Tuesday, May 30, 2017

What about the Benedict Option?

Have you heard of “the Benedict Option”? It has been emphasized for years by Rod Dreher, and his new book, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, was just published on March 14. On that very day, David Brooks wrote in the New York Times that Dreher’s work was “already the most discussed and most important religious book of the decade.”

     Rod Dreher (b. 1967) is an interesting guy. He is a senior editor and prolific blogger at The American Conservative (TAC), a bi-monthly journal co-founded by Pat Buchanan. According to their website, Dreher is one of eight, all white men, on the TAC “team.”

Dreher was raised as a nominal Methodist, but he converted to Catholicism at age 26. In 2006 he converted again, this time to Eastern Orthodox Christianity. His views on Christianity are as conservative as his social and political views.

Although his only university degree is a BA in journalism (from LSU in his home state of Louisiana), Dreher seems to be well-read. His emphasis on the Benedict Option (BenOp) comes from Scottish philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre’s influential book After Virtue (1981).

To a large extent, Dreher seems to be a pessimist—or an alarmist. For example, he thinks the world now is “growing ever more hostile” toward true Christians (p. 2). “Progressives, he writes, “sneer at claims of anti-Christian discrimination or persecution.” But, he warns his readers, “Don’t you believe them” (p. 179). 
     Dreher’s main point is fairly simple: Christians who wish to maintain their faith (and that of their children) must separate from mainstream society and try to live in intentional communities—although not necessarily “in the hills.” This is not just for their own sake, but also for the future of the Christian faith.

Benedict of Nursia (480-547), for whom the BenOp is named, is known as the father of medieval monasticism, which, in turn, has been heralded as the “preserver of Western civilization.” If not completely in the same way, Dreher is calling Christians today to the same task: withdrawal from the dominant culture in order to help preserve traditional Christianity.

As a true conservative, in the primary sense of that term, Dreher sees the BenOp as a needed strategy for conserving or preserving the true faith, keeping it from not only from being swallowed up by secular society but also from being perverted by liberal “Christians.”

     I first became aware of the BenOp when I read the Winter 2017 issue of Plough, the quarterly publication of the Bruderhof. (See here for what I wrote about Plough elsewhere.) I was both attracted and repelled by what I read.

As a committed Anabaptist Christian, I agree with Ted Grimsrud, a notable Mennonite theologian, who wrote a long (29 pages!) four-part blog article about the BenOp: “I believe that Christians should always think in terms of living in countercultural communities and having a countercultural sensibility.

I also agree with Dreher’s strong rejection of the consumerism and hedonism rampant in Western society.

My main disagreement, though, is with regard to what he says about gay rights. Throughout much of the book (e.g., see pp. 179ff.) Dreher seems to assert that being Christian clearly means being anti-gay.

According to Dreher’s analysis, the present discrimination against or persecution of Christians—harsh treatment most likely to grow stronger in the future—is (or will be) primarily because of their refusal to countenance the full equality of gays/lesbians in society.

This aspect of the Benedict Option, however, which denies some people’s civil rights, is certainly neither good nor necessary.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

