Rod Dreher

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Queering Engineering At Purdue

Having all but ruined humanities education, the Social Justice Warriors now turn to the STEM fields. Purdue University has hired Donna Riley as its new head of its School of Engineering Education.  Here’s an excerpt from Prof. Riley’s biography page at Smith College, where she taught for 13 years:

My scholarship currently focuses on applying liberative pedagogies in engineering education, leveraging best practices from women’s studies and ethnic studies to engage students in creating a democratic classroom that encourages all voices. In 2005 I received a CAREER award from the National Science Foundation to support this work, which includes developing, implementing, and assessing curricular and pedagogical innovations based on liberative pedagogies and student input at Smith, and understanding how students at Smith conceptualize their identities as engineers. I seek as an engineering educator to be part of a paradigm shift that these pedagogies demand, repositioning concerns about diversity in science and engineering from superficial measures of equity as headcounts, to addressing justice and the genuine engagement of all students as core educational challenges.

I currently teach traditional courses in the areas of chemical and environmental engineering, as well as elective courses on engineering and global development, science, technology, and ethics (cross-listed with SWG) and technological risk assessment and communication. I seek to revise engineering curricula to be relevant to a fuller range of student experiences and career destinations, integrating concerns related to public policy, professional ethics and social responsibility; de-centering Western civilization; and uncovering contributions of women and other underrepresented groups.

In EGR 330 (Engineering and Global Development), we critically evaluate past and current trends in appropriate and sustainable technology. We examine how technology influences and is influenced by globalization, capitalism and colonialism, and the role technology plays in movements that counter these forces. Gender is a key thread running through the course in examining issues of water supply and quality, food production and energy.

In EGR 205 (Science, Technology and Ethics), we consider questions such as who decides how science and engineering are done, who can participate in the scientific enterprise and what problems are legitimately addressed within these disciplines and professions. We take up racist and colonialist projects in science, as well as the role of technology, culture and economic systems in the drive toward bigger, faster, cheaper and more automated production of goods. A course theme around technology and control provides for exploration of military, information, reproductive and environmental applications. Using readings from philosophy, science and technology studies, and feminist and postcolonial science studies, we explore these topics and encounter new models of science and engineering that are responsive to ethical concerns.

She will come to Purdue from Virginia Tech. This is an excerpt from her faculty page there:

Riley’s research interests include engineering and social justice; engineering ethics; social inequality in engineering education; and the liberal education of engineers. In 2005 she received a National Science Foundation CAREER award on implementing and assessing critical and feminist pedagogies in engineering classrooms. Students in Riley’s research group are pursuing interests including culturally inclusive pedagogies; understanding faculty motivations and approaches to teaching engineering ethics; connections between critical thinking and engineering ethics pedagogies; engineering education policy; and public participation in engineering projects impacting communities.

And there you were, thinking that the hard sciences and engineering were immune to this kind of thing, because they are about numbers.

Anybody object to bringing cultural politics into the engineering classroom? Anybody think there’s something … off about using engineering courses to “de-center” Western civilization? Go ahead, I dare you to object. You and your white male science privilege!

Here’s the kind of thing Purdue engineering students can expect henceforth. It’s from the blog of one of Dr. Riley’s students at Smith, who writes approvingly:

Critical pedagogy is the education movement aimed developing students into socially and politically aware individuals, helping them recognize authoritarian tendencies, empowering them to act against injustice, and employing democratic and inclusive classroom practices. The term “critical pedagogy” has been used by educators to refer to a broad range of pedagogies that employ critical theory, feminist theory, queer theory, anti-racist theory, multicultural education, and inclusive pedagogies. In this post, I will discuss some of the critical pedagogy practices employed by Dr. Donna Riley (currently a professor at Virginia Tech) while teaching a class called “Engineering Thermodynamics” as Smit College, an all women college, during Spring and Fall semesters of 2002. It should be noted that Riley uses liberative pedagogy as an inclusive term for critical pedagogy, feminist pedagogy, and radical pedagogy. Some of the classroom practices employed by Riley included:

Connecting learning to students’ experiences. Students learn the most from examples which they can relate to, based on their social and cultural backgrounds. Hence, Riley used a wide variety of thermodynamic systems in class as examples. Also, the textbook for the class was chosen such that it contained a wide variety of examples of thermodynamic systems.

Democratic classroom practices. Students were assigned teaching roles to teach parts of the course to the entire class. They were not only asked to develop modules to teach the class but also encouraged to relate them to their own lives. Also, the seating arrangement reflected the democratic classroom practices. Instead of sitting in rows facing the instructor, students were asked to sit in circles with each student facing and talking to the entire class instead of just the instructor.

Taking responsibility for one’s own learning. Students were required to take responsibility for their learning in that they were asked to do metacognitive reflections on what was working or not working for them in the class. They were also asked to do assignments in which they reflected on their learning of various aspects of the course.

Ethics discussions. In order for students to be develop as ethically responsible individuals, they need to learn the impact which an engineer’s work has on the society. To develop such an ethical awareness, Riley and her class watched and critiqued videos on “energy in society”, critiqued the textbook used for the class by analyzing the aspects (e.g. alternate energy, environmental applications of thermodynamics, energy system in developing countries) which were missing from the textbook. Also, students were assigned ethics problems to reflect on.

Breaking the Western hegemony. In order to decenter the male hegemony of the Western civilization, Riley discussed examples of thermodynamic inventions done by non-Western and non-male inventors. Also, some of the assignments required students to make interracial and intercultural connections in thermodynamics.

Normalizing mistakes. By normalizing mistakes in the process of learning, Riley fostered a classroom environment in which students were comfortable attempting problems (sometimes even on the black board) in class and learning from their mistakes. Another strategy used by her for normalizing mistakes was acknowledging when she herself did not know something.

Discussion of history and philosophy. Riley discussed the history and philosophy of the development of thermodynamic laws to demonstrate to the students that the process of discovery does not lead one to an absolute truth. Instead, making mistakes is acceptable in the process of discovery. Students were also required to reflect on how the knowledge of history and philosophy of thermodynamics helped their learning.

Assessment techniques. The assessment of students put a greater emphasis on participation. Moreover, a flexible grading system was adopted. Students were asked to work in pairs on some exams. In the second offering of the course, problems were given to the students only as a learning exercise and not as an assessment tool. Moreover, continual course feedback was taken from students to improve their learning experience.

One of the critiques of critical pedagogy is that it does not provide specific classroom practices. It just suggests that teaching and learning should be contextual and aim at raising critical awareness among students. A lot of times educators do not know how to apply critical pedagogy in their classes, especially in hard and applied sciences, due to a lack of knowledge about how to apply it. I hope the practices noted above can be adopted to and adapted for any classroom and any discipline.

Here’s an interview with Dr. Riley as part of a “Queered Science” series. Riley is a lesbian, and uses gender-neutral pronouns. Excerpt:

While overt sexism and homophobia are less common than historically, they still play out in ways that are subtle and, therefore, insidious and hard to combat. How do you see this happening in the sciences, and how do you deal with it?

One of the biggest sources of sexism and homophobia is lodged in the epistemology of science. How we think, and what we think, matter in determining what we know and don’t know, and affects our workplace interactions in very negative ways. We think that we eliminate bias by keeping our “personal lives” – some aspects of ourselves – out of the lab, classroom, or office. But actually this is how we allow implicit bias to seep in and saturate everything we do, because that which is male, straight, white, able-bodied, monied, is not left behind in the practice of science and engineering – it is just so normative that lots of us don’t notice.

