Plough, the magazine of the Bruderhof, has just published a long interview editor Peter Mommsen did with me here in Louisiana earlier this fall (with a post-election follow-up question). The topic: the Benedict Option. What you don’t see is that I took Peter and his crew member to dinner at Hot Tails after the taping. Man, that was a good night. Here are a couple of excerpts:
Critics of the Benedict Option say that it’s a form of retreat – of abandoning society in order to live a purer, holier life. Are they right to see a kind of selfishness in withdrawing?
That’s a claim that drives me crazy: “You just want to go run to the hills and live in your bunker and wait for the end.” That’s absolutely not what I’m saying. What I am saying is, we need to have a strategic, limited retreat from the mainstream for the same reason you would protect a candle with a lantern if you go outside in a gale. Otherwise, the wind would be so strong that it would blow the light out. The currents of culture have become so antithetical to Christianity that if we’re going to form ourselves and our kids in the authentic faith, we’re going to have to have some kind of limited withdrawal.
What do I mean by that? I mean to put your kids in an authentic Christian school, for example. I mean things as simple as turning off the TV. Don’t be so quick to open the door to popular culture. Growing up, I experienced how television wrecked any morals my parents were trying to teach us – they were fairly conservative, but the TV was like a sewer pipe into the home. Today it’s smartphones. Even in my small Louisiana town, fifth-grade boys are watching hardcore pornography on their smartphones. The parents of these boys just choose not to see.
But it’s not just running away from what’s destructive – it’s running toward something good. Our kids go to a classical school here in Baton Rouge. The teachers are trying to show the parents of the students: You may have the right instinct to get your kid out of the cesspit of the mainstream by sending them to this school, but it’s not going to help if you just shelter them. You have to show them something good and beautiful and true to build their souls up.
That’s what I think the Benedict Option ideally should do. It should show the good fruits of a countercultural life in Christian community, and in that way be evangelical. If you’re not evangelical in some sense you’re not Christian. It is a missionary faith. But that doesn’t mean that we have to throw ourselves in the middle of everything when we’re not even properly formed. I know a lot of Christian parents don’t want to take their kids out of the public schools because they say, “Well, our kids need to be salt and light.” I’m afraid that’s incredibly naïve in many cases, when you have third and fourth graders already talking about transgenderism and bisexuality.
The Benedictine monks set a good example here. They are much more cloistered than any lay community could afford to be. They say, “We have the walls there because we cannot fulfill our mission to serve Christ in the way we’re called to serve him without some walls separating us from the world.” But they also have a Benedictine principle of hospitality. Saint Benedict tells his monks to welcome every stranger and every visitor as Christ himself. That openness allows them to maintain contact with the world and to share the good things they have with the world.
Russell Moore, a Southern Baptist leader, recently suggested that the marginalization of Christianity in the public square may be bad news for America but it’s good news for the church. Would you agree?
Insofar as it purges the cultural Christianity from the church, I think it’s good. On the other hand, there’s going to be a lot of suffering ahead, and a lot of people on the margins of the church, who might have been gradually brought closer to Christ, are going to fall away. I can’t rejoice in that or just say, “Bring it on,” even though the purification will probably make the church stronger and more faithful in the end. When the Christian witness gets muted or pushed to the side, it’s not just people in the church who will get hurt – society as a whole will suffer when it loses its leaven.
I think the church is going to have to become not more seeker-friendly but more finder-friendly. That means discipleship. We’ve got to go beyond just showing up on Sunday or having that altar-call conversion moment. What does it mean the next day? What does it mean to be formed in Christian habits, in Christian ways of life?
That’s something the monks in Norcia teach. They showed me the value of routine, of saying the same prayers and psalms and getting the Bible into your heart by reading it daily in lectio divina. Those everyday, ordinary rhythms get the Christian faith into your bones. It’s something we’re going to have to recover if we’re going to survive as a community of faith.
What effect does the election of Donald Trump have on Christians’ public witness? Does it change anything for the Benedict Option?
I was not a Trump voter, or a Clinton voter, and was prepared to be part of the loyal opposition no matter which candidate won. I still am. What does Trump’s election change for the Benedict Option? Only this: I believe it gives us a bit more time to prepare – and, if he puts justices on the Supreme Court who value religious liberty, it gives us a little more space in which to prepare. But the idea that electing a Republican president, especially one as unchristian as Donald Trump, will arrest a cultural process of desacralization that has been underway for centuries – that’s madness! I fear that Christians who were coming to appreciate the perilous position of the church in post-Christian America may conclude that we can all stand down now, that the danger has passed. That would be incredibly foolish. It’s not simply the Democratic Party that threatens authentic Christianity. It’s modernity. The best we can expect of politics is for it to open a space for the church to do its work of conversion and culture-building. The Trump presidency may – may – solve certain immediate problems for the church, but it will certainly create new ones. Again, I say to my fellow Christians: do not take false hope from the machination of princes. Prepare.
In what may be dark times ahead, where do you see signs of hope, and what should we focus on to keep the joy of the gospel?
In my book, I write about a Catholic community in San Benedetto del Tronto, Italy, called the Tipiloschi – Italian for “the usual suspects.” Although they go to the normal church, they also come together for communal meals, service projects, Bible study, communal prayer, and Mass every week. When I visited this community, I saw so much joy – not self-satisfied joy but creative joy. I met a couple of young men who had done prison time for minor offenses and now had been brought into the community, given work to do, and rehabilitated. I went to their school, and saw such a sense of confidence. It’s not a white-knuckle, we’re-so-afraid-of-the-world approach. Because they know who they are in Christ, they live with joy. When I see people like that, I realize that this is not just some pipe dream or abstract ideal. There are flesh-and-blood people living this out right now.
I asked Marco Sermarini, who leads the Tipiloschi community, “Do you ever worry about anything?” He said, “Oh yes, Rod, I lie in bed at night and I worry about what’s going to happen to my children and our community. But then I realize that our Lord came into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, not a thoroughbred, and that I just have to be a donkey for the Lord.” As long as we can be simple little donkeys, just plugging away doing the everyday ordinary things and sanctifying our everyday life, that’s where we will find our hope.
Read the whole thing. It’s much longer. Peter asked great questions. And Plough is a great magazine. Check out the Winter 2017 issue, where this Ben Op interview appears. I’ll be going out to see the Bruderhof community in Upstate New York around the time The Benedict Option is published in March.