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Life in the Garrison

There is a wonderful extended passage near the end of Matthew Crawford’s The World Beyond Your Head [1] that describes the highly traditional, and yet open-to-change, practices of a small organ-making company called Taylor and Boody [2]. “They understand the long story of organ making as their own,” says Crawford, “and find for themselves a place in it.” Here is an especially powerful passage:

Some critics will say that these craftspeople have ‘retreated from the world.’ I think nearly the opposite. We have come to accept a condition of retreat from the world as normal. The point of the organ shop example is to help us see what it would look like to inhabit an ecology of attention that puts one squarely in the world.

This is a brilliant and vital point in itself, but I want to take a bit of a turn and show how it’s relevant to recent debates, on this site and elsewhere, about what Rod has been calling the Benedict Option [3].

Rod has written of the BenOp as a “strategic withdrawal.” And while I have argued that it’s better to speak of “strategic attentiveness,” [4] in reality those are two sides of a coin: since attention is finite, one cannot increase attentiveness to one object without withdrawing it from another.

The BenOp recommends increased attentiveness to local communities, to the formation of Christians (young and old) in the traditional practices and habits (of thought and action) of the Church. Though what this might look like has yet to be clarified and codified, there are already a good many people describing it as a regrettable withdrawal from “the world.”

But the passage from Crawford encourages us to ask: What do the critics of the (nascent) BenOp mean by “the world”? And when you put it that way, it becomes clear that for them “the world” is inside the Beltway, and in the New York Times and Washington Post, and on Politico and HuffPost, and the tweetstreams of politicians and policy wonks, and on our biggest TV networks. But I would like to suggest that the building of a healthy society might depend on people who are willing to say that those vast public edifices — some made of stone, some of pixels — are not the world, that the world lies much closer to hand.

To think in this way — to think seriously in this way — is to commit oneself to slow and incremental change, to what W. H. Auden in one of his poems calls “local understanding.” [5] It is also to acknowledge that the order and value you crave will not be handed to you by your environment; rather, you must build it ad hoc, improvising as you go with like-minded people, as you can find them.

This is one of the conditions of modernity, I think. The great scholar and thinker Mikhail Bakhtin believed that Dostoevsky had discerned this, and portrayed, with great compassion and psychological acuity, people who (primarily because they were intellectuals) had been displaced from any kind of organic community and had to rebuild their world from scratch. Here’s a beautiful desctiption [6]:

To create a human community in the world, to join several people together outside the framework of available social forms, is the goal of Myshkin, of Alyosha, and in a less conscious and clear-cut form of all Dostoevsky’s other heroes…. Communion has been deprived, as it were, of its real-life body and wants to create one arbitrarily, out of purely human material. All this is a most profound expression of the social disorientation of the classless intelligentsia, which feels itself dispersed throughout the world and whose members must orient themselves in the world one by one, alone and at their own risk.

The bond Alyosha forms with “the boys” in The Brothers Karamazov is the perfect example of this: an improvised bond, a fragile and local one, but one with enormous strength and comfort for those who accept it.

A genuinely conservative — i.e., conserving — counter-culture of any kind, including the Christian kind, will be similarly improvisatory, small-scale, local, fragile. It will always be aware that “to inhabit an ecology of attention that puts one squarely in the world” is a task to be re-engaged, with more or less success, every day. Over its (imaginary) gates it will carve a motto, one taken from a late Auden poem, “The Garrison”:

Whoever rules, our duty to the City

is loyal opposition, never greening

for the big money, never neighing after

a public image.


Let us leave rebellions to the choleric

who enjoy them: to serve as a paradigm

now of what a plausible Future might be

is what we’re here for.

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors [7] Program at Baylor University [8] in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography [9].

15 Comments (Open | Close)

15 Comments To "Life in the Garrison"

#1 Comment By Thomas Cooper On June 10, 2015 @ 7:48 pm

It’s amusing that the console in the picture is of a kind that Taylor and Boody would never ever build. [10] is far more typcial.

#2 Comment By Thomas Cooper On June 10, 2015 @ 10:22 pm

It’s interesting that in Auden’s poem, the particular art out of which the local understanding grows is historically remote: a Buxtehude passacaglia. Perhaps the work of localizing is essentially one of retrieval by reinvention; we have to learn to improvise because just playing the ink is no longer enough.

That Passacaglia can be heard <a href=" [11];)here, played in Alkmaar on the greatest organ ever built.

#3 Comment By Gregory Manning On June 10, 2015 @ 11:46 pm

Having worked for an organ builder years ago, I noticed the same thing. Oh well…..

