Steve Sailer calls the big post-Obergefell push to normalize transgenderism “World War T”. It’s an apt phrase. These radicals just do not stop, ever:
The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools system in North Carolina was going to use a book about a boy who likes to wear dresses as part of a first-grade lesson on what to do when someone is bullied.
But school administrators this week pulled the book, “Jacob’s New Dress,” after critics complained about its content.
The book came under fire from the North Carolina Values Coalition, a conservative group that promotes “pro-family positions,” according to its website.
Tami Fitzgerald, the executive director of the coalition, said that no notice was given to parents about the book and that it was sprung on teachers only days before it was supposed to be used.
“I read the book online,” she said. “It’s clearly geared to young children. The book is meant as a tool of indoctrination to normalize transgender behavior. I think a lot of parents would object to that.”
She said a teacher tipped off the coalition, which emailed its members, issued a news release and was organizing a petition when the school system reversed course.
“We believe the purpose of first grade is to teach writing, reading and math and not to teach boys to wear dresses,” she said.
The book opens with Jacob in the dress-up corner of a classroom where students can put on costumes and imagine themselves in different roles. Jacob puts on a sparkly pink dress and a crown and declares, “I’ll be the princess.”
And of course the NCAA, an organization that is supposed to be about sports, but which, like ESPN, now considers itself to be a Social Justice Warrior outfit, has issued an ultimatum to North Carolina:
The NCAA will start deciding on locations for its upcoming championships next week and has indicated it will leave North Carolina out of that process if the state hasn’t changed a law that limits LGBT rights by that time.
In a statement Thursday, exactly one year to the day after the law was passed, the sports organization said its committees will begin picking championship sites for 2018-22 and will announce those decisions April 18. The statement also noted that “once the sites are selected by the committee, those decisions are final.”
What business is it of the NCAA to decide that North Carolina must be punished because of the way it regulates transgender bathroom use? I wish North Carolina would tell the NCAA to get stuffed. The reader who tipped me off to this story pointed out “the hypocrisy of the NCAA making millions and millions of dollars on the backs of unpaid college students but [having] the audacity to lecture North Carolina.”
Here’s the rule of contemporary progressivism: you can exploit anybody you want, just as long as you say the right thing about minorities and gays.
Meanwhile, on the World War T front, did you see what Ryan T. Anderson had to face this week at a lecture at UT-Austin? Here’s a link to the video on Facebook. Warning: the protesters have filthy mouths. Watch it, though, and understand what pro-trans berserkers these protesters are. They have no interest in anything but coercion and suppression of dissent. Universities must get to the point where they expel any student who behaves like this in a lecture. No warning, no apologies: expulsion. Otherwise, they will destroy universities.
Some woke liberal Evangelical on Twitter this week griped about me, and said people like me have had time to change our views, and now deserve to be shouted down. I blocked him, because who has time for Jacobins like that? “Agree with me, or I will scream at you until you surrender.” And this cat is a pastor. That’s exactly what you see on the Ryan Anderson video. But this is where we are going as a culture. Let us propagandize your first grade children for transgenderism, or we will scream at you until you surrender!
No child, trans or otherwise, should be bullied. Full stop. The genius of the LGBT activist strategy for the past 20 years or so has been to package their radical ideology in anti-bullying, safety-and-health rhetoric. No decent person wants to see gay kids or any kids bullied in school. But there is no reason at all to say that one has to teach children that it’s normal for boys to present themselves as girls in order to teach children care and respect for others. Christian students shouldn’t be bullied either, but no Christian claims that teaching that requires reading Gospel-based storybooks to first graders.
This kind of ideological craziness cannot be reasoned with, because it denies reason. It can only be resisted. That resistance can take many forms, but it has to happen. If orthodox Christians and other social conservatives take our beliefs as seriously as these Jacobins and their churchy fellow travelers take theirs, we have to act on it. Defend our universities. Defend our children. And if the administrators of our universities and schools capitulate, then walk.
So, the health care bill. It appears that the House GOP is poised to eliminate Obamacare’s rule that would protect people with pre-existing conditions from being denied insurance. They might say no, they aren’t, but that’s not really true; the protection may remain in name only.
Whatever you thought of Obamacare, that part of it was fair and necessary. Why on earth would this supposedly newly populist party want to do something that stands to hurt the most vulnerable? What kind of ideologues would do this? What kind of populist president would support it?
I opposed Obamacare. I like health savings accounts, tax credits and competitive health care markets to drive down costs. But these free-market reforms have to be funded in a way to serve the least among us, not the most. This House Republican plan would increase suffering, morbidity and death among the middle class and poor in order to provide tax cuts to the rich.
It would cut Medicaid benefits by $880 billion between now and 2026. It would boost the after-tax income for those making more than $1 million a year by 14 percent, according to the Tax Policy Center. This bill takes the most vicious progressive stereotypes about conservatives and validates them.
It’s no wonder that according to the latest Quinnipiac poll this bill has just a 17 percent approval rating. It’s no wonder that this bill is already massively more unpopular that Hillarycare and Obamacare, two bills that ended up gutting congressional majorities.
If we’re going to have the rough edges of a populist revolt, you’d think that at least somebody would be interested in listening to the people. But with this bill the Republican leadership sets an all-time new land speed record for forgetting where you came from.
The core Republican problem is this: The Republicans can’t run policy-making from the White House because they have a marketing guy in charge of the factory. But they can’t run policy from Capitol Hill because it’s visionless and internally divided. So the Republicans have the politics driving the substance, not the other way around. The new elite is worse than the old elite — and certainly more vapid.
A study released this week found that mortality rates among the white working class shot up 60 percent — 60 percent! — in fewer than twenty years. It’s complicated why this is happening, but the last thing these people need is to give insurance companies an opportunity to deny them coverage. These are Trump’s people, and as Brooks indicates, he’s selling them out for the sake of a political win. I completely understand the need to reform Obamacare and make it better, but it looks like the Congressional Republicans never had a plan for this, and went into this process hacking willy-nilly, and have no idea what they’re doing.
This is not an abstraction! This is the health care of the American people. People, not integers.
These Republicans can’t govern, can they? Again, let me mention a conversation I had last week in Washington with a conservative, pro-Trump friend. He said that policymaking is such a disaster — in large part because the president himself is disinterested and disengaged — that when the wheels come off, the Democrats are going to come roaring back, and it’s going to be hell to pay for conservatives. Feels like the GOP is careening today towards a wheels-off moment.
If the people who sent Trump to Washington come to see him as having sold them out, we are going to be at a dangerous political moment. Trump could have used what scant political capital he had to do something big on trade policy, which is what his people wanted more than anything, and arguably needed. But no, they had to mess with Obamacare. Reminds me of George W. Bush using up his re-election capital in 2005 pushing for a Social Security reform that nobody but conservative elites wanted, and that failed.
UPDATE: Note comments in the thread calling into question my math re: white mortality rate. It’s not as bad as I made it sound, I’m told … but it’s still pretty horrible!
When I started reading, I expected this book to be mostly about how Christians can outsmart the Left. And while Rod does employ some of that culture war language, I was pleased to be proven wrong. The Benedict Option is not, at least in how Rod has laid it out in the book, primarily between Christians and secularists. It is between Christians and Christ. What surprised me about the book was how overwhelmingly concerned Rod is with Christian sanctification. This is not really a battle plan to be used against progressives. It’s an instruction manual in basic Christian faithfulness. What refreshed me about “The Benedict Option” was not how much of it seemed innovative and timely, but how much of it felt familiar and old.
At one point while reading, I wrote this in the margins: “Purpose-driven premodernism.” Here’s what I mean. Rick Warren’s “The Purpose Driven-Life” was a massive bestseller when it was released more than 10 years ago. Now, regardless whether you think “The Purpose-Driven Life” was mostly good, mostly bad, or a mixed bag, one thing remains true: The PDL was a book that assumed the life of a Christian was structured around spiritual habits. Warren argued that a life with purpose was one that is built around faithful spiritual practices, not a life that merely tolerated them.
That’s precisely what Rod is getting at in the Benedict Option.
Read the whole thing. He’s really right about that: this book is far less about how to deal with the Left, and much more about how to structure our own daily lives around the pursuit of holiness — and why it is so very important to do that in these post-Christian times. As Samuel puts it, the main difference between PDL and TBO is that the former came out in 2002, and assumes a moral and spiritual stability in American culture that is not longer there.
Writing on Huffington Post, Michael Austin was also surprised by the book. Excerpt:
A year or so ago, I heard people bandying about the phrase “The Benedict Option,” but I had no idea what it was. When out of curiosity I looked into it a bit, I was pretty strongly opposed to it. Why would followers of Christ choose to withdraw from culture, especially at a time such as this? However, what I was opposed to was a mere caricature of Rod Dreher’s actual proposal in his newly published book.
Dreher’s primary audience is theologically and politically conservative Christians. There are already many reviews of the book available online, and good summaries of what the Benedict Option includes (here and here). I won’t rehearse all of the content of the book, nor will I argue with recent reviews, some of which are better, more accurate, and more helpful than others (e.g. The Atlantic, NYT, The Washington Post, WaPo again, and Comment).
However, it does seem to me that a disproportionate amount of attention has been given to what I take to be the lesser part of the book, namely, the call for Christians to withdraw from some aspects of culture, such as public school and the seeking of change via political power. What I came away with after reading the book was a renewed sense that the Church needs to redouble its efforts to be the Church, both individually and corporately.
Yes, that’s exactly right! As Marco Sermarini said in the book, when I asked him how the rest of us could have what he and his wonderful Christian community have:
“We invented nothing. We discovered nothing. We are only rediscovering a tradition that was locked away inside an old box. We had forgotten.”
Brad Littlejohn, in his thoughtful, ambivalent review, read the book in the same vein. Excerpt:
With all the buzz surrounding the book, I opened my review copy with some excitement and trepidation, but the more I kept reading, the more mystified I became what all the fuss was about. Fans and foes alike seemed to been taken in by the publishing event into thinking that something earthshaking was afoot.
But when you look at the forty-seven (or forty-three) concrete proposals that make up Dreher’s blueprint for the Benedict Option, you find instead a primer on thoughtful Christian discipleship. Dreher encourages churches to pay attention to their history, relearn liturgical rhythms, work together with other local congregations, and try to live as real communities. He encourages parents to put God at the center of their families’ lives, enforce moral norms, and think about who their kids are hanging out with. He proclaims the importance of Christian education, of Christian sexual morality, and of a Christian sense of work as vocation. In light of proposals such as these, one is forced to wonder just what is motivating the Christian intellectuals who contemptuously dismissed the book. Not only are most of these proposals simply mere Christianity, but a good number are mere common sense (for instance, “Think about your kids’ peer groups”; “don’t give your kids smartphones”; “don’t use social media in worship”; “fight pornography aggressively”). Now, to be sure, just because something is common sense does not mean it is necessarily common; in a world gone mad, stating the obvious can come across as revolutionary. But I really do think we all need to settle down and realize how ordinary and obvious most of the proposals in The Benedict Option really are.
He’s right about this. The reason I believe that Benedictine spirituality is so well-suited to our time is that it really is a meat-and-potatoes spirituality, one that is about doing ordinary things faithfully. As Leah Libresco Sargeant tells me in the book, “It’s just the church being what the church is supposed to be, but if you give it a name, that makes people care.”
She’s not being cynical, and neither am I. I embed a call to ordinary Christian discipleship within an alarmist narrative for three basic reasons.
First, I genuinely believe that conditions are alarming, and that the church needs to be shaken out of its frog-in-the-pot complacency.
Second, as Samuel James indicates in his piece, I believe that the situation is such that believing Christians have to draw back to a meaningful extent from uncritical participation in mainstream post-Christian culture, or they (we) will be assimilated.
And third, many Christians who think of themselves as countercultural actually aren’t, or at least not meaningfully so — and they need to change before it’s too late. The monastic metaphor is meant to spur that kind of thought.
So let us ask the question that everyone is arguing about: are things really that bad? On the central issue Dreher is concerned about—the place of Christian faith in public life—I think the only realistic answer is “Yes,” more or less.
But he goes on to say that I am both too optimistic and too pessimistic. This is good:
I say “too optimistic,” since it seems to me that Dreher entirely fails to mention the three looming perils facing Western civilization that are perhaps every bit as consequential as Christianity’s “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” from the public square. These are:
- the rapid collapse of faith in public institutions and truth-claims that threatens to reduce our society to a Hobbesian war of all against all, or at least to render us unable to engage in public deliberation or to take any preventative actions against crises natural or man-made.
- The looming specter of the rapid automation of many fields of work that threatens a situation of mass unemployment and spiralling inequality for which our political and economic institutions are not adapted, and will not have time to adapt.
- The likelihood of high-impact climate change, and the severe ecological, economic, demographic, and political disruptions that it is liable to engender if not dramatically slowed.
Of course, Dreher is not trying to write a book about everything, and he has been accused of being a Cassandra as it is. But any attempt to discern the future of our society , the perils that facing it, and the kinds of actions Christians must take in response is surely incomplete without taking these developments into account. Collectively, these three crises do threaten a civilizational reversal on par with what 5th– and 6th-century inhabitants of Western Europe experienced.
I think he’s right about all these things, by the way. There are plenty more things I could have written about. This book is primarily about the spiritual life, and the life of faith. I could not make it about everything. I said nothing about depopulation and immigration in Europe, for example. But it’s there. So are many other things. But I had to limit the scope of the book somewhere. There’s only so much individual Christians and their local communities can do about climate collapse, job-killing automation. and widespread systemic degeneration. I focused on things that we do have more control over. Besides — and more importantly — if everything was going very well on all fronts, but the faith was still dying out, that would be a catastrophe for Christianity, and for humankind. From a Biblical point of view, Silicon Valley, with all its wealth and sophistication, could well be a kind of hell on earth.
Along these lines, more Littlejohn:
Sixth-century Christians faced a crumbling civilization, a vacuum of political power, but one in which Christianity was broadly accepted, if not always faithfully practiced. On the face of it at least, there is a rather stark discontinuity between the crisis that Dreher describes—triumphant secularism—and the historical analogue he invokes—civilizational collapse.
In my book, I follow Alasdair MacIntyre on this point. He says at the end of After Virtue that our wealth and technology conceals the extent of our decadence and vulnerability from us. MacIntyre says plainly that there are big differences between our time and the Rome of late antiquity, but valid parallels exist. This is why we await “a new — and very different — St. Benedict” — that is, one suited to our times. Unlike the previous one, this new Benedict will have to inspire a world that has already known Christianity.
Remember, my book does not argue that civilization is going to collapse. It argues that Christianity in the West is already in collapse. The Rule of St. Benedict is not a program for civilizational survival, either in the conventional sense, or in the narrower sense that I’m talking about. It is nothing more than a program for how to run a monastery. But the monasteries became critically important to civilizational survival, in ways Benedict could not have anticipated, and in ways that may not have been at all clear to the monks of the early Middle Ages. For us, they are important in that they symbolize how a more disciplined religious life in community can provide spiritual, psychological, and social structures that can endure chaos and hardship, and hand the faith down from generation to generation, despite the times.
So which is our situation: are we Christians called to sustain communities of faithful witness within a powerful but hostile Empire for decades and centuries to come, or are we called to establish havens of order and virtue in the chaotic ruins of a collapsed civilization until we can rebuild strong cultural and political institutions?
I’m not sure why this distinction is so important. We are called to establish havens of order and virtue and faithful witness whether or not the Empire remains powerful and hostile, or it collapses. The challenges are very different in either case, but both require Christians to be far more countercultural, disciplined, and intentional than we are at the present time.
Here’s an important passage:
Dreher has precious little to say about what “exercising political power prudently” might look like, aside from a list of six very worthy suggestions he borrows from Kansas political leader Lance Kinzer on p. 87. Most of the book is dedicated to filling out a vision of what he calls, following anti-communist Czech dissident Vaclav Havel, “anti-political politics,” the kind of politics that a “powerless, despised minority” must embrace (91). This is not, Dreher is clear, “a retreat to a Christian ghetto.” Rather, he quotes Vaclav Benda that the “parallel polis must understand itself as fighting for ‘the preservation or the renewal of the national community in the widest sense of the word’ . . . “In other words, dissident Christians should see their Benedict Option projects as building a better future not only for themselves but for everyone around them” (93-94). These lines should be proof enough that many of the most frequent criticisms of Dreher are based entirely on caricatures. Still, aside from insisting that these morally disciplined Benedict Option communities will necessarily prove a blessing to the undisciplined society around them, Dreher does very little to explore how the “anti-politics” of alternative community-building relates to the positive politics of loving our non-Christian neighbors through our actions in the town hall or the halls of Congress, or for that matter in the elite culture-making institutions that Hunter so emphasizes in To Change the World.
