Two of my favorite writers, James K. A. Smith and Alan Jacobs, had very different responses to The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher. Both, though, started their reviews with historical anecdotes that work well together.
Smith, who published first, opened with a scene from the life of Augustine:
In the treasure trove of Augustine’s letters, you’ll find a remarkable, ongoing correspondence with a man named Boniface, a Roman general and governor in North Africa. At one point in his career—embattled, bitter, despairing—Boniface is tempted to abandon his post, withdraw from public responsibility, and take up a kind of monastic life. Given that Augustine founded monastic communities and wrote his own Rule, Boniface probably expected his plan to receive an encouraging reply from the aging bishop in Hippo. Instead, Augustine counsels him to remain in his post as a matter of divine calling. While some are called to lives of chastity and perfect continence and cloistered devotion, Augustine notes, “Each person, as the apostle says, has his own gift from God, one this gift, another that (1 Cor. 7:7). Hence others fight invisible enemies by praying for you; you struggle against visible barbarians by fighting for them.” His counsel is rooted in an eschatological caution: “Because in this world it is necessary that the citizens of the kingdom of heaven suffer temptation among those who are in error and are wicked so that they may be exercised and put to the test like gold in a furnace,” Augustine says, “we ought not to want to live ahead of time with only the saints and the righteous.” Augustine’s admonition not to “live ahead of time” is his way of saying: Don’t fall for the temptation of a realized eschatology. We pray “thy kingdom come” among those who oppose it. Indeed, it’s a prayer we can tend to forget when we dwell “with only the saints and the righteous.”
When this temptation to withdraw haunted Boniface again and he again wanted to abandon public life and retreat to a monastery to devote himself to “holy leisure,” Augustine continued to counsel otherwise. “What held you back from doing this,” Augustine reminds him, “except that you considered, when we pointed it out, how much what you were doing was benefitting the churches of Christ? You were acting with this intention alone, namely, that they might lead a quiet and tranquil life, as the apostle says, in all piety and chastity (1 Tim. 2:2), defended from the attacks of the barbarians.” Augustine the pastor is mounting a theological case for the Roman general to man his station, do his job, be faithful as count and governor. Whatever disputes or frustrations Boniface might have with Rome, he still owes a debt: “If the Roman empire has given you good things,” Augustine says, “albeit earthly and transitory ones, because it is earthly, not heavenly, and cannot give save what it has in its control—if, then it has conferred good things upon you, do not repay evil with evil.” In these letters we hear something of Augustine’s hopes for Boniface and those like him: the hope for faithful agents of the coming kingdom who answer the call to public life and administer the common good in this saeculum of our waiting.
Jacobs, on the other hand, started with a scene from the story of the Church in Roman Cappadocia as seen through the eyes of theologian Lesslie Newbigin:
Surely there has never been a richer and more deeply faithful model of Christian faith and practice than that offered by the leaders of the Church in Roman Cappadocia in the fourth and fifth centuries. Think of Basil the Great, exhorting the rich of Caesarea to “empty their barns” to feed the poor, building hospitals for the sick, upholding Trinitarian orthodoxy against the Arians, teaching young Christians the right uses of pagan literature. And Basil was only one among many great ones, even in his own neighborhood: His sister Macrina, his brother Gregory of Nyssa, his friend Gregory of Nazianzus, were all titans of faith and charity, and built a thoroughgoing Christian culture the likes of which the Church has rarely if ever seen.
In 1974, when the great bishop-theologian Lesslie Newbigin retired from his decades of labor in the Church of South India, he and his wife decided to make their way back to their native England by whatever kind of transportation was locally available, taking their time, seeing parts of the world that most Europeans never think of: from Chennai to Birmingham by bus. Newbigin would later write in his autobiography, Unfinished Agenda, that everywhere they went, even in the most unlikely places, they found Christian communities—with one exception. “Cappadocia, once the nursery of Christian theology, was the only place in our whole trip where we had to have our Sunday worship by ourselves, for there was no other Christian to be found.”
If the complete destruction of a powerful and beautiful Christian culture could happen in Cappadocia, it can happen anywhere, and to acknowledge that possibility is mere realism, not a refusal of Christian hope. One refuses Christian hope by denying that Jesus Christ will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, not by saying that Christianity can disappear from a particular place at a particular time.
Both are good exhortations. Both pull no punches. One, though, focuses well on the immediate while the other points out to long-term possibility. It does make you wonder how best to live in time, how we are responsible to build and build well but also build with humility.
(image of Cappadocia ruins from elusiveimage.net)