TagBenOp

friendly critic or critical friend?

The other day Rod Dreher referred to me as a “friendly critic” of the Benedict Option. I prefer to say that I’m an occasionally critical friend. I have some reservations about how Rod frames his project — see this post and this one — and I have major reservations about the history he uses to explain how we got to where we are. But the heart of the BenOp, as I understand it, may be found in what I have described as three premises and a conclusion, and in that post I commented that “I simply do not see how any thoughtful Christian could disagree with any of these premises or the conclusion that follows from them.” So I think that makes me a paid-up member of #TeamBenOp.

The questions for me, as we go forward, are as follows:

  1. I think there are likely to be ways other than the ones Rod describes in his book to pursue this project of Christian intellectual and moral renewal — ways that are more engaged with and less strictly oppositional to contemporary culture. What might those ways look like, and how can they retain their integrity?
  2. How can Christians who support the BenOp and those who don’t treat one another with forbearance and charity, and maybe even learn from one another?

excerpts from my Sent folder: on Rod Dreher and the BenOp

… I just don’t think the question of whether Rod is “the right messenger” for the Benedict Option is a fruitful one. Still less do I want to speculate about what he “really” wants to do or achieve. If you were to read the book, you’d see that it’s not about Rod. It’s fundamentally concerned to describe a series of experiments in Christian community which Rod has observed. Yes, Rod makes plenty of editorial comments, but the heart of the book is simply reporting. As I have said over and over again, the way for us to have a fruitful conversation about the BenOp is to look at those communities: Do any of them seem to you to be a healthy, an appropriate, an adequate Christian response to the challenges of late modernity? If so, why? If not, why not? And in either case, what can we learn from them in our own attempts to live faithfully in interesting times?

(I’ve written a lot here about the BenOp — click on the tag below for more.)

The Shadow knows

I’ve already had some people asking me what I think about this review. The answer is: Not very much. Levinovitz says that Dreher’s and Esolen’s books share a central premise which he deems a “lie,” though without providing evidence: he chiefly quotes them with the expectation that their claims will be evidently self-refuting. His chief interest is not in Dreher’s and Esolen’s arguments but in their diseased personalities: they are “sadomasochistic” “holy pornographers” — in short, “madmen.” Unlike Levinovitz (and The Shadow), I don’t know what evil lurks in the hearts of men: I can only read and evaluate their arguments. That’s why I don’t have much to say about this review.

Handy-Dandy Benedict Option Flowchart

I see Rod is still engaging his critics, and now we’re into the deep weeds of just how important Obergefell is or is not for the future of American Christianity, something about which I don’t have any firm opinion. I wonder whether it might not be possible to simplify the issues at stake a bit, and in that cause I have prepared the following chart. You’re welcome.

 

on spears, throats, and motivated reasoning

Some really good words from Matthew Loftus here:

I want the BenOp to succeed because I do think that Christian communities in the West will need to implement the principles Rod talks about in order to remain faithful in the generations to come. I am pretty much in agreement with Rod on the dictates of human sexual morality as the Bible teaches it. Yet I (and many of my peers like me) are deeply sympathetic to Emma’s line of questioning because we have to find an answer to this question in order to live out the Bible’s commands in our daily lives, bear witness to non-believing friends, and teach our children how to do the same. Dealing with a world that hates us is nothing new, but every age will bring with it unique opportunities and challenges for how to do so joyfully. If the Holy Spirit is working in our world, then we have to ask where and how He is bringing about new life and testifying to Jesus in others – and being confident that we can participate with the Spirit in such a way as to even break “the tip of the spear at our throats”.

If Rod and other BenOp enthusiasts want non-Christians to parse between not wanting LGBT activists to drive Christians out of business and not wanting to get away from LGBT people, they’re going to have to start that parsing themselves because Christians have failed to do this over and over in the last few decades. If they don’t want journalists to make bad faith assumptions about their work, they’re going to have to stop making bad faith assumptions about every possible manifestation of LGBT activism. Most importantly, if we expect the Church to endure the threat posed by the Sexual Revolution (and thrive beyond it!), then explaining how Christians love and serve LGBT people – particularly under the regime which the BenOp anticipates – is inevitably part of bearing witness. A Benedict Option that isn’t good for LGBT people will not stand the test of time.

