Rod Dreher

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Munich & Venice Bleg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Today In All Things Benedict Option

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read the whole thing.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Russian Trads And Western Sympathizers

A couple of weeks ago, Sohrab Ahmari identified me as a Putinist. This came as a shock to me, as I have written critically of the Russian president, of whom I am not an admirer in most, but not all, respects. But that’s just it. Here’s Ahmari:

For the author and American Conservative journalist Rod Dreher, the redemptive promise of Putin is a constant theme. In December, Mr. Dreher wrote of meeting two young Catholics in Italy who viewed Mr. Putin favorably, as a “strong leader who embraces his country’s Christian religious heritage, and seeks to defend it and its teachings, especially against cultural liberals whose views on sex and gender are destroying the traditional family.” Mr. Dreher added: “And you know what? I agreed with them, broadly.” He carved out some of his reservations about the Putinist project but then concluded: “One doesn’t have to believe that Putin is an angel in order to respect some of what he does, and even to be grateful for it.”

No thanks. Even if you, like me, concur in the underlying diagnosis—that the West has become unmoored from its Judeo-Christian foundations, that liberalism has gone too far in eroding traditional authority and moral precepts—the Putin Option is no cure. And it entails hazards that could prove ruinous to the cause of reversing the West’s spiritual fortunes.

A “constant theme”? Really? Ahmari must not read this blog. I stand by what I said in that piece from 2015 that Ahmari quotes. I do respect some of what Putin does, and am grateful for it. That is not the same thing as supporting or otherwise endorsing Putin, whose relationship with the Russian Orthodox Church is only one of the many things about his government that trouble me. But I said what I said back then in part because so many of my fellow Americans are so reflexively anti-Putin, and anti-Russian, that they can’t see why so many Russians like him, and that he is right about some things — some important things, and we religious and social conservatives in the West ought to pay attention. Ahmari’s viewpoint appears to come down to “if you don’t hate Putin without reservation, then you are a Putin apologist.” This is absurd.

What Ahmari doesn’t seem to grasp is that Russia, and Russian Orthodoxy, are more than just the person and government of Vladimir Putin — and that they have something important to offer to Christians in the West struggling to find our footing in the post-Christian order. Writing in The Atlantic, Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins and Brittany Pheiffer Noble explore the growing ties between Russian and Western religious conservatives and traditionalists. Excerpts:

But even as Bannon and various religious leaders seek to pit the values of Christianity against those of Islam, there is also an internal competition to decide who gets to define Christian traditionalism. Two of the main players in this competition, American Christian traditionalists—including conservative Catholics like Bannon as well as evangelicals like Franklin Graham—and Russian Orthodox, are united in their desire to save Christendom from the perceived threat of radical Islam. But buried underneath that superficial agreement is a complex disagreement as to what Christendom even means.

Well, for the record, I do see resurgent Islam within Europe to be a civilizational threat there, but I think those who see Islam as the greatest threat to Christianity today are missing the fact that Western-style individualism, consumerism, and hedonism are far more toxic to Christianity. But let’s continue with this long passage from the Atlantic piece, indicating that this story is a lot more complicated than Ahmari seems to understand:

Yet Bannon suggested that Putin is not really interested in conservatism but in changing Western perceptions of Russia, and for one main purpose: “At the end of the day, I think that Putin and his cronies are really a kleptocracy, that are really an imperialist power that want to expand.” Putin, according to Bannon, must be viewed with a great deal of suspicion. Bannon seems to think that conservative groups in the United States, like those associated with the anti-gay World Congress of Families, are being hoodwinked by Putin on these very grounds.

In addition to his suspicions about Putin himself, Bannon also highlights differences between Judeo-Christian traditionalism and the thinking of Alexander Dugin, who he (hyperbolically) credits as being the intellectual mastermind of the traditionalist movement in Russia. In contrast to mainline American social conservatives, Dugin sees the anti-globalism and anti-Americanism of certain expressions of Islam as having much in common with his own distinctive brand of traditionalism. In fact, Dugin views conservative American evangelicalism as an aberration from historical Christianity, and a cipher for neoliberal capitalism.

