by Tom Hoopes
YIN & YANG
Their titles and approaches might seem vastly different, but two recent books are actually complementary — a yin and yang of being Catholic in the 21st century. And both books have faithful Catholics buzzing! The yin is The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher (Sentinel), a 2017 New York Times best-seller expressing the “let’s build a city on a hill” strain of Christianity. The yang is To Light a Fire on the Earth by Bishop Robert Barron (Image, 2017), expressing the “let’s light a lamp” strain of Christianity. Both approaches are Christ’s, and both live side by side in the Gospel and in the Church.
The authors of the two books are internet sensations whose books continue to get noticed and discussed as Catholics seek ways to hold onto the faith in an increasingly hostile culture. Dreher is a Catholic journalist-turned Eastern Orthodox author and blogger; Barron is the Catholic intellectual turned YouTube film critic who became a leading explainer of the faith in his many video series, including Catholicism, seen by many on PBS.
The ironies of the two books begin with their subtitles. The subtitle of The Benedict Option is A strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, but the book is actually about more than one “strategy.” In it, Dreher weaves several Christian approaches together, guided by the Rule of St. Benedict. The subtitle of Barron’s book is Proclaiming the Gospel in a Secular Age, but the book actually presents Catholic journalist John Allen Jr.’s reporting on how one man has proclaimed the Gospel in a secular age — Bishop Barron himself. Along the way, it shares the evangelical wisdom of the self-effacing Midwestern preacher and former rector at Mundelein Seminary in Illinois who has become an unlikely Catholic superstar. Both books warn Christians of the depth of the difficulties Christians face in our times, and both offer helpful suggestions to overcome them. Considering the two books together gives a full picture.
IN THE WORLD, NOT OF IT
Christians are supposed to be the leaven in the dough of the world (see Matthew 13:33, Luke 13:20–21, and Galatians 5:9) — an integral part of it. But we are also supposed to be at war with “the world, the flesh, and the devil” (see Ephesians 2:1–5). Dreher has been writing about the “Benedict Option” for years now, and the concept seems to set many people on edge because they think he wants Christians to hide away from the world. He doesn’t. He is telling people to live their faith more radically and intentionally. “If a community relaxes its discipline too much, it will dissolve. But if it is too rigid, it will make people crazy,” Dreher writes. A monk, Br. Ignatius, gives Dreher valuable advice early in the book. “The best defense is offense. You defend by attacking,” he says. “Let’s attack by expanding God’s kingdom — first in our hearts, then in our own families, and then in the world. Yes, you have to have borders, but our duty is not to let the borders stay there. We have to push outward, infinitely.”
If a community relaxes its discipline too much, it will dissolve.
To Light a Fire is great at explaining how to push outward while preserving what is healthy in the tension between living in the world but not of it. The book starts out with a biographical chapter outlining Bishop Barron’s upbringing in a “good, solid” Catholic family that was nonetheless “not overly demonstrative about their faith.” This upbringing meant that Bishop Barron spent his childhood with a freedom to discover the value of the faith and at the same time explore the value of the culture, as well. This is important because it means that he comes to appreciate not just the direct expressions of Catholicism in his life, but the overarching principles that give them value: beauty, truth, and goodness. The book focuses on each of those three transcendentals (things that point us to God) in a very down-to-earth and rich way, with references to the Christian world as well as the secular world: Bl. John Henry Cardinal Newman’s Grammar of Assent and the offbeat comedy film Juno; Europe’s oldest cathedrals and its 20th-century novelists; Mozart and Clint Eastwood.
All the same, both authors insist that the Christian experience has to be different. In The Benedict Option, Dreher traces the reasons our neighbors’ worldviews might be very different from ours; he does this by showing how secularism developed from religious roots.
.First, 14th-century English philosopher William of Ockham decided to make “faith” and “reason” utterly separate. He was followed by 17th-century French philosopher René Descartes, who placed the individual’s value in one’s own self-awareness, apart from the community. Centuries later, those distinctions have deepened into a chasm between what the Catechism teaches and much of what our non-Catholic neighbors believe. Dreher calls for strengthening Christian beliefs to keep from falling into the chasm. He says, “Don’t be afraid to be nonconformist.” And he quotes a Southern Baptist pastor who compares living a Christian life in an unsupportive environment to living with peanut allergies. If you know your child is allergic to peanuts, you are strict in keeping them away from peanuts, no matter how “strange” that makes them seem. And if you know your kids are harmed by immorality, you are strict about that, too.
