Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Sunday, April 26, 2015

withdrawals and commitments

I posted this on my personal blog, but on reflection I’m thinking that it has a place here, especially with our recent thoughts about attention.

My buddy Rod Dreher writes,

What I call the Benedict Option is this: a limited, strategic withdrawal of Christians from the mainstream of American popular culture, for the sake of shoring up our understanding of what the church is, and what we must do to be the church. We must do this because the strongly anti-Christian nature of contemporary popular culture occludes the meaning of the Gospel, and hides from us the kinds of habits and practices we need to engage in to be truly faithful to what we have been given.

David French responds,

I must admit, my first response to the notion of “strategic withdrawal” is less intellectual and more visceral. Retreat? I recall John Paul Jones’s words, “I have not yet begun to fight,” or, more succinctly, General Anthony McAuliffe’s legendary response to German surrender demands at Bastogne: “Nuts!”  

In reality, Christian conservatives have barely begun to fight. Christians, following the examples of the Apostles, should never retreat from the public square. They must leave only when quite literally forced out, after expending every legal bullet, availing themselves of every right of protest, and after exhausting themselves in civil disobedience. Have cultural conservatives spent half the energy on defense that the Left has spent on the attack?

It strikes me that French is responding to something Rod didn't say: Rod writes of “the strategic withdrawal of Christians from mainstream of American popular culture,” and French replies that Christians “should never retreat from the public square” — but “popular culture” and “public square” are by no means the same thing.

In most of the rest of his response French emphasizes strictly political issues, for instance, current debates over the extent of free speech. But Rod doesn't say anything about withdrawing from electoral politics — he doesn't say anything about politics at all, except insofar as building and strengthening the ekklesia is political (which it is — see below).

It’s not likely that French and I could ever come to much agreement about the core issues here, since he so readily conflates Christianity and conservatism. (“The surprising box office of God’s Not Dead, the overwhelming success of American Sniper, celebrating the life of a Christian warrior” — I ... I ... — “and the consistent ratings for Bible-themed television demonstrate that there remains a large-scale appetite for works of art that advance, whether by intention or by effect, a substantially more conservative point of view.”) But his response to Rod has the effect of forcing some important questions on those of us who think that the current social and political climate calls for new strategies: What exactly do we mean by “withdraw,” and how far do we withdraw? What specifically do we withdraw from? What are the political implications of cultural withdrawal?

Rod, in the post I quoted at the outset, does a fantastic job of laying out very briefly and concisely the work that needs to be done to strengthen local religious communities. But time, energy, attention, and money are all plagued by scarcity, which is why some kind of “withdrawal” is unavoidable — if I’m going to put more money into my church, that means less money available elsewhere. And if I’m going to devote more attention to active love of God and active love of my neighbor, from what should I withdraw my attention?

All of this is going to remain excessively vague and abstract until we can see specific instances of such withdrawal. But I suspect that different groups of Christians will have widely varying ideas of what needs to be withdrawn from: cable TV, New York Times subscriptions, Hollywood movies, monetary contributions to either of the major political parties, public schools, etc.

So I wonder if a better way to think about the Benedict Option is not as a strategic withdrawal from anything in particular but a strategic attentiveness to the institutions and forms of life within which Christians can flourish. In other words, Rod’s post is the right starting place, and the language of “withdrawal” something of a distraction from what that post is all about.

My own inclination — but then I have been a teacher for thirtysomething years — is to think that our primary focus should be on the two chief modes of Bildung: paideia and catechesis. And I do not mean for either of these modes to be confined to the formation of children.

If we ask ourselves what genuine Christian Bildung is, and what is required to achieve it in our time, then we will be directed to the construction and conservation of institutions and practices that are necessary for that great task. And then the necessary withdrawals — which may indeed vary from person to person, vocation to vocation, community to community — will take care of themselves.


  • Perhaps the answer lies in a mixture of both “strategic withdrawal” and “attentiveness”. "Go and make disciples" is an educational commission to a separated people. The corruption we are experiencing in our nation, in large part, is due to problems in both areas. For one, it seems teaching in the [American] Church has been circumscribed ever since ministers were cast into the market after Disestablishment, so that subjects such as sin, righteousness, and judgement are seldom heard anymore. Two, this problem is further compounded by the large-scale practice of placing Christian children to be educated in the atheistic public school. Both problems have market connections. Both problems will require counter-market solutions.

  • While I agree that pop culture and public square are not the same thing - in that they can be differentiated - I don't think they can be so neatly separated. I think that more than half the battles of the public square are actually fought on the field of pop culture. Or perhaps a better way to put it is that typically who ever wins the hearts (most often done through the propaganda, or less cynically the messages, of pop culture) wins the war. Think about how many people forgo reading books published by candidates, but vote for who ever has the most charisma or star-power, or worse yet, how many people vote according to who their pop culture idol supports.

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