There are way too many reviews of The Benedict Option for me to respond to, but as Jacob Lupfer’s came in the form of a widely distributed column released on Religion News Service, I feel I have to say something about its mischaracterization (at this point, strange ones) of the book and its message.
To hear Rod Dreher tell it, Christians are a moment away from being systematically eliminated from American society.
Oh, come on. This is not what the book says at all. It says that traditionalist Christians face a future of declining political and cultural influence, and increasing marginalization in public life (including existential threats to our institutions), as well as — more importantly — a collapse in belief owing in large part to the inner weakness of the churches. This is so clear from the book, to any intelligent reader (as Lupfer no doubt is), that I wonder if he read the book at all.
Dreher, a thoughtful conservative writer, believes the church must turn inward to form communities, teach their children, and resist a culture co-opted by radical LGBT activists.
That’s truthy, but it’s a meaningful distortion to say that radical LGBT activists are at fault here. As I repeatedly say — and have been saying for the past decade — if gay marriage didn’t exist, we would still need the Benedict Option. Countering the power of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism within American Christian life is one of the pillars of the Ben Op argument, as is clear in the book. That threat to Christianity — which I consider to be the greatest one — has nothing to do with radical LGBT activists. Lupfer’s is a selective reading, if it is a reading at all.
In terms of intellectual and cultural achievement, we are living through something of a golden age for religious conservatives contributing meaningfully to politics and even arts and letters.
Conservative religionists bolster our social fabric with relatively larger families, strong communities, civic engagement, charitable giving and volunteerism. It would be better for everyone if they became less insular — not more so.
I’d love to see evidence of this golden age. I’d love to see evidence of this celebration of conservative religionists and their contributions to American public life. And I’d love to see evidence that the Benedict Option calls for conservative Christians to abandon civic engagement, charitable giving, and volunteerism. You won’t find it in The Benedict Option. In fact, the politics chapter (to name only one part of the book) calls on conservative Christians to become more involved in building up local community. The point of the project — again, as you can plainly read in the book — is not withdrawal into insularity, but for partial withdrawal for the sake of strengthening individuals and church communities, so that they can be more faithfully present within the world, according to their calling.
I see our situation as like Jeremiah 29: called by God to be faithfully present here in Babylon. But to be faithfully present means being like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, the three Hebrew captives who served King Nebuchadnezzar as state officials, but who refused to bow down before an idol, and were thrown into the furnace for their impiety towards Babylon’s gods. They miraculously survived (the story is told in the Book of Daniel). The Benedict Option is about forming Christians who have the faith and courage of those three Hebrew men, when put to the test.
I’m so committed to keeping conservative believers in our schools, neighborhoods, governments and institutions that I propose making Dreher’s Benedict Option unnecessary.
For starters, I’m willing to grant traditionalists liberty to live in accordance with their beliefs about sexuality. We have laws to protect and promote social equality. There is no need to punish decent people who disagree with sexual equality and libertarianism in good faith.
I also don’t think their colleges necessarily deserve to have their accreditation revoked. Traditionalists should not fear job loss and social ostracism for holding the same beliefs that most Americans held until 15 minutes ago.
In short, I’m willing to grant them their religious views — which are really not novel or radical — in the name of old-fashioned liberal tolerance.
Fantastic! Would that Jacob Lupfer were running public policy, corporate H.R. departments, and in charge of jurisprudence. That’s not happening. I would invite Lupfer to talk to conservative Christian college presidents, deans, and faculty. I would invite him to talk to law professors who study this stuff. I would invite him to talk to ordinary conservative Christians working in mainstream academia or corporate America, and see if they trust that Lupferism is going to carry the day. Fortunately, it appears that we won’t have to worry about Jeff Sessions’s Justice Department going after religious institutions that don’t conform to the new secular religion — but that should scarcely comfort conservative Christians. See if this Republican-led Congress passes religious liberty legislation to shield these dissenting institutions and believers. See if Ivanka’s father signs it.
