By Mark Clavier
We Americans know how to make much out of little. Take the prayer of Jabez: one line of Scripture transformed into a grand vision with a product line. Or The Purpose Driven Life: one idea spun out into books, courses, videos, and even clothing. Amazing.
For that matter, take Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option, which is built on the conclusion of Alisdair MacIntyre’s great work After Virtue. There MacIntyre painted a gloomy picture:
[I]f the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us from quite some time. … We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict.
MacIntyre’s odd flight of historical fancy in an otherwise thoroughgoing philosophical work had rhetorical force, especially among American conservatives. It screamed slogan.
Enter the conservative blogger Rod Dreher, who took MacIntyre’s last sentence as the basis for his bestselling The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation. Popularly known as BenOp, Dreher’s proposal is that churches need to withdraw from the field of cultural battle, look to their defenses, and refashion themselves as havens of Christian virtues in an increasingly hostile world. His model is St. Benedict, who founded his monastery at Monte Cassino and inspired a monastic movement that did much to preserve Christian culture amid a collapsing European civilisation. Similarly, he argues, churches today need to “develop creative, communal solutions to help us hold on to our faith and our values in a world growing ever more hostile to them” (p. 2).
Dreher’s proposal was like honey to flies for many religious conservatives. After people have lost one cultural battle after another, the idea of a strategic withdrawal to focus on nurturing what can be controlled (i.e., individual churches) is heady stuff. The image of a pure city built upon a hill has long caught the imagination of many Americans, and Dreher’s version is no different. His proposal radiates romantic heroism — for conservative Christians it’s like a monastic Alamo without the celibacy.
Almost immediately, though, prominent theologians began to pour cold water on the idea. For example, Stanley Hauerwas criticized BenOp by arguing that “there’s no place to withdraw to” because the Church is already surrounded. Like it or not, the enemy is at the gates.
I think Hauerwas doesn’t go far enough. The Church’s situation is even worse than he suggests because she isn’t just surrounded by the supposed barbarians — her walls have already been entirely overrun. But the enemy isn’t barbaric liberals armed to their teeth with progressive ideas. The enemy, as Pogo recognized, is us. But to understand that, we need to turn to a very different image from the Dark Ages.
The Church in the Marketplace
Let’s start by ditching the tantalizing vision of Benedict as our savior. Benedictine monasticism was a key part of the preservation of learning, but it didn’t save Christianity. Actually, even in the darkest days of the fifth and seventh centuries, there was no sense that the Church needed saving. Instead, the Church went about its business in difficult circumstances preaching, teaching, and publicly celebrating the sacraments. That took confidence in a world far more hostile than that encountered by Dreher. The Church always needs Benedicts — we call them monastics — whose disciplined communal life, prayers, and wisdom benefit the wider, active Church. We recognize such places by their embrace of poverty, chastity, and obedience.
The problem, I think, is with the unhelpful Dark Ages image (which never really existed anyway). It implies the barbarians are a foreign enemy invading our lands. That’s not what we’re experiencing. Instead, let’s go back a few hundred years to another historical image that resonates more with our age: the Roman forum.
Like orators in the forum, the Church is proclaiming its message amid the din of the marketplace. The place is a cacophony of competing orations trying to grab people attention long enough to persuade them to do as they will. Like them, we’re trying to attract people to our message, get them to pay attention long enough to listen, and speak in a way that just might persuade them to join us rather than wander to the next stall. It seems an impossible task.
Even worse, our forum is inescapable. That means even after people accept our message, we must keep persuading them to remain while they are bombarded by other sales pitches. And those other orators are far better armed than we, with mountains of information about their intended audience and some frankly amazing razzle-dazzle to persuade people to pay attention to them. Let’s call these smooth orators marketers.
This is our situation. Our forum is pervasive — we enter it in malls, shopping centers, through TVs and radio, and virtually every time we browse the Web. We carry it around in our pockets on smartphones. You’re in the forum right now as you read this online, especially if you accessed it through social media. All around you in this marketplace are marketers, suggesting how you can be happy, what accessories will allow you to express yourself, what the world is like or ought to be like, what the problems are. And their mantra is choice.
Just choose freely and your choices will lead you to happiness and authenticity. You can see it. It’s just around the corner.
Can you see now why Benedict doesn’t work? If you’re in an inescapable forum, where do you hide? Wherever you go, you’ll still be in earshot of its orators (our marketers) persuading you to embrace their offers of happiness and well-being. They’ll even gladly sell you ideas about how to withdraw or hide so long as you’re willing to hand over cash for their suggestions. This world would have driven even saintly Benedict to despair.
If you can’t hide or withdraw, what then can you do in such a forum? The answer is the only thing the Church was ever meant to do: announce the kingdom. To accomplish this, we need to discover the wisdom and eloquence to speak more persuasively than marketers, to offer truths and delight that will capture people’s attention, imagination, and hearts.
The man who understood this situation better than anyone else was St. Augustine of Hippo. He was trained in rhetoric, taught it for many years, and returned to its wisdom throughout his episcopal career. The forum was in his bones, and this experience allowed him to see that the Church needs to be not just wise but also eloquent. In other words, the Church needs persuasive speakers: orators who can employ wisdom and eloquence to “teach, delight, and move” listeners to embrace God and remain with him. Augustine called these orators preachers.
What the Church needs today, therefore, isn’t a Benedict Option. She needs an Augustine Option so that we have a chance to offer salvation to a world bent increasingly on social and ecological destruction. We need, in short, to rediscover God’s rhetoric so that we can not just tell our story but do so eloquently and persuasively.
Augustine, long schooled in rhetoric before his conversion, knew exactly how to do that. He was arguably the greatest rhetorician of the classical world, producing in his sermons, letters, and controversial writings, a body of rhetorical literature that eclipsed even that of Cicero. In the second part of this post, I’ll turn to his rhetorical theology to demonstrate why Augustine, rather than Benedict, is the option the Church so desperately needs.