A Night at the Elms

The Elms Hotel and Spa in Excelsior Springs, Missouri, is about sixteen miles from where June and I live. Many times we have driven by the Elms but have never stayed there. That will soon change: we are about to spend a night at the Elms as so many others have over the past 130 years.
The presidential election of 1948 was long ago, but it is still one that is widely known. Upon Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death in April 1945, Vice President Harry Truman suddenly became the 33rd POTUS. He was relatively unknown when elected as V.P. and was quite unpopular during his first term.
Even though the incumbent, he was the definite underdog in 1948. It widely thought he would lose that election to Thomas Dewey, the flashy New York Governor.
According to David McCullough in his massive book Truman (1992), on the evening of the 1948 election, Truman and two of his aides “drove to Excelsior Springs, the little resort town across the Missouri [River] in Clay County, and checked into the Elms Hotel.”
This was “the same place Truman had escaped to sixteen years earlier, crushed by disappointment the night he learned he was not to be Tom Pendergast’s choice for governor.”
McCullough goes on to say,
The sprawling three-story stone-and-timber hotel was the latest of several that had occupied the site since mineral springs were discovered there in the 1880s. Its chief attractions were seclusion, peace, and quiet. Franklin Roosevelt, John D. Rockefeller, and Al Capone were all known to have escaped from public view at the Elms (p. 705).
It was while at the Elms that Truman learned he had won the election. The next day he posed for the iconic picture of him smiling broadly while holding the Chicago Tribune paper boldly declaring “Dewey Defeats Truman.”
In the 1870s and 1880s there was a boom of resorts built to make it possible for people to “take the waters,” drinking and bathing in mineral water that supposedly had healing powers. Such resorts were built all over Missouri as well as in many other states.
Loring Bullard’s book Healing Waters: Missouri’s Historic Mineral Springs and Spas was published in 2004. “By all standards,” Bullard writes, “Excelsior Springs must be considered the state’s premier mineral water resort.” He goes on to say that “it is the only mineral water site still operating as a resort” (p. 133). And that is because of the Elms Hotel and Spa.
Excelsior Springs, now a town of some 11,500 people, has long billed itself as “American’s Haven of Health.” It became a town in 1881, a year following the discovery of natural spring water that was thought to have healing qualities.
The first Elms Hotel opened for business in 1888. After being destroyed by fire five years later, the second Elms Hotel was opened in 1909—only to be destroyed by fire the very next year. The current Elms hotel was built of native stone and opened in 1912—and has undergone many renovations since then.   
For June and me, tomorrow (May 26) is our 60th sixtieth wedding anniversary. We are going to have a bigger celebration with our children and grandchildren in July. Just the two of us, though, are going to celebrate the actual date by spending a night at the Elms.
I don’t know how much we will “take the waters” at the Elms, but perhaps we will be able to reap some benefit there as we shoot for our 75th anniversary. (Is that too much for us to hope for, an anniversary celebration in 2032?)

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Honoring COs

Although largely unknown, May 15 each year is observed by some people/groups as International Conscientious Objection Day (CO Day). So, this past Monday was a day honoring those who have resisted and those who continue to resist war.
The oldest consistent emphasis upon pacifism, non-violence, and non-participation in war is in the Anabaptist tradition, which started with the “Swiss Brethren” of Zurich, Switzerland, in 1525.
That tradition has been carried on mostly by the Mennonites, the followers of Menno Simons. He was a Dutch priest who was re-baptized and left the Catholic Church in 1536. Even a few years earlier Jakob Hutter became the leader of a smaller group that came to be known as the Hutterites.
In the late 1600s, Jakob Amman led a conservative breakaway from the main Anabaptist communities in Europe, and his followers came to be known as the Amish.
One primary commonality among these three groups was/is their pacifism and resistance to violence, based on their commitment to love of enemies as Jesus commanded. Through the years adherents in all three groups have known the story of Dirk Willems, who was imprisoned in the Netherlands for his Anabaptist beliefs.
During that winter, Willems was able to escape—but his absence was soon discovered and he was quickly chased by a guard. Willems ran across the frozen moat, but his heavier pursuer broke through the ice. Willems turned back and saved the man’s life—but then was re-captured. On May 16, 1569, he was burned at the stake. 

Even though there was a long history of pacifism among Anabaptist Christians, there was no provision for conscientious objectors during World War I. As a result, two Hutterites who were committed to absolute pacifism became martyrs in 1918. (If you don’t know their tragic story, or would like to review it, click here to see my 11/30/14 blog article about them.)
Since 1935, three church groups have been termed historic peace churches. Those three are the Mennonites (including the Amish), the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), and Church of the Brethren. During World War II, and since, members of those churches have been able to register as conscientious objectors and to be exempted from direct involvement in wartime violence.
It has not been so easy for people who were not members of a historic peace church or who objected only to a specific war—such as the war in Vietnam. (For more about this matter, see here for Thinking Friend Tom Nowlin’s lengthy and informative comments on my May 10 blog article.)
Conscientious objectors (COs) have been active in countries other than the U.S. In fact, Peace Pledge Union (see here), a secular British group, and War Resisters International (click here) are leaders in the observance of International Conscientious Objectors Day.
This CO declaration appears on the latter’s website:
War is a crime against humanity. I am therefore determined not to support any kind of war, and to strive for the removal of all causes of war.
That is the sentiment behind the CO tradition—and it will continue to be emphasized this year.
On October 19-22, 2017, there will be a symposium on resistance and conscientious objection during WWI at the National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City. The theme is “Remembering Muted Voices: Conscience, Dissent, Resistance and Civil Liberties in World War I Through Today.” (For more information, click here.)
My church (Rainbow Mennonite Church) is supporting that symposium and will be displaying in our fellowship hall some of the materials from the symposium for a few days following its completion.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Watergate and "Russiagate"

