Sunday, April 16, 2017

Rod Dreher's Wake Up Call

Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option has been out for a few weeks. As a Christian, I’m hoping the book puts down deep roots, that it escapes the fate of most books on the culture, which make a brief stir, then slip off the radar. Dreher’s book doesn’t deserve such a fate.

Dreher has been writing on a “Benedict Option” for years. He coined the term in echo of a passage near the end of Alasdair MacIntyre’s classic After Virtue, where the Scottish philosopher argues that what the West now needs is a figure similar to St. Benedict. Referencing our current state, MacIntyre wrote:

What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. . . . This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another--doubtless very different--St. Benedict.

After Virtue is one of the most cunningly constructed philosophical wrecking balls ever to be swung at the edifice of Enlightenment ideology, and MacIntyre's deep critique of modern bureaucratic culture and the “emotivism” that modernity has spawned leads him to put new emphasis on communal practices as the only viable basis for a meaningful ethics. Dreher, seeing the need for a similar return to Christ-guided practices among Christians, and taking the seminal case of St. Benedict as touchstone, slowly began compiling what would become The Benedict Option.

I come to Dreher’s book from a unique place, a personal history that all but forces me to recognize the troubling truth in his main arguments. Dreher insists that American Christians have for a couple decades now been ignoring their real position in American culture. He is right. What’s more, I believe his widely misunderstood ideas about what must come next, if Christianity is to survive, are right as well.

For most of my adult life I counted myself on the left. As a student in Madison, Wisconsin in the late 1980s and early ‘90s, I was active in the Divest from Apartheid movement and very active in the nuclear weapons freeze movement. My theory-heavy area of study, Comparative Literature, left me with a keen sense of the subtle powers of ideology in discourse, whether political discourse, or literary, or in the everyday. Many lifelong friendships began in Madison, and this web of friends for many years kept me committed to a politically left reading of the world and American culture. That commitment, however, started to crack in 2011.

Already back in university I was something of an odd man out, because I was also Christian. I defined myself as a “left Christian”, of course, often stressing the social doctrine side of the Gospel, and was unorthodox in my speculative, often agonistic, theological struggles, seeking to ground a new understanding of the faith. I had a strong sense of the divine Presence in the world, of a Mystery that wasn’t to be seized in language but must nonetheless be reverenced. Early on I understood that this reverence for God was connected to anything the West might mean by human rights. The faith had a world-historical importance--one might say the world-historical importance--even as it pointed beyond the world. My focus on European literatures gave me in addition a deep respect for the Western tradition.

All through those years, and up to the start of the new century, there were things in the American left I didn't support; causes my peers considered progressive but that I stood against. At that time, back in 1989, in 1995, perhaps even in 2003, this was still possible: I could be a faithful Christian but still part of the American left.

All that has changed. The new century has seen our “left” almost completely abandon the goals that kept people like me in solidarity. Worse, it has seen the rise to prominence of all the elements I didn’t support: the shrill identity politics, the speech codes, abortion “rights” as the meaning of womanhood; and most noticeable of all, the now fanatical fetish of sexual self-definition--the more perverse the better--as the very meaning of "progressive".

As Rod Dreher lays it out in The Benedict Option, what we are seeing in all this is the final, decisive victory of the Sexual Revolution that began in the 1960s, the LGBT movement its final avant-garde:

The advance of gay civil rights, along with a reversal of religious liberties for believers who do not accept the LGBT agenda, had been slowly but steadily happening for years. The U.S. Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision declaring a constitutional right to same-sex marriage was the Waterloo of religious conservatism. It was the moment the Sexual Revolution triumphed decisively, and the culture war, as we have known it since the 1960s, came to an end. In the wake of Obergefell, Christian beliefs about the sexual complementarity of marriage are considered to be abominable prejudice--and in a growing number of cases, punishable. The public square has been lost.

