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On Understanding The Benedict Option

Behold, a couple of reviews of The Benedict Option [1] by reviewers who really understood the book.

First, excerpts from Thomas Ascik’s review in The Imaginative Conservative [2]. Like me, Ascik is frustrated that many commenters who dismiss the book don’t seem to be reacting to what’s actually in the thing:

Rod Dreher, in his much-discussed The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation (2017), asserts that we are living in “post-Christian America.” It seems that no one, whether on the left or right, disagrees with this assessment, from liberal critic Emma Green (“Christianity is no longer the cultural default”), to conservative writers Fr. Dwight Longenecker (“the tsunami of anti-Christian culture”) and New York Times columnist Ross Douthat (“traditional religion in all its forms has become a counterculture in the West”), to Patrick Gilger (“Christian America is already a contradiction in terms”) and Damon Linker (“a minority in a majority secular nation”) also agree.[3]

So, how should Christians react to the widely acknowledged reality that Christendom—that is, civilization and culture based on Christian principles and morality—is dead? Mr. Dreher says that “Christians are now in a time of decision,” and he calls on them to take concrete steps to preserve their Christian way of life in this country. Almost all the reviews of Mr. Dreher’s book concentrate on and criticize his supposedly monastic and society-denying “option” and downplay his very uncomfortable assessment of the need for that option. This review does the opposite.

Thank you, Thomas Ascik! It is interesting to see how many conservatives agree with me that we’re in some sort of civilizational crisis, but who resist the idea that we have to do anything different in response to it.

More Ascik:

Though Mr. Dreher says that Christian politics has failed, he does not argue—contrary to what several of his critics claim—that Christians should completely withdraw from politics. Instead, he proposes “anti-political politics.” By this, he means, first, that because society is post-Christian, political and social opportunities are somewhat limited. Second, since culture is part of politics, the concentration by Christians should be on opportunities to affect local culture first. Following the example and testimony of the Czech dissidents under communism, whom Mr. Dreher cites repeatedly in the book, a “parallel polis” at the local level should be erected, a small counter-cultural community (with Tocqueville as additional inspiration, of course) where social bonds and solidarity can be created, fostered, and maintained—a decisive turning away from the centralized forces of media, government, and corporations.

And this:

In perhaps his most challenging chapter and the chapter that almost all reviewers have avoided talking about, Mr. Dreher points out that since Christianity is incarnational—that is, embodied—it has everything to do with the body, which means it has everything to do with sex. The Christian faith is lived every day by men and women—“male and female He created them”—in complementarity. Jesus took on a human body and came to redeem our bodies as well as our souls. The way we treat our bodies is our response to Jesus’ embodiment. Sexual practices are “central,” to Christian life and “the linchpin” of Christian culture, Mr. Dreher contends. The predominant reason people abandon Christianity has to do with Christian sexual morality rather than theology.

The “body,” both for individuals and for the social body, is now in advanced crisis in this country. Homosexuality, same-sex marriage, and transgenderism are fundamental aspects of the body and what it means—if anything—to say that we are bodily creatures. Although he asserts at one point that “future historians” may find it hard to understand “how the sexual desires of only three to four percent of the population became the fulcrum on which an entire worldview was dislodged and overturned,” at another point he answers the question on his own. Americans accepted gay marriage so quickly based on “what they had already come to believe about the meaning of heterosexual sex and marriage.”

Mr. Dreher is hard on pastors. He says that “far too many pastors are afraid to talk about sex” with the consequence that “the church has allowed the culture to catechize its youth.” He cites a Southern Baptist who remembers that he never heard a sermon while growing up about sexual complementarity or “why my body is a good thing.” Mr. Dreher cites his own twenty-year experience as a Catholic and Orthodox that he has “yet to hear a sermon explaining in any depth what Christianity teaches about the human person and about the rightly ordered use of sex.” The experience of this reviewer in the Catholic Church is the same, and this reviewer wagers that it is the same for almost every reader of this essay. Without the positive evangelizing of the theological meaning and destiny of the human body, the challenging and elevated purpose of chastity, and the noble unifying of male and female in marriage, the Christian churches are left with a bunch of off-putting sexual “thou-shalt-not’s” (when they even say that).

