Quick Hitter: When Christianity Becomes About One Thing

Over the course of the last week, the Take-O-Sphere has been awash with reactions to Rod Dreher's long promised book on the Benedict Option, titled, well, The Benedict Option.  Elizabeth Bruenig had a good review, that I talked about briefly here.  Rachel Held Evans had some reasonable reactions on Twitter, provoking Dreher's now reflexive response of accusing her of preparing to become informant for some hypothetical anti-Christian Gestapo, a charge we recall he leveled on David Gushee some time ago.  Damon Linker and the New York Times's David Brooks also wrote thoughtful responses, and it is those two pieces that I want to talk about for a bit.

I have stated my objections to the entire enterprise of the Benedict Option in the past, and I stand by those objections.  But what I think gets the least amount of attention in thinking about Dreher's project is how monomanically focused his vision of Christianity is.  Linker's piece hits on the key factor in Dreher's analysis.  Dreher argues that Christianity is under siege because large portions of the culture have abandoned its central tenants as the operating principles that govern their lives.  Linker, correctly, pushes back on the idea that we can be confident that 11th Century French peasants (or, more to the point, French nobility) uniformly had a total commitment of heart and mind to the message of Jesus Christ.  If they did, as I have pointed out before, they certainly didn't show it.  No, what is different now, Linker argues, is that the prevailing culture has a sexual ethic that is different from that which has predominant in previous eras.  So, rather than saying in a generalized way that the culture is rejecting traditional Christian values, it is more accurate to say that the culture is rejecting traditional sexual values.

If that's true, and I believe it is, what Dreher and his fellow travelers are saying is that Christianity, at the end of the day, is really only about one thing--policing sexual behavior.  The rhetoric of crisis and apostasy can really only be sustained if you look at the success of the Christian project exclusively through the lens of the number of people who think that gay sex or birth control or abortion is immoral.  Because the moment the measure of Christian success becomes caring for the least of these or turning the other cheek, all of the sudden the record of our day looks very competitive when stacked up against "Christendom" to which Dreher longs to return.

That's why I would slightly tweak Brooks's otherwise helpful formulation of "purist" versus "ironist" religion.  Brooks is right that the "ironist" posture (one I would proudly wear) sees life as messy and the pieces of that messy life as not fitting together perfectly or with ease.  But the ironist posture is also about recognizing that there are multiple pieces in the first place.  Whereas, it is not so much that the purist insists on harmony of all pieces as he or she becomes singularly focused on one piece to the exclusion of all other concerns.  The Benedict Option position is purist because the complex and beautiful mosiac that is Christianity has been brutally reduced to a singular set of concerns--sexuality uber alles.

I know I have said this before--several times, in several places--but I just can't see how this singular focus on sex reflects anything approaching a faithful reading of the New Testament.  Even if you think you are obliged to hold to the traditional positions on the disputed questions regarding sexuality, I don't see how you can honestly deny that sexuality is, at best, a tertiary concern of Jesus in the Gospels, and even in Paul.  The Benedict Option is to the Christian message what Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead  is to the message of Hamlet--interesting, perhaps, but ultimately a tangential sideline to what is really at stake in the big story.  But if all you read was Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, you would think that these two figures have an importance that is far, far beyond the importance they actually have.

The difference, though is that the authors of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead are in on the joke, and they are deliberately playing with the audience's knowledge that these two people are not really that important.  Dreher and his fellow travelers, however, write as if they are convinced that their equivalents to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are the fulcrum on which the whole story revolves, and thus the trend of sidelining their roles in stages versions of Hamlet are a threat to the integrity of the theater.

I'll end on a quote from The Benedict Option:

[The Sexual Revolution] struck near the core of biblical teaching on sex and the human person and has demolished the fundamental Christian conception of society, of families, and of the nature of human beings. There can be no peace between Christianity and the Sexual Revolution, because they are radically opposed. As the Sexual Revolution advances, Christianity must retreat—and it has, faster than most people would have thought possible.

I can't say it any other way that this--that's just not true.  Dreher and the Benedict Option folks are missing the point of the Christian story, full stop.  They are worried about something that, even if you agree with Dreher's position on the issue, is just not that important.  They have made Christianity become about one thing, and only one thing.  And it's not the right thing, not even close.    

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