A review of a book review?
Let me explain.
The book reviewed is The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, written by Rod Dreher, a former evangelical who has joined the Greek Orthodox Church. The book is reviewed by Dr. Keith Sewell, professor emeritus of Dordt University. And we are going to review his book review.1 For a reason.
Dr. Sewell is of the Kuyperian persuasion, meaning, one who is yet committed to Abraham Kuyper’s perspective that by political action and infiltration of every aspect of culture we as Christians are called to and able to “redeem” this world’s culture and make it serviceable to Christ. Dr. A. Kuyper’s view was rooted, of course, in his theory of common grace. It was opposition to this theory that gave birth to this very magazine, the Standard Bearer. The SB came into being due to H. Hoeksema and H. Danhof’s commitment both to a consistent ‘antithesis’ over against a ‘synthesis’ world-and-life view, and to an amillennial versus a postmillennial view of history. Common grace is incompatible with both—the antithesis and amillennialism.
I say Sewell “is yet committed,” because in light of the secular, profane culture that has overrun Europe (Kuyper’s Netherlands in particular), and that of North America as well, it has become transparent that Kuyper’s vision and dream has not materialized as he and his disciples hoped. It has been defeated on every front. I cannot refrain from saying to those still committed to this ‘Reformed’ perspective and hope, “Houston, you have a problem.”
Not only have the evangelicals’ strategies over the past century not worked to redeem culture and turn the tide to influence it in any discernible way, but culture (the minds and spirit behind it) can now be described as having become purposefully anti-Christian, with a focus on extinguishing any Judaeo-Christian reference at all.
One can sense the head of the Dragon turning towards us with a grim leer to focus at last, other distractions being resolved, on what has always been the intent of his workings in history, namely, the Christian church and its destruction. “There, my human pawns, is the cause and source of all your troubles and social turmoil, the Christian church housing those who yet testify against your pleasures and vices, calling them sin, and so setting citizen against citizen. Silence them and human unity will be achieved, and with it, world peace.”
Babel’s utopia at last realized and the deadly wound healed.
Recognizing this ‘redemption of culture’ failure, Dreher wrote his book The Benedict Option, published in 2017. The reference is to Benedict of Nursia (AD 470- 547) who began the Benedictine Order of monastic life, Christians cloistering together in communities during the Dark Ages in an attempt to preserve their lives from the barbarians overrunning Europe and their faith from pagan Rome.
Dreher’s thesis is that, in light of what Christianity now faces on every front, a similar strategy is the only option left to Christianity if it is to survive in any distinctive, identifiable way. Christians must draw-up a strategy to disengage themselves from secular society and, as unnoticeable as possible, work in communities together in the hopes of riding out the storm that is breaking and about to get worse.
Sewell (of Dordt), in light of the political and cultural developments in our society, brings this book to his colleagues’ attention. He writes,
Dreher’s diagnosis is stark and sobering. In short, he is saying that Christians in North America—particularly conservative Catholics and Evangelicals—have lost the “culture wars” that they waged for decades. The election of Donald Trump was a false dawn, and voting Republican is not the answer. Even where Christians have made gains, their advances have only been temporary and are insufficient to counter the deeper tide now running against them. To win an election is not to change a culture. Henceforth, and into the foreseeable future, Christians will need to entrench and hunker down, be much more intentional and purposeful about their faith, and ready themselves for marginalization, discrimination, and persecution. If they do not do this, they will perish. At stake is nothing less than the survival of spiritually obedient orthodox Christianity in the West (p. 33).
Sewell’s question to his Kuyperian colleagues (with their optimism of bringing every square inch of life and its culture under the rule of Christ) is, “What do we make of this? And where do we go from here?”
Sewell has a great deal of sympathy for Dreher’s diagnosis of where twenty-first century society and its culture of a growing anti-Christian spirit now is.
Dreher rightly emphasizes both the lack of awareness of Christians as to the strength and depth of the rejection of Christianity that has taken place, and the vehement animus of those who wish to eliminate what remains of the influence of Christianity in public life (p. 33).
Dreher, in defense of his thesis early in his book, points to the decision the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Obergefell vs. Hodges (2015) which made it clear that, “Christians who hold to the biblical teaching about sex and marriage have the same status in culture, and increasingly in law, as racists” (p. 33).
As we know, there is no more inflammatory word these days than racist. To be charged with racism is the ultimate indictment, precluding the loss of all civil rights, even in a court of law. Those who maintain that sexual relationships are only to be between male and female, and that in the bond of marriage, and all others are to be condemned, fall into the category of being racists. Once legally established, against such a charge there will be no defense.
