Tag Archives: Education

Book Review: The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher

The “benedict option” has been an influential idea in certain sectors of Christian culture for a while now, even before Rod Dreher made it into a book. So, despite my interest in how Christianity relates to the broader world and culture, it’s a little surprising that I only now got around to it.

For those unfamiliar, the basic concept behind The Benedict Option is that America culture is becoming less Christian. Additionally, some Christian beliefs, especially regarding marriage and sexuality, are becoming especially unpopular. The question for Dreher is this: How do we respond to this trend? How can Christians be faithful to Christ in an increasingly post-Christian country?

Dreher does not give a prescription for “getting back” to the old days when Christianity dominated the culture or the political landscape. He sees the election of Donald Trump, while possibly staying the tide of more formal animosity, as ultimately a symptom of bigger cultural problems. His answers are not political, at least not in the American political sense.

Instead, Dreher’s emphasis is on forming thick communities of faith which will be able to withstand the strong winds of secular culture. This means that the church will need to get back to a more faithful version of itself, to escape the hold of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, and be the church.

Dreher begins with a history lesson: Where are we and how did we get here? He paints a bleak picture of a culture increasingly post-Christian and a church increasingly influenced by secularism. The time to act is now, if we can have eyes to see and the will to act.

He then moves onto the solution, starting with the St. Benedict. Benedict is the hero of this story because, as civilization was crumbling around him, he formed a community of monks who continued both the preservation of the faith and the fruits of Western civilization. The monks, and monastic life, are featured prominently in this book. Our homes, Dreher says, can become miniature monasteries with all the practices therein: order, prayer, work, and asceticism, hospitality, and balance. The rest of the book is an expansion on this theme.

Three chapters stood out to me: “Education and Christian Formation”, “Eros and the New Christian Counterculture”, and “Man and the Machine.” Each chapter, for a certain audience, is bound to be provocative.

In “Education and Christian Formation” he argues Christians should enroll their kids in Christian schools, specifically Classical Christian Schools, or to homeschool their kids while participating with some kind of Classical Christian school partnership. He arrives at this conclusion, first, because he sees education as central to Christian formation and central to the formation of the communities he envisions. He looks to minority religious Jews in this regard. Second, he notes that right after parents, peers are the most influential group in a young person’s life. Add onto that the fact that many American schools are overtly secular and Dreher arrives at the following provocative conclusion: “The rationale [that we have to keep our kids in public schools to be a witness] begins to sound like a rationalization. It brings to mind a father who tosses his child into a whitewater river in hopes that she’ll save another drowning child” (157). So, why Classical Christian schools? Classical education approaches education from a different perspective. It focuses not on just adding a Bible class, but on integrating all disciplines of education under Christ himself (plus it has an emphasis on Western civilization, which Dreher is a fan of).

In “Eros and the New Christian Counterculture” Dreher talks about how Christian communities can respond to the sexual revolution. First, he says we shouldn’t compromise just to try to “keep” the younger generation in church. Those who are accepting the secular view of sex aren’t becoming part of liberal churches, they are leaving church altogether. Second, we need to affirm a positive and wholistic view of sexuality. Third, we need to support unmarried people. Fourth, we need to fight pornography with everything we have.

Finally, “Man and the Machine” addresses the Christian community’s response to technology. Dreher, of course, notes the negative uses of technology – such as rampant pornography among younger and younger teenagers. But he goes further and addresses the technological mindset, the mindset that judges everything by whether we can do something rather than whether we should do it. To that end he argues that technology is not morally neutral, but has the power to reinforce a scattered and impulsive life. How should we respond: Go on regular digital fasts, work with your hands, take the smartphones away from your kids.

Dreher concludes with two images of floods. In one, Christian communities are little arks, weathering the storm of a crumbling culture. In the other, the flood waters are redemptive, sweeping away the old so that when the waters recede new life can spring up. He concludes with this more positive image of the church, retaining its life and saltiness so that it can once again bring life to the world.

Review

Agree or disagree with some of Dreher’s points above, his book is worth a read and his arguments are worth considering. I agree that one of our primary strategies during this time is the formation of Christian communities, to refocus our attention and energies on faithfully being the church. I’m not sure I share as bleak a picture of the world as Dreher, but time will yet tell who is right.

I also think this book is worth balancing with another book which covers a similar set of topics: This is our Time by Trevin Wax. The thesis of Wax’s book is that we should get to know our cultures deepest desires and then show how those desires are fulfilled only in Christ. Take technology: We’re drawn to social media because we want to be known and liked. But social media only disappoints. We show ourselves, but only versions of ourselves. We are liked, but only superficially. But God knows us fully and loves us fully. Our desires – given expression in our use of technology – are only fulfilled in Christ. Wax, then, sees the same sorts of problems that Dreher does, though his book offers a more outward focused way of dealing with them.

That’s not to say these two books are mutually exclusive. Both have important things to say. There is a worthwhile balancing effect. Also, The Benedict Option is not insular. He does give a nod to the importance of hospitality and of welcoming others into the community. His emphasis, though, is primarily on preservation.

All in all, this is an important book. I hope you’ll read it and consider its arguments.
Book Recommendations
The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation

This Is Our Time: Everyday Myths in Light of the Gospel

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In Defense of School Vouchers

Update 11/28/2017 – When it comes to education I’m guided by the following principles. (1) I want parents to have a real choice in the education of their children – public/private, religious/secular, homeschooling. (2) I want this to be a choice for all parents, irregardless of income. (3) To the extent that this is seen as competing with quality public education is a problem but, ultimately, a false dichotomy. (4) The devil is in the details and I’m far less certain about those.