This question is more urgent for us than it is for anti-communist dissidents because we do not live under a closed totalitarian system—certainly not yet. Faithful Christians in positions of cultural and political influence in the West must work in an environment of growing hostility, and are even beginning to find doors closing in their faces. But most of the doors are still open, and although it may get harder and harder to push through them, Christians still have a duty to serve in these vocations—as lawmakers and lawyers, teachers and writers, police officers and governors, businessmen and philanthropists—as long as they have opportunity to do so. Dreher offers precious little guidance for them.
It is here, though, where I think Dreher and Hunter—the Benedict Option and Faithful Presence—can prove to be complementary models, rather than rival alternatives. Either on its own is insufficient. Hunter’s concept of faithful presence is naïve to the extent that it thinks that Christians can readily infiltrate positions of elite culture-making influence without losing their souls; he offers us presence, but will it be faithful? Dreher’s Benedict Option is sterile to the extent that encourages the formation of communities for the cultivation of faithful citizens who have no idea how to be present. What we need is a fleshing out of how we might put the two concepts together.
Fair enough, but I left it vague because I simply did not have the space in this book — which had a hard limit of 75,000 words (roughly 250 pages) — in which to cover any issue in depth. I talked about the importance of staying involved with politics and exercising political power prudently as a way to signal that I do not advocate dropping out of conventional politics. I say in the book that it is certainly possible for Christians to keep working on issues important to the common good. Given that so many people have complained for so long that I’m calling for political quietism, I wanted to say: No, I’m not.
I elaborate on the point about prudently engaging politics by quoting an actual former politician, Lance Kinzer, who is deeply involved in religious liberty advocacy. Among the things he advises: religious conservatives need to be reasonable about what they can and cannot achieve in this post-Christian political environment, and choose their battles wisely. Giving a detailed program for this is simply beyond the scope of this book.
Also, I don’t know how I could have given more specific advice for how faithful Christians should be present within different institutions. Aside from the fact that conditions differ from field to field, things are changing so fast on the legal and cultural front that particular advice today could be out of date tomorrow. (True story: an academic friend told me about a left-wing colleague who refuses to use social media because she fears that anything she says today could be used against her tomorrow, given how militant student life is becoming, and how quickly the standards shift.) These are going to be pastoral situations in which the same answer will not work for everyone. But, if we have been spiritually formed, and are part of a strong community of believers, we are in a good position to know what to do in situations we will face. I have friends in the academy who are disgusted and planning to leave, and other friends who believe it’s worth staying to fight, though they’re going to have to be wise as serpents to do so. Which is the correct path to take in every case? How could I possibly know? There is no rule book. A well-formed believer, one who can count on wise counsel from his pastor and Christian friends, is in the best position to discern the right path in particular situations.
That said, a book devoted to developing detailed strategies for thinking through these questions and acting faithfully would be very useful. As I am growing accustomed to saying, let The Benedict Option be a catalyst for deeper, more detailed, and more focused books on broad themes raised in each of my relatively brief chapters. The Benedict Option is a broad sketch; I eagerly await other, better Christian thinkers filling in the details.
Anyway, it’s a good, long, thoughtful piece, Brad Littlejohn’s, and I commend it to you.
Watch that short video. In it, Italian firefighters go into the crypt of the collapsed basilica in Norcia, and rescue a statue of St. Benedict that was not damaged when the earthquake caused the medieval church to fall in on itself.
They brought the statue out, and set it in the piazza. It is a sign of hope. From The Benedict Option:
The Benedictine monks of Norcia have become a sign to the world in ways I did not anticipate when I began writing this book. In August 2016, a devastating earthquake shook their region. When the quake hit in the middle of the night, the monks were awake to pray matins, and they fled the monastery for the safety of the open-air piazza.
Father Cassian later reflected that the earthquake symbolized the crumbling of the West’s Christian culture, but that there was a second, hopeful symbol that night. “The second symbol is the gathering of the people around the statue of Saint Benedict in the piazza in order to pray,” he wrote to supporters. “That is the only way to rebuild.”
The tremors left the basilica church too structurally unstable for worship, and most of the monastery uninhabitable. The brothers evacuated the town and moved to their land up the mountainside, just outside the Norcia walls. They pitched tents in the ruins of an older monastery and continued their prayer life, interrupted only by visits to the town to minister to its people.
The monks received distinguished visitors in their exile, including Italy’s prime minister Matteo Renzi and Cardinal Robert Sarah, who heads the Vatican’s liturgical office. Cardinal Sarah blessed the monks’ temporary quarters, celebrated mass with them, then told them that their tent monastery “reminds me of Bethlehem, where it all began.”
“I am certain that the future of the Church is in the monasteries,” said the cardinal, “because where prayer is, there is the future.”
Five days later, more earthquakes shook Norcia. The cross atop the basilica’s facade toppled to the ground. And then, early in the morning of Sunday, October 30, the strongest earthquake to hit Italy in thirty years struck, its epicenter just north of the town. The fourteenth-century Basilica of St. Benedict, the patron saint of Europe, fell violently to the ground. Only its facade remained. Not a single church in Norcia remained standing.
With dust still rising from the rubble, Father Basil knelt on the stones of the piazza, facing the ruined basilica, and accompanied by nuns and a few elderly Norcini, including one in a wheelchair, he prayed. Later amateur video posted to YouTube showed Father Basil, Father Benedict, and Father Martin running through the streets of the rubble-strewn town, looking for the dying who needed last rites. By the grace of God, there were none.
Back in America, Father Richard Cipolla, a Catholic priest in Connecticut and an old friend of Father Benedict’s, e-mailed the subprior when he heard the news of the latest quake. “Is there damage? What is going on?” Father Cipolla wrote.
“Yes, damage much worse,” Father Benedict replied. “But we are okay. Much to tell you, but just pray. I am well, and God continues to purify us and bring very good things.”
The next morning, as the sun rose over Norcia, Father Benedict sent a message to the monastery’s friends all over the world. He said that no Norcini had lost their lives in the quake because they had heeded the warnings from the earlier tremors and left town. “[God] spent two months preparing us for the complete destruction of our patron’s church so that when it finally happened we would watch it, in horror but in safety, from atop the town,” the priest-monk wrote.
Father Benedict added, “These are mysteries which will take years—not days or months—to understand.”
Surely that is true. But notice this: the earth moved, and the Basilica of St. Benedict, which had stood firm for many centuries, tumbled to the ground. Only the facade, the mere semblance of a church, remains. Because the monks headed for the hills after the August earthquake, they survived. God preserved them in the holy poverty of their canvas-covered Bethlehem, where they continued to live the Rule in the ancient way, including chanting the Old Mass. Now they can begin rebuilding amid the ruins, their resilient Benedictine faith teaching them to receive this catastrophe as a call to deeper holiness and sacrifice. God willing, new life will one day spring forth from the rubble.
“We pray and watch from the mountainside, thinking of the long three years Saint Benedict spent in the cave before God decided to call him out to become a light to the world,” wrote Father Benedict. “Fiat. Fiat.”
This is why The Benedict Option is not a book testifying to optimism, but a book testifying to hope.
Watch the video through to the final frames. Beautiful, just beautiful. This can be a sign to you, if you let it be. Through great suffering comes purification and renewal, if our hearts are properly disposed to receive grace.
If you want to contribute to the Norcia rebuilding effort, go here.
Notre Dame professor Vincent Philip Muñoz explains why he invited Charles Murray to speak at his university next week, and why he will not rescind the invitation, despite some faculty and student requests. Excerpts:
My class, “Constitutional Government & Public Policy,” addresses some of the most important and divisive issues in American politics: abortion, gay marriage, religious freedom, inequality, freedom of speech, death penalty, race and the meaning of constitutional equality, immigration, euthanasia, and pornography.
The class is designed to prompt students to think more deeply and thoughtfully about contemporary moral and political issues. I don’t assign a textbook or “neutral” readings that summarize the issues; I require students to read principled thinkers who advocate vigorously for their respective position. I want my conservative students to read smart, persuasive liberal thinkers, and I want my liberal students to read thoughtful conservatives. Educated citizens can give reasons for their beliefs and can defend intellectually the positions they hold. That requires that we understand and articulate the positions with which we disagree.
This week and next, the class is discussing inequality. Even the New York Times, which is certainly not sympathetic to Murray’s point of view, recognized that on this subject Murray makes an important argument that should be heard. And we are not reading just him. I have also assigned selections from Robert Putnam’s Our Kids. Putnam leans left; Murray is a conservative libertarian. Putnam spoke at Notre Dame last year. So this year, I invited Murray.
I have no desire to inflict unwanted stress or anxiety on any member of the Notre Dame community, especially our minority students. I appreciate the concern for student wellbeing that motivates some of the opposition to Murray’s visit. But I believe what is most harmful to students—and, to speak candidly, most patronizing—is to “protect” our students from hearing arguments and ideas they supposedly cannot handle.
To study politics today requires handling controversial, difficult, and divisive topics. After discussing Princeton professor Peter Singer’s defense of abortion, one of my students told me she left class “deeply disturbed.” If you are genuinely pro-life, you probably should be disturbed by Singer’s arguments. But should I, therefore, not teach them?
Given what happened at Middlebury, it would be cowardly to disinvite Murray now. Rescinding his invitation would communicate that violence works; that if you want to influence academia, sharpen your elbows, not your mind. It would tell those who engaged in violence—and those who might engage in or threaten violence—that universities will cower if you just appear intimidating. Rescinding Murray’s invitation would teach exactly the wrong lesson.
And it would teach it at exactly the wrong time.
Notre Dame is one of Charles Murray’s first post-Middlebury campus lectures. It makes our event a referendum on free speech and how universities handle controversial speakers. I didn’t intend for his visit to address these issues, but it now does. Given the trends of cancelled lectures, ever-increasing calls to disinvite speakers, and ideological bullying on college campuses, we must take a stand for civil discourse and reasoned engagement. We must show that universities can host respectful conversations among people who disagree. If we can’t accomplish that minimal academic exercise, the university has lost its purpose.
Amen. A-men! Bravo, Prof. Muñoz. This is exactly the kind of principled courage we need to be seeing on every single university campus, in defense of liberal education — a cornerstone of our civilization — against the Social Justice Warrior barbarians. More, please.
By the way, has anybody heard if a single student or other person who participated in the violent anti-Murray event at Middlebury has been disciplined over it? Seriously, anybody?
You might have missed the news that my 2015 book How Dante Can Save Your Life was published last week in paperback. The book ends in December 2014, with my father and I having a heart-to-heart conversation in the hospital, as he was waiting to be checked out. It seemed like it was going to be the big conversation I had wanted, the final reconciliation, and we came thisclose … and didn’t make it. But amazingly enough, I was okay with that, because of what I had learned from reading The Divine Comedy — or, to be more precise, because of the journey of spiritual discovery and penitence God led me on through Dante’s Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso.
How Dante came out in the spring of 2015. Below is a version of the epilogue I would have added had I had the opportunity. Some of it appeared in a different form two years ago on this blog.
That spring, Daddy and I were getting along much better, though sadly, his physical decline accelerated. He was 80, and knew he didn’t have much time left. We all did.
One Thursday morning, he called and asked me if I would take him to Jackson, the next town, over to his barber for a haircut. I told him I would, and picked him up after lunch. As we headed back home, we got to the bridge over Thompson Creek, and he said, “You know, I figure I’m about to round the last bend.”
“Yeah, seems like it,” I said.
I asked him if there was anybody he would like me to contact on his behalf, and set up a conversation.
“No, can’t think of anybody,” he said.
“Is there anybody you would like to ask forgiveness of?” I said.
“Nope. I’ve never done anybody wrong.”
I remember exactly where we were when he said that: passing an old cemetery, and about to turn onto Audubon Lane. He said that with such guilelessness. Daddy honestly couldn’t imagine that he had every been unjust or hurtful to a soul. He was a righteous man who was certain of his righteousness.
“Daddy, look, I have to tell you something,” I said. “You’re a Christian, right.”
“All of us are sinners. The Lord says we have to forgive, and ask for forgiveness. There have been a lot of people you’ve hurt in life. You haven’t always been good to Mama. And between you and me, we’ve had some conflict. You didn’t always do right by me.”
He calmly explained why in those conflicts, he had been right, and done the only thing a just man could have done. I could feel my guts tensing up. But then I felt bad for bringing it up. Hadn’t we left all that back at the hospital in December?
I apologized for raising the issue again, and told him that we were past that, not to worry about it. I pulled into his driveway, got his walker out of the trunk, and helped him inside.
The next morning, I went over early to fix his weekly pillbox. By that time, he was on 15 different medications. The dosages were far too complicated for either my mother or him to keep up with, so the job fell to me. That morning — it was Good Friday — I found Daddy in his usual place, sitting on his front porch in a rocking chair, reading the newspaper and drinking his coffee. He smiled at me, wished me good morning, and dragged his walker to the side so I could lean in and kiss his cheek.
I told him that I didn’t have time to stay that morning, that I had a lot of work to do. I was going to slip in and refill his pillbox, then head on back to my house. It took about ten minutes to get the pills sorted. I dashed out the door, then leaned in to kiss him goodbye as he sat in his chair.
As I drew back after kissing his cheek, he grabbed my forearm and drew me in close. His chin was quivering. The old man looked frightened. His eyes filled with tears, and he began to stammer.
“I … I … I … I had a long talk with the Lord last night,” he began. “I talked to him about, about my transgressions against you. I told him I was sorry. And I think he heard me.”
There I stood, stunned. All my adult life, I had been waiting to hear something like that. My father, that mountain of a man, could not condescend to address his son directly and ask forgiveness. It just wasn’t in him to do. But make no mistake, that’s exactly what he was doing. It took a lot of courage for him to say what he had just said to me. With a man like my father, that was as good as it was ever going to get. But it was sincere.
I leaned back in, put my hand into the back of his thinning hair, pulled his head close, kissed him on the forehead, and told him, “Thank you. I love you.”
Then I walked away, got into my car, and drove off. I was afraid to look back at him, because I did not want to see him crying. I knew that’s exactly what he was doing.
As I drove home, I could not believe what had just happened. Daddy apologized. That wasn’t supposed to happen, ever. But it had. The previous three years, since I had been home, had been among the most painful of my life, because they compelled me to confront the profound brokenness in our family — a family in which we all loved each other, but could not live in harmony. The shocking family secret disclosed to me at the end of the Little Way of Ruthie Leming narrative — that for over 20 years, my father and my sister had been nursing a deep grudge against me for moving away, and had conditioned my sister’s children to reject me — sent me into an emotional, spiritual, and physical tailspin. Coming out of that dark, dark wood required a pilgrimage, including through the dark places of my own heart — a journey on which I was accompanied by my priest, my therapist, but which was led by Dante Alighieri.
The main things I came to understand were these.
First, I had made an idol of Family and Place, embodied most of all in the person of my father, and without knowing what I was doing, had given my father the place of God in my imagination. This is why I could never escape the sense that God may love me, but He does not approve of me, and that if only I worked harder, I could win that approval. In truth, this was how my father saw me. Becoming aware of this, disentangling God and my father within myself, and repenting of the idol worship, was the first crucial step in my healing.
Second, I had to face down my anger over the situation. My family wasn’t going to change. It seemed like every day or two, there was something else to rub my nose in the fact that I wasn’t good enough, and didn’t belong. It was unjust, and it was painful. But Dante, and my priest, told me that I could not let my anger over this prevail. As my priest put it, love is more important than justice. Besides, God wills us to love those who mistreat us. As my priest put it, if Jesus Christ, on the Cross, asked his Father to forgive those who did this to him, because he loved them just that much, what right do we have to withhold our love from those who cannot return it, or who return it in an impaired, distorted form. Piccarda, a saint in Dante’s Paradiso, explains to the pilgrim Dante that his notion of justice does not make sense in heaven. She says simply, “In His will is our peace.”
If I was going to dwell within the will of God, I had to somehow work through my brokenhearted anger and love my father. This was not going to be easy. It was going to be like climbing the sheer face of a mountain. But what else could I do?
I did it — imperfectly, God knows, but I did it. And slowly, healing came. The healing was not only immediate, of my stress-caused chronic fatigue, but more profoundly, I found the burdens I had been carrying around all my life from my complicated childhood in Daddy’s house lifted.I thought I was going to be carrying that weight all of my life, but now it was gone. Who could have imagined that? Certainly not me. Driving home that Good Friday morning, the truth came to me: that if I had known all the suffering that lay ahead for me back home, I never would have returned after Ruthie died. But if I had not done that, if I had not obeyed what my wife and I felt was a call from God to do this, I never would have been healed of this wound that I had been carrying all my life.
I never would have been there on the front porch to hear my father say, in his imperfect way, that he was sorry.
What had just happened on his front porch was my father putting a key into shackles — a key only he possessed — unlocking them, and casting off the invisible iron ball that I dragged around with me everywhere I went, and had done for most of my life.
I was free. And so, in a way, was my father.
As I said earlier, Daddy’s falling-apart physically accelerated that spring. The decay of his body was, for him, a terrible cross. He became housebound. In early summer, he entered a home hospice program. He spent the summer of 2015 waiting to die, measuring out his days in the pilgrimage from his bedroom to his chair in the living room, to his rocking chair on the front porch, and back again.