The culture war that began with the Sexual Revolution in the 1960s has now ended in the defeat of Christian conservatives. The cultural left—which is to say increasingly the American mainstream—has no intention of living in a 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 (p. 33).
Sewell acknowledges that Dreher is right:
Evangelicals and conservative Catholics continue to tell themselves that so-called “same-sex marriages” (SSM) and the burgeoning LGBT agenda “have been imposed by a liberal elite,” because they find it hard to face the actual truth, which is that most of the “American people, either actively or passively, approve.” The reality is that evangelicals no longer lead a silent or any other sort of majority (p. 34).
There is no silent majority any longer to be led. If it did nothing else, our recent election laid that wishful thinking to rest.
Summarizing Dreher, Sewell writes,
Furthermore, many evangelicals, in their opposition to socialism, have tended to assume that big business is their friend. They are wrong. Pro-LGBT thinking has penetrated the boardrooms and personnel departments of many large and not so large corporations. Dreher warns, “Everyone working for a major corporation will be frog-marched through ‘diversity and inclusion’ training and will face pressure not simply to tolerate LGBT co-workers but to affirm their sexuality and gender identity.” To submit to such training, he warns, is the twenty-first century equivalent to “burning incense to Caesar” (p. 35).
Dreher is right. More than one in our churches can tell you of having been required by their employer to sign a document in which they promised not only not to discriminate against (meaning, rebuke) LGBT co-workers, but also to be accepting of them. Refusing to sign, they were fired. With our new administration, that insistence is going to intensify. And if a business (yours) refuses to adopt such a document, it will be forced to shut its doors.
In the face of all this, writes Sewell,
Dreher’s expectation is that unless there are serious changes, the greater part of professing Christianity in North America and Europe is headed for extinction. As matters stand, western churches are not up to the challenges they are facing. Western Christians have been much more deeply influenced by the processes of secularization than they realise. Even in the U.S.A., many churches have lost their 18-29 demographic (p. 36).
“Demographic” refers to the age of a church’s members. Studies show that it is exactly the child-bearing and child-rearing group that is the least likely to be found attending church anymore. That means the future of congregations is in jeopardy—aging demographics. Diminishing membership roles in mainline Presbyterian and Reformed churches, and even in Baptist, bear this out.
“Heading for extinction…, Western Christians have been much more deeply influenced by…secularization than they realize.”
In what way?
Here once again, Dreher is remarkably insightful in his diagnosis.
On the one hand, he points to the loss of biblically defined worship (liturgy):
Too many churches have succumbed to modernity, rejecting the wisdom of past ages, treating worship as a consumer activity, and allowing parishioners to function as unaccountable, atomised members. The sad truth is, when the world sees us, it often fails to see anything different from nonbelievers. Christians often talk about “reaching the culture” without realizing that, having no distinct Christian culture of their own, they have been co-opted by the secular culture they wished to evangelize (p. 37).
“Churches…are allowing parishioners to function as unaccountable.” In other words, there is no Christian discipline. And that means not only that immorality is allowed to work as a leaven in a church, but also that outsiders see little to distinguish “Christian life” from their worldly lives. Why bother with church membership?
But especially Dreher hammers on the fact that in the name of ‘redeeming’ culture, these same churches have been “co-opted [absorbed] by the secular culture” they were supposedly going to “redeem” and change.
As Sewell points out,
[Too many churchmen] have permitted contemporary pop-culture to permeate their “praise and worship.” Obsessed with metrics and branding, such churches readily descend to the banal. Many evangelicals have yet to learn that instrumental music is never religiously neutral, and that they undermine the faith if they import into the church the musical styles of the disco and rock concert, even if they then add “sacred” words to the “production.” Dreher has the measure for such folly: “Every time the church embraces a new fad, especially trends that turn worship into electronic spectacle, it yields more of its soul…. Before long… the church becomes fully possessed by the spirit of this world. Authentic orthodox Christianity can in no way be reconciled with the Zeitgeist [spirit of our age] (pp. 36, 37).
In addition to the loss of biblical, reverent worship, Dreher points to the loss of biblical preaching. He rightly observes that in far too many instances “presentations of the gospel have elided [sic] into what…[may be] termed ‘Moralistic Therapeutic Deism’” (p. 37). The heart of such preaching is presenting God simply as a benevolent Father figure watching over His creation, wishing everyone well; declaring that the central goal in life is to feel good about oneself; and that God does not seek to be involved in one’s life except when He is needed to resolve a problem. We should all be nice to each other and get along. Then everybody who has lived a reasonably good life will end up in heaven (p. 37).