Dreher is especially persuasive in arguing that this victory is not merely a matter of the previous culture “loosening up” its sexual mores or expanding the range of acceptable sexual behavior. He sees it rather as a thoroughgoing shift in cosmology, a culture-wide rejection of the Western understanding of our place in the universe and its replacement with something utterly different. What we are undergoing, according to Dreher, is a far-reaching redefinition of the meaning of sexuality and of the individual’s relation to his or her own being. With the Sexual Revolution’s triumph, sexuality is no longer grounded in any metaphysical truth of human nature, but has become a pure expression of the self’s supposed ability to define itself. One’s sexual being is no longer a given, grounded in one’s sex. Thus, in our new order, “We are married” no longer presupposes a sex-based understanding of what that means; nor, with more recent developments, does the statement “I am a man” even presuppose a male body.

One good reason to read The Benedict Option is to get a sense of what this shift means in relation to the millennia of cultural life that came before. In clear, reader-friendly prose, Dreher lays out some of the intellectual history that prepared the soil for the shift, but he’s especially strong in his depiction of just how different this new version of humanity is. He is right, besides, that Christianity can make no peace with this particular revolution. Biblical anthropology stands on completely different grounds, a vision of the meaning of sex as rooted not in individual desire, but in male and female as embodying a supra-individual cosmic mandate. Sexuality in the Christian rubric was not mostly a matter of what turned individuals on, but of how individuals were to fulfill their relation to that divinely given purpose.

How did this revolutionary victory, once realized, affect the culture? Myself I noticed a very tangible shift in the terrain during Obama’s second term. I now attribute it to awareness among liberals and leftists that, with “marriage equality”, the old regime had finally been routed. This meant a new kind of relationship to those like myself who were, on some matters, still part of that old regime. If previously the left could consider me one of them, a somewhat eccentric religious guy whose “heart was in the right place”, suddenly there was a new coldness. In the past it had always been “Well, Eric, you subscribe to a religious interpretation, I don’t”--but our conversation, whatever the subject, would go on. Now any time the discussion, whether face to face or online, got near any part of my Christianity, their point seemed to be that the conversation would not go on. I’d get the equivalent of a scowl, as if even mentioning the Christian tradition was repugnant: all such thinking needed to be finally and utterly pushed out of sight.

I’d always had gay friends, written on gay writers, supported gays and lesbians in their struggles against the anathema conservatives placed on them. I’d always found the bourgeois Christian stigma on sexual sin over the top; it was often cruel and un-Christian--seeming to imply as it did that sexual sin was in a special category that made it worse, even qualitatively different, than sins like pride or greed. I never thought this way myself. But any nuances in my thought made no difference in the new climate. When it became clear to liberal acquaintances that I didn’t agree to their fickle redefinition of marriage, they jumped straight to ostracism. It was not any more that I “disagreed” with them (as I always had on abortion)--no, I had to be made to disappear. Those who held to the old view of marriage were to have no place in our Brave New World. They could be given no place even to speak.

Why such weight put on this particular issue? I’d disagreed with my fellows on the left before, and my right to such disagreement had been recognized. Why now was it suddenly necessary to censor me?

I now see it as related to something Dreher and others have been onto for years. The logic of Enlightenment, the way this logic has been pushed and combined with the Sexual Revolution, has in fact made sexual self-definition the very center of a new cosmology, even a new religion of sorts. On this Dreher has learned much from the brilliant sociologist and culture critic Philip Rieff:

In Rieff’s theory of culture, a culture is defined by what it forbids. Each culture has its own “order of therapy”--a system that teaches its members what is permitted within its bounds and gives them sanctioned ways to let off the pressure of living by the community’s rules, which are traditionally rooted in religion. Moreover, the asceticism in a culture--that is, the ideal of self-denial--cannot be an end in itself, because that would destroy a culture. Rather, it must be a “positive asceticism” that links the individual negating his own particular desires to the achievement of a higher, positive, life-affirming goal. . . . A culture begins to die . . . “when its normative institutions fail to communicate ideals in ways that remain inwardly compelling, first of all to the cultural elites themselves.” . . .

