Posts Tagged ‘Politics’

Book Review: The Benedict Option

Dear Reader,

I recently finished reading The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher. I am not very up on contemporary Christian culture but I had heard about or seen this book in a few places so my impression is it is quite the in-thing these days.

My short take on this book is that I would recommend it, with some caveats. In fact, I plan to have my 12th grader read it in the upcoming school year. There is a lot here that is good and that the church needs to hear. Sad to say, a lot of it is probably common sense or basic Christianity, but nonetheless we need to hear it.  There are points at which I disagree with the author, or perhaps just have a different take on things; these differences arise on large part from our differing backgrounds and affiliations.

The subtitle of Dreher’s book is “A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation.” His audience seems to be first and foremost conservative Christians who have been thrown for a loop by the recent legalization of gay marriage and who are finding themselves floundering, wondering how things could have gone so far astray and why right doesn’t seem to be prevailing in America today [the book was written after the election of Trump but gay marriage seems to be the crisis that fostered it; it is clear Dreher doesn’t like Trump (p. 79), but he does not dwell on him]. This is a book for people in crisis who are in panic mode and wondering how their culture got this way and what they can and should do about it.

Which is not to say that the ideas in this book can’t benefit others, but it seems to be directed mainly at the overwhelmed Christian. I don’t find myself in this category, for various reasons, and I don’t have quite as negative a prognosis for our society so there is some extent to which I can say that I don’t even agree with the premise of the book. That is not a good place to start with a book, and there was a point early on when I considered just dropping it altogether.  As Dreher gets going, however, he has a lot of useful things to say that relate to living in a society that does not always (ever?) embody our beliefs and I am glad I persevered with his book.

Before we go too far, we need to ask the most basic question: What does the title of this book mean? What is “the Benedict Option”? The phrase seems to be one Dreher coined — I could not find other references to it, apart from his book — though at times he makes it sound as if it is a larger movement to which he became attached. The “Benedict” part refers to St. Benedict, a relatively well-known monk who established a religious order based on a set of particular guidelines known as the Rule of St. Benedict. This rule, as Dreher describes it, orders daily life; it is meant to bring God into every part of life and to be freeing rather than restrictive. Dreher’s thesis is that in this time of crisis, when our culture has turned so far from Christianity, that we as Christians need to live deliberately in a way that is modeled upon the Benedictine communities. This is not to say that we should all become monks. Dreher’s idea, rather, is that we should have Christian communities in which we support one another but also through which we can reach out to the world.

Dreher uses the Benedictine Order as kind of a disguise for presenting what is really just a lesson in how Christians should have been living all along. This is a point which John Jalsevac makes in his review of the book for Life Site News . I agree with his assessment that Dreher’s ideas might have gained more of a foothold with evangelicals if he didn’t present them in such a seemingly Catholic guise.

There are a lot of ideas in this book as Dreher treats issues from pornography to politics to worship, and I will not address each one, but I would like to highlight a few.

Politics is the elephant in the room though it by no means is the only subject of this book. The problem, which Dreher makes clear (though I wish he had been more explicit about it earlier in the book) is basically that American Christians have put their faith in the political process and it has failed them. They have been like the Israelites trusting in their chariots or sending to Egypt for help against Assyria (my comparison; not his). Though Dreher says we must not abandon the political process altogether, his main solution seems to be to step away from it and build small subcultures instead.

I understand that there are a lot of Christians who had put their faith in the political process and they are probably those most in crisis and who most need to hear what is in this book. But, coming (by adoption) from a tradition which until the mid 20th century did not even allow its members to vote, I find myself holding two contradictory ideas: on the one hand, it was foolish of Christians to ever believe this was a Christian nation and that somehow they could rely upon its processes to accomplish the will of God, and, on the other hand, I am not quite so willing to abandon the process we have as Dreher seems to be. So while I am glad to hear Dreher say that we cannot rely upon the political process to accomplish godly ends, I am at the same time not as negative as he is on the whole subject nor as willing to abandon that arena.