Original Post:

Donald Trump recently picked Betsy DeVos to be his secretary of education. She’s a controversial pick for several reasons and I am certainly not qualified to say one way or another on whether she is a good choice. But one of the reasons why she is controversial is because she is a proponent of school vouchers, the idea that parents who want to send their children to a private school could get money from the state to do so. As I understand it, they would get the equivalent of what it would cost the state to educate their child in a public school. This is a complex issue but I want to offer my own brief defense of the policy.

Public State Schools are Not Religiously Neutral

I would not always have defended the idea of education vouchers and my main reason would have been that this would have constituted a breach of the separation of church and state (see objection 2 below). My thinking was this: Public schools are religiously neutral institutions. Religious education should take place in the home and in the church/mosque/synagogue. Religious schools, by my estimation were, by and large, a luxury, and Christian (or Jewish or Muslim) parents who wanted to give their children a “religious education” were at no real disadvantage if they could not afford a private school.

Several things shifted my thinking on this, but all fall under the realization that my assumption that public schools were religiously neutral was deeply flawed. First, was my experience of being married to a science teacher at a Christian school that worked hard to integrate all the subjects with a Christian worldview. This helped me break down the spiritual/physical dualism that had tainted my theology, especially me theology of education. Second, I read several books which should how modern thinking was, at many points, fundamentally at odds with the biblical worldview and, importantly, that it was therefore necessary to have “thick” communities of faith which infused the Christian worldview at every level (see Leslie Newbigin’s The Gospel in a Pluralist Society and Stanley Hauerwas’ Resident Aliens.

Third, I came to the realization that the government establishes state schools to meet its own ends as a state. Such a school will not be morally neutral but will serve the “civil religion” of the nation, even if done in secular terms. Indeed, I have concluded that we have a civil religion in our nation which is not religiously neutral and, indeed, is often antithetical to the Christian worldview which Christian parents are tasked with passing along to their children.  Francis Schaeffer puts it like this:

“In the United States the materialistic, humanistic world view is being taught in most state schools. … We must never forget that the humanistic position is an exclusivist, closed system which shuts out all contending viewpoints – especially if these views teach anything other than relative values and standards. Anything which presents absolute truth, values, or standards is quite rightly seen by the humanist to be a total denial of the humanistic position.” (A Christian Manifesto)

These conclusions have led my wife and I to choose to send our children to a private Christian school. I do not think this is a mandate for all Christian parents – there are many other factors at play here – but my wife and I feel sufficiently compelled to use Christian education as a key tool as we seek to disciple our children. Many other Christian parents have come to the same conclusion (as well as Jewish and Muslim). My point is this: Children who go to public schools still get a religious education. They are still taught a worldview. And, in many ways, that “humanist, materialist” worldview will stand in opposition to the biblical worldview. State schools are not religiously neutral institutions.

Lower-Income parents who do not want their children educated in State schools are at a distinct disadvantage

This means that religious parents who don’t want their children being taught a competing worldview will essentially have to pay twice for the education of their children. First, they pay for their education by paying their taxes, collected and distributed as the state sees fit. Second, they pay for their education by sending their child to a private school.

This also means that poorer parents will not be able to send their children to private schools. Private schooling is expensive. While in some cases a school or church can offer a certain number of scholarships, the cost of private education makes it impossible for many even middle-income parents, and for nearly all lower-income parents.

If private education is a luxury, then this isn’t a big deal. But, if private education is an essential part of being able to pass along important aspects of your worldview and not having it undermined by an education designed to serve the purposes of the state, then asking a specific group of parents – religious ones – to double pay for their education seems to only unfair, but unjust.

Objections

Two objections are typically raised. First, that providing parents with vouchers which they can use to pay for a portion of their education at a religious school amounts to a breach of the separation of church and state since, presumably, it means tax dollars being sent to a religious institution. My first response would be to say that state schools are also not religiously neutral institutions, they simply express their religious tenants in secular/humanist terms. My second response would be that the money allocated is simply what the person would have (on average) paid into the tax pool. For more on this check out the Supreme Court Ruling Zelman v. Simmons-Harris which includes a five point Private Choice Test for constitutionality.

The second objection is that this would involve taking money away from public schools. That could certainly be the case but it doesn’t have to be. In fact, if it did cut into money allocated to public schools I would favor overall increases to education funding in order to close the gap.

Conclusion

For the sake of time I had to leave out a lot. My wife and I are fine with “double paying” so that we can send our children to a private school. God has blessed us with the means to do so and I am happy that I can contribute to the public school system. There are many things which I appreciate about public schools and I am beyond grateful for the teachers in my own public school, several of whom were great Christians and mentors. Nevertheless, I believe that many parents who see religious education as an obligation and who fear their own worldviews are being undermined in the state schools are financially unable to send their children to their school of choice. It is those parents for whom I believe a voucher system would be both fair and just.

Appendix: The strongest objection

There’s a final objection for which I do not yet have a response. For a school to be able to be able to participate in a school voucher program it would need to meet certain qualifications. Those qualifications would be determined by the government. For instance, in a school voucher program in Ohio that was deemed constitutional (see Zelman v. Simmons-Harris) participating schools were not allowed to have faith as one of the considerations for enrollment. This would have disqualified the school to which we send our daughter. And, for many religious schools, this would be a deal breaker. At some point, the qualifications for participation could undermine the purpose of the school, but it’s hard to see a way around the state – even if through a third party accreditation agency – requiring some level of oversight.

I stand by my post as “a” defense of school vouchers since I think they are, indeed, defensible. But it’s possible that there are simply too many complicating factors to doing them well. Or it’s possible that those challenges can be overcome. Or, perhaps there are other options available and as yet unexplored. So, this post is “a defense”, but certainly not the “definitive defense.”