“We shape our buildings, and afterwards, our buildings shape us.”
–Winston Churchill, speaking before the House of Commons on October 28, 1944
At the recently concluded Wilberforce Weekend, Rod Dreher made the case (or at least as much as of a case as was possible in the time allotted) for the “Benedict Option.” Dreher’s book may be, in the words of David Brooks, “the most discussed and most important religious book of the decade,” but a lot of that discussion takes the form of resistance.
Some people think that the Benedict Option is incompatible with the Great Commission, which can only be true if you conflate waging the culture wars with preaching the Gospel. (A reading of the book of Acts suggests that it’s quite possible to do the latter without doing the former.)
Others worry that Dreher is urging a repeat of the post-Scopes withdrawal of conservative Protestants, especially fundamentalists, from American public life, which ceded control of American life to non-Christians.
For what it’s worth, I don’t share that concern, for two reasons. First, as books like “From Bible Belt to Sunbelt” and “One Nation Under God” suggest, the extent and duration of the withdrawal have been exaggerated. As early as the 1930s, conservative ministers were politically active in opposition to FDR’s New Deal. And by the early 1950s, America was more religiously observant, as measured in church membership and attendance, than it had ever been. (For an excellent summary of the history, check out “Bad Religion” by Ross Douthat.)
The second reason is that the situation Dreher describes is far more dire than anything faced by fundamentalists in the late 1920s. As bad as people back then thought that things were, they didn’t have kids coming home from school declaring that they were transgender and asking to be put on hormones.
But the obstacles to the Benedict Option involve more than disagreement with and/or misgivings about what Rod has written, or, in some instances, what people think he wrote. One major obstacle to the creation of the kind of intentional Christian discipleship and communities Dreher advocates is real estate.
It’s difficult to name a single factor that has a greater impact on how most Americans, especially the middle and upper-middle classes, live their lives than housing. Where we live and what we live in shape us in ways we can’t or won’t imagine.
Housing is, by far, the average American’s biggest expenditure. According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, in 2014 the average American household spent 25 percent of its pre-tax income on housing. Since these same average Americans pay approximately 20 percent in various federal taxes and another 5 percent in state taxes (not including real estate taxes and sales taxes), that 25 percent spent on housing is effectively closer to 33 percent.
Stated differently, the single biggest reason Americans work is to put a roof over their heads and that of their families.
But this isn’t the only cost associated with housing. There’s also the longer hours many people work to afford their homes. And don’t forget the time spent commuting to work. As Wired put it, “the middle class can’t afford to live in cities anymore.” So longer commutes have become the rule, especially in coastal cities. How much longer? “About 42 hours—essentially a full work week—per commuter per year.”
To be fair, there are good, or, at least understandable reasons, for this investment in home ownership. Done prudently, home ownership is financially sensible. At the federal level, home ownership is heavily incentivized in the form of deductions for mortgage interest and local property taxes.
Then there’s the education factor. There’s a reason that, after the address, practically the first thing you will find in a real estate listing are the schools. Public schools aren’t really free, at least not the better ones. The cost of attending is included in the price of the homes within the district. For all the talk about “McMansions,” what many middle- and upper-middle-class parents are after are the best schools for their children.
While all of this is understandable, what’s undeniable is that, as Churchill told Parliament, our buildings—in this case, our homes—have shaped us. We are not free to live as we ought or even as we might prefer. The time we spend paying for our homes is time that cannot be spent on other, presumably more important, things: our families, our churches, serving our neighbors.
And that brings me back to the Benedict Option. One of the most important things Rod has to say in his book is that, when it comes to creating and sustaining what Robert Louis Wilkins called the “thick texture of Christian culture,” there is no substitute for proximity.
Chuck Colson once told the story of “Mrs. Greene,” an African-American woman in a racially mixed working-class neighborhood in New Jersey. As Chuck told BreakPoint listeners, “Mrs. Greene had three children of her own, but she considered everyone else’s kids her business, too.” Thus, “if she saw you doing something stupid or dangerous, she wouldn’t hesitate to call you on it. . . . Even worse, you could count on her telling your parents. It was almost impossible to get away with anything when Mrs. Greene was around.”
Mrs. Greene was my next-door neighbor when I was a kid. As I told Chuck, we found her annoying at times. “But her presence also made [us] feel perfectly safe, despite living in an inner-city neighborhood. Why? “Because [we] knew Mrs. Greene wouldn’t let neighborhood problems get out of hand.”
I have come to see Mrs. Greene as a kind of parable/metaphor for how Christians are supposed to share their lives. We are supposed to look out for each other and hold each other accountable. We are supposed to reinforce the lessons we learned at home and in church. We are supposed to set enforceable boundaries, not out of a need for control or domination, but because we love each other and understand that we all need boundaries.
This can’t be done virtually. It has to be done in person, and, frankly, our ideas about housing get in the way of this.
If we are especially active, we spend, perhaps, five to seven hours a week in the presence of our fellow believers. That’s 4 percent of our time. (In contrast, the average American kid spends more than 22 percent of his or her time, 34 hours a week, at school. And that kid’s parents spend 37 percent of their time, nearly 62 hours a week, on work-related activities.) The other 96 percent of the time you could be literally be a serial killer and your fellow church members would be none the wiser.
Even if you’re not a serial killer, that 96 percent is still potentially a huge problem. All of the Christian instruction and catechesis in the world, no matter how well thought out and presented, is almost pointless if we don’t pay close attention to our kids’ peers.
As everyone’s abuelita told them, “Dime con quién andas, y te diré quién eres”: Tell me who you walk with and I’ll tell you who you are. While this isn’t always the case, it captures the disproportionate influence of our peers on our behavior, especially among the young. And our kids’ peers are largely a function of where we live.
That is why intentional Christian communities like the Tipi Loschi in Italy and classical Christian schools figure so prominently in “The Benedict Option.” It’s why Rod is so enthusiastic about the Center for Christian Studies at the University of Virginia. Done right, they can turn the time spent in school and with peers into time spent with fellow believers. Done right, they make the kind of reinforcement, mutual accountability, and mutual support we need more likely to happen.
None of this can be done virtually. It is the product of conscious decisions to let how we live dictate where we live. It may be unrealistic to expect everyone to live within walking distance of their church. But is it unrealistic for small groups of Christians to decide that they should live within walking distance of each other?
Doing that requires thinking about real estate differently. Several of the groups Dreher wrote about deliberately chose to live in less “desirable” neighborhoods because it made it easier to live closer to each other.
In the age of Property Brothers, this kind of thinking is, to put it mildly, countercultural—but, then again, being a Christian is supposed to be countercultural, even subversive. The answer to the question posed by Chuck Colson and Nancy Pearcey, “How Now Shall We Live?” shouldn’t be a matter of square feet and zip codes.
Image courtesy of kali9 at iStock by Getty Images.
Roberto Rivera is senior fellow at the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview. For nearly 20 years he has been chief writer for the BreakPoint Radio commentary program. His “Internally Displaced Person” is a mostly regular column at BreakPoint.org. His writings have appeared in Touchstone, First Things, and Sojourners. He lives with his son in Alexandria, Virginia.