Ever since the Mayflower set sail from England, the idea of escaping a corrupt world to build a godly society has been an ever-present strain in American religion. That impulse has led to more than a few schisms since the days of the Puritans, creating the multi-denominational, patchwork America that we know today.
Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation taps into this tradition. If for the Puritans the issue was the apparent victory of Anglicanism, for Dreher it’s American progressivism:
I have written The Benedict Option to wake up the church and to encourage it to act to strengthen itself, while there is still time. If we want to survive, we have to return to the roots of our faith, both in thought and practice….In short, we are going to have to be the church, without compromise, no matter what it costs. (p. 3).
Like the Puritans confronted by the intransigence of their society, Dreher recognises that there’s now no straight-forward way to overturn the victories won by progressives against traditional Christian virtues. Thus, the Church must set sail for safer shores where she can work to preserve her own beliefs and virtues.
Dreher doesn’t propose a physical retreat to a distant shore but a social one into strongly defined church communities. His hero is St. Benedict, the 5th-century founder of Benedictine monasticism who is justifiably famous for his Rule. Dreher writes, ‘The way of Saint Benedict is not an escape from the real world but a way to see that world and dwell in it as it truly is’ (p. 77).
Unfortunately, there are some serious problems with Dreher’s use of Benedict.
First, delve beneath the romanticism and Benedict soon seems a less obvious model for the Church.
Benedictine monasticism was never intended as a programme for the whole church, signified by the fact that it included vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Tellingly, while Dreher interprets chastity and obedience into a 21st-century, conservative context, intentional poverty is hardly mentioned.
Second, while Benedictine monasteries often preserved classical learning, they were only pockets of strict discipline in a church that was still conducting her business as best she could in difficult circumstances.
In fact, it was often the corrupt and worldly bishops who valiantly taught the faith, preserved laws and civic life, and continued to preach and administer the sacraments. They did this messily and too often in a self-serving fashion. But they were also astonishingly successful.
The final and biggest problem with Dreher’s use of Benedict is strategic.
In an interview with Peter Mommsen, Stanley Hauerwas pointed out that there’s actually ‘no place to withdraw to’. The so-called barbarians are at the gate, surrounding the walls, and so the one possibility that’s been taken away from any would-be reform movement is that of strategic withdraw.
So, what’s then to be done? Live in the forum.
If we want to find a historical analogy, I think a far better case can be made for the Roman forum than for the monastery.
In ancient times, the forum was a place of hustle-and-bustle: a chaotic swarm of philosophers teaching, orators proclaiming, government officials announcing, celebrities entertaining, and merchants yelling sales-pitches.
The din was inescapable and if you were a philosopher or a merchant setting up a stall, you had to do something special to get people to notice you.
This, I think, aligns more closely with our world. Christians live in an inescapable forum, bombarded in both by a cacophony of competing messages. Turn on your TV, log onto the Internet, listen to the radio, gaze at our smartphones, open a magazine, even pay close attention to the clothes people wear, you’re presented with a message. That message comes in a million different forms, but its intent is always the same: shop your way to a happiness found in this life.
In short, the competing Gospel that challenges the church isn’t progressivism: it’s mass marketing constantly preaching the good life of personal consumption.
There’s no escaping this forum. Try to form a discrete Benedictine community and your members will still wrestle with (as they continue to be formed by) the lure of consumerism. Marketing ignores any attempt to create walls or boundaries.
In other words, even Hauerwas falls short of describing our true situation: the barbarians aren’t surrounding our walls — they’ve completely overrun and dismantled them. If the church wishes to survive, she can’t do this by trying to rebuild walls. The time for that is long past.
In fact, the church hasn’t even begun to rally against the message and eloquence of the orators of our own age: marketers.
We continually fail to challenge marketing’s unremitting message of a good life available to everyone with the freedom to choose their own path of consumption. That freedom of consumer choice is how we now understand salvation. It’s available to anyone, regardless of their belief in God, who has the financial means and civic freedoms to participate.
As long as Christians think of the good life in these terms, then no strategic withdrawals will save us. Against mass marketing, Benedict is impotent.
Fortunately, there is someone else who understood the forum thoroughly: Augustine of Hippo.
Few people seem to know that before Augustine converted to Christianity, he was extensively educated in rhetoric and taught it at the highest levels for almost a decade. This gave him a deep appreciation for how persuasive communication can shape people’s perception of themselves and the world in which they live.
(To read Mark Clavier’s latest book on Augustine, click here.)
Cicero’s Rhetorical Theory
Augustine learned and taught the rhetoric of Cicero, who tried in his rhetorical treatises to bridge the divide between rhetoric and philosophy.
Eloquence and wisdom, Cicero wrote, must be combined. In his treatise On Invention, he proposed that while eloquence without wisdom is destructive, wisdom without eloquence is mute. In other words, rhetoric and philosophy need each other to be of benefit to others.
But what did Cicero mean by eloquence? He defined it as the capacity to master the will of others through ‘proving, pleasing, and persuading’.
