Renewal and Reformation

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In the next chapter, Rod Dreher outlines a modern description of and rationale for the Benedictine order. And in the particulars, he says a number of wise and good things. Dreher sees one of the most essential things. “We need to embed ourselves in stable communities of faith” (Loc. 760). And living by rule is not necessarily “a checklist for legalism” (Loc. 774). The point is to make “a place within your heart and within your daily life for the grace of God to take root” (Loc. 786). Discipline is not necessarily the same thing as that old devil that Paul called “works.” However, comma.

Looking back over the course of centuries, asking what one thinks of “monks” is a bit like asking what you think of “soldiers.” What soldiers? What year? What unit? And asking what you think of Benedictine monks is like asking what you think of American soldiers. What war? What cause? What battle? There have been times when the monastic impulse really did save civilization—“that kept the light of faith alive” (Loc. 741). But there have been other times when the monasteries followed the sad arc described by Hoffer—first a movement, then a business, and then a racket. So there have been situations when Ambrose Bierce’s jibe was not entirely out of order: “A monk of St. Benedict, croaking a text . . . Black friars in this world, fried black in the next.”

Protestants tend to think of monasteries in terms of those times when reformation was the most obvious screaming need. And Catholics (and EO) tend to spot them a bit more charitably, looking both to the stated intentions of the founder of the order, not to mention the glory days back when people were sincerely attempting it. But alas, there is absolutely nothing that can be done that will prevent a new wineskin from becoming an old one. The Lord has promised that the Church is going to make it, the Church is going to be preserved without spot or wrinkle, or any such blemish, and so we have a divine promise there. But we don’t have any such promise for particular churches, and especially not for parachurch groups, or monastic renewal groups, or any other “intentional community” (as distinct from the church). In short, all attempts at “Navy Seals for Jesus” units are likely to do a large amount of good in the short run, and handle their old wineskin status poorly in the long run.

At the same time, Protestants do need to remember that ascetic discipline is not necessarily evil. He would be a brave man and a poor theologian who challenged the Lord’s assessment of John the Baptist (Luke 7:28). And even with a widespread movement of sexual asceticism, there is something to be said for Chesterton’s argument (I think in The Everlasting Man) that the ancient Greco/Roman culture had been so licentious that putting a good portion of that culture into sexual rehab was perhaps a necessary evil. So maybe everybody in Manhattan needs to take orders.

In short, depending on where you zoom in, you can find God working through monastic renewal, and you can also find the devil working through monastic renewal. But zooming out, I confess myself dubious about the strategic value of the Benedictine rule for Christians generally. There are two basic reasons—I don’t think we can do this without gospel, and I don’t think we can do it without women and children.

Having acknowledged a place for ascetic discipline, I think we need to recognize that ascetic rigorism does have a strong propensity to try to displace gospel, a propensity that Dreher does not seem to recognize.

“This is why asceticism—taking on physical rigors for the sake of a spiritual goal—is such an important part of the ordinary Christian life” (Loc. 946).

“Asceticism is an antidote to the poison of self-centeredness common in our culture, which teaches us that satisfying our own desires is the key to the good life” (Loc. 953).

“Ascetical suffering is a method for avoiding becoming like those monks called ‘detestable’ by Saint Benedict in the Rule ‘the worst kind of monk,’ namely those whose ‘law is the desire for self-gratification’” (Loc. 964).

The problem is that asceticism is an antidote to only one kind of self-centeredness, but it can be a particularly virulent form of another kind of it. The worst kind of monk is not the lecherous one. The worst kind of monk is the diabolical one, the one who hates marital sex and roast beef (1 Tim. 4:1-4). Notice what Paul says that rigorism cannot do.

“If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations— “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh” (Col. 2:20–23, ESV).

Self-righteousness is not a biological appetite, but it is a fleshly one.

At the same time, I agree with Dreher on the task before us. “As lay Christians living in the world, our calling is to seek holiness in more ordinary social conditions” (Loc. 1078). But I think that such “intentional communities” need to be a place where the pure gospel is prized, where the women are loved, and where the resultant children are brought up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. So instead of Dreher’s proposal, I would suggest that the model for the modern Christian church is not the cloister of the monastery, but rather the Puritan township. The Puritans (at their best—remember our wineskins) were gospel-based, and they included the women. And they lived according to rule. In my view, that helps the odds of long term reformation, over against short term renewal.

This needs to be developed more, and no doubt will be.

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ME
ME
5 years ago

“There are two basic reasons—I don’t think we can do this without gospel, and I don’t think we can do it without women and children.”

I’m quite pleased to hear this. It would be a tragedy indeed, if all the men ran off to join a monastery and left the women and children behind to clean up the world’s mess.

Kilgore T. Durden
Kilgore T. Durden
5 years ago

I would suggest that the model for the modern Christian church is not the cloister of the monastery, but rather the Puritan township.

Amen.

Call it The Puritan Option.

"A" dad
"A" dad
5 years ago

And hey there are still at least 3 of us still here in New England!????