For my dad, every day he could not go outside and do something was a humiliation. About two weeks before he died, I heard him telling some visitors that he hoped to build his strength back up so he could get out of the house and onto his Mule, a small farm truck, and ride to his back acreage to check on his pine trees. In his final days, he told me once, from his hospital bed, that he needed to exercise his arms so he could regain strength in them. I thought: Are you kidding? He wasn’t.
Daddy was one of the most intelligent men I’ve ever known, but he distrusted contemplation. He was a man of action. Indeed, his entire sense of self depended on his ability to do things. Ray Dreher housebound and bedridden was not Ray Dreher at all, not in his mind. His greatest suffering, I think, was his loss of identity. This is something that was hard for me to understand, until I thought how different I would be if I lost my ability to read and write. It is impossible to conceive of myself in that mode of living. Would it be living at all? When I thought of my dad’s physical decline in that way, it made sense to me, and made me more compassionate. The idea of spending my old age in my armchair with a book in my lap sounds like paradise, but to him, it was a kind of hell.
Daddy felt useless, and in a different culture, this would have tempted him to euthanasia. Nearly everything that gave his life meaning had been taken from him. He could not stand to be dependent on anybody, for anything, but in the last period of his life, he could not do anything on his own. Why did he not kill himself? Perhaps it was out of Christian conviction, but I think it’s closer to the truth to say that he thought it would be the coward’s way out. Better to bear it till the end. And that he did. Several times over the last week of his life, I stood at the foot of his bed, reciting Psalm 90, and stopping over these lines:
The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.
He was eighty, and indeed the final decade of his life was toil and travail. Yet he endured, as a good Stoic would. What he could not see — maybe because Southern culture is traditionally more Stoic than Christian — is that he was not useless to the rest of us. His utility was in giving us a chance to serve him.
Father Matthew, my priest, liked to say that living in community causes us to rub the rough edges off of each other. This is true. Daddy was not easy to care for, even though he was not a complainer. He could be demanding, and gruff; my mom bore the brunt of this. It wasn’t that he was ungrateful, not at all, but that it grieved him to have to depend on the charity of others. Maybe, though, the Lord used this to free his soul from its pride. I know he used it to free me to some extent from mine.
One day, in August, I received a call from him. Would I come over and help lift him off the couch and into his wheelchair so he could get back to bed? He had finally become too weak to stand at all, and my mother couldn’t lift him on her own. I sped over to their house, about a mile away. Mama and I wrestled to get Daddy into the wheelchair, and finally succeeded. The pain of humiliation on his face was searing. In the right order of things — and my father was a Bayou Confucian, who believed in right order — he was the one helping others. For Ray Dreher, to be dependent on anybody else was like the tearing of the veil in the Temple — the violent disruption of the cosmos.
Yet there he was, defeated by time. Mama and I helped him to settle in the hospital bed that the hospice folks had set up in his bedroom. He would not get out of that bed again, until the undertaker carried him to the hearse.
I moved in that morning with my dad. This was the end, we all knew. My mother was too exhausted to continue in her role as caregiver. I asked her to move into the guest room, and to let me take the bed she and my father had slept in for most of their marriage. It was next to his hospital bed, so I could be there to attend him.
I count it one of the great privileges of my life to have been able to live with Daddy on his last eight days on earth, and to sleep right beside him, helping him with all his needs, and giving my mom a break. (I should note here that his devoted friend John Bickham was heroic in his service to my dad and mom, doing far more than I did, or could have done.) As it turns out, the greatest gift my father gave me in life was the opportunity to help him when he was helpless, to suffer with him, to pray with him, to give him the medicines that helped him, to moisten his mouth when he could no longer swallow, and to pour myself out for him as I was seeing others, especially John Bickham, do.
If anyone thinks of the sick, the elderly, or the infirm as useless — or if they think of themselves as useless — send them to me. They are gifts to the rest of us to make us more compassionate, and more Christ-like, therefore more human. It was hard to look upon the wreckage of my once-handsome, once-strong father’s body as he lay dying this past week, but it was also a lesson in humanity, and a lesson in divinity. And it was a lesson that my action-hero daddy taught me about the value of not simply thinking about things, but acting on those thoughts.
I thought more than once over the past week, sitting at my dad’s bedside, about the example of Pope St. John Paul II, who bore his own physical suffering bravely and publicly. In his 1984 letter on the meaning of suffering, he said that suffering is a mystery, the answer to which is … love. This is the meaning of the Cross. As the Pope wrote:
Christ does not explain in the abstract the reasons for suffering, but before all else he says: ‘Follow me!’ Come! Take part through your suffering in this work of saving the world….Gradually, as the individual takes up his cross, spiritually uniting himself to the Cross of Christ, the salvific meaning of suffering is revealed before him.
Hospice provided Daddy with morphine to ease his pain and suffering. My job — and John Bickham’s job — was to administer it to him regularly. His mind was clear for a couple of days, but he began to recede into the mist, sleeping a lot, and seeming not quite to return to us when he would wake up. I read to him, prayed with him, prayed over him, talked with him, rubbed lotion into his dry, pencil-thin legs, and did everything I could to let him know that he was loved, and he was not alone. We never had a single “meaningful” conversation that week — but then, we didn’t have to. The communication was wordless.
We telephoned my sister’s daughter Claire at boarding school to tell her it was time to come home to say goodbye to Paw. I was nervous about her coming home. Claire had kept her distance from me out of devotion to her mother’s warning that Uncle Rod, who had gone to the city and gotten above himself, was not to be trusted. She is a sweet, kind girl, but she is most like her mother in her sense of loyalty. For my sister, my leaving home was above all a sign of disloyalty to the family. For Clair, to disobey Mama’s directive would have been to be disloyal to her memory.
But Claire is a devout Evangelical Christian. We both took the faith seriously. Why wasn’t that enough to bridge the chasm between us? Maybe it was. That night, from my chair next to Daddy’s bed, I heard Claire come into my mother’s kitchen at the other end of the house. I decided to do something bold. I went into the kitchen and asked Claire if she wanted to come join me at Paw’s bedside and pray for him.
Her face brightened into a big smile. “I was hoping you would ask.”
And so we did, until he drifted off to sleep. We sat there in the dark of his room, illuminated only by his bedside lamp, not knowing what to say to each other. Then, remembering my lesson from Dante — that no spiritual progress comes without humility — I summoned up the courage to put my hand on her right forearm and to speak.
“Claire,” I said, “I know things have been difficult between us since I came back. I want to ask your forgiveness for all that I have done to hurt you, and to make this hard on you.”
She drew back and gasped. Then the words rushed out: “We don’t hate you! We don’t!”
My niece, then 16, told me what had happened. Her mother, Ruthie, had done everything she could to shield her daughters from the reality of her suffering. Though she was deteriorating in front of their eyes, she would not talk about it, or let them dwell on it. To think about death and dying would be in some sense to weaken her resolve. Her approach to suffering was: ignore it, and push on through. On the day Ruthie died, when a family friend went to the school to fetch Claire and her sister Rebekah, they were genuinely shocked by the news.
“How is that possible?” I asked. “She was skin and bones there at the end. How could you ignore it?”
“We only saw what we wanted to see,” Claire told me. “That’s how Mama wanted it, and that’s how it was.”
After we buried Ruthie, said Claire, everybody who surrounded the girls went out of their way to distract them from their grief and suffering. They thought they were doing the right thing. But what happened, Claire told me, was that nobody allowed them to mourn. The girls felt thrust into a position of getting on with life, of acting as if nothing catastrophic had happened. No point in talking about it, in discussing Mama. Just keep moving forward.
“We didn’t know what to do except to fall back on the things we were raised with,” Claire said. “That meant thinking of Uncle Rod as the bad guy. I am sorry for that.”
So there it was: those girls had been deprived by their mother and our broader family of the contemplation of suffering and death, as a misguided way to protect them. And when death finally came, they were not prepared, and those who surrounded them also believed that caring for them meant keeping them happy — and happiness meant the effective denial of death.
I forgave Claire. She forgave me. We embraced. Right there by Paw’s deathbed, we embraced. New life emerged from our gathering to pray over the dying patriarch.
Days later, the moment was at hand. We gathered all the family members who were near, and as many of the neighbors as could be there. Daddy had not been conscious for a couple of days. His bedroom filled with the people who had loved him for most of his life. They had come to see him off.
At the end, his breathing became fast and labored, and he writhed, as if trying shake off his flesh. Mama took his right hand, and I clasped his left. As Daddy drew his final agonized breaths, I looked into his face. It was the only thing I saw, and in it, I saw the face of Christ. More importantly, I saw him, not as the man of whom I was in awe, the man whom I sometimes hated, the man with whose difficult legacy I wrestled in my heart for decades, but him as a fellow sinner and sufferer, and poor creature who needed my love as surely as I needed his. Death humbles us all. That hand of his that held me as a helpless baby, I held myself when his soul left his helpless body. There is perfect harmony in this, a harmony rightly divided and bound together by love — the love that moves the Sun and all the other stars.
My final words to my father were, “Thank you, old man, for everything.” They may be the truest words I ever spoke to him.
We all said the Lord’s Prayer together over his body, then sang “I’ll Fly Away.” Someone went to call the funeral home. The word went out to the community that Mr. Ray had passed. People started coming by to pay their respects, as they do.
He died just after four in the afternoon. Mourners didn’t leave my mom’s house until after ten. I made it back to my own place at 10:30, utterly exhausted. It was the first time I had been home in eight days. I sat down at my kitchen table, alone with my thoughts, marveling at the sense of calm I felt. I had just watched my father die, and lived through the day that all my life I have dreaded above all others. The thought of the world without my father in it was intolerable to me, and terrifying. I don’t know why, but it was. It was as if I would be annihilated without his presence to ground me, and all of us. Fear of his death was something close to a terror for me.
And yet, here we were. Daddy was gone. And I had no thought other than gratitude for his life, and gratitude that he was no longer in pain. The future did not appear frightening at all, nor did the present. All shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well, as Julian of Norwich wrote. I felt this powerfully.
How was this possible? By what means did this gift come to me?
Then it hit me: “In His will is our peace.” The words of Piccarda. Dante had led the way for me to dwell in the Lord’s will, not my own. And in that was harmony, was the peace that passes all understanding.
In His will is our peace. Believe it. Live it. Suffer for it. There is no other way through this life of exile, to the far shore of home. This is the higher justice, and it is Love itself.
Read the entire book. If you are observing Lent, How Dante is the book for you in this penitential season.
That’s the newest New York Times Bestseller List, released late this afternoon (it will be in the weekend papers). The Benedict Option debuts at No. 7. What a humbling thing to have happened. Thank all of you who bought my book, or who contributed in some way to its creation these past few years.
Speaking of humbling, I just got home from the Divine Liturgy, which we celebrate on Wednesdays during Lent. In the liturgy, we all say this ancient penitential prayer, the Prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian, and prostrate ourselves three times during it:
O Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth, despair, lust of power, and idle talk.
But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience, and love to Thy servant.
Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own transgressions, and not to judge my brother, for blessed art Thou, unto ages of ages. Amen.
With my head forehead touching the floor, I realized that I had something to publicly repent of, and to apologize for. Yesterday, I got into a rather disedifying public spat with an academic who made what I consider to be racially charged, low-down comments about my book. I responded by getting sarcastic on this blog in response. He subsequently went lower. Not a good look for either of us.
I deeply believe that his comments were disgraceful and a smear. But that does not excuse my provocative reaction. I wish I had had the grace to ignore what he said, focusing instead on “my own transgressions,” which are many, instead of adding fuel to the fire. My anger and my pride tripped me up, and I was wrong to give in to them. I apologize for that, and for contributing to scandal among Christian readers. I removed the material that caused the controversy from the previous blog post.
My friend Rod Dreher has struck again. He has this horrible habit of writing books that I am supposed to dislike and failing miserably because I end up liking them. The Benedict Option, A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation is no exception.
This one is different in one important way from his previous works. I am not the market. I’m really not the market. I’m the Enemy.
Now, when I say that, I do not mean that I, the person Uncle Chuckie, am the enemy. I may represent all the things that the Enemy is but Rod is a good friend and regularly prays for me to see the light. So, ok, now that you are totally confused, I’m going to try to give a little background.
We are living in a time of civilizational transformation. Christianity, in any of its forms, is no longer the only game in town. Its words often fail to persuade and it usually lacks the power to coerce. Often it is the opposite, which is why the book was written in the first place. The real civilizational battle now is what is going to replace Christianity as the dominant religion and what, if any, will be the place of Christianity in that future, when the Gates of Hell will have seemed to prevail. The strength of this book is that it advises hunkering down for the long term. The weakness is not in the book itself but in the assumption that at some future time the folks of the Benedict Option will emerge to rebuild Western Civilization that has collapsed. But what if Western Civilization does not collapse but changes in ways that make what the Benedict Option has to offer merely irrelevant curiosities of a bygone age, as alien to the men of that time as the days of St. Benedict are to us?
When Men walk the stars as easily as to the corner store and look at a mountain and say, “Take a little off the top and leave the sideburns,” what will the Benedict Option have to say that they will be interested in hearing? In “The Year of Our Ford” who will care?
We do not know. To Rod, the effort must be made and as his friend I wish him well though I believe it will fail.
That all been said, read this book. You will find it interesting even if at times mystifying and infuriating.
Now, for one minor but funny aside. I found the subtitle, “A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian World” interesting for the simple reason that back in 1988 I wrote small manual as part of a larger project with the subtitle, “A Strategy for the Age of Chaos.” Seems one of us has been onto something.
Read the whole thing. When I meet people at speaking events, readers of this blog, somebody inevitably asks, “Is Uncle Chuckie for real?” When I tell them that verily, he is, they often ask, “How do you put up with him?”
The truthful answer is: Because I love him. He’s the damnedest eccentric, and you know how I feel about eccentrics. There, I’ve said it. Now, that should blow his psionics helmet sky-high.
The Benedict Option offers some strong proposals-such as homeschooling or pursuing classical Christian education, relocating to live in more intentional Christian communities, and rethinking employment so as not to compromise religious commitments. Does this limit the Benedict Option to a very wealthy and privileged group of Christians that can afford to take such measures?
That’s a good question, and it might well could do that. For example, homeschooling is not exclusively the province of the well-off middle class, but it does take having one parent at home to be able to pull this off successfully and one parent with a high enough income that can support the family, so that does limit it.
At the same time, I think that we have to start somewhere, and it can’t be the case that we have to wait to come up with a Benedict Option proposal that can suit everyone in all places before we start doing some small things. I think we have to work outward and make this something that can take in more people, such as the working class and the poor.
I’m thinking now of this classical Christian school in Dallas-the West Dallas Community School-it’s in the poorest part of Dallas and it brings classical Christian education to the poorest of the poor, almost all of whom in that neighborhood are African American or Hispanic. The school exists primarily out of the generosity of white Christians who are well-off in another part of Dallas and are reaching out to the poor and supporting them with their donations, expertise, and all kind of things. So, that’s a start-that’s one Benedict Option community that is a good example for the rest of us.
I think that ultimately, just as the church is not “the middle class in prayer” or “the upper class in prayer,” so too, the Benedict Option must avoid the same thing. But, we have to start somewhere and I don’t want people to get so discouraged that they don’t try to be creative and to be what Pope Benedict called us to be: “creative minorities.”
In the beginning of the book, Dreher offers, what might be termed, a conservative Christian reading of MacIntyre’s After Virtue. Where MacIntyre made passing reference to Saint Benedict, Dreher – through a reading of the Rule and a detailed portrait of life in the Benedictine Monastery in Norcia – offers a powerful vision of communal life centered upon shared goods and cooperative social relations. In doing this he gives flesh to MacIntyre’s brief reference, illustrating the qualities that MacIntyre must have appreciated in the Benedictines, qualities that make for a striking contrast with today’s atomistic social relations.
Dreher goes beyond MacIntyre, arguing that what matters today is the preservation of Christianity in the face of the contemporary secularism. But it seems incredible to suggest that preserving or establishing a Christian culture – even if only within the confines a Benedict Option community – could somehow avoid considering such basic questions about human needs. As Irenaeus said, gloria Dei est vivens homo – typically paraphrased as the Glory of God is man fully alive. What is lacking in The Benedict Option, and what is needed, is a holistic vision of human flourishing that contextualize Dreher’s concerns with secularism. Otherwise Benedict’s Rule will only be relevant to those who are relatively well-off.
Dreher discuses “anti-political” politics and religious liberty at length. This account hesitantly points toward a post-communitarian politics. What I mean by this is that it points toward a type of politics that treats the state as a bureaucratic institution to be configured in whatever manner best promotes the common good of local communities and associations. In doing this, Dreher moves closer to MacIntyre’s own position on the state, which is often mistakenly equated with quietism (see Elizabeth Bruenig for a recent example of this mistake). Instead MacIntyre has favored a range of federal and state-level political programs, things like universal basic income, school vouchers, congressional reform, and legislation to support those with disabilities.
