When two New York Times columnists decide to write about the same Christian book, something is afoot. Both David Brooks and Ross Douthat charitably affirm and disagree with parts of Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option. Many are taking this book as an opportunity to assess the state of the church in the twenty-first century and asking whether a major change in course is called for. In the book, Dreher, an American Conservative blogger, laments the victory of anti-Christian forces and values in our culture to the point where many of our Christian institutions have ceased living by distinctly Christian values; those who do feel marginalized and/or persecuted. The book’s title comes from St. Benedict and his invention of monastic communities, which were places where Christians could be more deliberately and deeply formed by their faith and are credited with saving Western civilization during dark times. In sum, Dreher is calling for Christians to withdraw from political engagement with the world, become more internally focused on spiritual formation by creating deeply Christian institutions, and then re-engage the world through better and more sophisticated as well as more persuasive strategies. Those who want to dismiss Dreher as a conservative who is merely frustrated that his side is losing (remember, he wrote this before the election) and so wants to pick up his marbles and play elsewhere are shortchanging Dreher’s sophisticated analysis and nuanced reflections.
Still, only after reading Marcus Borg’s posthumous collection of writings, Days of Awe and Wonder: How to Be a Christian in the Twenty-First Century, was I able to identify what troubled me about the portrait Dreher paints. A pioneering Bible scholar and influential teacher at many churches, Marcus passed away in 2015. HarperOne has been publishing him for thirty years, since 1987’s Jesus: A New Vision, but I did not fully appreciate the treasure among us until I worked on his last book, Convictions, and on this one. The advantage of Days of Awe and Wonder is that unlike almost all his books, it captures so many angles of his thought—from Jesus, the Bible, mysticism, other faith traditions, etc., to some very practical advice on what it means to be a Christian today, such as how to hear God’s voice and to act upon it. The book’s subtitle is not merely a marketing pitch; with Marcus’s deep faith in the reality of God’s presence combined with his radical openness to how to explain this mystery, he points a clear path forward for how we follow Jesus in the twenty-first century.
What distinguishes Marcus’s vision from Dreher’s is tone and emphasis. Dreher is rightly frustrated at the church’s baptism of secular consumerist values and fears the demise of our communities through dilution. He sees a new Dark Age approaching and places his confidence in smaller orthodox communities to preserve and rekindle the faith. It is a sober assessment. Still, I would say that of the two, Marcus’s critique is actually more biting. Marcus recognizes the same decline in values among consumer Christians (though pointing to different examples), but he is also pessimistic about the ability of even small orthodox communities to be faithful, since so many have a history of becoming preoccupied with tribal issues of us-versus-them while ignoring the very heart of Christianity, which Marcus saw as compassion for the least of these.
But Marcus also sees more hope. An alleged liberal to Dreher’s conservatism, Marcus places more faith in God’s role in our present and future. Moving forward, Marcus points to Jesus as our model for being Spirit-filled and God-saturated; welcomes the wisdom of other faiths and sees diversity as a gift from God; and is confident that when we focus on making incarnate God’s love and justice, we will see the world not as something to be feared but the object of our love and care. I would imagine that Marcus would see a strategic withdrawal as a betrayal of those we are called to serve.
I will close with one of many wonderful nuggets of wisdom that run throughout this wonderful book. Let’s call it the Borg Option:
“We are invited to go beyond the minds that we have to minds and hearts that are shaped by the Spirit of God. We are invited to go beyond the minds that we have—minds dominated and blinded by conventional categories, identities, and preoccupations—to minds and hearts centered in the Spirit, alive to wonder, alive to seeing, and alive to compassion. We are invited to go beyond the minds that we have—minds dominated by the ideologies and preoccupations of individualism—to minds and hearts that see and hear the suffering caused by systemic injustice, to minds alive to God’s passion for justice. All of this, it seems to me, is what it means to take Jesus seriously. The path of following Jesus is an invitation to go beyond the minds that we have.”
Michael G. Maudlin
Senior Vice President and Executive Editor
PS: To celebrate the release of Days of Awe and Wonder, we’re offering all of Marcus Borg’s books for 30% off plus FREE shipping. CLICK HERE to learn more.