Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Between Surrender, Retreat, and Damage Control in the Culture Wars

In my dark moments, I easily fall back in to the place I was in October of 2015. I re-read it over the weekend after I used it in a reply over at twitter. I think it ages just fine.

You “stick to the maritime and national security issues” folks may want to stop now, as I’m going to indulge myself on some introspection along the lines of religion and culture – something I used to do more often here in the past. The long-term members of the Front Porch are used to this – but if you new kiddies don’t mind a little oversharing and more-than-usual scattermindedness, stick around. You might find something of interest.

Decoupling from a tottering structure is not an unusual place to be in the scheme of things. Sure, I plan on raging against the fading light, but what when the light is gone? Fun stuff, I know.

I’m not alone in this corner of thinking. Now and then I find someone I respect rhyming on that vibe in their own way, and I feel a little better about the funk that seems to come in and out of my consciousness like a tide.

The last day or so I’ve been pondering a writer I’ve been following for the better part of two decades. I used to read him a lot more than I used to, but when I see his by-line floating by, I always try to reach out and grab it before something else grabs my attention; I’m talking about someone I consider one of the better of GenX’s public intellectuals; Rod Dreher.

His interview over at NR about his new book, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, brought me back to the religious issue I’ve had since I left Hawaii a decade and a half ago; I’m an unchurched evangelical.

I’ll get back to the interview pull quotes later in the post, but let me flesh out that, “unchurched evangelical” phrase a bit. A few years before I got kicked off FB, I got a lot of strange notes from people – as is the case often with religion – so I’ll try to tell this story a bit better and ask that if anyone gets their feelings hurt, it is not my intention. If anyone wants to argue esoteric points of one confession or another, please don’t do it with me. Thank you, but I’ve fine with my journey at this point, as imperfect and flawed as it is.

Anyway, before “getting dunked” in my mid-30s and finding a great, small Southern Baptist congregation on Oahu, twice I had been part of and then left my ancestral confession, the Presbyterian Church, due to their obsessive focus on overt secular far-left politics. We left as a family in the late 70s when there was a huge dust-up over sermons supporting … Sunday after Sunday … Communist revolution in Central America. We literally got up and left and never came back. 

I tried again in college in the 1980s and left for roughly the same reason; I did not come to Bible study or your services to have you talk about what you read in the latest edition of The Nation – I wanted to hear about Jesus, not Chomsky. That was also the time I started to understand Calvinist teachings about predestination and wanted to dig in to that, but the conversation always drifted back to the evils of American imperialism, so that simply was not going to work. Off I went to do my best to keep pace with John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester for a few years instead.

So, for a decade and a half I wandered, thirsty.

At the turn of the century, I found exactly what I was looking for; a small, Bible based, welcoming, diverse, tolerant congregation - got dunked, and then for a bit over a year, was a Sunday and Wednesday night Southern Baptist. Then I transferred to Norfolk.

Megachurch country. I don’t like big crowds and intellectual confinement. I really don’t like judgmental diktat that is not Bible based. I also don’t like person “A” saying their sin is of less concern than person “B’s” sin – and to be mean and nasty about it. I also don’t like the atmosphere of the Prosperity Gospel where the pastor lives in a manner well above their average parishioner. A lot of that in Norfolk, at least where I tried. Could not find a home.

I then moved to Europe. Besides the high holidays when a RAF Chaplain held English language Anglican services, we were unchurched in a 90% Catholic area.

Move back to the USA and home … and still; no place to call home, and life. Could not find a home … mostly because I got tired of looking. My fault this time, really.

So, we keep it in the home … mostly. Well, mostly me; imperfectly. The kids got a mix of Christian and secular private education, but not since they were small were they really part of a Church community. They share their father’s philosophy about crowds and scolds I have found, so trying for force a fit would not have worked out well. A Christian family, yes. Church going? Not so much this decade.

That outlines where your quasi-humble blogger is coming from, now back to Rod. Rod is Orthodox – a convert - and that really isn’t an option here as I’m not Russian or Greek or Syrian – and the Orthodox Churches in my area code are exceptionally ethnic in this regard. That and I’m not a fan of all the “extras.”

Ditto the Catholic Church. I can’t be a member of that confession for a lot of reasons, but I do like to be a buttress – supporting it from the outside. Always impressed with Catholic priests and the exceptional intellectual work they do, but I just can’t take the whole package.

That is why Rod’s observations appeal to me. We are roughly the same age, both Southerners, share a similar world view in a few areas (see his 2002 essay, “Crunchy Cons” that turned in to the 2006 book) and have not dissimilar life experiences outside our professional lives.

Here are some pull quotes from the interview;
A number of people are under the false impression that The Benedict Option is a call to head for the hills. It’s not. The book is about the crisis of Western civilization and Western Christianity, and about how believers living in this post-Christian culture can respond faithfully to it. We are not called to be monks. Our vocation is to live in the world. But how can we do that while facing challenges that Christians have not had to face for 1,500 years? Pope Benedict XVI said that we are living through a period of disruption comparable to the fall of the Roman Empire. I think he’s right. That’s why I say we lay Christians of the 21st century need to look at how St. Benedict of Nursia in the sixth century responded to the collapse of his own civilization. There are lessons for us there.
...we have a lot to be alarmed about. In addition to the considerable geopolitical turmoil in the world today, the state of the churches in the West is weak. The faith is flat on its back in Europe. We have long considered the United States to be a counterexample to European secularization, but research over the past ten years is conclusive: America is now headed down the same declining spiritual path. The Millennial generation rejects religious belief in percentages never before seen. Older Christians like to comfort themselves by saying that the young people will come back when they get older. It’s not really true. Plus, the content of the Christian faith that people actually profess has decayed dramatically from its historic orthodoxy. Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith and his team have documented exhaustively that among younger Americans, the faith is only nominally Christian in terms of its content. They have cast aside coherent, biblically consistent Christianity for a shallow, feel-good counterfeit that Smith calls “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.” This is not the kind of Christianity that will endure — but this is the Christianity that most Americans hold. In my travels to Christian colleges, both Evangelical and Catholic, I hear the same thing from professors: Our students are coming to us from churches, families, and Christian schools knowing next to nothing about their faith. Contemporary American Christianity is a house built on sand.
This is a book about Christian hope, which is not the same thing as optimism. I don’t believe that we have a lot of cause to be optimistic these days, but we have every reason to hope. Look at the Benedictines of Norcia, who are not defeated by the disaster they have suffered, but are drawing deeply on their faith and traditions to overcome it. I hope that my book encourages all believers to do the same.
When I started writing the book, I asked my friend Michael Hanby, a philosopher at Catholic University of America, for his advice. He said, “Ask yourself: ‘What would Karol Wojtyla do?’” I didn’t understand what he was getting at. He said that when the Nazis invaded Poland, they sought to crush the Polish nation by erasing its memory of what it meant to be Polish, and what it meant to be Catholic. The future Pope St. John Paul II and his circle realized that the most important form of resistance they could offer was to keep that cultural memory alive. They wrote and performed plays about the faith, and about patriotism. They did this under fear of death. If the Gestapo had found them, they would have imprisoned them all, and maybe killed them. But culture was that important to the survival of the nation, and those Poles risked everything to keep the story alive.
It is very practical, very much geared to everyday life. He is a saint for our time and place, just as he was for the sixth century. I hope that my book helps all Christians — Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox alike — find their way through the darkness, to Christ.
From a religious point of view, his journey to Constantinople found better rooting than my trip for a dunking at a beach in Hawaii. Good for him. As for his view of our future, I think he might be on to something. More pondering required.

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