Where MacIntyre acknowledges that local communities depend upon public goods provided by the state, Dreher focuses myopically on one public good, religious liberty. One wonders, how much does religious liberty really matter to someone who is unemployed and lacking healthcare? Dreher ought to expand his vision; Benedict Option communities require a robust state and federal politics aimed at securing all of the conditions needed for local communities to thrive.
While Dreher’s discussion of education raises serious concerns that cannot be ignored by any parent, it is unclear how Dreher’s proposals – the founding of classical schools or homeschooling – can be implemented by the vast majority of people, who are lacking time and financial resources for either suggestion. Again this points to a broader, more radical vision of local community where these needs can be better addressed as well as toward political efforts.
I think these are all fair and challenging points. In my defense, I would say that The Benedict Option is by no means a comprehensive book, nor was it ever intended to be. I’ve been dialoguing with Caleb Bernacchio about this stuff for a couple of years, and I’ve been telling him that the depth of his concerns would be far beyond the scope of the relatively short book I was going to write. And so it has proved to be. I have also been encouraging him for a couple of years to write the book on political economy in the Benedict Option that he wishes I had written. I renew that call today. It’s a seriously important book, one that needs to be written.. I’m just starting Adrian Pabst and John Milbank’s The Politics Of Virtue, which sounds a lot like the book Caleb wants to read.
By the way, every one of my chapters could have been — and could be — a book of its own. My hope for The Benedict Option is that it starts conversations, and inspires other Christians who have the passion and the expertise to go deeper in these areas to take the plunge. It is far more a question-raiser of a book than a question-answerer. As I say repeatedly in The Benedict Option, we small-o orthodox Christians are all going to need to work out our future together, as creative minorities.
To Caleb’s points, though, I fully concede that some of the proposals in the book are not available to the poor and working class. That does not mean we shouldn’t implement them, or at least try. It only means that we need to expand our thinking and our commitment to making these goods available to the entire community, beyond our economic class. I don’t believe it is necessary to have a Total Theory of The Benedict Option™ worked out before observing that the liberal order in which we live is breaking down and becoming ever more antagonistic to Christianity, and that the church had better quit taking its liberties and its character for granted.
I believe that the Benedict Option can exist under a liberal welfare state, and under illiberal regimes. I am especially focused on religious liberty, not because I don’t care about health care, national security, economic progress, and all the other aspects of ordinary political life. I focus on religious liberty because without it, the things we Christians (and all religious people) value most of all will be at risk. I can live as a Christian under Swedish socialism, and I can live as a Christian under Texas free-market libertarianism, and I can live as a Christian under Putin-style illiberalism, and so forth. But if you pare down my religious liberties, especially my ability to participate in Christian institutions governed by Christian beliefs, and my ability to buy, to sell, and to work — well, we’ve got a big problem.
As a general disposition, I favor federalism and localism, but I do not have an ideological hostility to the state per se. What I object to is the state moving into the vacuum left by the ongoing collapse of civil society and mediating institutions. Religious liberty is so important to defend because it preserves our ability to function in society as members of mediating institutions.
About schooling, it is certainly the case that most people will not be able to afford classical Christian schools, or private schooling at all. This is where vouchers and charter schools can help as a matter of policy. Beyond that, I think it’s a tremendously important ministry opportunity for local churches to start or expand classical Christian schools, and subsidize tuition for poor and working class children, as well as involve church members in mentorship activities. The West Dallas Community School is a terrific model. If I had it to do over again, I would have featured it in The Benedict Option as an alternative model, alongside St. Jerome Academy in Hyattsville, Maryland. But don’t think that St. Jerome, a Catholic parish school, is only for the middle-class and the well-to-do. From the book:
The new St. Jerome Academy made a priority of reaching out to parents and involving them in the life of the school and its classical vision. And the team followed a small-c catholic educational vision, rejecting the idea that classical education was only for highly intentional Catholics.
“This doesn’t mean you accept anybody into the school,” says Currie. “There are some kids who may not be able to profit from a classical education and will disrupt others in their classes. But that number is very small. We’re very diverse and have students from every racial and socioeconomic group. Once parents see the difference it makes in the kids, they’re sold. The way we see it, this education is for people from all walks of life.”
The school’s team sees classical education in part as a form of evangelism. It’s not even 100 percent Catholic in its population — but it is 100 percent Catholic in its vision and curriculum. I learned in my reporting that some parents have been so moved by the education their kids received at St. Jerome — not just the content, but the form of learning — that they converted to Catholic Christianity.
Again: I think it’s a mistake to think we have to have it all worked out in advance before we try anything at all. The Tipi Loschi started the Scuola G.K. Chesterton with only a handful of students. They’ve grown from there, and reach out to the entire community. You don’t have to be part of the Tipi Loschi fellowship to attend the school, but you do have to be willing to send your kids into a classical school that is vigorously Catholic. The school raises money to help provide scholarships for poor and working-class kids. Marco Sermarini and his Tipi Loschi colleagues did not have all of this worked out when they started the school. They took a couple of steps, and certain paths opened for them.
Point is, I welcome the efforts of Caleb Bernacchio and everybody else to figure out what the Benedict Option concept can mean in all aspects of our lives as Christians — political, educational, communal, and so forth. It’s not just a nice phrase when I say that we need each other; I really mean it. In my original plan for the book, I had hoped to visit the Mondragon cooperative in Spain, which I learned about through Caleb. It turned out that I did not have the time to do that before the deadline the publisher gave me. Besides, I had a hard limit on the number of words I could write, which strictly limited how long each chapter could be.
(People have this idea that writers have full control over the length of their books, but it’s not always the case. Believe it or not, unless you a well-established popular author, books that are much longer than The Benedict Option, which comes in just shy of 250 pages, I think, are less commercially viable. If you read this blog, you know how long I tend to write. I could have easily written The Benedict Option at 500 pages, and not batted an eye. But the audience for a book that long would have been very small. This is where having an editor is a godsend. It really is.)
Look, there honestly are a hundred things that occurred to me after I finished the book, things that I wish I had put in there, or wanted to rewrite to put in there. This can’t be helped. But please, don’t let the shortcomings of my little book dissuade you writers and journalists and academics who find the Benedict Option concept important and interesting from writing books of your own focusing more narrowly and in depth. There’s so much out there to learn. Last week, when I was at the Bruderhof in the Hudson River Valley, I visited the small factory where they make the furniture and other things with which the movement supports itself. It’s a communal endeavor that has been quite successful. There are lessons we can all earn from them.
There are plenty more books to be written about being creative, entrepreneurial minorities. Mine is only a seed. If The Benedict Option has you thinking and talking about it, by all means, write a book yourself! Teach me, and teach all of us. Nothing would make me happier than my book having encouraged a hundred writers to do books expanding on the themes in it.
Faced with mounting criticism for its decision to give a major award to the Rev. Tim Keller, founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan and one of the country’s best known conservative Christian thinkers, Princeton Theological Seminary has reversed course and said Keller will not receive the honor.
In an email to faculty and students on Wednesday morning (March 22), the president of the venerable mainline Protestant seminary, the Rev. Craig Barnes, said that he remains committed to academic freedom and “the critical inquiry and theological diversity of our community.”
But he said that giving Keller the annual Kuyper Prize for Excellence in Reformed Theology and Public Witness – named after a famous Dutch neo-Calvinist theologian – might “imply an endorsement” of Keller’s views against the ordination of women and LGBTQ people.
Barnes said the seminary would not give award the Kuyper Prize to anyone this year.
Get a load of this:
But he said that after talks with Keller, the chair of the Kuyper Committee, and the chair of the Board of Trustees, Keller had agreed to deliver the annual Kuyper Lecture on April 6 as planned.
“We are a community that does not silence voices in the church,” Barnes wrote [Emphasis mine — RD]. “In this spirit we are a school that can welcome a church leader to address one of its centers about his subject, even if we strongly disagree with his theology on ordination to ministry. Reverend Keller will be lecturing on Lesslie Newbigin and the mission of the church – not on ordination.”
Tim Keller is a far wiser man than I will ever be, so I’m not going to second-guess his decision to give the lecture anyway, though I doubt very much that his Social Justice Warrior critics, having taken the Kuyper Prize from him and humiliated the seminary administration, will be satisfied to let him come speak. If I were Tim Keller, I would let the dying Mainline bury the dying Mainline, and not bother with them. Mainline Protestantism in most places has become a suicide cult. Keller is one of the most successful missionary pastors in the country, a man who has won the respect even of secular liberals like Nicholas Kristof, surely has something to teach other Christians, even those who disagree with his theology (as I do, to a certain extent).
But a man of his great public accomplishment and widely-acknowledged irenicism cannot be honored by Princeton Theological Seminary because he is an orthodox Presbyterian Christian, and progressive Presbyterians consider that sort of Christian to be wicked.
Mark this well. It’s Neuhaus’s Law in action: Wherever orthodoxy is optional, it will eventually be proscribed. Look, if I were running PTS, I would draw lines too around who would and would not receive awards, based on their theology. The point is that what was long considered to be Christian orthodoxy is now considered so offensive that a Mainline Protestant seminary cannot honor an accomplished pastor who professes these things.
This incident is also a sign that liberalism, in the broad sense, is dying. Commenter Raskolnik said in another thread on this blog this morning that the only viable alternatives are Revolution or Reaction. The more the Left pushes the Right — even mainstream figures like Tim Keller — out of their institutions and the public square, the more radical people on the Right will become. The center is not holding.
On the standard articulated by Princeton Theological Seminary, they could not give the award to ANY faithful Christian. https://t.co/jGcA3KLsCm
— Denny Burk (@DennyBurk) March 22, 2017
A terrific post by sociologist Jeff Guhin, a thoughtful left-wing critic of The Benedict Option, talking about declining Christianity, social norms, and sexuality. He begins by talking about MacIntyre and liberalism, noting that the philosopher went from Marxism to Catholicism without having had an intervening liberal stage (N.B., he means “liberal” in the historic sense of the term, in which most people who live in a liberal democracy are liberals):
Nowadays we’re a society a bit more aware of the difference between left and liberal, but there are still way too many people who just sort of figure freedom happens. A certain kind of liberal thinks that people basically just grow up free you don’t have to worry too much about it, and the really important thing is just not to let other folks tell you what to do (or to tell others what to do). Marxists-and in a different way, Catholics–recognize this as bullshit. We’re free in particular kinds of ways because of how we are raised (and, you know, our economic conditions, but this where the two groups might vary a bit). And so when society changes, it can change us in ways that we can’t really be protected from, despite our earnest love of freedom, etc.
That’s very well and pungently said. Everything in a given society and culture is part of a grand liturgy, a narrative enacted, that forms us. More Guhin:
Now that’s a pretty harsh take on liberalism, which, you know, exists in no small part because the era before liberalism had lots of Europeans with very strong beliefs killing each other. Liberalism–and with it, democracy–trades the promise of utopia for the promise of not having your head cut off by utopians who disagree with you.
But what are we so afraid of? What’s the problem from which we need protection? Dreher pulls from a lot of work by the sociologist Christian Smith to describe how contemporary young Christians basically have no idea what they’re talking about: members of a religion don’t know some of their own basic theological tenets, setting up what Smith calls a “moralistic therapeutic deism”: be nice and be happy is, apparently, all ye know on Earth, and all ye need to know.
That’s right enough, I suppose, even if it’s a very Evangelical Protestant way of thinking about religion, emphasizing right belief (orthodoxy) over right action (orthopraxy). One of the weird things about the history of the category of “religion” is that it was developed by Protestants who are, on both global and historical scales, the weirdest form of religion. Most things we’ve come to call religions care a lot more about what you do (praxis) than what you believe (doxa): so it’s actually not super surprising a lot of religious people have no idea what the hell they’re talking about. Of course, Smith et al would say this is a problem not just for non-Protestants, but for Protestants too: the intricacies of belief don’t seem to matter even for the ostensibly orthodox.
Well, let me push back on this. I am part of the Orthodox Church, whose name means “right belief.” Theological orthodoxy is a very big deal to us. But that does not mean orthopraxy is diminished, not at all. The connection is this: if we do not know what to believe, then we will not know what to do.
The relationship goes both ways. Practices can be catechetical. I wonder if a distinction Prof. Guhin is missing is that Christianity is supposed to bring about gradual inner change in a person’s life. All of mortal life is a time of pilgrimage, in which, if we are faithful, we are moving ever closer to the ideal of Jesus Christ, conforming our life to his. It’s not a question of earning salvation, not at all; it’s a question of inner transformation, of dying to self so that we may live in Christ. Orthodoxy (right belief) is the map, and orthopraxy (right practice) is what we do when we follow the map’s directions towards our ultimate destination.
(This description may not ring true to certain Protestants, but it is at least what Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians believe, and, I imagine, what many Protestants do as well.)
Guhin introduces the matter of sex into the debate, saying that I have a historically distorted view of how sexual the world was prior to the 1960s Sexual Revolution. I disagree. Nobody who has written a book about Dante, as I have, and read the history of Florence in the High Middle Ages, could possibly think there was a golden age of chastity. The point is that with the Sexual Revolution — which, as Guhin correctly notes, was driven by the advent of a new technology: the Pill — society changed the way it thought about sex and sexuality. Mind you, the social and moral groundwork for this revolution had been laid down decades before, but the Pill was the Martin Luther of the Sexual Revolution.
The Pill changed orthodoxy and orthopraxy about sex. In Christian thought, sex has a telos, an end goal, which is childbearing. It has a secondary goal (some would say an equally important goal), which is the total unity of the couple. Sex never was a casual thing, done for pure pleasure. As Philip Rieff has written, sexual discipline was one big area that distinguished the early Christians from the pagan Romans around them. A great book to read about this is the classicist Sarah Ruden’s Paul Among The People, which explains how teachings on sexuality and the role of women that 21st century Westerners find hard to take were in fact liberating to women living in the first-century Roman Empire.
As we have seen since the 1960s, the practices made possible by the Pill changed the beliefs people had about sex, marriage, and family. The divorce revolution in the 1970s and 1980s was phase two of the Sexual Revolution. The rise of gay rights and the normalization of homosexuality is the most recent phase, and we have now moved into obliterating the differences between male and female. So, when critics of orthodox Christians gripe that we’re all hung up about sex, I believe they have in mind some prudish vicar sniffing at the young people getting handsy with each other. No. We’re talking about a Revolution that overturned Christian beliefs in the meaning of sex, marriage, and even male and female. We’re talking a new anthropology; see a more detailed explanation in this short essay I wrote for TAC.
Back to Guhin’s blog entry:
But then there are hard questions about Christians’ specific roles to change the culture, something to which Dreher is (very) sensitive, though his critics are divided on whether he goes far enough. This raises some interesting questions about how religious conservatives think about culture and how people are able to change (and be changed) by it. I can appreciate how certain religious conservatives like Dreher (see also Patrick Deneen) recognize that capitalism is not always so great, that it can, in fact, lead to a greedy, callous materialism (to wit: this fellow) rather than any sort of Christian leadership. And I think people like Dreher are right that that sort of procedural liberalism is hard to escape, perhaps even requiring a tactical retreat.
And this gets to something Dreher is very worried about and for what it’s worth, I think he’s right! Christianity in a certain strong form might well be dying, at least in the United States and Western Europe. Of course, Peter Berger famously changed his mind about secularization theory, so, you know, we might be wrong about this as well. But it does look like a certain form of Christianity–the kind that insists only Jesus can get you into heaven and the institution of marriage must look a certain way–is dying out.
It’s a fair point that once Christianity says you don’t need it to get into heaven, it doesn’t seem to do as well (though the strict church argument is still somewhat controversial and I’m not convinced by the rational choice underpinnings, it still seems pretty useful). And Dreher’s right: robust pluralism is hard (even if other orthodox Christians think it’s worth it still tro try).
Yet what’s hard for some is whether or not the dying of a certain kind of Christianity is such a tragedy once you don’t believe you need Christianity for heaven.
I see what he’s getting at, though that’s a very Evangelical Protestant way to think about religion. 😉
The issue is a lot weightier and more complex than Guhin phrases it here. Christianity is not merely about getting to heaven. It is about inner transformation in this mortal life as we make our way towards heaven, and the outer transformation of this world as part of God’s creative work of redemption. Christianity, properly understood, is not a propositional belief system, but a way of life — and, as I’ve said, a way through life, a way of ongoing conversion, of ongoing repentance, of turning away from our sins and allowing the grace of God to dwell in us and change us. Losing that is what’s at stake.
Yes, ultimately, so is eternal life, and I don’t want to diminish the importance of that. But if we believe that the Bible is God’s word, and it reveals truths about the sacred order of Creation, and how we are to live in right relation to that order and its Creator; and if we believe that Christ gave us the Church (in whatever form) to lead us on this pilgrimage of life, and to make sure we don’t get lost — then the gift of the Christian faith is not merely a get-out-of-hell-free card.