The break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate office complex in Washington, D.C., occurred 45 years ago (in June 1972). As virtually everyone knows, repercussions of that single event led to President Nixon resigning in August 1974, prior to almost certain impeachment and removal from office.
As is widely recognized, it was not the Watergate break-in itself that led to Nixon’s resignation. Rather, it was his attempt to cover-up that ultimately did him in. Barry Sassman was city news editor at The Washington Post during those years, and he called it “the great coverup”.
Sassman (b. 1934) authored The Great Coverup: Nixon and the Scandal of Watergate. It was named by the New York Times as one of the best books of 1974.
In that highly-regarded work, the author wrote, “It is sobering to realize just how reluctant Congress, including Democrats as well as Republicans, was to take action against the President. Congress acted only when an outraged public demanded it” (p. 298)
The impeachment process against Nixon wasn’t formally initiated until February 1974. On Feb. 6 the House passed a resolution giving its Judiciary Committee authority to investigate whether sufficient grounds existed to impeach the President primarily because of the Watergate scandal.
That investigation wasn't undertaken until a whole year after the Senate established a select committee to investigate the Watergate break-in and of the Nixon Administration’s attempted cover-up of its involvement.
Impeachment is a long, drawn-out process.
Are there parallels between the actions of the Pres. Nixon and the current POTUS? There certainly seem to be some parallels, but at this point we don’t know to what extent.
Ironically, Pres. Trump tried to make a parallel between his predecessor and Nixon. On March 4, DJT tweeted, “How low has President Obama gone to tapp [sic] my phones during the very sacred election process. This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!”
There has been no evidence found to support Trump’s charges—but there has been growing suspicion that he may be trying to cover up his connections with Russia and Russia’s influence on the 2016 election.
During his May 10 monologue, late-night comedian Jimmy Kimmel remarked, “When we said Trump should act more presidential, we probably should have specified–we didn’t mean Nixon.” This was the day following Trump’s sacking of FBI Director James Comey, who was overseeing the FBI probe into Russian election meddling. 
The second chapter of Allan J. Lichtman’s book The Case for Impeachment (April 2017) is “The Resignation of Richard Nixon: A Warning to Donald Trump.”
Lichtman (b. 1947) is a Distinguished Professor of History at American University in Washington, D.C. He gained considerable notice last year when he predicted that Trump would win the presidential election—in spite of all the polls suggesting otherwise. What made that prediction noteworthy was the fact that he had correctly predicted every winner of the Oval Office since 1984.
In the second chapter of his book, Lichtman points out that “Donald Trump exhibits the same tendencies that led Nixon to violate the most basic standards of morality and threaten the foundations of our democracy” (p. 21).
On May 12 Lichtman talked to Newsweek about Trump’s sudden firing of Comey. “The only parallel is Watergate, and this is much more serious,” Lichtman said. “What Trump is involved in is more serious because it involves a foreign power and the national security of the country.”
Is it now time for an outraged public, Republicans as well as Democrats, to speak up again as they did in 1974?

