The next chapter in The Benedict Option is well written, and makes many pertinent observations. A lot of true and necessary things are said, largely concerning the need for older doctrine and need for a liturgical worship that shapes cultures. But there is still a problem, and it is largely architectonic. The chapter has a structural problem.
One of the rhetorical virtues of this chapter is the ecumenical tone—while Dreher is Eastern Orthodox, he goes out of his way to be inclusively respectful of other believers in other communions. He promotes and argues for what he believes, albeit respectfully—but he is so respectful that the structural problem with his entire project is laid bare. This structural problem is, again, what is called the retreat to commitment.
In this chapter, Dreher commends, recommends, quotes and praises Pentecostals, Evangelicals, Calvinist Presbyterians, Anabaptists, Mainline Protestants, Eastern Orthodox, and Catholics, urging them all to recover their doctrinal roots, and urging them all into a more formal liturgical worship. He wants us to “immerse ourselves in the words and the world of the old saints” (Loc. 1566). Which old saints should we resort to? Well—and this is the problem—whatever works for you.
“in which they use prayers written by Calvin himself” (Loc. 1554).
“Denny Burk, a seminary professor and Southern Baptist pastor in Kentucky, says the lack of church discipline in churches across his denomination have left congregations completely unprepared for the aftermath of the Sexual Revolution” (Loc. 1740).
Simon Chan, a Pentecostal, argues that their churches “must return to the richness of liturgical worship” (Loc. 1649).
Here is a summary of how Dreher is handling this:
“It is beyond the scope of this book to tell other Christians how they should celebrate their liturgies while still being faithful to their theological tradition” (Loc. 1682).
What Dreher is doing here is setting aside the claim of the communion he belongs to (the claim to be the one true church) and acquiescing to one of the central demands of modern individualism, ecclesiastical version. The communion that has authority over me is the one that I chose, and not the one God chose. We should be doing whatever it is that our faith community summons us to, and Dreher encourages us to function on the historical and liturgical end of that community, wherever that happens to be.
This is not toppling the modern idol of personal choice, but rather surrendering to it completely. This is precisely why the church in North America is simultaneously massive and impotent.
The questions cannot be dodged—unless we are merely using the great doctors of our theological tradition as providers of thick books to decorate our studies as the pagan darkness falls, or if we are simply celebrating our liturgies without paying the slightest regard to the claims made in, through and by those liturgies.
I will give you an example:
“At its most basic, Sunday liturgy begins with the formal gathering of the worshiping community, the reading of Scripture, the celebration of Communion, and the dispersal of the community to live for Christ” (Loc. 1603).
Worship done this way “awakens the sense that worshipers are communing with the eternal, transcendent realm through the ritual and its elements” (Loc. 1611).
Now I actually do appreciate the tone that Dreher takes toward those Protestants who have worship services that seem like religious services. But this charity that Dreher is extending to us is emphatically not the teaching of his tradition, and it is not what the liturgy he celebrates is supposed to embody. Every week, I invite the saints at Christ Church: “come, and welcome, to Jesus Christ.” But according to the “old saints” of Eastern Orthodoxy, I am doing nothing of the kind. And according to the old saints of my tradition, more than a little idolatry is involved in the tradition that Dreher pursues.
The irenic way he structured this chapter actually means that in our flight from the coming pagan night, we have all booked it down to the ecclesiastical mall in search of a boutique option that works for us. We are shopping for designer liturgies. We are looking for something that we can use, in much the same way we might find a weight loss program, or speed reading course. Dreher doesn’t mind if we don’t shop at the place where he shops. He just wants us to purchase something more historic and formal than we are used to.
But liturgy is not a tool that we wield in order to get something from God. When that error is made, the worship will become increasingly effeminate, and the personal lives of those involved in it will become increasingly carnal. Worship must be in accordance with the Scriptures because in our worship God is using that worship as His tool for shaping and forming us. We are being conformed to the image of Jesus Christ. We are not permitted to make alterations in what the Bible says for the sake of fitting into our own damn traditions. Ecclesia reformata et semper reformanda. The church reformed and always reforming. This is true for every communion, and it goes double for the churches that claim to be reformed.
However, Dreher is right about the central thing. “In other words: If you do not change your ways, you are going to die, and so will what’s left of the Christian faith in our civilization” (Loc. 1502). But changing our ways means that the millions of Christians in North America need to learn how to say something completely new to the millions of non-Christians in North America.
What we need to learn how to say is this:
Jesus Christ is already the monarch of this nation. After His bloody crucifixion, He was established as the king of all nations by His resurrection and ascension. He was crowned as king by His Father. He is not running for president, and He does not need your vote or mine. He was established in His position of ultimate authority, not by your choice or mine, but rather by the election of His Father. Jesus is Lord.
Dreher accurately points out one weakness of institutional evangelicalism. It is based “on revivalism, making it inherently unstable” (Loc. 1651). This is quite true about revivalism. But suppose there were a massive revival that led to the confession above. Suppose a true revival, sent by the Holy Spirit of God. Ah, that’s another matter.