“Strangers in a Strange Land” Helps Us Be “Healthy Cells” in Society {My June column @TheCatholicPost}

Following is my June column that appears in this issue of the print edition of  The Catholic Post.

In the last year, there have been several important books about the need for sincere Christians to be much more intentional about living their faith and sharing it with their children, loved ones, and the wider community. I’d like to focus on two of those books.

The most well-known and bestselling is The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians, columnist Rod Dreher’s book-length argument that Christians need to live as the early Benedictines did. These first monks, led by St. Benedict, the father of monasticism, retreated from the world at large to focus on prayer, work, and community in a disciplined way. Dreher makes the case that committed Christians need to consider living that way now.

Dreher, once Roman Catholic but now Eastern Orthodox, is a gifted writer, and so The Benedict Option has a lot of food for thought, especially when he is profiling people and families living out faith in a robust way.

But the book falls short. Dreher’s particular insistence that sincere Christians need and in fact should not be in the political life, because those battles are already lost, is particularly short-sighted. I, for one, am glad there are honorable people involved in political and public life. The book is great for talking about and gleaning good ideas, but ultimately, something is missing.

Much more successful, and more hopeful, is Strangers in a Strange Land: Living the Catholic Faith in a Post-Christian World, by Archbishop Charles Chaput. It also has a much more pastoral focus, probably because Chaput is an archbishop and long-time pastor. And that makes it more effective.

Initially, I felt skeptical about reading Strangers in a Strange Land. I didn’t want to read more bad news about how bad the world is, and how we as Christians need to withdraw from it as quickly as possible.

I am happy to report that I was really, really wrong.

Strangers in a Strange Land is far more about engaging the culture, while knowing and embracing our own Catholic culture, than it is about the evils of the world. And that is why it is so refreshing and encouraging to read.

Consider this quote:

“But (the earliest Christians) didn’t abandon or retire from the world. They didn’t build fortress enclaves. They didn’t manufacture their own culture or invent their own language. They took elements from the surrounding society and “baptized” them with a new spirit and a new way of living.”

Or this, probably one of my favorite quotes from the book:

“Our task as Christians is to be healthy cells in society.”

Strangers in a Strange Land is divided into four sections. There is one chapter that’s an overview of the book; another chapter that is a summary of Catholic history in America; then five chapters that explain where we are as a culture; and five chapters explaining our reason for hope in the face of this cultural shift.

Strangers in a Strange Land is not a casual or breezy read, but it’s worth the modest extra effort it takes to read it. As Archbishop Chaput puts it, “Adults deserve adult food for thought, and in these pages I’ll try to honor that.”

The overarching message of the book is the vital need for Christians to be active about their faith life and also conscious of living it out within a community. As Chaput writes,

“That means cultivating in our clergy and laypeople a better sense of who and what the Church is, separate and distinct from the culture around us—a family of families; an intimate community of Christian friendship with a shared vocation to sanctify the world; a mother, teacher, and advocate; the path to eternal joy; and an antidote to the isolation and radical individualism of modern democratic life. It means recovering a sense of Catholic history and identify; a deepened habit of prayer and adoration; a memory of the bitter struggles the Church endured in this country; a distaste for privilege; and a love for personal and institutional asceticism.”

The book calls believers back to a childlike wonder about the gift of creation, the gift of our faith, and the gift of the world. Towards the end of the book, Archbishop Chaput— to illustrate the importance of inculcating a sense of the sacred in children— tells the story of an older woman who still remembers how her father would marvel at lovely things in the world with the sentence, “God made the world beautiful because He loves us.”

May we always remember that truth, and share that message with our families and all those in the world.