I have learned that talking about these issues and building solidarity with like-minded others is the only way we can ever address them. Ultimately scientists and engineers have to be able to think outside the epistemological boxes we’ve been trained into to understand diversity and social justice. Cultural change takes a lot of hard work, it takes talking to people and organizing — skills typically not in our wheelhouses as scientists and engineers.

Congratulations, Purdue. This is going to be interesting. I wonder where the undergraduates who just want to get an engineering education without being harangued by a critical-studies commissar will go to school now?

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Sports: Red America’s Achilles Heel

Idol worship (EFKS/Shutterstock)

The North Carolina legislature appears set to repeal the state’s controversial bathroom bill today. Here’s a big reason why:

This week, a new flurry of action over House Bill 2 came as the N.C.A.A. warned the state that it could lose the opportunity to host championship sporting events through 2022. The league had already relocated championship tournament games that would have been played in North Carolina during this academic year, including the Division I men’s basketball tournament.

The possibility of further punishment placed tremendous pressure on lawmakers in the basketball-obsessed state, a pressure exacerbated by the fact that the University of North Carolina men’s basketball team has reached the N.C.A.A. tournament’s Final Four and will be squaring off against the University of Oregon on Saturday night.

The Atlantic Coast Conference also moved its neutral-site championships out of North Carolina this year in response to House Bill 2, and the National Basketball Association moved its All-Star game to New Orleans from Charlotte.

Some local news outlets reported this week the N.C.A.A. had set a Thursday deadline for the state to address the bill. Officials at the association could not be reached for comment Wednesday. A league statement last week stated, “Absent any change in the law, our position remains the same regarding hosting current or future events in the state.”

Attention must be paid. You should expect that this strategy is how the NCAA is going to dictate to colleges and university what their LGBT policies are going to be. Want to be part of national college athletics? Then you had better do what the NCAA says. If it comes right down to it, do you think Baylor (for example) would sacrifice its athletic programs or its Christian principles on LGBT matters? If the university leadership decided that it would rather see athletics taken away from them than compromise on its principles, can you imagine how hard alumni would come down on them?

Of course there is no question at all where my alma mater, Louisiana State, would stand if it had to choose. The NCAA could demand at the start of every football season the ritual sacrifice of five Pentecostal virgins on the Tiger Stadium 50-yard-line, and the people of Louisiana wouldn’t bat an eye. Just keep that football coming. Because it’s the true religion.

But LSU is a state school. Conservative Christian colleges and their alumni had better start thinking right now about whether or not they are willing to sacrifice their athletic programs for principle. That decision is coming, and coming fast.

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Lifestyles Of The ‘Jew-Curious’

You really can’t make this up. It’s a feature about people who are making a non-religious lifestyle brand of Judaism, and marketing it to unbelieving bourgeois Jews and fellow travelers among the goyim. Excerpts:

“Jewish culture is in the mainstream, it’s popular, and that’s something any brand would want to jump on,” says Danya Shults, 31, founder of Arq, a lifestyle company that seeks to sell people of all faiths on a trendy, tech-literate, and, above all, accessible version of Jewish traditions. Arq is a portal for interfaith couples, their friends, and their families to find “relevant, inclusive, aesthetically elevated” information and products. It offers holiday-planning guides; Seder plates designed by Isabel Halley, the ceramicist who outfitted the female-only social club the Wing; and interviews with Jewish entrepreneurs, as well as chefs who cook up artisanal halvah and horseradish. There’s also an event series, including a weekend retreat in the Catskills in upstate New York that Shults says is “inspired by Jewish summer camp but more Kinfolk-y,” referring to the elegantly twee lifestyle magazine.

Shults grew up in an observant home, attended a Jewish day school, and became fluent in Hebrew. Then she got engaged to a Presbyterian. “We never really found a [religious] community that matched what we were looking for, especially for me,” says Shults’s now-husband, Andrew. Many of the synagogues that purported to be inclusive turned out to have an agenda, such as trying to get Andrew to convert or cultivating the couple’s political support for Israel.

The troubles didn’t end there. Shults tells the story of one non-Jewish friend who went shopping for the couple by Googling “chic Jewish wedding gift” and found the results to be either “totally out of style or far too didactic and preachy.” Cool, inclusive presents did exist—Shults knew that much—but they weren’t easy to find. Thus, Arq was born. “My ultimate test case was my husband,” Shults says. “Would he discover this? Read this? Go to this event?”

Arq may be the most ambitious new company hoping to court the Jew-curious community, but it’s not the only one.

Oh no it isn’t. You have to read this story to believe it.  These people are outrageously self-parodic. Look:

Arq has linked up with the wedding registry company Zola Inc. to curate Jewish presents that don’t look as if they come from the synagogue gift shop; with the home design site Apartment Therapy, on a series of Judaica-focused home tours; and with the feminist/LGBTQ-friendly wedding-planning site Catalyst Wedding Co., on an interview series with couples who are diverse in every imaginable way. Arq-branded events have included a couples’ salon series in partnership with Honeymoon Israel, a nonprofit that sends “nontraditional” (interfaith, same-sex) couples on trips to Israel, and a women’s lunar retreat, based on the ancient Jewish practice of women celebrating one another around the new moon.


Not every Jew-ish company has such a social mission, however. The Matzo Project has taken as its task getting unleavened bread out of the ethnic food aisle. “We want it to be more than something that very pious Jews eat at Passover,” says co-founder Ashley Albert. The company’s offerings include matzo flats and chips in salted, everything, and cinnamon-sugar flavors, as well as a matzo butter crunch bar.

Of course. Again, read the whole thing.  Here’s a link to the announcement about the debut of Arq, which bills itself as “about making Jewish life and culture accessible to everyone through engaging and honest content, inviting experiences, and aesthetically elevated products.”

Aesthetically elevated products. Wow. Just, wow. Here’s Arq’s own website. For the people who like this kind of thing, this is the kind of thing they like. If you ask me, Moses needs to come down from Sinai and get folks sorted.

By way of contrast, I commend to you this profound, beautiful essay by the late Orthodox Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, on the meaning of community in Judaism. Compare and contrast. It’s not lifestyle-branding. In fact, this is the kind of Jewish wisdom from which all of us Gentiles can benefit, even though, sadly, it lacks aesthetically elevated products.

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St. Benedict, Colossus Of Western History

St. Benedict, in the piazza of his hometown, Norcia

The great Whittaker Chambers, writing in Commonweal in 1952, about discovering the legacy of St. Benedict of Nursia. Here he is talking about how, as a student, the Middle Ages (aka, the Dark Ages) were presented to him:

The Dark Ages were inexcusable and rather disreputable—a bad time when the machine of civilization in its matchless climb to the twentieth century had sheared a whole rank of king-pins and landed mankind in a centuries-long ditch. At best, it was a time when monks sat in unsanitary cells with a human skull before them, and copied and recopied, for lack of more fruitful employment, the tattered records of a dead antiquity. That was the Dark Ages at best, which, as anybody could see, was not far from the worst.

If a bright boy, leafing through history, asked: “How did the Dark Ages come about?” he might be told that “Rome fell!”–as if a curtain simply dropped. Boys of ten or twelve, even if bright, are seldom bright enough to say to themselves: “Surely, Rome did not fall in a day.” If a boy had asked: “But were there no great figures in the Dark Ages, like Teddy Roosevelt, King Edward, and the Kaiser?” he might well have been suspected of something like an unhealthy interest in the habits and habitats of spiders. If he had persisted and asked: “But isn’t it clear that the Dark Ages are of a piece with our age of light, that our civilization is by origin Catholic, that, in fact, we cannot understand what we have become without understanding what we came from?” he would have been suspected of something much worse than priggery—a distressing turn to popery.

