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‘Apocalypse Any Day Now!’

The Benedict Option and the properly Christian approach to fear
Paris Notre Dame on fire

It is no secret to my longtime readers that I have a doomy, gloomy outlook on the future of Christendom. I am prone to seeing total disaster just around the corner. It is a weakness of mine (peak oil, anybody?), but also, I would argue, a strength, in that I really do believe that I can see structural weaknesses within our culture that most Christians cannot or will not see. I write from the same stance as Flannery O’Connor:

“The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural; and he may well be forced to take ever more violent means to get his vision across to this hostile audience. When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal ways of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock — to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.”

Funnily enough, I just recorded what was for me a wonderful video interview with Gavin Ashenden, the former Anglican chaplain to the Queen who recently converted to Catholicism. We talked for about an hour, though we could have gone all morning, at least from my end. We talked about the Benedict Option and the state of Christianity in the lands that were once Christendom. We understand each other, so there was no need to shout loud about metaphysics, spirituality, or anything else.

I don’t feel that way when I address the general public. People who know me personally know that my demeanor is usually cheerful, and that I’m the sort of person who believes he can ride out the apocalypse as long as there is ice to refresh his drink. My beau ideal is that great Chestertonian Marco Sermarini, who is every bit as convinced as I am about matters relating to decline and fall, but who is indefatigably cheerful. It doesn’t come from a place of happy-clappy optimism über Alles; it comes from the deep joy of a living Christian faith. I wrote about him and his merry hobbits in The Benedict Option, as you readers of the book know.

That said, I completely understand people who see me as a gloom-meister. Nobody who enjoys food and drink and good company as much as I do can be truly gloomy, but yes, I am forever seeing apocalypse around the corner. This is what Austin Ruse is responding to in his Crisis magazine column denouncing what he regards as my defeatism. The first line of his piece:

Rod Dreher lives in fear. It comes out in his life and certainly in much if not most of his writing.

As ever, I laugh at this. How many people who see how I actually live — Austin hasn’t seen me in decades — would consider it to be fearful? Nevertheless, a writer should always be willing to take criticism from the outside. I do believe that it is fair to criticize me for coming across as fearful, at least on a superficial reading of my work.

Ruse writes:

Mr. Dreher’s next book is an even more dire warning about the apocalypse facing orthodox Christians. Entitled Live Not by Lies, it will detail what he calls the “pink police state” and the “soft totalitarianism” that Christian traditionalists will increasingly experience at the hands of the “Homintern” of the gender-bending Left. He compares the Left’s iron grip—led by the vanguard of angry homosexuals—to living under the communist regimes during the Cold War.“My politics are driven entirely by fear of the left,” he admits, “specifically on matters of religious liberty and social policy.” And what if you’re not living in fear of the Left? Then “you are living in delusion,” says Mr. Dreher.

This is not fair, or an accurate representation of what I believe or have written. He gets those quotes from this blog post I wrote last year about fear and politics. 

When I say “fear of the left,” I don’t mean that I’m hiding under the bed hoping that the Homintern agents don’t find me. I’m saying that I fear what the left is doing to us, to make our civilization unlivable. In the same piece, I quote these comments from Bret Weinstein, a left-wing atheist professor who was driven out of his college by the woke mob, who warns that

Weinstein has emerged as a stout enemy of the woke mob — and he is doing it as a leftist. May the God in whom he does not believe bless him and aid him! Is Bret Weinstein afraid of the left? You bet he is — because he understands what the political and cultural left as it exists today threatens the things that he values about our civilization. He does not believe that most people are aware of how serious the threat is. Neither do I. But I try to be introspective, saying in that piece:

What I can’t decide is whether or not the particular fears I have are appropriate to the threat, or whether they distort my view of politics. The question in Brooks’s book made me realize that as opposed to the pre-Trump years, my view of politics is entirely driven by fear. I hate that, but when I try to talk myself out of it, I have to ignore far too much for the sake of acquiring inner peace. That I can’t do.

When I say my politics are driven entirely by fear, I mean that I see the threat posed by the woke left as so immense that resisting it has become the prime political directive for me. And even then, I admit that I could be wrong about this. But in order to keep inner peace about politics, I would have to deny what I see with my own eyes. I can’t do this. It is possible that I see through a distorting lens, but if so, then I see wrongly, but honestly. I don’t see cynically.

In that same blog post of mine from last year, I write, quoting David Brooks:

[Brooks:] We get to the point where the fear itself begins to take control. Fear generates fear. Everybody feels besieged — power is somehow elsewhere, with the malevolent forces who are somewhere out there, who will stop at nothing.

Fear puts a dark filter over everything. The fearful person is unable to hear good news, while any possible threat looms large. We are in the middle of one of the longest economic booms in our history, with wages finally rising again for the middle class. But nobody feels that because of the sense that it’s all about to come crashing down.

