The Cultural Mandate, Not the Benedict Option
Posted on March 30, 2017
Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation (an excerpt of which appeared in Christianity Today), has launched the latest Facebook-Twitter-blog-web battle among culturally oriented Christians. The Benedict Option (Dreher abbreviates it: Ben Op) is a “strategic withdrawal” according to which many conservative Christians, aggressive culture warriors since the 70s, now retreat into tight-knit communities to bolster their faith during our time of nearly unprecedented cultural hostility. Dreher argues that this culture is presently so influential and pervasive in its anti-Christianity that to refuse to withdraw from it relegates our children and grandchildren to “assimilation.” Our cultural foes are so vast and influential, that we just can’t expect to hold out against them. We’ve lost the culture wars, and we’d better adopt and act on a strategy to spend our earthly sojourn as the cultural losers we’ve become.
It’s not a new proposal. After all, Dreher himself patterns the Ben Op after monasteries and nunneries (without advising Christians literally join them). He also suggests as a paradigm Orthodox Judaism and its members’ inclination not to live more than walking distance from their synagogue: talk about close-knit communities! We also think of the Amish communities, which have practiced cultural withdrawal for hundreds of years. Moreover, H. Richard Niebuhr in Christ and Culture (1951) offered five paradigms to explain how Christians have reacted to their surrounding culture, one of which is “Christ Against Culture,” which, while Dreher does not explicitly support, becomes the effect of his proposal: the only Christian culture is the culture of generally small, local, close-knit Christian islands holding out against the surrounding and encroaching sea of hostile secularism.
But even in recent memory, late, long-time Christian Right leader Paul Weyrich suggested a nascent form of the Ben Op. Writing in early 1999, Weyrich, a Roman Catholic and later Greek Catholic churchman, declared:
I believe that we probably have lost the culture war. That doesn’t mean the war is not going to continue, and that it isn’t going to be fought on other fronts. But in terms of society in general, we have lost. This is why, even when we win in politics, our victories fail to translate into the kind of policies we believe are important.
Therefore, what seems to me a legitimate strategy for us to follow is to look at ways to separate ourselves from the institutions that have been captured by the ideology of Political Correctness, or by other enemies of our traditional culture. I would point out to you that the word “holy” means “set apart”, and that it is not against our tradition to be, in fact, “set apart”. You can look in the Old Testament, you can look at Christian history. You will see that there were times when those who had our beliefs were definitely in the minority and it was a band of hardy monks who preserved the culture while the surrounding society disintegrated.
Dreher could have written almost each of those lines. But he has elaborated on this viewpoint and thoughtfully adapted it to our present situation.
At its roots, the Ben Op is laicized monasticism. The objective of ancient monasticism was to sequester the especially devout, committed believers from the distractions of the world so that they could devote undivided attention to God and spiritual exercises within a like-minded and -acting community. The Ben Op adapts this paradigm to the laity — almost all Christians, in fact: while they don’t actually live in monasteries or nunneries, they do live as much as possible in seclusion from the unbelieving world while still interacting with it. The secular world goes its own way, and Christians go the way of faithful obedience within a (comparatively) pure community.
There can be no doubt that the Ben Op is attractive to culture-war-weary Christians as well as to the community-entrenched faithful who long for a life lived with the likeminded and like-acting. But the Ben Op is wrong, and it will not work, and even if it could, it shouldn’t.
First, the exigencies of a particular historical crisis (and the anti-Christian secularism of Western culture is nothing short of that; Dreher is quite right on that score) sometimes spur Christians to adopt strategies that conflict with (what should be the) first principles of their faith. One such first principle is found in the Bible’s creation account (Genesis 1:26–28):
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”
So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.
And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”
Theologians call this the Cultural (or Creation) Mandate. Man’s primary earthly calling is to exercise dominion, or stewardship, over God’s non-human creation — all of it. God decided not to directly oversee and steward this entire creation. He gave that responsibility to man. In other words, man is God’s deputy in the world. This dominion act is what we call culture. Creation is what God makes; culture is what we humans make. Creative human interaction + God’s creation = culture.
