Have you ever heard of the Bruderhof? It’s an international movement in the Anabaptist tradition. They are Christians who live in intentional communities — 23 of them, on four continents — and share their lives and resources in common. Here’s an FAQ about them. And here is a more in-depth exploration of those things, in what could be titled the Rule of the Bruderhof. The movement was founded in 1920 in Germany, as a Christian response to the horrors of World War I and social injustice. They eventually had to leave Germany because of Nazi persecution.
Late last week, I visited two of their American settlements, Fox Hill and The Mount, both not far from each other, in New York’s Hudson River Valley (see a list of all the US Bruderhof communities here.) The Bruderhof has been fully engaged with The Benedict Option book (start here to see what they think of it). After spending some time with them, it’s very easy to see why. The Bruderhof has been living their version of the Benedict Option for almost a century. These two communities are full of grace and hospitality. Before I say anything else, let me encourage you to check out this link telling you where all of the Bruderhof communities are worldwide. There’s nothing like a visit to meet them yourself. This short video gives you an idea of what to expect:
I stayed at Fox Hill, a community of large, multifamily houses and buildings, including a workshop, a primary school, and a chapel/meeting room, spread across rolling farmland. Shortly after arriving from NYC with others for a Ben Op conference there (all off the record, alas), we all gathered with the entire community for a welcome. They sang several hymns. What startled me, and delighted me, was the joyful force with which they sang. I’ve never heard anything like it in a Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox church. It was genuinely inspiring. As with so much I saw there, it’s not my tradition, and it’s not one I’m particularly drawn to, but it’s impossible not to admire the Bruderhof.
The Bruderhof folks live radically compared to other Christians. They really do hold all things in common, meaning that nobody receives a paycheck. That requires an unusual degree of trust, obviously, but you also get a lot in return. The community cares for you. They don’t let anybody suffer. They don’t warehouse their elderly in nursing homes, for example. To join the Bruderhof, you first have to live in a community for at least a year, in a novitiate — a time of testing to see if you can live by the rhythms and commitments of the community (monastic orders have this too). They want people to be sure that this life is for them. If, after the novitiate, an adult wants to join, he makes vows in front of the entire community. In general, they are vows of poverty, chastity (including fidelity in marriage), and obedience (here are the particular vows). It would not be stretching it to call them lay monastics.
They have families, but children aren’t automatically members of the Bruderhof for life. They can go to college if they like, and many do, and they do not have to embrace Bruderhof life if they don’t feel a calling to it. I talked to one man who said that he had been raised in the Bruderhof, but left it for a while. After some time, feeling far away from his own, he sold all his possessions and bought a train ticket back to a Bruderhof settlement. Now, he’s happily married. “I still have my train ticket,” he told me, saying it was one of the best decisions he ever made.
I don’t think I had any particular expectations about what I would see at Fox Hill and The Mount, but I can tell you this: it’s not like M. Night Shymalan’s The Village. You may laugh at that, but I swear, so many people seem to think that if you live in any kind of Christian community that separates itself to a meaningful degree from the world, you’re bound to turn into a freakfest. The Bruderhof people are so blessedly normal. If anybody finds them freaky, that is a judgment on that person, not on these Anabaptists. If what they have is freaky, then the world needs a lot more freaks.
The most amazing thing to an outsider’s eyes — well, this outsider’s eyes — are the Bruderhof’s kids. None of them walk around with their eyes glued to screens. They don’t have that shifty, unsettled look that so many kids do. They look grounded and happy. They actually play outside, and do chores, and talk to each other. Every single one of these kids I talked to spoke to me politely and with confidence, even though I was a stranger to them. They seem so mature and grounded. That’s the thing that has lingered on my mind since coming home: the witness of the Bruderhof children. Everybody wants to have boys and girls who are like that, but so few of us are willing to make the sacrifices that those parents do to raise them.
Someone in the community there told me that the Fox Hill Bruderhof used to send its teenagers to the local public high school, but they had to pull them out because the moral effects on their kids was destructive. In 2012, the movement bought a massive seminary built in 1907 on the banks of the Hudson by the Redemptorist order of Catholic priests. By the time the Bruderhof entered the picture, the building was in bad shape, and was home to only four elderly Redemptorists. The Anabaptists bought it and renovated it as both a high school for their community (and some kids outside the community), and as living quarters for a large number of families. It’s called The Mount, and I visited it.
Here’s a photo I took of the building:
It’s enormous! It stopped me in my tracks to imagine that there was a time in US Catholic history when a religious order felt confident enough in its future to erect a building longer than a football field, to educate its priests. And now it is home to a colony of Anabaptists, of all people! You just don’t know the way history is going to flow, do you? The Bruderhof folks have been respectful of The Mount’s Catholic heritage, and have left its chapel largely intact. It struck me that it’s a great blessing that this building, which was erected to form missionaries for the Gospel, was not sold to some hotel chain, but is forming new — and very different — missionaries for the Gospel.
I had dinner with a Mount family, and we talked about what the Bruderhof has to offer the rest of the Christian world in the Benedict Option. “If you write about us,” said my host, “please write that we don’t seek imitation, but rather are trying to be an inspiration.” He explained that theirs is just one way to live out the Gospel in a radical way. If they have something to offer others, then they’re happy to share freely. They are seeking to get to know believers from other traditions, to share friendship, and to figure out if it’s possible for us to support each other?
What do I think the Bruderhof have to offer the rest of us?
First, the idea that this kind of life is possible, even today. They do live separate lives, but they aren’t strict separatists. For example, they invite their neighbors outside the community to come over for a common meal on Saturday nights. The members all work in the community, but they do go out into the world. Again, they sent their kids to the public high school, until they concluded that the moral culture had degraded so much that it was too risky to subject their kids to it. They didn’t have an objection in principle to public school, but when it reached the point of interfering with the life they believe God has called them to live, they pulled out, and started figuring out how to do something better. All Christians can admire the sacrifices they were willing to make for their kids.