In contrast to Bannon’s realpolitik, Sergei Lavrov, the Russian minister of foreign affairs, has called for a greater long-term cooperation with the West—for a “partnership of civilizations” to combat modern geopolitical problems, especially ISIS. In his words, “We believe that universal human solidarity must have a moral basis resting on traditional values which are essentially common for all of the world’s leading religions. I would like to draw your attention to the joint statement made by Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia and Pope Francis, in which they reiterated their support for the family as a natural center of life for individuals and society.” The same values that motivate Russia’s foreign policy (especially its role in the Middle East) are, to Lavrov, the bedrock of the Christian civilization represented by the Patriarch and the pope.

More:

Meanwhile, the major moral actor in Russia—the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC)—has worked hard to influence “pro-family” legislation in the state. Family values are more than just principles in Russia; they’re also a cornerstone of efforts to repopulate a nation after the collapse of the Soviet Union led to plummeting birthrates and soaring emigration. The government enacted a variety of social plans to counter its demographic freefall, and in 2016 Russia boasted a 1.8 percent fertility rate, higher than all but a few countries in the EU. While the government’s project to grow its population has been framed in vaguely patriotic terms, for conservative groups and the Orthodox Church, low fertility rates are linked with a larger collapse of the nuclear family and, in turn, of society—a symptom of a problem of Western decadence. Russia as a nation has adopted the Orthodox Church’s challenge to Western progressivism, and the message is resonating with American conservatives like Franklin Graham.

Here is where the ROC and ultra-conservative Russians have found allies in the West, and in particular among evangelicals: In a global fight for traditional families, it falls to them to promote heterosexual marriage, childbearing, and adoption as part of an overarching defense of “civilization.” Masha Gessen recently wrote about how the World Council of Families has found an eager audience in the post-Soviet world (namely Russia and the Republic of Georgia), where wealthy conservatives have joined forces to promote the traditional family and to slow or repeal pro-LGBT legislation. The scholar Kristina Stoeckl has charted how the ROC has become involved in issues of religious freedom in the EU. These Russian-led efforts, Stoeckl noted, are not unlike other international groups promoting a clear set of values and trying to enact corresponding legislation; the difference here is that we’re seeing an emergence of Christian traditionalist, rather than progressive, global coalitions.

Yes, exactly. Why shouldn’t Christian traditionalists unite to work on issues of common concern? Since the publication of The Benedict Option a couple of weeks ago, I’ve had e-mails from sympathetic Catholics in various European countries. The conditions they face in their own societies are not precisely the ones American believers face, but they share the general outlook of the book, and are eager to work together when we can — even if, for now, that’s just praying for each other. If we can help each other beyond simply praying for each other, then let’s do it. Traditionalist Christians in the US at times have more in common with fellow traditionalists overseas than we do with our American co-religionists who are satisfied with being the dwindling religious auxiliary of secular, technocratic liberalism, in both its Republican and Democratic versions.

One more excerpt:

Russian conservatives, led by the Orthodox Church, frame their need for moral conservatism and family values as a different type of freedom. Russian moral leaders insist that theirs is a freedom of association, the freedom to adhere to tradition rather than to the “totalitarian freedom” of the capitalist, pluralist West. In the words of Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev, the West offers “freedom from moral principles, from common human values, from responsibility for one’s actions. We see how this freedom is destructive and aggressive. Instead of respect for the feelings of other people, it preaches an all-is-permitted attitude.”

Alfeyev has framed this battle as one to be fought by an alliance of conservative Christians, ones who can no longer count on their liberal co-religionists to stand on the right side of history. Theirs is a battle for the very heart of Western civilization. And when it comes to social values, the ROC now has the state on its side.

Can America say the same? Bannon represents his own brand of conservative Catholicism in the White House, but can American evangelicals count on Donald Trump to represent their concerns or do they need to look beyond the state for institutions of moral traditionalism? And if American evangelicals and conservative Russian Orthodox believers join forces, will they be able to overcome the reality that each of their creeds sees the other as heretical?