The orator first presents his message in an agreeable fashion; next he develops his speech in a way he knows will delight his audience; finally, he organises his speech in a way that will most likely persuade the audience to do as he wills.
What Cicero recognised is that if people are delighted, then they’ll feel like doing as the speaker intends because they find the experience pleasurable.
Cicero also believed that the welfare of the state was at the mercy of rhetoric. Demagogues arise with destructive ideas sweetened by persuasive eloquence to convince people to embrace their own ruin.
Against such people, philosophers are mute because they’re unengaged with political life. Virtuous orators, however, unite wisdom with eloquence to contend with demagogues and persuade the people to undertake whatever is good for the state. The health of commonwealth depends on their greater eloquence.
Augustine’s Rhetorical Theology
Augustine took on board Cicero’s rhetorical theory to develop a rhetorical theology. We see this most clearly in two of his works.
On the Sermon on the Mount
The first is his underappreciated commentary on Christ’s Sermon on the Mount. There, he describes the process of sin in the following way:
…there are three steps toward the complete commission of a sin: suggestion, delight, and consent. The suggestion is made either through the memory or through the bodily sense—when we are seeing or hearing or smelling or tasting or touching something. If we delight in the enjoyment of this, it must be repressed if the delight is sinful [….] if consent is given, then a sin is fully committed in the heart, and it is known to God…
See what Augustine has done here? Satan is Cicero’s demagogue, suggesting, delighting, and persuading people to embrace their own sinful destruction. He goes onto say that when this happens, a habit is formed because we yearn to relive the delight. We effectively become addicted to the delights that destroy us.
Unlike Cicero, though, Augustine didn’t believe that it’s possible to be like Cicero’s orator. We’re all sinners and have succumbed to the eloquent charm of the world, the flesh, and the devil.
Instead, Augustine presents God as the great orator.
The Father speaks his wisdom through the Son. And we receive his eloquence when he pours his love and delight into our hearts through the reception of the Holy Spirit (Rom. 5.5). The Holy Spirit, whom Augustine calls ‘blissful delight’ is the eloquence of God. Wisdom and eloquence unite in Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Our reception of the Holy Spirit, however, doesn’t end the struggle. Just because we’ve come to faith doesn’t mean we have ceased to find sins alluring.
Augustine used Romans 7 to describe the dilemma of being a Christian in a fallen world as a kind of rhetorical contest. The devil continues to suggest sins and to delight our senses and imagination in order to persuade us to embrace our own destruction. God gives us his teaching and allows us to delight in them through the Holy Spirit in order to persuade us to remain with him.
The theatre of this great rhetorical contest is the human heart and the experience of our divided wills is like that of an audience charmed by two eloquent speakers. We’re torn.
Left here, this would seem like a lonely struggle. But Augustine was a good Catholic and didn’t believe that we exist alone. We’re members of the church.
On Christian Teaching
In his great work on Christian rhetoric, On Christian Teaching, Augustine provides a role for the Church in persuading people to embrace God.
He proposes the idea of ‘Christian orators’: teachers, preachers, and writers through whom God’s wisdom and eloquence can persuade people away from hell and towards heaven. And Augustine drew directly on Cicero to conceive of their role:
It has been said by a man of eloquence…that the eloquent should speak in such a way as to instruct, delight, and move their listeners. A hearer must be delighted so that he can be gripped and made to listen, and moved so that he can be impelled to action (CT 4.12.27).
In other words, it’s no good for Christian teachers merely to expound or proclaim doctrine. They must do so persuasively, in a manner that delights the audience, so it will listen and respond.
But unlike Cicero, Augustine didn’t believe that wisdom and eloquence originate in the orator. They come from God and are ultimately received through prayer.
In Latin oratormeans both one who speaks and one who prays. Augustine uses this double-meaning to conceive of Christian teachers as men and women who can speak and teach because they also pray. Thus, before they begin to speak, they should ‘pray that God will place a good sermon on their lips’ (CT4.30.63).
Where does this leave us?
Augustine would say that Christians today find themselves caught within a rhetorical community that we call consumerism. That community suggests, delights, and persuades us to embrace its message of salvation and freedom through the consumption of goods and services. That way leads to destruction: personal, social, and ecological.
God’s Wisdom and Eloquence have persuaded us to embrace salvation. The church, however, finds herself caught amidst the unending hubbub of the world, bombarded by the alluring messages of our consumer culture.
There’s no escape from this; no place to where we can retreat. But the same wisdom and eloquence that saved us also compels us to stand up and speak in that forum. To do that well, we must offer wisdom with eloquence.
We are called to be God’s orators, proclaiming the Gospel eloquently.
This requires confidence and conviction. It also requires us to work together to make our churches eloquent places too: people who are trapped by the eloquence of consumerism should encounter in our churches new delights, new ways of conceiving of the world, and a divine eloquence that lays hold of both hearts and minds.
Transforming our churches into places of divine wisdom and delight is the task of our generation, made more difficult by our (de-)formation as consumers.
In discerning how to become persuasive communities, we could do a lot worse than to turn to Augustine of Hippo. Stuck as we are in the global forum of consumerism, he’s potentially a much more fruit option than Benedict.