With secular culture increasingly marginalizing the Christian faith, believers should leave behind political battles and embrace the communal life exemplified by St. Benedict of Nursia, author Rod Dreher said in the Gheens Lectures, Feb. 7-8 at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Although Christianity continues to spread in Asia and the global south, it is rapidly losing its influence in the public square in the West, said Dreher, senior editor of the American Conservative and author of "The Benedict Option," a book to be released March 14 that formed the basis of his lectures.
"Could it be that the best way to fight the flood is to stop fighting the flood?" Dreher asked. "That is, to quit piling up sandbags in a doomed effort to hold back the rising waters, and instead to build an ark in which to shelter until the water recedes and we can put our feet on dry land again. Rather than wasting energy and resources fighting unwinnable political battles, we should instead work on building communities, institutions and networks of resistance that can outwit, outlast and eventually overcome the cultural forces sweeping Christianity away in the West.
"If we are going to be for the world as Christ meant for us to be, we are going to have to spend more time away from the world, in deep prayer and substantial spiritual training—just as Jesus retreated to the desert to pray before ministering to the people."
Dreher suggested 21st century Christians follow the example of St. Benedict of Nursia, who retreated from the corruption of Rome to build monastic communities committed to order, holiness and simplicity. Having grown up in the shadow of Rome's former glory, Benedict lived as a hermit for three years before committing himself to developing monasteries in sixth-century Italy. He also wrote a short book to guide monks and nuns, "The Rule of Saint Benedict," calling for lives characterized by prayer, work, community and hospitality.
Dreher said he does not mean a type of Christianity that would "head for the hills and build a bunker," since even the monks were engaged in the secular communities around them.
"Why does Benedict's example give us hope today? Because it reveals what a small cohort of believers who respond creatively to the challenges of their own time and place can accomplish by channeling the grace that flows through them from their radical openness to God, and embodying that grace in a distinct—and distinctly countercultural—way of life," Dreher said.
Christians should not continue as if they live in "normal times," Dreher said, nor can they look to political figures for hope. Instead, believers should form and feed communities of faith, helping them grow into resilient bastions of an ancient kind of Christianity.
"One way or the other, all of us Christians today have to go back to our common roots and recover the sacramental ontology [or nature] of the early church," he said.
This strategy does not restrict evangelism, he said, as the church is still responsible for making disciples, baptizing and teaching. Dreher, an Eastern Orthodox Christian, said the evangelical tradition offers a unique sense of mission that can flourish in the Benedict Option. But he said the popular style of evangelism must change if Christians are going to be effective at fulfilling the Great Commission.
"We happen to live in a time and a place in which argumentation—that is, rational disputation—is not the most effective way to preach the Gospel," Dreher said. "This is not to say that we shouldn't be prepared to give reasoned arguments for why we believe what we believe. It is to say, however, that people whose way of thinking is determined by emotivism ... are not likely to be persuaded by propositions and syllogisms.
"We need to expand our idea of what evangelism is. We need to learn not only to tell people what life in Christ is about but also to show them. To do that, we need to do a much better job of embodying our faith. Praying the sinner's prayer is only a beginning of the Christian life, not its end. If the only thing we have to share with the world is a pot of message, we will fail."
One of the enemies of Christianity is the notion that there is no objective divine order or logos to creation—a distinctly modern idea that buttresses Western culture, Dreher said. Drawing on sociologist Christian Smith's concept of Moral Therapeutic Deism, Dreher argued that even religious people in the West fashion a god who "looks a lot like themselves." Believers can counter this view by living ordered, disciplined and godward lives in community, he said.
"Everything about the traditional Benedictine way of life testifies to the truth of the older conception: that there is a Logos, Jesus Christ, and that everything we do in our daily lives must be ordered to Him," Dreher said. "The monks are a living sign of contradiction to the modern age. We have to be that too."
Audio and video of the Gheens Lectures at Southern Seminary will be available online at equip.sbts.edu.