In a post-Christian nation, Rod Dreher believes The Benedictine Option is the best way forward. I like much of what he says but The Babylonian Option might be better.

Dreher is known for 2011 book, “Crunchy Cons,” about how conservatives like him—“Birkenstocked Burkeans”—and “hip homeschooling mamas” might change America. He feels differently today. Dreher’s moved on to Benedict of Nursia.

Benedict was the 6th century monk who was convinced that it was impossible to live virtuously in a fallen Roman Empire. He founded a monastery where the flame of Christianity might be tended during the Dark Ages. Dreher believes we’re living in a new Dark Ages. This March, Dreher published “The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation.” David Brooks called “the most discussed and most important religious book of the decade.”

The book is worth reading. Dreher believes the Enlightenment has created a society that Zygmunt Bauman called “liquid modernity.” Life is fluid and changing so rapidly “that no social institutions have time to solidify.” This includes the church, which Dreher sees as capitulating to liquid culture—shallow, consumerist, and individualist.

Dreher believes liquid modernity is a more or less unstoppable force—in part because capitalism and technology are unstoppable. He advocates for some radical solutions. Christians ought to remove themselves from the currents of modernity. They should admit that the culture wars have been lost. They should live locally. Rather than drive long distances every Sunday to church, they should move to within walking distance of their church. Christians should turn inward, toward Benedictine monasticism.

Like any perceptive Christian, Dreher recognizes there is nothing new under the sun. To make sense of the present, we look to the past. Some Christians see the church in Acts as our best precedent. Other cite Augustine or Aquinas. Dreher sees us living in a new Dark Ages, similar to when Benedict formed his monasteries in the 500s.

I think there is a better precedent. The situation in the first century—as well as in Augustine, Benedict, and Aquinas’ day—was not the fault of the faith community. The Babylonian exile was. It was the result of idolatry. Dreher says today’s church idolizes the Enlightenment. I think he’s right. Rather than our precedent being the Dark Ages, I think it’s the Babylonian exile. We ought to pursue The Babylonian Option.

The Babylonian Option is not moving out of town into Christian cul-de-sacs. It is moving into town, into the heart of the city, and seeking the common good (Jer. 29:7). This is what the sons of Judah did in the Babylonian exile. They didn’t retreat to religious huddles. They learned the language and literature of Babylon (Daniel 1) so they could translate the gospel into the vernacular of the Babylonians and solve Babylonian problems. This is far more messy than the monastic approach.

I think Michael Wear would like The Babylonian Option. Wear directed faith outreach for President Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign and was one of the youngest White House staffers in modern American history. He urges Christians to take seriously Jeremiah’s exhortation to the exiles in Babylon in Jeremiah 29. We shouldn’t “lie low,” leave our cities, flee to the suburbs, or “take a posture of opposition toward the Babylonians.”[1] We should seek their flourishing by getting involved with them.

My sense is Dreher is a good man but is trying to solve an American Western problem using an American Western mindset. Mattia Ferraresi, the New York correspondent for Il Foglio, thinks Dreher’s idea of a “community” separated from a city is very American. It’s foreign to Italians. “For us, it’s about blending and layering in a small space—the Romans, the Church…”

Living in a small space—the city and church—is The Babylonian Option. It’s seeking the flourishing of all regardless of others’ faith. John Inazu, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis, calls this confident pluralism, that the gospel can make a difference, even in a post-Christian nation. We can learn a common language so that we seek the common good. That’s why I appreciate Dreher’s calling out our idolatry but feel The Babylonian Option is the better way forward.

 

[1] Michael Wear, Reclaiming Hope: Lesson learned in the Obama White House About The Future of Faith in America, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2017), p. 208.

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15 Responses to “The Babylonian Option”

  1. denny byrne says:

    i think this applies to your sermon yesterday
    it was good
    db

  2. Jeffrey Brown says:

    How do I get a copy of your sermon as mentioned by Denny Byrne above?

  3. Jay Lampart says:

    Mike, I would really encourage you to take a look at this article.

    http://www.npr.org/2017/04/10/522714982/catholics-build-intentional-community-of-like-minded-believers

    This same model is growing organically right outside of Towson where I live – one of the Baltimore suburbs some of these folks fled from.

  4. Mike Metzger says:

    Uh…. Denny must have been thinking of someone else. I didn’t preach yesterday.

  5. Mike Metzger says:

    Yes, Jay… I am familiar with this community. Good article. And it seems that many are more following the Babylon Option than the Benedictine. The writer notes that “many of the Hyattsville Catholics are deeply engaged in the broader society.” I applaud that.

  6. Steve Wishart says:

    As a 57-year-old pastor who uprooted from the suburbs last year and moved into the heart of the city for this very reason, I could not agree more wholeheartedly with Mike’s words.

    Though I will warn you, truly digging in to the messiness of the city is not for the faint of heart – and necessarily demands slow, sustained, and hard effort in that direction…not a small part of which is the counter-formation of a congregation’s fundamental desires and measures of success.

    It’s messy work, but I do believe it’s good work – the Lord’s work – and candidly I’m still just at the beginning working it out. Did I mention work?

    Mike can help.

  7. Jessica Ptomey says:

    Jay and Mike:

    The article about the Hyattsville community is a great example for this discussion, and I would add that the Bowie, MD Catholic community in which we live is the same.

