Christians in America are at a crossroads.
Beset by cultural defeats, marginalized by once-deferential public policies and daily struggling to combat the powerful forces of a rapid and sweeping secular culture, many members of devout Christian communities are bracing for what they anticipate will be the wholesale collapse of any Christian influence in the broader culture.
As it stands today, conservative Christians are a rather beleaguered bunch compared to the days when traditional Christian virtues were largely reinforced by the culture.
A widely discussed Pew survey shows that the attrition rate among Christian faiths, particularly mainline and orthodox churches, has become more dramatic over the last decade. Even those who self-identify as Christians are frequently adopting views and lifestyles that conflict with those of their ascribed faith.
Indeed, religious orthodoxy has become counter-cultural. We have entered what writers Ben Domenech and Rob Tracinski are calling the “Culture War 4.0.” And for many observers, it’s not a matter of if Christian culture as we know it is dissolved, but when.
How best to face the demise of the fundamental norms that many Christians have come to rely upon has been the source of intense debate among communities of faith.
For some, the best approach to the changing times is simply to change with them. That’s what many liberal churches have done, distancing themselves from the tenets and doctrines that once governed their principles.
Others have argued for a more aggressive approach. Stay and fight the forces — materialism, consumerism, relativism — that have eclipsed traditional values. Faith, they argue, demands as much of its followers.
But a third approach has emerged, one that according to its author will require orthodox Christians “to learn how to live as exiles in our own country.”
Writer Rod Dreher calls this the “Benedict Option.” The name is derived from the life of a fifth-century monk
“In the face of moral and social disintegration,” as the Rev. Dwight Longnecker describes, it “established core communities of intentional disciples” who isolated themselves from the broader world and eventually reemerged to reestablish the faith that became “the strength and glory of Christian Europe.”
Dreher’s proposal is complex, but he essentially calls for Christians in pursuit of the moral life to engage in a meaningful withdrawal from secular culture.
While some have termed this the new monasticism, Dreher isn’t necessarily advocating for physical boundaries. But in order to remain a beacon in the rapidly descending cultural darkness, Christians must retreat and rebuild with the ultimate goal of “developing communities that can be islands of stability, sanity and goodness in a fast-moving and chaotic culture that works against all of those things.”
To his critics, Dreher’s approach is the pinnacle of pessimism, an acceptance of defeat and little better than surrender. Jesus, some argue, lived among his transgressors.
But as the Pew study on religion reveals, Christianity is suffering from a generational thinning. The faith is diluted as it is passed on to younger people who are deeply attached to the all-too-attractive spoils of modernity.
In a sense, Christians are as guilty as the secularists for not resisting the pull of the temporal world. The Benedict Option is less about setting a moral example for secular culture than it is about reconstituting Christian values and reestablishing religious discipline within communities of believers.
Such a focus will better equip Christians to suffer future persecution that many believe inevitable.
We do not live in fifth-century Europe, and hiding behind monastery walls to ride out the culture wars is not possible in modern times.
But American Christianity is facing down its possible demise. The Benedict Option might help the faithful save themselves while they still can.
Cynthia M. Allen is a Star-Telegram editorial writer/columnist. 817-390-7166.