The urge to dominion is woven into man’s very nature. God made man to be a dominion creature, culture-creator. Give him wooden sticks and animal skin, and he’ll make a drum and rhythm. Give him pigment and hair and a flat surface, and he’ll make brushes and a painting. Give him sharp metal and trees and he’ll make a cabin. Allow him to develop sophisticated tools and technology, and he’ll make an iPhone, a four-movement symphony, and a thermonuclear warhead. Man is a cultural creature. Man acts on God’s creation and produces culture, and he cannot act differently.
God’s design is that godly people produce godly culture. But the fall in the Garden of Eden introduced a perversion of the cultural mandate. Because of sin, sinful people also now produce culture. Unbelievers in the post-fall world fulfill the cultural mandate no less than believers do. This, in fact, constitutes the great conflict in our world: two kinds of people with two very different spiritual natures and fundamentally conflicting convictions both shaping the world, intentionally or not. Each of us, believer and unbeliever, approaches cultural tasks — education, politics, medicine, science, the arts, music, architecture, technology, moviemaking, and all other cultural activity — in two distinctively different ways (God’s “common grace” often does not permit these distinctions in practice to be as radical as they otherwise would be). This is the root of the Christian struggle against the new paganism, abortion, pornography, socialism, same-sex “marriage,” judicial tyranny, Islam, radical feminism, and much more. “Culture,” writes H. Henry Meeter,
is the execution of this divinely imposed mandate. In his cultural task man is to take the raw materials of this universe and subdue them, make them serve his purpose and bring them to nobler and higher levels, thus bringing out the possibilities which are hidden in nature. When thus developed man is to lay his entire cultural product, the whole of creation, at the feet of Him Who is King of man and of nature, in Whose image man and all things are created.
It is never a question of culture versus no culture, but of godly culture versus ungodly culture. The mandate of Christians is to labor to produce godly culture, though never perfectly this side of the eschaton.
Dreher asks Christians under the pressures of the cultural moment to abandon a first principle, the Cultural Mandate, and adopt a situational strategy, the Ben Op. It’s the perennial temptation to see one’s own historical period as unique — and uniquely depraved. The onset of modernity has only intensified that human propensity: “Every historical period is unique and demands its own unique standards and strategies.” But our own time is less unique than we often suppose — the early fourth century in which Christendom first arose with Constantine was immediately preceded by intense persecution of Christians. The deadening effects of the 18th century Enlightenment in Britain and its miracle-denying Deism in the churches were followed by a 19th century Christian revival in the Victorian Era, both in church and wider culture. Very Bad Times for Christians are not new, and our predecessors (unless literally enslaved like those in Mao’s China or Pol Pot’s Cambodia) did not adopt a wholesale “strategic withdrawal” from culture. Our historical situation is less unprecedented — and less important — than we suppose, and God did not rescind his mandate for our cultural engagement when the Supreme Court handed down Obergefell.
The Culture Wars Have Only Just Begun
Second, the announcement that Christians have lost the culture wars is premature. Actually, the culture wars have only just begun. Since the 1970’s, when Christian conservatives awoke from their self-induced, decades-old stupor to reengage the present world, they took their strategy from the playbook lying right before them: the Left’s. This meant: politics. For the last 40 years or so, Christian conservatives haven’t been fighting a culture war; they’ve been fighting a culturally driven political war. They’ve assumed that politics is the most natural path toward cultural renewal. After all, this is precisely what the Left in the United States has believed. (It is also, as Angelo Codevilla has recently shown, why the Left, in adopting the Stalinist policy of domination rather than the Gramscian policy of seduction, has provoked such a backlash, one of whose effects was the election of Donald Trump.) Only recently have Christians become aware that recapturing for a distinctly Christian approach such fields as entertainment and popular music and literature and business and economics and technology is the path toward cultural victory. Politics is a final, and relatively inconsequential, step in that victory, almost a byproduct. Revisionist Marxist Antonio Gramsci understood that seizing politics as a way to capture culture is the least productive way. The lasting way is gently persuading the populace to accept your viewpoint. In this, he was ripping off God: The success of the Good News, both eternal and temporal, springs from relentless but patient evangelism, including cultural evangelism, not political imposition (Matthew 28:18–20). The latter as a cultural strategy has failed; the former strategy of godly infiltration has yet to be tried in post-Enlightenment Western culture. When it is, it will succeed.
