Rod Dreher takes his ball and goes home

Rebecca:

I’d like to talk a bit about Rod Dreher.

Do you know of him? He’s now a writer at The American Conservative, but I’ve been following his career for years — back when he was a Catholic pursuing the Catholic abuse story at a time when doing so was still a difficult thing to do (his angst was so great that he converted to the Eastern Orthodox church) and back when he was one of the first conservatives to break with the movement over the Iraq War. I’m not sure why, but I’ve always had an affinity for conservatives willing to stand apart from movement orthodoxy, and he fits the bill.

But it’s complicated.

I love Rod Dreher. I hate Rod Dreher. He’s essential reading. I sometimes have to turn off his RSS feed for weeks or months. He’s incredibly thoughtful. He’s a kneejerk reactionary. He’s terrified of the influence that gays will have on American society. He’s really good friends with Andrew Sullivan — who kind of helped kickstart the gay marriage movement decades ago. He’s profoundly human, but I wish he could be a bit more humane and less purely contemptuous of people who think differently than he does. I think there’s stuff we have to learn from him, and for God’s sake sometimes I wish he’d just shut the hell up.

There aren’t many writers who produce this kind of reaction with me, but there you go.

I mention him because he’s got a new book out, “The Benedict Option,” that’s probably worth our notice. I haven’t read it yet, but I’ve read his blog over the years as he developed the ideas in the book, so I think I can fairly sum up the core idea.

  • American Christians no longer dominate American society like they used to — see the rise, and widespread acceptance of, gay marriage.
  • As a result, the religious liberty of American Christians is threatened — one small example being the whole wedding cakes issue — which, in turn, threatens their ability to freely live out their religious beliefs, which in turn threatens the survival of authentic faith in America.
  • So it’s time to start limiting participation in the broader culture, to cloister up into small Christian communities that limit interaction with and influence from the outside world, in order to be able to continue to live authentically Christian lives.  

Damon Linker distills Dreher down to this:

This means, specifically, that Christians need to turn inward, steeling themselves against the pernicious moral influences swirling around them by adopting a “rule for living” that turns their faith into the orienting focal point of their lives. Roughly half of Dreher’s book offers practical suggestions for how to live out this vision of deep piety amidst the ruins of Christian civilization: Attempt to live in proximity to like-minded Christians; pull children out of aggressively secular public schools; recover liturgical worship; tighten church discipline; devote family time to studying scripture; place strict limits on digital technology in the home; and so on. Only when a comprehensive form of Christian living has been recovered and instantiated in concrete communities will believers be equipped to begin the daunting task of attempting to win back the wider culture from the forces of secular nihilism.

And here’s Dreher giving his elevator pitch during an interview:

It is withdrawal for the sake of renewal. My book is heavily influenced by a 2004 essay in First Things written by the early-church historian Robert Louis Wilken. He said we in the West were losing our cultural memory of Christianity. Because of this, he said, there is nothing more important for Christians today than the church telling itself its own story, and nurturing its inner life. His point is not that we shouldn’t evangelize, but that we are forgetting what Christianity means. We cannot give the world what we do not have. Therefore, we have to withdraw in meaningful ways for the sake of contemplation and formation — this, so we can truly bring the light of Christ to the world.

And here’s one more good summary of the arguments involved. Also, Dreher’s Christianity Today cover story

Given that this is Dreher, I’m of two minds how to react.

I kicked off our conversation by asking, essentially, if Christianity was essentially a tribal exercise or a spiritual undertaking. Dreher’s answer to this seems to be: “Yes.” By which I mean: It seems that Christianity is for societal ordering, until it’s no longer in that position, after which it’s time to turn inward and focus on our souls.

Dreher, to be fair, would probably contest that characterization, and counter with the the idea that America being ordered along Christian lines has given individuals the room they need to focus on their souls — and that the shifts in society require an intentionality on the soul-cultivation front that maybe wasn’t quite as pressing.

Either way, here’s what’s frustrating: Society is no longer ordered to Dreher’s liking. So he’s taking his ball and going home. My instinct isn’t to like this.

On the other hand, there’s scriptural and traditional basis for Christians walking away from situations they consider unwelcoming. Here’s Matthew 10:

11Whatever town or village you enter, find out who is worthy and stay at his house until you move on. 12As you enter the house, greet its occupants. 13If the home is worthy, let your peace rest on it; if it is not, let your peace return to you. 14And if anyone will not welcome you or heed your words, shake the dust off your feet when you leave that home or town. 15Truly I tell you, it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.

And what’s more: You and I are heir to and participants in the Mennonite tradition — a tradition that includes a lot of fleeing and cloistering. The Mennonites I grew up with in Central Kansas told their story as such: They started out in Germany, fled from there to Russia when they could no longer freely practice their pacifism, then from Russia to America when they could no longer freely practice their pacifism there. The older Mennonites where I grew up spoke a  “low German” dialect that signified some of this history. (They were still using it in worship services well into the 1950s.) Maybe I’m not in a good position to critique Dreher’s own sensibilities here.

So maybe my problem here with Dreher is that he sees gay liberation as a zero-sum game: If they get full rights, then conservative Christians will end up oppressed. I don’t like that idea very much at all.

Still waiting for my copy of the book, which may provoke more discussion yet.

— Joel

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