On Twitter I follow Christianity Today and recently there have been a series of articles on the site around the topic of the “Benedict Option”. This refers to the proposition put forth by an article run in their magazine’s March edition that suggests Christians should wash their hands of western culture and withdraw to isolated communities with other Christians. The reasoning being that western culture has become too secular and despondent towards Christian principles and outright hostile towards Christianity in many cases. There is a fair hint of “…holding to the form of godliness but denying its power.” about as well (2 Timothy 3:5). Thus, Christians should retreat to cloistered communities. The proposal strikes me as something similar to how the Essenes of Christ’s time are believed to have lived.
There were some interesting counters to the idea, while taking the suggestion seriously. The often espoused concept of, “be in the world but not of the world,” was of course mentioned. And rightly so, because it is firmly rooted in Christ’s words (John 15:19). For my part, I think the notion of a “Benedict Option” seems a little obtuse. The very phrase implies that today’s Christians, like General Benedict Arnold during the Revolutionary War, are about to turn on our country. Betray our own with whom we’ve fought and side with the enemy for gain. I would argue, we were never on western culture’s side. Or any culture’s side.
That verse is in the Old Testament and directed towards Israel, but it’s the same lesson for us. Before Christ in Israel’s history, the people lived literally surrounded by cultures and people groups who had rejected the God of Creation and adopted practices that were in many cases the antithesis of God’s will and plan. God provided laws for the Israelites and it isn’t hard to see, though some allowed them to live with some similarities to their neighbors, they were also a way of keeping very distinct and focused on God. There has always been a notion of God’s people as foreigners and sojourners in this world. Beginning with Abraham and throughout Israel’s history the notion repeatedly comes up. Even after they were settled in the Promised Land. The Book of Hebrews in the New Testament makes an explicit bridge between ancient Israel and the needed Christian ethos: “But they now desire a better place—a heavenly one…” (Hebrews 11:16)
This circles back to the “be in the world, but not of the world.” We are to be pockets of light in a dark landscape. Distinct and separate but not dispassionate and withdrawn. This isn’t an easy task for most of us. One reason this can be so hard, like lifting a car overhead, is we have made the same error ancient Israel often made. We have looked at what those around us have and do and decided we should do and desire the same. We quite well remember the Apostle Paul’s words, “I have the right to do anything…” but forget he went on to say, “but not everything is beneficial…” and “I will not be mastered by anything.” (1 Corinthians 6:12) Our enticement by the trappings of our neighboring cultures has caused us to lose our identity. Or at least lose sight of our identity.
Not wavering amidst the increasing streams of discord in society is a key impetus for my writing, particularly DQR and Day Moon. There is little interest in culture conforming to God’s desires, but that doesn’t mean we just abscond with the words of life. We are encouraged to love everyone, but not live as they live. To humbly and gratefully enjoy our freedom in Christ, but not let it become an excuse to take our eyes off of where our hope lies. This world is a wonderful place to journey through, but there is something better Christians are seeking. So, should we be weighing the betrayal of western culture? No, because western culture was never our culture. No culture has ever been. We are ambassadors (2 Corinthians 5:20) for Christ, lights in the world (Philippians 2:15) and sent to be among all the peoples of the world and compassionately point out that better city we are looking forward to.