Kilgore T. Durden
Kilgore T. Durden
5 years ago
Reply to  "A" dad

My five kiddos have stuck around in the faith and so far none of them as adult children have apostatized. So, maybe we are up 8.

Actually, because I am so outspoken and unashamed of my Reformed faith, I have found that there are actually a lot of us. It’s just that so many of our brothers have been shamed into silence. Some for occupational reasons, other have simply been done it for social reasons.

"A" dad
"A" dad
5 years ago

Well Gideon kept a low profile, until he was called to action!????
I bet 8 is enough!????

Mark Hanson
Mark Hanson
5 years ago
Reply to  "A" dad

Eight is enough. There was a whole TV series around this concept.

John Warren
John Warren
5 years ago

Well spoken.

One of my problems of holding up the Benedictines as models for civilization-saving communities is that they were *copying*–and usurping the credit of–the Culdees, who were the real preservers of Western Civilization. Read George G. Hunter’s _The Celtic Way of Evangelism_, and Thomas Cahill’s _How the Irish Saved Civilization_.

Kilgore T. Durden
Kilgore T. Durden
5 years ago
Reply to  John Warren

Having read the Cahill book, I offer a hearty second on that recommendation.

bethyada
5 years ago
Reply to  John Warren

Which do we read first (most helpful, broad, and most interesting).

Mark Hanson
Mark Hanson
5 years ago
Reply to  bethyada

Cahill’s book is quite fascinating. Haven’t read the other one.

bethyada
5 years ago

Reading though your summary the same verse of Paul came to mind.

A time of fasting may be in order, but starving a glutton doesn’t really solve the problem. Paul tells men and women to get married and raise families. Sexual licentiousness is better redirected at a healthy marriage bed.

ME
ME
5 years ago
Reply to  bethyada

As a practical matter, there was much to be admired about the Shakers,their beautiful furniture for example. However, their vow of celibacy has eventually lead us to the present, where only two of them are still alive.

Indigo
Indigo
5 years ago

Here is the beginning of an interesting discussion between Dreher and John Mark Reynolds of the St Constantine project: https://www.circeinstitute.org/blog/benedict-option-or-constantine-project

denise njim
denise njim
5 years ago

Also called…Pillarisation (Verzuiling by the Dutch) and Kuyper was an advocate of these denominationally segregated townships. Examples have not been all that peaceful, think Ireland and their segregated RCC/Protestant communities or Jerusalem’s Israel/ Islam zones?

Luke
Luke
5 years ago
Reply to  denise njim

Massive national zones of segregation are not the same as intentional faith-based townships. Unless I have missed the news about Hutterite bombings in Montana or Amish men beheading their neighbors in Ohio, there is no evidence that people can’t establish intentional, holistic religious towns without excessive violence. I am not holding the above groups up as a model, I am simply pointing out that if the Hutterites can do it without the gospel, surely Christians can establish a healthy, thriving town centered in the gospel.

Shea Schrepf
Shea Schrepf
5 years ago

I think it is fair to say that this will be further developed later. I am hoping Rod intends on taking bits and pieces of this and putting it into terms as to how this looks for the person at the desk job. There were however some real jewels in this chapter. “When the light in most people’s faces comes from the glow of the laptop, the smartphone, or the television screens we are living in a Dark Age, he said” pg 71 “To encounter God, you too need to suffer, and be willing to experience suffering” (pg 63) truer… Read more »

Rob Steele
Rob Steele
5 years ago

> there is absolutely nothing that can be done that will prevent a new wineskin from becoming an old one

What happened to old wineskins? I’m guessing they got reused for water or oil until they got too old and then got cut up and used in clothes and tools. Maybe that’s the right way to manage institutions. Plan for them to be temporary. Maybe embed a time limit in the charter like the Olin Foundation.

PerfectHold
PerfectHold
5 years ago

“developed more” to be sure — try this on: Doug, the problem we’ve lived with now for over two hundred years = the local assemblies as weak, splintered morphed monastic-like orders vs that super order of township you point to. How many “pastors” (self-proclaimed or denominationally identified & restricted) refuse to recognize their authority to minister to all God’s folk around them, in their own towns? How many PCA ministers or Baptist preachers will tell you “These Christian believer folk right here are NOT MY RESPONSIBILITY if they’re not ‘members'” (small m) of their little order? These denominations have institutionalized… Read more »

jillybean
jillybean
5 years ago
Reply to  PerfectHold

I think I understand your point, but I wonder how a pastor can minister to those who do not recognize–and would probably reject–his authority. And is there any kind of etiquette among pastors that they don’t attempt to go after one another’s wandering sheep?

PerfectHold
PerfectHold
5 years ago
Reply to  jillybean

By “go after” — do you mean try to acquire some of their money?

Jesus said “Feed MY sheep” — not “Gather some of my sheep around you so you can have a steady source of wool and mutton.”