I say Amen to almost every word of this, but that last sentence leaves me uneasy. What I find myself asking is whether people who share Matthew’s views of sexuality can agree with many LGBT people, especially activists, about what is “good for LGBT people.” Isn’t rather significant conflict inevitable here? That doesn’t in any way abrogate or even compromise the commandment that we Christians “love and serve” those who, for whatever reason, mistrust us — even those who curse and persecute us. We don’t get to turn away in hatred of or even indifference to those who have declared themselves our enemies, much less those who are merely our fellow-citizens about which we disagree on some matters. But I do think we need to reckon straightforwardly with the costs. If we teach our children “the dictates of human sexual morality as the Bible teaches it” — and they accept that teaching, which, frankly, is not very likely — then they’re going to suffer for that, far more than most of us do.

I have some problems with the way Rod presents the BenOp — for instance, I really dislike the “tip of the spear at our throats” metaphor and all that it implies — and I’ve suggested alternative ways to describe the situation, for instance in this post. But I admit that I’ve given more attention to criticizing the critiques of Rod’s articulation of the BenOp — I am, as it were, consistently anti-anti-BenOp — and there’s a reason for that: I, and most of my friends and fellow believers who have been highly critical of the BenOp, have very strong motives for thinking that Rod’s diagnosis and prescription are both wrong.

We have an interest in accepting the general cultural consensus about sexuality and gender. And if we can’t manage to accept it, we have an interest in soft-pedaling our beliefs, both publicly and to our children. Accepting, explicitly or tacitly, that consensus may in some cases open doors of professional and social opportunity to us and our families; vocally refusing to accept it would certainly close doors. We have an interest in believing that we can continue to live more-or-less as we have lived, that it is not necessary to change anything radically, or put ourselves or our families at risk.

Now, to be sure, there are certainly people whose interests lie in the other direction: who might lose social position, or be cast out of church communities, or even lose their jobs, if they were to express doubt about the traditional Christian take on sexuality. But that’s not where I, or my friends and BenOp debating partners, are. So what I would really like from many critics of the BenOp — and by the way, I don’t mean Matthew Loftus here, who has a very nuanced response to the whole movement, as you can see, for instance, in this post — is a frank acknowledgment of the dangers of motivated reasoning and an account of what they’re doing to avoid it.

As for me, I don’t think I’m avoiding it very well. My particular situation, my particular personal and vocational path, leads me to want to be theologically conservative enough to be acceptable to the Christian institutions I love but not so theologically conservative that I can’t get published by reputable secular magazines and publishers. And lo and behold, my convictions perfectly match my interests! How remarkably fortunate for me!

And this is why I’m reluctant simply to dismiss the BenOp, even as formulated in Rod’s the-spear-is-at-our-throat mode. Such dismissal would be wonderfully convenient for me; and I think it is convenient for many of the BenOp’s critics as well. That doesn’t make them wrong, of course; but I’d like to see more frequent acknowledgment of the possibility that, like me, they’re prone to allow their interests to dictate their opinions.

Because the other possibility is that they’re just better Christians than I am. And that I definitely have an interest in disbelieving.

resourceful Christianity

Rod Dreher has been asking lately whether various Christian traditions possess the resources that need to practice a genuinely countercultural form of Christianity — what Rod is calling the Benedict Option. He’s been getting different answers about different traditions from different people, but for what it’s worth, my answer is that every Christian tradition that is a tradition has all the resources it needs — except, perhaps, the one resource without which all the others are useless.

In today’s post he quotes a passage from his forthcoming book in which he asks Marco Sermarini, one of the leaders of an intentional Christian community in Italy, what other Christians can learn from what Marco and his friends are doing: “Start by getting serious about living as Christians, he said. Accept that there can be no middle ground.”

That’s it, I think. You have to get to the end of your rope, you have to come to the point where you can’t live any longer as everyone around you is living. If you come to that point, then every serious Christian tradition, from Pentecostalism to Orthodoxy, has what it takes to nourish and support you. But none of those traditions can, in itself, bring you to that point. (I am not yet at that point myself: I am too caught up in the various rewards that this present age has to offer.)

Depending on where you live, you might look around you and find charismatics who are faithfully seeking to make their own countercultural way, or Baptists, or Presbyterians, or Catholics — heck, even Anglicans. It depends on whether in a given place there is a critical mass of people whom the Holy Spirit has moved to say: Enough. Lord, now give us the living water.

a convergence

I don’t know, maybe I’m eventually going to get used to writing on a phone….

I just want to take a moment to emphasize again how strongly I agree with Matthew Loftus’s insistence that if any particular version of the BenOp is not oriented towards the core mission of the Church, then it will fail as a Christian movement even if it succeeds in numerical terms.