I agree with Metropolitan Hilarion, just as I agree with the Polish Catholic philosopher Ryszard Legutko, whose book The Demon In Democracy is a must-read (you can get a sense of his argument by reading the posts I did about him and his book.) That does not mean I endorse the presidency of Vladimir Putin, nor does it mean that I have to, any more than I have to endorse Trump’s presidency to say that he’s right about some things.

As to whether or not rival Christianities can work together to preserve our common heritage, let me offer a piece I wrote in the Wall Street Journal back in 2001, when some Orthodox monks were denouncing Pope John Paul II’s visit to Athens. Excerpt:

It must be said that not all Orthodox feel as the Greeks do. The ecumenical patriarch in Istanbul welcomed the papal visit; and the Syrian Orthodox, who share a relatively close relationship with Syrian Catholics, were much more hospitable. Still, as a Roman Catholic admirer of Orthodoxy, I was saddened by the Greek hostility. To my great relief, a (non-Greek) Orthodox priest friend shared my indignation. “John Paul II is the single person most responsible for the defeat of atheistic communism, and history will be very kind to him,” he said. “Calling for him to be cursed is just embarrassing.” My friend went on to explain, though, that Americans cannot grasp the way the Crusader sack of Constantinople in 1204 shaped the Greek Orthodox soul. True, the Crusaders behaved like barbarians; and no Roman Catholic today would defend them. But eight centuries is a long time to hold a grudge. And it’s not like the Orthodox have clean hands. The sack was preceded in 1182 by a massacre of Western Christians in that city. A cardinal was beheaded, and 4,000 Western Christians were sold into slavery.

Does the pope ask the latter-day Orthodox to apologize? Of course not. Nor does he ask the Russian Orthodox hierarchy to apologize for collaborating with the Soviets to steal Ukrainian Catholic churches six decades ago. Unlike his Orthodox counterparts, this pontiff lives in the real world. He understands that if Christianity is to survive, much less thrive, in the third millennium, believers cannot afford quarrels over past grievances. There are deep theological divisions between East and West, and any ecumenism that pretends otherwise is false. But isn’t working more closely to combat the functional nihilism that accompanies the spread of consumerist values a more pressing concern than fussing over the fate of the Filioque clause? The pope knows that the key question in the era of post modernism and globalization is not what brand of Christianity the world will follow; it is whether the world will follow Christianity at all.

I wrote that as a believing Catholic. Today I am a believing Orthodox Christian. But I stand by it, in the main, though happily, it would not have to be written today. The current leadership of the Russian church is more aware of the historical situation, and more willing to work with friendly and sympathetic elements in the Western churches.

We are in an unprecedented historical and geopolitical situation regarding Christianity. It is time for new ways of thinking. Old enemies may become new allies. We should not fear the conversation. As someone who was a strongly believing Roman Catholic, and who now is a strongly believing Orthodox (in the Russian tradition), I have seen first hand, from the inside, the strengths and the weaknesses of both churches, and what each has to offer the other, and to learn from the other. Pope St. John Paul II famously called on the church to “breathe with her two lungs” — East and West. This need not mean that Orthodox, Catholics, and Protestants give up our doctrinal and ecclesiological claims, or water them down one bit. It does mean that we should work together to rediscover spiritual friendship, and to collaborate on practical concerns, such as strengthening the traditional family, which has been under sustained assault in both the East and the West for a very long time.

I’m reading a really interesting book right now, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, by the historian Yuval Noah Hariri. I find myself cheering it and arguing with it on every page (and I’ll be blogging about it when I’m done). I think this formulation from the book is brilliant:

[I]n fact, modernity is a surprisingly simple deal. The entire contract can be summarised in a single phrase: humans agree to give up meaning in exchange for power.

 If we traditional Christians cannot come together to stand against this, we’re doomed.