What made our condition so revolutionary, he said, was that for the first time in history, the West was attempting to build a culture on the absence of belief in a higher order that commanded our obedience. In other words, we were creating an “anti-culture,” one that made the foundation for a stable culture impossible.

That is, instead of teaching us what we must deprive ourselves of to be civilized, we have a culture built on a cult of desire . . .

“Eros must be raised to the level of a religious cult in modern society, not because we really are that obsessed with it, but because the myth of freedom demands it,” says political philosopher Stephen L. Gardner. “It is in carnal desire that the modern individual believes he affirms his ‘individuality’. The body must be the true ‘subject’ of desire because the individual must be the author of his own desire.”

In declaring myself against “same-sex marriage” in 2011, I was thus offending against the very core of this new Sacred. Soon to follow the redefinition of marriage there came the supposed right of individuals to define their gender, indeed to invent dozens of new “genders” to correspond to whatever their self-mythicization might project:

The Romantic ideal of the self-created man finds its fulfillment in the newest vanguards of the Sexual Revolution, transgendered people. They refuse to be bound by biology and have behind them an elite movement teaching new generations that gender is whatever the choosing individual wants it to be.

Back in 2011, during the marriage debate, what struck me most was the almost apoplectic fury of liberals when faced with any disagreement. It was a visceral hatred, flaring suddenly, accompanied by the most vulgar insults and sometimes even veiled threats of violence. And this from people who knew me as someone more or less in their camp on other issues.

Deep hatred of anyone who doesn’t march lock-step with LGBT dogma is now widespread. I remember once going to a Facebook page in support of Barronelle Stutzman, the soft-spoken 72-year-old Washington state florist now being sued out of house and home because she told a gay customer she couldn’t arrange flowers for his wedding. Here were the two first visitor comments that appeared:

And Barronelle, a woman who’d always treated this particular gay customer well but only demurred on wedding flowers--these people would have you believe that she is the hater.

The insults I was getting from my fellow leftists were not far from what these “progressives” dished out to Ms. Stutzman. Which made me realize: Were they actually my fellow leftists in any meaningful sense? Could I in any way work together with people who obviously wanted me in a prison camp?

To interpret such visceral hatred, I now think it useful to focus on the revolution part of Sexual Revolution. We might look at previous political revolutions to get some idea of where we’re at as orthodox Christians. American historian Crane Brinton, in his Anatomy of Revolution, was one of the first to analyze the stages a revolution goes through.

Revolutions are typically won by a coalition of political actors working together. Once victory is clear, there is often a brief “honeymoon period” where it seems to the victorious classes that anything is possible. For obvious reasons, this euphoria wears off quickly. Because it’s not long before those who backed the revolution realize that life goes on much as before: Utopia has not been established on earth. A growing malaise combines with the fact that the revolutionary leaders are used to living in battle mode, and thus comes the predictable next step. Moderates among the leadership are accused of not being radical enough in their policies--“We must not give in to these backsliders!”--a purge takes place, and the radicals take over. The ambient ardor left over from the initial revolution is then refocused on two new tasks: 1) ensuring ideological purity; 2) mopping up what remains of the defeated classes, who are depicted as all that stands in the way of Utopia’s final arrival. Thus begins the Terror. During this immediately post-revolutionary period, wholly new planks are often introduced into the ruling committee’s platform, typically of a more extremist nature than what was originally demanded in the revolution.

If we view the Sexual Revolution through this lens of past political revolution, it’s pretty clear where we are at present. The revolution has been won, sexual Utopia still hasn’t arrived (because, duh, it never can arrive) and the only thing that might keep our successful revolutionaries busy for the next decade is mopping up what remains of those who refused to drink the Rainbow Kool-Aid when it was first served--i.e. us orthodox religious people. Religious conservatives must be mopped up because, according to the logic, it is our mere existence that prevents Utopia’s final arrival.

