The Algerian government’s official tourist guide describes ‘the walled town of Beni Isguen — normally closed to foreigners — where the women, clad entirely in white, reveal only one eye to the outside world’. Rod Dreher’s Easter call to devout Christians to separate themselves as a community from what he believes to be the degeneracy of our western culture puts me in mind of that sad, disturbing place.
Beni Isguen is one of the oasis towns near Ghardaia in southern Algeria. I visited many years ago and can be sure there has been little change since, for the community has clung to unchanging and uniting beliefs for hundreds of years. In an attempt to keep their own version of Islam free from pollution by north Africa’s evolving mainstream cultures, Beni Isguen’s inhabitants allow no outsider in and no inhabitant out between dusk and dawn; and marry, it seems, only among themselves. They appeared not unfriendly but entirely closed to visitors like me. The children looked strangely alike, with pallid faces and wide foreheads. I wondered about inbreeding, as I did more recently when noticing the children in a self-imposed ghetto in north London of the ultra-orthodox Jews we Gentiles sometimes (wrongly) call ‘Hasidic’.
I am not suggesting that Mr Dreher wants devout Christians to retreat to walled towns but his argument does expose a real tension within modern Christianity — one which afflicts all world religions. When doctrine clashes with modern ways, should believers retreat metaphorically into the 21st–century equivalent of walled cities?
A Judaic ultra-orthodoxy which will not permit the operation of a refrigerator door on the Sabbath; Mennonite Christians in their closed colonies in Paraguay; a Hebridean branch of Scottish Calvinism that would padlock swings in children’s playgrounds on Sunday — and Beni Isguen. All are grotesque examples of Dreher’s ‘Benedict Option’ taken to an extreme, but not illogical conclusion. How far should modern Christians try to be part of the culture in which they live, or how far should they turn their backs on a mainstream whose values may clash with some of their own? Mr Dreher, who advocates the second of these two responses, disapproves of the Church of England’s frequent accommodations with secular society. I do not. Like many atheists, agnostics and searchers, I find myself rather drawn to a church that, however fitfully, seems to be trying to stay open to ideas, differences and influences outside.
Connecting a religion and the culture within which it lives, the metaphor of a length of elastic is illuminating. The two may diverge, but each exerts a pull on the other. In its long, turbulent history, the church has sometimes run ahead of secular culture, sometimes lagged behind. It has a proud record in questions such as the abolition of slavery; in education, welfare and prison reform it has sometimes lit the way. On overseas aid and concern for the homeless, the church has led where secular society first looked away.
On the other hand, the church has had a chronically difficult relationship with the advancement of science, and, in recent centuries, has had to be dragged reluctantly to a recognition that religion is not the seat of learning about the material world. Wherever sex or gender are involved, the church has tended to lag a good few paces behind the rest of society. Mr Dreher might disagree, but I think that — pulled by secular society and with the elastic often stretched very tight — the church’s agonised progress towards the recognition of divorce and the acceptance of contraception (with of course powerful pockets of resistance among Roman Catholics) has been good for the world. Though I’m not myself opposed to abortion, I think Christianity’s anxiety about careless disregard for human life has also been good for the world.
But bear in mind that elastic rope. Mr Dreher wants to cut it. If you are a believer, it would certainly be emotionally and intellectually easier to stop trying to connect your way of life and belief with that of the society in which you live. You could turn inward and talk to fellow believers alone. You could reject the world as the domain of the flesh and the Devil. It need then no longer bother you that your secular friends and neighbours don’t agree and behave differently. So what if other people divorce, practise birth control, tolerate same-sex relationships? Let them take the primrose path.
You and your friends are an island, entire unto yourselves. You found special schools for your children and tell them not to play with the sons and daughters of secular evil. You don’t think of our society as your society any longer. These unbelievers are no longer part of your world. You go your own way and leave them to go — perhaps literally — to Hell. You care about humanity, of course you do, but you hope that by maintaining the unsullied integrity of your own beliefs, your island community may one day become a beacon to the world. You are waiting.
In Beni Isguen they are still waiting.
I don’t think that’s brave. In a curious way I think it’s the opposite: it is self-indulgent, a kind of petulance. That unwavering Catholic Chris Patten put it best when (championing the life of Pope John XXIII on my Great Lives programme recently) he said: ‘Our church has too often given the impression that it doesn’t actually like the century it’s in.’
Often enough I rage against simpering Anglicanism. I beat my atheist’s fists against the church’s refusal to decide what it actually believes. I mock trendy vicars and hand-wringing bishops and their attempt to stay friends with a Britain increasingly uninterested in their friendship.
But in this issue Dreher shows us the alternative, and in me is born a sneaking admiration for the Church of England’s often perplexed but ever hopeful struggle to carry on liking the century it’s in.
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