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Benedict of Nursia: Intentional Christian Community

By Joshua Herring

I dislike reactionary politics. The idea of withdrawal or throwing in the towel in a long conflict just does not sit well with me. So over the past three months, as I continued to run into references to Rob Dreher’s “Benedict Option,” I mistakenly thought Dreher was advocating intellectual, cultural, and moral retreat from an increasingly post-Christian world. When I read his argument more closely, however, I realized that my mental picture of his construct (Christians huddling in a commune somewhere in Idaho) was wrong.

Far from urging Christians to cease engaging the world, Dreher contends that the Christian life was always meant to be lived communally, a model of community hampered by the current cultural moment. Rather than give up cultural engagement, Dreher argues this conflict should force Christians to be more intentional about living near each other and seeking intellectual, spiritual, emotional Christian fellowship, thus bearing out the “one another” commands of Christian love sprinkled liberally throughout the New Testament.

The Benedictine Rule established the way of life for the monks. It demanded three vows: poverty, chastity, and obedience. It called for a life mixing work with prayer, and oriented the brethren towards gospel service.
Dreher’s inspiration is Benedict of Nursia, with the “Benedict Option” label evoking visions of the fifth-century father of Western monasticism. Born in the later days of the fifth century anno Domini, Benedict grew to maturity in a chaotic world. The Pax Romana had collapsed, replaced by shifting geographies, marauding barbarians, and unstable economies. Augustine had already written The City of God in response to the barbarians’ attack on Rome, wrestling with the question of Christian identity in a world where the Eternal City proved temporary. Benedict, facing the decadence of Rome, retreated to the hills.

He was not unique in that response; the third century witnessed a movement of monastic retreat in the deserts of Egypt. Called anchorites, the Desert Fathers were notable for their solitary lifestyle. Depending on which sources one reads, these first hermits performed mighty miracles, wrestled with demons, and eventually discovered that they needed other Christian brethren with whom to live the Christian life. Pachomius is often credited as the earliest of cenobitic monks, those who sought to work out their faith in community.

Benedict himself did not remain alone long. In his cave just north of Rome, disciples found him and requested that he teach them the way of holy living. Legend says that Benedict first established a strict rule, so rigorous that his first disciples tried to poison him. When Benedict miraculously escaped death by poison, his disciples repented, and Benedict reworked the community’s rulebook, known today as The Rule of St. Benedict. The historical narrative picks up with Benedict’s founding of the monastery at Monte Cassino in 529 AD and instituting the first edition of his Rule.

The Benedictine Rule established the way of life for the monks. It demanded three vows: poverty, chastity, and obedience. It called for a life mixing work with prayer, and oriented the brethren towards gospel service.  The Rule describes the monastery as a “school of the Lord’s service.” These places were originally intended as locations of intense discipleship, with the Rule defining the process by which a brother might grow to spiritual maturity.

The three vows bound all brothers together in their common pursuit. Poverty insured that they would not be distracted by worldly wealth, but would instead pursue a treasure “where moth and rust do not destroy.” The vow of obedience taught the monks first to submit in humility to a superior, recognizing the truth of Romans 13 that all authority is from God. As the brothers obeyed, they learned to submit to the divine will. The vow of chastity kept all brothers oriented towards an eternal community. Rather than the concerns of wife and child, the monastic brother found his hope in the heavenly Jerusalem and communion of the saints ruled over by King Jesus.

Benedict concludes his Rule explaining that he intended these steps to be only a foundation leading to maturity, much like Paul’s exasperating voice reminding the Corinthians that he should be able to give them meat, but they can only drink milk! The Benedictine Rule is a carefully planned route to practical discipleship lived together in community.

In that sense, Dreher’s “Benedict Option” is unoriginal. He joins a host of recent authors who see American Christianity as anemic and in need of discipleship. David Platt argues that Evangelical Christianity is distracted by wealth, and his book Radical describes a group of church members in Birmingham, Alabama, who sold their homes to move into the inner city and bring the gospel to the poorest inhabitants. Jamie Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom concludes with an examination of the oddly unchristian notion of college students separated from Christian community, and he proposes instead a Christian understanding of college where students and professors live in the town, seeking to live the gospel together in the midst of a watching secular community. Willow Creek Community Church sparked a small group movement across Evangelical churches with their phrase “Doing Life Together.”

Dreher himself proposes an ancient model of discipleship writ large across American Christianity in which Christians live near each other and provide solidarity as biblical convictions become less and less popular. These communities would not be monastic houses, severed from wife and child, but neighborhoods where church members live near the church. Oddly enough, this solution would also address many of the criticisms of disconnected modernity (Wendell Berry, Neil Postman, et al). It does not, as I once thought, call for Christians to ignore culture or try to escape from it. Instead, both Benedict and Dreher recognize that Christianity cannot be lived alone, and they call Christians to value the kingdom of Christ in exile (the church) more than material success.

What might this look like in practice? I think it could be very simple. Perhaps instead of taking a new job far away, one family determines to remain in a town and faithfully worship at their church. As financial opportunity permits, church members seek to live closer together. Geographic proximity to church community becomes a primary factor rather than house value, school location, commute time, and other practical concerns.

St. Benedict worked out a discipleship model which changed the course of western civilization. By calling men to live out their faith corporately inside a structured framework, education, literacy, and the Christian tradition survived the collapse of Rome and growth of European nations. As American culture becomes increasingly hostile to Christian values, Benedict provides a model for considering the essentials of our faith and the importance of living it out together.

Image: Saint Benedict, fresco by Fra Angelico, retrieved from Wikipedia.org

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Pornography: A Dangerous Deception

 

By Joshua Herring

On April 26, the Wall Street Journal Business section offered a new prophecy: Robot Sex! Sex Therapist Laura Berman predicts that technology will enable cheap but fulfilling robotic sex, conception of children without physical touching, and chemical drugs to allow for the experience of more pleasure.