Reviewers also ignore Chapter 3, which is all about the monks of Norcia, and why (and how) lay Christians can adapt some of their practices to strengthen our own spiritual lives outside the monastery.

Read the entire review. [2] You may well disagree with my book [1], but in the Ascik review, you’ll get a better idea of what’s in the book than in many other commentaries.

Here is an excellent review written by Trappist Father Edmund Waldstein. [3] It’s a highly personal reflection by a young Austrian priest-monk [4]. Here’s how it begins:

One of the great sorrows that I encounter as a priest is the sorrow of parents whose children have abandoned the Faith. Their sorrow can be more bitter even than the sorrows of those parents who suffer the fata aspera of having to bury their children. To have given the gift of life, only to see that gift taken too soon, and to be able to give only the “unavailing gift” of funeral flowers, is a bitter fate indeed. But for those who have come to believe that true life is the eternal life of Christ, it is still more bitter to have brought a child to the waters of Baptism, hoping for that child to receive a share in the inheritance of infinite bliss, only to see that child trade the infinite good for the vain pomps of this world. If it were not for the hope of future repentance, this would be almost too much to bear. And yet, it is a sorrow that Christian parents have had to bear at all times. Children of believing parents have been abandoning the narrow way that leads to eternal life since the Church began. But the great falling away from the faith in Austria in the past five or six decades or so have given so many parents that sorrow. It is of course difficult to tell whether that is because hypermodern culture has actually led more children astray, or whether it has simply made straying more obvious— previous generations of worldly children were perhaps better at pretending to their parents that they were still in a state of grace. When I tell such parents that I come from a family of eight children they often ask me whether all of my brothers and sisters are still practicing Catholics. And when I answer affirmatively they invariably ask: “How did your parents do it?”

That question occurred to me again as I read Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option. Dreher’s book is largely about the question of how parents can so live their lives that they can communicate the joy of life in Christ to their children. How can they avoid the pressures of a secular culture that seems ever more successful at drawing souls away? Dreher’s book made me reflect on my own experience, and so this review will have a somewhat autobiographical character. Readers who find such an intrusion of the autobiographical boastful or self-absorbed need read no further; they are unlikely to like Dreher’s book either, since he too illustrates his arguments from his own experience. My intention is not to hold up my own upbringing and family as an exemplar of perfection, nor to suggest that parents must do something similar to my parents if their children are to keep the faith— there are contrary examples— but simply to give an illustration of one possible answer to the question of how parents can help their children keep the Faith.

He then has a long theological and biographical digression, one that I found absorbing. And Father Waldstein can be a bit critical of the Ben Op, though mostly he’s favorable to it. I won’t try to sum up his comments, but I strongly encourage you to read them. He concludes:

Ian Ker is right that our time is the age of the ecclesial movements with their optimistic dynamism in engaging contemporary society. But it is also a time of revival of the ideals of monasticism. Ideals of stability, and rich liturgical tradition, and uncompromising contempt for the vanity and pomps of this passing world. And Rod Dreher is right that elements of those ideals can be realized outside the monastery in the life of Christian families. “The Benedict Option” will not ensure that children keep the faith— the mystery of iniquity and the mystery of grace cannot be controlled by any strategy— but if my upbringing can be called “Benedict Option,” then I do think that it can be a help.