Second, the example of their children. I had just spent a good part of the week talking to different people out in the world about how damaged kids today are by constant exposure to electronic media, as well as by the deforming aspects of popular culture. These kids are the polar opposite from that! They are wholesome, because they were raised by a community that was determined to raise them in a wholesome environment. You can tell it. Boy, can you ever. I was up for 6:30 am breakfast on Saturday, after which I had to go to LaGuardia for the flight home. It was 15 degrees outside. The oldest boy in the family finished breakfast and went to join other boys in cleaning the community’s cars — on this cold, cold morning. The other kids prepared for their Saturday chores (e.g., the girls were going to be helping their mother clean the house). I heard not a single complaint, or the least bit of whining. They just … did it, and did it not out of fear or anything like that, but because, well, that’s just what you do at the Bruderhof to make our community work.
Again: if this is freaky, the world needs a lot more freaky.
Third, confident outreach to other Christians. They can do this because they know who they are and what they believe — and they’re not mad about it. Nobody tried to talk me into becoming an Anabaptist. The only conversations I had were along the lines of, “Now, tell me what you Orthodox do when you worship?” and “How can we be your friends and your servants?” Just straightforward, plain dealing, in charity and a spirit of service. We need more of that.
Fourth, the value of simplicity. Anabaptists are very, very simple in their piety and worship. They don’t really have a liturgy. As an Orthodox Christian, I am their polar opposite when it comes to liturgy and ecclesiology, but I’ll say this for them: these are not people who are given over to innovation and trendiness in worship. Even though I was there for only a short time, I could discern how the Bruderhof weaves worship into all of life, and thus makes their entire existence a simple but effective liturgy of life.
Fifth, demolishing the concept of compartmentalization. For the Bruderhof, there is no separation between religion and life. You live your faith wholly, not just on Sundays. It’s supposed to be like that for all of us believers, but we so often fail at it. The Bruderhof has created social structures, customs, and institutions that make this easier to do.
It’s not hard to find material online criticizing the Bruderhof, written by ex-members. I wouldn’t claim that they are perfect, ever, and certainly wouldn’t make that claim after a very short visit. But I came away from my visit there inspired, not only by the Bruderhof itself, but by the possibilities of life and ecumenical cooperation in the Benedict Option.
One last image: as I was touring the primary school on Friday morning, I poked my head into the room where toddlers are watched. I saw a little boy sprawled out on the lap of a Bruderhof woman, who cradled him in her arms.
“Oh, that beautiful child,” I said. “He’s sleeping.”
“No,” said my guide. “He has cerebral palsy.”
That child abides in the cradle of a community that loves him and his parents. That child abides in grace and light.
If you’re in New Orleans on April 17, come see J.D. Vance and me onstage at UNO talking about faith and politics. Details:
The discussion, “Faith, Hillbillies, and American Politics: An Evening with J.D. Vance & Rod Dreher,” will begin at 6 p.m. in the Geoghegan Ball Room of the Homer L. Hitt Alumni Center at UNO’s campus, 2000 Lakeshore Dr. in New Orleans, following a reception in the Alumni Center lobby beginning at 5:15. This event is free and open to the public.
I predict that there will be a Ken Bickford sighting too. Look for the seersucker.
Via The Browser, Peter Ross of the Boston Review has an interview with Paul Kingsnorth, the co-ounder of a dystopian movement called the Dark Mountain Project. It’s not a political or religious thing; it’s a group of artists, writers, and thinkers who are focused on ecology, and who believe that civilization as we know it is unraveling, and can’t be stopped. From its website:
It might also be useful to explain what Dark Mountain is not. It is not a campaign. It is not an activist project. It does not seek to use writing or art to ‘save the planet’ or stop climate change. Rather, it is a creative space in which people can come to terms with the unravelling of much of the world we have all taken for granted, and engage in a conversation about what the future is likely to hold, without any need for pretence or denial.
Peter Ross describes the Dark Mountain vision as the belief “that it is too late to save the world, but you can care for one small part of it, enriching both the land and your own life in the process.” Here are excerpts from the interview:
PK: My writing is also increasingly religious, or spiritual, although “spiritual” is such a horrible New Age word. I am a Zen Buddhist, but that’s not exactly a religion, it’s more a practice. As I get older, the spiritual mystery of life seems to be coming to the fore. It’s right there in Beast, which is a religious book, a quest book. It’s all the way through The Wake as well. I have a strong sense that the earth is alive. I’ve always had this. I remember reading Wordsworth when I was fifteen or sixteen and being really struck by the fact that he was talking about experiences that I had had—when you are up on a mountain and the world opens itself up to you. All the time when I was young, I felt there were mysterious things going on in nature. I believed in fairies and magic and all that. Then you grow up and put all that to one side, but it feels like it’s coming back into my writing as I get older. One of the disastrous stories our culture tells itself is that the world is a machine, and that you can cut it into bits and look at how it works. But it’s not a machine, it’s a great web of life with a strange religious mystery bubbling underneath.
Yes, exactly. For traditional Christians, the world is charged with the presence of God, who, in the Orthodox prayer, “is everywhere present and filling all things.” This is what all Christians believed until the modern period, which disenchanted the world. If Christianity is going to survive this, it has to regain the older Christian vision.
This is not some woo-woo, superstitious New Age thing. This was Christianity before the modern era. Here is a link to Episode 1 of Tudor Monastery Farm, a British reality series (in six hourlong episode, as I recall) that explores various aspects of daily life for people who worked on a monastery farm in the year 1500. In this post, I talk in detail about how the series reveals the sacramental vision that held medieval society together, and what it has to do with the Benedict Option. (That post will explain why Kingsnorth’s words above resonate, or should resonate, with traditional Christians.) I strongly recommend watching the series — it’s great to watch with kids. Not boring at all — quite the opposite, actually. Great to watch with the kids.