This is in fact just how it is playing out in America, in our media and in our courts. Note especially the new plank that was quickly added to the revolutionary platform: the trans movement. There’s really no surprise in the meteoric rise of this raging trans craze. All the revolutionary zeal left over after the victory on marriage--something had to be done with it, no? To keep momentum going, the woke among the liberal intelligentsia had to quick set about destroying the very idea of sexual difference. “Yes, let’s invent thirty new genders and demand citizens use new pronouns. Those who don’t will face fines. Let’s put biological males in teen girls’ locker rooms. See how the rubes like that!”

It’s all both supremely perverse and, given where we’re at, depressingly predictable.

Liberals often accuse Christians of being obsessed with sex, but really there’s nothing like the obsessive focus on sex we see in this new mainstreamed liberalism. The reason for it, again, is the need to make the desiring individual the very center of the Sacred. To balk at a man who demands you refer to him as they or ze rather than he is now a kind of sacrilege. And they want punishment for those who don’t conform. (Cf. the struggles of Canadian psychology professor Jordan Peterson.)

So who here is really obsessed with sex as the Center of all Personal Meaning--Christians or this SJW rainbow crowd? I think the answer is obvious.

None of which is to say that sex is unimportant in Christianity. But the Christian understanding of sex is radically different. Dreher:

In speaking of how men and women of the early Christian era saw their bodies, historian Peter Brown says the body “was embedded in a cosmic matrix in ways that made its perception of itself profoundly unlike our own. Ultimately, sex was not the expression of inner needs, lodged in the isolated body. Instead, it was seen as the pulsing, through the body, of the same energies as kept the stars alive. . . .”

Early Christianity’s sexual teaching does not come from the words of Christ and the Apostle Paul; more broadly, it emerges from the Bible’s anthropology. The human being bears the image of God, however tarnished by sin, and is the pinnacle of an order created and imbued with meaning by God.

The sexual binary of male and female is an integral fact of this created order. In itself it bears metaphysical meaning: “The significance of sexual difference has never before been contingent upon a creature’s preferences, or upon whether or not God gave it episodically to a particular creature to have certain preferences,” writes Catholic theologian Christopher Roberts. He goes on to say that for Christians, the meaning of sexuality has always depended on its relationship to the created order and to eschatology--the ultimate end of man. “As was particularly clear, perhaps for the first time in Luther, the fact of a sexually differentiated creation is reckoned to human beings as a piece of information from God about who and what it meant to be human,” writes Roberts.

Contrary to modern gender theory, the question is not Are we men or women? but How are we to be male and female together? The legitimacy of our sexual desire is limited by the givenness of nature. The facts of our biology are not incidental to our personhood. Marriage has to be sexually complementary because only the male-female pair mirrors the generatively of the divine order.

Gay marriage, as Dreher indicates, denies this complementarity and thus cannot be actual marriage. “Similarly, transgenderism doesn’t merely bend but breaks the biological and metaphysical reality of male and female.” Dreher again cites Philip Rieff:

Rieff, writing in the 1960s, identified the Sexual Revolution--though he did not use that term--as a leading indicator of Christianity’s demise. In classical Christian culture, he wrote, “the rejection of sexual individualism” was “very near the center of the symbolic that has not held.” He meant that renouncing the sexual autonomy and sensuality of pagan culture and redirecting the erotic instinct was intrinsic to Christian culture. Without Christianity, the West was reverting to its former state.

It is nearly impossible for contemporary Americans to comprehend why sex was a central concern of early Christianity. Sarah Ruden, the Yale-trained classics translator, explains the culture into which Christianity appeared in her 2010 book Paul Among the People. Ruden contends that it’s profoundly ignorant to think of the Apostle Paul as a dour proto-puritan descending upon happy-go-lucky pagan hippies, ordering them to stop having fun.

In fact, Paul’s teachings on sexual purity and marriage were adopted as liberating in the pornographic, sexually exploitative Greco-Roman culture of the time--exploitative especially of slaves and women, whose value to pagan males lay chiefly in their ability to produce children and provide sexual pleasure. Christianity, as articulated by Paul, worked a cultural revolution, restraining and channeling male eros, elevating the status of both women and of the human body, and infusing marriage--and marital sexuality--with love.