#4 Comment By Banger On June 11, 2015 @ 1:03 am

The BenOp is critical and not just for conservative Christians but for all those who do not go along with radical materialism of the current age. I agree that it is not hiding from the world but really to remake the world. If anything contemporary culture is far removed from the real world because it features fantasy and illusion in all spheres of life.

Conservative Christians must lead the way in this since they ought to be the largest group that feels alienated from this culture of narcissism. Those of us who are more liberal will have to wait probably because liberals tend to still be entranced by contemporary culture and its “liberated” qualities.

#5 Comment By Jones On June 11, 2015 @ 12:36 pm

Beautifully put, and it perfectly encapsulates the attitude I’ve been trying to adopt in my own approach to life — abandoning ambitious 10-year plans and trying to change the world (for some vain purpose), and instead trying to be comfortable in place, and being good to the people around me.

#6 Comment By Fran Macadam On June 11, 2015 @ 1:56 pm

Typically, garrison states are the ones religious communities have been forced to flee from. It’s poignant to note that this has been when countries that initially offered sanctuary later morphed themselves into authoritarian and hostile political environments. There’s nothing to prove that a choice for cultural separation and economic withdrawal would be any better tolerated here for groups that the power center becomes hostile towards.

Those who know the history of anabaptist religious communities like Mennonites will recognize the very real probabilities of coercion and persecution to conform.

#7 Comment By AndyG On June 12, 2015 @ 4:35 pm

To the extent that religious groups take this path in order to preserve beliefs and attitudes that cannot withstand the light of public attention, it will be a disservice particularly to the children of such a society, who will have to unlearn a mass of habits.
I hope that what these two authors are describing, though, is a process of withdrawing from the hubbub in order to nurture worthwhile qualities- focus, kindness, concentration, simplicity to name a few. This is far from being a uniquely Christian approach- it’s a feature of everything from raising a family to gardening to studying meditation. One maintains a household as a refuge, and that’s far from being a typically “conservative” approach.

#8 Comment By JBM On July 11, 2015 @ 12:17 pm


Something that it would helpful for you to do for the benefit of those of us who are trying to make up our minds about the Benedict Option would to discuss your support for the Benedict Option in light of your critique of the view of modernity on which the Benedict Option seems to be based. You’ve written a good bit recently pushing back against what you call “the Neo-Thomist interpretation of history” – or the Neo-Thomist dismissal of modernity – in such thinkers as Jacques Maritain, Etienne Gilson, Richard Weaver, Brad Gregory, and Thomas Pfau. But even as you’ve been pushing back against that line of argument, Rod Dreher has been embracing it as one of the foundations of his Benedict Option, which he has described not only as a “strategic withdrawal” from contemporary culture but also a “strategic withdrawal” from modernity tout court. Given Dreher’s embrace of the Neo-Thomist Interpretation as part of the Benedict Option, and given your push-back against the Neo-Thomist Interpretation, your embrace of the Benedict Option is confusing to some of us. So it would be clarifying in a really helpful way for you to write something about the status of modernity within the Benedict Option. Does the Benedict Option contain within itself the option to reject the Neo-Thomist Interpretation in favor of a more complex and ambivalent view of modernity? Does it contain within itself an option to embrace a view like your own that would allow for the kind of use you make in this post of key MODERN figures like Dostoevsky and Auden in support of the Benedict Option? Does it contain within itself the option to reject views of modernity, such as Dreher’s own, that would seem to rule out such use on Neo-Thomist grounds?

#9 Comment By Alan Jacobs On July 11, 2015 @ 2:33 pm

JBM, I don’t understand all that you’ve written here, but insofar as I do understand you, you’re asking a great question. Let’s describe the situation using a medical metaphor.

Confronted with a patient who is ailing, two doctors may have different diagnoses of the ailment. But they can also make the same diagnosis, even when they disagree about the etiology of the disease. For instance, two doctors can be in absolute agreement that a patient has Stage 2 lung cancer, and can concur completely on the proper course of treatment, while having very different views on what led to the patient’s contracting of cancer.

That’s where Rod and I are: agreement that there is an ailment — many BenOp critics say, when looking at Christianity in America today, “Ailment? What ailment?” — and agreement on the diagnosis — a general, wasting malaise that saps the will to resist the culture at large — and even general agreement about the etiology — poor spiritual and theological formation, leaving people ignorant of what Christian orthodoxy is and unpracticed in the basic spiritual disciplines. Only when we look at the very long term do we disagree, for instance about the role of the Nominalists in ending “the medieval synthesis.” And that’s the sort of thing that can be talked through over time.