Fear runs ahead of the facts and inflames the imagination. Ninety percent of the time we’re not afraid of what’s happening to us, but of some catastrophic thing our imagination tells us might happen.

[Dreher] I get that … but I also see that the things that I’m most afraid of are actually happening. They really are going after Christian schools and businesses. They really are trying to ruin people by intimidating them into silence, and making them terrified for their jobs if they say the wrong thing to the wrong person. More broadly, the Christian faith really is withering away in our civilization. This has been measured. I think there must be a difference between healthy fear — meaning respect for actual dangers — and unhealthy fear, which is paralyzing, and destructive.

Ruse thinks I’ve given myself over to paralyzing, destructive fear. He writes:

It’s not that Mr. Dreher has given up: he writes about this stuff constantly. It’s that he preaches fear and defeat in all that he writes. This is hardly good for his readers.

That’s the essential problem with letting fear rule your life: you become defeated when, really, you should be joyful. Think about it. Yes, the world is going straight to Hell in a hand basket. But what did God do? He sent the likes of us! You, and me, and Rod Dreher.

Well, yes. But.

No one who has read The Benedict Option — and I have found that most of its fiercest critics have not read the book; I don’t know if Ruse has — can fairly say that I have surrendered to destructive fear. The book is full of discussion about ways to resist! There’s a chapter about education that extols the virtues of classical Christian schools. There’s discussion of what families can do, and what Christians can do when they come together — with real-life examples. The idea that the Benedict Option, and the things that I write, counsels surrender is simply false.

What I don’t do, either in the book or my writing, is allow people to think that political activism is the solution to our crisis. Hear me: I believe that political activism is important, and should continue. My objection is to the belief widespread among conservative Christians, my own tribe, that our problem is essentially a matter of not having gotten the politics right. Austin Ruse is a political activist by profession. He runs a United Nations lobbying organization called C-Fam. Good for him! I mean that seriously. He should keep going. What he does is not the problem, except insofar as ordinary Christians believe that kind of activism Ruse does is not only necessary (which it is), but sufficient (which it absolutely is not).

In my conversation this morning with Gavin Ashenden, which I’ll post as soon as he does, we talked about how hard it is for modern Christians to recognize what we have lost, and how serious this crisis around us is. In a real sense, what Christians lack today is a proper fear, in the “fear of the Lord” sense. That is, they don’t have a proper respect for the enemies of the faith. I can give you an example from a conversation I had with a Christian friend last week. She was telling me about how she and her husband have been very strict with their kids about smartphones and access to the Internet. For various reasons, including a desire to trust their kids’ Christian school peers, they allowed themselves to lower their guard — and it could have ended in disaster. They discovered that one of their kids was on the verge of being led into some pretty destructive stuff, and had concealed it all from the parents.

My friend was really shaken up by it all. She told me that she and her husband had believed that they were on top of all of this because they were the strictest parents in their kids’ school about smartphones and the Internet. Yet even they were deceived, because (as she sees it now) they underestimated the power of the malicious, destructive culture that thrives on the Internet to find a way to get to their family. It sounds like my friend and her husband lacked appropriate fear of the Internet, vis à vis their children. My sense is that these parents discovered the hard way that they believed that setting up relatively strict protocols in their home, and trusting the fact that their kids went to a Christian school, and hung out with Christian kids, would be enough.

It wasn’t. That family lives in a community a lot like the one Ruse says he and his family lives in. It was helpful, but not enough. The price of being Christian in post-Christian modernity is eternal vigilance.

So Austin Ruse and I are talking about two different kinds of fear. There is the neurotic fear that keeps you from going outside, because Something Bad Might Happen. And there is fear in the sense of “healthy respect for danger” — the kind of fear that would keep you from allowing your children to play in a park known to be infested with copperhead snakes.

Ruse surmises that my forthcoming book, Live Not By Lies, is a fraidy-cat manifesto, because as I have described it, it takes seriously what people who grew up under Soviet bloc communism are saying about what they are observing in our own society. This might end up being another book that a lot of bien-pensants never read, but think they understand. I hope not, but the Benedict Option example doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence. Anyway, the title is from an Solzhenitsyn essay. Solzhenitsyn said, in his introduction to a 1983 edition of The Gulag Archipelago, that people who tell themselves that what happened in Russia could not happen in their country are lying to themselves. It could happen anywhere on earth, he said. He was right about that — and these people who lived through communism, and who see things that they lived with back then manifesting themselves in Western society today, must be listened to.

All those who live in the US told me that they cannot get American friends to understand them. There is something doggedly optimistic in the American psychology. We confuse optimism with hope. And we cannot conceive that we are susceptible to the same tragedies of history that bedevil all other nations. We think we can go stomping through the high grass as we like and no serpent will strike at our heel, because we are an especially blessed people. One of my sources, a Czech who emigrated from communist Czechoslovakia to the US as a young man, told me that it is useless to try to explain any of this to Americans, that we Americans will have to learn this for ourselves. Maybe so. But I have to try, which is why I wrote the book.