What we have now, in the West, are two incompatible anthropologies. Worse, those who support the Sexual Revolution are uninterested in classical liberal pluralism, which would allow for space in the public arena for the two anthropologies to compete. After Obergefell, many Christians expected, as the LGBT activists promised, that the legalization of same-sex marriage would not impinge upon the rights of Christian institutions to live by and teach their own understanding of marriage. It is turning out quite otherwise, with a mounting wave of lawsuits that threaten the very existence of Christian schools, universities and charities. The gay lobby pursues these cases with evident glee. It is they who do not want to live and let live.

What then must be done given 1) the post-revolutionary fury with which the LGBT movement seeks to expel orthodox Christianity from the public arena, and 2) the necessity for Christians to remain faithful to biblical principles for the church to survive and thrive? What is Rod Dreher’s advice for Christians at this juncture?

My writing here so far, especially if read by liberals, likely gives the impression that The Benedict Option is little more than a handwringing conservative lament on American sexual ethics. It is nothing of the sort. Rather, Dreher’s book as a whole presents a multi-faceted strategy for revitalizing Christian life through intentional life choices and a renewed engagement with earlier Christian practices--the faith as it was lived and practiced before the 20th century flood.

Part of Dreher’s assessment of current Christian culture is based on research done by sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton. What Smith and Denton discovered, through study of the beliefs of actual Americans, was that the de facto “Christianity” now practiced in America, particularly among the young, has very very little in common with the traditional faith. They coined the term Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD) to describe this new American religion. Compared to the historical faith, MTD is doctrinally paper thin, and can be summed up in a few bland credos, among them: 1) God is looking over us but not much involved with happenings on earth; 2) God wants us to be nice to each other and to be happy with ourselves; 3) Good people, when they die, go to heaven.

Dreher believes, and I agree, that this way of living our faith is both widespread and seriously inadequate. He also believes that the churches--too much in the business of flattering the feel-good vanities of the flock and not enough concerned with forming souls--are deeply implicated in the spread of this eroded version of what the Apostles taught. He insists that we as a people, the earthly body of Christ, stand no chance of surviving the corrosive secularism of this new century if we continue muddling along in this milquetoast therapeutic version of our faith.

Many of Dreher’s chapters are dedicated to studying alternatives to our current state, and he begins, aptly, with a long chapter on the Benedictine monks of Norcia, Italy. This portrait of a group of men, our contemporaries, who’ve willingly given up everything and dedicated themselves to prayer, contemplation and the works of mercy, allows Dreher to delve into what a more authentic Christian understanding of work, community and spiritual life might look like. It proves a good starting point, as it gives Dreher the chance to clarify a general thesis: that we, as Christians, though not all called to monastic life, are nonetheless called to bring our everyday life activities as much into harmony with Christ as we can. We are failing in this, especially as regards our attitudes to community and work, which for most of us have been shaped almost entirely by the secular culture we were raised in. According to Dreher, this inability to let Christ into our communal and work life has made us into little more than churchgoing versions of the late-modern Standard Issue Human: egotistical but lost, ethically without rudder, consumerists dragged to and fro by advertising, fashion, zero-sum-game politics, Facebook “likes”.

The Norcian monks are just the first of many intentional Christian communities Dreher touches on. Another of them, also in Italy, a group that charmingly calls itself Tipi Loschi--in Italian, “the Usual Suspects”--is practicing a radical form of community building and youth education that also might offer no small light to those seeking a Christian way out. Of course Dreher also interviews people in many intentional Christian communities in the US, whether Protestant, Catholic or Orthodox, seeking to answer the question: What does a “Benedict Option” lifestyle really look like? How can one be part of American culture, yet also establish a distance that allows for the cultivation of the soul in a community of like-minded others? Dreher gives multiple examples of the joys and potential challenges.

