Tuesday, July 30, 2019

The Benedict Option, by Rod Dreher

Book Review by Michael P. Walther
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church – Collinsville, Illinois
July 30, 2019

The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher 

 Rod Dreher’s goal in the Benedict Option is to encourage the Christian church to look to Scripture and to the Rule of St. Benedict to form a vibrant Christian counter culture in order to survive and thrive amidst the moral decline of the world. He gives a historical survey of the spiritual decline of civilization. He outlines the philosophical and theological foundation of the Christian counter-culture. Finally, he presents practical life choices of a Christian counter-culture. 

The Historical Survey 
According to Dreher the decline began when William of Occam challenged the metaphysical realism of the Middle Ages with nominalism. Without going into all the details, I think it is fair to say that the metaphysical realists of the middle ages had a high regard for philosophy and placed it on the same level as Scripture, if not above it in some cases. Occam put limits on philosophy, and especially placed it below Scripture as a way of knowing. Dreher interprets this as a separation of the Creator and the creation. He blames Luther for continuing this trend and for destroying the unity of Europe. He continues to blame scientists like Copernicus and Newton who overthrew the Aristotelian view of a universe, a universe supported by God, and replacing it with the view of a mechanical universe. This continued into the Enlightenment and finally reached its climax with Darwinian evolution.  

I agree that Darwinian evolution was a major turning point leading toward a godless view of the universe. But the Occam, Luther, Copernicus trend led just as easily to William Paley, C. S. Lewis, and John Warwick Montgomery – men who firmly believe the Apostles’ Creed. Why does Dreher try to link Darwin to Occam? He does so because he holds the middle ages in very high regard – a kind of model society which was destroyed by Luther. This is a sub-theme of the book. I know that the middle ages were not all bad. I’m thankful for the monasteries that preserved the Biblical manuscripts and gave birth to the great universities. But I’m not thankful for the confusion of the two kingdoms and the repression of science, Scripture, and the Gospel of forgiveness. The middle ages may have some things to teach us, but there is still much that we should thankfully leave in the past.  

The Philosophical and Theological Foundation of a Christian Counter-Culture 
Rod Dreher and I may disagree on how we got to where we are today, but we do agree for the most part on where we are. Scripture was abandoned long ago. Now our post-Christian society is abandoning logic and truth itself. It is a culture led by “emotivism” in which the guiding principle is that of feelings, and its goal is the liberation of the individual will to do whatever it wants. A Christian counter-culture needs to be built on the foundation of the truth and love. While post-modern civilizations disintegrate and destroy themselves in their rejection of truth, the Christian counter-culture will thrive in the truth that God gives us both in nature and in Scripture. Living the truth needs to follow knowing the truth, and this leads to the importance of love. A Christian-counter culture will thrive in the love of God for us, our love for God, and our love for one another. The Christian church, in all her different communities, will survive when it provides a sub-culture of truth and love.  

Practical Life Choices 
This foundation will support a number of important practical life choices which involve: Sanctification, Suffering, Education, and Work.  

Sanctification, or holiness, is a very important faith-motivated choice that benefits Christians and attracts non-Christians. Without truth and love the world eventually becomes a very ugly place. We need God’s grace to control our appetites, anger, pride, envy, etc. Dreher advocates a kind of seceding from the culture especially regarding social media and entertainment. We should spend more time studying God’s word, praying, reading great books, making music, planting gardens, painting pictures, etc.  

We must prepare for Suffering which will come upon Christians in varying degrees. He could have spent more time focusing on this.  

Education will be a very important key. Dreher strongly urges Christians to get their children out of public schools. They should also avoid Christians schools that are not primarily focused on the faith (Christian in name only). Dreher advocates classical education and provides a little history of its resurgence in America. (See the story of St. Jerome Academy, Hyattsville, MA) Classical education focuses on grammar (basic facts), logic (reason, analyzing), and rhetoric (abstract thinking, debate, clear self-expression). He also advocates economical education without all the frills that we find in public education. An example is St. Constantine College, Houston, which has no expensive sports programs and no full-time administrators.  