Let us approach each other with eyes wide open, but please, let us approach each other.

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Steve Bannon & Chris Arnade

Steve Bannon (Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

From Robert Draper’s NYT Magazine story on Trump’s legislative agenda:

Up to this point, Ryan had epitomized to Bannon everything that was wrong with the Republican Party. Discussing the two parties’ shortcomings, Bannon later told me, “What’s that Dostoyevsky line: Happy families are all the same, but unhappy families are unhappy in their own unique ways?” (He meant Tolstoy.) “I think the Democrats are fundamentally afflicted with the inability to discuss and have an adult conversation about economics and jobs, because they’re too consumed by identity politics. And then the Republicans, it’s all this theoretical Cato Institute, Austrian economics, limited government — which just doesn’t have any depth to it. They’re not living in the real world.”

Bannon’s not wrong, you know. More:

As [Bannon] would later tell me: “The working class, and in particular the lower middle class, understands something that’s so obvious — which is that they’ve basically underwritten the rise of China. Their jobs, their raises, their retirement accounts have all fueled the private equity and venture capital that built China. Because China’s really built on investments and exports, right? People are smart enough to know that they’re getting played by both political parties. The two may be different on social issues, but when it comes to fundamental economics, they’re both the same. That’s why the American working class is interested in trade. It’s linked to their lives.”

Along those lines, check out these tweets from today by Chris Arnade, whose Twitter account you really should be following:

 

And then, a tweetstorm:

Read more and follow @chrisarnade here.

A Republican version of this would not be hard to come up with. I bet Steve Bannon  could come up with a Hurricane Katrina of a tweetstorm laying into the GOP like Chris Arnade lays into his own party here.

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A Muslim Reads The Benedict Option

Today I received this lovely letter from reader Kamran Hashim, a Muslim, who gives me permission to share it with you:

I went to Manhattan College in the Bronx, NY.  It is a Catholic college run by the Christian Brothers of the Order of De LaSalle.  All students are required to take three classes on religion during their four years of undergrad studies in order to graduate.  It just so happened that my first religion class was also the first class on my first day as a freshman.  It was taught by Brother Robert Berger (who is still a good friend two decades later).  And he began all his classes (as I came to learn over the years) with a simple prayer – “Let us remember that we are in the presence of God”.  When I look back on my awesome college experience, i am struck by how the most important truth I learned during that time was communicated to me in that prayer in the opening moments of my fist class at the school.

The BenOp, for me, is a way for Christians to actualize this truth…this awareness of God’s active presence in our lives, and to make it inform everything they do…how they worship, how they love, how they work, their mercy, kindness, honesty, how they control anger and other temptations, how they are resilient, etc. It is not about retreating to mountaintops but it is about building communities that can enable individuals to mutually encourage and reinforce this God awareness in their lives.

The BenOp puts God at the center of a christian’s universe again.  God stops being a means to an end like political victories or commercial success, and instead resumes being the End that Christians should strive for.  The BenOp also forces hard choices around how to live in this world.  It is not about disengaging from it but it definitely lays down markers for what’s acceptable and what’s not.  It moves away from thinking of Christian faith as some kind of a la carte menu (something for everyone here), and instead challenges and asks Christians to commit fully to their faith and its demands no matter how they diverge from social and commercial norms.

I also like how the BenOp essentially gives primacy to the spirit and soul over the intellect.  In our culture today, we obscenely fetishize innovation…the ability to use the intellect to solve problems and satisfy needs. We valorize those we think are innovative, disruptive, builders of stuff that is new and different.  The BenOp is a recognition that an innovation focused intellect is just an endless spinning down an unending rabbit hole..that the spirit is more important, and it can be nourished, strengthened, and made beautiful by rediscovering and dedicating oneself to the timeless and essential truths that God has provided us with through the Faith He has revealed to His creation.

The Quran tells us that God does not change the condition of a people for the better till they first change themselves.  The BenOp is about trying to get Christians to do the latter.

I wish you best of luck and success with the book.