But I also want to suggest that there are elements of the BenOp strategy as it is formulated by Rod Dreher and like-minded people that missional endeavors like those Loftus commends should also keep in mind and learn from.

People often criticize proponents of the BenOp for acting out of fear, but in general I think that American Christians are, as Aragorn said to Frodo, insufficiently fearful. (“You fear them, but you do not fear them enough, yet.”) Their fears are sometimes misdirected, to be sure; but it is not irrational to fear when you live in the neighborhood of something more powerful than you that does not mean you well, even when it genuinely thinks that it wants the best for you. (I refer not to Nazgul but to disenchanted modernity.)

In such circumstances I believe we do well to fear our enemies, but even better to fear ourselves — our internal dividedness, our weakness. About four hundred years ago, Thomas Browne wrote in Religio Medici:

I have no genius to disputes in religion: and have often thought it wisdom to decline them, especially upon a disadvantage, or when the cause of truth might suffer in the weakness of my patronage… . Every man is not a proper champion for truth, nor fit to take up the gauntlet in the cause of verity; many, from the ignorance of these maxims, and an inconsiderate zeal unto truth, have too rashly charged the troops of error and remain as trophies unto the enemies of truth. A man may be in as just possession of truth as of a city, and yet be forced to surrender; ‘tis therefore far better to enjoy her with peace than to hazard her on a battle.

And with that in mind, I’d like to say that the most important question we can ask about projects of mercy and charity and neighborliness like the ones that Loftus commends in his post, or that my friend Charles Marsh describes in his wonderful book The Beloved Community, is: Why do they so rarely last? Why do they tend to fall apart after a few years of effective ministry?

One reason, of course, is that such work is tiring, and people wear out. But I think another and more important reason is that people get involved in ministries like this out of what Browne calls “inconsiderate zeal” — zeal that is not fully considered. And what people typically fail to consider is whether they are prepared, whether they have been formed as Christians in such a way that they have adequate resources to withstand the temptations and the challenges and and plain old exhaustion that accompany any long-term attempt at genuinely Christlike love.

I don’t think Christians reflect nearly often enough on the fact that Jesus, who at the age of twelve was able to enlighten the rabbis in the Temple about Torah, did not begin his public ministry until he was thirty. What a waste of years! Think of all he could have accomplished!

What did he do in that time? He studied, he prayed, he trained in and worked at a job, he “grew in grace and in favor with God and with man.”

This, I think, is where BenOp strategies and “missional” strategies ought to converge: on a commitment to ministry to the whole world that recognizes that people can only carry out such ministry if they are well and properly formed, and formed not just by going to church most Sundays but by deeper, more ancient, more demanding practices of the Christian faith. This is why I have insisted on the necessity of paideia and catechesis: without such formation exciting missional enterprises will spring up quickly, but in the heat of the day they will wilt and die.

what the BenOp is for 

I’m not sure I have a firm grip on Matthew Loftus’s response to my questions for critics of the Benedict Option. His chief criticism of my post seems to be that I have phrased the core ideas of the BenOp in ways that he’s not sure how to disagree with.

Well, you know, that was the point. As I tried to explain in a follow-up post, I’ve been trying to isolate the sources of disagreement. If you disagree with any of those three key premises, then we’ll have one kind of conversation, one largely about ends. But if you agree with the premises and the conclusion, then we’ll have a very different conversation, one that on the basis of shared ends debates the best means.

When Loftus writes, “the Benedict Option is destined to flounder if it does not deal with how the Great Commission or the Great Commandments shape our Christian lives and communities,” I think: Absolutely. But then I think: and that’s true about every single Christian endeavor without exception. And then I think: I understood that reanimating our commitment to the Great Commission and the twofold Great Commandment was pretty much the BenOp’s whole reason for being. I thought that forming Christians in such a way that we are properly equipped, in knowledge and virtue, to do what Jesus tells us to do was the only reason for there to be a BenOp.

So maybe I’m the one who doesn’t understand the BenOp. But if I do understand it then Loftus’s criticism seems peculiar.

As for the rest of his post: every concern he raises is extremely important and I affirm the whole tenor and substance. If there’s one thing that every single instantiation of the BenOp must avoid it’s the temptation to practice love of my neighbor by ensuring that my neighbors are people I find easy to love. But those warnings and concerns seem to me more “how to do the BenOp right” rather than “we don’t need to devote more energy and attention to our Christian institutions.”

There’s much more to say but I can’t do long posts on my phone and I won’t be able to write more while I’m traveling. So this is the best I can do for a while.

