection. A person with a conservative temperament can be an especially faithful and fruitful Christian, of course, but Christianity itself cannot be so purely conservative as to adopt the whole society of any time with all of its flaws. That is, the Church cannot be permanently conservative because, as T.S. Eliot famously observed, conservatives too often want to conserve the wrong things.

Along with many grains of truth, Dreher's Benedict Option, Bird's Thessalonians Option, Wedgewood's Diognetus Option, etc all have this boulder of error: in longing for the recent past to which they compare the godless present, they implicitly celebrate its cruel discrimination. And that is what progressives rightly find contemptible. In most places that are obsessed with That still unmentionable Topic, anti-Christian rage is driven, not by some atheological objection to the gospel (about which secularists usually know nothing), but by their disgust at an uncritical stuckism that celebrates harsh laws that marginalised homosexuals in civil society with life consequences that can only have angered God. And indeed, much idealising kitsch has disabled Christian churches and institutions from the gospel tasks of empathising with and helping compassionately those citizens bullied in God's Name.

The aforementioned Anabaptists would, however, affirm the note of independence common to all of the several Options. If they are to bear an authentic witness from the Kingdom, faithful Christians must indeed do their own cultural work and be wary of the alluring captivity of power. Anabaptists would quarrel only with the notion that this independence suddenly became necessary when Western states stopped marginalising their homosexual citizens so that they could inherit property, get and keep employment, be visited on their deathbeds, etc. To the contrary, the states of Christian societies have been doing God-angering things for millennia, and for just as long the Holy Spirit has been using souls and movements to separate the gospel from its simulacrum.

Might we think of this time as one of divine lustration for the sake of a purer gospel witness? Where churches plainly dissociate the gospel from past cruelty, they will prosper as the Holy Spirit leads them. The history of ancient Israel suggests, however, that where they instead identify themselves with such evil, however unintentionally, the Holy Spirit may use whatever forces are available to silence this confusion for the sake of the Great Commission.

Bowman Walton

Anonymous said...

Has anybody read Russell's Germanization of Early Medieval Christianity? The thesis, if true, is important to matters discussed here from time to time.

A friendly reviewer summarises the book thus: "The early Christianity that the Germans encountered [in missionaries from Mediterranean lands] contained a good many universalist tendencies, adapted and reinforced by the disintegrating social fabric and deracinated peoples of the late empire. But thanks to Germanization, those elements were soon suppressed or muted and what we know as the historical Christianity of the medieval era offered a religion, ethic, and world-view that supported what we today know as 'conservative values'—social hierarchy, loyalty to tribe and place (blood and soil), world-acceptance rather than world-rejection, and an ethic that values heroism and military sacrifice. In being 'Germanized,' Christianity was essentially reinvented... Christianity is both the grandmother of Bolshevism (in its early universalist, non-Western form) and a pillar of social stabilization and order (through the values and world-view imported into it through contact with the ancient barbarians). Throughout most of its history, the latter has prevailed, but today, as Mr. Russell argues in the last pages of his work, the enemies of the European (Germanic) heritage—what he calls 'the Euro-Christian religiocultural fusion'—have begun to triumph within Christian ranks."

A reviewer panned the book in American Historical Quarterly for being more like historical theology than a soberly positivistic history of religion. Most commentators seem unconcerned about that.

Bowman Walton

Bryden Black said...

I am not sure, Peter, that Michael Bird has read Rod Dreher quite correctly. In fact, some of his Thessalonian suggestions echo the kind of thing Rod himself has said.

Perhaps it's in the 'monastic' metaphor tripping him up (issues of Christian sub-culture). Perhaps it's in the way that Rod himself seeks to engage with and witness before culture, while stridently seeking also to concretely form Christians in their own counter-culture.

All in all, I think Michael Bird is simply passing Rod Dreher like a ship in the night. Which is a pity. For I think we must learn in New Zealand from what Rod is seeking to warn us about, and to prepare us for, and furthermore seeking to establish as an antidote. Otherwise, the Church here will surely be as rammed and damaged as the author of The Great Gatsby (Mk 13:14) and its characters play while Rome burns.