Dreher writes his book for any orthodox (little “o”) Christian who adheres to a traditional form of Christianity. He himself is Eastern Orthodox. His book is broad in its basis — seeking to appeal to the Orthodox, Catholics, and Protestants. Not too surprisingly, this produces some weaknesses. In general, in the areas that most concern me, which are worship and education, I can say that Dreher has good principles but that he seems to see only one way to apply them.

When it comes to Protestant worship, Dreher adddresses evangelicals who are drawn to a very seeker-friendly, contemporary form of worship. And I would agree with him that this kind of worship needs reformation but disagree strenuously on what that reformation should look like. Oddly enough, the principles he espouses are often ones I can heartily agree with; their application is where we diverge. He says:

“. . . the concrete form in which information is delivered is itself a message . . . ” (p. 105)

Liturgy should follow ” . . . a basic pattern derived from Scripture.” (p. 107)

” . . . in the Christian tradition, liturgy is primarily, though not exclusively, about what God has to say to us.” (p. 108)

” . . . there can be no doubt that the form worship takes is a powerful weapon . . . against modernity . . . ” (p. 113)

All of these are good principles. Dreher uses them to argue for a liturgical form of worship, that is, a traditional liturgy that is not “low-church” (p. 112). Reformed Christians, those of us who adhere to the Westminster standards, would use these same arguments to argue for a simple worship– without the Book of Common Prayer; without man-made songs, whether we call them hymns or praise choruses; and with the Psalms of God.

On the topic of education, one on which I write extensively on this blog, Dreher sees the problem — but again latches on to one solution, and not the one I would advocate. I agree with his statement that: “Every educational model presupposes an anthropology: an idea of what a human being is” (p. 147). In fact, that is one of the major premises of this blog — that we have to consider the views of man and God that are behind our philosophies of education (see, for example, this very extensive series on approaches to education). While I am not a fan of the public schools, however, I would not go so far as he does in saying that “it is time for all Christians to pull their children out of the public school system” (p. 155). I do think parents need to think seriously about how their children are educated and what ideas are underlying their education. Dreher treats homeschooling as a last resort (p. 165), a view which I completely reject. His method of choice is classical Christian education. I say his method of choice, but, in fact, he shows no awareness of other approaches to education. His take on classical education seems to be right from the modern classical movement. He refers to Sayers’ famous article (of which I am not a fan), CIRCE Institute, and the Great Books Movement. He speaks of the need to return to classical education, noting Greek and Christian sources, but does not address the very real issue of how and why we should incorporate these Greek (read: pagan) sources.

In short, having rejected our society’s norm (the public schools), Dreher seems to latch onto what is a very popular approach in the world of  Christian education, but nowhere does he consider other approaches or explain why this approach is the best one.  In the area of education, then, as in his discussion of worship, I think Dreher starts with good principles but doesn’t actually go far enough in researching and evaluating all the options out there. He accepts what presents itself as “traditional,” namely high-church liturgy and classical education, and does not delve deeply into what is truly biblical or what God desires.

I went back and forth as I read through The Benedict Option. At times I liked the book; at others it irked me. I would recommend it in the end because I think Rod Dreher raises some issues we need to consider. I think that his title and the way he frames his subject are a little gimmicky and that, while they may initially draw some people in, they can also work against him. But he does raise some good points about how Christians should live and his book serves as a call for the church to return to a more basic understanding of what it is. When it comes to specific application of his principles, I think he often does not go far enough and needs to consider even more radical, more counter-cultural options and  above all to ask what is truly biblical.

Nebby

 

 

Books for Political Philosophy

Dear Reader,

My oldest (just finishing up 11th grade) has an interest in political science so, at his request, I created a course for him this year in what is probably best termed political philosophy. I looked at the AP comparative government course but it requires one to know a lot about and to then compare specific countries. This is not really what I was looking for for him. My goal instead was to have him delve into the ideas behind government. The overall plan for the course was fairly simple: read and narrate a bunch of books and then write a term paper at the end. As I write this, the term paper is still in the final stages (due Friday!), but his reading for the year is finishing up so I thought I would share with you the books we found for studying political philosophy.