#10 Comment By JBM On July 12, 2015 @ 6:21 pm


Thanks for the quick reply. Sorry if my questions were confusing. I wrote them on too little coffee and without enough time, but you caught the main thrust. I guess a lot hinges for some of us on whether the anti-modern aspect of the Benedict Option is a feature or a bug. If it’s a feature, then many of us will want nothing to do with the Benedict Option because we’ll want nothing to do with any paradigm for Christian cultural engagement – or, in this case, disengagement – that discounts the long history of faithful Christian presence in the midst of modernity epitomized by figures like Dostoevsky and Auden, your two examples here of what a very different Benedict Option could be. But if the anti-modern aspect is simply a bug, then it needs to be removed from the system before Dreher publishes his book, otherwise that anti-modernist bug will become a feature of the Benedict Option per se, and anyone who wants to exercise that option on the basis of a less simplistic vision of modernity will constantly be having to de-bug the system in the course of its use. So, I think it would be better to work the bugs out ahead of time, a task in which you might be of help. Frankly, I think your book project on “Christian Humanism in a Time of Total War” would constitute a more useful contribution to the formulation of the Benedict Option than Dreher’s own. Contemporary Christians need to know that there’s already a very extensive history of serious Christian cultural engagement with the both the problems and the solutions of modernity on which they can draw in the present day. One need not go all the way back to the time of Aquinas to find Christian culture from which to draw strength. In fact, one need not go even as far back as Dostoevsky’s time or Auden’s time. One could also wait for the next issue of Books and Culture or Image journal, the next novel by Marilynne Robinson, the next film by Terence Malick, the next composition by Arvo Part, or the next book of poems by Les Murray. And that’s just a start. An engagement with the full historical range of Christian culture from New Testament times to the present day and the day after that seems much more in the spirit of Dostoevsky and especially of Auden than a lazy dismissal of nearly half of that historical range on the basis that it has been infected and therefore made utterly depraved by a Nominalism misunderstood or by a bug-bear modernity defined with no rigor or precision at all. It might be useful for you and others of us with less reactionary perspectives on modernity to start compiling anthologies of Christian culture since the death of Aquinas that would keep certain Christian options open that at least some versions of the Benedict Option now threaten to close. We might call those anthologies “Christian Humanism in The Time of Modernity.” To follow up on your medical metaphor, it seems to me that different etiologies of the same ailment will tend toward different treatments, and I think a treatment grounded in the history of faithful Christian presence in the midst of modernity is likely to of immensely greater benefit to the ailing patient than one that imagines that there is no such usable past or usable present from which to draw strength. We can’t go back to the Middle Ages, nor should we want to, necessarily. But what we can do is occupy our present moment with the same faithful presence as Dostoevsky and Auden did. Thanks again for your reply.

#11 Comment By Alan Jacobs On July 13, 2015 @ 10:36 am

JBM, I don’t think a bug can be removed from “the system” because there isn’t a system — only various experiments in faithful living. Those of us who believe that we need to try something different, to live outside the expectations and governance of technocratic late modernity, will not all try the same approach. But we’ll often compare notes!

#12 Comment By JBM On July 13, 2015 @ 11:55 am


I agree that the Benedict Option isn’t systematic NOW. At present, it amounts to little more than saying “Christians need to do something different from what they’ve been doing – they need to do [A] in response to [B].” But at some point, presumably by the time of Dreher’s Benedict Option book, the variables [A] and [B] will have to be specified. And there’s a lot of difference between saying (1) that “in the face of the excesses of technocratic modernity, for example the prospect of nuclear war and the prospect of global ecological collapse, Christians need to be salt and light, signs of contradiction like Dostoevsky and Auden were and like Marilynne Robinson and Les Murray are” and saying (2) that “in the face of the modernist unraveling of the Medieval synthesis since 1300, for example the SCOTUS ruling in Obergefell, Christians need to withdraw from contemporary culture like St. Benedict did and wait out a new dark ages they are powerless to prevent or even mitigate.” Right now, the Benedict Option is pretty much undefined and void of specifics, so it remains amorphous and unsystematic enough that it can be pretty much anything that anyone wants it to be. But once Dreher publishes his book, it will become systematic, morphous, specific, and definite, in which case it would be good to get the bugs out of the system before that point. And I think leaving room within the Benedict Option for (1) above in addition to – or better yet instead of – (2) would be an easy way to remove a significant and potentially debilitating bug. Thanks for the conversation. All the best.