“Therapeutic Deism,” indeed.
What is especially insightful is that Dreher lays his finger on a besetting evil that has permeated the church for decades and is destroying her from within, namely, the proliferation of divorce and remarriage, and with it, a dismissal of what was once the normative Christian understanding of marriage, namely, a lifelong union between a man and women (p. 38).
In light of this, what needs to take place, according to Dreher, is “…a real work of cultural reclamation and renewal, not outside the church but inside the church… before we can think about much longer-term goals” (p. 38).
Dreher is right on target. Christendom’s tolerance of divorce and remarriage for every reason is a scandal of the most grievous sort, eating away at the church as a united community (its very families) from within while destroying her witness to those outside. Having sown the wind, she reaps the whirlwind. When it comes to marriage, she resembles more a harlot than the pure and faithful bride of Christ.
Such is a representative summary of Dreher’s diagnosis.
To a Christendom that is so fond of speaking of ‘redeeming culture,’ he essentially declares “Physician, before seeking to heal others, heal thyself!” The inability of contemporary Christendom to endure the challenges of this present age in any distinctive way does not have to do simply with that “hideous strength” of evil that she faces; it has to do even more with the lamentable weaknesses and corruptions tolerated within.
What does Dreher prescribe as the answer if Christianity is to survive and remain any kind of witness?
Well, not relying on politics and politicians:
For decades conservative Christians have behaved as if the primary threats to the integrity of families and communities could be effectively addressed through politics. That illusion is now destroyed. If there is going to be authentic renewal, it will have to happen in families and local church communities (p. 39).
With what Dreher states above we can agree.
Governments and politicians are not going to save the church and prevent the world from overrunning the Christian church, not when the greatest threat to the integrity and strength of the church to withstand the “gates of hell” is harbored and nurtured within herself.
Dreher emphasizes that Christians urgently need to recover a fuller understanding of the Christian past (p. 41).
In that connection he calls for a recovery of such things as an ordered liturgical worship, a recovery of faithfulness in biblically defined marriage, a return to the family as the bastion of instruction in sexual ethics and conduct, an end of using state-run secular schools and a return to educating our children in schools not Christian in name only, but in good, Christian schools staffed by believers, or, if not available, schooled at home. This he cites as core to Christian survival in coming generations (p. 41).
Things with which we agree and have practiced as Protestant Reformed people. Things emphasized by Hoeksema, Ophoff, and the writers of this magazine since its inception. An emphasis that has served our churches well, arming our generations to discern error and to remain distinctively Reformed and Christian in doctrine and in life.
Dreher’s analysis is insightful and on target from many points of view. With his prescription to withstand the mounting evil we can agree in general. But as in most matters, the “devil is in the details.” In the details we must part ways.
An ordered liturgical worship is not sufficient. Rome has such. It must be biblically defined worship. Biblical preaching to be sure, but what is biblical? An Arminian gospel will not do. Christian education to be sure. But is it distinctively Reformed?
That said, Sewell, in light of the tide of cultural evil gathering in power, is compelled to bring Dreher’s book to his Kuyperian colleagues’ attention and call for a reassessment of goals, methods, and aspirations. As he states, “[W]e now seem to be entering an era when we will be tried, tested, and sifted.”
Yes, indeed. With the founders of this magazine (SB), who foresaw this mounting evil coming, we add our voice and declare, “To withstand such a gathering sea-surge of evil, common grace is not the answer. It does not, it has not strengthened the Great Dikes of truth and grace to preserve the citizens huddled behind them. It has compromised them, allowing the world and its foul pollutions to flow in unimpeded.”
What is required is the apostolic gospel of particular, saving grace still declared for all to hear, faith in a sovereign God to keep and preserve His own, and educating our youth to live in purity and to prepare themselves to take hold of Christ’s name and endure to the end. Jehovah God will never fail His own, the faithful remnant, not even in times like these. He cannot. He is Jehovah, our salvation (Rom. 8:35-39).
1 “The Benedict Option, Our Cultural Task, and the Call to Consistent Discipleship,” Pro Rege, vol. XLIX, no. 1 (Sept. 2020). All quotations of both Sewell and Dreher will be from this review article, with page numbers in parentheses.