Father Ron Smith said...

Thank you, Bowman,for this piece of unadulterated common sense:

"Might we think of this time as one of divine lustration for the sake of a purer gospel witness? Where churches plainly dissociate the gospel from past cruelty, they will prosper as the Holy Spirit leads them. The history of ancient Israel suggests, however, that where they instead identify themselves with such evil, however unintentionally, the Holy Spirit may use whatever forces are available to silence this confusion for the sake of the Great Commission."

It must be very hard, though, for people whose spiritual insight is confined to the past - together with its inherent insensitivities and injustice - to accept that the Holy Spirit is continuing, in our own day and age, to be doing "A New Thing"; with the righting of historic prejudices which have prevented the harvesting of souls of ALL people, sinners all,for Christ!

Greetings from St.Mary's, Fetcham. We enjoyed a good old Evangelical sermon and Eucharist today, in the setting of a liturgically-ordered Anglo-Catholic parish church. together with our local relatives. God is alive and well, here

Bryden Black said...

"Separating the Gospel from its simulacra." Bowman

Always a worthy necessity, for both Israel and Church. The difficulty of course is in identifying which is which. Israel was endowed with the Torah. Yet also plagued with "forgetfulness" (see esp Deut etc), and so listened to the Baalim often. The Church, when given BOTH Holy Spirit AND canonical OT AND NT, should by these twin means navigate between the various Siren voices which claim to steer one away from the rocks yet precisely impale one onto them.

And this is where, once again, many of us Ron must demur from your "novelties" as being the voice of the Holy Spirit and not an echo of the current Zeitgeist. For all but the most gymnastic of exegetes say of our current pansexualism that it is a serious mistake, a failure to honour the divine Image in which humanity is made.

This is not simply to attempt to conserve a tradition out of step with the winds of the Spirit. Rather, it is precisely to remember the Rock from whom we have been hewn. True; this present aeon also throws up fallen forms of the Image. And true again; some (many?) have not remembered their own need of mercy to cover their own fallenness, as they mock these particular forms. Yet that very form of forgetfulness should not sanction another. That merely compounds the choppiness of the waters for all of us to navigate hereafter, as we try to put our backs into whatever oar we hold and seek to head to safe Harbour aboard the Barque Ecclesia.

And, lastly, if we in ACANZ&P do try to go Forward as is soon to be sanctioned, then my concern is just this: with one lot of oars rowing one way, and another another, then the net result will be our going round in circles. For a house divided against itself may not stand - or have we forgotten that?

Father Ron Smith said...

"What a great and wonderful thing it is, brethren, to live together in unity". Yes, and this is the problem with intentional schism - intentional severance from the Body, because of one's own vision of a purity that is neither given nor accessible this side of paradise.

Such was the problem Jesus battled in the Pharisees; their insistence on ritual purity, rather than an acknowledgement of one's imperfections before God and being thankful that God provides the only way to redemption. In other words; being satisfied with one's own spiritual state being superior to that of others. The parable of the Pharisee and the Publican again.

To separate out from others on the basis of their impurity is always a logistical (and moral) problem for Christians who think they alone have the answer to the problems of our common sinful human nature. God loved both Cain and Abel; the Prodigal and the dutiful sons. The problem lay in the 'righteous' one questioning the Father's love of the other son - for different reasns in these cases, but by the same standard. I guess the least understood counsel of Jesus to the 'righteous', is that they will be judged with the same measure that they judge their contemporary. God alone is Judge, and we administer judgement on others to our own peril!

"Jesu, Mercy; Mary, Pray". "God have mercy on me; a sinner!"

Michael Bird said...

Hi folks,

I have read Rod Dreher's book and I think it has some good stuff, he's not for complete withdrawal from culture, just not investing our hopes in contemporary culture to suddenly turn Christian. I'm with him on that point. My main response is that whatever monasteries we retreat to - real or metaphorical - social progressive activists will follow us and seek to change us or punish us. We need a more activist counter-insurgency strategy to ensure our freedom to practice our faith.

Brian Kelly said...

"We need a more activist counter-insurgency strategy to ensure our freedom to practice our faith."