In a comment on a review of The Benedict Option, Maclin Horton, once a co-editor of the now defunct Catholic counter-cultural magazine Caelum et Terra (and the subject of a profile in Dreher’s Crunchy Cons) wrote as follows:

… this discussion was being held twenty-five years ago in the pages of the magazine Caelum et Terra and other places. We must withdraw–but we must remain connected. We must turn off the TV–but we mustn’t turn our backs on the culture. We must form communities–but we mustn’t isolate ourselves. We must be critical of technology–but we should use it when appropriate. We must find ways of educating our children apart from the proselytizing secularism of the state school systems–but we must not be overprotective. Etc etc etc. All these things have actually been going on in places like Steubenville, Ohio. The children of those talkers and experimenters are grown now, and the results have been mixed. Those having this conversation with such fervor now seem to be younger, and I wonder whether most of you can quite grasp how bitterly sad it is to see a young man named John Paul or a young woman named Kateri denouncing Christian “homophobia” and “transphobia” on Facebook…

I don’t deny that the results of the attempt to achieve the balance of which Horton speaks in my own upbringing are mixed— as helpful grumblers are always reminding me. But at least this much is true: my parents have been spared the bitter sadness of seeing me and my brothers and sisters fall away from the Faith. Words fail me when I try to express how grateful I myself am for having received that gift and not (as yet) lost it: I have found in it the pearl of great price and the treasure buried in the field.

Read the whole review. [3]Thanks to the readers who have sent me the Waldstein piece, I discovered a new Catholic Christian website to follow: The Josias [5], where Father Waldstein’s essay appears.

 

19 Comments (Open | Close)

19 Comments To "On Understanding The Benedict Option"

#1 Comment By jb On April 20, 2017 @ 6:54 pm

This made me say YES! Exactly!
“Following the example and testimony of the Czech dissidents under communism, whom Mr. Dreher cites repeatedly in the book, a “parallel polis” at the local level should be erected, a small counter-cultural community (with Tocqueville as additional inspiration, of course) where social bonds and solidarity can be created, fostered, and maintained—a decisive turning away from the centralized forces of media, government, and corporations.”

#2 Comment By Poop the Potato On April 20, 2017 @ 7:21 pm

This is kind of a big deal: Rod Dreher is reading The Josias! Your critics disparage BenOp as promoting so-called “quietism”, so let’s hear from them what they think about the social kingship of Christ. If they dislike that too, then it is clear that they really just support the system of liberal modernity with Jesus as the janitor who comes around to clean up the resulting messiness.

#3 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On April 20, 2017 @ 9:11 pm

Our gracious host asserts that we are living in “post-Christian America.” It seems that no one, whether on the left or right, disagrees with this assessment

From the left, I disagree. The notion of a “Christian America” was always greatly exaggerated. E.g., less than half the settlers in Plymouth were “Saints,” the rest were “Strangers.” E.g., when the president called for a day of prayer in response to the cholera epidemic in 1848, something like half the population repaired to churches and synagogues, while the other half took the opportunity of a free holiday to frequent taverns, racetracks, and theaters.

The notion that Christianity is fading away is similarly exaggerated. I see no shortage of churches or church attendance on the north side of Milwaukee, and even those who may not be in attendance have some inchoate belief in Jesus Christ as their savior.

Finally, like Hector, I see no contradiction between a socialist economic program and a strong Christian faith. So whatever weakness in faith may exist is nothing to celebrate.

#4 Comment By Charles Cosimano On April 20, 2017 @ 10:31 pm

“The notion that Christianity is fading away is similarly exaggerated. I see no shortage of churches or church attendance on the north side of Milwaukee, and even those who may not be in attendance have some inchoate belief in Jesus Christ as their savior.”

Obviously it is not fading in practice as anyone going to lunch on Sunday can attest.

#5 Comment By Potato On April 21, 2017 @ 2:19 am

I wonder whether most of you can quite grasp how bitterly sad it is to see a young man named John Paul or a young woman named Kateri denouncing Christian “homophobia” and “transphobia” on Facebook…

I see. I think.

Hidden in here (but not hidden very well) is the idea that being gay is a choice. If “John Paul” is denouncing “homophobia” because he’s found himself on the sharp end of it, that in turn is because he has chosen to be gay. As they say in this com box, it’s a “life style.” Raise your kids right, and they will not make this choice. You too can be like the parents of the young Trappist, with eight saintly children, and none lost by the wayside.

