Christians can be peaceful public nuisances or counter-cultural practitioners for the common good, argued Michael Bird and Bruce Ashford in a recent Southeastern Seminary event.
Christianity has long held a position of privilege in the West. For a long time in Europe and the United States, Judeo-Christian values formed the normative framework for ethics and morality, and belief in God (even merely nominal belief) served as an asset for advancement in society and securing public favor.
Suddenly, it seems, this is no longer the case. Over the last 50 years, and especially the last 25, the West has become increasingly post-Christian and marches toward militant secularism, where belief in God is synonymous with immorality, where religious language has become flagged as hate speech and where the phrase “religious freedom” has become code for bigotry. Christians may feel the earth has given way under them and fear they will be swallowed up by the increasingly emboldened progressive secularism.
Numerous cultural thinkers have offered their analysis of the religious situation in the West and proposed a wide array of solutions. Some seek to dive into national politics and try to effect change and restore Christian morality through legislation and the judiciary. Some live as spiritual exiles in a foreign secular culture and want to preserve Christian culture through individual practice. Others, in the words of James Davison Hunter, aim to create a faithful presence of Christian disciples who seek to work for the common good of society and serve as a witness of the kingdom of God.
Rod Dreher describes and advocates for another strategy for Christianity to survive this paradigm shift in his 2017 book, The Benedict Option. The Benedict Option movement (which is based on philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre’s critique of modernity) calls for faithful Christians to create communities and institutions devoted to the great tradition of the Christian faith separate from hostile secular culture while still living within the world. This strategy follows in part the monastic principles Benedict of Nursia established in the sixth century in the face of the fall of Rome. This book has gained wide recognition and has fostered debate regarding how Christians should live and interact in an individualistic culture that increasingly preaches belief in God is implausible and unimaginable.
Michael F. Bird and Bruce Ashford have provided their own strategies for Christians living in the West in response to the Benedict Option (both the movement and the book that bears its name). They explored these ideas in their lecture entitled “The Benedict Option: Two Reflective Responses” at Wake Forest Baptist Church on November 28, 2017. This event served as the second installment of the Evangelical Voices in the Academy Lecture Series sponsored by the Society for Women in Scholarship with the L. Russ Bush Center for Faith and Culture and Kingdom Diversity at Southeastern Seminary. Bird is a prolific author, Anglican priest and Lecturer in Theology at Ridley College in Melbourne, Australia, and he proposed “The Thessalonian Strategy: An Anti-Podean Alternative to the Benedict Option.” Ashford is the Provost and Professor of Theology and Culture at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, and he presented “An Abrahamic Alternative to the Benedict Option.”
The Thessalonian Strategy
Michael Bird started the evening with a brief overview of the common responses to the question, “How do we respond and how do we engage with our wider society?” Agreeing with many cultural thinkers of the day (including Rod Dreher), Bird stated that the West has become a place of militant secularism. The demographics are changing and “the social temperament is allergic the thin veneer of cultural Christianity forced upon it.” He argued the methods of the Religious Right cannot work in the long-term; conversely, the idea of Christians existing in society as a faithful presence may encourage Christians to live good lives, but there is no prophet to confront culture and only silence in the face of evil.
Bird asserted tactics like faithful presence and the Benedict Option cannot work in a place like Australia, a country with no strong religious heritage that has no benign public square for Christianity. The public is fearful, suspicious, allergic and hostile to Christianity. Now, he said, “we are the immoral minority.” This is true in Australia and it is becoming a reality in the United States. He continued, “The very existence of Christians is regarded as a hate crime because it is a threat to the pantheon of beliefs” progressive secularism holds dear. Christians have become the enemy of the state because of their misanthropy. The Benedict Option won’t work in Australia and it soon won’t work in other Western countries because even the existence of separate Christian communities is anathema—if we build monasteries, they will attack those too. As a whole, Bird agrees with Dreher about the state of the West—the future looks bleak and culture continues to spiral out of control.