The Best Defense Is a Good Offense
Third, cultural withdrawal and retrenchment will not keep the church safe. Interestingly, Dreher writes:
The cultural left — which is to say, the American mainstream — has no intention of living in postwar peace. It is pressing forward with a harsh, relentless occupation, one that is aided by the cluelessness of Christians who don’t understand what’s happening.
But if the Left’s goal is a “harsh, relentless occupation,” what makes Christians think their tight-knit conclaves will be safe? Dreher understandably desires a culturally reclusive, theologically rigorous, pure-practicing Christianity. He seems to assume that cultural disengagement by Christians will satisfy secularists, who’ll just be relieved that those pesky Christians are finally out of their cultural hair. But much of today’s secularism consists of Gramsci’s ideology of cultural domination that won’t stop at the front church steps or the family threshold. Sequestered, tight-knit Christian communities like the church are fair game for the secular dominionists who won’t allow discrimination against potential church members living in a same-sex “marriage.” The pastor who preaches within the sequestered church against abortion or multiculturalism might reasonably expect prosecution for “hate speech.” In short, the fact that Christians decide to leave a secular culture alone is no guarantee that a secular culture will leave privatized, Ben Op Christianity alone. There are no “safe spaces” from secularists for Christians. Nor are there any “safe spaces” from Christians for secularists. Christians need to wake up to both sides of this equation.
The best way to keep satanic secularism off the sacred turf of the church and family is to contest the so-called secular turf of modern culture (I prefer the older monikers “sacred” and “profane,” not “sacred” and“secular”; if it’s not sacred, it’s profane, in the worst sense). Forcing secularists to defend universities and Hollywood and Wall Street and the pop music industry from holy subversion will leave them little time to contest religious liberty in churches and families. The kingdom of God ( = the reign of God) grows incrementally, almost imperceptibly in the world. Daniel (chapter 2) foresaw the tiny, supernaturally hurled stone vanquishing the pagan world empires. This stone, the Messiah and his reign, would grow to overwhelm the entire earth (vv. 44–45). The church storms the gates of Hades, the abode of the satanic hosts (Mt. 16:18). The metaphor is clear: gates are stationary. Jesus’ message isn’t that when Satan and his hosts assault the church’s gates, they will not prevail. Rather, when the Spirit-empowered church storms Satan’s gates, he and his minions cannot withstand the onslaught.
God’s kingdom grows; it doesn’t recede. It attacks; it doesn’t retreat. The best defense is always a good offense.
Cultural Faith or Unbelief?
But many Christians lack this world-transforming vision, and that fact leads to the final objection to the Ben Op, and it’s the most severe: it exhibits a persistent tendency to unbelief in the power of God. Rod Dreher, I must add right away, is doubtless a Christian man of faith, zeal and knowledge. But the Ben Op is not a proposal brimming with great faith, that is, brimming with what the Bible would identify as normative, faith-drenched Christianity.
