Monday, December 22, 2008

Not Waiting for Benedict

My collegiate pride was stirred to see Wheaton College's own Alan Jacobs charitably dismantle several strands of the pop post-evangelicalism that crowd the Barnes & Noble shelves today ("Do-It-Yourself Tradition," First Things, January 2009). I look forward to seeing whether the "very now-minded American Protestants" that Jacobs criticizes will respond with a delight in being deconstructed, or with the you-don't-get-it defensiveness that has often characterized their reaction to serious critique.

A few samples:
All you need to know about Halter and Smay's book The Tangible Kingdom: Creating Incarnational Community may be this: Their chapter on this history of the Church since the fourth century is called "The 1,700 Year Wedgie"... May God bless their work. But neither good hearts nor good works can make a good book out of very bad one.

In lectures and speeches, [Brian] McLaren often pauses to say that he really does believe that doctrine is important. But he has to say this because he doesn't otherwise show signs of being interested in it. As far as I can tell, McLaren thinks getting doctrine right is easy - comparatively speaking, anyway. But the history of Christianity scarcely bears out that confidence.

Set the bar for monasticism as low as Wilson-Hartgrove sets it and you might as well call a Christian college dormitory a monastic institution... The disciplines and practices of our Christin ancestors are not toys or tools; they are hope of life to those who are perishing.
Rather than snuffing a smoldering wick, however, Jacobs ends with a note of commiseration. He too shares an acute awareness of the inadequacy of current forms of evangelical life. Borrowing terminology from Charles Taylor, Jacobs hopes to lead us towards a more "porous" spirituality; but he admits to being not exactly sure what that involves. Jacobs suggests that "for the wiser," Kierkegaard's worldly knight of faith "will seem too hard." But Jacobs' second option, full monastic retreat, has lost its appeal due to the comforting "buffers" of modern life. Summoning Alisdair MacIntyre, Jacobs suggests we are still waiting for a new St. Benedict, "someone who can articulate a whole way of life and call us to it."

We do indeed need such a figure, someone who can take the solitary, impossible ideals of Kierkegaard's knight of faith and translate them into the realizable discipline of an army, someone who can develop a rule for robust Christian practice that can, in Jacobs' words, "flourish in the saeculum." But should this be the job description, our new Benedict may have already come and gone. His name was José Maria Escriva. As an evangelical myself (albeit a not very good one), it is unsettling to note a contemporary irony: While Protestants today promote pseudo-monasticism, Opus Dei - the movement founded by Escriva - continues to be the most forceful contemporary advocate for traditionally Protestant foci: the priesthood of all believers, the sanctity of all vocations, and holiness of the laity in the midst of the world.

Jacobs asks, "What would a serious abbess think that the lifelong disciplines of her people could simply be transferred to the daily experience of a lawyer or a plumber?" The answer is she would be scandalized, as was most of the Catholic world by Escriva until, despite serious resistance, his brand of plumber-piety was approved. It's time Protestants get past the albino and cilice jokes and learn more about what is colloquially referred to as "the work," if only to be reminded of insights we like to think are our own. The definitive book on the movement by the veteran reporter John L. Allen Jr. (no conservative lackey), has essentially functioned as an exoneration, and it is a pleasure to read as well.