So, I would phrase it differently than Guhin, though I believe we largely agree. I would say that if you don’t believe that the Christian faith reveals eternal truths that are necessary not only to our salvation in the afterlife, but necessary to live within the will of God in this mortal life; and if you believe that Christianity is something that people can re-form into a shape that suits our felt needs in this time and place, then you won’t agree that losing traditional Christianity is a big deal.
I would put it like this: if you don’t believe that the Bible and the historic faith that sprang from it is a roadmap to reality meant, to use Dantean language, to take us out of the dark wood and towards the mountaintop — and ultimately to heaven, then there is nothing to lose by losing the historic faith. If we are going to get to heaven no matter where we are and what we do, then there is no path, there is no pilgrimage, there is only sitting right here in the dark wood and calling it the Garden of Eden, until Jesus beams us up. Or, we can radically redraw the map (e.g., on sexuality) without worrying that it’s going to take us off the cliff.
Guhin seems to get the gist of it, though: if you don’t believe the form of the faith matters, only that you arrange your emotions in the correct way, so that you believe that you are loving Jesus, then a strong form of Christianity cannot survive. We are living through that reality now; this is what MTD is. And a soft form cannot long survive at all. The grandchildren of today’s young MTD Christians, or progressive Christians, will either be traditionalist Christians, or not Christian at all. We really are at a dramatic fork in the road, and Christians had better understand this.
One last Guhin quote:
Yet the basis of critique is an ongoing and important questions within the academic left, and it’s something that we too often take for granted. If not because humans are made in the image and likeness of God, then why is racism wrong? What about sexism? Autonomy you say? Sure, fine. But why is autonomy so great? What is the vision of flourishing to which we should direct that “agency” we’re all so worried about? You can make fun of critical realism all you want, but I appreciate that those folks are thinking about these questions, even as I really appreciate how other folks-like Paige Sweet and Timothy Rutzou– within critical realism are posing really important queer unpackings of what it means to flourish.
What he’s saying here, as an academic on the left, is that it’s one thing to dismantle and throw out Christianity, but it’s another to come up with a grounding by which the post-Christian world can decide what it means to live a good, flourishing life.
Please read the whole thing. If all my left-of-center critics were this good, we could have great and fruitful debates all day. Jeff posted these comments as a response to The Benedict Option. Maybe the best thing so far about the book is that it has occasioned conversations as interesting as this one. Thanks Jeff!
Raw, about a young girl who develops an all-consuming appetite for human flesh, made its world premiere at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival before playing at other fests, including Toronto. Focus World picked up rights to the movie following Cannes.
“Marking the feature debut of French director Julia Ducournau, who leads a terrific young cast into a maelstrom of blood, guts and unfettered sexual awakening, this Cannes Critics’ Week selection should become a hot potato (or is that a meatball?) at the market while propelling its talented creator into the spotlight,” The Hollywood Reporter‘s review said of the movie. Adding to the gore factor is the fact that the film is set at a Gallic veterinary college.
The story is about how movie theaters are handing out barf bags to patrons. Oh, John Waters, aren’t you glad you’re living in this time? From the Hollywood Reporter‘s review:
In the middle of the drunken bacchanal, Justine reunites with Alexia, a fiery brunette who only half helps her younger sister to learn the ropes — which include getting bathed in animal blood and eating raw liver upon request (perhaps Leonardo DiCaprio should enroll there). The problem is that, like the rest of her family, Justine is a devout vegetarian, so making it out of freshman hell will mean she has to start doing the impossible — or rather the inedible — and become a carnivore herself.
The catch, of course, is that Justine likes it. In fact, she likes it so much that her appetite for uncooked meat begins to take hold of the young woman — who, we eventually learn, is also a virgin — in some highly unsavory ways, driving her to commit acts of increasing savagery that will cause the film’s ketchup-count to reach exponential numbers.
Weimar America. The Weimarization of the West.
Remember: St. Benedict was so disgusted by the decadence of the city of Rome that he walked out of it and headed for the forest to figure out what to do. This is us, you know. A culture that celebrates the depiction of cannibalism as sexualized entertainment.
What are you going to do about it? No, seriously, what? Is this the world you want your kids to grow up in?
Is this not completely insane? What a culture!
A reader of The Benedict Option writes:
I have only followed your blog for a short time and I bought your book on its release day (the first time I’ve ever done that). I am profoundly grateful for your courage and passion in waking up the Western church towards the insidious future we face.
I grew up as a missionary kid in [a Third World country] at a school/community for missionary kids. It was a boarding school where families, who lived in remote villages, sent their kids to receive a Western education in order for them to be able to go back to colleges in America.
Growing up there at that school was very much like what you describe in your book. We had actual borders with the jungle and river isolating us from most of the world. We had no internet, only one tv for the whole school, and this was great! We played in the jungle, read a ton of books, went swimming, and developed the deepest friendships I’ve ever known in my life. We had the time to develop friendships.
The school was also a place of deep Protestant/ evangelical faith. We had our own Sunday services, morning and evening. I learned hymns from a young age. When I was in high school, my classmates and I were required to lead a Sunday evening service once a semester. At the time, much of this seemed trite and boring at times, but as I’ve grown older I’m overwhelmed at the beauty of my growing up years. Those years have given me a vision of what Christianity and the truths it teaches can do for small communities.
Of course the community had its many flaws. Our ability to be critical far outweighs our ability to praise, and so we often miss the wonderful things we have in life. One flaw though was the utter lack of guidance of teaching on sex. It was taboo. When one of my sisters and her friend wanted to talk about masturbation at a girls bible study, the dorm parent quickly put the kibosh on it. The guys were no different. I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that most of us struggled with masturbation.
Thankfully we had no internet so we couldn’t access porn. When I had come back to America in 1999 for a year furlough I was 11. I saw pornography for the first time. I was captivated. My parents were naïve and unaware of my growing addiction, and remained so for years. What’s worse to me about seeing porn is not that I became an addict to sex, but that I lost my love of learning. I was a top student at school, but after I saw porn I lost my ability for wonder and awe at creation. I lost my motivation for life in many ways. I lost the sweetest gift of life for a child: innocence of evil.
My change was so evident back in [the country]. I was rebellious and did poorly in school. Most figured I was simply going through puberty. That wasn’t it at all. I was unmoored from reality and lost in the dark world of lust and selfishness. It wasn’t till college where I began to get help through a wonderful dean of men at my school who loved me and helped me fight against my addiction. I wish my community had been more willing to speak honestly and work diligently to protect my innocence.
I see the same thing today in the Evangelical church circles I move in. We are naïve and foolish about how dangerous technology can be at times. Sometimes I think our push to evangelize and engage the culture has done significant harm to us Protestants. We are so quick to push people to make disciples [Note: I think he means witness to and convert others — RD] after they become believers. I don’t think this a bad thing, but is it the wisest way to make disciples? People need to be taught Christian truths! The early church understood this! They took it seriously! Why can’t we?
I encourage you to read, Grounded in the Gospel- Building Believers The Old-Fashioned Way by JI Packer and Gary Parret. The first two chapters on the need for catechesis and the historical evidence for catechesis. I know you are Orthodox, but it’s a book all would do well to heed. They quote Martin Luther, who said that the church would rise or fall on it s commitment to catechesis. I wish more evangelical pastors would read it. It’s not enough to preach on Sundays. We need to teach the people throughout the week. Richard Baxter did this with his congregation of 800 people. He bought catechisms for every member, and he and his curate went house to house and taught them. This had a tremendous influence for good. When Baxter left for several years to join in the English civil war, his congregation held fast to the Gospel even though many “wolves” came to try and mislead them. Do you think that would have happened without catechesis? Hardly.
Another important book is David Wells’ Whatever Happened to Truth? His indictment is stellar. The most important criticism is the professionalization of the ministry. Pastors are seen as administrators and not theological and spiritual leaders of the church. Thus catechizing has gone to the birds in churches. We also see people as selves not souls, as you say, and we run to psychiatrists for help too much.
The greatest problem, though, in my mind is apathy. We are asleep to the catechizing that the world does to us and since we don’t care to think about it, we drift to the edge of a cliff. If we don’t wake up we are going to fall and it will be a terrible fall for many of us. I agree with you that our greatest need is to build a counter culture to the world. I’m going to do my best to build that here in [my city].
Thanks for that letter. Readers, please take this seriously. If I posted every story I heard about the devastating effect pornography is having on Christian individuals, couples, and families, it would overwhelm you. It is impossible to guarantee that your kids will never see it when they’re young, but for pity’s sake, do you have to make it easy for them by giving them smartphones?
This e-mail made me think about the kids at the Bruderhof. No smartphones. No Internet. Just wholesome, normal kids. They have no idea what kind of gift they’re being given: the gift of a childhood.
I was talking with a conservative friend in DC last week, a Trump supporter who expressed intense frustration with his man. He said these idiotic tweets, his lack of personal discipline, and the general chaos in the White House, are destroying the possibility of a transformative presidency. I’m paraphrasing in polite language. He was rather less so in the moment. He said that the wheels are coming off, and setting the stage for a major Democratic comeback — and there will be lots of Republican blood on the tracks.
Maybe so. It is undeniable, though, that Trump is his own worst enemy — especially with his tweets. Rich Lowry explains:
Every administration gets knocked off its game early on by something. What makes the furor over President Trump’s wiretapping claims so remarkable is how unnecessary it is. The flap didn’t arise from events outside of the administration’s control, nor was it a clever trap sprung by its adversaries. The president went out of his way to initiate it. He picked up his phone and tweeted allegations that he had no idea were true or not, either to distract from what he thought was a bad news cycle, or to vent, or both.
The fallout has proved that there is no such a thing as “just a tweet” from the most powerful man on the planet. Trump’s aides have scrambled to find some justification for the statements after-the-fact and offended an age-old foreign ally in the process (White House press secretary Sean Spicer suggested it was British intelligence that might have been monitoring Trump); congressional leaders have become consumed with the matter; and it has dominated news coverage for weeks. Such is the power of a couple of blasts of 140 characters or less from the president of the United States.
The flap has probably undermined Trump’s political standing, and at the very least has diverted him and his team from much more important work on Capitol Hill, where his agenda will rise or fall. In an alternative and more conventional universe, the White House would be crowing over Judge Gorsuch’s testimony before Congress. Instead it is jousting with the FBI director over wayward tweets.
The tweets, however, are exposing something else in many of Trump’s friends and supporters — an extremely high tolerance for dishonesty and an oft-enthusiastic willingness to defend sheer nonsense. Yes, I know full well that many of his supporters take him “seriously, not literally,” but that’s a grave mistake. My words are of far lesser consequence than the president’s, yet I live my life knowing that willful, reckless, or even negligent falsehood can end my career overnight. It can end friendships instantaneously. Why is the truth somehow less important when the falsehoods come from the most powerful and arguably most famous man in the world?
I’ve watched Christian friends laugh hysterically at Trump’s tweets, positively delighted that they cause fits of rage on the other side. I’ve watched them excuse falsehoods from reflexively-defensive White House aides, claiming “it’s just their job” to defend the president. Since when is it any person’s job to help their boss spew falsehoods into the public domain? And if that does somehow come to be your job, aren’t you bound by honor to resign? It is not difficult, in a free society, to tell a man (no matter how powerful they are or how much you love access to that power), “Sir, I will not lie for you.”
French goes on: “The truth still matters, even when fighting Democrats you despise.”
Does it, though? I mean, it should, but haven’t we determined already that for more than a few conservatives, principles are nothing more than clubs with which to beat liberals?
UPDATE: David J. White gets it right:
The problem for the Democrats, when they come back is that, as we have seen, what any one president does affects the presidency itself and has repercussions for his successors. For example, as we have seen, a president who governs by executive orders or wages undeclared wars without explicit authorization from Congress enables his successors, even those from the other party, to do the same.
I think Trump’s behavior will be seen to have diminished the stature not only of his presidency, but of the office of the presidency itself, and that is something that his successors, regardless of their party, will have to deal with.
Just as it is foolish to condemn all intolerance, it is also misguided to make strict rules about permissible forms of intolerance. No shouting. No breaking the law. The correct form of intolerance always depends on its object and its context. If Charles Murray were to hand out copies of The Bell Curve in a supermarket, it would be entirely acceptable to shout at him. Sometimes laws need to be broken—sometimes you need to sit at the front of the bus. And for all but the staunchest pacifists, violence can be a perfectly justifiable way to express intolerance when someone attacks you.
Earlier I claimed that it’s no longer controversial to think that civil liberties don’t depend on race, gender, or religion. Unfortunately, a clear-eyed assessment of the evidence shows that many people would likely embrace a return to the (not so) good old days. In this country, a congressman can publically express ethno-nationalism—“We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies”—and be praised by colleagues for it. The longtime best-selling book of Christian apologetics—C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity—calls for religious nationalism (“all economists and statesmen should be Christians”) and argues that God wants men to be the head of the household. These are popular ideals, but they are poisonous and deserve fierce resistance, not complacent tolerance.
Let the record show that a Stanford and University of Chicago-trained philosophy and religion professor (who holds an M.Div) believes that the proper way to address Charles Murray’s arguments is by shouting them down. Let the record show that a Stanford-and-Chicago-trained philosophy and religion professor believes that we should not allow the arguments of C.S. Lewis — C.S. Lewis! — to be heard, because people might come to believe them. And let the record show that this did not appear in a magazine of the radical left, but in a center-left publication owned by Jeff Bezos, one of the richest and most powerful men in the world.
Prof. Levinovitz begins with reasonable points: No society can tolerate everything, and tolerance’s value is relative to the truth. But, as MacIntyre would say, which truth? Whose truth? Levinovitz is quite certain he knows the answers: his own truth, which he believes is the Truth. In this piece, he thinks that moral truth and political truth can be known with the same certainty as scientific truth — and that secular liberalism is in full possession of that truth. Therefore, when you shout down Charles Murray or a follower of C.S. Lewis, you are serving the truth.
In an open letter he wrote on Slate to Marco Rubio, addressing the then-presidential candidate’s claim that America needs more welders and fewer philosophers, Levinovitz wrote:
I won’t quit because my colleagues and I are part of a sacred order, bound to seek out and profess truth, no matter how complicated or unappealing that truth might be. The truth about evolution, for example—and why people like you, Sen. Rubio, seem incapable of believing in it.
I won’t quit because there’s no feeling like the one I get when a student says my class has changed his or her life. It’s as if I’ve performed alchemy or magic: With nothing more than a powerful set of symbols (and a PowerPoint), I can, on occasion, alter the very fabric of people’s reality. It’s like church, but for everyone.
So Levinovitz says academia is a universalist religion that instantiates a “sacred order.” More:
In fact, humanities professors like me work against many of your core values. Explaining the origin and persistence of creationist pseudoscience? Religion and philosophy. Shutting down racists and sexists who explain discrimination with “natural differences”? Anthropology and history. We can’t take all the credit, of course, but the fact that the arc of history seems to bend toward justice is due, at least in part, to the efforts of humanities scholars.
This man is not a disinterested scholar. He’s a zealot, and an extremely self-righteous one at that. Prof. Levinovitz is as ardent for his own god as any hidebound fundamentalist is for his. The thing is, Levinovitz is very high-church, in that he speaks for the elites in American society.
I’ll give Levinovitz this much: he understands the nature of the culture war better than many of us Christians do. As they consolidate their power, secular fundamentalists like Levinovitz will continue to try to shout down, forbid, condemn, and suppress orthodox Christians and any other religious believers who contest the established religion.
Know that this is coming. And prepare for it. What we conservatives must do is stop believing that it can’t happen here. The Law of Merited Impossibility — It will never happen, and when it does, you bigots will deserve it — is vindicated every day. Think of it: this college professor, publishing in a mainstream center-left publication, calls for treating the work of C.S. Lewis as a threat to civilization.
What completely escapes Prof. Alan Levinovitz is that his bigotry and intolerance is an effective recruiting device for the far right. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. As I keep saying, the Alan Levinovitzes of the world, and the Slate magazines, have no idea what demons they are summoning. They will.
One of the things we’ve lost in this country is our story. It is the narrative that unites us around a common multigenerational project, that gives an overarching sense of meaning and purpose to our history.
For most of the past 400 years, Americans did have an overarching story. It was the Exodus story. The Puritans came to this continent and felt they were escaping the bondage of their Egypt and building a new Jerusalem.
The Exodus story has six acts: first, a life of slavery and oppression, then the revolt against tyranny, then the difficult flight through the howling wilderness, then the infighting and misbehavior amid the stresses of that ordeal, then the handing down of a new covenant, a new law, and then finally the arrival into a new promised land and the project of building a new Jerusalem.
The Puritans could survive hardship because they knew what kind of cosmic drama they were involved in. Being a chosen people with a sacred mission didn’t make them arrogant, it gave their task dignity and consequence. It made them self-critical. When John Winthrop used the phrase “shining city on a hill” he didn’t mean it as self-congratulation. He meant that the whole world was watching and by their selfishness and failings the colonists were screwing it up.
