Purpose-Driven Premodernism

I’ve finished reading Rod Dreher’s “The Benedict Option.” In my view, it’s a fine book, one that articulates a theologically faithful response to the West’s cultural moment. I’ll have more thoughts on it later (and a brief review in a forthcoming issue of the ERLC’s Light Magazine) , but for now I want to share a couple quick thoughts about what I found most surprising about the book.

When I started reading, I expected this book to be mostly about how Christians can outsmart the Left. And while Rod does employ some of that culture war language, I was pleased to be proven wrong. The Benedict Option is not, at least in how Rod has laid it out in the book, primarily between Christians and secularists. It is between Christians and Christ. What surprised me about the book was how overwhelmingly concerned Rod is with Christian sanctification. This is not really a battle plan to be used against progressives. It’s an instruction manual in basic Christian faithfulness. What refreshed me about “The Benedict Option” was not how much of it seemed innovative and timely, but how much of it felt familiar and old.

At one point while reading, I wrote this in the margins: “Purpose-driven premodernism.” Here’s what I mean. Rick Warren’s “The Purpose Driven-Life” was a massive bestseller when it was released more than 10 years ago. Now, regardless whether you think “The Purpose-Driven Life” was mostly good, mostly bad, or a mixed bag, one thing remains true: The PDL was a book that assumed the life of a Christian was structured around spiritual habits. Warren argued that a life with purpose was one that is built around faithful spiritual practices, not a life that merely tolerated them.

That’s precisely what Rod is getting at in the Benedict Option. For all the intense debate surrounding the book, its core thesis seems absurdly simple to me: An obedient, meaningful Christian life is structured around truths and practices of the faith. Trying to remain a faithful, committed, orthodox Christian while living life outside this orbit is, for Rod, a fool’s game. It’s not going to happen. The Christianity that will survive the West’s emerging secular authoritarianism is going to be a Christianity embodied in habits of mind and heart that don’t flex for the demands of modern life.

That’s why I call the Benedict Option “purpose-driven premodernism.” The main difference, I think, between Rod’s book and Warren’s book is that while the PDL assumes that a life structured around Christian disciplines is possible without conscious retreat from culture, the BenOp assumes it’s impossible. In that, I think, Rod’s book has the benefit of hindsight. Will faithfulness to the gospel require not just a collection of spiritual disciplines but an actual physical reorientation of our lives and communities? Perhaps. And if so, I think purpose-driven premodernism might be what we need.

Sitting Athwart History

Today I’m re-upping this post from May 2016. 

Timothy George’s profile of Capitol Hill Baptist Church and its senior pastor, Mark Dever, is a joy to read. It was a joy for me personally because my wife and I are members of a church in Louisville that owes much to Dever and Capitol Hill. My pastor, Greg Gilbert, studied under Dever, and Third Avenue Baptist bears much resemblance to the vision that Dever has cast in his “9 Marks” ministry.

I was raised in very traditional Southern Baptist churches. These churches, I am told, thrived during the middle of the last century. I have to rely on the testimony of others for that information, because by the time I was old enough to notice, many of the churches I saw—including the ones I attended—were losing members yearly, becoming more insular and less evangelistic, and were often more enthralled by their internal politics than by the doctrines of Christianity. I spent my teenage years in an evangelical culture that desperately wanted to regain relevance. Thus, much of the preaching, teaching, singing, and “discipleship” that I heard was crafted carefully in the image of the “seeker-friendly” movement, which sought to make the experience of church palatable to Gen Xers and millennials who demanded entertainment and variety.

I didn’t fully realize what was going on until I arrived at Third Avenue. Then it became ridiculously obvious. For the sake of those accustomed to the secular liturgies of American culture, evangelicalism had tried to make the local church recognizable; but instead, it had made it invisible. Intellectual and spiritual formation of members was being neutered by the efforts to make church fun.

George describes how Dever pulled Capitol Hill away from this trend:

…[Dever] began to preach sermons that lasted upwards of one hour. Next, the church excised from its rolls hundreds of inactive members—some so inactive that they had long been dead! The practice of church discipline was begun. Members were also required to subscribe to a confession of faith and to say “an oath”—this is how a secular journalist described the church covenant—at the monthly communion. Entertainment-based worship was replaced by congregational singing, including many long-forgotten classic hymns from the past.

This describes perfectly my experience at Third Avenue. These churches are counter-cultural, not only in the content of their gospel but in the character of their pedagogy. And yes, pedagogy is the right word, because for churches like Third Avenue and Capitol Hill, the worship culture of the church is designed not merely to amuse or entertain, but to teach. The teaching doesn’t just begin and end with the sermon. The whole mode of worship is one that demands—and trains—intellectual and emotional maturity. Times of silence invoke the kinds of reflection and meditation that a smartphone culture often finds impossible. Old hymns with archaic but theologically rich vocabulary remind singers of big truths that require old words, not just mantras that could be found in any young adult novel. At any given point in the service there is a sense that members aren’t just spectating or even just participating in an event, but that they are learning in both word and desire.

This is the personal formation that has been lost in the noise of much evangelical church culture. It’s a loss that may carry a higher price tag than we ever thought. Could it even be that our current political crisis—and a crisis it is—is due at least part to the fact that millions of self-identified “evangelicals” are in churches that keep their attention but don’t teach them much? I’m not even talking mainly about the failure of churches to explicate a Christian view of political engagement, though that is certainly part of the problem. I’m talking mainly about the millions of people who name themselves members of evangelical churches, and yet find that reality TV lewdness and Twitter demagoguing are “speaking their language.” Instead of trying to jockey over whether they are actually “evangelical,” it might be better to acknowledge the possibility that many churches have failed to teach their members a better language.

Imagine a member of a entertainment-oriented church. He attends once per week, faithfully but passively. He absorbs many contemporary worship songs, some of which seem inspired by the Psalms but many of which seem inspired by Hallmark. Though he doesn’t consciously register it, the language and ritual he hears in church overlaps with that of commercialism. Everything about the church service is “accessible” to him as an average, working class American Christian. Everything feels new, and interesting, and immediately useful (or would if he could remember it after lunch). The hour he spends on Sunday morning feels like time well spent, mainly because it wasn’t much time and because there’s little cognitive dissonance between life in the church and life in the world.

Can this kind of spiritual formation provide any ballast in the wake of economic hardship, cultural alienation or political anger? Not at all. For those who aren’t being actively formed to think deeper thoughts, the rhetorical power of talk radio and social media demagogues is too invigorating and too empowering. Much of our American political rhetoric is pure showmanship, training the audience to respond as quickly as possible, as emotively as possible, to the world around them. Outrage, mockery, and hysteria feel so real, and when a moral imagination has not been trained to want something more, there’s no defense against them. If the moral imaginations of evangelicals aren’t being formed in church, where will they be formed?

The local church’s mandate of discipleship is a mandate for maturity. If evangelicalism has failed in the voting booth, perhaps that is because it is failing in the pews. Perhaps evangelical church culture cannot be satisfied with “relevance.” Perhaps what it really needs is transcendence, to risk sounding out of date and out of place if it means thinking big thoughts about big questions. This isn’t a call for mere pulpit partisanship. It’s a call for the recovery of the Christian tradition that stood up to Roman emperors for the cause of religious freedom and the end of slave trades, but also one that built monasteries. It’s a call for the church to be more than accessible—to be formative, to meet people where they are in order to raise them up.

There is a God-appointed time for Christians to come together, with unity in diversity, and learn to look at the world the way God sees it. That time is the gathering of the local church. Before evangelicals can stand athwart history, we need to sit athwart it first.