I was no such bright boy (or youth). I reached young manhood serene in the knowledge that, between the failed light of antiquity and the buzzing incandescence of our own time, there had intervened a thousand years of darkness from which the spirit of man had begun to liberate itself (intellectually) first in the riotous luminosity of the Renaissance, in Humanism, in the eighteenth century, and at last (politically) in the French Revolution. For the dividing line between the Dark Ages is not fast, and they were easily lumped together.

Much later in his life, at age 50, having been through and come out of Communism, and consumed by anxiety over the fate of Western civilization in the Cold War, Chambers received a St. Benedict medal from a friend. He didn’t know who Benedict was, and started researching him. He learned:

For the briefest prying must reveal that, simply in terms of history, leaving aside for a moment his sanctity, St. Benedict was a colossal figure on a scale of importance in shaping the civilization of the West against which few subsequent figures could measure. And of those who might measure in terms of historic force, almost none could measure in terms of good achieved.

Nor was St. Benedict an isolated peak. He was only one among ranges of human height that reached away from him in time in both directions, past and future, but of which, with one or two obvious exceptions, one was as ignorant as of Benedict: St. Jerome, St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, Pope St. Leo the Great, Pope St. Gregory the Great, St. Francis of Assisi, Hildebrand (Pope Gregory VII).

Clearly, a cleft cut across the body of Christendom itself, and raised an overwhelming question: What, in fact, was the civilization of the West? If it was Christendom, why had it turned its back on half its roots and meanings and become cheerfully ignorant of those who had embodied them? If it was not Christendom, what was it? And what were those values that it claimed to assert against the forces of active evil that beset it in the greatest crisis of history since the fall of Rome? Did the failure of the Western World to know what it was lie at the root of its spiritual despondency, its intellectual confusion, its moral chaos, the dissolving bonds of faith and loyalty within itself, its swift political decline in barely four decades from hegemony of the world to a demoralized rump of Europe little larger than it had been in the crash of the Roman West, and an America still disputing the nature of the crisis, its gravity, whether it existed at all, or what to do about it?

Answers to such questions could not be extemporized. At the moment, a baffled seeker could do little more than grope for St. Benedict’s hand and pray in all humbleness to be led over the traces of the saint’s progress to the end that he might be, if not more knowledgeable, at least less nakedly ignorant.

Chambers writes beautifully, and in detail, about what Benedict and his Rule accomplished. He concludes:

It has been said (by T. F. Lindsay in his sensitive and searching St. Benedict) that, in a shattered society, the Holy Rule, to those who submitted to its mild but strict sway, restored the discipline and power of Roman family life.

I venture that it did something else as well. For those who obeyed it, it ended three great alienations of the spirit whose action, I suspect, touched on that missing something which my instructors failed to find among the causes of the fall of Rome. The same alienations, I further suspect, can be seen at their work of dissolution among ourselves, and are perhaps among the little noticed reasons why men turn to Communism. They are: the alienation of the spirit of man from traditional authority; his alienation from the idea of traditional order; and a crippling alienation that he feels at the point where civilization has deprived him of the joy of simple productive labor.

These alienations St. Benedict fused into a new surge of the human spirit by directing the frustrations that informed them into the disciplined service of God. At the touch of his mild inspiration, the bones of a new order stirred and clothed themselves with life, drawing to itself much of what was best and most vigorous among the ruins of man and his work in the Dark Ages, and conserving and shaping its energy for that unparalleled outburst of mind and spirit in the Middle Ages. For about the Benedictine monasteries what we, having casually lost the Christian East, now casually call the West, once before regrouped and saved itself.

So bald a summary can do little more than indicate the dimensions of the Benedictine achievement and plead for its constant re-examination. Seldom has the need been greater. For we sense, in the year 1952, that we may stand closer to the year 410 than at any other time in the centuries since. If that statement seems as extreme as any of Salvian’s, three hundred million Russians, Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, East Germans, Austrians, Hungarians, and all the Christian Balkans, would tell you that it is not—would tell you if they could lift their voices through the night of the new Dark Ages that have fallen on them. For them the year 410 has already come.

Read the whole thing.

In our own time, Jackson Wu writes about how the contemporary suffering church in China is a test case for the Benedict Option:

China is “pre-Christian” in that Christianity has never been the pervasive perspective shaping Chinese culture; yet, the church in China functionally finds itself in a similar state that Dreher foresees for the American church. Here is an initial list of similarities:

  • Chinese Christians lack formal political power.
  • Constitutionally, people have religious liberty, so long as they agree with the State.
  • Chinese believers socially are a minority.
  • Chinese Christians tend to be “localists.” That is, they focus on their local congregation, they closely rely on a local network with whom they identify for practical help.
  • More Christian Christians see the importance of educating their kids apart from the official atheist system, which actively disparages and undermines Christian teaching. However, Christian schooling is illegal. Attempting to educate one’s child outside the official system has significant risks.
  • Morally, Chinese culture is relativistic. It does not affirm absolute right and wrong. Individuals make moral decisions based on personal whim, relationships, and laws.
  • Materialism runs ramped in China.
  • Christians tend to avoid overtly political activity.
  • Chinese believers regularly face “soft persecution” for their faith (economic, legal and social sanctions, as opposed to death and prison).
  • To be a faithful Christian, one has limited employment options.

The following are more “fuzzy” and subjective, but are often true.

  • Temperamentally, evangelical congregations are generally concerned with purity (whether of doctrine or practice), though they––like churches everywhere–– fall short of their ideals.

  • Traditionally, Chinese understand the primary purpose of education ought to be the development of character, not only skills and knowledge to find a job.

  • Believers see themselves as a part of a long tradition that needs to be preserved.

More Wu:

The key issue is priority. Chinese Christians prioritize the local congregation rather than attempt to engineer political change. Since Jesus is king, they need not cause undue distress trying to make him president.

What someone might call “withdrawal” simply means this: we should have wisdom in choosing which social spheres will get our attention including how much social capital we will use among outsiders versus insiders.

That’s really well said. Please read Wu’s entire post, and see what he says is a potential problem with the implementation of the Ben Op in the West, and what we can learn from Chinese Christians that would help us meet the challenge. Can any of you readers recommend a good book or two on the contemporary experience of the Chinese church? I would be grateful for that information.

And please read The Benedict Optionand add your thoughts and your voice to the vital conversation of how we in the church are to live in these darkening post-Christian times. I don’t have all the answers, and you probably don’t either. We are going to have to work this out together. But I tell you this: if you don’t see a grave crisis of the Christian faith within Western civilization, then you are either not looking, or are not willing to see what is right in front of your nose.

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A: Because It’s Full Of Mormons

Megan McArdle visits Utah to find out why the state succeeds better than any other state in achieving upward mobility. Excerpts:

Once I got there, I found that it’s hard to even get a complete picture of how Utah combats poverty, because so much of the work is done by the Mormon Church, which does not compile neat stacks of government figures for the perusal of eager reporters.

The church did, however, give me a tour of its flagship social service operation, known as Welfare Square. It’s vast and inspiring and utterly foreign to anyone familiar with social services elsewhere in the country. This starts to offer some clue as to why Utah seems to be so good at generating mobility — and why that might be hard to replicate without the Latter-Day Saints.


