I've just begun reading Rod Dreher's "The Benedict Option," which New York Times columnist David Brooks called "the most discussed and most important religious book of the decade."
Dreher believes America has become a post- Christian nation. What once influenced nearly all our institutions — government, media, education, business, entertainment — is now an afterthought. Christianity is no longer at the head of the table; in some ways, it's gone entirely from the room.
"There are people alive today who may live to see the effective death of Christianity within our civilization," he writes.
Dreher, senior editor for The American Conservative, reads the tea leaves of a culture he sees lost in the decadence of materialism and a runaway sexual revolution. Pornography, once taboo, is commonplace. The idols of consumerism dominate the land, and there is both a crudeness and sadness, a shrugging-off of joy and beauty as well as responsibility, all part of a mature spiritual life.
Recently, I saw two grown men wearing T-shirts that made me do a double-take.
One T-shirt said, "Whatever."
The other: "I'm Not Adulting Today."
Compare those two men with the images of men from the Depression, or World War II vets, or so on.
We're losing manners and the little rules by which we once played. A friend who's a Presbyterian minister points to Sunday mornings. Once quiet and reserved, Sunday mornings now are treated like normal days. Soccer tournaments are scheduled. Stores open early. Mowers and chain saws roar. These things would have never happened on a Sunday 10 years ago. (For the record: Often, they're my mowers. And our kids playing soccer.)
Our White House contains a man devoid of any inner, spiritual life. Our Hollywood culture loves to stimulate the flesh and deaden the soul.
So faced with slow demise, Christians have one good option.
"Strategic withdrawal," Dreher writes.
Hence the Benedict Option. Against the vice of sixth-century Rome, St. Benedict, through years of prayer and contemplation, wrote a new view of what it meant to live as Christian in non-Christian times.
Dreher's Benedict Option isn't a call for hermitism.
It is a call for intentionality.
"We have to develop creative, communal solutions to help us hold on to our faith and values in a world growing ever more hostile to them," he writes.
So what is the future of American Christianity?
How should Christians live in America when America doesn't want Christianity?
What does this mean for us in Chattanooga, the most Bible-minded city in America?
And what if all this is a good thing?
For so long, the American church hasn't had much skin in the game. We've grown comfortable, even lazy, treating church like a country club membership, a place to see and be seen. Once, someone asked a friend of mine what religion he was.
He was taken aback by the question.
"You have to ask? Can't you tell by the way I behave?" he responded.
For so long, there hasn't been enough radical behavior to distinguish Christianity from secular America. It has become a regrettable assimilation, Dreher might say, one that must be undone for Christianity to relearn its roots.
But if Americans are rejecting religion — nearly 20 percent of under-30 adults are unaffiliated with the religion of their childhood, the Pew Research Center reports — perhaps we have ourselves to blame.
The 20th-century church wounded so many. In the face of overt violence, we have too often been painfully silent or just plain complicit.
In the face of deteriorating culture, crushing anxiety and near-godlike technology, our response has been tepid. We have not met fire with fire.
We have not met fire with love.
So people turn away.
If Dreher is right, and religion in America is retracting in upon itself, then perhaps believers will be forced into the crucible as well, which could result in a more authentic, devoted, loving Christianity. (Or not.)
Dreher might, but I don't see this as exclusive to Christianity; all believers — Hindus, Jews, Muslims — could stand in this crossroads.
Religion's job is clear: help reconnect and rebind humans with the divine.
What will that look like in 21st-century America?
And Chattanooga, the most Bible-minded city?
David Cook writes a Sunday column and can be reached at dcook@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook at DavidCookTFP.