learning from Rod Dreher

My buddy Rod Dreher has a book coming out soon called Live Not By Lies, and it’s about what American Christians can learn about living under an oppressive regime by studying what believers did under the old Soviet Union. I think this is a story that Christians ought to be interested in, whether they agree with Rod’s politics or not. Every thoughtful Christian I know thinks that the cause of Christ has powerful cultural and political enemies, that we are in various ways discouraged or impeded in our discipleship by forces external to the Church. Where we differ is in our assessment of what the chief opposing forces are.

Rod is primarily worried about the rise of a “soft totalitarianism” of the left, what James Poulos calls a “pink police state.” Other Christians I know are equally worried, but about the dangers to Christian life of white supremacy, or the international neoliberal order. For me the chief concern (I have many) is what I call “metaphysical capitalism.” But we all agree that the Church of Jesus Christ is under a kind of ongoing assault, sometimes direct and sometimes indirect, sometimes blunt and sometimes subtle, and that living faithfully under such circumstances is a constant challenge. Why wouldn’t we want to learn from people who faced even greater challenges than we do and who managed to sustain their faith through that experience? Isn’t that valuable to all of us?

I felt the same way about The Benedict Option, which was mostly not an argument but rather a job of reporting, reporting on various intentional Christian communities. I read the book with fascination, because I was and am convinced that the primary reason American Christians are so bent and broken is that we have neglected catechesis while living in a social order that catechizes us incessantly. What can I learn from those communities that would help me in my own catechesis, and that of my family, and that of my parish church? I read The Benedict Option with the same focus I brought to my reading of a marvelous book by another friend of mine, Charles Marsh’s The Beloved Community. Charles’s politics are miles away from Rod’s, but their books share an essential concern: How can the church of Jesus Christ, how can Christ’s followers, be formed in such a way that they can flourish in unpropitious conditions?

That’s exactly the right question, I think, and both The Benedict Option and Live Not By Lies introduce me to people who help me — even when I don’t agree with their strategies! — to think better about what its answers might be. (And The Beloved Community as well. Christians under Marxism and the Black church under Jim Crow offer remarkably similar kinds of help to us, a point that deserves a great deal more reflection than it is likely ever to get in our stupidly polarized time.)

Often when I make this argument people acknowledge the force of it but tell me that Rod is the “wrong messenger.” I understand what they mean. Rod is excitable, and temperamentally a catastrophist, as opposed to a declinist. (That’s Ross Douthat’s distinction.) Like the prophet of Richard Wilbur’s poem, he’s gotten himself “Mad-eyed from stating the obvious,” and I often think that if he writes the phrase “Wake up, people!” one more time I’m gonna drive to Baton Rouge and slap him upside the head.

Also, when Rod rails against “woke capitalism,” he clearly thinks that “woke” is the problem, without giving real assent to the fact that Christians are susceptible to woke capitalism because they were previously susceptible to other kinds. He perceives threats to the Church from the Right, from racism and crude nationalism and general cruelty to whoever isn’t One Of Us, and writes about them sometimes, but they don’t exercise his imagination the way that threats from the Left do. I can see why people whose politics differ from Rod’s don’t what to hear what he has to say.

But, you know, Jonah was definitely the wrong messenger for Ninevah — he even thought so himself — and yet the Ninevites did well to pay attention to him.

And if you think Rod has a potentially useful message but is the wrong conveyer of it, then get off your ass and become the messenger you want to see in the world. Lord knows we need more Christians, not fewer, paying attention to the challenges of deep Christian formation. Wake up, people!