Not surprisingly, Dreher also addresses one of the starkest challenges serious Christian families now face in America, namely how to raise children in the faith and keep them from being corrupted by the trashy ethos the dominant culture now models for them 24/7. These chapters on youth and education are some of the most interesting in the book, and they address everything from options for schooling (Dreher advises, if at all possible, that you get your kids out of public schools) to the threat posed by smart phone culture.

But what of Christian politics? How should Christians engage in the political process? This is one of the areas where Dreher’s work has been most widely misunderstood. Far too many have seen in Dreher’s project a call to “run for the hills”, to “retreat” from public life; a call to “let the public arena go to hell on its own” while hiding out in the catacombs. Many of these critics, to read them, seem not to have read the same book I just finished. Their reaction to Dreher’s project might have been understandable before the book was out, but now that the book is on the shelves, I think they might need to take a more careful look at the actual arguments, the double-directedness of the project. On this, Dreher quotes with approval one of the Norcian Benedictines, who speaks of the need to have "borders" behind which we live to nurture our faith, but also the need to "push outwards, infinitely." This double focus has always been implicit in Dreher's writing on the Benedict Option, so it's odd how often it's missed. Some critics, I suspect, are mainly afraid to face up to what's happening in America.

Given our decisive rout in the culture wars, you’d think we Christians would step back a bit and ask ourselves if we weren’t doing a few things wrong. Dreher identifies the virtual fusion in many minds of Christianity and the Republican Party as one of the biggest mistakes of recent decades. A sizable demographic, he argues, came to think of their Church as “the Republican Party at prayer”. The problem here, in my analysis, was not so much that power corrupts, but that imagined power corrupts. How so?

Far too many conservative Christians came to believe that, as long as their governors were in office, or as long as a Republican was in the White House, the Gospel was doing well. This was a grave error. It was an example of bad faith, shirking off responsibility to others, in this case to a political party that was more interested in serving its corporate interests than in smoothing the way for the Kingdom. Meanwhile, as American Christians told themselves that all was right with the world because the GOP held enough seats, the GOP was simultaneously self-justifying its relative inactivity on abortion or economic justice or religious liberty by saying that, after all, they were just politicians, and if the churches could not gather enough public support for what they wanted and couldn’t manage to sway corporate opinion as to their demographic clout, who were they, mere politicians, to do anything risky? After all, they needed to ensure they’d get elected next time around.

The degree to which this kind of mutual bad faith weakened Christian witness in America over the recent couple decades would be hard to exaggerate. Dreher, always an astute political observer (his blog is must reading) saw just what would follow once the corporate world realized that money was to be made in cozying up to the LGBT movement. And so in Indiana, when modest religious liberty protections were proposed in 2014, and the corporate boards decided to virtue signal by threatening the state with boycotts should they actually enact such “bigoted” legislation, GOP governor Mike Pence didn’t stand his ground. Under pressure from the business lobby, the Indiana law was swiftly rewritten to the point of making it toothless. This, Dreher has said repeatedly, is what you will get if you put your hopes in the Republican Party.

Which is why Dreher now insists that putting too many of our eggs as Christians in any political party’s basket is a serious mistake. When push comes to shove, the Republican Party will sell us out. What is necessary for us to work on at present is building up solid Christian communities. Because, if our eyes are open, there is little hope in anything else.

In one fascinating chapter, Dreher offers portraits of two famous Czech dissidents under communism, Vaclav Havel and Vaclav Benda. These men, he argues, offer examples of the kind of “antipolitical politics” we should begin to practice as Christians. Both Havel and Benda realized the importance of resistance at the individual, everyday level. And they understood the necessity of building alternative communities under or parallel to the overarching, oppressive national political order. One gains hope from these examples of anti-communist resistance because, as surprised even them, their steady underground resistance finally bore fruit. Similar dynamics in Poland also saw the Church prove decisive in bringing down totalitarianism.

But we in America are not (at least not yet) under such intense political pressure. Which is all the more reason, according to Dreher, for us to be both strategic and steady in our political efforts. Being joined at the hip to any political party is not strategic given where we’re at. The only cause Dreher insists we should be intensely involved with (as in paying attention and organizing and pressuring our representatives) is the constitutional cause of religious liberty. Because if that is lost, so much else of what we can accomplish, through schools or charities, will be lost too.