One answer is to have more children! The future belongs to those who show up for it. 'Progressives' (what a self-deluding word! - progressing into what? a minefield? a swamp?) are not much into having children - but they are into controlling and educating yours. Muslims OTOH are into having children - they will form the majority of European youth in 20 years' time. You see this already in the MFL textbooks I teach from, where have the German kids have Turkish or North African names.
Maybe one day I will write a little piece on 'How The Pill Destroyed Western Civilisation'.
The thesis is quite simple:
1. Post-war Europeans abandoned Christianity for hedonism.
2. Contraception, abortion, easy divorce and social security made this possible.
3. Birth rates plummeted after c. 1965 and the continent began to age.
4. Adult Muslims from North Africa, the Middle East and South Asia were imported to keep the buses, hospitals and cotton mills running.
5. They settled almost exclusively in the big cities and capitals. They didn't become atheist dark-skinned Westerners. They kept their religion and started having children - lots of them. They remained poor - and voted 80% for Corbyn in the UK. In Germany, about 1.2 million Muslims were invited to the continent by Merkel.
6. Meanwhile the white 'progressive left' kept up its 1960s war on Christianity, Christian ethics and Christian schools, with a strange alliance of atheist socialists, feminists, gays, African immigrants - and Muslims.
7. The Church of England - and the Roman Catholic Church - with its self-selected leftist leadership (including Welby) proved timid and failed utterly to bring the Gospel to Muslims, let alone the godless indigenous population. Slowly they succumbed out of fear and intellectual weakness.
8. Step by step, freedom of speech and movements disappeared from Europe in the name of 'security'. People felt less secure than ever.
9. The nightmare anticipated by Michel Houellebecq began to take place.

Jean said...

Such an interesting topic...

I think the gap is widening between what the Church or the Gospel stands for and what the pervading culture or society aligns with. Yet I think as that gap grows wider the message of the Gospel will actually become more rather than less attractive to the general populous.

Focus on being the church - yes I think this is essential because unless the plural we get our house in order we can hardly be a light to others. The Public Square - yes in God honouring ways; Shane Claiborne has some pretty powerful examples of doing this while witnessing to the Gospel. Overall I think the way to resist is best done as a 'stand for' finding inventive ways that demonstrate a stance in such a way it is counter-intuitive to what people expect, rather than always being on the defensive. Remember the Christian School whose students were caught in the flash flood and how they refused take on the growing NZ blame culture, and while accepting an investigation into the incident, befuddled media by refusing to respond by attacking the guides or their company.

Bowman I am not on your page on this one. I don't think Christians started singing counter-cultural just when The issue arose, nor do I think the societal discrimination of previous Christians were independent of the general mores of the time. A pointed example of this is woman preachers who came out of an answering to God's call were prevalent before womens position in the public sphere was acknowledged or the vote for women achieved, and equally they also faced discrimination from some sectors of the plural church because the public mores of the time was that women belonged at home. What is reading cultural into scripture and what is influencing culture with scripture is of course a process of discernment.

Father Ron Smith said...

"For a house divided against itself may not stand" - Bryden.

Precisely, this is why intentional schism 'is an horrid thing'. You can't blame the people who stay with the majority; only those who leave. I know which party I want to belong to: 'The Sinners, Redeemed by Christ'!

I would love us all to remain together, but this cannot be by force.

Jean said...

Regarding the public sphere - curious happenings with Tim Farron in the UK resigning because he felt it has become impossible for him to be a political leader and remain a faithful Christian. No wonder when you see how he was interogated by the media about his personal belief as though it was a crime to have one, particular of course picking on the 'hot topics' such as abortion where many Christian's viewpoints will differ from secular society.

Bryden Black said...

Sorry Ron, I think you might have misunderheard me. Two things:

1. The house which is about to become divided is ACANZ&P should the proposal of the Way Forward Group become reality. For they are seeking to house two irreconcilable and mutually incompatible "integrities" under one and the same roof.

2. As for majorities: it all depends upon the population in view - Dio Chc? ACANZ&P? The global AC?!

In other words, once again I find the language of schism inappropriate ...