“Big government” does not appear to have been key to Utah’s income mobility. From 1977 to 2005, when the kids in Chetty et al’s data were growing up, the Rockefeller Institute ranks it near the bottom in state “fiscal capacity.” The state has not invested a lot in fighting poverty, nor on schools; Utah is dead last in per-pupil education spending. This should at least give pause to those who view educational programs as the natural path to economic mobility.

But “laissez faire” isn’t the answer either. Utah is a deep red state, but its conservatism is notably compassionate, thanks in part to the Mormon Church. Its politicians, like Senator Mike Lee, led the way in rejecting Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency. And the state is currently engaged in a major initiative on intergenerational poverty. The bill that kicked it off passed the state’s Republican legislature unanimously, and the lieutenant governor has been its public face.

Megan found that Utah’s government is startlingly functional. A capable bureaucracy is good — but the real secret seems to be the Mormon Church. Excerpt:

Many charity operations offer a food pantry or a thrift shop. Few of them can boast, in addition, their own bakery, dairy operation and canning facilities, all staffed by volunteers. The food pantry itself looks like a well-run grocery store, except that it runs not on money, but on “Bishop’s Orders” spelling out an individualized list of food items authorized by the bishop handling each case. This grows out of two features of Mormon life: the practice of storing large amounts of food against emergencies (as well as giving food away, the church sells it to people for their home storage caches), and an unrivaled system of highly organized community volunteer work.

The volunteering starts in the church wards, where bishops keep a close eye on what’s going on in the congregation, and tap members as needed to help each other. If you’re out of work, they may reach out to small business people to find out who’s hiring. If your marriage is in trouble, they’ll find a couple who went through a hard time themselves to offer advice.

Thing is, the Mormon vision is not welfare-as-a-way-of-life; it’s about a temporary hand-up on a family’s way back to self-sustainability. McArdle goes on to talk about how Mormon social values — for example, a strong culture of marriage — work to lower poverty. She also mentions that Utah’s statistics may be so favorable because blacks are only 1 percent of the population there (Hispanics are 13 percent). Not too many black Mormons in the world. But it shouldn’t be overlooked that the white people who populate Utah are a lot more functional than whites elsewhere. The difference is the LDS faith. Even if you aren’t Mormon, Mormonism sets the tone for public life. One more excerpt:

No place is perfect. But with mobility seemingly stalled elsewhere, and our politics quickly becoming as bitter as a double Campari with no ice, I really, really wanted to find pieces of Utah’s model that could somehow be exported.

Price gave me some hope. The Mormon Church, he says, has created “scripts” for life, and you don’t need religious faith for those; you just need cultural agreement that they’re important. He said: “Imagine the American Medical Association said that if the mother is married when she’s pregnant, the child is likely to do better.” We have lots of secular authorities who could be encouraging marriage, and volunteering, and higher levels of community involvement of all kinds. Looking at the remarkable speed with which norms about gay marriage changed, thanks in part to an aggressive push on the topic from Hollywood icons, I have to believe that our norms about everyone else’s marriages could change too, if those same elites were courageous enough to recognize the evidence, and take a stand.

And as I saw myself, Mormonism also seems to have a script for a different kind of politics, one that might, just possibly, help us do some of the other things. Enough to make a difference.

Read the whole thing. It’s really good. In The Benedict Option, I talked to Terryl Givens, an LDS academic, about why Mormons are so good at building strong ties to each other within the church. Here is part of what he told me (from the book):

In his first letter to the church in Corinth, Paul urged the believers there to “have the same care for one another. “If one member suffers, all suffer together,” the apostle wrote. “If one member is honored, all rejoice together. Now you are the Body of Christ, and individually members of it.”
The LDS Church lives out that principle in a unique way. The Mormon practice of “home teaching” directs two designated Mormon holders of the church’s priestly office to visit every individual or family in a ward at least once a month, to hear their concerns and offer counsel. A parallel program called Relief Society involves women ministering to women as “visiting teachers.” These have become a major source of establishing and strengthening local community bonds.

“In theory, if not always in practice, every adult man and woman is responsible for spiritually and emotionally sustaining three, four, or more other families, or women, in the visiting teaching program,” says the LDS’s Terryl Givens. He adds that Mormons frequently have social gatherings to celebrate and renew ties to community. “Mormonism takes the symbolism of the former and the randomness of the latter and transforms them into a deliberate ordering of relations that builds a warp and woof of sociality throughout the ward,” he says.

Non-Mormons can learn from the deliberate dedication that wards—at both leadership and lay levels—have to caring for each other spiritually. The church community is not merely the people one worships with on Sunday but the people one lives with, serves, and nurtures as if they were family members. What’s more, the church is the center of a Mormon’s social life.

“The consequence is that wherever Mormons travel, they find immediate kinship and remarkable intimacy with other practicing Mormons,” Givens says. “That is why Mormons seldom feel alone, even in a hostile— increasingly hostile—world.”

Ideas have consequences. Among the American religious groups whose youth tested lowest for Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, the Mormons stood out. Nobody else was even close. Those folks are doing something right. Those folks are doing a lot of things right. The rest of us may reject their theology, but we can learn a lot from them on how to incorporate that faith into family and communal life.

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Opioids Are The Opiate Of The People

Ceçi n’est pas une croix (Lydia Vero/Shutterstock)

Kevin Williamson is one hell of a writer, and a hardcore, unsentimental libertarian. Like the (Catholic libertarian) reader who sent in this recent short essay of Williamson’s, I was struck by the tone and content of this Williamson piece in National Review. It begins:

This is the great paradox of our time: In 2017, it has never been easier for us to satisfy our wants, but we seldom have been more dissatisfied. In the United States, in Europe, in Latin America, and even (more quietly) in parts of Asia and in Australia, there is a sense that things are not going quite right, that the old order — not only in politics but also in commercial and religious life — is dead on its feet. People have turned to leaders and movements of very different kinds — Hugo Chávez, Marine Le Pen, Donald Trump, Black Lives Matter, black-mask anarchism — in search of alternatives. In a sense, they are all the same: Those who had felt themselves to be on the outside looking in are now on the outside looking out.

I’m reading Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari — a book that is by turns brilliant and shockingly obtuse. Early in the book, Harari — who is a liberal, atheist, scientific materialist — notes that by any material measure, we are living in the best of all possible times. Yet why is it that rich countries today have far higher suicide rates than those not as rich? Harari theorizes that happiness depends not so much on actual conditions, but on expectations of what conditions should be. When conditions do not meet expectations, we can expect political turmoil, or something else — like, for example, the opioid epidemic. [UPDATE: Read Pia Maleney on the effects of downward mobility.] Harari says that the biochemical pursuit of happiness is “an existential threat to the social order.”

We have abandoned a religious outlook that restrains and questions the pursuit of pleasure. Harari doesn’t think this is such a bad thing. Anyway, he writes, no matter what religion says, “for the capitalist juggernaut, happiness is pleasure. Period.” Again, Harari is not criticizing capitalism. In fact, later in the book he praises it for all the advances it has brought to humankind, in terms of increasing pleasure and freedom of action. He says one of the great projects of the 21st century is going to be the use of technology to globalize pleasure. (Tellingly, nowhere in the book’s index is there a mention of Aldous Huxley or Brave New World.)