Despite this dreary outlook, Bird did not sink into pessimism. Instead he called for Christians to “turn the world upside down,” much like Paul did when he came to Thessalonica. Rather than capitulate to civic totalism (in which the state holds supreme power and regulates as much of life as possible) or retreat from the public square, Bird calls Christians to “wage a counter insurgency armed with peace and pluralism.” Christians can turn the world upside down by acting as peaceful public nuisances who promote a community of love and freedom and “practice allegiance to Jesus rather than Democratic Caesars and Republican czars.” Christians should expose the hypocrisy, violence and predatory nature of progressivism as well as the political right, which uses Christianity for its own agenda. They have to get creative in their resistance to a culture that demands total surrender to tyranny disguised as tolerance.
The goal is not a theocracy or Constantinian fusion of government and religion. Christians should work to create a society where all faiths and no faith can live together; everyone can pursue their own happiness without fear of reprisal. Two essential aspects of this strategy are to band together with other faith communities (because we can work together against the threat of radical secularism and political exploitation even if we don’t believe the same things) and to look to leadership from ethnic minorities and women. Minorities know what it looks like to be on the margin of culture, and they can provide the wisdom to guide us through this tumultuous transition of power.
An Abrahamic Alternative
Bruce Ashford then delivered his analysis of the current cultural climate and the Benedict Option’s reaction to it. According to Ashford, the cultural elites are attempting to desacralize the cultural and political order by kicking Christianity (and other faiths) out of the public square and sneaking their secular progressive ideology in through the back door. He read a few excerpts from The Benedict Option, describing how the book calls for a strong ecclesial counter-culture in spheres like politics, education and technology. Ashford expressed a favorable view of the Benedict Option and commended Dreher’s analysis of sin’s grip on culture and desire to strengthen the church. Yet he proposed an alternative that affirms counter-cultural practice while rejecting monastic retreat.
He formulated his position out of the theological and cultural framework of the nineteenth- and twentieth-century Dutch Reformed theologian and statesman Abraham Kuyper. Ashford argued Christians do not have to settle for an either/or proposition—they can build a counter-culture while at the same time work for the common good by redirecting each sphere of culture back toward Christ. The purpose of counter-culture is not to separate ourselves, but to “send us back into the world to work toward the common good.” Christ rules each sphere of life, gives it its reason for existence and limits it—it has a normative order. The questions Christians must ask as they live and work in the world are: “What is God’s creational design for this sphere of culture? What purpose does it serve in God’s good kingdom? How has it been corrupted and misdirected by sin and idolatry? In light of its corruption and misdirection, how to we redirect it toward God’s creational design?”
In light of this idea of design and direction, Ashford provided practical ways Christians can form counter-culture for the common good. He said first of all that “we need to embrace the moment.” We should not despair that we live in a time of growing marginalization. Instead, he argued, “Christianity has often been at its best when we are a minority.” We can be the most prophetic and speak the truth into the world when we live sacrificially and with conviction. We need to give energy to our communities and to the public square. We cannot put all our eggs into the basket of political activism, but play the long game and take the broad view by operating in every sphere of life. He encouraged Christians to
- decentralize the self by seeking the good of the city (Jer. 29:7) and perform culture work (instead of only seeking good for ourselves)
- revitalize the culture by reframing issues in light of the narrative of biblical revelation.
We should take our everyday activities (e.g., tweeting and writing Facebook posts) and shape them for Christ. From there, we can identify a particular sphere in which we have influence and create a Christian community in that sphere. Above all, we must be civil, work together and take a missionary approach to our context, which includes employing a posture of humility and curiosity.
A question and answer session followed the two lectures, in which Drs. Bird and Ashford continually emphasized the necessity for Christians to participate in the culture from a posture of love and humility. We have to recognize the authoritarianism of the left and the right and respond with peace and truth, good doctrine and good works. The discussion was encouraging and challenged the audience to think well and act creatively to live lives of faith in a rapidly shifting world.