But we have lost our national story. We no longer have a telos — that is, a shared goal, a sense of mission that unites us and raises us out of ourselves. More:
Today’s students get steeped in American tales of genocide, slavery, oppression and segregation. American history is taught less as a progressively realized grand narrative and more as a series of power conflicts between oppressor and oppressed.
The academic left pushed this reinterpretation, but as usual the extreme right ended up claiming the spoils. The people Gorski calls radical secularists expunged biblical categories and patriotic celebrations from schools. The voters revolted and elected the people Gorski calls the religious nationalists to the White House — the jingoistic chauvinists who measure Americanness by blood and want to create a Fortress America keeping the enemy out.
We have a lot of crises in this country, but maybe the foundational one is the Telos Crisis, a crisis of purpose. Many people don’t know what this country is here for, and what we are here for. If you don’t know what your goal is, then every setback sends you into cynicism and selfishness.
I agree with most of this, but I would take the critique a bit deeper: we have a Telos Crisis in America not simply because we have lost a sense of collective meaning, but because here in late modernity, most of us have lost a belief that there can be meaning independent of our individual desires. Marxism, the secular utopia, has failed. Even most Christians today believe in a God whose purpose is to validate our quest for happiness — which is not the same thing as holiness.
David says the Exodus story from the Hebrew Bible ought to be our national mythological template. We have to remember that the Hebrews coming out of Egypt believed they were going somewhere definite. Where is America going? When we had a shared Judeo-Christian ethic, we at least had a picture of what the Promised Land (so to speak) to which we as a people should aspire. We believed that because we believed, however imperfectly, that there was a moral order independent of ourselves by which we were all called to live. That moral order was revealed and guaranteed by the God of the Bible.
The 20th century cultural revolution — which included a revolution in theology — left this in shambles. As Brad East pointed out last week, Christian theologians and cultural critics have been talking about this for decades. Awareness of this stark new reality long predates The Benedict Option, a book written in response to the crisis. The problem David Brooks identifies — the loss of a binding national narrative — is not something American Christians are prepared to address because we ourselves have also lost our religious narrative. Sociologist Christian Smith has written:
We are also not saying than anyone has founded an official religion by the name of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, nor that most U.S. teenagers have abandoned their religious denominations and congregations to practice it elsewhere or under another name. Rather, it seems that the latter is simply colonizing many established religious traditions and congregations in the United States, that it is merely becoming the new spirit living within the old body. Its typical embrace and practice is de facto, functional, practical, and tacit — not formal or acknowledged as a distinctive religion. Furthermore, we are not suggesting that Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is a religious faith limited to teenage adherents in the United States. To the contrary, it seems that it is also a widespread, popular faith among very many U.S. adults. Our religiously conventional adolescents seem to be merely absorbing and reflecting religiously what the adult world is routinely modeling for and inculcating in its youth.
Moreover, we are not suggesting that Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is a religion that teenagers (and adults) adopt and practice wholesale or not at all. Instead, the elements of its creed are normally assimilated by degrees, in parts, admixed with elements of more traditional religious faiths. Indeed, this religious creed appears in this way to operate as a parasitic faith. It cannot sustain its own integral, independent life. Rather it must attach itself like an incubus to established historical religious traditions, feeding on their doctrines and sensibilities, and expanding by mutating their theological substance to resemble its own distinctive image. This helps to explain why millions of U.S. teenagers and adults are not self-declared, card-carrying, organizationally gathered Moralistic Therapeutic Deists. This religion generally does not and cannot stand on its own. So its adherents must be Christian Moralistic Therapeutic Deists, Jewish Moralistic Therapeutic Deists, Mormon Moralistic Therapeutic Deists, and even Nonreligious Moralistic Therapeutic Deists. These may be either devout followers or mere nominal believers of their respective traditional faiths. But they often have some connection to an established historical faith tradition that this alternative faith feeds upon and gradually co-opts if not devours.
Believers in each larger tradition practice their own versions of this otherwise common parasitic religion. The Jewish version, for instance, may emphasize the ethical living aspect of the creed, while the Methodist version stresses the getting-to-heaven part. Each then can think of themselves as belonging to the specific religious tradition they name as their own — Catholic, Baptist, Jewish, Mormon, whatever — while simultaneously sharing the cross-cutting, core beliefs of their de facto common Moralistic Therapeutic Deist faith. In effect, these believers get to enjoy whatever particulars of their own faith heritages appeal to them, while also reaping the benefits of this shared, harmonizing, interfaith religion. This helps to explain the noticeable lack of religious conflict between teenagers of apparently different faiths. For, in fact, we suggest that many of them actually share the same deeper religious faith: Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. What is there to have conflict about?
MTD doesn’t demand anything of you except that you affirm that there is a gauzy God looking out over the affairs of men, and that He wants you to be happy and nice to others. This is not the God of the Book of Exodus. This is not the God revealed to us in Exodus 20:
Seeing the thunder pealing, the lightning flashing, the trumpet blasting and the mountain smoking, the people were all terrified and kept their distance.’Speak to us yourself,’ they said to Moses, ‘and we will obey; but do not let God speak to us, or we shall die.’
Moses said to the people, ‘Do not be afraid; God has come to test you, so that your fear of him, being always in your mind, may keep you from sinning.’
So the people kept their distance while Moses approached the dark cloud where God was.
In his (difficult and uneven) posthumously published book Charisma, the social critic Philip Rieff, a secular Jew, diagnoses the modern problem as a loss of “holy terror” — something the Bible calls “fear of the Lord.” From Rieff’s first chapter (N.B., by “charismatics,” Rieff means :
Perhaps the best place to begin is with the suggestion that holiness is entirely interdictory [that is, forbidding, proclaiming ‘thou shalt nots’ — RD]. A moral absolute thus becomes the object of all. Holy terror is charismatic [a bearer of grace — RD]; our terror is unholy. For our charismatics are engaged in no wrestlings of angels, but, rather, with the obeying of demons. Jacob was a charismatic when Laban and Jacob took mutual pledges before the God of their fathers; Jacob swears by the fear of his father, Isaac (Genesis 31:53). What is this charismatic fear? What is holy terror? Is it a fear of a mere father; in a phantasmagoric enlargement, Freud’s idea is silly. Holy terror is rather fear of oneself, fear of the evil in oneself and in the world. It is also fear of punishment. Without this necessary fear, charisma is not possible. To live without this high fear is to be a terror oneself, a monster. And yet to be monstrous has become our ambition, for it is our ambition to live without fear. All holy terror is gone. The interdicts have no power. This is the real death of God and of our own humanity. It is out of sheer terror that charisma develops. We live in terror but never in holy terror. Those are the only alternatives, as I shall try to show in the course of this book.
A great charismatic does not save us from holy terror, but rather conveys it. One of my intentions is to make us again more responsive to the possibility of holy terror.
For Rieff, “all high cultures … are cultures of the superego.” A culture is a sacred “moral demand system,” sharply divided along lines of faith and guilt. Faith means obedience to commandments. Guilt means transgression, not as that word is understood in graduate schools but as it is understood in the Bible — as ostracism, disgrace and death. The system is ruthless, but Rieff shows it to be more supple than it looks. This is one of the windfalls of his long apprenticeship to Freud. Faith and guilt, like yin and yang, imply their opposites. Immoral impulses are always there. “They may be checked,” Rieff writes, “but they are not liquidated, they are not destroyed by these interdictory processes any more than the instincts are liquidated or destroyed by therapeutic processes.” Indeed, there would be no reason to have rules — a culture — without them.
As Rieff shows in some magnificent passages of biblical exegesis, charismatics — those with charismata, or special gifts of grace — are the moralists in this system. But they do not work by bossing people around or seeking power; they work by submitting to the existing covenant in ways that provoke imitation. So, paradoxically, “renewal” movements tend to be reactionary, and even prophets are backward-looking — they are tethered to, draw their credibility from and seek to intensify previous revelation. These principles are true of Christianity as a whole, in its relation to Judaism. Pivotal here is the passage in Mark 10:17-19, where a rich man asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. “Thou knowest the commandments,” Jesus replies.
Rieff calls this a “liberating dynamic of submission” and suggests “soul making” as a synonym for the kind of charisma he defends. The discipleship (striving toward God) that exists in a charismatic Christian community has nothing in common with the conformity (following orders) that characterizes modern mass organizations. United in their submission to the sacred, the members of a chain of belief teach through the act of keeping the commandments and learn through imitation — there is no master-slave relation. Such a sacred order is less likely to be corrupt, because it “constantly resists being made convenient for the cadres who come to administer the creed.”
Rieff’s point is that we in the modern West have lost the sense of the holy. When we lose holy terror — the fear of the Lord — we set our own inner demons free. Mythology tells us that nemesis must inevitably follow this hubris.
So, yes, let The Benedict Option be thought of as “reactionary” in the sense Caldwell means. Let us Christians submit “to the existing covenant in ways that provoke imitation” — that is, let our lives be our witness to the truth of our faith. Let us refuse the fake Christianity that is MTD within our own traditions, and return to the faith of our fathers. Doing so, as the church historian Robert Wilken has said in this extremely important 2004 essay, requires this of us:
Nothing is more needful today than the survival of Christian culture, because in recent generations this culture has become dangerously thin. At this moment in the Church’s history in this country (and in the West more generally) it is less urgent to convince the alternative culture in which we live of the truth of Christ than it is for the Church to tell itself its own story and to nurture its own life, the culture of the city of God, the Christian republic. This is not going to happen without a rebirth of moral and spiritual discipline and a resolute effort on the part of Christians to comprehend and to defend the remnants of Christian culture.
His point is that we Christians today have ourselves lost our narrative. We cannot give the world what we do not ourselves have. Wilken’s is a cause for a return to inwardness, precisely so we will regain the story that can liberate the world when we go out into it.
Where does this leave the Telos Crisis identified by Brooks? I don’t know, but more to the point, I don’t care about it as much as I used to. I don’t believe there will be any national rediscovery of a telos, because the nature of modernity, including our consumerist popular culture, is anti-teleological. This is what it means for the therapeutic to triumph. How is civics education going to produce a narrative stronger than “Ye shall be as gods”? Stronger than “ye shall create your own truth, and you will use it to set yourself free”? How can a patriotic narrative speak transformatively into the lives of people raised in the social catastrophe (including fatherlessness, drug addiction, violence, community dissolution) that has become domestic life in so many parts of America? Aside from a dramatic rebirth of Biblical religion, where will Americans find the courage and inspiration to stand together against the intoxicating narratives of identity politics, of both the left and the right?
Religion is no guarantee of anything. A friend of mine, an observant conservative Catholic, is fighting to rescue his teenage son from far-right, conspiracy-driven hatred — malevolent ideas he acquired from his friends at school. But if not religion — a religion not of moralistic therapy, but of holy terror (in the Rieffan sense) — then what? There is nothing else.
A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead—often not recognising fully what they were doing—was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness.
If America — and the West — is to be saved, it will be saved as St. Benedict and the Church saved the West for Christianity after Rome’s fall: by the slow, patient work of fidelity in action. The most patriotic thing believing Christians can do for America, then, is to cease to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of the American order, and instead focus our efforts on strengthening our communities. It begins by re-learning our story, and regaining a sense of the holy. All the rest will follow, in God’s time.
This does not require us to turn our backs on our neighbors — indeed, I don’t see how any Christian can justify that. It does mean, however, that to the extent that engagement with the broader world compromises the telling of our Story to ourselves, and embodying that story in practices, both familial and communal, we must keep our distance. My point here is not that we should cease to love America, our home, but simply that the sickness that has overtaken our country, a sickness that has stolen our sense of common national purpose, is quite possibly a sickness unto death.
Can it be healed? Maybe. But it will take strong medicine — medicine that only the church can offer, once it has healed itself from the same disease. I fear we Christians, and we Americans, have entered into the era described by the ancient Roman historian Livy, remarking on his own society: “We have reached the point where we can tolerate neither our vices nor their cure.”
A few notes from the most recent commentary on The Benedict Option. Don’t worry, brethren and sistren, if this is boring you, it’ll be going away soon. I can’t possibly respond to everything written about the book, nor should I, but I do want to remark on a few things that caught my eye.
First I’d like to thank my friend Alan Jacobs for his thoughtful critique in First Things. Excerpts:
Therefore, to argue, as many have, that the argument Rod Dreher makes in The Benedict Option is despairing, and hopeless, and a failure to trust in the Lord Jesus, is a category error. It takes a set of sociological and historical judgments and treats them as though they were metaphysical assertions. Anyone in Roman Cappadocia who had said that the culture Basil and his colleagues had built was not bound to last until the Lord returns would not have been deficient in Christian hope. Rather, he or she would have been offering a useful reminder of the vagaries of history, to which even the most faithful Christians are subject. Dreher’s argument in The Benedict Option may be wrong, but if so, it is wrong historically and prudentially, not metaphysically.
So the whole debate over The Benedict Option needs to be brought down out of the absolutist clouds and grounded in more historical particularities. However, and alas, this is something that neither Dreher nor his opponents seem inclined to do. Almost every party to this dispute seems to be painting with the broadest brushes they can get their hands on. Thus Dreher: “It is time for all Christians to pull their children out of the public school system.” All of them? Without exception? No room for familial discernment and prudential judgment? And from the other side, here’s the verdict of one of Dreher’s more thoughtful critics, Elizabeth Bruenig: “Building communities of virtue is fine, but withdrawing from conventional politics is difficult to parse with Christ’s command that we love our neighbors.” We can’t love our neighbor without voting? The hospice-care worker who is too busy and tired to get to the polling place is deficient in charity? Such an argument would seem to delegitimate most monastic ways of life, which makes it an odd position for a Catholic of some traditionalist sympathies, like Bruenig, to make.
This is really helpful. Alan has put his finger on what I probably regret most of all in the book, in the sense that I would phrase it more carefully if I had it to do over again: the line about public schools. I know that it is simply not possible for very many good people to do anything other than send their kids to public school. And speaking for myself, there are some places in which I would choose a public school over a private school. It is not fair to generalize, and I did generalize, and am sorry about that. It really is a matter of prudential judgment. If it were left up to me and me alone to homeschool, I would have my kids in a public school in two shakes of a lamb’s tail. I don’t have that gift, and even if I did, it’s easy to imagine a situation in which my family could not afford it. So, I retract that harsh statement.
The sociologist James Davison Hunter has rightly said that Christians in general should strive for “faithful presence” in the public world, and there are, sad to say, multiple ways to fail at this task. One can spend so much time focusing on one’s faithfulness that one forgets to be present, or be sufficiently content with mere presence that one forgets the challenge of genuine faithfulness. It is also possible to conceive of “presence” too narrowly: again, I would contend that the hermit who prays ceaselessly for peace and justice is present in the world to an extent that few of the rest of us will ever achieve. But that said, and all my other caveats registered, I suspect that if American Christians have a general inclination, it is towards thinking that presence itself is sufficient, which causes us to neglect the difficult disciplines of genuine Christian faithfulness. This is certainly what the work of Christian Smith and his sociological colleagues—on which Dreher relies heavily—suggests.
And that is reason enough to applaud Dreher’s presentation of the Benedict Option, because his portraits of intentional communities of disciplined Christian faith, thought, and practice provide a useful mirror in which the rest of us can better discern the lineaments of our own lives. A similar challenge comes to us through Charles Marsh’s 2005 book The Beloved Community, which presents equally intentional and equally Christian communities, though ones motivated largely by the desperate need in this country for racial reconciliation. To look at such bold endeavors in communal focus, purpose, and integrity is to risk being shamed by their witness.
If we are willing to take that risk, we might learn a few things, not all of them consoling, about ourselves and our practices of faith. And our own daily habits are where the rubber meets the road, not in abstractions about liberal subjects and the decline of the West.
This is really good, and I hope you’ll read the entire essay. I’m happy to tell you that the book itself is much more focused on everyday practices and disposition than you might think.
Here’s a link to a big Colson Center symposium on the Ben Op, featuring some big names in Evangelicalism. I can’t respond to all of them, but I wanted to speak to a few things mentioned in it.
Greg Forster writes:
Darrow Miller of Disciple Nations Alliance is right: “If the church does not disciple the nations, the nations will disciple the church.” God’s people are distinct from the world, but they must practice their discipleship in the daily lives that they live within their nations—or else not at all. God has made us social creatures, and we are formed as people and as Christians by our inescapable membership in our nations.
This is why we must overcome the dangerous illusion expressed in Dreher’s call to cease “full participation in mainstream society.” The illusion is not that such a withdrawal is desirable. The illusion is that such a withdrawal is even possible. To be human is to be part of a nation, and when believers try to withdraw into “Christian villages” they only reproduce in miniature the dysfunctions of their nations—because that is who they are. Transformation is needed, but withdrawal does not transform. Instead, as we saw at Pentecost, by the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit, the gospel is now to be expressed within the daily life of all the world’s nations. We must rely on the Holy Spirit to make us disciples in our daily lives as Americans—for we have no other lives to live.