Dreher suggests that Christians should seek “the life of the church first, even if you have to keep your kid out of a sports program that schedules games during your church’s worship services. Even more importantly, your kids need to see you and your spouse sacrificing attendance at events if they conflict with church.” If Dreher’s emphasis is on avoiding falling into the chasm between the Church and the world, Bishop Barron’s is on building bridges.
Don’t be afraid to be nonconformist.
When Bishop Barron looks at secular beliefs, he sees an opportunity. “I see a lot of people, especially younger people, who have bought that philosophy,” he says. “That’s what they’ve been given by the elite culture, and now they’re chafing against it; they’re reacting against it. That’s an opening.” To Light a Fire introduces a reader to the basics of Christianity in a “winsome” (one of Bishop Barron’s favorite words) way. While he shies away from sexual matters for reasons the book explains, he nonetheless gives some great guidance to ferreting out the questions we have about Catholic sexual morality — including a great comparison with the “just war” doctrine.
He explains how to approach and enter into the world of the Bible. He calmly but firmly rebukes relativism and gives a whole chapter to the Bible, including the problems people have with Old Testament passages. He goes through hot-button issues in the world and in the Church, including Pope Francis and President Donald Trump. Together, these descriptions encourage the reader to think like a Christian.
Bishop Barron even explains how to borrow from opponents. Celebrity atheist Richard “Dawkins is awful in his intellectual arguments,” Bishop Barron says, “but look at the way he uses language in his writing and public speaking. It has massive appeal to young people, because it’s imaginative and edgy.” The book presents Bishop Barron as the new Fulton Sheen. Like the famous television priest from the last century, Bishop Barron distinguishes between evangelization (which is about meeting a person, Jesus Christ) and marketing (which is about selling a product) — but is willing to use what he can from marketing to find Christ.
Dreher would agree with that distinction, and he spends much time in his book exploring ways people today can meet Jesus. He calls for regular times for family prayer and regular readings of Scripture and the stories from the lives of the saints. But he especially emphasizes prayer.
Dreher quotes 20th-century Canadian intellectual Marshall McLuhan saying, “Everyone who lost his faith began by ceasing to pray.” Dreher discovered prayer when he was told by a spiritual director to repeat the Jesus Prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”) for a full hour daily. “It was dull and difficult at first, but I did it out of obedience. Every day, for a seemingly endless hour, silent prayer. In time, though, the hour seemed much shorter, and I discovered that the peace I had conspicuously lacked in my soul came forth.”
Prayer is especially important for parents, says Dreher. He quotes Catholic writer Rachel Balducci saying, “I grew up […] watching my dad do the right thing, even when nobody was looking. I know now that seeing him up in the morning spending time in prayer made a big difference in my life.” Bishop Barron also counsels a rich prayer life — particularly centered on Eucharistic Adoration. “I use the analogy of a windshield,” he says. “When you’re driving a car in the morning, when it’s a little dark out, your windshield looks pretty clean and transparent. But in the middle of the day, when the sun shines on it? You notice all the defects and smudges. That’s how spiritual life works. The closer we move to the luminosity of God, the more intensely our inner life is exposed for what it really is.”
Both books give a wide overview of many helpful topics in the spiritual life. They also concertize their advice in role models living their faith in the 21st century. “In my travels in search of the Benedict Option,” Dreher writes, “I found no more complete embodiment of it than the Tipi Loschi, the vigorously orthodox, joyfully counter-cultural Catholic community in Italy recommended to me by Fr. Cassian of Norcia.” He describes the movement — and lets it speak for itself. “We live liturgically, telling out sacred story in worship and song,” says one member. “We fast and we feast. We marry and give our children in marriage, and though in exile, we work for the peace of the city. We welcome our newborns and bury our dead. … We work, we pray, we confess our sins, we show mercy, we welcome the stranger, and we keep the commandments.” Bishop Barron also has a group to point to — his own.
We work, we pray, we confess our sins, we show mercy.
His Word on Fire ministry has started to grow into a full-fledged movement. “Our first Word on Fire couple, Sean and Rozanne Lee, met at Word on Fire, married, and now have two children. You know their children’s names? Kolbe, for St. Maximilian, and Mary Flannery for Flannery O’Connor. That generation is totally on board with everything we’ve been talking about. When you talk to the younger generation about Church and political machinations, and jockeying for office, they’re bored, but what turns them on is, ‘Yes, tell me the story of Maximilian Kolbe again!’” Short of joining one of these groups, though, both these books have excellent practical advice for living the faith despite the hardships of our times.