I’d suggest that a great whacking helping of good luck might be in order too. Also, you know, it might be instructive to actually get to know these people. At one time I became friends with a young Benedictine priest, one of five grown children all said to be pillars of the Church. They are all good people, and some of them became my friends in turn, but let us just say that the story wasn’t nearly as simple as this summary makes it sound.

[NFR: What you say is “hidden” within the statement does not exist within it at all. One can easily believe that homosexual desire is not a choice (though acting on it is) and still believe everything Maclin Horton said. — RD]

#6 Comment By Rob G On April 21, 2017 @ 11:56 am

‘Our gracious host asserts that we are living in “post-Christian America.”’

and

‘The notion of a “Christian America” was always greatly exaggerated.’

These two ideas are not by any means irreconcilable.

#7 Comment By Let Me Recover My Sight – Mk 10 On April 21, 2017 @ 12:31 pm

Some saints in today’s church say that we been living in a post-Christian America since the decline of the Puritans in New England in the early to mid 1700s.

Exemplary Evidence: During the American Revolution (1776-1781), there were hundreds of brothels openly operating in New York City without legal hindrance, and George Washington’s troops were regular customers at these brothels. Such could not and would not have occurred in a Christian America.

Along these same lines:
(1) France was in effect a post-Christian country long before the French Revolution of 1789 (just read histories of Benjamin Franklin’s life among the aristocrats of France from 1776-1785).
(2) Russia was in effect a post-Christian country long before the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 (just read Dostoyevsky’s 1880 realistic novel “The Brothers Karamazov” for some evidence of this).

There are many saints in the church today who urge all to see history through Scriptural Word-of-God eyes, and not through partisan denominational or political eyes, and urge a deep return to roots and models for living as seen in the Holy Spirit-safeguarded 1st century New Testament Scriptures.

Many saints in the church today say that other books, by comparison, are just a Flavor-on-the-Month phenomenon. Remember “The Purpose Driven Life”? Remember “The Prayer of Jabez”? Remember “The Closing of the American Mind”? They come, everyone buys them, everyone talks about them, and then they are forgotten and nobody notices that nothing has changed, and everyone moves on to the next Flavor-of-the-Month. “But the Word of the Lord endureth for ever.” (1 Peter 1:25)

#8 Comment By joseph On April 21, 2017 @ 1:06 pm

“The notion of a ‘Christian America’ was always greatly exaggerated.”

So America has always been post-Christian? That seems a correct assessment.

#9 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On April 21, 2017 @ 1:38 pm

I think what Maclin Horton was saying is that the names “John” and “Paul” and “Kateri” have specific Christian origins, and he is sad to see such consummately Christian names being quoted in opposition to what Horton believes, rightly or wrongly, to be fundamental to his Christian faith. Nothing more “hidden” than that.

I believe there is a good deal of hubris and unsubstantiated assumption to claims that homosexuality “is” or “is not” a “choice.” It takes only one anecdote to disprove a claim of universality. There are personal experiences all over the map, from people who enjoy being gay and love their chosen partner, for life, or favorite among many, to people who accept their hormonal impulses as a cross to bear and resist, to people who actually make a transition to a full and happy heterosexual life. Since all of these are very plainly on the table, gross generalizations are all inappropriate.

I’ve known many people who are gay. I recall one I continue to greet with a hug even as he was dying of AIDS — he knew I wasn’t interested in his body sexually, and I knew you don’t get AIDS from a hug. There is also a step-cousin who is happily married to her female partner. But I would never describe any of them as “these people.” They are unique individuals who have one particular twist on life in common.

Obviously it is not fading in practice as anyone going to lunch on Sunday can attest.

That is the most un-Cosimanian thing my neighbor in West Allis has ever said, but I appreciate the support.

#10 Comment By Catalan On April 21, 2017 @ 1:46 pm

I agree that the cultural hegemony of Christianity is passing. But how is that a civilizational crisis? We know that our God made the world and everything in it. As long as there is reality, we cannot escape Christianity. Yes, we’re losing moral paternalism. But I don’t see that as a bad thing. As a Dutch Calvinist and a libertarian, I believe that the central aspect of my humanity rests in my freedom to enter into economic transactions. We are fundamentally economic creatures. As long as we have the market, we don’t need Christendom. Fukuyama is right: the market has obviates the need for moral paternalism.