PerfectHold
PerfectHold
5 years ago
Reply to  PerfectHold

As a priest, I’d walk out the front door of my house, take a b-line to my immediate neighbor, ring the doorbell.
Ask them if they’re believers.
Is so, ask where they worship regularly.
If nowhere, tell them that as one of their pastors I adjure them to get off their bahooties and get with the program.

Next house …

jillybean
jillybean
5 years ago
Reply to  PerfectHold

No, of course not. But should a priest who becomes aware that another pastor’s parishioner is in the hospital tell the pastor, or should he say, while visiting the parishioner, “Why don’t you become a Catholic? We would love you more and take much better care of you.” (Not that this is a likely scenario when each urban priest may have a flock of 15,000 officially registered sheep.)

PerfectHold
PerfectHold
5 years ago
Reply to  jillybean

That’s exactly what you should expect from club members or their officers.
Promote the brand.
Promote the club.
The phrase “another pastor’s parishioner” does not see that parishioner as primarily Jesus’ parishioner.

Each urban priest as well as each country pastor has a flock theoretically equal to the sum total of all believers on planet earth.
Practically speaking, his flock = any or all those he can influence (feed).

john k
john k
5 years ago
Reply to  PerfectHold

Of course every minister and elder should help all who cross their path. But what does the Bible say? “It says in 1 Peter 5:2-3: ‘Shepherd the flock of God that is among you‘–a pastor is not responsible for a flock across the world or down the street–‘exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you, not for shameful gain, but eagerly, not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.’ Pastors will only be examples as they live and minister among a particular people.” – John Piper (Baptist) “Those in your charge”… Read more »

PerfectHold
PerfectHold
5 years ago
Reply to  john k

Happy to argue my case with you, and starting with the verses and Baxter passage you site.

But would you clarify that you think pastors / elders should not be and won’t be held responsible for the shepherding they do or fail to do vis-a-vis the believers with whom they come into contact, other than a subset consisting of those attending the assembly over which that man presides?

john k
john k
5 years ago
Reply to  PerfectHold

Why should I clarify that I think that, if I don’t think that? (See the first sentence in my post.)

Would you please clarify your view of how one comes to be a pastor/elder. Are such self-appointed? Further, what do you mean by “shepherding”? Does it include holding believers accountable for what they believe and do?

PerfectHold
PerfectHold
5 years ago
Reply to  john k

I suggest you should not.

katecho
katecho
5 years ago
Reply to  john k

The difficulty spreads in both directions. First, PerfectHold seems to hold pastors and elders to a high standard of accountability and responsibility for every Christian they come in contact with, regardless of any ability to actually enforce discipline. It’s the equivalent of expecting parents to be the responsible caregiver for every child they may encounter. We aren’t talking about helping a random child or sheep out of a ditch, as any good Samaritan might do. Rather we are talking about full-blown responsibility and regular visitation, with none of the empowerment to enforce anything. Second, PerfectHold apparently combines this view with… Read more »

Eric Purdy
5 years ago

everyone can help by researching Christian Classical education…second to only Christian, Bible-based homeschool! We must begin with the youngster, just as the Dewey’s of the world did.

JohnM
JohnM
5 years ago

I don’t know. Could be the Puritans shot their bolt. Before we sign on to Puritan township 2.0 we ought to at least ask what happened to the original version.

"A" dad
"A" dad
5 years ago
Reply to  JohnM

Dunking stools went out of fashion too fast! ; – )

Kilgore T. Durden
Kilgore T. Durden
5 years ago
Reply to  JohnM

This answer would need to distinguish between English and American Puritans.

JohnM
JohnM
5 years ago

I had the American Puritans in mind. I don’t know much about the English ones, as distinct from the ones who migrated to New England, but I suppose they are part of the bigger picture.

Timothy Thompson
Timothy Thompson
5 years ago

Pastor Wilson,

Have you elaborated elsewhere on your thoughts about new wineskins becoming old? It seems like you are implying more meaning than I am catching in this piece.

Thanks,
Timothy.

John
John
5 years ago

He seems to be saying that any human created institution is bound to lose it’s value over time.

Arthur Sido
5 years ago

In case you missed it, Mr. Dreher commended a Muslim reader of the Benedict Option as his “brother” and chastised Christians for failing to “get it” like his Muslim brother does. http://tinyurl.com/n7puqbl

Dunsworth
Dunsworth
5 years ago
Reply to  Arthur Sido

Chastising Christians for failing to get what a Muslim does is fine — it’s much like what Jesus did on several occasions.

Privileging agreeing with him on the Benedict Option over worship of the true God and His Son is going off the deep end, however.

John Callaghan
John Callaghan
5 years ago
Reply to  Dunsworth

You will be happy to learn that Dreher does not go off the deep end.

In his short comments, he writes:

How is it that I suspect I have more in common with him on the subject of holiness and faithful living than with a lot of Americans who call themselves Christian but who seem to be well assimilated to the secular, consumerist order?

(emphasis added)

andrewlohr
andrewlohr
5 years ago

Didn’t old Irish monasteries include wives and children???