OK, more Kingsnorth:
PK: … One of the problems with the green movement is that it is constantly issuing deadlines: “We’ve only got five years to save the world!” I read Naomi Klein’s book on climate change a while back, and I found it ludicrous and dishonest. There’s plenty of good research in there about how the corporations are refusing to act and are covering up what needs to be done, but then she says that we have to have radical change in ten years and provides an enormous list of impossible global tasks. She’s a smart woman and she knows damn well none of that is going to happen.
PR: How did it feel when you accepted the end of the world? Relief or despair?
PK: I’d make an important distinction between “the end of the world” and the end of the way we’re living now; it’s the latter that’s ending. What do I feel about that? Kind of both. More relief, actually. There’s a common notion among activists that “taking action” must be inherently hopeful. If you’re going on demonstrations or working to stop climate change then that’s a hopeful or optimistic thing. But after a while, when people realize they are banging their heads against a brick wall, this kind of campaigning leads to despair. What I found when I said, “You know what? This isn’t going to work,” was that a great weight lifted off my shoulders. I’ve stopped pretending that the impossible is possible.
People often call me dystopian. They think, “This guy says the apocalypse is coming and there’s nothing we can do, so we should all have a party.” I like a party as much as the next man, but that’s not the point I’m making. I’m saying we should be honest about what’s happening and not entertain fantasies about how we can turn it around with, for example, global governance. How does that focus your mind? Where does that leave you? What do you do? Dark Mountain starts with those questions.
Yes, this is very similar to the Benedict Option vision. As I write in the book:
We Christians in the West are facing our own thousand-year flood—or if you believe Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, a fifteen-hundred-year flood: in 2012, the then-pontiff said that the spiritual crisis overtaking the West is the most serious since the fall of the Roman Empire near the end of the fifth century. The light of Christianity is flickering out all over the West. There are people alive today who may live to see the effective death of Christianity within our civilization. By God’s mercy, the faith may continue to flourish in the Global South and China, but barring a dramatic reversal of current trends, it will all but disappear entirely from Europe and North America. This may not be the end of the world, but it is the end of a world, and only the willfully blind would deny it. For a long time we have downplayed or ignored the signs. Now the floodwaters are upon us—and we are not prepared.
So, to restate this in a Kingsnorthian way, I’m saying we should be honest about what’s happening and not entertain fantasies about how we can turn it around with, for example, winning political power or by repackaging our evangelical message. How does that focus your mind? Where does that leave you? What do you do? The Benedict Option starts with those questions.
To be clear, Kingsnorth is focused on environmentalism and global system collapse. I am focused on Christianity in the West. But there are parallels. More:
PR: Is there a survivalist aspect to the way you are trying to live? Are you trying to learn to survive the catastrophe you predict coming?
PK: I wouldn’t call it survivalism. That conjures up images of men with guns in shacks. I’m not expecting some nuclear war or apocalyptic zombie catastrophe, but there is certainly a slow grinding collapse going on. So I want my children to know what seeds are and how to plant them. I want them to know how to light fires and how to use knives and simple tools. I want them to know how to cook properly and how to ferment drinks. The more of those things you know, the more connected you are to life, the more control you have, and the more choice you have over how to live. I don’t want them growing up in a consumer economy that wants to teach them absolutely nothing about how living is done. Even if all that stuff doesn’t fall apart in their lifetime, which it might well, it’s a powerless way to live. You end up making yourself a slave. You are completely dependent on this destructive world-spanning machine, and you are not fully human. I want them to be fully human. So it’s an insurance policy but it’s also just a way of living. And it’s enjoyable. You can’t live this way from some puritanical notion. You actually have to enjoy it, which we do.
This is important. I want my children to know traditional Orthodox Christianity, to know what the prayers are, and what they mean. To know how to do things that our Christian ancestors knew how to do. To see the world with the same vision, and not the corrupted vision of desacralized modernity. It’s an insurance policy, but it’s also just a way of living. And yes, you actually have to enjoy it — which we do!
One more bit:
PR: In an essay published the day before the U.S. election, you likened Hillary Clinton to a corrupt late Roman emperor and Donald Trump to a barbarian hammering at the gates. If you had a vote, would you have cast it for the emperor or the barbarian?
PK: I don’t think I’d have voted for either of them. I would certainly not have voted for Clinton as she was just the continuation of a dead system. I kind of like the chaos energy that Trump is bringing, but I’m not sure I could have brought myself to vote for him. I’ve waited my whole life to see what is effectively an independent candidate in the White House, a guy who is going to take on the media establishment and global free trade and the authoritarian left and stand up for the working class, and it’s just a shame that it had to be Donald Trump. Those are the things he says he is going to do, but I’m not sure he is capable, and a lot of what he stands for I dislike intensely, especially his cowboy attitude to nature.
PR: On the day that you and I confirmed this interview, Trump signed executive orders to allow construction of the controversial Dakota Access and Keystone XL oil pipelines. Surely you can’t favor that?
PK: Of course not. But what you see with Trump is American capitalism with its mask off. Obama talked a great game about climate change, but he never did anything. He was so charming that he could drone-bomb people every day for eight years and the media who are now calling Trump a fascist wouldn’t say anything about it. Trump is a barbarian, but barbarians are what you get when empires collapse, and the United States is obviously a collapsing empire.
Read the whole thing. I think a lot of conservative Christians, like environmentalists re: Dark Mountain, believe that to accept the Benedict Option is an act of surrender and despair. I do not, not at all. It is hopeful because it is realistic, and bases its real hope in eternity. It accepts that for whatever reasons, it is highly unlikely that we are going to stop the collapse of Christian belief in the West — so we should do what is necessary to stay faithful and steady through it, and to ride it out so as to preserve the spiritual and cultural seeds for the rebirth. Again: it’s not the end of THE world, but it’s the end of A world, and those who want to survive it and to thrive in the midst of it had better wake up and change their lives. If you read the interview, you’ll learn about how Kingsnorth and his wife live on a patch of green ground in Ireland, and homeschool their kids. They don’t sound like unhappy preppers at all.
You may disagree with all of this, and if so, read The Benedict Option and let’s have that discussion in our churches and families and small groups.