The writer of Hebrews makes clear that faith in God’s promises elicits his power in the earth:
And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him…. And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets — who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received back their dead by resurrection…. (11:6, 32–35a)
What staggering divine resources are at the saints’ disposal, but how often our unbelief limits even the work of Jesus Christ (Matthew 13:58). The gospel accounts bristle with healings and exorcisms the other evidences of the incursion of God’s Kingdom in the person of our Lord (Matthew 12:22–30). This manifestation of God’s power in matters much more fundamental than healings and exorcisms was promised by our Lord to the disciples (John 14:12). Paul writes that as a result of his victorious resurrection and present enthronement in the heavens, Jesus is incrementally vanquishing all of his foes (1 Corinthians 15:20–28). In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul writes that Jesus the Christ presently rules over all powers seen and unseen — and that his people are his deputies in the earth (1:20–23).
When Christians believe the promises of God’s word, and act on their belief, our Lord himself promises that they can remove mountains. When their faith is sterile and anorexic, they are ineffectual, and Satan in time gains wide dominance in the world (Matthew 17:14–21). That’s a description of our culture.
Man’s perennial tendency is to live by sight, not by faith. It’s to live in Satan’s manufactured world, not God’s actual world. The Bible’s promises to praying saints are not limited to private, vertical spirituality, or even the family and church. And Christians’ calling is to disciple the world’s nations (not merely individuals in them, Matthew 28:18–20), sometimes called the Great Commission, it’s actually the Cultural Mandate adapted to the post-fall world. The church itself, as I noted above, is promised to vanquish the stronghold of Satan. A. W. Tozer captures this spirit:
The dynamic periods were those heroic times when God’s people stirred themselves to do the Lord’s bidding and went out fearlessly to carry His witness to the world. They exchanged the safety of inaction for the hazards of God-inspired progress. Invariably the power of God followed such action. The miracle of God went when and where His people went; it stayed when His people stopped.
The static periods were those times when the people of God tired of the struggle and sought a life of peace and security. Then they busied themselves trying to conserve the gains made in those more daring times when the power of God moved among them.
Bible history is replete with examples. Abraham “went out” on his great adventure of faith, and God went with him. Revelations, theophanies, the gift of Palestine, covenants and promises of rich blessings to come were the result. Then Israel went down into Egypt, and the wonders ceased for four hundred years. At the end of that time Moses heard the call of God and stepped forth to challenge the oppressor. A whirlwind of power accompanied that challenge, and Israel soon began to march. As long as she dared to march, God sent out His miracles to clear the way for her. Whenever she lay down like a fallow field, He turned off His blessing and waited for her to rise again and command His power.
“As long as she dared to march, God sent out His miracles.” But too often, Christians lack faith, preferring instead a pious naturalism, a world largely bereft of the presence and power of God. We do not hold God to his promises (including his cultural promises), but are content to live in spiritual and cultural squalor and defeat. Therefore, we do. The Ben Op, like many proposals (or approaches) before it, capitulates to the cultural evils that God designed his people to overcome by faith, obedience, sacrifice, and tribulation.
God’s calling for his people is nothing short of global Christianization, not by the power of the sword, but by the power of the sword of the Spirit. It is, by patient obedience, and over many generations, to bring the truth of the full-orbed Gospel of Jesus Christ to every human and every human institution, expecting, not unalloyed Christianization, but nonetheless significant Christianization — much more than we experience today: “[T]he earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Isaiah 11:9). This cultural victory is not some sort of Christian jihad or Christian tyranny, a contradiction of terms. It produces a society of maximum individual and communal liberty in the framework of widely agree-on moral law — in other words, what the West largely was for many centuries. And this is precisely why the Libertarian Marxists scream the bogeyman of “Christian theocracy”: a Christian culture would provide the individual freedom that would not permit them to engineer a wholesale and constrictive secular (= profane) regime.
Meanwhile, we Christians live and act in faith, finding in every encounter, every institution, an opportunity to influence this present alt-world for the true world that it’s obscuring, and thereby fulfill the Cultural Mandate and enhance the Kingdom of God in Jesus Christ.
That’s a mandate, not an option.
I’ve made two minor but necessary changes from the original post at the suggestion of Brian Mattson.