“It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”
Many things have changed in the almost 80 years since C.S. Lewis penned the above words, but the truth of his message has only sharpened with time. We remain far too easily pleased. Whether it is drink or sex or ambition or Netflix series or political victories, 21st Century American Christians have been settling for far too little from life. Or at least that is the premise at the heart of two of the most-discussed new books of 2017: The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher, and The Tech-Wise Family by Andy Crouch. While significantly different in tone and approach, both authors take up the task of rousing the American church to what they’ve been missing while raising the bar for what we ought to consider “The Good Life.”
Had I not already been so impressed with the writing and personality of Andy Crouch, I might have assumed when I picked up his newest book that I was going to encounter something like a self-help guidebook, a quippy listicle offering “The 10 Best Ways to Free Your Family from Evil Technology.” I might have expected some finger-wagging, some bewailing of the state of the youths and a healthy dose of “Thou Shalt Not.” Thankfully, Crouch fell into none these well-trodden moats. Instead, he uses the all-too-present reality of our technology-gorged world as a way into addressing our deepest human questions: Why are we here? Towards what end should I be directing my life?
In this sense, the book is only secondarily about technology; its primary concern is to exhort all people (but in particular Christians) to put work into cultivating the full, rich lives of wisdom and courage we were created to experience. This starts with the family, both in the traditional American sense and in the even more traditional, Christian sense of the whole people of God. Crouch calls us to choose character formation as the mission of our family lives, to shape the spaces in which we dwell, and to structure the time we have in order to enable deeper and deeper relationships with one another, the world, and God. The vision of the good life Crouch conjures is inspiring, compelling even, at once nostalgic and fresh, traditional and novel. It is only once he plants his readers’ imaginations on the high summit of life-to-the-full that he descends to the level of our technological world and how that world impedes our ability to remain atop our intended promontory.
Technology, as Crouch defines it, offers easier and easier solutions to once onerous tasks, and it offers to provide those solutions everywhere. In myriad ways, these functions are immensely important to providing us the historically unprecedented safety and health we enjoy in 21st Century America. However, technology’s promise to be “easy everywhere” has a dark side: it shapes our expectations for how our lives ought to go; it trains us to believe that life revolves around our comfort and diversion, and anything that causes our discomfort or boredom should be washed away. If the children are making too much noise before dinner, there’s an app for that. If pursuing a committed relationship sounds too risky, there’s an app for that. If you’re worried about awkward lulls in conversation during a road trip, there’s an app for that. Crouch argues that by nullifying all the potential pain points of real, embodied life together, we deny ourselves the opportunities to make the creative and courageous decisions that help us develop wisdom and character.
Rod Dreher, like Crouch, has grave concerns about the thoughtless march towards individualism our modern culture (and even the church) is taking. His diagnosis is grave: The Culture Wars are long over, Christianity has lost its influence in America, and we need to wake up to that reality quickly or we risk losing the integrity of the Christian faith in the West completely. Markedly more dire in tone than Crouch, Dreher’s solution, laid out in The Benedict Option, is also much more comprehensive in scope (it’s a much longer book, after all). Drawing largely from time he spent observing the ordered and vibrant communal life of a modern-day Benedictine monastery in Norcia, Italy, he devotes entire chapters to the different aspects of communal life that need revitalization in Western Christianity: family, work, politics, and yes, technology.
But underneath the more “How-To” sections of the book is the same primal yearning for Life-to-the-Full that comes across so clearly in The Tech-Wise Family. By unthinkingly assimilating to the ubiquitous culture of individualism and consumerism, the Western Church is completely missing out on the infinite joy being offered us. The solution, both authors agree, requires a decisive and (at least for a time) painful break with this prevailing culture, accomplished by returning in earnest to spiritual disciplines and by recasting the expectations for a Gospel-shaped community. In this vein, Crouch offers “Ten Tech-Wise Commandments” as a way of ordering our lives (much like a monastic rule is intended to do) so that we might experience increasing amounts of this yearned-for Life-to-the-Full, and his suggestions mirror almost perfectly an exhortation of Dreher’s at the end of his chapter on politics:
“Secede culturally from the mainstream. Turn off the television. Put the smartphones away. Read books. Play Games. Make music. Feast with your neighbors. It is not enough to avoid what is bad; you must also embrace what is good. Start a church, or a group within your church. Open a classical Christian school, or join and strengthen one that exists. Plant a garden, and participate in a local farmer’s market. Teach kids how to play music, and start a band. Join the volunteer fire department…
We are a minority now, so let’s be a creative one, offering warm, living, light-filled alternatives to a world growing cold, dead, and dark.”
Both authors see significant shortcomings in the way American Christians have been living full of faith in the world, and they both long to see “the church be the church” in more countercultural and, critically, more rewarding ways. Dreher coins “The Benedict Option” and Crouch, “almost almost Amish” to describe the new-yet-not-new modes of living they are espousing, and the suggestions that make up these modes of living are remarkably in-step. But beneath the rules, essential as they are, Dreher and Crouch are trying, like Christians for millennia before them, to walk the razor’s edge between Gospel-shaped distinctiveness and complete cultural withdrawal, between being in the world but not of it. Will we look up from our mud pies long enough to heed their call?