Theological Poverty: More on “The Chalmers Option”

In an earlier post, I suggested a “Chalmers Option“—the pursuit of a holistic vision of living out the kingdom of God that could overpower and push out competing temptations. I’m reacting to visions (explicit or implicit) of Christian faithfulness that fail to challenge the comforts of cultural status quo. This “expulsive power of a new affection” would necessarily lead to a radical revision of the way of life in which we’ve been stewed.

Labeling this construct as I did is ever-so-slightly self-serving. I mostly interact with this blog (and the Internet more generally) wearing my “private citizen” or “interested bystander” hats rather than in any professional capacity. My day job is relevant here, though. I serve at a ministry called The Chalmers Center, which is named for Thomas Chalmers, though we’re probably better known through the book, When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor…and Yourself than by our name.

We focus on helping Christians to think differently about poverty and then do something about it. This is a much larger project than just offering “best practices for alleviating poverty.” It requires people to fit a “new affection” sort of revolution into their thinking, and shift their behavior accordingly. This is a needed precursor for churches to actually impact their communities (particularly in low-income neighborhoods) in ways that recognize, respect, and restore the mutual brokenness of all people and the broken systems they create.

A Christian approach to bridging the divide between people with wealth and people living in poverty has to wrestle with this brokenness. “Poverty” is not simply a lack of material goods: people can be materially poor (lacking wealth, access to social capital, education, a healthy “pride”, etc.), but we can also be poor in other ways (lacking humility, meaningful relationships, generosity, etc.). Separating “the poor” from the mainstream in our thoughts and actions strips them of their dignity as God’s image-bearers.

This is a hard leap of understanding for most, both because our “affections” are warped by the surrounding culture and because we often act out of an anemic theology. Christianity has always wanted to flirt with Plato, preaching the Gospel in all its spiritual and eternal aspects while reducing the body to a vehicle for personal piety. When we slide this way, whatever one may choose to do with that body (aside from a few unpardonable transgressions) is not terribly relevant, so long as the soul is saved and sanctified. This is not simply a Protestant problem, though the Reformers’ needed focus on justification has particularly pushed their theological descendants toward emphasis on metaphysical over embodied ministry.

Something in our finite knowledge wants so badly for the truth to be either all spirit or all flesh. The mystery of the one true Gospel is precisely that it requires us to recognize that it is all of both. My friend Dr. Carl Ellis has a helpful framework to think through this point. Holistic theology has two complementary parts: an epistemological “A-side” and an ethical “B-side” If you play either the A-side or the B-side without the other, you’re not hearing the full symphony. Both are necessary for full faithfulness, even when we don’t realize it, and choosing sides is a dangerous temptation.

Perhaps our willingness to look past the two-sided nature of our responsibilities before God stems from a desire to “be OK”, to find a narrative for brokenness that comforts and acquits us.

“A-side” theology teaches us the totality of man’s Fall in the Garden, but somehow we manage to rationalize this cosmic upheaval to a simpler problem of personal sin. This downplays the depth and breadth of our rebellion against God, allowing us to judge those wrestling with consequences of the Fall as lacking personal responsibility and reassuring us that our relative “blessedness” means we’re making the right choices. Such a view makes it very difficult to wrestle with our own complicity in the systemic brokenness around us in a “Christian nation” like the United States.

“B-side” theology, drawing on the Old Testament, teaches us that the whole community is deeply connected, and every injustice taints and corrupts the whole nation. Just like we distort “A-side” teaching, though, we can rationalize this into a focus only on large-scale problems that downplay every person’s need of redemption from sin. If the brokenness we wrestle against is “out there” or someone else’s fault, we can go on about our lives without the hard work of repentance.

Part of the Chalmers Option, then, has to be learning to grapple with both “sides” and their implications for how we live each day before God and man. This opens our hearts to a wider vision of Christ’s kingdom and the church’s role as “the pillar and support” of that truth (1 Tim. 3:15), but also a wider vision for repentance.

It calls us to see our great guilt in the ways we have allowed deficient theology to shape our culture, even the ways we deliberately handicap our reading of Scripture to conform it to our favored sin patterns. If we have eyes to see, it shows us that the reason that we even need to contemplate a “Benedict Option” to preserve the church against a hostile culture is at least partly due to the church’s role in creating that culture.

These realizations should breed a humility that points us back to dependence upon God to forgive, heal, and sustain us. That dependence can lead us, finally, to the love that has the capacity to drive out the weak and failing accommodation to comfort and consumption that has too often characterized the faith in the West. In that “new affection” is our ancient hope.

W. H. Auden, in “As I Walked out One Evening” sums it up well.

“O look, look in the mirror,
O look in your distress:
Life remains a blessing
Although you cannot bless.

O stand, stand at the window
As the tears scald and start;
You shall love your crooked neighbor
With your crooked heart.”

Semper reformanda.

Further Thoughts
Weaving a Future: The Chalmers Option?
Talking Past Each Other: Class and Culture in the Church
The Spiritual Vitality of Place

Photo: Grace Episcopal Church, St. Francisville, Louisiana, June 2016.