I hope to write a lot more about the book when I finish it. At this point, I want to point out that even if Harari’s vision is a good thing (it’s not, not in my view), and even if it were feasible, we would still be a very long way from achieving it. And there will be a hell of a lot of suffering ahead for people who have come to believe that happiness can be theirs if only they accumulate wealth and experiences. You can see from reading Harari’s book that economic growth depends to a disquieting degree on people believing that maximizing individual pleasure is the key to happiness, and that acquiring that happiness is possible for them.

Which brings us back to Williamson’s piece. Excerpt:

But the marriage and family that once was a source of security is today a source of insecurity, an unstable and uncertain thing scarcely defended by the law (it is far, far easier to walk away from a marriage than from a student loan) and held in low regard by much of society. Again, this works differently for men than for women: A single mother is still a mother, but a father who lives apart from his children and their mother is not a father in full. If he is not fixed in this world by being a father and a husband, and if he has only ordinary, unexceptional employment, what, exactly, is he? Self-sufficient, perhaps, and that isn’t nothing. But how does he stand in relation to other men, to his neighbors, and to those who came before him and will come after him? His status is vague, and it is precarious.

And there is the paradox within our paradox: The world is wondrous and beautiful and exciting and rich, and many of us have trouble finding our place in it, in part, because it is wondrous and beautiful and exciting and rich, so much so that we have lost touch with certain older realities. One of those realities is that children need fathers. Another is that fathers need children.

But these are what my colleague David French calls the “wounds that public policy will not heal.” Our churches are full of people who would love to talk to you about healing, but many have lost interest in that sort of thing, too. And so they turn to Trump, to Le Pen, to Chavismo (which is what Bernie Sanders is peddling), and, perhaps, to opiate-induced oblivion. Where will they turn when they figure out — and they will figure it out — that there are no answers in these, either? And what will we offer them?

Read the whole thing.

Public policy can only do so much to fix this. What public policy is going to compel a father who has no interest in supporting his children to do so? What public policy is going to force him to be part of their lives? What law is going to force women not have babies without being married to the father? Are there public policies that can muscle troubled couples into staying married when the going gets tough? And what kind of school reform can make up for a child suffering from parents who don’t care about education, and don’t care to make a home life stable enough for their children to learn?

And so on.

About the churches that have lost interest in healing, I am reminded of something my former priest, Father Matthew, told me about this. He said that people often think they want healing, but what they really want is anesthetic so they don’t have to feel the pain of their own condition. There are plenty of churches willing to give patients nothing but anesthetic. A real church, though, will be willing to do the difficult treatment needed to heal the brokenness, not simply mask the pain from it.

We Christians have got to be that kind of church. It is likely to be the case that very many people will not want to come around, because we ask them to commit to something they don’t want to do. We tell them that they will not be able to baptize their pleasures here, but rather they will only find their lives if they are willing to die to themselves. People have never wanted to hear that, and perhaps never more than today, formed by a culture that tells them they can be like gods (the point of the book Homo Deus).

But there is no other way. There just isn’t. It’s the Way of the Cross, not the Way of the Big Electric Blanket. The reference is to a line by Flannery O’Connor, who also said, relevantly, “All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful.”

This kind of grace-filled church will never fill auditoriums, not in this post-Christian consumerist culture. But it will be an ark to those who are willing to lose their lives in order to save them. 


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Does Germany Still Care About Luther?

Martin Luther (360b/Shutterstock)

Matthias Lohmann and Ryan Hoselton, writing on The Gospel Coalition’s website, lament the fact that Germany, the 1517 birthplace of the Reformation, has turned its back on Protestant Christianity (and Christianity in general). Sure, Germany is holding lots of celebrations of the Reformation this year, but its collective heart isn’t in it, say the writers. Excerpt:

[F]ew in Europe see the relevance of the Protestant Reformers’ theological and spiritual vision for today. Many dismiss their doctrinal and ecclesial agenda as a mask for furthering the political and economic interests of power-hungry royalty (or, unintentionally, of zealous peasants). Others blame the Reformation for leading Europe into divisive wars and struggles with disastrous and abiding social consequences. Most Europeans view the Reformers’ beliefs as intolerant, passé, and petty.

With few exceptions, Europe’s churches more or less agree. To advance ecumenical relationships with Catholics, the EKD will officially commemorate the anniversary as a Christusfest (festival of Christ) rather than celebrate it with the label “Reformation.” There’s little cause for celebration anyway, as most churches have long abandoned—or, at least, significantly revised—the Reformation’s core doctrines: sola Scriptura, sola gratia, sola fide, solus Christus, and soli Deo gloria. While the Roman Catholic church still officially rejects Scripture alone, European Protestant church leaders and university theology faculty now place the authority of human reason, the claims of higher criticism, and individual conscience over Scripture. Grace alone is of little consequence in an age when ministers minimize sin and maximize humanity’s inherent goodness and free will. It appears Erasmus won the debate with Luther over the bondage of the will after all. Faith alone and Christ alone have been replaced by the supposedly humbler positions of “We don’t know” and “Many paths lead to God.” And soli Deo gloria is the forgotten sola, known in Germany today only through the SDG inscribed under Johann Sebastian Bach’s compositions.

Even the bulk of Europe’s evangelicals and free churches (i.e., those without ties to the state) see little use for the theology of the Reformation. The Reformers’ quest for biblical and spiritual depth has been substituted for deep anti-intellectualism and shallow experientialism. Ministers have largely traded the Reformers’ emphasis on the Christ-centered preaching of the Word for theater performances and moralistic guidelines, and the Protestant doctrine of the priesthood of all believers has warped into therapeutic individualism.

“Christusfest”?! Good grief. This is the Reformation we’re talking about, and they’re just watering it all down (in the same way Pope Francis is doing, by the way). This is the kind of ecumenism I do not like: an ecumenism of promoting the lowest common denominator. I have never seen my friendship with Christians from other churches as dependent on either of us giving up our doctrinal truths. In fact, I feel that I am on more solid ground talking to Christians who are true-believing Protestants or true-believing Catholics than with those who don’t seem to take the things that divide us seriously.

Of course there are plenty of Christians in every church who lack charity, and refuse to see the brotherhood in Christ that unites us all, despite our very real and important divisions. I regret that, and want to work against it. That said, even as someone who is naturally more sympathetic theologically to Roman Catholicism than to Reformed Christianity, I can’t help feeling that something important has been lost with “Christusfest”.

Newsweek wrote a piece last year about how Luther’s faith is dying out in Luther’s land. I found this passage arresting:

Here is the paradox: Under East Germany’s Communist dictatorship, where churchgoing was frowned upon, congregations were larger. Indeed, the Protestant church and its pastors and members were arguably the most important factor leading to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

“In [East Germany], the church was a home for those who didn’t support the regime, and everything the church did had public significance,” said Christine Lieberknecht, Thuringia’s prime minister, a Christian Democrat who served as a pastor under the Communists.

As a teenager in the late 1980s, Jana Fenn attended a Christian youth group in Jena, East Germany because, she explained, “You could say things there that you couldn’t say in school, and you learned things there that you didn’t learn in school.”

But one day, Fenn said, her teacher wanted a chat: “She asked, ‘What do you do on Friday evenings?’ I said I went to the Christian youth group. Then she asked who else was there and what we did.” Even though attending the youth group meant Fenn and her friends were exposing themselves to official repercussions, they didn’t let their teachers intimidate them.

But today Fenn no longer belongs to the church. “I go to a service every now and then, but the church doesn’t have a role in my life,” she said. “It doesn’t really stand for anything anymore. I could just as well join Greenpeace.”