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Honoring Harry

The Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum in Independence, Missouri, is a major tourist attraction in the Kansas City metropolitan area. This article was spawned partly because of June’s and my visit there on Monday, May 8.
Harry S. Truman was born on May 8 (in 1884), and that date is now celebrated as Truman Day, a state holiday. On Monday morning that special Missouri holiday was celebrated with ceremonies in the courtyard of the Truman Library where both Harry and his wife Bess are buried.
Truman Library Institute photo taken on 5/8/17 (June and I are next to the last people on the right.)
Harry was born in Lamar, Mo., and although he lived there for less than a year, the house in which he was born is still maintained as the Harry S Truman Birthplace State Historic Site. It is a modest house, indicative of the middle-class roots of the man who became the 33rd POTUS.
The small town of Lamar is a little over 100 miles due south of Grandview (on the south side of Kansas City), the town nearest to where the Truman family moved in 1887 and where Harry lived from 1906 to 1917.
Harry was baptized in the Little Blue River in Kansas City in 1902 and in 1916 he joined the Grandview Baptist Church (as it was known then) and remained a member there the rest of his life—although for most of his life he attended very infrequently.
Truman helped finance a new building for the Grandview church, and he spoke at its dedication service in 1950. One Sunday morning many years ago, coincidentally on Pearl Harbor Day, I had the privilege of preaching in that church. Truman’s Bible, which he regularly read in the Oval Office, was on display in the foyer.
While I can understand the pressure Truman felt to use the atomic bombs he first learned about only after he became President in April 1945, and while I realize it is much easier to second-guess hard decisions in retrospect than to make those decisions looking forward, still I have serious doubts about the morality of his authorizing the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan. The bombing of Nagasaki only three days after Hiroshima was bombed on August 6 is especially problematic.
Still, Truman is to be commended for firing General MacArthur and for refusing to escalate the Korean conflict even to the use of atomic weapons there. Truman did threaten to use atomic bombs in Korea, but he didn’t use them as MacArthur possibly would have.
Of many other things that might be said about Truman’s presidency, two are worthy of special note.
In November 1945, Truman proposed a national health insurance plan. Although it was never enacted, it did lead to Medicare. When President Johnson signed the Medicare bill into law at the Truman Library in July 1965, he said that it “all started really with the man from Independence.”
Truman also significantly furthered greater racial equality in the U.S. by issuing an executive order in July 1948 that desegregated the armed forces.
There is an enormous difference between Harry Truman and the current POTUS. While the latter campaigned as a populist candidate, it was Truman who was truly a “man of the people,” to use the title of the lengthy 1995 tome on Truman by Alonzo L. Hamby.
And after watching the HBO movie “Truman” (1995) on Sunday evening, I was also struck by the marked contrast between the honesty and integrity of the man from Missouri compared to the current POTUS.
It was an honor to be among the people who gathered on Monday to honor Harry on Truman Day.

Friday, May 5, 2017

The Gospel According to "Eve"

Wm. Paul Young, as perhaps most of you know, is the author of The Shack (2008), which was made into a movie by the same name and released earlier this year. Some of you may also remember the blog article I posted on the book/movie back in March (see here). Then in April, I read Young’s 2015 novel, Eve.
Eve is classified as a Christian fantasy novel. For some reason, though, I have never cared much for fantasy books, Christian or otherwise. I have not read the highly acclaimed fantasy fiction of C.S. Lewis or J.R.R. Tolkien, although some of my children and grandchildren have greatly enjoyed their books of fantasy.  
An online dictionary defines fantasy as “the faculty or activity of imagining things, especially things that are impossible or improbable.” Maybe that is my problem: I just don’t have enough imagination to enjoy fantasy. At least that was my main problem in reading Eve.
Looking at the reviews of Eve on Goodreads.com was interesting (see here). Some readers gave it five stars and praised the book. Others gave it one star. One such person is Megz, a young white woman in South Africa. She is a fan of The Shack, she said, but then stated bluntly, “I don’t have a nice way of starting this review: I hated this book.”
I certainly didn’t hate it—but I had trouble appreciating the fantasy.
While I had trouble with much of the fantastic (= “imaginative or fanciful; remote from reality”) parts of the book, which was most of it, I was, nevertheless, impressed with some fantastic (= “extraordinarily good or attractive”) statements in it. Here are some examples.
Near the end of the book Eve says, “Perhaps this desire to reach out to the other [to Adam in her case], to make amends and repair loss, to build a bridge and heal, is a part of God’s maternal being that is in all of us” (p. 282).
One theme of the book is human freedom, which includes being able to make bad choices. In that regard, Eve says, “I have learned that God has more respect for me than I do for myself, that God submits to the choices I make, that my ability to say no and turn my face away is essential for Love to be Love.
Eve then goes on to state,
Adonai has never hidden His face from me, nor has He kept from me the consequences of my choosing. That is why many of my sons and my daughters curse the face and name of God. But God refuses to be like what we have become and take power and dominion. He has the audacity to consent and even submit to all our choosing. Then He joins us in the darkness we create because of all our turning (p. 283). 
There are some appealing theological aspects to Eve. As in The Shack, the feminine aspects of God, whom (because of his strong Trinitarian ideas) Young regularly refers to with plural pronouns, are highlighted. That maternal side of God is also portrayed as a part of all humans, made in the image of God.
God allows human freedom, as mentioned above, even when that leads to turning away from God. But they (God as the plural Trinity) still love unconditionally those who turn (sinners), and they are very eager to embrace all those who re-turn.
Another Goodreads reviewer, Rhonda in Virginia, wrote, “This book caused me to think deeply about my own brokenness.” Perhaps it also helped her, and others, to see the gospel (good news) according to Eve: God’s love is always available for the healing of every broken person.