Humpty Dumpty and the BenOp

Carl [Trueman] is right to note that the Benedict Option does not entail withdrawal from politics. It entails something far worse—a continuation of the culture war’s politics of resentment.

“The Benedict Option” is a phrase now so thoroughly jawed over that it effectively means whatever you want it to mean. No amount of effort by Rod Dreher to clarify what he means by it can prevent everyone else who is looking for something new from using it to mean whatever they happen to be fascinated by.

— Greg Forster. So by his own account Greg Forster wants the BenOp to mean “the culture war’s politics of resentment.” (He’s like Humpty Dumpty, who says that a word means whatever he chooses. “The question is which is to be master, that’s all.”) The first question is: Why does he want it to mean that? The second question is: Why is he so quick to abandon the search for mutual understanding among Christians?

Like most criticisms of the BenOp, this one lacks reason and charity. It’s just a content-free grumble.

In response to my recent question for the critics of the BenOp, I got a great many content-free grumbles. But among those responses, the two most coherent ones go something like this:

(a) Rod Dreher is promoting this whole project in such an apocalyptic, hysterical  way that the only people he’s going to attract are paranoids and weirdos.

(b) Christianity has a long history of self-enclosed communities whose leaders, promising to protect their people from a hostile world, use that rhetoric to control and/or abuse their members.

To me, these are not reasons to reject the BenOp, but opportunities to correct it — both to make a better case for its varying possibilities and to build in safeguards against abuse. Moreover, I think many of these respondents assume that the BenOp necessarily involves living in some kind of Christian compound, whereas I think that’s only one way to strengthen our institutions, habits, and practices. (And one I don’t intend to follow. If I devote more thought and energy to building the Christian culture here at the Honors College of Baylor, and to my parish church, and try to work with like-minded others in those projects, while continuing to live in my ordinary city neighborhood, then that’s a mode of embodying the BenOp idea too.)

But let me put my challenge in a different way by asking skeptical readers to pretend that they’ve never heard the phrase “Benedict Option” or the name Rod Dreher. Now, having thus purified your minds, look again at the premises and conclusion I articulated earlier:

  1. The dominant media of our technological society are powerful forces for socializing people into modes of thought and action that are often inconsistent with, if not absolutely hostile to, Christian faith and practice.
  2. In America today, churches and other Christian institutions (schools at all levels, parachurch organizations with various missions) are comparatively very weak at socializing people, if for no other reason than that they have access to comparatively little mindspace.
  3. Healthy Christian communities are made up of people who have been thoroughly grounded in, thoroughly socialized into, the the historic practices and beliefs of the Christian church.

Therefore: If we are to form strong Christians, people with robust commitment to and robust understanding of the Christian life, then we need to shift the balance of ideological power towards Christian formation, and that means investing more of our time and attention  than we have been spending on strengthening our Christian institutions.

Now: What there do you disagree with?

In writing about the Benedict Option, I have often lamented American Christians’ comparative neglect of the church in favor of something like obsessive focus on American electoral politics.

But the more that I think about how these people behave when they indulge those political obsessions – angry, intolerant, quick to fling bitter insults towards any who disagree with them – maybe it’s not the best idea to get them more interested in the church.

So: Never mind.

questions for the critics of the Benedict Option

The model of Christian social formation that Rod Dreher calls the Benedict Option comes in for a great deal of criticism, some of it from people I wouldn’t expect to be so critical. Let’s seek some clarity about the sources of discomfort.

The Benedict Option, as I understand it, is based on three premises.

  1. The dominant media of our technological society are powerful forces for socializing people into modes of thought and action that are often inconsistent with, if not absolutely hostile to, Christian faith and practice.
  2. In America today, churches and other Christian institutions (schools at all levels, parachurch organizations with various missions) are comparatively very weak at socializing people, if for no other reason than that they have access to comparatively little mindspace.
  3. Healthy Christian communities are made up of people who have been thoroughly grounded in, thoroughly socialized into, the the historic practices and beliefs of the Christian church.

From these three premises proponents of the Benedict Option draw a conclusion: If we are to form strong Christians, people with robust commitment to and robust understanding of the Christian life, then we need to shift the balance of ideological power towards Christian formation, and that means investing more of our time and attention than we have been spending on strengthening our Christian institutions.

I have to say that I simply do not see how any thoughtful Christian could disagree with any of these premises or the conclusion that follows from them. If any of you do so dissent, please let me know how and why — I would greatly benefit from hearing your views.