Work will be an important matter for Christians in the future. LGBT compliance will force Christians to make compromises contrary to their faith. Christians who disagree with LGBT lifestyles will be viewed as bigots and racists. In order to support their families, Christians will need to consider jobs which may pay less. Dreher encourages Christians to consider skilled labor which might provide work that is not necessarily tied to LGBT loving corporations.  

Where does Benedict come in? Dreher gives a little history of the sixth century monk of Nursia, and the book is peppered with insights drawn from the Rule of St. Benedict. The Rule is 73 short paragraphs that provide a good order for life for a community of monks so that they might find the presence of God in ordinary life. Some aspects of this order can carry over to family life in the sub-culture of the Christian church. The order encourages intense daily prayer, obedience to superiors, putting others first, working diligently but not pridefully, controlling appetites, welcoming strangers, etc. These are great virtues that Christians should strive for as they live in their vibrant counter culture! 

However, my main problem with the Benedict Option goes back to my disagreement with Dreher about Occam and Luther. Yes, I am a Lutheran, and it might seem as though I’m just defending my own tradition. But I know there is a deeper unresolved issue here. Anyone who reads the Rule of St. Benedict cannot help but notice the great emphasis on COMPLETE OBEDIENCE TO THE ABBOT. This is emphasized over and over. Obedience to spiritual superiors is important, and it goes back to the fourth commandment, Honor your father and mother. But one of the tragedies of the medieval church is the abuse of this commandment in the formation of the papacy. Dreher talks a lot of good order in life. But where does that order come from? Man and his logic or from God through His word. The papacy created an order in which man (claiming a special spiritual anointing and tradition) and man’s logic stood above God’s word. Luther reversed this order. Reading the Benedict Option, you can detect this medieval move to put Scripture below some other authority. Dreher mentions the importance of teaching Scripture to children but not so much for adults. By my count there are only seven references to Scripture in the book. He does emphasize the use of Scripture in prayer, and that is wonderful. But Scripture has a greater role and must have a greater role in our Christian sub-culture. It must be our ultimate guide to life in a “post-modern pagan” world. As Peter said, “As newborn babes, desire the pure milk of the word, that you may grow thereby” (2.2). And, “Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3.18).  

I am very glad that Dreher wrote this book. I’ve always felt that persecution would push Christians back together, and I pray that this indeed occurs as we move forward into these end-times. Read this book. Draw good advice from it. But above all read the Scriptures for faith and for the good order of life built upon the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sin and for our salvation.  

Handout for Adult Bible Study
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Collinsville, Illinois July 28, 2019

The Benedict Option, by Rod Dreher

Goal To encourage the Christian church to look to Scripture and to the Rule of St. Benedict to form a vibrant Christian counter culture in order to survive and thrive amidst the moral decline of the world. 

How We Got Here: Blame William of Occam and Martin Luther. The worst thing about Luther was that he taught Sola Scriptura (how many Bible references in the book?) – The Middle Ages were the best! (?)

The Philosophical and Theological Foundation of a Christian Counter-Culture: Modern culture has abandoned the truth of Scripture and logic. It is led by “emotivism.” This will lead to destruction.  The Christian counter-culture will thrive in the truth that God gives us both in nature and in Scripture. Living the truth needs to follow knowing the truth, and this leads to the importance of love. A Christian-counter culture will thrive in the love of God for us, our love for God, and our love for one another. 

St. Benedict: Sixth century monk who founded the Benedictines in Italy. They are known as “The Preachers.” Thomas Aquinas was a Benedictine, so was Johann Tetzel. The “Rule of St. Benedict” is 73 short paragraphs that lay down the rules for monastic life. They emphasize humility, a very ordered life of prayer and work, COMPLETE OBEDIENCE to the abbot, very simple lifestyle, etc.

Practical Life Choices:

Participate in politics, especially to maintain freedom of religion, but don’t attempt to fix the world with politics.

Rediscover liturgical worship, habits of asceticism, evangelize with goodness and beauty, embrace exile and possible martyrdom

Turn your home into a domestic monastery. Be a nonconformist. Don’t take your kids’ friends for granted. Don’t idolize the family. Live close to your community/church. Don’t idolize the community. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good enough.

