Scene: A small cafe in a coastal urban city. BOB, a boring old believer, and his friend BEN are sipping their coffees as the autumn breeze ruffles the collars protruding from the necks of their sweater vests.
Bob: Thanks for inviting me out here, Ben. So tell me about this “Benedict Option” thing?
Ben: I’m so glad you asked! I’m really excited about it! Well, I’m not excited that it’s come to this. See, we have to start with understanding the cultural forces that have made orthodox Christianity so abhorrent to so many people, including the children of believers. A variety of historical shifts in art, education, and politics have precipitated a loss of cultural power for the Church in the West, so we have to study how our culture rejects orthodox belief for a syncretistic mixture of Christianity and either capitalistic nationalism or pseudoscientific progressivism.
Bob: Oh, you mean, like, missiology?
Ben: Yes, well, as I was saying, we’re at this unique cultural moment in history where orthodox faith is under attack from all sides and we’re barely communicating our faith to the next generation. Whether you’re in a strict fundamentalist and traditional church that drives your kids out the harder you try to control them or you’re in a loosey-goosey evanjellyfish congregation that tries to be more entertaining but only ends up looking less cool than the next flavor of the week, it’s just a disaster. We need a strategic attentiveness—a withdrawal, even—to focus internally on how we preach, teach, and catechize.
Bob: Oh, you mean, like, ecclesiology?
Ben: You’re not letting me finish. Anyway, but we aren’t just heading to the hills and bunkering up!
Bob: You just said you were withdrawing. Besides, aren’t most bunkers near the front line of battle?
Ben: It’s an enormous misconception that the Benedict Option is about withdrawal. It’s actually about paying attention to how we transmit our faith to the next generation and retain the distinctives of our faith. And that takes a certain amount of inward focus and discipline.
Bob: Okay, it’s starting to make sense. You’re basically talking about ecclesiology.
Ben: Well, it’s more complicated than that, really. See, we’re living in a post-Christian culture. So you can’t just “preach the Gospel” and assume that people will understand what you’re talking about. In order for our witness to mean anything to ourselves, our kids, or anyone who might darken our doors, we have to think about the culture we live in and what makes it particularly hostile to orthodox belief—as well as ways in which people around us might be uniquely susceptible to aspects of our faith that are true.
Bob: Okay, now you’re more on the missiology kick again, but I see what you’re talking about. We just learned all about how Christians have done this for centuries in our Perspectives class.
Ben: That’s nice, but I’m talking about something bigger. You see, big things have changed such that Christianity, whose premises used to just be the baseline assumptions for our cultural conversations, is now getting backed into a corner. Our catechesis is now so weak that people don’t understand the meaning or significance of marriage?
Bob: And our catechesis was better back when we thought acquiescing to violent racism was a good idea?
Ben: That isn’t what I’m saying at all. I’m saying that we’ve set ourselves up to be this cultural joke when we ought to be a light on the hill.
Bob: So we ought to be looking at our missiology.
Ben: (sighs) If you insist on calling it that, yes. But you shouldn’t be so reductionistic. We’re facing honest-to-God persecution. People could lose their livelihoods just for standing up for what they believe in!
Bob: You know missiology deals an awful lot with how to relate to cultures hostile to Christianity, right?
Ben: Right, but we’re living in a post-Christendom amalgamation of distorted Christian teachings and the Enlightenment, not like some seventh-century Islamic Empire or Communist Europe or something. Are you even listening to me?
Bob: Are you?
Ben: Anyway, back to the original topic, there’s obviously the thorny question of how charity fits into the Benedict Option. On one hand, we have to practice it and it is an important part of our witness to the world. On the other hand, if we just focus on doing good works without attending to our own spiritual formation, we’ll burn out or turn into empty-headed liberals.
Bob: Gee, that sounds like what my pastor is always trying to do.
Ben: Right, but it’s that unique blend of mixing charity into cultural understanding, community spiritual formation, attention to local geography and history, and transmission of our faith to others that makes the Benedict Option so important.
Bob: So maybe a little bit of ecclesiology and some missiology together?
Ben: ...we wouldn’t want to end up like those (hushed whisper) Episcopals.
Bob: I actually know a really nice Episcopal priest who talks about these things all the time.
Ben: Oh really. Does he have a blog?
Bob: No, she and I are neighbors. We coordinate the volunteer schedule at the local soup kitchen.
Ben: See, that’s exactly the sort of thing that happens in the Benedict Option!
Bob: But that’s… missiology.
Ben: I don’t know how many times I have to say this. The Benedict Option is more than missiology! It incorporates theology, anthropology, history, geography, theories and methods of communication, comparative religion, Christian apologetics, education methodology, and interdenominational relations!
Bob: You literally just quoted from the “Missiology” Wikipedia page.
Ben: Have you read Alasdair MacIntyre?
Matthew Loftus lives in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood of Baltimore and works as a family physician. He is a regular contributor at Mere Orthodoxy and is releasing a novel about doctors behaving badly chapter-by-chapter at Trousseau Syndrome.