So what’s the problem? My sense is that many of you shy away from Rod’s rhetoric, which you believe alarmist. But in itself that’s a shallow reason for setting aside the whole BenOp argument. Rod has already begun to identify some of the communities which he believes to be doing the BenOp right — do you think they aren’t? Do you think they’ve gone astray? If so, please explain how.

The critical responses to the BenOp I’ve seen have struck me as merely visceral. I’d like to see more careful and thorough articulation of the critiques. But if you don’t believe that the three premises I’ve listed above are true, then I think you’re whistling past the graveyard. And if you accept the premises but don’t agree with the conclusion, then we definitely need to do some exercises in logic.

old disciplines, new people

The practices of the ancient Church were forged in eras of the porous self and were responsive to its fears and vulnerabilities. Can they be nearly as meaningful to us, surrounded by our protective buffers, as they were to our ancestors? Does their evident power suggest to us that we have paid too high a price for our buffers, that we may need to be more exposed? The self that can pursue the via illuminativa — that can be illuminated by God — may open itself to the demonic as well as the divine. The disciplines and practices of our Christian ancestors are not toys or tools; they are the hope of life to those who are perishing. This is what Alasdair ­MacIntyre had in mind when he said that, here among the ruins of our old civilization, what we may be waiting for is a new St. Benedict: someone who can articulate a whole way of life and call us to it.

The turn to the Christian past is indeed welcome, but it may demand more of us than we are prepared to give. In contemplating the witness and practices of our ancestors, we may discover that we’d rather remain within our buffers — if we can. But can we? Current electronic technologies, from blogs to texting to online banking to customer-specific Google ads, may be drawing us into a new age of porousness, with new exposures, new vulnerabilities. And in such a new age the hard-earned wisdom of our distant ancestors in the faith may be not just a set of interesting ideas and recommendations but an indispensable source of hope. Those who have ears to hear, let them hear.

Do-It-Yourself Tradition by Alan Jacobs. From 2009, when the Benedict Option was scarcely a gleam in Rod Dreher’s eye.

excerpts from my Sent folder (1)

… When I think about the larger context of all this, I am always reminded of something Lewis says in a preface to Mere Christianity: that he got the strongest support and commendation for his project from Christians of all types who loved and were faithful to their own tradition. The deeper the Methodist got into Methodism, and the deeper the Catholic got into Catholicism, and the deeper the Orthodox got into Orthodoxy, the closer they got to one another. It was the people who stood at or near the periphery of their own tradition who were most suspicious about historic, orthodox, “mere” Christianity.

So I don’t think any particular tradition, whether Protestant or Catholic or Orthodox, will survive the coming attacks unless it goes deep into its own resources; and I think if it does go deep into its own resources, it will thrive, in character and substance if not in sheer numbers. But this will not happen at the level of any tradition as a whole; it will happen at the level of the parish, the local community. Right now, I don’t see such “going deep” to be any more likely in one tradition than another. And I don’t think it will ever be the norm.

The Christian communities that thrive will

  • be radically Christ-centered always;
  • refuse to be therapeutic, but rather emphasize the worship we owe to the God who made and redeemed us;
  • connect imaginatively and substantively with Christians throughout the past and around the world;
  • be open to all, but reserve leadership to those who are willing to commit to radical obedience;
  • turn the other cheek and go cheerfully on when attacked by the world; and
  • recognize these practices in other communities, even those outside their tradition.

I do not know where I came across this image of St. Basil the Great giving alms to the poor and wounded — if anyone can turn up its source, please let me know — but I love it because it captures something of the man who, for me, is the greatest model of Christian leadership the Church has ever produced. The man who was in his time and place the chief defender of orthodoxy against the Arians was also the person who essentially invented the hospital and was relentless in his advocacy for the poor.

In one of his greatest sermons, he said to the wealthy of Cappadocia,

Think, you who call yourselves ‘Benefactor’! Be mindful of yourself, who you are, of what things have been placed in your charge, from Whom you received them, and why you were favored above others. You have been made a servant of the good God; an administrator for your fellow servant…. For a little while these things will give you pleasure; then flowing away from you they disappear, and then you must with exactness render an account of them. But you try to lock them up and keep them hidden using bolts and bars and under seals. You watch them anxiously and think, ‘What will I do?’

‘What will I do?’ Offhand, I would say, ‘I shall fill the souls of the hungry. I shall open my barns and I shall send for all who are in want. I shall be like Joseph in proclaiming the love of my fellow human being.’

As some of us contemplate a Benedict Option, let us remember Basil and the other Cappadocians. They are the greatest models that our Christian history offers us.