#13 Comment By JBM On July 20, 2015 @ 11:18 pm


I noticed that since we last conversed Rod Dreher had put forward a more specific and definite version of his Benedict Option:

“The Benedict Option is a catch-all term reflecting several basic assumptions: (1) That orthodox Christianity is in fundamental conflict with the American liberal order, a conflict that is radical, and cannot be resolved; (2) That orthodox Christians are a distinct minority in the United States, and that their convictions will make them increasingly be seen not just as dissenters, but as enemies of the common good; (3) That uncritically accepting the liberal order that has now emerged means giving up on some core Christian convictions; (4) That modernity has evolved to a point at which it is unstoppably corrosive of authentic Christianity, and that those who would hold on to Christianity must clearly and decisively understand themselves in opposition to modernity.”

It strikes me as curious that someone concerned that Christians will soon be denied the religious liberties guaranteed to them in the First Amendment to the US Constitution would think it good to denounce not only American liberalism but liberalism more generally in this kind of sweeping way.

But what I’d be interested in getting your reaction to is Dreher’s equally sweeping dismissal of modernity. It seems odd coming from a Rolling Stones fan who jets back and forth between France and Louisiana and blogs about the likes of Donald Trump and Bruce Jenner, even in the midst of his “strategic withdrawal” from modernity. And it also seems incongruent with various comments you’ve made pushing back against such easy Christian conservative dismissals of modernity.

For example here:

“When people tell me that they want to recover the wisdom of the pre-modern, I just want to know what in particular they are talking about. At least tell me whether you’re talking economics, politics, moral philosophy, epistemology, theology, or what. And then we can narrow it down from there … The philosopher Bernard Williams used to say that we suffer from a poverty of concepts. Never more so, I think, than when we have useless arguments about modernity … We think we know what we mean when we use such language, but the fruitlessness of our debates shows that there really isn’t substantive agreement. So my suggestion is that we all try to make our arguments — whether they are for something or against something — without ever employing that particular string of letters: ‘modern.’ It would be a good discipline for everyone.”

And here:

“Modernity, and the Reformation, have their good sides — their very, very good sides, their contributing-to-human flourishing sides, their advancing-the-Gospel sides — that [some of their recent critics] despite occasional tips of their scholarly chapeaus, [do not] treat with sufficient seriousness … [These critics], again with infrequent half-hearted chapeau-tipping, treat Modernity as effectively monolithic. In fact there were always powerful forces resisting or countering what we now think of as the mainstream of modernity, just as a little later on there was a ‘Counter-Enlightenment’ that existed alongside and in constant creative tension with what we usually … call the Enlightenment … There were many modernities, many Enlightenments, and many ways of dissenting from them all.”

It seems to me that the more Dreher clarifies his Benedict Option the more it emerges as something diametrically opposed to the more capacious conception of modernity you offer above and as something that bases itself on exactly, precisely the kind of vague, sloppy, and reductive conception of modernity your warn against.

What am I missing? I really want to to know because I really want to give the Benedict Option the fairest hearing I can and your support for it is really the only thing left at this point that inclines me to give it any further benefit of the doubt.


#14 Comment By Alan Jacobs On July 21, 2015 @ 1:30 pm

JBM, I don’t have anything to add to what I’ve already said, especially this: “Those of us who believe that we need to try something different, to live outside the expectations and governance of technocratic late modernity, will not all try the same approach. But we’ll often compare notes!” Experiments are just beginning. I’ll be comfortable with some, uncomfortable with others; some will seem to me to work, some will not. Time alone will tell.

#15 Comment By JBM On July 24, 2015 @ 7:55 pm

Thanks, Alan. The adjectives “technocratic” and “late,” by which you modify the noun “modernity” do a lot of work there that Rod Dreher has yet to do and that the Benedict Option will need to have done if it is ever to be something worthy of your support and something at all in line with what Auden describes in “The Garrison.” Unless that requisite work is done, I fear that the Benedict Option will be little more than a popularization of the kind of divisive, reductive, illiberal, reactionary anti-modernism that you have been right to criticize elsewhere and that has rarely if ever been good for Christians or for Christianity. The Benedict Option will be little more than yet another “rebellion” for the benefit of “the choleric who like them,” unless that work gets done. Only with that work being done to enrich its “poverty” of “concepts” will it ever be able to offer any kind of “paradigm” of a “plausible future” as opposed to an imagined past. One benchmark, for me, of that work being done would be for modern, liberal, democratic, Anglican, and homosexual Auden to be somebody for whom the Benedict Option had genuine room. I’ve raised the questions I have here only in the interest of helping to get that work done to make that room. Thank you again for taking the time to answer them, Alan. All the best!