[NFR: Really? The market is more fundamental to your personhood than your religion? Our civilization is — or has long been — an amalgam of Greek philosophy, Roman law, and Hebrew religion. To lose Christianity is to lose the heart of Western civilization. You can do well with the free market in Hong Kong, in a different civilization. — RD]

#11 Comment By Potato On April 21, 2017 @ 3:31 pm

I believe there is a good deal of hubris and unsubstantiated assumption to claims that homosexuality “is” or “is not” a “choice.”

I tend to believe what people tell me about their inner lives, since mostly I lack evidence on the matter. Many if not most gay people claim that they do not experience their orientation as a choice.

Rod would say all very well, but so sad for them, all those afflicted with this non-choice are obligated to life-long celibacy. Thus binding heavy burdens for other men to carry. Many of these people, now, are refusing to carry those burdens, but seek love and happiness on their own terms. I am doubting that many of them, even if named “John Paul” by devout families, will be found hanging around.

That all the siblings of the Austrian Trappist are still devout Catholics (or so we are told) might only mean, among other things, that this family beat the odds. Being heterosexual is not, in itself, a virtue.

#12 Comment By Charles Cosimano On April 21, 2017 @ 4:53 pm

NFR: Really? The market is more fundamental to your personhood than your religion? Our civilization is — or has long been — an amalgam of Greek philosophy, Roman law, and Hebrew religion. To lose Christianity is to lose the heart of Western civilization. You can do well with the free market in Hong Kong, in a different civilization. — RD]

Except that it does not really work that way. Western Civilization was around before Greek philosophy, and it was not sure which Greek philosophy was going to win out as the defining term. It was around without Roman law. In fact Roman law is pretty non-existant in our legal system so Western Civ has managed for a good long time now without it. It will be Western Civilization long after Christianity has been replaced as the dominant belief structure.

That continuous, though at times glacial, change is what makes Western Civilization distinct from say, Hindu Civilization. It mutates. It evolves. It absorbs ideas that negate the old ones and then gradually abandons the old ones altogether as they become more and more obsolescent. (Run into arguments about Merchantilism lately?) It picks and chooses and it does not modify practice to fit beliefs. It modifies beliefs to fit practices. In the West, there is no worse argument than tradition because it is going to rejected out of hand. It is this capacity for mutation that is the true heart of Western Civilization. The rest are just, well, long-term fads, put up with until something better came along. The Enlightenment dispensed with Greek Philosophy, without realizing it. American Constitutional law dispensed with Roman law (which was pretty easy because British Common Law bore little resemblance to Roman law) and now Christianity is on the chopping block. But it is still going to be Western Civilization.

#13 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On April 22, 2017 @ 9:48 pm

I tend to believe what people tell me about their inner lives, since mostly I lack evidence on the matter. Many if not most gay people claim that they do not experience their orientation as a choice.

Potato, you make so much sense, except when you don’t. I too believe what people tell me about their inner lives. What you are citing is the testimony of those gay people who publicly identify as gay people and embrace the ideology of “gay pride.” They are of course free to do so, and probably do express their own state of mind better than anyone else could. But, even a small number of people who feel homosexual desires and handle them differently calls into question any UNIVERSAL diagnosis. I tend to also believe those who say they resisted in one way or another, or even flipped, and those who recount how various life experiences shaped them that way. And of course, some of those who do NOT experience it as a “choice” still “choose” to refrain from acting on their desires. Are they somehow wrong to do so?

Rod would say all very well, but so sad for them, all those afflicted with this non-choice are obligated to life-long celibacy.

That is indeed the teaching his church would offer. For all I know, that church teaching MAY BE exactly what God Almighty requires. Or perhaps not. As long as no person is obligated by the police power of the state, or violent and forceful private intimidation, to accept such teaching, I see no problem with a church offering it to those who will listen. And some do.