Give family a rightly ordered education/teach children the Scriptures. Study western civilization. Get your kids out of public schools. Send them to classical Christian schools or homeschool. Study the classics (university).

Embrace hard labor. Buy from Christians even if it costs more. Rediscover the trades. Be poorer and marginalized.  

Sanctify sex. Fight pornography with everything you’ve got. Practice digital fasting. Take smart phones from kids. Do things with your hands. Question progress.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Will Our Pets Be in Heaven?

Many years ago I was visiting a member in her trailer home. She was homebound and in a wheel chair so I would regularly bring her communion. One day she asked if our pets would be with us in heaven. As I started to answer, I looked up and saw on a shelf five urns that held the remains of her five beloved dogs that had passed away. I knew this wasn’t the answer she wanted, but it was the only one I can possibly give: We just don’t know. The Bible tells us many things, but there are also many things it doesn’t tell us. It is not right to make up things about God without His word to back it up. That being said, the Bible does speak of heaven as a “new heaven and a new earth.” If God created this earth with plants and animals as well as human beings, I don’t know why He wouldn’t include plants and animals in the new heaven and earth. 

Monday, March 11, 2019

Paperboy, Vicious Dog, and the Devil

     When I was a boy, I had a paper route. Along that route there was a very vicious dog that often tried to ambush me in the early morning darkness. One day the dog’s owner invited me into his house and assured me that his dog was not that bad. He wanted me to pet the dog. Yet the dog was snarling at me! Then he said, “He’s not a bad dog, but I will tell you this: He was trained in the army to kill people.” Now I was in fifth grade when this happened. That’s when I first realized that some people in this world are not well in the mind. I told me dad about this incident, and he decided to help. He took me around on my route with the family station wagon. When we got the house of the vicious dog, he said he would take care of it. He grabbed a paper, from the back seat he grabbed a four foot 2x2, and he started walking toward the house. It was dark as usual. The vicious dog was waiting, and he made his aggressive move. The next thing I heard was very loud yelping as my dad wacked him very hard. From that day on this dog would bark and growl from the porch, but he never came after me again. Martin Luther said this about the devil:

Why should you fear? Why should you be afraid? Do you not know that the prince of this world has been judged? ... Therefore let the prince of this world look sour, bare his teeth, make a great noise, threaten, and act in an unmannerly way; he can do no more than a bad dog on a chain, which may bark, run here and there, and tear at the chain. But because it is tied, and you avoid it, it cannot bite you. So the devil acts toward every Christian. Therefore everything depends on this that we do not feel secure but continue in the fear of God and in prayer; then the chained dog cannot harm us. (Luther, Sermon on John 16.5-15). 

For more on how we resist the devil, see my sermon: "Are God and the Devil Real? How Do We Know Which One We Serve"

Friday, February 22, 2019

Diogenes or Jesus?

Let no one deceive himself. If anyone among you seems to be wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written, “He catches the wise in their own craftiness”; and again, “The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile.” (1 Corinthians 3.16-20)

When my daughter was looking at colleges, she was interested in Pomona College in California. On our visit we were driving around the town and pulled up behind an unusual car. It was old, beat up, and it had a sign on the back window made with metallic, stick-on letters which read: Diogenes Is My Co-Pilot. I laughed when I saw that! Diogenes was a philosopher who lived in Corinth about three hundred years before Paul arrived to preach the Gospel there. Of all the Greek philosophers, he's one of my favorites because I think he got one thing right: Life on earth is futile. He used to walk around with a lantern in the middle of the day. People would ask, "What are you looking for Diogenes?" "An honest man," he would reply. He lived in a barrel like a dog, and he founded the school of Cynicism. "Cynic" comes from the Greek word for "dog." 

Paul would have agreed, "The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile." That's why Paul came to Corinth to bring a better world-life view: "For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures" (1 Corinthians 15.3-4). The problem with the philosophies of the world is that they don't know what to do about sin. Sin eats away and destroys everything good. It steers us away from God, the source of life itself. Ultimate happiness is realizing that God, the Creator of the universe, actually loves us. His love overcomes our sin and all the terrible effects of sin. Futility is replaced with purpose - to love God and the people God created. Life without God is futile. Life with God is beautiful. God is my co-pilot!

