Someone once observed that there is no sentence in the English language that can induce such immediate and brazen lying as the one that begins, “Have you ever read . . .?” Those of us who traffic in academic circles don’t like to get caught out not having read a classic work or a current hot title and so we respond to that simple question with variations of “I think it’s on my shelf . . . I think I might have . . . I can’t recall.” Well, right now I think I should have read the current hot topic book by Rod Dreher titled The Benedict Option. Everybody is talking about it all of a sudden. David Brooks posted a critical Op-Ed in the New York Times. This prompted an avalanche of words of response by Dreher himself. And my friend Jamie Smith has also put out a thoughtful review/critique of the work. I have seen all of these posts in just the last 5 days.
But OK, honesty compels me: I have not read this book. And so I cannot comment one way or another on Dreher’s thesis and am not attempting to do so here in this blog. The issues that seem to be near the heart of this book, however, are things I have thought about and wrestled with for years, extending back to when I was a preacher in two congregations from 1990-2005. A core concern of many people in the church in recent years has been how we are to live as Christians in case it turns out we can not longer sustain the myth that this is basically a Christian nation in which Christians will generally get to live pretty comfortable lives in the midst of the wider culture. If you believe you are living in some version of Christendom, then you expect that although there are non-believers all over the place and although you can find any number of objectionable practices in the land, generally speaking you yourself will be part of a larger faith-based hegemony and so you will be very unlikely ever to be challenged to have to participate in something you find morally suspect if not flat out wrong. For the same reason many Christians do not bat an eye at having the cross and the American flag side by side on the platform at church, so we have long expected to be untroubled by the laws, practices, and mores of the wider culture. Or perhaps we would be troubled by some things in our minds but not be forced actively to tolerate or in any way be a party to what we find objectionable. And if we did think we were starting to get pushed around, no worries: Christians are in charge and we will come out on top.
But as society changes all around us–and at a pretty rapid clip of late–that mindset gets harder to sustain. As believers, we do get confronted more now with viewpoints and moral practices that may not accord with some key tenets of our faith. But if we do not want to withdraw totally from the culture in ways that will ensure we will never rub shoulders with those with whom we disagree, then we have to find some way to witness in ways that reflect the gentle grace of our Savior and that avoid the split-screen hostility we can see displayed on cable news shows every day. How can we be transparent to Jesus and yet have enough moral fiber in our beings to prevent Christ’s grace from morphing into a wishy-washy “anything goes” posture? How can we disagree–even fiercely–in Christ-like ways in a culture that increasingly knows only one way to disagree and that is with full-throated anger?
Alas, we all know of Christian groups that have adopted the in-your-face hostility of the wider culture. They surely have truth on their side and there is no doubting what they believe to be the truth but as for grace . . . well, not so much. Neal Plantinga once observed in a sermon that probably a key reason the evangelist John made such a big point in John 1 of saying that Jesus was incarnated among us “full of grace and truth” is because Jesus seems to be the only One who got that balance right. Mostly the rest of us fall off the cliff to one side or the other, being so full of graceless truth that most people wish we’d just shut up already or so full of truthless grace that it seems there is nothing we’d ever actually criticize as objectively wrong or false.
It’s the sweet spot in the middle that it took the Son of God to show us fully and well and when we saw that, we saw also (John reminds us) the essence of his glory.
I have genuine empathy and compassion for people in the church who feel bewildered at the pace of change in some areas of society. Witnessing, living consistently with our faith, celebrating the shape of life we believe God established as the road that leads to delight and flourishing: it’s not easy now. Maybe it was never supposed to be easy. Jesus promised us hard lives that would lead to criticism, reviling, persecution, and even death for the Gospel’s sake. Of course, we all hope it doesn’t come to that but one thing is clear: among the options we face as believers at this cultural moment, none is as daunting as that part of the imitation of Christ that calls for as close to a pitch perfect balance as we can achieve between grace and truth.