While on the one hand I am surprised the Wall Street Journal would print onanistic meanderings fit only for the trashiest of sci-fi novels, I think this article illustrates the dangerous deception of pornography and its ability to sever us from our own humanity. Pornography could be condemned on many grounds, but I want to consider the possibility that porn poses a subtle danger, causing us to value pleasure over love, solitude over community, and the present over a lifetime.

St. Augustine argued in his City of God that the quest for human happiness has everything to do with rightly ordered love. When we situate the love of God in its proper place, followed by love of neighbor and other subordinate categories, we find the best opportunity for human flourishing. When we displace our loves, perhaps elevating lust over relationships, Augustine argues that we will find our lives filled with dissatisfaction.

This understanding of life as a constant evaluation, or searching the heart for what it should value to the proper extent, goes against our 21st century eroticized culture. Media—including film, television, and music stars—upholds a certain vision of the good life consisting of ever-more exotic sexual experiences producing happiness. Pornography—by which I mean the print, internet, and video aspects displaying sexuality through a mediated form intended to stimulate lust—falls under a certain teleology of sexuality with devastating consequences.

With the advent of the birth control pill, it became possible to sever sexuality from children. Certain strands of Christianity, primarily Catholic, immediately objected to this severing, claiming that the purpose of sexual intercourse was the production of children. Most low-church denominations, such as Baptist and Methodist, either dodged the moral questions raised by birth control or formulated a different argument: the purpose of sex is pleasure between spouses. Married couples can then make the decision about whether or not to have children. American culture at large accepted the pill with excitement, rushing onward to the Sexual Revolution. For many people, concerns about the purpose of sex paled in comparison to the pleasure of consequence-free intercourse.

If the purpose of sex is pleasure alone, then pornography is an acceptable route to that goal, as it provides pleasurable mental and physical stimulation. Berman’s sex-bots are merely the next logical extension of this pursuit. If, however, the purpose of sex is something different, then it merits further consideration. Sexual intercourse brings together two human beings—male and female—and permits them to mingle, creating the opportunity for new life. This is a profoundly human moment, where two separate consciousnesses, two souls, mix physically and, in their unity, could produce another human soul. If this is the purpose of sexuality, then pornography becomes far more dangerous.

The ancient Greeks had a concept of sin drawn from an archery metaphor. Hamartia, translated as sin, originally described an archer who missed the target. He aimed at a bird, and hit the tree. If the goal of sexual intercourse is the mingling of two persons, then pornography causes one individual to miss the mark. In gazing at the sex act through a mediated lens, whether paper, ink, or a screen, the impulse that should move an isolated individual to form a micro-community causes him to dwell in solitude. The dangerous part, however, is that the deeper into a pornographic habit one goes, the further he is from the target of human community.

Pornography exacts a price; it changes the way a viewer sees the other sex, and it ingrains a habit of self-gratification within the heart. Where sexual intercourse calls for serving the partner in love, pornography produces the illusion that selfish viewing gives greater joy than actual intercourse. To maintain the illusion, the viewer continues in search of ever deeper, more depraved depictions of sexuality. Perhaps the saddest result comes when one who has spent years viewing pornography comes to the bed with a lover and expects sex to be what he has seen and imagined. Sex can be fantastic, but a real sexual relationship takes time, effort, love, commitment, and service. These capacities have been stripped from the pornography viewer’s expectations of sexuality.

Here then is the subtle lie of pornography. It promises satisfaction, but strips one’s ability to appreciate the real thing. It upholds a cheap pleasure as the highest good, removing one’s ability to recognize that children and a loving marriage are infinitely more valuable than orgasm alone.

It reminds me of the Prodigal Son. In Luke 15, Jesus tells a parable of a son who has it all, but takes his inheritance and parties it away in the city. After experiencing his epiphany in a pigsty, the most morally reprehensible place for a good Jewish boy, he poignantly recognizes his need for repentance. The danger of pornography is that it trains the one in the pigsty to mistake it for a grand mansion with capacious and ever expanding rooms. Uncovering the deception involves retraining the heart and the eyes to appreciate real love, and place that love in the proper order.

Stories of men and women who have reached the other side of a pornography addiction abound. One of the most well-written of these accounts comes from Erica Garza who tells her story in “Tales of a Female Sex Addict.” By the end of her article, Garza finds hope. Her story reveals the depths of pornographic depravity, but also the existence of the human soul.

As humans, we exist as body and soul. Sexuality is a point where our dual-nature combines in a mixture of desire and expression. The desire for intimacy and relationship reveals humans as more than just physical creatures. If we were only bodily creatures, then physical satisfaction of our physical longings would be sufficient. Pornography feeds this desire. Without the spiritual component of human relationship, however, we create a raging monster of lust within ourselves. Rooting sexuality within marriage, aimed at the teleology of children, satisfies our creational design as body-soul, mortal-eternal beings.

Sexual expression has always been an area of problematization, worthy of contemplation; this is an important question to get right. At stake is our ability to love other human beings, to see in them an image of the Creator worthy of love, sacrifice, respect, and honor.

The hope of joy in this life rides on recognizing pornography not as a harmless habit, something all guys will do, but as a deadly deception which retrains the heart to be nothing but an engine of lust. We are more than bodies with pleasure centers. We are embodied creatures with eternal souls, “designed to live in community,” to quote Aristotle. We live in a deceptive age, in which pornography is held out with the promise of joy but leaves us holding the ashes of our hope.

 

Image: “Unmasked” by JD Hancock. CC License.