Added Pollack: “Catholics criticize their church more vocally than Protestants theirs, but they also feel a very strong connection. Protestants don’t feel such a strong connection. The Protestant church is seen more as an institution that runs daycare centers and provides social services.”

Tolerance and acceptance – who could criticize such benign values? That’s exactly the Lutherans’ problem. “People don’t know what exactly the church represents,” said Pollack. “It’s having a hard time differentiating itself from other organizations within civil society, from trade unions or political parties.”

(For the record, the Catholic Church in Germany is not in much better shape.)

People get that the churches stand for nothing — this is a price paid by churches for trying to hard to assimilate to modernity. It’s true for us too, and this is going to become ever more clear over the next few decades. A church that doesn’t represent much more than being nice and offering social services isn’t going to succeed, and in any case is not really a church.

Notice Lohmann’s and Hoselton’s complaint about Evangelicalism’s “deep anti-intellectualism and shallow experientialism.” This must be what Al Mohler was talking about in the much-discussed podcast interview he did with me some weeks back, when he asked me if I thought Evangelicals have what it takes to do the Benedict Option (= form a strong, resilient, countercultural Christian witness to post-Christian modernity). I told him genuinely that I didn’t not know. He responded that no, Evangelicalism does not have these resources, but if Evangelicals will return to the magisterial Reformers of the early Reformation, they will find everything they need.

I see that Dr. Mohler and other Protestant leaders are going to be speaking at a Reformation conference in Germany later this year, in which participants will be urging a return to Reformation roots. Let me ask you Evangelical, Lutheran, and Calvinist readers: What you think of Dr. Mohler’s claim? Does Evangelicalism have what it takes to do the Benedict Option? Why or why not?

And, what would it mean to return to Reformation roots, either in a Mainline context, or an Evangelical/free church context? I’m asking because I’d love to know. The broad success of The Benedict Option project depends on the answer.

UPDATE: Long, interesting comment from Pastor Brian:

Evangelicalism is tough to define anymore. For that reason I no longer refer to myself as an evangelical, but rather as an orthodox Protestant, or a confessionally Reformed Christian, even though I would fit neatly in the old definition of an evangelical. (For more on this, see Martyn Lloyd-Jones “What is an Evangelical?” and Ian H Murray’s ” The Old Evangelicalism.”)

But evangelicalism, as it is widely constituted today, does not have the chops to survive. It is shallow, experiential and emotional, fad-driven, and quite anti-intellectual. It consciously seeks to mimic the culture and is terrified of seeming “irrelevant,” never dreaming that its actual relevance is only to be found in not seeking cultural relevance as the sumum bonum. It will give away the store to be popular.

There is also a strong undercurrent of eschatological pessimism associated with Dispensational Premillenialism, coupled with a jingoistic Americanism that fundamentally sees America and Christendom as almost synonymous. The cultural decay we see all around us seems, therefore, to be totally unprecedented in human history. Therefore we’re in the End Times. Therefore, there’s no sense in worrying much about the future. The idea that history could go on for another two millennia (or that God could allow global warming to ravage the planet) or the center of world Christianity could shift to Africa or China in that time, and America cease to be “Christian” would almost be seen as heretical unbelief.

Meanwhile younger evangelicals are busy recapitulating the 20th century church’s fatal embrace of theological liberalism. As long as it’s packaged in an emotionally compelling way, their elders can be induced to swallow it as well, as “The Shack” easily demonstrates.

Within the more conservative strains of Reformed and Lutheran Protestantism there are other problematic dynamics. I have many Lutheran friends, but I’ll stick to generalizing about the Reformed. There is a spectrum in the PCA, for instance. The disciples of Tim Keller are almost as ready to give away the store in the name of reaching the culture as the mainstream evangelicals are, and there is a small but significant number of these Young Turks who are busy trying to combine AngloCatholicism and hipster feminism into a small enough package to smuggle into the PCA. On the other extreme are the Confessionalist Conservatives (with whom I mostly identify, tho less and less) many of whom seem to be suffering from Asperger’s Syndrome. Carl Trueman’s denomination is chock full of these. The focus here is on doctrine in an increasingly nuanced form, but it’s not particularly connected to real life most of the time. They tend to build small, unattractive churches full of Christians with advanced degrees in physics or engineering. They love doctrinal controversy, not because they love controversy, but because they love debating ideas. But regular people have no desire to follow the subtle arguments and hate the atmosphere of conflict coupled with a lack of any recognizably pleasing social interaction, so they run away pretty quickly. At my worst, I could easily fall into these pitfalls (indeed, I have) but the Lord is graciously restraining me and reshaping me, and by grace I am better than I was.

How would BenOp look among us? Well, I think it would look something like the Early Church combined with the best of the Puritan movement in England, and the Nadere Reformatie in the Netherlands, with a helping of Bunyan thrown in, all leavened with an 18th century missionary spirit. There would be an emphasis on doctrine and catechesis not for the fun of mastering knowledge, but in the assistance of piety. There would be emphasis on spiritual formation in community, as the early Methodists were noted for, along with the regular practice of the spiritual disciplines.

The most important thing, though, would be to create a warm, positive, life giving atmosphere that clearly said, “We’re very, very different in here, and that’s a very good thing.” Outsiders would be very warmly welcomed, but there should be a sense of leaving one world and entering another when they come among us. Our world should be as different…. as enchanted and charming and True, in its own way, as Narnia was from wartime England for the Pevensie children.

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Three Rival Humanisms

Is transhumanism going to be the successor to all humanisms? (Ezume Images/Shutterstock)

I’m very much enjoying reading the new book by historian Yuval Noah Harari, titled Homo Deus: A Brief History Of Tomorrow.  I’m taking notes on it, and find good insights on many pages, but half as many statements and analyses that are way off. I don’t think Harari is the kind of thinker who ever considers that he might be wrong. I’ll be blogging more about the book when I’m done with it, but first, I want to share with you an interesting part of the book I completed last night.

Harari is an atheist, gay, and a man profoundly invested in secular modernity and what you might call the ideology of technology. He has the kind of view of religion that you would expect from someone like that. He actually praises Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (though not by name) as a realistic accommodation by religion to modernity. But he tweaks progressive Christians for telling themselves that their form of Christianity comes from the Bible, when really their prophet is Foucault.

Harari says Nietzsche is right: God is dead, at least in the West, and we have killed him. The body of the 19th century’s deicide victim is finally starting to cool, and we see the world it has left behind. Harari concedes that all the material progress, and progress in liberating the individual will, has come at a steep price. He praises the rise of humanism for creating a Man-centered way of making meaning in a meaningless universe.

Toward the end of his Humanism section, he talks about “schisms” within humanism. He writes:

In fact, humanism shared the fate of every successful religion, such as Christianity and Buddhism. As it spread and evolved, it fragmented into several conflicting sects. All humanist sects believe that human experience is the supreme source of authority and meaning, yet they interpret human experience in different ways.