In Pope Francis’s home country of Argentina, pro-women rallies of any sort have become synonymous for attacks on churches and on the Catholic faith.
This week was no different, when, on March 8, as the world marked the United Nations-sponsored International Women’s Day, a woman dressed like the Virgin Mary pretended to have an abortion in front of a cathedral.
The events took place in Tucuman, a northern province in Argentina, where thousands rallied in favor of equal pay for women and against femicide. In Argentina during 2016, a woman was murdered by her male partner every 30 hours, so it’s not as if there weren’t reasons for the protest.
Yet as has happened in many other countries, a rally that was once about equality between women and men has also become for most of those participating a rally in favor of abortion, a practice that is forbidden in Argentina unless the life of the mother is threatened by pregnancy.
Hence, in what is being described as “an artistic representation” by some, a group of women pretended to do an abortion on a woman dressed like a very pregnant Virgin Mary in front of a Catholic cathedral in a clearly provocative gesture.
The gruesome images, which include what looks like blood and baby parts coming out from under the woman’s dress, were shared thousands of times on Facebook.
An organization called “Socorro Rosa Tucuman” organized the fake abortion. On their Facebook page, they wrote: “In Tucuman, the Virgin aborted in the cathedral the patriarchate, the mandatory heterosexuality and the mandates of this reprising society and demanded all misogynist of this medieval province to remove her image from every maternity ward, to stop forbidding abortions in her name, that he, throwing this abortion in the face of monsignor Zecca [the local Catholic archbishop], this rotten fetus, conceived only for the raping system that mandates us to forced maternity.”
That wasn’t the only thing feminists in Argentina did. More:
In the southern city of Bahia Blanca, the Catholic cathedral was painted with pro-abortion and anti-church remarks. In Buenos Aires, a group of women who had participated in the Women’s March, tried to bring down the protective fencing the police had set up in front of the cathedral, former home of Pope Francis.
Bare-chested protesters lit up a fire in front of the building, while chanting “The only church that illuminates is one that is burning,” “take your rosaries out of our ovaries,” and several other similar songs. A few dozen women were arrested by the police.
A young man who stood in front of the group, holding a Vatican flag, defending the church, was violently attacked.
Read the whole thing. The article includes an image of the Virgin’s “abortion”. I won’t repost it here, but if you can stomach it, you should look at it, so you will understand the rage and the hatred that we face.
Recalling a recent Facebook debate about it, Eric Mader writes that secularists who blaspheme in this way are only hurting themselves. Excerpt from Mader’s exchange with a correspondent:
1) If there exists a God anything like God as understood in Western monotheism, then the virgin birth as a literal event is of course eminently possible, as are any other miracles, including the universe suddenly folding up into nothing or being rearranged on entirely new laws. As an orthodox Christian, I view miracles in this lens.
2) There are however many Christians who do not believe in the virgin birth as a literal event, who understand it as a myth, but show respect to the story itself as an ancient part of their tradition, that Christian tradition that grounds some of the most crucial elements in their present-day culture: its legal norms, its concepts of history, its notions of justice, its critique of vulgar wealth and power.
On at least this second basis you might at least recognize that in mocking Christianity you are a little like the man high up in a tree sawing away at the branch he’s sitting on.
In any case you should have enough of a sense of history to understand the following: All great civilizations have risen up on myths and died when these myths fell into disrepute. You as a person wouldn’t be what you are today, and your country, England, wouldn’t be what it is today if it weren’t for Christianity. Many of the things you take for granted–the Western concept of human rights for one–arose from and because of the Judeo-Christian inheritance.
Which is to say: Westerners who think there’s any virtue in mocking their own culture’s religion tradition are like spoiled teenagers who scoff at their parents, the people who fed and raised and taught them. How do such kids look to you? This is where you’re putting yourself with these kinds of statements.
If the Christianity these deranged, satanic women so despise were to disappear, the will-to-power world that will replace it will not suit them. To put it mildly.
Today is the Feast of the Veneration of the Cross in the Orthodox Church. It marks the halfway point in Great Lent. On the feast, the cross is displayed in the center of the church, usually surrounded by flowers, basil, or some kind of greenery that reminds us that the Cross is the Tree of Life. Today, our priest Father Joshua began his homily by noting that one of the choir members said last night, when the rosy cross was presented at vespers, that there were “too many roses.”
“You can’t see the cross,” the choir member said. It was true. They took a few of the roses off so the cross would be clear.
Father Joshua said that the roses have to be there to represent the joy and the life that comes from the Cross. But you also have to be able to see the Cross clearly amid the life and the joy. “You cannot have real joy without the Cross,” he said.
His point is about the balance that Christians have to have in their lives. Too much starkness and suffering, and you distort the message of the Cross. It’s all crucifixion and no resurrection. Christians are supposed to fast, but we are also supposed to feast. The suffering of the Cross was not the final word.
But if everything is always coming up roses — in the prosperity gospel heresy, for example, or Moralistic Therapeutic Deism — you obscure the suffering and sacrifice at the heart of our faith, and create an idol. That is, you end up worshiping the roses, not submitting to the Cross, because everybody wants to get to heaven, but nobody wants to die. Cheap grace tells Christians that they can have joy without the cross — and that is why Bonhoeffer called cheap grace “the deadly enemy of our church.”
Victor Morton alert! The Scottish Catholic Observer publishes an interview with Your Working Boy about The Benedict Option and its application to church life in Scotland. Editor Ian Dunn says that “it is already one of the most discussed books in America — and it only came out last week.” Excerpts:
“People assume I’m saying run for the mountains and build a bunker and await the end—it’s not that at all,” he tells me from his home in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
“I’m calling for Christians to create spaces of real Christian contemplation, so we have the strength to go out into the world and be who Christ asked us to be.
“If we are not aware of ourselves as different from the world, and don’t do things to strengthen our Christian identity, we will be absorbed into it. I think that has happened to the Church in my country.”
Mr Dreher visited the Benedictine Monks in Norcia, Italy, several times in researching the book, and their monastery, founded originally by St Benedict, had a profound effect on him.