Seriously, it is good to know that Jacob Lupfer, who is not a man of the Right, is so broad-minded and tolerant. And he is not faking it, either; he has written before about the need for fairness to traditional Christians. But I gotta ask: where are the other Jacob Lupfers? Where are the liberals and centrists who don’t share the beliefs of conservative religionists who are willing to stand up for our right to be “wrong”. We could use those allies, especially on elite college campuses, where gutless administrators allow berserker progressives to run roughshod over dissenters.
Dreher thinks liberals who accommodate conservative believers for a season will ultimately be forced to turn the Christians over to government officials to be arrested or worse.
Wait … what?! All I can figure is that this is a reference to my sarcastic line about Rachel Held Evans, in which I said that if the secret police come for the conservative Christians, she would say, “They’re in the basement, officer.” It was a joke making fun of the telling fact that at least some liberal Christians hate conservative Christians and being accepted by the secular mainstream more than they care about religious liberty. There is nothing in The Benedict Option to indicate that I believe a laïcité Gestapo is going to come after conservative Christians and those who shelter them. Lupfer is a sophisticated man. Why on earth would he read what was plainly a sarcastic joke as a serious proclamation of an imminent Robespierran Terror? If he meant to honestly evaluate the book and the proposal, I mean.
I think he gives the game up here:
Perhaps Dreher could become a lay oblate of a Benedictine monastery, periodically retreating to live among the monks and commune with God.
But he doesn’t need to take the rest of upper-middle-class white Christianity with him.
Ah, so this is about race and class spitefulness — as if The Benedict Option were a project of well-to-do white Christians. This is a lazy liberal smear that I’m unfortunately becoming used to. If you read The Benedict Option — as I invite reviewer Jacop Lupfer to do — you will meet people who are not the caricature of Lupfer’s last line. That’s not the Tipi Loschi, the Catholic communal group in Italy, whose membership includes poor and working-class young people who had been in trouble with the law, but who were helped and brought into the community. That’s not the community around St. Jerome, the classical academy in Hyattsville, Maryland, which I feature in the book and which I visited last week (I invite Lupfer to ride the train from DC to Hyattsville and see for himself if these folks are the upper middle class). The folks in that community moved to Hyattsville when it was a decaying inner-ring suburb, bought houses, and contributed to its comeback. From the book:
Living so close to “the imperial city,” as [community leader Chris] Currie calls Washington, means that most of his community members work in the nation’s capital. Their close-knit Catholic neighborhood gives them the nurturing they need to be strong witnesses to the faith in the secular city. “We’re not battening down the hatches, hunkering down, and keeping quiet about our faith,” says Currie. “We don’t do it in a belligerent way, but we are not ashamed of who we are.”
He believes the St. Jerome’s Parish community has been called to be a presence in the greater Washington area. The only way they can resist the pressures of worldliness and secularization is by living near each other and reinforcing their religious identity through life lived in common. Their thick community is a strong model of being in the world but not of it. Striking the balance between being an evangelical presence to the wider community while protecting what makes them distinctly and authentically Christian is difficult—but Currie believes that this is the Gospel’s calling.
“Ultimately I think Christians have to understand that yes, we have to be countercultural, but no, we don’t have to run away from the rest of society,” he says. “We have to be a sign of contradiction to the surrounding society, but at the same time we have to be engaged with that society, while still nurturing our own community so we can fully form our children.”
So much for the “insular” slur. More:
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.”
When I visited the school, the kids I saw in the hallway were anything but lily-white. Perhaps its easier for bourgeois critics of The Benedict Option to opine based on their assumptions and prejudices, but it doesn’t have a lot to do with the book or the vision it presents.
Why, exactly, are “upper middle class white people” now a group that it’s acceptable to demonize because of their race and their class? Do their children not have souls and consciences too, souls that need saving and consciences that need forming in a healthy, Christian way? Lupfer’s dissertation is on the role of religious elites in American politics. Surely he understands the importance of elites — even elites — being formed according to authentic Christian teaching, not some fancypants version of the prosperity gospel. If my book were to become a megaseller, and I were to become rich, my children would not need the Benedict Option less; arguably, they would need it more, though for different reasons than the children of the poor and working classes need it.