I don’t know exactly what Benedict Option evangelism might look like. I don’t know what kind of diminished numbers of converts we might see in the coming decades as a result of the collapse of American “Christendom.” But I do imagine that if Christians decide to do what Griffiths recommended in his blog post—if we begin to polish and attend afresh to our own practices of discipleship and faithfulness—we may end up seeing many more people embrace what the church teaches about marriage as both comprehensible and convincing. It has happened already for some, and it will go on happening, please God.

Wesley Hill. I think this is true, but I want also to suggest that Wesley may be thinking about these matters in ways that are not fully compatible with the BenOp idea, at least as I understand it. I think these reservations apply also to Leah Libresco’s recent reflections.

Both Wesley and Leah write about the BenOp as something that could be attractive right here and right now, especially to people of their generation. And that may well be true. But the emphasis of the BenOp, as I understand it, is to focus our attention on very long-term strategies: how can people devoted to serious, authentic, deeply traditional Christian living (faith, thought, action) be shepherded through a culture that acts as a powerful corrosive upon that form of living? — a culture in which almost no one will think that form of living attractive, because they have been catechized into another and very different way of life?

I’m groping for the right metaphor here, but I think that Wesley and Leah are wondering how we orthodox Christians will do in the cultural Olympics, and I’m saying that we can’t think about that now because we need to dress our many wounds.

Benedictine counterpublics

Much conservative discussion of the Benedict Option forgets that the ultimate goal for MacIntyre is a community rooted in tradition driven by practices. That’s only possible with a lot of communal interactions and common living. It’s obviously possible (indeed, intended) in a Benedictine monastery. It’s also possible in a kibbutz and a collective household and all sorts of other leftist ways of living. But the problem for many conservative Americans is that they don’t see the necessity of this communal experience part.

— No Benedict Without Benedictines – Ethika Politika. This is a strange post by Jeff Gushin. What he says is forgotten in discussion of the BenOp is the very thing that people interested in it talk about all the time. The whole question of the BenOp is how it might be possible in a liberal order to act with the same degree of communal intentionality that characterized early Benedictine life. This will require, as MacIntyre points out, not simply a continuation in late modernity of ancient Benedictine practice but the arising of “a new, and doubtless quite different, St. Benedict.” No one yet knows what that might look like; but to say as Gushin does that the conversation about the BenOp neglects these matters is like saying that the problem with Marxists is that they neglect political economy.

One factual correction: Gushin attributes to Michael Warner the concept of “counterpublic,” but that term was coined much earlier by Nancy Fraser in this article. In my view, Fraser’s exploration of how “subaltern counterpublics” organize themselves in relation to — often but not always in opposition to — the public sphere should be required reading for anyone interested in a Benedict Option.

“Have you heard of the Benedict Option?”

Have you heard of the Benedict Option? If not, you will soon.

It’s the name of a deeply pessimistic cultural project that’s capturing the imaginations of social conservatives as they come to terms with the realization that the hopes and assumptions that animated the religious right over the past 35-odd years have been dashed by the sweeping triumph of the movement for same-sex marriage.

Damon Linker. I am not a member of the Benedict Option magisterium, so what I think has no authority, but as someone who’s interested in some form of the Benedict Option I have to say that I don’t agree with any of this. I don’t think it’s “a deeply pessimistic cultural project,” I don’t see it as having anything to do with the Christian right, and same-sex marriage is at most a triggering issue, not fundamental. To me, it’s an opportunity to get more people on board with a project that I’ve been devoted to for thirtysomething years: shifting Christian energy and resources away from electoral politics and towards the strengthening of institutions and communities.

First Things First

God bless Rod Dreher for continuing to post critiques of his Benedict Option. But I still haven’t seen a critique that is genuinely to the point — they all seem to be responding to things that Rod hasn’t said and to be emphasizing their commitment to the undisputed claim that Christians need to be active in the world in order to bear witness. Well, sure. What Christian would say otherwise?

But here’s the key thing. What do they always tell you before the plane takes off? Secure your own oxygen mask before assisting others. When Christians stride confidently out to change the world without having first taken care to be fully shaped and formed by the Christian account of things, they (a) have very little that’s distinctive to offer others and (b) are themselves easily swayed by thoroughly non-Christian ways of thinking and acting, with results we have recently had thoroughly documented for us.

Ultimately, whatever specific form the Benedict Option takes, this is what it’s about: securing our own oxygen mask first before attempting to assist others.