    These are communities preserving authentic and faithful Catholic life, but these families are very much “engaged” with the secular communities and culture. They recognize that their parish and family communities are going to have to preserve certain values and practices that government and secular culture will not.

    It’s bascially about preserving or “re-birthing” things that are no longer part of American culture as a whole. I think Anthony Esolen’s new book, “Out of the Ashes,” is an important read on this topic as well.

    Perhaps a distinction between Mike’s “Babyalonian Option” and Dreher’s “Benedict Option” would be a question of what is possible to do through the current institutions in American culture. Esolen says that we need to basically rebuild many of these institutions anew. I think it is probably both/and, but we do have to be honest about how modernity has ravaged our American culture. Some institutions will have to be rebuilt from the ground up; a “remodel” by working within the current institutional paradigm is just not possible.

  8. marble says:

    Where modernity is the idol, can it also be the place of exile? It’s one thing to seek the common good of the place where we have been placed in exile by God (following idolatry and judgment). . . . it is another, however, to seek the ‘common good’ of the ongoing idolatry.

    I would be concerned that the latter contributes to the idolatry.

    The question seems to turn on whether or not we’ve been exiled yet.

    I suspect we haven’t been, yet. . . . .

    Thoughts?

  9. Barnabas says:

    Eugene Peterson signposted the danger of Gnostic ism, Moralism and Sectarianism as we struggle to relate to The Trinity. My belief is the calling of a friar caters for these dangers, otherwise you become of monk of one of the dangers.
    The challenges are to creation,personal responsibility and community.

  10. Jay Lampart says:

    Marble,

    This brings to mind one of my favorite quotes from G.K. Chesterton:
    “Idolatry is committed not merely by setting up false gods, but also by setting up false devils; by making men afraid of war or alcohol, or economic law, when they should be afraid of spiritual corruption and cowardice.”

    Jessica,

    That’s awesome! The same thing is happening here in Towson. This article was brought up in our last Parish Council meeting. I would love to get our communities connected in discussion just to see if we can learn anything from one another. Please feel free to contact me: jaylam100@yahoo.com

  11. Jay Lampart says:

    Marble,

    This brings to mind one of my favorite quotes from G.K. Chesterton:
    “Idolatry is committed not merely by setting up false gods, but also by setting up false devils; by making men afraid of war or alcohol, or economic law, when they should be afraid of spiritual corruption and cowardice.”

    Jessica,

    That’s awesome! Our community is growing here in Towson. We are a little more spread out, though. This article was brought up in our last Parish Council meeting. I would love to get our communities connected in discussion just to see if we can learn anything from one another. Please feel free to contact me: jaylam100@yahoo.com

  12. Adam Mueller says:

    This is great in theory. However, the difficult thing for me to understand is how “we” can assist in “Babylon” flourishing if the definition of doing so is very different. Clearly we don’t want to perpetuate the ideas of “Modernity,” consumerism, and idolatry as a means to define success.

    Mike you wrote: “They didn’t retreat to religious huddles. They learned the language and literature of Babylon (Daniel 1) so they could translate the gospel into the vernacular of the Babylonians and solve Babylonian problems.”

    I love this idea, but my fear/question is what if the “Babylonians” don’t think there is a problem? What can we do if the definition of “common good” is up for debate. Everything has become so relativistic/individualistic that’s if very difficult to nail down anything.

    I’d love thoughts and Ideas.

  13. Mike Metzger says:

    Adam: I’m not talking theory. I’m talking experience. I have yet to meet a business owner who says “I want to start a business that wrecks people’s lives.” I have instead found that most leaders describe flourishing is ways that are remarkably similar to how scripture defines it. The definitions are not as different as you imagine.

    As to your other question, we cannot help anyone who doesn’t see a problem. As for the “common good” being up for debate – it’s not as much as you seem to indicate. Again, I have yet to meet a business owner who says “I want to start a business that wrecks the economy.” Most seek fairness, profitability, and a happy workforce.

  14. Adam Mueller says:

    Mike: Thanks for the response, and I agree with what your saying as it pertains to business….Fair point.

    However, I was thinking on a much broader scale and imagining other institutions such as marriage, sex, education so on and so forth. Maybe I’m missing the point (wouldn’t be the first time), but I’ve witnessed many heated debates about what is considered “good” inside those arena’s. Furthermore, the Churches influence has become almost obsolete. Help me to imagine (CS Lewis style) what it means to bring the “Babylonian Option” to those institutions.

    Maybe we can talk about this offline. I don’t expect you to jump-start my imagination on this platform.

  15. Barnabas says:

    The early Franciscan friars and Poor Clares wanted to be Gospel practitioners instead of merely “word police,” “inspectors,” or “museum curators” as Pope Francis calls some clergy. Both Francis and Clare offered their rules as a forma vitae, or form of life. They saw orthopraxy (correct practice) as a necessary parallel, and maybe even precedent, to verbal orthodoxy (correct teaching). History has shown that many Christians never get to the practical implications of their beliefs! “Why aren’t you doing what you say you believe?” the prophet invariably asks. As the popular paraphrase of Francis’ Rule goes, “Preach the Gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.”
    Richard Rohr

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