Besides, the upper middle class can insulate itself largely from the effects of social breakdown. Not so much the poor and working classes, who desperately need the church in their lives. Last night I was at an event here in my town, talking with readers of the book. One man, a Christian college professor, said that in his view, the Benedict Option is especially important for the poor. He talked about how his wife’s previous job was teaching inner-city elementary schoolchildren. The brokenness and need she encountered there was overwhelming. He said that one of his wife’s students worked up the courage one day to ask her what she was wearing on her left hand. “That’s my wedding ring and my engagement ring,” she said.
The little girl had no idea what those things were. None of the kids in the class did. The professor said that Christian communities who take the Benedict Option can and should reach out to the poor, and model for them a life of good Christian order, a life ordered by the love of and obedience to Christ. This is what I observed the Tipi Loschi doing. When I visited, I saw a boy of about 13 working with some of the men on gardening. He was a happy kid who was clearly loved by those dads. I was told that he comes from a badly broken home life, and is poor and fatherless; the men of the community have taken him on as if he were their own, and are making him part of their little Catholic band there in their town. They are showing him what life in Christian community can be like.
Last night, I spoke to another Christian academic, a Catholic grad student who said that he and a number of young orthodox Catholics he knows are prepared to surrender the idea of worldly success for the sake of living in communities where their faith is held in common, and is real. He was one of something like eight siblings raised in New England by a faithful Catholic father who never made more than between $20,000 and $30,000 a year. The student said that they got by, somehow, by being creative and ascetic. You can live decently well if you don’t considered yourself entitled to so many of the things that are part of an American middle class life — that is, if you value other things so much that you are willing to give them up. He has lived that kind of life, and seen its benefits, and wants the same for himself, his young wife, and their family. This is a young man who grew up working class, but faithfully Catholic, and does not aspire to the “American Dream,” but rather to a life of rich Catholic faith and community, even if it means he’s going to have a lot fewer material goods.
“Upper middle class white” my foot. When we lived in Philly, the families in our Christian homeschool co-op included upper middle class whites, yes, but it also included white families and black families that were significantly further down the class scale. So what? We were a community bound by shared Christian faith and commitment to a countercultural form of educating our kids. Again, it’s so much easier for critics to rest in their academic and cultural prejudices than to read the book and see what is right in front of their faces.
But at least Jacob Lupfer did not accuse the Catholic Archbishop of Philadelphia, a Native American, of supporting the Benedict Option conversation because he wants to defend white male privilege. So that’s progress.
I invite you to read the book for yourself and decide what it’s saying, and what it’s not.
UPDATE: A reader writes to tell of a conservative Christian family member who works in a creative field, and who says that if his co-workers knew what he really believed, he would lose his job, and with it, the ability to feed his family. There are details that I obviously can’t share, but I think of this man, and the fear he lives with because of his religious faith, and it makes me angry that so many people — including other Christians — downplay or dismiss the reality of what’s going on.
UPDATE.2: A reader writes:
The reason so many progressive Christians (like Rachel Held Evans) are offended by the Benedict Option is because they object to the marginalization/ moral collapse narrative. What they can’t see, apparently, is how their own doctrine is a symptom of the very moral collapse you’re describing. So of course they can’t see it. It’s like David Foster Wallace’s “This is Water”: they’re swimming in it, and don’t even know it’s there.
UPDATE.3: Janwaar Bibi, who is an atheist, writes on the NC transgender thread:
One of the professional meetings in my research area was supposed to be held in NC but the organizers decided to move the meeting somewhere else to protest NC’s bathroom law. Where has this meeting been moved to? To China, which is famous for its devotion to human rights.
For progressives, boycotting NC is enlightened, boycotting China is racist. The terrifying thing is that my research area is not even in the humanities and social sciences, which have been destroyed by SJWs – it is a hardcore STEM field. Winter is coming.
Nope, nothing to worry about. Only those paranoid Christians bleating again.
UPDATE.4: I forgot to include this link to sociologist George Yancey’s study of progressive Christians, which revealed that they deeply despise conservative Christians. This is why I snarked about Rachel Held Evans (and last year, David Gushee) regarding the secret police.