“I remember the first time I sat down to interview Fr Casian, the prior at the monastery,” he said. “I felt this overwhelming sense of serenity coming from him. This is a man who thinks deeply, who prays deeply and conveys a strong sense of authority. It was like talking to my father and that’s what a priest and a monk should be, a spiritual father.
“And I felt that multiplied with other monks I spoke to there who were under his authority. That’s when I felt there was something special about this particular monastery.”
After he visited, tragedy was to strike the monks and their historic home, when a series of earthquakes hit central Italy, the final one destroying the ancient Basilica of St Benedict.
“The most serious one happened on a Sunday morning and I stood in my own Church here in Louisiana praying for those monks and trying not to cry because I love them as my brothers in Christ and I really believe God has established that monastery to be a light to the world,” he said.
“And when I heard from them I really believed God would use them in an even more powerful way than I anticipated, and the monks understand that too.
“It’s quoted in the book, one of them saying: ‘We look at the ruins of the basilica as a symbol of the Church today in the West that we have to rebuild.’
Mr Dreher points out that it is ‘extraordinary’ the monks are alive for the rebuilding because they moved just outside the city to a safe space when the first quakes hit. “They did not abandon the city; they were still there to serve the people of the town, and because they’d been living by the rule of St Benedict for so long they carried within them the monastery, so it was not so difficult to re-establish it,” he said. “I find the whole thing to be a remarkable example for all of us Christians in the West.
“It’s such a tragedy, but as we known from our Faith, new life comes out of death and I think extraordinary new life will rise out of Norcia and they will be a brighter light to the world than they would have been otherwise.”
“The monks already had to maintain through the worst periods in the history of the Church and they did it through regular prayer and ordered living.”
That, to Mr Dreher, is the template.
“It’s not much of a slogan to attract people, but we Christians in the West are going to have to learn to suffer well and suffer with joy. And if we unite our suffering with God it’s going to have meaning and lead to the redemption of the world.”
Many may disagree with much of it. His prescription that renewal of the Faith requires withdrawal from the world can be contested. But his central diagnosis, that we are living in a post-Christian world and we need to find ways to resist that world or be absorbed by it, is one we know to be true. … The age of Christendom has passed in the West. What comes next, and how we reckon with it, is the challenge of our days.
“The challenge of our days.” Yes — and this Orthodox Christian is grateful for the opportunity to stand with Catholic brothers like Ian Dunn to face our common future with hope and confidence, despite it all.
I am really surprised and pleased by the interest in the book from Christians in Europe. It will be published in Czech next spring. I’m writing a big piece for the Spectator (UK) about the Ben Op, so maybe the book will find a British publisher. A Catholic journalist for Le Figaro in France is reading the book, and has requested an interview. In Italy, Il Foglio has given the book generous coverage. I find this encouraging because all of us Christians living in the West in these times are going to need each other in the days to come — and if that’s going to happen, we first have to get to know each other.
(N.B., Victor Morton, the Washington journalist and Right-Wing Film Geek, is a Scots-born Catholic.)
You might have heard of the big fundraising dinner the Benedictine Monks of Norcia are going to have in Dallas on May 27. Father Cassian, Father Benedict, and Father Martin are all coming in from Norcia to meet American supporters and appeal to them for help in restoring the monastery and the basilica there, which were destroyed by the earthquake last October. I’m going to give the keynote address. It is a great honor for me, and the very least I can do to repay the kindness of the Norcia monks. Plus, I have written The Benedict Option to tell the world what a priceless treasure the entire church has in that little monastic community high in the Sibylline Mountains of Italy. To meet them face to face in Dallas, and to give to the restoration of their monastery and basilica, is a rare privilege. I mean that. That’s why I’m donating my time and words to the building-up of the Norcia monastery, which I, though not a Catholic, deeply believe is a light for the entire Christian world, not just the Catholic one.
And look at this! Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia is giving his support to the event. From a letter the Norcia monks have now released:
In the six months since the first devastating earthquake hit central Italy, the monks of Norcia have lived in the forests of that region, first in tents, then in wooden houses, following their predecessors in their attempt to bring order back into the chaos of a ruined society.
The destruction of the thousand-year-old basilica built over St. Benedict’s birthplace is an icon of the end of an epoch. These monks now find themselves at a crossroads of European history.
It’s a moral and cultural crossroads we too have arrived at as Americans.
Against the odds, they must now rebuild from the ruins not just a buiIding, but a vision of the world where God is once again at the center, where the cross of Jesus Christ is the only answer to society’s crises. The needs of the monks are too many to list. But the duty (and the privilege) to engage in the work of rebuilding belongs to us all.
I consider it a great blessing for the monks of Norcia that Rod Dreher will offer the keynote address at their Dallas fundraiser this May. Rod’s new book, The Benedict Option, makes a vital contribution to our understanding of a confused age. Rod’s work in reclaiming the example of St. Benedict for our times — a form of witness that’s at once ancient and new — is a gift to all who take their faith seriously. The Benedict Option is not the only Christian approach to the issues of our day, but in its exceptional insight and sincere reach across Christian divisions, it can’t be ignored.
I urge you to consider meeting the monks at this venue and taking to heart Rod Dreher’s words. Though I can’t join you in Dallas because of pastoral demands here at home, this fundraiser is crucial to the monks of Norcia in their important efforts. Please be there to support them, and please be as generous as you can.
With best wishes in Jesus Christ,
Most Reverend Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap.
Archbishop of Philadelphia
That means a lot to me. I’m proud to stand with Archbishop Chaput alongside the dear monks of Norcia. And let me urge you to buy the archbishop’s new book, Strangers In A Strange Land: Living The Catholic Faith In A Post-Christian World, which is essential reading for all Christians trying to understand the times, and how to be faithful in them.
Come out in Dallas for a night of hope and prayer, and participate in the rebuilding of the Benedictine monastery and basilica in Norcia. It will be one of the most important and life-affirming things you will do this year. Christian people, this is the time help our brothers in Norcia. Archbishop Chaput is doing his part. I’m trying to do mine. What about you? I really want to see you in Dallas in May. It’s important.
