Rod Dreher’s much acclaimed new book, The Benedict Option is being released this week. Having been a regular reader of his blog at The American Conservative, I’m somewhat familiar with his proposal. I’ve also just finished reading Nathan Irwin Huggins’ The Harlem Renaissance. While it would appear that the Benedict Option proposal and the Harlem Renaissance have nothing in common, there is much to learn from the Harlem Renaissance from Benedict Option devotees.
For the uninitiated, Dreher’s Benedict Option proposes that what some Christians term the “culture war” has been lost. The Christian faith is no longer the predominant worldview in the West. Christians have accommodated to this development largely by allowing themselves to become absorbed by consumerism and what sociologist Christian Smith calls “moralistic therapeutic deism,” which is a counterfeit of historic Christianity that reduces God to a divine butler. Dreher’s concern is that current Christian practice has accommodated the culture to the extent that professing believers have lost their distinctiveness. In Jesus’ terms, the salt of the earth has lost its savor, and is good for nothing, but to be cast out and trodden under the foot of men (Matthew 5:13 KJV). The tradition that the fathers are to hand down to their children has become so diluted, that much of the Church has nothing substantial to pass on to the next generation. Dreher’s proposal is for Christians to “strategically withdraw” for the purpose of returning to the roots of the faith so that Christian practice regains its distinctiveness and has the “weight” to be passed down intact to future generations. Dreher is looking to the past, to the efforts of the monks in the early Middle Ages, who by strategically withdrawing from the world, preserved early Christian literature until such as time as people saw its worth and desired to read and study it and return to the faith of the Fathers. Thomas Cahill tells this story ably in How The Irish Saved Civilization.
The Harlem Renaissance is a literary and artistic movement that fanned the flames of a robust black cultural identity beginning in the 1920s. While this movement, called the “New Negro Movement” at the time featured Harlem as its epicenter, its influence spread throughout America, the Caribbean, Europe, and Africa. Historians typically see the waning of this movement beginning with the Great Depression, but its influence continues today. The artists of this period sought to create a distinctive black culture and to foster pride in black identity through the media of literature, drama, music, and the visual arts.
I raise this comparison because the Harlem Renaissance may be a possible sort of template for Christian culture-making within the Benedict option. The Harlem Renaissance was such a diverse movement that not all who were a part of it subscribed to all of the tenets that I mention below. Rather, these are general characteristics that summarize the philosophical distinctives of many of its voices.
First, in the Harlem Renaissance, blackness was promoted as a source of pride rather than a source of shame. Even while living within the constraints of Jim Crow and second-class citizenship, many of the voices of this movement promoted pride in black identity. Faith-shaming has made many Christian wary of coming out or living openly as Christians. Even if Christians are destined to be treated as second-class citizens, we need to develop a sense of the right kind of pride in our faith and in our identity, to not be ashamed of the gospel of Christ, but to publicly live out our God-given identity in Christ.
Second, the Harlem Renaissance highlights the importance of community.The Harlem of the 1920s created an incubator of culture through a network of artists, patrons, and causes. While there were certainly artists who flourished outside of this community, living in a community that fostered a shared identity and cultural aspiration created symbiotic relationships that enriched the quality and distinctiveness of artistic expression. Not all Benedict Option-minded Christians will be able to relocate to residential communities of like-minded people. But it is necessary to encourage and be encouraged by like-minded people who believe that mining the treasures of the past and appropriating them for today is the way forward to further distinctive Christian living.
Third, while not every creator who was influenced by the Harlem Renaissance attained higher education, W. E. B. DuBois promoted the necessity of African-Americans being education classically, as free men, rather than only being apprenticed to a trade. In order to pass down the traditions of the faith, our children must be taught to think broadly, deeply, critically, as free people, hence the importance of a liberal arts education rather than an almost exclusive focus on scientific, technological, and vocational education.
Fourth, the artists of the Harlem Renaissance produced “high” culture and “folk” culture, rather than mass culture. Claude McKay, James Weldon Johnson, and Count Cullen were poets who strove to be great poets, rather than great Black poets. Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston incorporated elements of black folk culture in their works. Jazz and blues, the only genre of music indigenous to America, originated from folk culture, then spread to popular culture and high culture. Popular culture, as we know it, was just beginning to develop during this period, so it’s difficult to know to what extent practitioners would have created art for mass or consumer culture. In today’s Evangelical tradition, most literature, music, and visual arts are geared toward mass or consumer culture rather than high or folk culture. Such works are here today and gone tomorrow. Those of us who are practitioners of the arts must aim long-term and seek to create works that will stand the test of time.
Last, the Harlem Renaissance had their own “house organs” to publish and proliferate their works. The Crisis, perhaps the best-known magazine of this period, was the official magazine of the NAACP, and Opportunity, the magazine of the National Urban League, published and promoted the work of African-American writers. The Messenger and The Negro World were political publications that also published poetry and essays of interest to their audiences.
Print media runs on tight margins today. First Things, Touchstone, and World are fine publications. Alas, Books and Culture ceased operations last year. While web publishing is incredibly cheap (it cost me nothing except for my annual subscription fee to WordPress to publish this essay), putting an essay, a poem, a story, or a novel into print makes a statement. It announces to the world that this work is worth reading and taking up space on one’s shelf. Publishing on the web has enormous advantages in terms of reaching both a targeted and diverse audience. Print is not going away. Certainly, Benedict option writers should seek to publish with the publishers who will give their work its greatest reach. But if the marginalization of Christianity has come, Christians will need to publish and promote their own work, and will need to develop the institutions and organizations necessary to do so.