I wonder if people who write things like this actually read my book. Anybody who did would know perfectly well that I call for partial withdrawal for the sake of being able to bring the light of Christ fully to the world when we do engage. I don’t know how many times I have to say it. But look, if the strategy that we have been undertaking is working so well, how come the overwhelming number of Christian kids don’t know their faith? How come the Church looks so much like the world? How come so many Christian teenagers captured by pornography addiction?
Why do so many Christian leaders have trouble recognizing that what they’re doing is not working? It has been 12 years since Al Mohler wrote this terrific column about Christian Smith’s then-new study about Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. In the much-discussed column, he wrote:
All this means is that teenagers have been listening carefully. They have been observing their parents in the larger culture with diligence and insight. They understand just how little their parents really believe and just how much many of their churches and Christian institutions have accommodated themselves to the dominant culture. They sense the degree to which theological conviction has been sacrificed on the altar of individualism and a relativistic understanding of truth. They have learned from their elders that self-improvement is the one great moral imperative to which all are accountable, and they have observed the fact that the highest aspiration of those who shape this culture is to find happiness, security, and meaning in life.
This research project demands the attention of every thinking Christian. Those who are prone to dismiss sociological analysis as irrelevant will miss the point. We must now look at the United States of America as missiologists once viewed nations that had never heard the gospel. Indeed, our missiological challenge may be even greater than the confrontation with paganism, for we face a succession of generations who have transformed Christianity into something that bears no resemblance to the faith revealed in the Bible. The faith “once delivered to the saints” is no longer even known, not only by American teenagers, but by most of their parents. Millions of Americans believe they are Christians, simply because they have some historic tie to a Christian denomination or identity.
We now face the challenge of evangelizing a nation that largely considers itself Christian, overwhelmingly believes in some deity, considers itself fervently religious, but has virtually no connection to historic Christianity. Christian Smith and his colleagues have performed an enormous service for the church of the Lord Jesus Christ in identifying Moralistic Therapeutic Deism as the dominant religion of this American age. Our responsibility is to prepare the church to respond to this new religion, understanding that it represents the greatest competitor to biblical Christianity. More urgently, this study should warn us all that our failure to teach this generation of teenagers the realities and convictions of biblical Christianity will mean that their children will know even less and will be even more readily seduced by this new form of paganism. This study offers irrefutable evidence of the challenge we now face.
Things have only gotten worse for all churches since then. We might be producing churchgoers and youth-group members, but we are not producing disciples.
In the symposium, my friend Peter Leithart writes:
My question is, for what tale is the BenOp the moral?
Some church fathers feared the end of Rome was the end of the world. Augustine saw Rome as an episode in the bigger story of the civitas Dei, which, Augustine believed, would flourish in her pilgrimage, empire or no empire. I suspect St. Benedict agreed.
Rod knows this. He believes in creation, cross, and eschaton. Yet, though his book gestures toward this biblical story, the BenOp is the moral to a story of Western decline. Despite Rod’s cautions, it tends to treat the church as a helpmeet of American renewal. It’s an agenda to “save the West.”
The Benedict Option aims to escape the imperial project. I worry that Rod is still in thrall to the imperial narrative.
I disagree. As I write in the book:
We are not trying to repeal seven hundred years of history, as if that were possible. Nor are we trying to save the West. We are only trying to build a Christian way of life that stands as an island of sanctity and stability amid the high tide of liquid modernity. We are not looking to create heaven on earth; we are simply looking for a way to be strong in faith through a time of great testing. The Rule, with its vision of an ordered life centered around Christ and the practices it prescribes to deepen our conversion, can help us achieve that goal.
Though I don’t welcome its fall, I don’t think the Empire can be saved. My book is about the need for Christians to stop considering Christianity as co-extensive with the American (and Western) social and political order. This is what Alasdair MacIntyre suggests in the quote that forms one of the pillars of the book. The basic premise of the Benedict Option idea is that St. Benedict did not set out to Save Western Civilization™, but only to be faithful to Christ in a very difficult and chaotic time. But over the next few centuries, his successors did precisely that, as a secondary effect of evangelizing and civilizing barbarian Europe. If we are to be new — and very different — St. Benedicts, we have to first seek to follow Christ in our lives, in concrete and enduring ways. Maybe the Western order will be saved. Maybe a new Christian order will grow out of it. Or maybe this will be the end for us, and the Church will continue to flourish in parts of the world where the Holy Spirit is welcome. That’s beyond our ability to control. We have to get about the business of figuring out ways to be more faithful right here, right now. What we’ve been doing isn’t working.
(And by the way, when I talk in the book about the value of Western civilization and the need to preserve memory of it, I’m talking about the best that has been said, written, drawn, sculpted, spoken, and composed within the vast Western tradition, which, note well, precedes the advent of Christianity. None of that is the Gospel, granted, but it’s not butterbeans either. I’m sure Peter agrees, but I want to make that clear. Christianity has been articulated in cultural forms for nearly two millennia. It is important to remember that, and to remember them.)
In the symposium, Gerald McDermott writes that he and his wife used to live in a intentional Christian communities, but found them to be too confining. I suspect I would feel exactly the same way! The Benedict Option does not prescribe them for all Christians (and neither does the intentional community movement called the Bruderhof, as I learned this weekend). McDermott adds:
But with all of those qualifications, I think the Benedict Option is something Christians need to consider. If the communal lifestyle is not for all believers, it is surely imperative for us to strengthen the Christian family and church community life. My wife and I have found it immeasurably rewarding to participate in daily liturgy (morning and evening prayer using the Daily Office) and the sacraments, weekly at a minimum and daily if possible.
I think starting a book group across denominational lines, and studying a Christian classic, is ideal. Get back to the Fathers. Read Augustine or Athanasius or Gregory together. This is a sure remedy to the shallowness and heresy of too much of today’s Church.
Yes! Terrific. And my pal Karen Swallow Prior nails it:
“The Benedict Option’s” vision is not to make nuns and monks of modern Christians. Nor does it propose a bunker (whether literal or figurative) from which to establish merely an updated version of the fundamentalist separatism of yore. Nor is the turn to Benedict a quixotic attempt to recapture a romanticized past.
To the contrary, “The Benedict Option” calls Christians wherever they live and work to “form a vibrant counterculture” by cultivating practices and communities that reflect the understanding that Christians, who are not citizens of this world, need not “prop up the current order.” While the monastery that birthed the Benedict Rule was literal, the monastery invoked in “The Benedict Option” is metaphorical. It is not a place, but a way.
That’s very well said: “not a place, but a way.”
John Mark Reynolds, another friend of mine, has a powerful statement in the symposium:
The Benedict Option is not a way, but the only way forward for Christians who wish to be more than nominal in their faith. Christianity does not say that Jesus is Lord of part of human life, but of all of human life. We cannot give our entertainment, our work life, or our social lives to secular Caesars and expect to handle the holy things of the church.
Critics of the Benedict Option do not grasp that an alternative city can be Constantinople and not just a monastery or a village. Christians can live quiet lives, but also build an alternative to a Rome intent on barbarian rule. If Rome is unlivable for Christians, then we will make political allies where we can and build a new and better Rome.
Once, the strategy of a Constantine with a Benedict option saved Roman and Greek civilization for 1000 years, so now perhaps a Constantine strategy with a Benedict Option can do the same for American culture. If we cannot defend the old order, or if the decadent elite no longer wants us, then we can empower something new.
Let’s see how it goes. Leave us alone and the cross will triumph. This will not be by might, military power, but because of the Spirit of God. We are not withdrawing, we are rebuilding. Education, for example, can be offered that is high quality, does not require high debt, and is integrated into the family, church, and community.
In the book, I talk a bit about The Saint Constantine School , an innovative classical Christian educational institution John Mark has helped found in Houston. It is a model for all of us going forward.
Roberto Rivera — seems like I’m friends with a good number of the people in this symposium — offers a critical perspective, slighting the book because “there is virtually no acknowledgement that American Christianity is more than—I grow weary of being ‘that guy’ who points this out—what White Christians are doing.” More:
This isn’t “identity politics” or, even worse, “political correctness.” As Ed Stetzer and Leith Anderson wrote at Christianity Today, African-Americans are substantially more likely (60 percent) to hold Evangelical beliefs than non-Hispanic whites, and Hispanics are as likely, if not a little more, to hold such beliefs as their non-Hispanic white counterparts.
Add the impact of immigration, Hispanic and otherwise, on American Catholicism, and the absence of “non-white” American Christians from Dreher’s narrative becomes a kind of dog that didn’t bark in the night.
Well, my book is sweeping in scope. I didn’t even get down to examining the nitty-gritty of various strands of American Christianity, in terms of fidelity to Biblical and historic Christian orthodoxy. My Evangelical friend Anne Snyder told me last week in Washington that living in Houston these past few years has revealed to her a world of strong religious engagement within immigrant churches. That’s great news! I told her I hope she (or someone else) writes about it in a Benedict Option vein, e.g., what those churches have to teach the broader American church.
I wonder, though, how the practices of Latino and African-American Christians as a whole differ from their stated beliefs. I’m recalling a conversation with a black Christian friend last year. She told me she was raised in a very strict Pentecostalist sect of the black church, and that in her family, they all professed belief in a strongly conservative Christianity. But none of them lived by it. Similarly, last week I talked to a middle-aged black man here in Baton Rouge who had fallen away from the church. He told me that he was raised in the black church, and left in disgust at the hypocrisy all around him. They said one thing, but did another, he said. He was still angry about it. My point simply is that it’s not enough to rely on what people say they believe, but we also have to see fruits of that belief in discipleship.
Finally, a bit from friend John Stonestreet’s comments:
The most important contribution of the Benedict Option is clearly articulating the powerful ability of culture to shape our hearts and minds. Too many of us are like the fish who don’t know they are wet. And so, Rod rightly says, we need “thick ties” to our fellow Christians and institutions, and especially to our churches.
This seemingly obvious point is, in my view, Dreher’s other very important contribution. If Christians are truly to be the church in this cultural moment, churches must become institutions that shape both who and whose we are. Pastors, parents, mentors, and educators must see education and discipleship as more than instructive. They must commit to establishing identity and loyalty.
I thank John for putting together this symposium — read everybody’s remarks here — and thank the contributors.
I really loved Gerald Russello’s extremely generous evaluation of the book in Intercollegiate Review. Excerpts:
This is our cultural moment, despite who occupies the White House or Congress, and with his unerring cultural radar, Dreher has written the book for this new moment: a central point in The Benedict Option is “put not your trust in princes.” Culture is more important than politics, and the currents of modernity did not change on Election Day. And one thing conservatives, and especially Christian conservatives, should understand is that they have lost the culture war, and, indeed, it was their obsession with politics—and their assumption that the culture and major institutions such as big business would always support them—that partially caused that loss.
The Benedict Option is depressing and exhilarating by turns, sometimes on the same page. Depressing because Dreher shows how far we have fallen and how much work there is to be done, made more so because the cultural issues he describes are at times very personal, which affect every family in America. As a father in a post-Christian world, the stress and real presence of spiritual danger can be almost overwhelming. But the book also proves exhilarating because Dreher reminds us of the great history of Christianity in sparking renewal, and shows us how it is being done, today, now, in our own communities if we have but eyes to see. Hope, in the end, remains our most important cultural inheritance. In the catacombs of ancient Rome, in the Soviet-era Eastern Bloc, and in places like China today, the Church has modeled a society that is a witness to a different kind of polity. It is that moment again.
Read the whole thing — it’s one of the very best things I’ve seen yet on the Benedict Option. And so is this wonderful piece on the Evangelical college ministry website Campus Parade. Excerpts:
Of course, the success of the Benedict Option is also due to its timing. Though Rod alluded to the Benedict Option ten years ago in his book Crunchy Cons, I don’t know if most Christians would have been ready. Anyone who read Lesslie Newbingin 40 years ago, or Missional Church almost 20 years go will know the diagnosis of the decline of Christianity in the United States, but during these ten years since Rod mentioned the need for a new Benedict, so much has happened. The Millennial generation has shifted to the left on social norms and politics, marginal issues like same-sex marriage and transgender rights have become new norms, businesses have become arbiters of family values, sports is a tool for cultural enforcement, and what was once considered out-of-control political correctness on our campuses is now ubiquitous. I don’t need an academic to explain it to me, I see it everyday.
But there are other forces at work too. Technology like the internet and cell phones have brought us amazing amounts of information, but the ability to literally spend our whole lives on pointless trivia. The “authentic self” that philosopher Charles Taylor wrote of in his masterpiece The Secular Age, reached its apogee in Caitlyn and Bruce Jenner. Bruce Jenner, a Cold War hero to us in Generation X, became a cause celeb to Generation Z as Caitlyn Jenner. Transpose that Wheaties picture of Bruce in 1976, winner of the Olympic decathlon and “world’s greatest athlete” with Caitlyn on the cover of Vanity Fair, and you see trajectory of where we are headed as a nation.
As Christians we did not want to believe the academics. Developing as a nation under the canopy of our country as a “city on a hill” from John Winthrop’s sermon A Model of Christian Charity, we always told ourselves we could “go back” to ideal times. Revivals did help, and many truly believed that with the right focus on the right segments of society, we could still transform the culture. But we finally find ourselves “strangers in a strange land” to steal a line from Robert Heinlein.
[The Benedict Option] is the challenge of taking personal counter-cultural steps in our lives to form Christian communities that will be receptacles and transmitters of civilization and Christianity to a dark age all around us. It is something we must prepare for the long-term. There will be no quick fixes and early time lines. As Rod says in his book “the new order is not a problem to be solved but a reality to be lived with.”
With chapters dealing with politics, church life, Christian communities, education, work, sexuality, and technology, Dreher sketches broad outlines of what needs to happen in each of these areas to preserve some vestige of Christian normalcy. These outlines help us see how we need to find new ways of evangelism that highlight beauty and authenticity of life; show the goodness of God in understanding a biblical version of marriage, sex, and family; bind ourselves together in deeper relationships; value the life of the mind through Christian education; see work as a Christian calling; know the limits of technology and attempt to find space to enjoy nature, solitude, and contemplation; and open our hearts to God through new liturgies of prayer, fasting, and repentance. How these sketches are colored in is up to each individual, family, church, and community.
But they are provocative sketches. They make us think of what could be if we take action, and what we lose if we fail to act. They make us want to talk with someone about their “rightness” and see where the discussion could lead. I hope you will get a copy of The Benedict Option, read it, pass it on to a friend, family or church member, and talk about it. Debate it. Color in the details of those sketches. Then get out your tools and start building an ark.
I’m going to stop here, even though I have four more pieces I’d like to comment on open on my browser. I’ll get to them tomorrow. Let me say that even if people dislike or hate these ideas, I am thrilled that the church is talking about them. I don’t have all the right answers, but in The Benedict Option, I hope I am asking the right questions. If the answers are going to be found, we Christians are going to have to find them together.
Erick Erickson has a great line about the culture war: “You will be made to care.” He means that the left will never content itself to live and let live. Here’s an appalling but characteristic example of what he means:
YouTube said on Sunday that it was investigating the simmering complaints by some users that its family-friendly “restricted mode” wrongly filters out some lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender videos.
The statement came after the video-hosting platform faced growing pressure over the weekend from some of its biggest stars to address the issue.
In a statement, YouTube said that many videos featuring lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender content were unaffected by the filter, an optional parental-control setting, and that it only targeted those that discussed sensitive topics such as politics, health and sexuality.
But some of the video creators disagreed, pointing to blocked content that they argued were suitable for children of any age and did not discuss such subjects. They also said that the filtering shields lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender children from the resources and support the videos can provide.
It is not the right of a transgender person or anyone else to decide what someone’s children can and cannot watch. That decision belongs to the parents. But see, this is par for the course for the left, especially the sexual left: disempower parents so they can propagandize children.
Christian and other conservative parents, if you let your kids watch YouTube without you at their side, you’re crazy. Seriously, you have no excuse.
UPDATE: A reader writes:
Saw your post. Made me think about pro-LGBT parents wanting to filter out religious messages that condemn homosexual conduct and extol the virtues of celibacy for same-sex attracted people who believe that I can change. Even though I think that makes them narrow-minded, I see no reason why YouTube should not accommodate them. In fact, I would defend their right to do this, since I believe that parents have a special responsibility to their children that third parties have no right to breach (except for in very narrow circumstances).
LGBT activists for years made fun of “they’re coming for your children” rhetoric of the religious right. Turns out the religious right was correct; they are coming for your children, and they resent the fact that you’re trying to block the door.
Have you ever heard of the Bruderhof? It’s an international movement in the Anabaptist tradition. They are Christians who live in intentional communities — 23 of them, on four continents — and share their lives and resources in common. Here’s an FAQ about them. And here is a more in-depth exploration of those things, in what could be titled the Rule of the Bruderhof. The movement was founded in 1920 in Germany, as a Christian response to the horrors of World War I and social injustice. They eventually had to leave Germany because of Nazi persecution.