Greetings from the Atlanta airport. I’m on the way back home after a whirlwind week in New York, Washington, and the Hudson River Valley. I spent the last couple of days communing with the Bruderhof communities there. Wonderful people, and a great time. I’ll be blogging separately on them and our visit, but let me say up front that we more mainstream Christians have a lot to learn from these Anabaptists.
I appreciate the concern a couple of you readers expressed for my health given my silence since Thursday. I’m fine! If you’re going to spend time in the countryside with Anabaptists, you can’t expect wi-fi access. This is a feature, not a bug. More on this later.
I have a lot of thoughts in my head from this busy, busy week. I saw old friends and made new ones. I was bowled over by the eagerness of folks to hear the Benedict Option message. Four hundred came out in DC, filling the room at the National Press Club, and five hundred showed up at the Union League Club in NYC, making it a standing room only event. C-SPAN’s BookTV was at the Union League, so you’ll be able to see that sometime soon.
Here’s a selfie with Jeff Polet of Hope College and Front Porch Republic, Ross Douthat, and me, just before the Union League event:
We had a really good public discussion after my speech, and then retired to the library there for a reception. Tristyn Bloom invented a cocktail for the event; she called it, naturally, the Benedict Option (“another — doubtless very different — cocktail”). It involves whiskey, Amaro, St. Germain, and lemon juice. The lead image of this post features me and my terrific editor, Bria Sandford, toasting the publication of The Benedict Option with glasses full of Tristyn’s delicious concoction: a little sweet, a little bitter, a little tangy, a lot just right.
At the afterparty, I was pulled every which way, talking to folks. I could have stayed there all night. A friend of mine who stuck around after I was taken to the official dinner told me that he was privy to a conversation involving a liberal Christian from a Mainline Protestant church, in which the liberal expressed real antagonism to my speech. The liberal reportedly said that the Ben Op sounds to him like a form of white supremacism because it equates Christianity with Western civilization.
Now, in the public discussion following my speech, I explicitly answered this charge by saying that in no way to I equate the global religion of Christianity with Western civilization. But I do say that Western civilization is inescapably Christian, because the Christian religion — with its roots in the Hebrew Bible, Greek philosophy, and Roman law — created the civilization that emerged in the West after Rome’s collapse. Pope Benedict XVI offered some detailed thoughts about this here. Though I am a communicant of the Orthodox Church, I am a man of the West, and I make no apology for wishing to see what remains of Western civilization — which, after the Roman era, was a Christian civilization — preserved and revived. In fact, it is my fervent hope that ties between Christian peoples of all continents — especially the ancient churches of Rome and Byzantium — will be strengthened. People who expect me to hate my patrimony are not going to get what they want — and they’re not going to get it hard, if you follow me.
This particular liberal Protestant, who belongs to one of the dying Mainline churches, fulminated about white, Southern, privileged me not having the right to say what I did, at least without first acknowledging my privilege and noting the many sins of the Christian West. Oh, whatever. This is such ridiculous self-hating prog claptrap. Of course the West and the Western church is stained with blood and sin, but it also boast of glories sometimes matched but never surpassed. Only a blind man or a fool can survey Western civilization and see only misery and cruelty, overlooking Greek philosophy, Roman law and architecture, The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Aeneid, Greek sculpture, St. Augustine’s City Of God, the Hagia Sophia, the Book of Kells, the Lindisfarne Gospels, the cathedral of Chartres, Dante, Raphael, Leonardo, Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Bach, Beethoven, Louis Armstrong — do I really need to go on? There is a reason liberal democracy emerged in the West and nowhere else. There is a reason the ideals of human equality, including the equality of women, came out of the West. I wasn’t present for this conversation, but I would bet money that most of the principles that progressive Christian holds dear came out of Western civilization, and were most refined there.
You cannot separate these things from war, oppression, slavery, exploitation, and all manner of cruelty. Here’s the thing: every single civilization is guilty of the same. Saints are individuals. We don’t have saintly societies, cultures, or civilizations, because we don’t have utopias. The best we can hope for is to create a civilization in which our virtues are stronger than our vices, and it is easier to grow in virtue than it is to sink into vice.
True, we must repent of our sins and failings. But if, in a spasm of self-loathing we sever our roots, we will die. If we gaze upon our civilizational sins and put out our own eyes in remorse, we will stumble blind into the future.
Here’s the thing: progressive Christianity is dying, and will die. For example, Presbyterian liberals in the PCUSA are having a hissy fit over Tim Keller, a conservative Presbyterian pastor who has become one of the most influential Christian leaders in America, receiving an honor at Princeton Theological Seminary. Why? Because Keller’s denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), will not ordain women and holds to Christian orthodoxy on LGBT matters. But — hello! — the PC (USA) is collapsing:
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) lost 6 percent of its membership in 2015, and that came after three consecutive years of 5 percent declines. Current membership is just under 1.6 million. …
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has seen 463 congregations nationwide depart for other denominations between 2012 and 2015, according to newly released statistics from the Louisville, Ky.-based denomination.
Virtually all left for smaller, more conservative denominations such as the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, which the historic Bellefield Presbyterian Church in Oakland joined last week after reaching a separation agreement with the Pittsburgh Presbytery.
Many departing congregations reacted to liberal theological and social trends in the past five years that included the approvals of ordaining and marrying openly gay members. And while the national population as a whole has become more liberal on such topics, not one congregation has joined the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and not only is membership down, but so are rates of baptisms and confirmations.
In New York, I was talking to a fairly well known young Evangelical about the overall decline in church life. But he also said: “Of all the people I know who are converting, all are converting to one form or the other of orthodox Christianity. There’s just no point to liberal Christianity, and no future.”
