How can we build strong communities and be humble at the same time?

Heather Walker Peterson

I’m a Christian parent in the U.S. in the early 21st century, and I worry about my kids. I worry every time I buy a $1 Disney princess item in the Dollar Spot at Target, and yet I still do it because I’m tired, and it’s such a convenient way to keep them occupied for a little while. But there’s a lot to worry about—am I teaching my kids instant gratification, letting them be subsumed by a large corporation’s incessant marketing, supporting the tentacles of an unethical global economy where likely some other kid was involved in the manufacturing of this item?

My husband and I are trying to negotiate a way for our family against the pragmatism, consumerism, and relativism of our culture. But it’s exhausting and often feels like we’re doing it ourselves. A hopeful notion may be Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option, Christians living in intentional community within a culture becoming not only post-Christian but anti-Christian.

This isn’t quite the same thing as Shane Claiborne’s intentional community the Simple Way. Dreher’s main motivation doesn’t seem to be social justice in the inner city, although I wouldn’t doubt that “Ben Op” groups may have that as ministry. He is only beginning to put flesh on the bones of his concept. Up to lately, as with many others, his idea of withdrawal from culture evoked the separatist fundamentalism of my childhood.

And then he posted on his blog that instead of isolationism, he’s asking Christians to “re-center on God,” and he quoted James K.A. Smith extensively—to say that we need new liturgies of life to counter the cultural liturgies, such as the consumerism that we’ve tacitly taken on. The Benedict Option stirs desire, the desire as a family to make our way with others.

He’s coming in a couple weeks to Colorado Springs, where I live, and I’m looking forward to attending a discussion with him. I’m eager to hear more about the Benedict Option from the source.

But I’m also worried about this: arrogance. Not his arrogance, but the arrogance of middle-class white people living in intentional community. The northern half of Colorado Springs isn’t called the Holy Hub for nothing. To some extent, this is as likely as close as you can get to intentional community without us all sharing our own plot of land.

We’ve got three public charter schools with a classic focus run by Christians. Two of these charter schools offer homeschooling programs one-or-two days a week, and one of the charter schools has a partnership with a community college. The public library and Barnes and Noble nearest me even set homeschooling materials close to the front. My girls are enrolled in a remarkably popular ballet school that pastes a Scripture verse onto each kids’ class in its recital program.

Quite frankly, we middle-class Christians in Colorado Springs think we’ve got the corner market on arts and the humanities at the K-12 level—why it’s not a surprise Dreher is coming also to speak about Dante saving his life. I know I like what I have: I want my kids in a school where their classmates have similar values in hopes that unlike a boy I heard of recently, they may not be exposed to inappropriate talk about sexual intercourse in first grade. I want my kids to learn to think deeply according to a classic tradition.

What I don’t want is the elitism that I’m afraid we exude. This is an elitism different from my fundamentalist past, in that kids are trained to think better, and pride themselves in it, instead of assuming they’re better because they’re Christians who think about Scripture and obey a lot of rules.

But I wonder if our young people will become so proud of their thoughts and tastes that they might be incapable of hanging out on a stoop with a working-class neighbor drinking cheap beer someday. I wonder if they’ll recognize that to change their vocabulary to talk to a lady at the grocery store is not to lower their speech. If they’ll ever be fully aware that lots of couples have to both work, and just to get their kid to church on Sunday is as much as they can handle on the weekend, if that.

So, here’s my fear about a bunch of middle-class people in the Benedict Option. How are we going to participate in intentional community in God’s kingdom without building our kingdoms, our own Towers of Baal, confident that we’ve got special access to God, not realizing that those on the outside of our community, both Christian and non-Christians made in the image of God, have something to offer us, to challenge us? How are we going to be humble?

Heather Walker Peterson is the co-director of the Anselm Society Arts Guild. This post was originally published in Humane Pursuits.

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