Religious Intellectuals Debate: Should Christians Check Out Of Mainstream Society?

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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First Things magazine hosted a seminar of religious intellectuals the other day, and the American Conservative’s Rod Dreher was on hand to document the conclave. A lot of ground was covered in this generally somber discussion, but this excerpt struck me as especially noteworthy:

“An Orthodox Jewish participant in the conversation made some of the most memorable and illuminating comments of the entire day-long session. He said that Orthodox Jews have come back from the near-extinction of the Holocaust only because of education — by which he meant not just schooling in general, but schooling embedded within a thick understanding of what it means to think and to live as a Jew. He advised Christians to take the same approach, and not to make the mistake of thinking that education in the Christian religion is something that can only be tacked on to a secular education. Plus, he pointed out that Orthodox Jews do have a stronger sense of living apart as a community from the mainstream. There can be no uncritical immersion in secularist culture for anyone of traditional religious belief who wants to hold on to it and pass it on to the next generation. “He added that Orthodox Jews have ‘a culture of life,’ by which he meant that they think hard about what it means to live Jewishly now, but also in the generations to come. I took him to be saying that small-o orthodox Christians need to be doing a lot more thinking and acting with a long-term, multigenerational perspective. (All of that, by the way, sounded very Benedict Option to me.)”

If you’re unfamiliar with the term, “Benedict Option,” Dreher has also written about that here:

“Rome’s collapse meant staggering loss. People forgot how to read, how to farm, how to govern themselves, how to build houses, how to trade, and even what it had once meant to be a human being. Behind monastery walls, though, in their chapels, scriptoriums, and refectories, Benedict’s monks built lives of peace, order, and learning and spread their network throughout Western Europe.”

Meetings like these almost always come off sounding weird and alarmist to outsiders, either because the kinds of people who dwell on these things become paranoid, or because they are more keenly aware of emerging trends. Regardless, I’ll leave you with a few thoughts that this conversation sparked in me…

1. The fact that some religious intellectuals are advocating a sort of self-imposed segregation (or, at least, the creation of a parallel infrastructure) in modern America, is either evidence of their defeatism — or of just how hostile toward Christianity mainstream culture has gotten.

2. Speaking of defeatism, the notion that self-preservation of Christian culture might require turning inward seems to defy the much of what we think of Christianity — whether we think of evangelicalism and The Great Commission — or martyrdom and suffering.

3. On the other hand, isn’t our entire society fragmented now? We used to have a mainstream culture; people watched the same TV shows, for instance. And trends like homeschooling have already caught on. Could it be that this idea is less radical than it might have been, even a few years ago? And as Dreher notes, Benedict’s monks “spread their network throughout Western Europe,” meaning that this wouldn’t be so much a surrender as a strategic retreat — a culture in exile, or in waiting.

4. But putting aside Dreher’s “Benedict Option” — and focusing just on the comments of the  Orthodox Jewish participant — doesn’t it also make sense for Christians (even assuming they don’t completely “check out” of mainstream culture) to accept the sole responsibility of passing on their faith traditions to the next generation? Anything positive that society adds to that (for example, the yearly airing of the A Charlie Brown Christmas special, is icing on the cake. But there is something empowering about realizing that you’re part of a counterculture — that it’s up to you to keep your faith and traditions alive for the next generation. As I’ve noted in the past, there may be a silver lining to losing the culture war.