Monday, January 21, 2019

My Experience with a Kidney Stone

I know that people often tell the world all sorts of details of their life that we may not need to know. This post may seem that way. But I'm writing it for two reasons. First, my experience with a kidney stone started with many questions that have now been answered. If you're ever faced with this, my little journey through the process might help you. Second, everything in this life is related to God, who gave us life. This experience confirmed some important theological truths that I'm glad to know. It totally helps me make sense of this life.

On a Wednesday evening as I was driving home after choir practice, I experienced a pain in my left side. It continued increasing in a few minutes until I was laying on the floor groaning. This lasted about thirty minutes and began to subside. I thought it might be a kidney stone because I had seen the same thing happen to my father when I was a boy. I remember him rolling on the floor of the bedroom. Our family doctor actually came to the house and gave him a shot of morphine. He then went to the hospital and ended up having surgery. But the pain subsided quickly, so I didn't do anything about it.
Most of my pain was like this, not in my back.

The next day after supper it happened again - a severe pain in my left side, back and front that lasted for thirty minutes. My wife drove me to the ER, but then the pain went away by the time we got there. I had to teach a class that night, so I went ahead and did that. At midnight the pain started again. This was the worst bout that I had. The pain was left side, front and back, and it extended to the bladder and the entire urinary tract (if you get what I mean). We went to the ER, and I was doubled over trying to get registered. I could talk between gasps. They quickly got me to a room and kindly went through all the preliminaries while I was literally shaking and groaning on the gurney. I suffered for about an hour and a half before they were able to really do anything. Since I had pain in my bladder, and it felt like I needed to urinate, they decided to insert a catheter. That's a burning sensation that I don't care for, but it was nothing compared to the kidney stone. There was no urine. Next they gave me a shot of morphine which knocked most of the pain down. They took me for a CT scan and an Xray. They told me I had a 4 mm stone. They gave me a lot of papers, three prescriptions, a urine strainer, and sent me home. They said anything under 4 mm should pass. I should make an appointment with a urologist.

Friday morning I slept about two hours. My wife picked up the three medicines: Oxycodon (pain), Flomax (to "open you up" as the nurse said), and anti-nausea medicine (caused by the Oxycodon). I first took two stool softeners, because I knew from my knee replacement surgery that these pain killers lock up the bowels. I took the Floxmax also. Nothing was happening, and I needed to urinate. This is where my inexperience got me into trouble. I naively thought that maybe the stone had passed, and I was a little worried about what it would feel like when it actually passed out of my body. So I took an Oxycodon in anticipation. Nothing happened.

The next attack started at 1:00 p.m. on Friday. I took one Oxycodon. An hour later it got worse so I took another one. The pain subsided by 4:30 p.m. At 6:00 p.m. I ate a piece of toast (the only food I ate on Friday). All this time I kept trying to drink as much water as I could. At 7:00 p.m. I felt another attack starting so I decided to get aggressive with pain killers and took two Oxycodon and a nausea pill. With the Oxycodon the attacks were tolerable but never pain free. I slept from midnight to 4:00 a.m. on Saturday, and then another attack started. I took two more Oxycodon, and the pain lasted for a couple of hours. I started eating a little (cheese & crackers, pizza). At 3:00 p.m. decided to try taking Naproxen (Aleve) to see if I could get ahead of the pain. This worked on severe backaches in the past, maybe it would work for this? At 6:00 p.m. I had a severe attack, and I just endured it with Naproxen. It wasn't as good as the Oxycodon, but it helped.

At 3:00 a.m. on Sunday morning I noticed a few dark specks in the strainer. At 4:30 a.m. I had another strong attack. One thing that messed with my mind was that the pain was always in the same location. It was not moving. It was also very much in the "front" of my left side. That made me wonder if it could be something else - maybe an ulcer? So with this attack I took a Pepcid tablet and no pain killer. That had no effect at all. The pain subsided at 6:00 a.m. The rest of the morning went well. At 1:15 p.m. I had another severe attack and took one Oxycodon. I discovered that one Oxycodon was enough to knock down half the pain without the side affects (nausea and dizziness). The pain finally subsided at 3:15 p.m. I ate some tomato soup and a grilled cheese sandwich.