In his Crisis column, Ruse seems to pooh-pooh the intense concern I have about LGBT and the future of Christianity. I’m sure that he and I have pretty much the same moral evaluation of the Sexual Revolution and its contemporary vanguard, the LGBT movement. I wonder, though, if Ruse has ever given sustained thought to why the LGBT movement triumphed as thoroughly and as quickly as it did. It’s an incredible thing. A friend of mine, a secular liberal in her 70s, and someone who is thrilled with what the LGBT movement accomplished, told me it’s the most amazing phenomenon she has seen in her lifetime (which includes the black Civil Rights movement). She is correct, too. The fact that it all seems so normal to us now is a big flashing neon sign of the times.

What it tells us is that the decay of Christianity, and the metaphysical basis upon which Christianity rests, is far advanced in this society. I wrote about that here, in a 2013 piece that became one of the most popular things I’ve ever written for TAC. If you want to know more, read that piece. My argument for most of the past twenty years has been that the LGBT movement succeeded so quickly because the Christian foundations of our society had rotted so completely, behind the façade of big churches and strong voter turnout. The world of intellectually engaged, activist conservative Christians is not the world in which most people, even most Christians, live. I used to be part of that world and its false assurances, until the sex abuse scandal revealed to me (among other things) the radical difference between the Christianity of books and journals, and Christianity on the ground. The fact that even a man as wise and worldly as Richard John Neuhaus could be deceived by his respect for appearances, and his belief that the line between good and evil ran between political and theological factions in the Catholic Church — that was a powerful lesson to me.

We live in Babylon, and the greatest struggle we Christians have among ourselves today is to keep Babylon from living in us. I have said here before (first of all, on the day that I saw it) that the recent Terrence Malick film A Hidden Life is the best evocation of The Benedict Option that I’ve ever seen (though to be clear, I have no reason at all to think that Malick knows anything about my book). Franz Jägerstätter lives in a Catholic village in the Austrian Alps. When the Nazis show up and demand that he swear allegiance to Adolf Hitler, an Antichrist, Franz refuses. Nobody in his village understands why he won’t just go along. But Franz knows. He pays for it with his life. (It’s a true story.)

The point of the Benedict Option is not to find a place to go hide where the evils of modernity cannot find you. They will always find you. The point is to live in such a way that when the Nazis show up asking you to swear allegiance to Hitler, you will have both the clarity of mind and the strength of heart to say no, no matter what it costs.

So many of us Christians today say yes to Babylon, even as we convince ourselves that because we hold anti-Babylon convictions, and vote for politicians we believe are Babylon’s enemies (Ruse’s next book is called The Catholic Case For Trump), and because maybe we even give money to activist groups that fight Babylon’s agents in the arenas of power, that we are the Good Guys. Then we can’t figure out why we keep losing. And we are losing. All the political victories in the world matter not at all if we cannot pass the faith intact along to our children. In Europe, this has already happened. In America, we are living through this nightmare. The numbers are all in The Benedict Option, and they don’t lie. But you have to read the book. If you haven’t read it, and seen the facts upon which I build my case, don’t come at me complaining that I’m inordinately fearful, or too gloomy. Ruse says

Yesterday, Catholic News Agency reported on a new biography of Pope Benedict XVI, published in German. The report quotes BXVI, from the book:

“But the real threat to the Church and thus to the ministry of St. Peter consists not in these things, but in the worldwide dictatorship of seemingly humanistic ideologies, and to contradict them constitutes exclusion from the basic social consensus.”

He continued: “A hundred years ago, everyone would have thought it absurd to speak of homosexual marriage. Today whoever opposes it is socially excommunicated. The same applies to abortion and the production of human beings in the laboratory.”

“Modern society is in the process of formulating an ‘anti-Christian creed,’ and resisting it is punishable by social excommunication. The fear of this spiritual power of the Antichrist is therefore only too natural, and it truly takes the prayers of a whole diocese and the universal Church to resist it.”

The battle that has engaged believers is happening not primarily at the political level, the level touched by activists like Ruse. The battle is at its core spiritual and metaphysical. You can’t prevail against the Gates of Hell if you are somehow convinced that your battle is with the Gates of Heck. So yeah, I’m apocalyptic, and maybe I lay that on a little too thick sometimes. I fully concede that the apocalyptic mode is hard to live inside for long — though we may soon find ourselves having to do so, as Christians under communist totalitarianism did. But a politicized, all-American, Trump-positive cheerfulness that effectively denies the gravity of the times, and the seriousness of the response called for, is no answer at all. It won’t even let you properly define the problem. “To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.”