Dreher is emphatic about this fight because it is by no means certain that we will win it. It is all too obvious that the new Sexual Identity Commissars are busy 24/7 trying to take away the rights of Christian schools and universities to teach the faith and run their institutions on Christian principles. We must remember that vast swaths of the liberal intelligentsia no longer even believe religious liberty exists as anything other than “an excuse for hate”.

And so I come full circle, back to the question of the threat posed by LGBT activists and their ever-supportive SJW ranks. These people have already gained far too much sway over our courts, schools, and media, not to mention the sway they’ve gained in many denominations. Aside from fighting for religious liberty, how should orthodox Christians meet this threat in the public arena?

One thing I wish Dreher had included in this book are his thoughts on what might be called the rules of engagement between orthodox religious people and the sexual revolutionaries. How are Christians, in the public arena, to communicate with a public that largely supports the “reforms” demanded by Team Rainbow?

My intellectual background convinces me of one thing: Language is the crowbar of ideology. It is language, the manipulation and coining of terms, that ideology uses to pry its way into social consciousness. It is via new concepts, embodied in language, that new ideologies set up shop.

In many circles in America people no longer bat an eye when someone refers to Rob’s “husband”. And it’s growing ever more common for people to refer to some biological female as he or ze or even they. It’s now considered correct to accept and make an effort to use whatever pronouns an individual demands--otherwise one is a bigot. Courts have already come down on the side of people insisting on these new pronouns; fines have already been levied. In Canada, which now has it worse than we do, refusal to use these newly minted pronouns is literally illegal.

The man next to one says: “I’m Rob. This is my husband Dave.” The woman next to one says: “I’m nonbinary. My pronoun is they.” My question: Should Christians agree to use any of this language?

This question is not a trivial one, nor is it easy to answer. On the one hand, Christians must show concern and love for others, regardless of ideological differences, a truth Dreher underlines repeatedly. In this vein, how would it show care and concern if one refused even to acknowledge an individual’s married status? To insist on using partner rather than husband for a married gay couple would now widely be seen as openly disrespectful, besides being, in many instances, legally actionable. Perhaps this will soon be true also with the many new gender pronouns. Shouldn’t Christians just agree to use the terms society is using, as a gesture of peace and goodwill? Can’t Christians just maintain their disagreement in their hearts and in the more closed confines of their communities?

It may be best to do so. But the cost is huge. Because, as I’ve suggested, to use another’s descriptive terms is already to agree to the reality they are promoting. To refer to a woman’s partner as her “wife”, even to do it out of politeness, is to agree that their relationship is actually a marriage. To use ze (rather than he or she) to refer to an individual is to admit that there is such a gender that corresponds to that term. And so: When a Christian agrees to use this terminology, isn’t that Christian more or less burning a pinch of incense to Caesar?

I’d be very curious to see how Dreher might answer these questions on linguistic rules of engagement. I was somewhat surprised he didn’t address such issues in his book. I won’t quote the Havel passage in full, but I wonder: Every time we utter one of these demanded terms, aren’t we forfeiting the bravery shown by the greengrocer who refused to hang the “Workers of the World” slogan in his shop window?

I admit that I’m not sure of the right way forward on this. Is it better, on terminology, to err on the side of peace-making? Or should we ensure that our speech always testifies to what we believe is the truth?

Dreher’s Benedict Option is a brilliant call for Christians to return to the basics of the faith, to recognize how far we’ve been led astray in our hyper-consumerist secular culture. He has made a compelling case for return to an earlier Christian understanding, the authentic one, and for changing our daily lives through a more thoughtful, principled Christian practice. The book doesn’t answer every question (no book can) but it makes for a worthy “starter manual” of sorts for those who recognize the need for serious change. I’m hoping the book puts down deep roots.

Check out Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation

Check out Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory

And for something completely different, check out my Idiocy, Ltd.