Sometime that evening I felt a little bump in my bladder - not painful, just odd. At 6:00 p.m. I urinated with an unusually strong stream. I felt a little tickle and heard something hit the strainer. It was the stone. It was dark brown, and about 2mm by 4mm. What a relief. Thanks be to God!  Altogether I had nine attacks.

The three biggest practical lessons I learned are: 1. You can't prepare for the attacks. It wouldn't be wise to take Oxycodon all day to get ahead of it because that medicine has side effects. I had a headache when I backed off of it. 2. The attacks usually only lasted two hours. If you take an Oxycodon when they start, you have thirty minutes of strong pain until the medicine kicks in. But the remaining hour and half is not too bad. At least you won't be rolling on the floor. 3. The final passage of the stone was not nearly as bad as I thought it was going to be.

I also took away some important spiritual lessons from this experience. All people struggle with the problem of pain. We know that pain is a good thing when it warns us from further harm. Burned fingers warn us not to touch the stove again, etc. But why is some pain so severe? I've seen people suffer severely from cancer. I know some people live in constant pain caused by arthritis or back problems. Some people die almost painlessly. Others die in misery. As far as the "fairness" of those who suffer more and other less, I can only trust that God is just. All people suffer in different ways. Also, we are never sure of the blessings of pleasure that people have in their lives. It is best to let God be the judge of these things.

The most important lesson that pain teaches us is what the Bible confirms: Pain is the result of sin.

Romans 5.12 "Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned..."

James 1.15 "Then, when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, brings forth death."

Romans 8.22 "For we know that the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now."

God taught us in the Book of Job not to question why some suffer more than others or whether pain is always connected to some particularly great sin. It's here in this world because of sin. That's what God wants us to know.

Throughout my nine attacks I was continually praying like this:

"Dear Lord, please give me some relief! Please help all the other people in the world who are suffering like this! Please forgive me of all my sins, and help me to endure this! Please let this pass! I will be so thankful to You when this is over! Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy."

I would repeat these prayers over and over and over. I also hummed a hymn that somehow stuck in my head: "O Lord, What a Morning!" It's a negro spiritual about the Second Coming of Jesus.

O Lord, what a morning.
O Lord, what a morning.
O Lord, what a morning, when the stars begin to fall.

You will hear the trumpet sound,
To wake the nations underground.
Looking to my Lord's right hand. When the stars begin to fall.

When we are tempted to get angry with God about what we think is the unfairness of pain, it is because we are forgetting the absolute horror of sin. Too often we brush sin off as a little matter of insignificance. God does not see it this way at all, nor should we. The horrible pains of this life, whether we experience them directly or by watching others, should cause us to be horrified by even the slightest sin. We should constantly remind ourselves that we need to avoid all sin by God's grace. Above all we should rejoice that God forgives sin and promises us ultimate relief from all the effects of sin through the innocent suffering and death of Jesus. One of the greatest mysteries of this life is to wonder about the suffering of Jesus. I remember reading about Pastor Wurmbrand, who was tortured in communist prisons. He met a priest there who had been tortured. He cried to Wurmbrand saying that he had suffered more than Jesus! I'm sure he might have suffered more than Jesus physically. I'm sure some have suffered more than Jesus. But the suffering of Jesus is very different because He suffered as the Son of God. Since He was without sin, He of all people must have struggled with the "problem of pain." Not only that, but the pain was being inflicted upon Him by the people He was trying to save, and even God the Father, who was allowing Him to be a sacrifice. I shudder to think of the depth of that suffering. It was a bottomless pit with no painkiller. But, like our suffering, it didn't last forever. It was "finished," as Jesus said. He rose from the dead, and He raised us from the suffering and death of sin through faith. One day we will all have our last "attack" because of sin, and then "O What a Morning!" Amen.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

