This morning, I received an e-mail from a reader of The Benedict Option who said that she and her husband have moved from Britain to France, in search of a Benedict Option Christian community. She’s asking me if I can put her in touch with my French friends. I am in the process of doing so. I also saw this short Peter Leithart reflection about Lot and the destruction of Sodom. The two are connected. Let me explain.
A year or two ago, in the Q&A portion of one of my Benedict Option talks, I cautioned the audience against thinking that one could fully escape, in a physical sense, the corruption of the world. It’s not simply a matter of original sin, i.e., that the line between good and evil runs not between us and the world, but down the middle of every human heart. And I didn’t mean also in the sense that you can’t get to a place where the world cannot find you. Both of those things are true.
Nevertheless, I think for some people — indeed, maybe even for most people — moving to a different location might be the right thing to do. We have to at least consider the possibility. It is possible that a city, or a place, can be so overrun by spiritual and moral corruption that righteous people have to leave, for the sake of saving their souls. As individual Christians, or Christian families, discern that question for themselves, I advise that they be realistic about what they can accomplish by moving away — and what they can’t. That said, it still might be the best idea for them. It’s a matter of discernment.
That said, consider Leithart’s point (but if you don’t know the story in Genesis of Lot and Sodom, read it here.) Leithart argues that Lot, Abraham’s kinsman, might have left Sodom, but the corruption in Sodom had infected Lot. Leithart notes that Lot, standing at the door trying to keep the mob away from his guests (angels in disguise), offers them his daughters to be raped — a sign, says Leithart, of how corrupted he already was. In the end, the angels had to more or less drag Lot, his wife, and daughters out of Sodom in advance of its destruction. As we know, Lot’s wife was so enmeshed in it that she violated the angels’ instructions not to look back, and was turned into a pillar of salt. We don’t have to believe that she literally was in order to grasp the mythological truth the story teaches.
What people who are only casually aware of the Biblical story don’t realize is that Lot and his daughters took refuge in a cave, where the daughters got their father drunk, and had sex with him. You can take Lot and his daughters out of Sodom, but you can’t take the Sodom out of them.
Even if Lot is mostly on the side of the angels, he hasn’t taught his household the ways of justice. He can’t convince his sons-in-law to leave, and his wife looks longingly back to the city and is turned to salt. This shows the distance between Lot and Abraham. The Lord chooses Abraham so that he will lead his house in justice. Lot left his homes in Ur and Haran, but he isn’t ready to leave Sodom. For all his good qualities, for all his hospitable righteousness (2 Pet 2:7), Lot is more deeply enmeshed in Sodom than he appears. He is a man at the doorway, a Janus who turns this way and that. He may be a just man, but for the author of Genesis that’s not enough. A truly just man forms a just family.
With Abraham, God creates a new kind of human, a man who is willing to leave his past to follow the Lord to an unknown land, a man who is willing to sacrifice his future in the confidence that the Lord will restore it. Genesis encourages us to mimic the faith of Abraham, but it also includes Lot as a foil. Lot’s life teaches us that tragedy isn’t always the result of a single titanic wrong. It can be the product of a series of small misjudgments and missteps, of hesitation at the doorway.
The lesson for all of us is that we might think that we are a righteous family living amid great sinners, and we might think that we are training our households up in the Lord’s ways, but we might be lying to ourselves. The fact that Lot and his family were so hesitant to leave the city that they had been told was doomed reveals something deep about them — something that came out in the cave later.
Here endeth the lesson.
UPDATE: Good comment from a reader:
Thanks for posting this, Rod. It brought to mind the post from last week – “For Christians, It Really Is a Catastrophe.” I didn’t have a chance to comment then, but this post on the story of Lot is a chance to go back and revisit it.
In that earlier post, a mother wrote about the parents at her school who are solidly orthodox Catholics but committed to helping their children enter elite institutions. This describes my own upbringing in the world of 1990s JPII-era Catholicism. I went to a Catholic high school which had a pretty well-thought out religious education plan and orthodox teachers. However, when we applied for colleges, people’s priorities came out, and it was pretty ugly. With their parents’ encouragement, my classmates were going to get as much money and worldly power as they could, and they had no time for somebody who was a bit ambivalent about those goals and might want to study the liberal arts.
Leithart’s explication of the Lot story got me thinking about how religious believers try to raise their children. In many cases, the parents have the right principles and lead exemplary lives, but cannot bring themselves to follow through on their principles to the point where they might set their children on other paths in life. As long as their children don’t put at permanent risk a future successful career, the parents won’t push them too hard to think through the implications of their religious beliefs and will tolerate a great deal of sex, drinking, and drugs. And, often, the parents have made their own compromises and have their own things they won’t let go. I think (or, maybe, hope) the problems don’t get to the point they did in Lot’s story, but there are a lot of demons lurking underneath the surface.
Being counter-cultural in today’s society isn’t that tough. Just think through the steps you would want to take to ensure your children have a modicum of knowledge of their religious tradition and can be somewhat skeptical of the ideals the world holds out for them. For instance, have a slightly larger than normal family (say, 4 kids), sacrifice a bit (e.g., put money for a vacation into private school tuition), and hold a slightly stricter line on media consumption or smartphone use than other families in your social circle. I’m not sure that’s enough, but it will certainly accentuate the differences between one’s own family and the outside world.
Since so much of raising a family these days comes down to finding the right social circles and right sorts of peer influences, moving is certainly and option, but beware you aren’t carrying the demons with you when you leave.