The “Benedict Option” Revisited

What Rod Dreher calls the Benedict Option has been getting a lot of pushback from critics — and Rod hasn’t even explained in any detail what he means by it! So before you develop your own premature opinion about it, or even if you have already given your premature opinion about it, here are some things to keep in mind:

1) The Benedict Option, whatever form it ultimately takes, arises from a concern for strengthening the church of Jesus Christ. If you don’t really care about strengthening the church of Jesus Christ, you have no skin in this game, so you’d be doing everyone, including yourself, a favor by, you know, just moving along to other things.

2) Christians, by commandment and by experience, have a complicated relationship to “the world” — the saeculum. In his farewell talk to his disciples, Jesus prays to the Father: “I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world … I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.” And St. Paul writes, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” None of this is easy to parse; there can be great disagreement over how to implement this vision of believers who are in the world but not of it. It would be foolish to expect unanimity.

3) Moreover, from the very beginnings of the church it has been understood that Christians will not fulfill this divine vision in a single way, but rather in very many ways, according to particular vocations: “many members [organs] of one body” and all that. So if other Christians are discerning a calling that you do not discern for yourself, there’s no need to be consumed by agita — even if the New Benedictines are running for the hills, you can just wish them well and return to whatever calling you perceive to be your own. Nobody is going to make you run for the hills, so relax. (N.B.: the Benedict Option, whatever it is, is not about running for the hills.)

4) Whatever else it is, the church is ekklesia — assembly — and koinonia — community, fellowship. It is therefore a shared culture, or subculture, or counter-culture. Christians cannot simply and wholly offload the responsibility for culture-making to non-Christian members of society. So if you are a Christian, and you don’t think the Benedict Option, whatever you believe it to be, is a valid model of culture-making, then you have an obligation to articulate an alternative model. “I don’t like it” is Not. Good. Enough.

The “Benedict Option” Revisited

What Rod Dreher calls the Benedict Option has been getting a lot of pushback from critics — and Rod hasn’t even explained in any detail what he means by it! So before you develop your own premature opinion about it, or even if you have already given your premature opinion about it, here are some things to keep in mind:

1) The Benedict Option, whatever form it ultimately takes, arises from a concern for strengthening the church of Jesus Christ. If you don’t really care about strengthening the church of Jesus Christ, you have no skin in this game, so you’d be doing everyone, including yourself, a favor by, you know, just moving along to other things.

2) Christians, by commandment and by experience, have a complicated relationship to “the world” — the saeculum. In his farewell talk to his disciples, Jesus prays to the Father: “I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world … I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.” And St. Paul writes, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” None of this is easy to parse; there can be great disagreement over how to implement this vision of believers who are in the world but not of it. It would be foolish to expect unanimity.

3) Moreover, from the very beginnings of the church it has been understood that Christians will not fulfill this divine vision in a single way, but rather in very many ways, according to particular vocations: “many members [organs] of one body” and all that. So if other Christians are discerning a calling that you do not discern for yourself, there’s no need to be consumed by agita — even if the New Benedictines are running for the hills, you can just wish them well and return to whatever calling you perceive to be your own. Nobody is going to make you run for the hills, so relax. (N.B.: the Benedict Option, whatever it is, is not about running for the hills.)

4) Whatever else it is, the church is ekklesia — assembly — and koinonia — community, fellowship. It is therefore a shared culture, or subculture, or counter-culture. Christians cannot simply and wholly offload the responsibility for culture-making to non-Christian members of society. So if you are a Christian, and you don’t think the Benedict Option, whatever you believe it to be, is a valid model of culture-making, then you have an obligation to articulate an alternative model. “I don’t like it” is Not. Good. Enough.

withdrawals and commitments

My buddy Rod Dreher writes,

What I call the Benedict Option is this: a limited, strategic withdrawal of Christians from the mainstream of American popular culture, for the sake of shoring up our understanding of what the church is, and what we must do to be the church. We must do this because the strongly anti-Christian nature of contemporary popular culture occludes the meaning of the Gospel, and hides from us the kinds of habits and practices we need to engage in to be truly faithful to what we have been given.

David French responds,

I must admit, my first response to the notion of “strategic withdrawal” is less intellectual and more visceral. Retreat? I recall John Paul Jones’s words, “I have not yet begun to fight,” or, more succinctly, General Anthony McAuliffe’s legendary response to German surrender demands at Bastogne: “Nuts!”

In reality, Christian conservatives have barely begun to fight. Christians, following the examples of the Apostles, should never retreat from the public square. They must leave only when quite literally forced out, after expending every legal bullet, availing themselves of every right of protest, and after exhausting themselves in civil disobedience. Have cultural conservatives spent half the energy on defense that the Left has spent on the attack?

