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

 

 

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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

 

 

How Should the Church Address the Current Political Battle?

Dear Reader,

A little follow-up to my last post on how we as evangelicals are responding to this election cycle. But first I want to commend to you this article from Christianity Today. It says a lot of what I was trying to say but much more coherently.

What I am trying to say is that we have a golden opportunity here to do what the church is called to do — to address the sins of our age and to call people and our nation to repentance. And as I think on the latest scandal — that is, some words of Donald Trump’s from 10+ years ago that demean women — I think we have been handed a perfect opportunity to address what is really one of the big issues of our day apart from the election, namely the importance of gender. Our society as a whole seems to be saying that gender is an artificial construct. The Bible tells is God created gender and that He did so for a reason. So rather than arguing about whether the Donald did or didn’t and how bad it is that he said he did, let’s seize the opportunity to say that yes, protecting women matters. It matters because men and women are different. They are different because God made them so.

The saddest part of this whole election season is that we have squandered what should have been great opportunities to speak the truth and that we have allowed ourselves to be pulled down to a base, worldly level. We need to return to addressing people’s hearts more than their ballots.

Nebby

Evangelicals and Elections

Dear Reader,

I am trying really, really hard not to respond to friends’ Facebook posts this week. Politics is everywhere. Like, I suspect, most Americans, I am very frustrated with everything about this election. I am frustrated with the choices available. I am even more frustrated with the things I see my fellow evangelical Christians saying. Whatever the positions of individual Christians, the perception of society at large seems to be that we have sold our souls for the sake of {pick one: a conservative supreme court justice, the right to discriminate against homosexuals, the abortion thing, free access to guns, anything by Hillary}.

In Christian circles the phrase on hears again and again is “the lesser of two evils.” I actually take some comfort in the use of this phrase. At least it means we still believe in evil, and presumably in good. At least we are trying on some level to make moral judgments. The problem is that those judgments are so hard to make this year. First we have to decide what we are judging: Do we care more about the individual candidate’s character or his/her position on the issues? Because no one really seems to be saying “Donald Trump is a great guy. I admire his morality.” But then we look at Hillary and say, “But how can we vote for someone who is pro-choice and pro-gay rights?” These are important moral issues and (from an evangelical perspective) she is on the wrong side of them. So do we vote based on character or political position? But wait — it’s more complicated than that. Because Hillary’s character is debatable as well. Her (alleged) crimes are in the political more than the personal arena but there is a good case to be made that she is dishonest and self-serving. And Donald’s positions — while they may be on the right side of certain litmus-test issues — are not exactly compassionate. Yes, we care about the unborn, but what about the born? God says (I paraphrase), “You were strangers and aliens. Therefore care for those people.” If we are trying to decide who is the lesser of two evils, there are no easy answers here. There’s plenty of evil to go around.

I’d like to ask this instead — Whoever wins the election, what are we going to come out of this season with? I know not everything one reads online is true, but out non-Christian friends and neighbors are reading what is out there, and their perception right now is that the church has sold out. That for all our pious talk, we are willing to get into bed with some downright nasty people. We may choose our candidate based on some decent principles (not killing unborn babies, for instance) but in the process we swallow a whole lot of other evil things. We’re losing our credibility, our moral authority. It may already be too long gone.

A president is important. The future of our country is important. But both pale in comparison to the witness of the church. Our perspective has not been long enough or broad enough. We have allowed ourselves to be caught up in what is ultimately temporary and worldly. We need to ask not “Who is less evil?” but “How do we glorify God in this time and place? How do we advance His kingdom?” The answer is not to get bogged down in parsing the levels of evil but to stand up and proclaim what true goodness is.

Nebby

 

How Should Christians Decide Who to Vote for?

Dear Reader,

Have you had any political arguments this year? Have you had someone tell you you are not a true Christian because of who you may or may not vote for? I am not going to tell you if you should vote or for whom you should vote. What I want to talk about today is how we decide.

For too long Christians have been able to muddle along without too much thought on this issue. We have compromised our values. We have learned to separate a candidate’s personal life and character from his public office. We have voted on issues without carefully considering the people for whom we are voting. This election cycle it all seems to be coming to a head. Because we have not considered the principles behind how we vote, we find ourselves faced with choices that appall us and we, as a community, don’t know how to navigate these waters.

A lot of what I am going to say comes from a book I have been reading, Messiah the Prince: The Mediatorial Dominion of Jesus Christ by William Symington. This book was originally published in 1879. There is a more modern and easier to read follow-up, Messiah the Prince Revisited by J.K. Wall. I have both. Wall does a good job of boiling down what Symington has to say, but if you really want to understand the arguments I think you need to read Symington. If you find his language inaccessible, read Wall first but then go back to Symington for the fleshed-out version. Symginton’s books discusses Christ’s kingship over the church and over the nations and the relationship between them. For our purposes today, we are just interested in chapter 7, “The Mediatorial Dominion over the Nations.”

In his letter to the Colossians, the Apostle Paul tells us, “ And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Col. 3:17; ESV). We are not Christians only on Sundays. We are not Christians only at church. We are to act and speak in a way that brings glory to God every day of the week; at home and at work; with family, and friends, and neighbors. If every part of our lives if subject to Christ, then when we enter the ballot box we must also consider what Christ would have us do. Honestly, I think most of us still get this. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t beat each other up for doing the “un-Christian” thing. Here is how Symington puts it:

“But the choice od representative, it should be borne in mind, is a civil right, the exercise of which involves, to a great extent, the welfare of the nation. It is not the individual himself alone that suffers from an improper use of this privilege, but the community at large. It is, consequently, of immense moment, that he exercise it, not from passion, fancy, or prejudice, but under the guidance of sound Christian principle . . . Never can the circumstance occur which will warrant him to say, Now I mat drop the Christian and act the civilian or the man. It is not in matters of an ecclesiastical nature merely that he is to act as a Christian. He must conduct himself as a Christian at all times . . .” (Messiah the Prince, pp. 167-68)

The Bible actually has quite a lot to say on what makes a good ruler. These instructions, both the explicit and the implicit, are for both the rulers and for their people. “God,” Symington says, “has given [the people] in his Word a supreme rule of direction, in which the character of civil rules is described, and only such as seem to them to be possessed of this character are they at liberty to appoint” (Messiah the Prince, p. 164). In other words, if God says “appoint wise rulers” (see, for instance, Exod. 18:21; Deut. 1:13), we are disobeying Him when we appoint unwise ones.  Indeed to have a foolish ruler is a curse upon a nation (Eccl. 10:16).

What then are the qualifications for a ruler? Symington puts them in three categories: natural, moral, and religious (pp. 164-65). We seem to have jettisoned them in reverse order. First we said it doesn’t matter if a candidate is Christian. Then we overlooked his personal moral failings, and perhaps even his public ones. Now some even disregard natural qualifications (or the lack thereof).

Does a candidate need to be a Christian in order for us to vote for him? Symington would say yes, that is the first but not the only qualification. This election cycle has me wanting to agree with him. Perhaps it is an overreaction to want to push the line back that far. But my point here is that we have let the line slip. We have said that it doesn’t matter if a man cheats on his wife; that is personal and doesn’t affect his political role. Then what if he cheats on his personal income taxes? What if he is deceitful in his public role? Even this we as a society seem ready to overlook.

King David was one of the best Israel ever had. He was a man after God’s own heart. But his personal sin (adultery with Bathsheba) became a professional sin (sending his own general, Uriah, to his death) and ultimately led to a plague upon his people.

Nebby

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