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Everybody Row, Or We’re Going Over The Falls

Clearing up a misconception about the Benedict Option

A conservative reader writes with a very helpful insight into the Benedict Option:

I was thinking about the regular failure to communicate you are having with pundits & their pals. I had a thought, an analogy which might help.

It’s about the pro-life cause. People realized eventually that we have lost that fight for the time being, just as you’re saying about the culture war overall. People realized that there was no point in trying to pass laws that would make abortion illegal. So they poured themselves into local action, at pregnancy care centers.

That wasn’t done in opposition to national-level work by experts. They didn’t say that people working at pro-life organizations in DC should quit, or that they were wasting their time. We still need to keep a presence, to keep up the drumbeat and win small victories. But nobody thinks that what people are doing in the offices of the National Right to Life Committee is the most important thing happening for the pro-life cause. Reduced expectations caused ordinary people to fall back upon ourselves and ask, “Well, what can we do?”

I think the miscommunication has to do with the fact that you are speaking primarily to the 90 percent — the Christians in small and large towns who are never on TV, who never publish op-eds, etc. You are telling them that they can’t expect the professionals to do the culture war for them vicariously any more. They need to look around, like pro-lifers did, and figure out what they can do locally.

But while you’re talking to the 90 percent, the people responding to you are necessarily the 10 percent, the ones who are appearing on TV and publishing op-eds. To them, it naturally sounds like you’re telling them to give up. Your point is rather that they can’t do it alone, and you’re telling the 90 percent to gear up.

I think a general problem with the 10 percent is that they believe their work is the only important work, and ordinary people don’t contribute to the cause. And I don’t know that the 90 percent resent that. It’s easier to be a spectator. If the only effective thing a culture warrior can do is face-to-face debate with a secular leader, you’re glad that the experts are out there and you can just watch it on YouTube.

That’s what you’re fighting against — you’re telling the 90 percent that they can’t do it vicariously any more, and that their personal lives matter. Holiness matters. You’re not telling the 10 percent to quit.

I had not thought about it like that, but the reader is absolutely right.

I had a conversation with someone recently, an older white working-class woman, who told me that she had been to six baby showers recently, all for young women who were having babies without husbands. One of the women was pregnant with her third baby by the same man. None were married. The older woman was deeply distressed by this, not only for moral reasons, but because she understands how hard those children are going to have it, regarding poverty and emotional instability.  But she feels powerless to resist this trend.

There’s very little Washington can do about this, and it’s ridiculous to look to DC for solutions. There’s a lot that we can do in our own backyards, within our own little platoons, to reverse this destructive trend. But we are going to have to work much, much harder than most of us ever have. I had lunch with a friend in Baton Rouge today, a young Christian father who told me that he worries about the world his children will grow up in, regarding how the culture catechizes them about the family. We live in one of the more culturally conservative parts of the US, but that means very little.

There is no place to hide. Another friend, a Christian conservative, told me the other day that he is disinclined to be as pessimistic as I am about the culture, “but I keep looking around and thinking about alternatives to the Benedict Option, and I just don’t see any.”

The work of the 10 percent — or whatever their percentage is — laboring in politics, social services, the ministry, education, the media, and so forth, is very important. Don’t stop! But the days of going with the flow for the rest of us are over. If we don’t push back hard, we are going to be swept over the falls. It’s already happening.

UPDATE: From David Gibson’s new column about St. Augustine and this election:

Christian history is filled with examples of the competing impulses to either engage with the world or retreat from it — and even before this campaign various Christian writers and thinkers had been debating whether it was time to withdraw from society to some extent.

The most notable and articulated expression of that idea is found in Orthodox convert and writer Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option,” a proposal (soon to be a book) that faithful believers start to model themselves on small, intentional communities like those established in the sixth century by St. Benedict, considered the founder of Western monasticism.

Caught between the self-defeating moral rot of the established order and the brutality and chaos of an uncivilized horde, the thinking goes, a Christian has little choice but to retreat to the sanctuary and pray.

But experts say that Augustine is no Benedict.

“Augustine’s ‘City of God’ is not about hunkering down. It’s about being a public presence in every city,” said Chad Pecknold, a Catholic University of America theologian and commentator on religion and politics who is writing a book called “Augustine’s City.”

:::::heavy sigh:::::

Look, my family and I just moved from the country into the nearby city. Why? Because our mission church could not afford to pay its priest any longer, and my wife and I knew we could not bear to live 45 minutes away from the nearest Orthodox church, much less raise kids so far away from a parish. Plus, our kids are now taking classes at a classical Christian academy, where my wife teaches. We realized that we could not really be part of building up that school community while living so far away. So we moved into the city for Benedict Option reasons.

Let me repeat that: We. Moved. Into. The. City. For. Benedict. Option. Reasons.

If we small-o orthodox Christians are going to have strong presences in our post-Christian cities, we are going to have to embrace the Benedict Option where we are. That means starting new, explicitly countercultural schools, or changing the ones we have. That means strengthening the local churches we have, and/or starting prayer groups and other fellowships that help us deepen our faith and communal bonds. My Catholic friend Leah Libresco Sargeant, as a single Catholic convert living in DC, depended heavily on the fellowship and spiritual support in the community around the Dominican House of Studies around Catholic U. Plus, she undertook some initiatives to build community among her young Catholic single friends. If you don’t understand that this is the kind of thing I mean by the Benedict Option, you don’t understand the Benedict Option.

I keep hoping that when the Ben Op book comes out on March 14, that this will be more clear. I interviewed Ben Oppish Christians living in cities, in suburbs, and rurally. This is not so much a matter of geography than of what you do in the geography you inhabit. For some of us, wanting a more Benedict Option life will mean moving to the country. For others, it will mean moving to the city. And for still others, it will mean staying in place, but organizing things differently.

People who say that I’m talking about everybody running to their bunkers hidden in the mountains need to stop it. It’s not true.