Harari contends that “humanism split into three main branches:

  1. Orthodox Humanism: The belief that the individual is sovereign, and that “we should give as much freedom as possible to every individual to experience the world, follow his or her inner voice and express his or her inner truth. Whether in politics, economics, or art, individual free will should have far more weight than state interests of religious doctrines.” This orthodox humanism is what we have come to call “liberal humanism,” or just plain “liberalism” (N.B., in this sense, even the right-of-center parties in the West are liberal). The problem is that inevitably the desires of all these individuals will conflict. In the 19th century, liberalism led to nationalism, as people began to think that nations had their own individuality, and should express that without being bound to a transnational empire.
  2. Socialist Humanism: According to Harari, socialist humanism resolves the conflict within liberal humanism by faulting it for focusing too much on the individual, and not enough on the collective. Liberal humanism, on this view, blinds individuals to the needs and wants of others. Socialist humanism focuses more on social forces that prevent human flourishing, and advocates collective action through strong institutions to shape those social forces towards collective liberation.
  3. Evolutionary humanism: This is a very different way of addressing the conflict problem raised by liberal humanism. Evolutionary humanism says that conflict is not always a problem to be solved, but something to cheer, because it pushes evolution forward. “Some humans are simply superior to others, and when human experiences collide, the fittest humans should steamroll everyone else,” Harari writes (though I hasten to say he’s describing this worldview, not necessarily endorsing it). Those humans who excel in various areas are worth more to society than its failures, and ought to be privileged and rewarded, because they are the drivers of progress.

Harari says that Stalin is the prime example of socialist humanism gone berserk, and Hitler is the same for evolutionary humanism. But neither terrible example obviates the insights of their rival humanisms. The historian — stating what I believe is his own view — writes:

Not all evolutionary humanists are racists, and not every belief in humankind’s potential for further evolution necessarily calls for setting up police states and concentration camps.

Auschwitz should serve as a blood-red warning sign rather than as a black curtain that hides entire sections of the human horizon. Evolutionary humanism played an important part in the shaping of modern culture, and is likely to play an even greater role in the shaping of the twenty-first century.

I am sympathetic to the “Christian humanism” of the Renaissance, though given what it opened the door to, I keep one foot in the Middle Ages. Unless something radical and unforeseen happens, Christian humanism is not on the table for the West in the 21st century. The three rival humanisms above are. It ought to be obvious to orthodox Christians how none of these humanisms are fully compatible with the Christian faith, but it ought to be equally obvious that we are going to have to learn to situate ourselves within one or more of them, and bear faithful witness.

To better explain the claims of the rival humanisms, Harari takes the example of four of the sound recordings placed on the Voyager I space probe, to give aliens a sample of what auditory life is like on Planet Earth. The ones Harari considers are:

  1. Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony
  2. Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode”
  3. A pygmy hunter of the Congo’s tribal initiation song
  4. A wolf howling in the Canadian Rockies

Which one of these recordings is the most valuable, according to the rival humanisms? According to Harari:

    1. The liberal view is that all three human expressions are equally valid.
    2. The socialist view is that “the real value of music depends not on the experiences of the individual listener, but on the impact it has on the experiences of other people and of society as a whole.” Therefore, says Harari, because Beethoven wrote music for rich white Europeans who were about to go plunder the world with colonialism, his music is probably not as important as Chuck Berry’s, which represents the black American experience, including having black America’s music appropriated by white musicians and turned into rock and roll. As for the pygmies, it only serves to uphold a primitive patriarchal order.
    3. The evolutionary view is that the question itself is stupid. There really is a hierarchy of values, and we shouldn’t apologize about it. Harari: “The Taj Mahal is more beautiful than a straw hut, Michelangelo’s David is superior to my five-year-old niece’s latest clay figurine, and Beethoven composed far better music than Church Berry or the Congolese pygmies. There, we’ve said it! According to evolutionary humanists, anyone arguing that all human experiences are equally valuable is either an imbecile or a coward. Such vulgarity and timidity will lead only to the degeneration and extinction of humankind, as human progress is impeded in the name of cultural relativism or social equality.”

Which one do you most agree with? With me, that’s easy: the evolutionary view. But I would not put it in the language of “degeneration and extinction of humankind,” not at all. Because I am grounded in Christian faith and thought, I affirm hierarchy, but also affirm the innate dignity of all men, as bearers of the image of God. The “progress” I seek is not towards humanity becoming Übermenschen, but towards humanity growing in sanctity and love, which is to say, towards greater unity with God.

Similarly, a Christian humanism could embrace in part liberal humanism and socialist humanism (though not evolutionary humanism, which denies the imago Dei and devalues the sanctity of life), while tempering their harsher aspects (e.g., the relativism of liberal humanism, and the way socialist humanitarianism renders individuals as abstractions, and tends to justify injustices against individuals on the basis of class, race, and other classifications.

Anyway, I put all this out there for y’all to think about and talk about.

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Munich & Venice Bleg

Hey readers, I am emerging from my sedation fog, and am happy to report that the steroid injection onto the bulging discs seems to have worked. No pain there for the first time in a long time. Let’s hope it holds.

I’ve had good luck asking for your travel advice in the past, so let me run something by you. Earlier in this space, I said that I was taking my son Matt with me to Italy for a conference in June. Matt wants to see something in Germany. We decided to go to Munich. It turns out that it’s way more expensive to fly back to the US from Munich. Bottom line: we are flying into and out of Venice. Given the relatively short time period we have, I’m thinking that we should take the train to Munich and spend Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, then take a one-hour plane ride from Munich to Venice on that Saturday evening. We’ll have that night in Venice, all day Sunday, and fly back to the US on that Monday, late morning.

I’ve already bought the tickets between Europe and the US, so there’s no changing dates or airports. I have no yet bought the one-way from Munich to Venice. Questions for you:

  1. Given that itinerary, what should we see in Munich? Matt wants to see the science museum in Munich, and the BMW Museum. I want to have a close personal encounter with German food, beer, and wine. What else? Where should we stay? Happily we don’t have to slum it like I did when I was his age in Europe, but we aren’t made of money either. Modest sleeping quarters are fine by me, because we will spend very little time in our room anyway. Suggestions?
  2. Given that itinerary, what should we see in Venice? If you only had one evening and an entire Sunday in Venice, what would you see? Where would you stay? No Gritti Palace for us, alas. Where would you eat and drink — places that I really wouldn’t want to miss?

I’ve never been to either place. Advice is very welcome. Thank you.

UPDATE: Matt says he would rather spend Wed-Fri in Munich, then fly to Venice on Saturday morning (there’s a cheap flight available) and have most of the weekend in Venice, for a more balanced trip. Please adjust your suggestions accordingly. Thanks.

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Today In All Things Benedict Option

Hello all. I am about to head to the doctor’s office for a medical procedure that’s going to knock me flat for the rest of the day. It involves a needle and a spine (my own). I’ll say no more about it, because I’m stuck on the ceiling like a cartoon cat just thinking about it, and it’s hard to type with one hand.

Here’s a wonderful piece from Christine Emba, writing in The Washington Post, calling on liberals and secularists not to be too quick to dismiss The Benedict Option. Excerpt:

True, some of the book’s descriptions of imminent persecution and a fast-approaching End of the West are overwrought, and it’s written to appeal first and foremost to a conservative, religious audience. But the observations and advice offered in “The Benedict Option” shouldn’t be shrugged off by everyone else. In fact, they ought to be thoughtfully considered by anyone worried about creating and preserving a healthy U.S. society, whether they spend Sundays at brunch or in the pews.

Many of the contentedly progressive would like to think that backing away from the strictures of religion has done our country a world of good. In fact, the opposite may be true. For one thing, there’s the matter of simple social cohesion: Increasing secularization can often lead to less tolerance, not more. As Americans on the right and left untether themselves from the standards of organized religion, they often redraw their allegiances more broadly, rallying around identities of race or nationalism while setting aside tempering ideals such as charity and forgiveness. Think of the alt-right, the small, far-right movement that seeks a whites-only state, suspicious of Christianity because of its acceptance of many groups, or violent protesters on the left, more interested in tearing down their opponents than seeking opportunities for reconciliation. Such attitudes lead to a more partisan politics and more vicious public life.