True. Thinking about my Evangelical friend’s line in light of the conversation my other friend had with the progressive Mainliner, it occurred to me that we really don’t have much to say to those folks, and shouldn’t waste our time trying to. Nor should they waste their time with us. We follow different religions. It is certainly true that Christianity is not the same thing as Western civilization, but it’s no coincidence that those who loathe Western civilization (or at least the Westerners who do) also loathe orthodox Christianity. They have cut themselves off from the source of life, and from cultural memory. They have nothing to pass on to their children, and their children’s children, except their alienation. They are the left-wing Christian equivalent of the right-wing Christians who are so enmeshed in partisan politics and culture-warring that they’ve lost the point of Christian faith and life. It seems to be a miserable truth of our era: when you’ve lost your religion, you double down on politics.
But look, I can’t in good conscience leave it at that. there are some things that we small-o orthodox had better not lose sight of, even as we rediscover the treasures of our own civilizational heritage. For one, to love and affirm your own history and heritage does not require you to pretend that it’s without fault or blemish. To do so is to make an idol, a false god, of it. Second, we have a lot to learn from non-Western Christianities, and non-Western Christians, and they from us. It is by now a cliche to say that conservative Episcopalians in the United States have more in common in things that really count with Anglicans in Nairobi than Anglicans in London. I just spent a couple of days with a colony of Anabaptists in upstate New York, and despite our serious theological divisions, those brothers and sisters are closer to me in essentials than many who profess the same Creed as I do, but whose real belief is in modernity. This is just how it is today, and how it’s going to be. It’s a new world.
One more important thing: though the faith is more important than particular cultures, I believe that Christian revival in the West must also entail serious education in Western culture and history. We have to teach our kids what Western civilization is, and why it is worth loving in spite of its great faults. Many of them are being taught to hate themselves and their civilization. Those who do this — and, crucially, those who don’t provide a good, life-giving alternative to this hateful narrative — are only going to drive young people into the welcoming arms of the hardcore alt-right, which turns Christianity into a racial or nationalistic cult. That’s a gospel as false as anything the pious Social Justice Warriors preach — but far too many of us conservative Christians fail to perceive the threat from it in our unstable, unraveling culture. A reader comments correctly and importantly:
A frightening thought. At the moment, the main danger to Christianity comes from the Left. What happens when a post-Christian Right starts to degenerate and decides that the Church with its message of love and universal brotherhood gets in its way as well?
Anyway, I’m not going to end on a somber note. I saw way too much reason for hope and joy this week. Tomorrow, I’m going to tell you here about the inspirational life of the Bruderhof. But tonight, I’m going to enjoy my family and my dog, and sleep like a rock. Glory to God for all things!
UPDATE: A reader comments:
For several years my family has been part of a parish that, when we first joined it, was arguably “moderate”. There was a handful of radical progressives, some of whom kept their views to themselves, some were pretty aggressive about trying to convert the rest of the congregation. I and several friends (with whom I have spoken) often wonder, “Why are they still here? Why don’t they join another church where they are not so at odds with what the other 60-80% of the parish believes?” I have some theories, one of which is active hostility toward traditional, conservative Christianity. Another is they see themselves as being on a mission to convert the rest of us poor, backwards ignoramuses.
But here’s the more important point. It’s reached the point (and my family is backing toward the exit) where it’s increasingly clear we are dealing with at least two parishes under one roof. And these two parishes represent two approaches to Christianity that are so different, that effectively they are two different religions. We can’t really talk about difficult issues (sexuality and marriage being the most obvious) because we don’t really think or talk within the same framework. “Can’t we just look at the Scriptures and work it out?” No, sorry, we can’t. Our understandings and approaches to Scripture are too different, and largely incompatible. We’re not just on different pages, we’re functionally operating out of different books.
It’s an utterly miserable situation. On the one hand, the more traditional Christians need to say “we love you, God bless you, and we’re going somewhere else” (and many have as the parish has become more openly liberal the last few years), and on the other hand, the radical progressives need to say something similar (why didn’t they leave years ago?).
A reader writes:
I am a primary care physician in a major Southern city –
I can testify for sure – most people would be horrified if they knew what their children/grandchildren were looking at online.
Just this afternoon – I had a 42 year old mother in tears in my office. Her son is a sophomore in high school at a “gifted and talented school” here in the local community. One of his high school age friends texted my patient – the mother – the following in reference to her son – “leave him alone B=$%h – or you will have to deal with me”. Apparently the mother had been all over her son for spending too much time on his computer and had begun making restrictions. The friend was not happy. When she doubled down after this text – the friend then sent her a picture of a KKK grand wizard holding a revolver to the head of a kitten. When she called the mother of the boy about this incident – the mother began laughing hysterically – and marveling at his creativity.
Mind you – this is just today’s story – I can write a novel from just what has happened to my patients in the past 12 months.
My parents in the 1970s were worried about us ending up like Eddie Haskell on the Beaver show. He comes off as a saint compared to many of these kids I am dealing with today.
I have two sons at home – toddlers – the stories that I am dealing with every day horrify me about the America my children will inherit.
People need to begin taking this stuff seriously – but I am afraid they are not.
Reader Edward Hamilton, who teaches in a small Southern Evangelical college, writes:
Regardless of whether or not Christianity retains nominal membership by a large fraction of the country, it’s clear that the locus of passions in the hearts of many younger Christians has shifted from issues that involve the traditional church community to issues that involve post-Christian (or even nihilistically anti-Christian) online communities.
Last weekend, a bunch of my students were waxing enthusiastic about the 4chan humiliation of Shia LaBeouf’s “He Will Not Divide Us” campaign. This barely made a ripple in the broader media, even in the traditional conservative media. But it was a major coup in the alt-Right media world, and my student knew about it within hours of it happening. The general consensus of my boys was “Do NOT mess with 4chan. They will wreck you for life.”