It strikes me that French is responding to something Rod didn’t say: Rod writes of “the strategic withdrawal of Christians from mainstream of American popular culture,” and French replies that Christians “should never retreat from the public square” — but “popular culture” and “public square” are by no means the same thing.

In most of the rest of his response French emphasizes strictly political issues, for instance, current debates over the extent of free speech. But Rod doesn’t say anything about withdrawing from electoral politics — he doesn’t say anything about politics at all, except insofar as building and strengthening the ekklesia is political (which it is — see below).

It’s not likely that French and I could ever come to much agreement about the core issues here, since he so readily conflates Christianity and conservatism. (“The surprising box office of God’s Not Dead, the overwhelming success of American Sniper, celebrating the life of a Christian warrior” — I … I … — “and the consistent ratings for Bible-themed television demonstrate that there remains a large-scale appetite for works of art that advance, whether by intention or by effect, a substantially more conservative point of view.”) But his response to Rod has the effect of forcing some important questions on those of us who think that the current social and political climate calls for new strategies: What exactly do we mean by “withdraw,” and how far do we withdraw? What specifically do we withdraw from? What are the political implications of cultural withdrawal?

Rod, in the post I quoted at the outset, does a fantastic job of laying out very briefly and concisely the work that needs to be done to strengthen local religious communities. But time, energy, attention, and money are all plagued by scarcity, which is why some kind of “withdrawal” is unavoidable — if I’m going to put more money into my church, that means less money available elsewhere. And if I’m going to devote more attention to active love of God and active love of my neighbor, from what should I withdraw my attention?

All of this is going to remain excessively vague and abstract until we can see specific instances of such withdrawal. But I suspect that different groups of Christians will have widely varying ideas of what needs to be withdrawn from: cable TV, New York Times subscriptions, Hollywood movies, monetary contributions to either of the major political parties, public schools, etc.

So I wonder if a better way to think about the Benedict Option is not as a strategic withdrawal from anything in particular but a strategic attentiveness to the institutions and forms of life within which Christians can flourish. In other words, Rod’s post is the right starting place, and the language of “withdrawal” something of a distraction from what that post is all about.

My own inclination — but then I have been a teacher for thirtysomething years — is to think that our primary focus should be on the two chief modes of Bildung: paideia and catechesis. And I do not mean for either of these modes to be confined to the formation of children.

If we ask ourselves what genuine Christian Bildung is, and what is required to achieve it in our time, then we will be directed to the construction and conservation of institutions and practices that are necessary for that great task. And then the necessary withdrawals — which may indeed vary from person to person, vocation to vocation, community to community — will take care of themselves.

I think those hesitations are largely right, and as a Christian, I’d add that I have to wonder what these kinds of communities do to reach out to the poor, the sick, and the lonely in the world around them. I’m not sure hunkering down is what Jesus called us to, and when, for example, a member of the Alaska community I mentioned says that “If you isolate yourself, you will become weird,” I wonder how living in a remote Alaska village is not isolation. Christians are given the Great Commission, not the Great Retreat. I’m not trying to demean the people Rod profiled, but rather express that I can’t quite understand Christianity in the same way. Jesus always seemed to wandering around, telling strange stories, mingling with the kind of people Benedict Option types might prefer to avoid.

Matthew Sitman. Well … no. Not always. In fact, the life of Jesus embodies a kind of systolic/diastolic alternation between public ministry and private retreat — with intermediate stages in the company of the Twelve or his friends.

Each of us needs such alternation, and it seems likely that communities do too. Sometimes batteries need to be recharged, energy regained, ideas and options considered. Nobody, and no community, can live in the thick of things all the time, and it is foolish to try.

I think individuals and communities often consider the Benedict Option not because they’re trying to avoid the wrong kind of people — a seriously uncharitable assumption on Sitman’s part — but because they feel that their spiritual lives are undernourished and unstable. Benedictine-style communal retreats aren’t usually meant to last forever, or to build permanent barriers to contact with non-Christians, any more than people who shelter under a bridge during a thunderstorm mean to set up housekeeping there.

And typically, even when the retreats themselves become permanent, their population is always in flux: some are always coming in for rest and renewal, others (now well-fed) are going back out into the highways and byways.

Indeed, I’m inclined to think that Christian individuals and communities that fail to build in periods of significant retreat are setting themselves up for disaster. Man cannot live by constant engagement alone. To try is surely to be gradually but relentlessly absorbed into social structures that are at best indifferent and at worst deeply hostile to Christian faith and practice.

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