Kamran

How is it that my Muslim brother Kamran understands The Benedict Option better than some Christian reviewers?

How is it that I suspect I have more in common with him on the subject of holiness and faithful living than with a lot of Americans who call themselves Christian but who seem to be well assimilated to the secular, consumerist order?

Whatever the answers, I’m so grateful to him for this letter, and for the possibilities it signals of religious collaboration across lines of faith.

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The Ben Op’s Ordinary Christian Virtues

Now on sale

I apologize for putting another Ben Op post up today, but there were two more pieces I wanted to draw to your attention, and I don’t want to let the opportunity pass. I’m not going to be blogging much on Monday, because I’m going to have THE DOCTOR PLUNGE A NEEDLE INTO MY NECK AND INJECT STEROIDS INTO THE ANGRY, BULGING DISCS OF MY SPINAL COLUMN a medical procedure related to the automobile mishap I had last December, and I am advised that it will require sedation — the kind that doesn’t come in a cocktail glass. So there’s that.

First, take a look at this excellent précis by Brad Littlejohn: “The Benedict Option In 43 Propositions”.  Here’s his bullet-point summary of one chapter, for example:

Church

  • Learn the riches of your theological tradition, rediscover your past (102-5)

  • Liturgical worship (105-13)

    • Refocuses on God speaking to us, rather than us expressing ourselves
    • Involvement of the body as well as spirit
    • A rhythm that disciplines our desires
  • Recover fasting (114-15)

  • Recover church discipline (116-17)

  • Evangelize with goodness and beauty (117-19)

The whole thing is really good, but I must protest that Littlejohn overlooked the chapters advocating white male privilege, disregarding the non-wealthy, and white supremacy. (/snark)

Littlejohn’s full review of the book is here. It’s not entirely favorable, but his criticism is really thoughtful, and I appreciate it.

In the same way, I love Jesuit Father Paddy Gilger’s review in America. He has some serious disagreements with The Benedict Option, but boy, is this piece ever a model of thoughtful critical engagement with the book. It begins:

Whether you come to it from the left or the right, Rod Dreher’s long-awaited The Benedict Option is a book that will not satisfy. Which is exactly why you should read it.

Gilger describes the book’s accounting for our cultural crisis, and its proposal for countering it, and writes:

And it is from this paired diagnosis and prescription that all of the conclusions in this problematic, beautiful, infuriating, necessary book flow.

It ought to come as no surprise that the book fails to satisfy. The Benedict Option is, after all, a rejection the both liberal and conservative political projects; the former because it rejects the values of the left, the latter because it believes the right has already been defeated.

Gilger then lists his main objections to the book. I won’t go into them here, because they are familiar to readers of most previous reviews (I don’t say that dismissively, not at all). I was pleasantly surprised by the good things that such a strong critic of The Benedict Option had to say about it. Look:

This may seem like a long list—and it is. But nothing is gained by settling only for critique. To do so means refusing to learn from the large swaths of what Dreher gets right. Because what Dreher gets right is just as important—perhaps even more important—as where he misses the mark.

The signal gift in Dreher’s work, the one our legitimate dissatisfactions may allow us to too-quickly overlook, is his steady insistence that in order to be Christians today—to bear the name of Christ in truth as well as in title—we must relearn two things: practices and disciplines. That is, Dreher is right in his persistent repetition that, when it comes to the question of how we build Christian persons, how we become Christians in habit as well as in mind, “what we think does not matter as much as what we do—and how faithfully we do it.”

He also praises the Ben Op’s focus on Christian community:

I need a community to sustain me in my effort to practice being a Christian. As do we all. When looked at in this light, the Benedict Option begins to look less like a reactionary withdrawal from pluralist societies than a recommitment to a local politics of subsidiarity.

It is by looking again at our human need for such small communities of practice that Dreher’s admittedly controversial take on individual and communal disciplines comes more clearly into focus. The heart of his argument is that there are times when communal goods must trump individual freedoms. And this is because churches, argues Dreher, fall apart when they become simply another “loosely bound assembly of individuals committed to finding their own ‘truth.’”