Considering Our Options: Reviewing Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option

The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, by Rod Dreher, 2017, New York, Sentinel.*

Jeremiads against the corrupt culture of the surrounding world are nothing new in Christianity. The looming collapse of the social order has been forecast time and again, with a standard of accuracy that would make meteorologists into clairvoyants by comparison. Why, then, consider the subject again? What value could there possibly be in stirring up despair and provoking jeers from those outside the faith?

For one thing, the Jeremiad has fallen out of favor, within the church as much as without. We in the West don’t want to see the problem. Rather than wringing our hands waiting for the apocalypse, we are often twiddling our thumbs and trying to get the most out of our comfortable lives here and now. In this sense, Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option is not a Jeremiad at all, but more akin to the work of another prophet: “A voice of one calling: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way for the LORD….‘” (Isa. 40:3).

There is a plenty in the book that weeps for the state of our culture, but Dreher focuses his criticisms and prescriptions on the Western church—namely our unwillingness to see how the ground beneath our feet has shifted. The time has come, he argues, to look around, make a strategic retreat from the familiar battlefields of the culture war, and shore up our homes, churches, and institutions against the quicksand of what he calls “liquid modernity.” We can no longer “fight the last war,” attempting to persuade non-Christians through politics and preaching to return with us to the (largely fictitious) halcyon good old days. The majority has turned against the teachings of Scripture, and we must instead build a case for the truth and goodness of Christ and His church, as well as the structures and commitment to live that out.

Dreher’s approach here is neither new nor untried, and he engages in the text with several contemporary authors (Russell Moore, Yuval Levin, James K. A. Smith, and others) sounding similar themes. He has several advantages in this space, though. As a journalist rather than a professional theologian, he has taken the time to observe culture from a more critical remove, seeing the flood rising across denominational and regional lines, and finding stories of silver linings in unlikely places. As an Eastern Orthodox Christian, he has been steeped neither in the culture of hyper-spiritual gnosticism that so often has infected fundamentalists nor the individualism and over-emphasis on relevance that has often hollowed out the mainstream American evangelical worldview. As somewhat of a political “crank”, broadly conservative but standing outside of either major party, his ideas push well past political solutions to the problems he identifies. His even-handed, ecumenical tone acknowledges the divides between the various constituenciesbenedict-option_w-copy he addresses while calling attention to the divide that runs through each of them: their relative unwillingness to acknowledge the dissolution of the faith taking place under their collective noses.

Because Dreher has been talking about these themes in public (largely through his blog at The American Conservative) for many years, The Benedict Option as a book is a chance for him to clarify (and answer critics) of the Benedict Option as a concept. It is rare for a work to come to an audience who have so many settled opinions on it (see here and here for a couple of recent examples), and Dreher’s good-faith effort to make his case here has been broadly successful. In just 244 pages, Rod manages to distill a decade of blog posts, seminars, and conversations into an adroit summation that covers vast ground with earnest clarity while avoiding undue simplification.

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Percy’s Love in the Ruins: A Dystopia for Our Time

Note: This piece was originally written in September 2016, in the run-up to that year’s U.S. national election.

The 1970s have a curious aura, especially to those of us born in the early 1980s. Not quite far enough before our time to feel like “history,” Vietnam, Watergate, stagflation, and all the associated malaise were so much a part of our parents’ formative experience that they taste to us rather of a half-remembered bad dream—especially given the relative peace and prosperity we enjoyed throughout childhood. Perhaps it is only natural, then, to associate that 70s vibe with our own grave misgivings about the present.

Facing as we do a national election between a habitual liar under investigation by the FBI (is anyone more Nixonian than Mrs. Clinton?) and a much-married misogynist, racist, and paragon of petty machismo, we see a strong political overlap between the two eras. The nausea goes much deeper too—into sex, race, religion, and society itself. All around, our souls give way, yet no solution presents itself. The exhaustion is palpable, even papered over as it continues to be by our blithe consumption and entertainment.

Into such troubled times, the prophets of old spoke even greater trouble. “On account of you, Zion will be plowed as a field, Jerusalem will become a heap of ruins, and the mountain of the temple will become high places of a forest.”[1] This indicts us just as much as it happens to us. Perhaps the prophet we need to hear thunder today is the unlikeliest of anointed men—nearly three decades dead and always unassuming in his own time.

Walker Percy, Louisiana novelist and essayist, keenly felt the dislocation of man in the modern age, and set his face toward exploring and explaining that pain in nearly everything he wrote. In Percy’s own telling, a serious novelist (one as much concerned with plumbing the depths of existence as with telling a good story) is by nature a sort of prophet:

“Since true prophets, i.e., men called by God to communicate something urgent to other men, are currently in short supply, the novelist may perform a quasi-prophetic function. Like the prophet, his news is generally bad. Unlike the prophet, whose mouth has been purified by a burning coal, the novelist’s art is often bad, too…. Like the prophet, he may find himself in radical disagreement with his fellow countrymen. Unlike the prophet, he does not generally get killed. More often, he is ignored.”[2]

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