On an individual level, becoming increasingly unmoored from traditions and norms leads more frequently to negative outcomes than positive ones. Witness the sharply growing numbers of middle-age, working-class Americans — those most likely to have lost their connections to the habits and support systems religious engagement tends to build — dying from what researchers are calling “deaths of despair”: enough of them to lower U.S. life expectancy for the first time in decades.

It’s not necessarily true that Christian communities are flourishing in contrast to the rest of society; in fact, it’s a major conceit of the book that most are not. But in the face of the great unmooring, Dreher advocates that those who are serious about their faith act to embrace a sort of “exile in place” and commit to strengthening their families, churches and schools, forming a vibrant counterculture that will preserve Christianity despite a rising tide of secularism. His strategies for doing so would also benefit society at large.

Here’s a piece based on a long and thoroughly enjoyable interview I did with Bill McCormick of The Jesuit Post. Man, I loved talking to that guy. We could have chatted all afternoon. Excerpts:

Dreher often flirts with a narrative of decline. To be sure, in The Benedict Option Dreher contributes to an ongoing conversation about the cracked foundations of contemporary American society. Many progressives will find this sort of pessimism off-putting, and perhaps uncharitable to Christians trying to engage that culture. Indeed, regular readers of Dreher’s blog will know that he does not always suffer fools lightly. But note that Dreher is here rejecting something that most on the Left find no less troubling: the jingoistic optimism of the Religious Right. When I asked Dreher about this, he responded:

“The wonderful thing about Roman Catholicism is that it doesn’t track one-to-one with American political divisions, and for me that was one of the liberating things about being a Catholic.”

Indeed, if nothing else, arguments like Dreher’s should hearten those who lament the dependence of so many Christians upon the GOP, and it ought to wake up those Republican Christians who still don’t see the problem. As a political scientist myself, this liberation from political parties is certainly of interest to me. When I asked him about it, it was evident that Dreher was, too:

It’s good to step outside your ideological puzzle and realize that the Gospel is much bigger than your political commitments, and sometimes being faithful to the Gospel means standing up to your political allies. I have progressive friends who do that on the issue of life, and I have conservative friends who do that on the issue of the environment or economics. But that’s liberating, frankly. When you don’t feel captive to a political party, when you realize that the Church is not the Republican or Democratic party at prayer, that opens up some really amazing possibilities for your own growth as a neighbor and as a citizen and as a Christian.

Listening to Dreher, I felt a hope that arguments like The Benedict Option could free social and religious conservatives from knee-jerk dependence upon the Republican party. As Dreher indicates, the Option ought to challenge such conservatives to be “faithful to the Gospel” in all its breadth and depth, not just the parts that fit party orthodoxy. This is advice that Dreher admits can be hard for even him to take: “We always need reformation and conversion.”


The struggle to serve God rather than himself, Dreher urges, is a daily one. And so it became more clear to me that the Benedict Option alludes not only to St Benedict’s historical role in shaping European culture, but also to the concrete ways in which the saint cultivated holiness in everyday life.

More subtly, Dreher calls us to scrutinize our own commitments to pluralism and dialogue. As I noted above, Dreher describes the Benedict Option as a “radical choice” between Christ and empire. The moral richness of this “radical choice” first hit me when I asked Dreher about whether the Benedict Option meant retreating not only from the “empire” but from the task finding common ground as well. “That criticism is on point,” he said,

but I am less concerned with finding common ground than I am with being faithful. That doesn’t preclude finding common ground with others outside of my faith tradition, and I look for that. But that is not the thing that I am most concerned about.

This left me speechless. Everyone today talks about the need for finding common ground, for embracing pluralism, for resurrecting civil dialogue. What could be more important?

Simply put, for Dreher, living out one’s faith is more important. And while this doesn’t meant that Dreher is against dialogue – he’s not – he certainly is challenging the priority many give it. He led me to wonder: Am I living out my deepest commitments? Do I live out those commitments even as I interact with others of different beliefs? Ultimately, do I think that God is in charge? Dreher’s readers can give more value to pluralism than he does, as I do, and they might also assign more efficacy to grace within that pluralism, as I do, as well. But we can still be grateful for the questions Dreher raises about pluralism. He may also give us incentive to return to some of the leading theorists of Catholic engagement in pluralism, such as Jacques Maritain and John Courtney Murray, for the insights they offer our times.

Throughout our conversation, Dreher impressed me with his humility: he is not seeking to emulate St. Benedict as the grand savior of Western civilization. Benedict’s goal was a modest, if all-encompassing, one: to serve the Lord in daily life. And where the Dreher of the Crunchy Cons wanted to rescue Western civilization from itself, the Dreher of the Benedict Option has a Benedictine modesty, too:

I was really struck by how St. Benedict did not set out to save Western civilization, to shore up the empire that has fallen. All [the early Benedictines] set out to do was to establish what St. Benedict calls in his Rule a “school for the service of the Lord.” All they wanted to do is learn how we can live faithfully in community in the time and place and with the challenges we have been given. And by doing that work faithfully, seeking nothing but the face of Christ, and ordering everything else to that quest, they ended up spreading throughout Europe, evangelizing European peoples, teaching them how to do practice things like agriculture, things that had been forgotten, and preserving within those monasteries the writings of the Church fathers… Each monastery was like an ark, and, without really knowing what they were doing, they prepared Europe for the rebirth of civilization.

That an ark was Dreher’s guiding image remained with me: while an ark is needed in the fearful times of a deluge, the ark’s presence evokes the hope of safety from the flood. Just so, the Benedict Option is not about fear for Dreher, even though it does arise from fears about American society. Fundamentally, the Benedict Option is about hope: not in America, not in oneself, but in God. When I asked Dreher what he learned from the process of writing the book, he said : “I learned that we don’t have to win the victory in this lifetime, and it can’t be won in this lifetime. All we have to do is to do the very best we can where we are and let God do the rest.”

Read the whole thing.

There are more things I could blog about, but it’s time to go meet my doom. It was nice knowing y’all. By the way, The Benedict Option is still selling well. I really do hope that it starts a bunch of new and important conversations in this country. While it is aimed at my fellow religious conservatives, I hope those outside the bounds of religious conservatism will find some value in the book. As Patrick Gilger, SJ, wrote in his critical-but-appreciative review in America:

Nevertheless, I take Dreher’s book to be doing the church a genuine and needed service. To the extent that his work reminds us that Christianity is a way of living together in the truth—reminds us that today binding is perhaps more necessary than ever—our response ought to be not dissatisfaction but gratitude.

Finding, then, in the Benedict Option a reminder of the grace of having been bound to a spouse, a family or a church, Dreher may become an ally rather than another rival to scapegoat. And Dreher, being reminded that there are more ways than Benedict’s to bind, may too discover that he has allies in unexpected places.

After all, it was none other than the co-founder of the Catholic Worker, that holy fool Frenchman Peter Maurin, who at midcentury wrote:

And we are now
in the age of chaos.
In an age of chaos
people look
for a new order.
Because people are becoming aware
of this lack of order
they would like to be able
to create order
out of chaos.
The time
to create order
out of chaos
is now.
The germ of the present
was in the past
and the germ of the future
is in the present.
The thing to do
is to give up old tricks
and start to play new tricks…
The thing to do right now
is to create a new society
within the shell of the old
with the philosophy of the new.
which is not a new philosophy
but a very old philosophy.
a philosophy so old
that it looks like new.


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