#14 Comment By John On April 23, 2017 @ 4:37 pm

“I am doubting that many of them, even if named ‘John’ or ‘Paul,’ by devout families, will be found hanging around.”

Hah. Funny you said that Potato. As it’s happens when my RC parents adopted me from Poland they named me after the Polish pope.

And no, when I came out to myself it was pretty clear I would not be hanging around. Now I am an ex-Catholic agnostic.

“And of course those who do not experience it as a “choice” still choose to refrain from acting on their desires. Are they somehow wrong to do so.”

I would say so. They are denying themselves the beauty of love and their nature based on fairytale (or nightmare).

Nevertheless, I believe that freedom requires us to respect the rights of those who make choices we ourselves would not make. This is a personal decision each of us must make on our own timetable, even if that means they are psychologically abusing themselves.

#15 Comment By JonF On April 23, 2017 @ 6:18 pm

Re: American Constitutional law dispensed with Roman law (which was pretty easy because British Common Law bore little resemblance to Roman law)

Well, Roman law never really obtained in England after the Anglo-Saxons set up shop there. There was a brief time when it might have, under the Normans, except that Henry II guessed (correctly) that the royal courts would be much more attractive to his subjects than either local courts run by Norman feudal lords or the ecclesial courts if he reaffirmed Anglo-Saxon Law as the basis of the King’s Law. And the rest is history.

#16 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On April 23, 2017 @ 9:07 pm

Nevertheless, I believe that freedom requires us to respect the rights of those who make choices we ourselves would not make. This is a personal decision each of us must make on our own timetable, even if that means they are psychologically abusing themselves.

As long as we agree on that point, we can agree to disagree on the significance of those individual decisions. One man’s religion is another man’s fairy tale. True diversity, inclusion, and coexistence, means that people who believe you will burn in hell for eternity and people who refuse to deny themselves the beauty of love in whatever form it may come, are going to be shopping in the same stores, driving down the same streets, ordering from the same garden catalogs, and voting at the same polling places.

#17 Comment By Neil Gussman On July 16, 2017 @ 6:21 pm

I read the book during a five-week bicycle trip across Easter Europe. The middle week of the trip I visited a Cold War Army buddy who left the US military in 1979 and became a Canaan Franciscan. He has been in Germany ever since. Reading about a “monastic” life with kids while in the guest house of a monastery was sadly funny. I have six kids–three each natural and adopted. I can think of no greater or more traditional vanity than having kids. Yet Dreher centers the Christian life on the nuclear family. Nothing ties a person to the world like kids. The Lord said everyone loves their own kids, yet Dreher writes as if sacrificing for ones own children were the path to the Kingdom.

[NFR: Umm…what? — RD]

#18 Comment By Neil Gussman On July 17, 2017 @ 2:45 pm

Jesus begins his ministry by taking a dozen men away from family, work and community. Paul and the apostles spread the Gospel by preaching and miracles, not by having kids.

#19 Comment By Beth Dougherty On September 7, 2017 @ 3:47 pm

Mr. Dreher quotes Fr. Waldstein quotes Maclin Horton on living the Option: “All these things have been going on in places like Steubenville, Ohio.” Thank you! Some of those children (and the parents who began the experiment) are still living that option in Steubenville, and the ripples are spreading. The Shawn Dougherty family farm their own 24 acres, and 60 more belonging to Our Lady of Sorrows Monastery, raising beef, dairy, pork, lamb, poultry, fruit and vegs for their extended family, the Franciscan Sisters, and a diocesan rectory; students from Prof. Dougherty’s 25 years as a university professor keep in touch about their own farming accomplishments from northern Ohio to southern California. A book, The Independent Farmstead, recording many of their discoveries about sustainable farming, has been born of these efforts as well. In the Option spirit, they are now trying to form a bridge between religious communities and diocese with underutilized land, and the young Catholics who feel a call to farming, but have no capital with which to begin.
Thank you, Mr. Dreher, for your ongoing efforts to bring overlooked issues into the light of day.