I was reminded of a recent post here about Islam being “the last bad-ass religion”. There’s nothing bad-ass about Christianity these days. I teach at a small Christian college that until just this year wouldn’t even let its faculty drink alcohol; I’m telling you now, there is no political action by a figure or organization on the old-style Christian Right, substantive or symbolic, that any of my students would care about — certainly not on the same level that they care about how 4chan is brilliantly messing with Shia LeBeouf. They know 4chan is a hot mess of racism and sexism; that came up in the conversation, without much push-back. But they just don’t care. The symbolic power of lowering that flag and raising a Trump hat was a shot in the arm in a way that anodyne calls for a more winsome Christian witness in the postmodern world can never be. I’ll take a 100-to-1 bet against ever hearing any of my students kibitzing passionately over the weekend about a David Brooks column, or a James K.A. Smith book. Or for that matter, a Rod Dreher book.
This was not always true. A millennium ago, it was Saint Boniface who was chopping down the sacred grove of Thor in order to gather wood to build the foundations for Fritzlar’s altar. Christianity and paganism were the allegiances that mattered, the ones that generated emotional energy and engaged the popular imagination. Christianity was ascendant, and it was totally bad-ass. Boniface was kicking a millennium of paganism to the curb, and ushering in a millennium of Christendom.
This week, the world’s next Saint Boniface was celebrated by an audience that will inherit the world, one that is growing as rapidly as the church is shrinking, as young and vigorous as the leadership of most denominations is aging and benign.
Celebrate it, dread it, or ignore it, but our new Saint Boniface is an anon on /pol/.
Over the past decade, pollsters charted something remarkable: Americans—long known for their piety—were fleeing organized religion in increasing numbers. The vast majority still believed in God. But the share that rejected any religious affiliation was growing fast, rising from 6 percent in 1992 to 22 percent in 2014. Among Millennials, the figure was 35 percent.
Some observers predicted that this new secularism would ease cultural conflict, as the country settled into a near-consensus on issues such as gay marriage. After Barack Obama took office, a Center for American Progress report declared that “demographic change,” led by secular, tolerant young people, was “undermining the culture wars.” In 2015, the conservative writer David Brooks, noting Americans’ growing detachment from religious institutions, urged social conservatives to “put aside a culture war that has alienated large parts of three generations.”
That was naive. Secularism is indeed correlated with greater tolerance of gay marriage and pot legalization. But it’s also making America’s partisan clashes more brutal. And it has contributed to the rise of both Donald Trump and the so-called alt-right movement, whose members see themselves as proponents of white nationalism. As Americans have left organized religion, they haven’t stopped viewing politics as a struggle between “us” and “them.” Many have come to define us and them in even more primal and irreconcilable ways.
When pundits describe the Americans who sleep in on Sundays, they often conjure left-leaning hipsters. But religious attendance is down among Republicans, too. According to data assembled for me by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), the percentage of white Republicans with no religious affiliation has nearly tripled since 1990. This shift helped Trump win the GOP nomination. During the campaign, commentators had a hard time reconciling Trump’s apparent ignorance of Christianity and his history of pro-choice and pro-gay-rights statements with his support from evangelicals. But as Notre Dame’s Geoffrey Layman noted, “Trump does best among evangelicals with one key trait: They don’t really go to church.” A Pew Research Center poll last March found that Trump trailed Ted Cruz by 15 points among Republicans who attended religious services every week. But he led Cruz by a whopping 27 points among those who did not.
Why did these religiously unaffiliated Republicans embrace Trump’s bleak view of America more readily than their churchgoing peers? Has the absence of church made their lives worse? Or are people with troubled lives more likely to stop attending services in the first place? Establishing causation is difficult, but we know that culturally conservative white Americans who are disengaged from church experience less economic success and more family breakdown than those who remain connected, and they grow more pessimistic and resentful. Since the early 1970s, according to W. Bradford Wilcox, a sociologist at the University of Virginia, rates of religious attendance have fallen more than twice as much among whites without a college degree as among those who graduated college. And even within the white working class, those who don’t regularly attend church are more likely to suffer from divorce, addiction, and financial distress. As Wilcox explains, “Many conservative, Protestant white men who are only nominally attached to a church struggle in today’s world. They have traditional aspirations but often have difficulty holding down a job, getting and staying married, and otherwise forging real and abiding ties in their community. The culture and economy have shifted in ways that have marooned them with traditional aspirations unrealized in their real-world lives.”
The heart of the essay:
For decades, liberals have called the Christian right intolerant. When conservatives disengage from organized religion, however, they don’t become more tolerant. They become intolerant in different ways. …
Whatever the reason, when cultural conservatives disengage from organized religion, they tend to redraw the boundaries of identity, de-emphasizing morality and religion and emphasizing race and nation. Trump is both a beneficiary and a driver of that shift.
So is the alt-right.
For years, political commentators dreamed that the culture war over religious morality that began in the 1960s and ’70s would fade. It has. And the more secular, more ferociously national and racial culture war that has followed is worse.
Read the whole thing. It’s important. It’s a confirmation of a line Ross Douthat had a year or so ago, telling the left that if they didn’t like the Religious Right, just wait until the see the Post-Religious Right. I’m getting anecdotal reports from readers and from acquaintances that young people with smartphones are not only streaming pornography, but also getting massive doses of political extremism on their devices. One source who sees the boys in his conservative Christian high school embracing white nationalism speculates that the megachurch Christianity of these high school seniors is not facing the reality of the world around us. If true, then the pastors and other religious authorities in these kids’ lives are simply not forming them as Christians to live in the post-Christian world that we have.
On that point, last night in DC, I talked with a senior official of a prominent Christian college, who told me that institutions like his are at Defcon 1 on religious liberty for institutions like his — and he is as baffled as I am why so many churches are silent. He spoke to me after my Benedict Option speech about the point I made in it re: pastors and religious leaders who aren’t preparing their congregations for hard times, even the possibility of persecution, are failing in their responsibilities. He said that’s true in his experience. We agreed that Christians in America aren’t going to know what hit them.
Christians who read The Benedict Option, and act on what they read, won’t be caught off guard, though. Hey, if you and your church or group want to read the book together, e-mail Taylor Fleming at Sentinel, and she can help you. She’s at tfleming — at — penguinrandomhouse — dot — com.