It’s a fertile time to be an alarmist.
Culture is changing rapidly, pushed along by huge developments in technology, geopolitical relations, sexual and gender ethics and so on. As with all culture change, some of that is for the better, some for worse; some makes Christian life and witness harder, some makes it easier.
At the same time, the ubiquity of social media makes everyone a journalist and opinion piece writer. Anyone with any view can now self publish, or at least ‘share’ someone else’s views.
And third, bad news sells, but good news is dull.
Which altogether make it a good time to be an alarmist. There is always some negative development unfolding, which can be instantly publicised and will be enthusiastically received. For the most part, alarmists are either funny in their panic, or at least onto something., a partial insight.
But alarmism can also be genuinely problematic.
You see, the alarmist's cry is: Desperate times call for desperate measures. Measures which at any other time would look extreme or unwise suddenly make sense when the times are desperate, when enough is at stake to make even these measures thinkable. And equally they are measures which are so important, given the times, that they can be called for on desperate terms.
Which is where alarmism gets dangerous. Because sometimes the desperate measures aren’t actually justified by the times, and in fact, can make things considerably worse, even becoming a kind of self-fulfillling prophecy.
My reading of The Benedict Option is along these lines.
I shared a longer review last week. It proposes what could be called a 'strategic withdrawal' from society in all sorts of different ways, because it is claimed that it is impossible to be a devoted disciple of Jesus Christ and participate in the culture. Christians need to head to the cultural hills, and wait for the earthquake, and then emerge from society's “rubble” to start again (these are the actual categories the book uses in its concluding chapter).
In my view, this is completely unpersuasive, and fails to read the times at all accurately.
But the alarmist tone is perfectly illustrated at one point. The book claims that “it is time for all Christians to pull their children out the public school system”, and then says that for a Christian to leave their child in the public school system “brings to mind a father who tosses his child into a whitewater river in hopes that she’ll save another drowning child.”
Now, I fully respect a family’s decision to send their kids to independent schools; and likewise to government schools. But to liken the decision one way to throwing your child overboard to drown is an attempt at appalling emotional manipulation. But for the alarmist, it’s justified, because desperate times call for desperate measures.
What if the times are not desperate, just different.
Then the maxim becomes: different times call for different measures.
Yes, the times are different, culture is changing, in some ways for the worse, and in some ways for the better. And these times call for different measures. We need to articulate the apostolic, Biblical gospel, and enact that gospel, in the thought forms, language and categories of these new times, not last century’s.
But that is what the church at its best has always done. There is nothing desperate here, we have done this around the world and across the centuries. These plenty of precedent from which to learn.
But to make the mistake of falling into the desperation of ‘strategic withdrawal’ is not only unnecessary, it may even hamstring the church from fulfilling the mission which in some ways, is clearer and more achievable now in Australia than has been the case for years.