Late last week, I visited two of their American settlements, Fox Hill and The Mount, both not far from each other, in New York’s Hudson River Valley (see a list of all the US Bruderhof communities here.) The Bruderhof has been fully engaged with The Benedict Option book (start here to see what they think of it). After spending some time with them, it’s very easy to see why. The Bruderhof has been living their version of the Benedict Option for almost a century. These two communities are full of grace and hospitality. Before I say anything else, let me encourage you to check out this link telling you where all of the Bruderhof communities are worldwide. There’s nothing like a visit to meet them yourself. This short video gives you an idea of what to expect:
I stayed at Fox Hill, a community of large, multifamily houses and buildings, including a workshop, a primary school, and a chapel/meeting room, spread across rolling farmland. Shortly after arriving from NYC with others for a Ben Op conference there (all off the record, alas), we all gathered with the entire community for a welcome. They sang several hymns. What startled me, and delighted me, was the joyful force with which they sang. I’ve never heard anything like it in a Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox church. It was genuinely inspiring. As with so much I saw there, it’s not my tradition, and it’s not one I’m particularly drawn to, but it’s impossible not to admire the Bruderhof.
The Bruderhof folks live radically compared to other Christians. They really do hold all things in common, meaning that nobody receives a paycheck. That requires an unusual degree of trust, obviously, but you also get a lot in return. The community cares for you. They don’t let anybody suffer. They don’t warehouse their elderly in nursing homes, for example. To join the Bruderhof, you first have to live in a community for at least a year, in a novitiate — a time of testing to see if you can live by the rhythms and commitments of the community (monastic orders have this too). They want people to be sure that this life is for them. If, after the novitiate, an adult wants to join, he makes vows in front of the entire community. In general, they are vows of poverty, chastity (including fidelity in marriage), and obedience (here are the particular vows). It would not be stretching it to call them lay monastics.
They have families, but children aren’t automatically members of the Bruderhof for life. They can go to college if they like, and many do, and they do not have to embrace Bruderhof life if they don’t feel a calling to it. I talked to one man who said that he had been raised in the Bruderhof, but left it for a while. After some time, feeling far away from his own, he sold all his possessions and bought a train ticket back to a Bruderhof settlement. Now, he’s happily married. “I still have my train ticket,” he told me, saying it was one of the best decisions he ever made.
I don’t think I had any particular expectations about what I would see at Fox Hill and The Mount, but I can tell you this: it’s not like M. Night Shymalan’s The Village. You may laugh at that, but I swear, so many people seem to think that if you live in any kind of Christian community that separates itself to a meaningful degree from the world, you’re bound to turn into a freakfest. The Bruderhof people are so blessedly normal. If anybody finds them freaky, that is a judgment on that person, not on these Anabaptists. If what they have is freaky, then the world needs a lot more freaks.
The most amazing thing to an outsider’s eyes — well, this outsider’s eyes — are the Bruderhof’s kids. None of them walk around with their eyes glued to screens. They don’t have that shifty, unsettled look that so many kids do. They look grounded and happy. They actually play outside, and do chores, and talk to each other. Every single one of these kids I talked to spoke to me politely and with confidence, even though I was a stranger to them. They seem so mature and grounded. That’s the thing that has lingered on my mind since coming home: the witness of the Bruderhof children. Everybody wants to have boys and girls who are like that, but so few of us are willing to make the sacrifices that those parents do to raise them.
Someone in the community there told me that the Fox Hill Bruderhof used to send its teenagers to the local public high school, but they had to pull them out because the moral effects on their kids was destructive. In 2012, the movement bought a massive seminary built in 1907 on the banks of the Hudson by the Redemptorist order of Catholic priests. By the time the Bruderhof entered the picture, the building was in bad shape, and was home to only four elderly Redemptorists. The Anabaptists bought it and renovated it as both a high school for their community (and some kids outside the community), and as living quarters for a large number of families. It’s called The Mount, and I visited it.
Here’s a photo I took of the building:
It’s enormous! It stopped me in my tracks to imagine that there was a time in US Catholic history when a religious order felt confident enough in its future to erect a building longer than a football field, to educate its priests. And now it is home to a colony of Anabaptists, of all people! You just don’t know the way history is going to flow, do you? The Bruderhof folks have been respectful of The Mount’s Catholic heritage, and have left its chapel largely intact. It struck me that it’s a great blessing that this building, which was erected to form missionaries for the Gospel, was not sold to some hotel chain, but is forming new — and very different — missionaries for the Gospel.
I had dinner with a Mount family, and we talked about what the Bruderhof has to offer the rest of the Christian world in the Benedict Option. “If you write about us,” said my host, “please write that we don’t seek imitation, but rather are trying to be an inspiration.” He explained that theirs is just one way to live out the Gospel in a radical way. If they have something to offer others, then they’re happy to share freely. They are seeking to get to know believers from other traditions, to share friendship, and to figure out if it’s possible for us to support each other?
What do I think the Bruderhof have to offer the rest of us?
First, the idea that this kind of life is possible, even today. They do live separate lives, but they aren’t strict separatists. For example, they invite their neighbors outside the community to come over for a common meal on Saturday nights. The members all work in the community, but they do go out into the world. Again, they sent their kids to the public high school, until they concluded that the moral culture had degraded so much that it was too risky to subject their kids to it. They didn’t have an objection in principle to public school, but when it reached the point of interfering with the life they believe God has called them to live, they pulled out, and started figuring out how to do something better. All Christians can admire the sacrifices they were willing to make for their kids.
Second, the example of their children. I had just spent a good part of the week talking to different people out in the world about how damaged kids today are by constant exposure to electronic media, as well as by the deforming aspects of popular culture. These kids are the polar opposite from that! They are wholesome, because they were raised by a community that was determined to raise them in a wholesome environment. You can tell it. Boy, can you ever. I was up for 6:30 am breakfast on Saturday, after which I had to go to LaGuardia for the flight home. It was 15 degrees outside. The oldest boy in the family finished breakfast and went to join other boys in cleaning the community’s cars — on this cold, cold morning. The other kids prepared for their Saturday chores (e.g., the girls were going to be helping their mother clean the house). I heard not a single complaint, or the least bit of whining. They just … did it, and did it not out of fear or anything like that, but because, well, that’s just what you do at the Bruderhof to make our community work.
Again: if this is freaky, the world needs a lot more freaky.
Third, confident outreach to other Christians. They can do this because they know who they are and what they believe — and they’re not mad about it. Nobody tried to talk me into becoming an Anabaptist. The only conversations I had were along the lines of, “Now, tell me what you Orthodox do when you worship?” and “How can we be your friends and your servants?” Just straightforward, plain dealing, in charity and a spirit of service. We need more of that.
Fourth, the value of simplicity. Anabaptists are very, very simple in their piety and worship. They don’t really have a liturgy. As an Orthodox Christian, I am their polar opposite when it comes to liturgy and ecclesiology, but I’ll say this for them: these are not people who are given over to innovation and trendiness in worship. Even though I was there for only a short time, I could discern how the Bruderhof weaves worship into all of life, and thus makes their entire existence a simple but effective liturgy of life.
Fifth, demolishing the concept of compartmentalization. For the Bruderhof, there is no separation between religion and life. You live your faith wholly, not just on Sundays. It’s supposed to be like that for all of us believers, but we so often fail at it. The Bruderhof has created social structures, customs, and institutions that make this easier to do.
It’s not hard to find material online criticizing the Bruderhof, written by ex-members. I wouldn’t claim that they are perfect, ever, and certainly wouldn’t make that claim after a very short visit. But I came away from my visit there inspired, not only by the Bruderhof itself, but by the possibilities of life and ecumenical cooperation in the Benedict Option.
One last image: as I was touring the primary school on Friday morning, I poked my head into the room where toddlers are watched. I saw a little boy sprawled out on the lap of a Bruderhof woman, who cradled him in her arms.
“Oh, that beautiful child,” I said. “He’s sleeping.”
“No,” said my guide. “He has cerebral palsy.”
That child abides in the cradle of a community that loves him and his parents. That child abides in grace and light.
If you’re in New Orleans on April 17, come see J.D. Vance and me onstage at UNO talking about faith and politics. Details:
The discussion, “Faith, Hillbillies, and American Politics: An Evening with J.D. Vance & Rod Dreher,” will begin at 6 p.m. in the Geoghegan Ball Room of the Homer L. Hitt Alumni Center at UNO’s campus, 2000 Lakeshore Dr. in New Orleans, following a reception in the Alumni Center lobby beginning at 5:15. This event is free and open to the public.
I predict that there will be a Ken Bickford sighting too. Look for the seersucker.
Via The Browser, Peter Ross of the Boston Review has an interview with Paul Kingsnorth, the co-ounder of a dystopian movement called the Dark Mountain Project. It’s not a political or religious thing; it’s a group of artists, writers, and thinkers who are focused on ecology, and who believe that civilization as we know it is unraveling, and can’t be stopped. From its website:
It might also be useful to explain what Dark Mountain is not. It is not a campaign. It is not an activist project. It does not seek to use writing or art to ‘save the planet’ or stop climate change. Rather, it is a creative space in which people can come to terms with the unravelling of much of the world we have all taken for granted, and engage in a conversation about what the future is likely to hold, without any need for pretence or denial.
Peter Ross describes the Dark Mountain vision as the belief “that it is too late to save the world, but you can care for one small part of it, enriching both the land and your own life in the process.” Here are excerpts from the interview:
PK: My writing is also increasingly religious, or spiritual, although “spiritual” is such a horrible New Age word. I am a Zen Buddhist, but that’s not exactly a religion, it’s more a practice. As I get older, the spiritual mystery of life seems to be coming to the fore. It’s right there in Beast, which is a religious book, a quest book. It’s all the way through The Wake as well. I have a strong sense that the earth is alive. I’ve always had this. I remember reading Wordsworth when I was fifteen or sixteen and being really struck by the fact that he was talking about experiences that I had had—when you are up on a mountain and the world opens itself up to you. All the time when I was young, I felt there were mysterious things going on in nature. I believed in fairies and magic and all that. Then you grow up and put all that to one side, but it feels like it’s coming back into my writing as I get older. One of the disastrous stories our culture tells itself is that the world is a machine, and that you can cut it into bits and look at how it works. But it’s not a machine, it’s a great web of life with a strange religious mystery bubbling underneath.
Yes, exactly. For traditional Christians, the world is charged with the presence of God, who, in the Orthodox prayer, “is everywhere present and filling all things.” This is what all Christians believed until the modern period, which disenchanted the world. If Christianity is going to survive this, it has to regain the older Christian vision.
This is not some woo-woo, superstitious New Age thing. This was Christianity before the modern era. Here is a link to Episode 1 of Tudor Monastery Farm, a British reality series (in six hourlong episode, as I recall) that explores various aspects of daily life for people who worked on a monastery farm in the year 1500. In this post, I talk in detail about how the series reveals the sacramental vision that held medieval society together, and what it has to do with the Benedict Option. (That post will explain why Kingsnorth’s words above resonate, or should resonate, with traditional Christians.) I strongly recommend watching the series — it’s great to watch with kids. Not boring at all — quite the opposite, actually. Great to watch with the kids.
OK, more Kingsnorth:
PK: … One of the problems with the green movement is that it is constantly issuing deadlines: “We’ve only got five years to save the world!” I read Naomi Klein’s book on climate change a while back, and I found it ludicrous and dishonest. There’s plenty of good research in there about how the corporations are refusing to act and are covering up what needs to be done, but then she says that we have to have radical change in ten years and provides an enormous list of impossible global tasks. She’s a smart woman and she knows damn well none of that is going to happen.
PR: How did it feel when you accepted the end of the world? Relief or despair?
PK: I’d make an important distinction between “the end of the world” and the end of the way we’re living now; it’s the latter that’s ending. What do I feel about that? Kind of both. More relief, actually. There’s a common notion among activists that “taking action” must be inherently hopeful. If you’re going on demonstrations or working to stop climate change then that’s a hopeful or optimistic thing. But after a while, when people realize they are banging their heads against a brick wall, this kind of campaigning leads to despair. What I found when I said, “You know what? This isn’t going to work,” was that a great weight lifted off my shoulders. I’ve stopped pretending that the impossible is possible.
People often call me dystopian. They think, “This guy says the apocalypse is coming and there’s nothing we can do, so we should all have a party.” I like a party as much as the next man, but that’s not the point I’m making. I’m saying we should be honest about what’s happening and not entertain fantasies about how we can turn it around with, for example, global governance. How does that focus your mind? Where does that leave you? What do you do? Dark Mountain starts with those questions.
Yes, this is very similar to the Benedict Option vision. As I write in the book:
We Christians in the West are facing our own thousand-year flood—or if you believe Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, a fifteen-hundred-year flood: in 2012, the then-pontiff said that the spiritual crisis overtaking the West is the most serious since the fall of the Roman Empire near the end of the fifth century. The light of Christianity is flickering out all over the West. There are people alive today who may live to see the effective death of Christianity within our civilization. By God’s mercy, the faith may continue to flourish in the Global South and China, but barring a dramatic reversal of current trends, it will all but disappear entirely from Europe and North America. This may not be the end of the world, but it is the end of a world, and only the willfully blind would deny it. For a long time we have downplayed or ignored the signs. Now the floodwaters are upon us—and we are not prepared.
So, to restate this in a Kingsnorthian way, I’m saying we should be honest about what’s happening and not entertain fantasies about how we can turn it around with, for example, winning political power or by repackaging our evangelical message. How does that focus your mind? Where does that leave you? What do you do? The Benedict Option starts with those questions.
To be clear, Kingsnorth is focused on environmentalism and global system collapse. I am focused on Christianity in the West. But there are parallels. More:
PR: Is there a survivalist aspect to the way you are trying to live? Are you trying to learn to survive the catastrophe you predict coming?
PK: I wouldn’t call it survivalism. That conjures up images of men with guns in shacks. I’m not expecting some nuclear war or apocalyptic zombie catastrophe, but there is certainly a slow grinding collapse going on. So I want my children to know what seeds are and how to plant them. I want them to know how to light fires and how to use knives and simple tools. I want them to know how to cook properly and how to ferment drinks. The more of those things you know, the more connected you are to life, the more control you have, and the more choice you have over how to live. I don’t want them growing up in a consumer economy that wants to teach them absolutely nothing about how living is done. Even if all that stuff doesn’t fall apart in their lifetime, which it might well, it’s a powerless way to live. You end up making yourself a slave. You are completely dependent on this destructive world-spanning machine, and you are not fully human. I want them to be fully human. So it’s an insurance policy but it’s also just a way of living. And it’s enjoyable. You can’t live this way from some puritanical notion. You actually have to enjoy it, which we do.
This is important. I want my children to know traditional Orthodox Christianity, to know what the prayers are, and what they mean. To know how to do things that our Christian ancestors knew how to do. To see the world with the same vision, and not the corrupted vision of desacralized modernity. It’s an insurance policy, but it’s also just a way of living. And yes, you actually have to enjoy it — which we do!
One more bit:
PR: In an essay published the day before the U.S. election, you likened Hillary Clinton to a corrupt late Roman emperor and Donald Trump to a barbarian hammering at the gates. If you had a vote, would you have cast it for the emperor or the barbarian?
PK: I don’t think I’d have voted for either of them. I would certainly not have voted for Clinton as she was just the continuation of a dead system. I kind of like the chaos energy that Trump is bringing, but I’m not sure I could have brought myself to vote for him. I’ve waited my whole life to see what is effectively an independent candidate in the White House, a guy who is going to take on the media establishment and global free trade and the authoritarian left and stand up for the working class, and it’s just a shame that it had to be Donald Trump. Those are the things he says he is going to do, but I’m not sure he is capable, and a lot of what he stands for I dislike intensely, especially his cowboy attitude to nature.
PR: On the day that you and I confirmed this interview, Trump signed executive orders to allow construction of the controversial Dakota Access and Keystone XL oil pipelines. Surely you can’t favor that?
PK: Of course not. But what you see with Trump is American capitalism with its mask off. Obama talked a great game about climate change, but he never did anything. He was so charming that he could drone-bomb people every day for eight years and the media who are now calling Trump a fascist wouldn’t say anything about it. Trump is a barbarian, but barbarians are what you get when empires collapse, and the United States is obviously a collapsing empire.
Read the whole thing. I think a lot of conservative Christians, like environmentalists re: Dark Mountain, believe that to accept the Benedict Option is an act of surrender and despair. I do not, not at all. It is hopeful because it is realistic, and bases its real hope in eternity. It accepts that for whatever reasons, it is highly unlikely that we are going to stop the collapse of Christian belief in the West — so we should do what is necessary to stay faithful and steady through it, and to ride it out so as to preserve the spiritual and cultural seeds for the rebirth. Again: it’s not the end of THE world, but it’s the end of A world, and those who want to survive it and to thrive in the midst of it had better wake up and change their lives. If you read the interview, you’ll learn about how Kingsnorth and his wife live on a patch of green ground in Ireland, and homeschool their kids. They don’t sound like unhappy preppers at all.
You may disagree with all of this, and if so, read The Benedict Option and let’s have that discussion in our churches and families and small groups.