Withdrawing from the World

A few weeks ago I wondered what Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option” would look like in today’s culture.

A committed Christian is never completely “of the world” but as the culture grows more aggressively stupid and vulgar he has to fight harder to separate himself from it. Christians have always known that the standards of God and the standards of our dominate culture are not the same; that we might conform to the expectations of our neighbors and utterly fail to conform to the expectations of God. But the dominate culture can also be more or less humane and amenable to the Christian lifestyle.

It seems to becoming decidedly less.

American pop culture has always been a stupid and vulgar money-making venture and a committed Christian has always had to enjoy it with some distance, take it with a grain of salt. But the vulgarity never seemed to be a big deal since nobody over the age of seventeen ever took it seriously. Yes, I like the Ramones, no, I don’t wanna sniff some glue. Just beyond the song is a grown-up world where people dealt with real problems: eventually we had to join it.

I can’t help feeling like the grown-up world is diminished and the vulgar pop world is expanded into our private lives, perhaps thanks to social media. For me, the most disturbing manifestations are the Manufactured Outrage campaigns that sweep the internet ruining careers over dumb jokes, a slur said in anger, or insufficient enthusiasm for sexual deviancy. Sometimes we laugh: when Alec Baldwin lost a gig on TV for calling a paparazzo a faggot perhaps we relished the downfall, but we didn’t stop to think about the invasion of his private life, and how a word said in justifiable anger lost him a job because of manufactured outrage.

Every time I see a political Facebook post saying “CAN YOU BELIEVE THE AWFUL ATROCITY OBAMA COMMITTED TODAY!?” I am inclined to believe it; I think Obama is a poor to mediocre President by all objective standards, and a self-satisfied snot on top of that, and I don’t care who knows it. But by clicking on the link I should know that I am going to be reading a highly partisan report that panders to my prejudices while leaving out key details or mitigating factors in order to lure me into an Outrage Machine designed to give power to someone just as mediocre and snotty as Obama, if not worse. By sharing, I am making the Machine grow. I am increasing the net stupidity of America.

Is that how a Christian is supposed to interact with the world? Of course not.

And increasingly, Christians are being attacked by the Outrage Machines. Up until a few months ago I thought the culture wars would end with detente: let the deviants have their fun, surely we are all grown-ups in a free country who can get along in spite of our differences, and dedicate ourselves to proper American pursuits like making money and having a vulgar but good time.

I don’t want to be paranoid or pessimistic, but I no longer think that is how it is going to end. The deviants are already demanding not mere tolerance (which I’ve always been willing to offer), but enthusiastic approval. Contemporary manifestations of political correctness, despite their obvious stupidity, are chillingly totalitarian and utterly humorless. They recognize no private spaces. We can dismiss the campus radicals and Social Justice Warriors as emotionally unstable purple-haired twats all we want, but in thirty years they are going to be running the country.

So, how then shall we live?

The Christian has three traditional enemies, the world (the social and cultural pressures that expect him to conform to ideals other than those of Christ) the flesh (the blind biological impulses which, while good in themselves, can be destructive if not governed by temperance) and the devil. The Christian must have a certain ambivalence to the world, he must be able to withdraw from it. How do we do that today?

Here are some ideas:

1) Learn to Unplug: If we aren’t careful, modern media sucks us into its unspoken criteria in order to pressure or manipulate us. They can in fact make us stupid. The technologies are not bad, but we do need to realize they can be dangerous. Facebook lets me be in contact with family and friends I’ve not seen in years. It also lets me insult those people over stupid political arguments. Twitter gives me an occasional joke to share; it also lets me join electronic lynch mobs, or waste hours of my life reading zingers. Don’t get me started on TV.

A truly human life is minimizes our use of these means, limiting them to the good and avoiding the evil: it is a constant struggle.

2) Learn to Create Human Spaces: This is the hardest task of the Christian today: creating a parallel community that doesn’t stifle interaction with the wider culture or create a siege mentality, but allows for true friendships, education of children, service to the less fortunate, and cultural enrichment away from the barbarism that surrounds us. These spaces might be formal institutions, they might not. Christianity is not a mere cultural identifier: one is not “Christian” by the simple fact of growing up in a majority Christian nation; but it is also not a simple assent to a few lines of dogma: among other things, Christianity is and always has been a culture.

If I were pastor of a church or Bishop of a Diocese, I’d be asking: how can we promote such communities? How can we make sure they are healthy and free-spirited, and not cramped and weird.

If you don’t build those human spaces, where will your young people meet Christian mates? How will their children be educated according to the Spirit of Jesus and not the spirit of the world? How will the traditions and cultural richness of the faith be passed on?

Without communities living Christian life in all its beauty, who on earth would think about becoming Christian?

And to a lesser extent, how will the best traditions and cultural treasures of this sprawling, self-contradictory, lovable and frustrating place called America be purified and passed on to whatever is coming after America? Because America is not forever. Neither, for that matter, is the institutional Church, but the Church will last until the end of time; America, like all nations, will not. But like the Benedictines passed the best of Romanitas onto barbarian Europe, perhaps we can keep the best of this nation preserved for some future generations.

3) Learn to Defend Those Spaces: Just like men, institutions are also pressured to live according to the criteria of the world. The world is a jealous god, and demands obedience. A Christian school or college will be pressured to teach its subjects with a presupposed materialism. A denomination will be pressured to abandon God’s understanding of marriage for the world’s. A Christian hospital will be pressured to abort babies, offering sweet smelling sacrifices to Moloch. Many have folded without so much as a whimper.

The Christian must be willing to fight, and to part ways with the institutions rather than gain the approval of the world and lose his soul. He has to be willing to start over again, find new ways to live his Christian call to service.

But we already know this. What we have to be ready for is the invasion of private space. The world does not really want your institutions, it wants your conscience. What before was a mostly passive battle – not blindly thinking as the world thinks but self consciously putting on the mind of Christ – is going to become increasing active. We are going to be called out more and more frequently. We are going to be told by the world: think as the we do, or we will label you, revile you, tell lies about you, and ruin your livelihood if we can. Above all we will isolate you.

If that happens, will we resist? Will we have built up the culture and virtue to carry on? Will we keep refusing to be isolated and continue reaching out, continue building, continue teaching, even if it be on the fringes of society, in a metaphorical ghetto or underground?


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