I used two more textbook-y books as spine books: A Short History of Western Civilization by Sullivan, Sherman, and Harrison and Political Science: A Comparative Introduction by Hague and Harrop. Honestly, this is not a subject I ever studied in an organized way and I was hesitant about it. I chose these books to make sure we weren’t missing any big concepts. I only had my son read selections and though he did one or the other of them most days, the readings were using around 5 pages so it was not overly burdensome or a big part of what he was doing.

For these and many of the other books, I had him make notes rather than do a straight narration. We began the year by sitting down together and trying to come up with questions we might ask about any government. We came up with a list of 10 or so along the lines of: Who is in charge? Where does power come from? How does the government relate to the religion? I then encouraged him for each era, place, or philosopher he read about to think about these questions and to make notes answering them. I consider this a focused narration. In some sense, you could say we are starting with some sense of the ideas we expect to find, rather than just narrating and hoping ideas rise to the surface. I don’t know how Charlotte Mason would have felt about this, but I think it is an approach that works well for this subject.

Our approach was mainly chronological so we began by looking at the Greeks and Romans. (Egyptians and Ancient Near East were covered in his Western Civilization spine but not in other reading.) Our book for this was The Ancient City; a study on the religion, laws and institutions of Greece and Rome by Fusel du Coulanges. This is a dense book so I did go through it ahead of time and select passages for him to read. Because the goal of this course is to study the theory of government, we weren’t interested in every twist and turn in the government of each of these places, but more in the big trends and the reasons for them.

For the Middle Ages, we used On the Medieval Origins of the Modern State by Strayer. This is a thin book. I didn’t want to get too bogged down in this time period so it was a perfect fit. Moving into modern times, I had him read two slim volumes: The British Constitution: A Very Short Introduction by Loughlin and Magna Carta: A Short Introduction by Vincent.

Because I found it for free, we used On Democracy by Robert Dahl. This is a history of democracy and discussion of its pros and cons.

As we moved into modern times, our focus became more on philosophies and theories than on events and places. I came up with a list of major political philosophers and we read the relevant portions from various books. The philosophers we looked at were (in order):

Machiavelli, Luther and Calvin, Hobbes, Descartes, Locke, Hume, Rousseau and Bastiat, Kant, The Federalist, Burke, de Tocqueville, Hegel, Marx, Hitler, and Nietzsche.

The books we used were:

History of Political Philosophy by Strauss and Cropsey — A thick book of the college textbook sort, but well-written if dense. I usually skimmed through each section and marked specific paragraphs and sections for my son to read since it is so dense. The style is relatively engaging, however, and the tone is friendly to our beliefs.

10 Books that Screwed up the World and 10 Books Every Conservative Must Read by Benjamin Wiker — These are excellent books and every student should read them whether they are studying political philosophy or not. We didn’t do every chapter in them, just the ones relevant to politics. For 10 Books that Screwed Up we used the audio- book. It was very well done. The reader had the perfect tone for it. I would look for any of Wiker’s other books as well (he has one on the periodic table we have used).

The Consequences of Ideas by R.C. Sproul — Similar to Wiker’s books. I didn’t love this one quite as much but it is still very good and worth having any child read. We used the audio-book version again (we had a lot of car time this year).

We ended our reading for the year with some books from a particular perspective; our denomination (the RPCNA) traces its roots to the Scottish covenanters and historically is very committed to the idea of Christ’s mediatorial kingship over the nations. This principle is laid out in William Symington’s Messiah the Prince.  There is a simplified and updated version called Messiah the Prince Revisited. I read both and opted to have my son read only the original. I found that in the revised version the arguments are simplified to the degree that they don’t come through clearly. But if you are having problems understanding the original, you could read it side by side with the newer version. A more accessible book is Founding Sins by Joseph S. Moore. This is a wonderful book. Again, one everyone should read. If you think the US was founded as a Christian nation, you need to read this book.

That is all the books we used. As I said, the year ended with a term paper designed to pull from many of these sources.

Nebby