How to Respond to: "I Don't Believe in the Organized Church"

Now and then I run into someone who tells me: “I don’t believe in the organized church.” This question pops up and serves as a kind of wall as if to say, “I’m a Christian, but don’t talk to me about coming to your church.” Usually a person like this has been wounded in some way in the past when they were part of a local church. Somebody might have said something like “Haven’t seen you in a while?” Or, maybe someone else sat in their pew. Or, maybe the pastor forgot their name. Or... you can go on and on with this list. It’s very unlikely that they would have even become a Christian if it had not been for the ministry of a local church. But that church, like all churches, is full of sinners. While the church proclaims the Gospel and serves as the Holy Spirit’s instrument of salvation, the church also has its problems. Churches can be like a rose bush. From a distance we have the beautiful flowers of the Gospel, but when you get close, you sooner or later get pricked a little. 

For a long time, when someone said they didn’t believe in the organized church, I tended to be a little sympathetic. I know that churches can sometimes wound as well as heal. It’s a part of life in God’s kingdom. But after a while I began to realize that this really doesn’t help. I needed to find another way to be both sympathetic to the problem of imperfect churches and to uphold the incredible goodness of the churches that really do bring Jesus into this world. I found that way by responding with another question. After listening a little to their crabbing about the organized church, I then gently (and humorously) ask them to tell me about the “unorganized church.” After all, how well are things going there? How many baptisms have they had? How’s did the Vacation Bible School go there last summer? Do they have a food pantry?  That question is my way to get them to see that there is no such thing as the unorganized church. It takes organization to be the church and to fulfill the mission that God has given us to go to all nations to make disciples. 

In the Book of Acts we see how the church immediately began to get organized in order to do God's will. The apostles appointed deacons to help with the food distribution to the poor. Paul sent Titus to the island of Crete in order to appoint pastors who could lead the church there. He also started a fund drive to collect money for those who were suffering from famine. There were problems. The James led a council in Acts 15 to iron out some differences that arose in the church. Paul had to settle disputes in almost every church he planted. The church is far from perfect. But it is founded on the perfect Son of God. His work was to redeem us from our sins and to bring us to God and to one another. In Ephesians five Paul compared the church to a bride adorned for her Bridegroom (Jesus). When people say they follow Christ but don't want anything to do with the "organized" church, they're really saying, "I want the Bridegroom but not the bride." It doesn't work that way and will never work that way. 

So basically you just have to bite the bullet when it comes to being part of the imperfect, organized church. But better that than to be bitten by the roaring lion that prowls about about looking for someone to devour. 

Thursday, November 8, 2018

When Attacked By Evil

O Lord, hear our prayer for those who have been injured and for those who have lost loved ones because of senseless violence. Heal the wounds and comfort those who have lost so much. Deliver us from evil, and save us from despair. Help us to keep believing in You and doing the good that overcomes evil as we wait for Your final deliverance on the Last Day. “Amen, Even so, come Lord Jesus!” (Rev 22.20).

Psalm 5:8  Lead me, O Lord, in Your righteousness because of my enemies; Make Your way straight before my face.

Matthew 6.13  And do not lead us into temptation, But deliver us from the evil one.

Romans 12.21  Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

2 Thessalonians 2:7  For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work; only He who now restrains will do so until He is taken out of the way

Matthew 24:12-13  And because lawlessness will abound, the love of many will grow cold. But he who endures to the end shall be saved.

Romans 16:20 And the God of peace will crush Satan under your feet shortly.

1 Peter 5:8-9 Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour. 9 Resist him, steadfast in the faith, knowing that the same sufferings are experienced by your brotherhood in the world.

2 Thessalonians 3:3 But the Lord is faithful, who will establish you and guard you from the evil one.

Psalm 121:7-8  The Lord shall preserve you from all evil; He shall preserve your soul. The Lord shall preserve your going out and your coming in From this time forth, and even forevermore.

Psalm 34:21-22  Evil shall slay the wicked, And those who hate the righteous shall be condemned. The Lord redeems the soul of His servants, And none of those who trust in Him shall be condemned.