As yesterday’s post explained, Rod Dreher’s new book, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, has prompted a lively debate about his central claim that traditional Christians should withdraw from Western cultures to escape liberalizing attitudes, especially on LGBT rights.
In yesterday’s post, we presented theologian Katie Grimes’ initial response to Dreher. Grounding her response in the present realities of LGBT people, Grimes also committed herself to be in solidarity with LGBT-negative Christians “should they become an endangered minority.”
Today, we feature writer Kaya Oakes’ response to Dreher in Religion Dispatches. She envisions a future in which divisions have not intensified, but are diminished by a growing movement towards authentic community.
Identifying herself as a feminist Catholic who appreciates both Benedictine life and who supports marriage equality, Oakes said she is not likely Dreher’s audience, as he “is not particularly interested in liberal Christian voices; he rarely mentions them without some sort of disdain.” Nonetheless, she asked:
“[I] s there finally room for a dialogue between people on different ends of the Christian spectrum?… Could the Benedict Option be an opportunity for us [Christians] to do this [reflecting on Christian tradition] together?
Oakes answered her own question with a “likely not” because Dreher depicts a religious landscape in the United States where traditional Christians, defined largely by their opposition to LGBT rights, are at war with mainstream society. She noted his comment in Christianity Today that society “has no intention of living in postwar peace.” And she points out that in The American Conservative Dreher predicts that the election of President Donald Trump may postpone the coming persecution, which he said looks like “the police looking for dissident orthodox Christians hiding out from state persecution.”
This alleged persecution is closely tied to the legalization of marriage equality and expansion of LGBT non-discrimination protections, which are increasingly acceptable to Americans. Dreher’s main concern, said Oakes, is to strengthen Christian opponents’ resistance, not to reach out and find a way forward that is different than the persecution he envisions. Importantly, Oakes acknowledged that in progressive Christian circles there have been self-analyses and inward movements as well since the U.S. election last fall. About the dangers of both vacuums, she wrote:
“Choirs that only listen to themselves eventually dissolve into dissonance, not harmony. That goes both ways for Christians right now. Neither side knows what’s next. Nobody knows what’s next. We can only grope our way from one moment to another, but neither an idealized past Christian nor a narrative that envisions a persecuted Christian future are going to create real and lasting communities.”
Oakes pointed out alternatives to the Benedict Option which are premised on inclusion rather than exclusion. K.A. Ellis of International Christian Response, an organization which aids persecuted Christians around the globe, argued directly against the idea that Christianity is under attack, saying, “many historically marginalized communities wounded by false Christianity would even say that Christianity is discovering its place for the first time.” This also includes a model of hospitality faithful to the Benedictine tradition, but in a way which builds up unity. Oakes wrote:
“As a female religious leader, [Sr. Joan] Chittister’s interpretation of the Rule of St. Benedict offers some interesting contrast to Dreher’s. On the Benedictine charism of hospitality, Chittister writes that ‘Hospitality is the way we come out of ourselves. It is the first step toward dismantling the barriers of the world. Hospitality is the way we turn around a prejudiced world, one heart at a time.’
“In fact, the Rule of Benedict itself says in Chapter 53, ‘On the Reception of Guests,’ that monastic communities should ‘let all guests who arrive be received like Christ.’ Dreher’s idealistic notion of Christian community life is indeed appealing, but it neglects to understand that the guests arriving right now most in need of welcome are mostly not Christians. Nor does Dreher seem to write about progressive Christian communities that are, in fact, living out their own version of the Benedict Option, although their ideas about community are perhaps more open to female leadership of [sic] LGBTQ members.” [Ed. note: Perhaps “of” was meant to be “and”?]
Oakes’ contribution to The Benedict Option conversation is her clear articulation that the path forward is not by way of sharpened divisions premised on the false idea that there are orthodox Christians and everyone else. The future belongs to communities that can hold differences in balance. Or, in her words, “Only those who are really willing and able to welcome the stranger are going to be able to do that. If Dreher is among them, that remains to be seen.”
At the very least, Dreher’s contention about LGBT rights in The Benedict Option seems overblown, even by those who are tepid about equality. Reviewing the book for Commonweal, Paul Baumann admitted he does not clearly support marriage equality or trans equality, but that even he wishes Dreher “would turn down the sky-is-falling rhetoric. If the sky is indeed falling, it won’t help to keep shouting about it.”
And Baumann recognizes that Dreher’s concerns about sexual morality seem out of proportion in comparison to other forces in the world:
“No one should doubt the sincerity of Dreher or those Christians who think the new sexual dispensation is a terrible mistake and a dire threat to human dignity. But Dreher surely knows there are worse threats to human dignity and Christian integrity. . . It seems to me that these are all plausible, even compelling, reasons to separate oneself from American society, and try to carve out a place to live faithful Gospel lives. Does same-sex marriage pose a comparable risk? The LGBTQ phenomenon presents difficult moral and even thorny theological questions, but it hardly constitutes an existential threat to humanity, the nation, or the church. It is not the atom bomb. It’s not the Dark Ages.”
With Dreher’s book only being released this week, the debate over how LGBT rights, U.S. society, and Christians relate to one another will only grow. But for now, what do you think of “The Benedict Option”? Leave your thoughts in the “Comments” section below.
—Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, March 22, 2017
New Ways Ministry’s Eighth National Symposium, Justice and Mercy Shall Kiss: LGBT Catholics in the Age of Pope Francis, is scheduled for April 28-30, 2017, Chicago, Illinois. Plenary speakers: Lisa Fullam, Leslie Griffin, Rev. Bryan Massingale, Frank Mugisha. Prayer leaders: Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, Bishop John Stowe, OFM, Conv. Pre-Symposium Retreat Leader: Sr. Simone Campbell, SSS. For more information and to register, visit www.Symposium2017.org.