And this is fantastic:

The conflict between individual freedom and the common good—between loosing and binding—is what lies at the heart of what is most necessary and most problematic about the Benedict Option. This is because, on the one hand, the trumping of individual freedoms by a common way of life always threatens to turn into autocracy and domination. But, on the other hand, we are all too aware that, in the liquid modernity in which we find ourselves, the trumping of the common good by individual freedom always threatens to destroy community.

This is what accounts for the strange mixture of attraction and repulsion that so many of us—liberal individualists that we are—feel when we read about the Benedict Option. We are attracted to it, and our attraction resonates because of how deeply we want community, how desperately we want to be reassured that the world makes sense and that our lives have a place within it. But the repulsion is there as well, and not only because, like the freedom-addicts we are, we are so hooked on individuality. The repulsion is there because there is a great goodness that we have found in the recognition that each of us is—really, in all actuality—a unique facet of the immortal diamond, the one who shines in ten thousand places, lovely in limbs and lovely in eyes not his.

This is why The Benedict Option fails to satisfy. Not because Dreher has failed, but because he has succeeded in showing us our own failure to hold these two constitutive goods in loving tension. He is right to say that we “have been loosed but we do not know how to bind.” We must relearn how. And if you choose to read Dreher’s book, the exact shape of your dissatisfaction with it will, I venture to guess, correspond to the extent that you have experienced God as a loosing or as a binding force in your own life.

Read the whole thing. I want to thank Father Gilger profoundly for his review. It taught me something about my own book. And it taught me something else too. It is far too easy to allow ourselves to be bound by unrealistically rigid left-right categories. I’m often guilty of this. Because so much of the criticism of this book coming from the left has struck me as unfair, I have slipped into a defensive reflex against jabs coming from the left. When I found out that America, the Jesuit journal, was going to review the book, I … well, I don’t know what I expected, but it was nothing good.

In fact, as you will have seen, it was a critical review, but also a laudatory one in many ways, and in every respect a review that delighted me for its insight and its fairness. It brought to mind a question a Catholic academic asked me at the Ciceronian Society dinner last night. He asked if I thought Pope Francis’s calls on Christians to engage the world fit with the Benedict Option. I told him I was divided on that. I absolutely think we have to engage, but we cannot give the world what we don’t have. My problem with Francis in this regard is that he seems to downplay or disregard orthodoxy, catechesis, and formation. Engagement without orthodoxy and formation in Catholic doctrine and discipline is hard to distinguish from mere social work.

Later, though, I reflected on how much I had liked Francis’s encyclical Laudato si, the pope’s teaching on ecological concern, and how much I found in it that resonated with my own convictions, previously as a Roman Catholic, and presently as an Eastern Orthodox. I reflected that even as I share the deep concern of my Catholic friends about the doctrinal confusion caused by this papacy, I should be careful not to let that overlook those areas of agreement I have with Francis — areas in which the followers of Francis might be allies. As Father Gilger wrote in his review:

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

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

Well said. Thank you, Father Gilger. Please read his entire review all the way to the end, to read the poem from Catholic Worker co-founder Peter Maurin, which tells the truth.

 

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The Ben Op: ‘No Non-Rich, Non-Whites Need Apply’? Really?

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.

It begins:

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.

More:

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.

More:

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.

More Lupfer:

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.

Lupfer again:

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.

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World War T & North Carolina

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.

UPDATE: Janwaar Bibi, who is an atheist (by the way), comments:

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.

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The GOP Sellout Of Working People

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?

David Brooks tells us that this is a catastrophic failure of Republican elites. Excerpts:

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.

More:

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!

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Benedict Option: ‘Purpose-Driven Premodernism’

Now on sale

I have to thank Samuel James for this great capsule description of the Benedict Option: “purpose-driven premodernism.” From his blog post about The Benedict Option book:

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.

More Littlejohn:

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.

Littlejohn:

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.

 

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