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Benedictines, Not Fundamentalists

Leaving chaos and irreligion for airless, joyless rigor is no solution

Some friends staying with us last night mentioned this Christianity Today interview with Fox News‘s Kirsten Powers, in which she talks about her new book about the intolerant left. Here’s a passage I want to talk about:

Q: So you draw a distinction between Christian virtues within a church or theological church, and society, and that we can’t expect the laws of the land to reflect our particular views. We live in a pluralist society and there are many different players at the table. So what does or should Christian witness look like in the public square? Rod Dreher recently put forth the Benedict Option: “a radical response — a kind of deliberate, strategic retreat so that we can tend our own gardens, so to speak, and cultivate the deep roots that our kids and their kids, and their kids’ kids will need to hold on to the faith through the dark times ahead.”

I’m assuming you would not echo the retreat model.

A: I don’t think it’s true that you can’t live with integrity as a Christian in the public square. Look, are you going to be the most popular person around? Probably not. Will some people think you are a weirdo? Yes. I don’t have a right to expect people to not think I’m a weirdo because I believe that what the Bible says is true. I’m not saying this is what Dreher thinks, but I do notice that Christians will say, “We are so persecuted because people think we are bigots.” It’s not persecution if someone thinks you’re a bigot. It’s persecution if you lose your job over it, but people not approving of you isn’t persecution. We’re supposed to be different. If we don’t seem strange, then something is probably off.

Being a person who became a Christian later in life, I didn’t grow up thinking I was part of the dominant culture. To me, being a Christians was always something that was going to make my life harder. I became a Christian in Manhattan. When you live in the South or some Midwestern town where nearly everyone is a Christian, it’s different. But I’ve always been in the minority with people reacting, “That’s weird.”

A lot of the cultural dynamic is an adjustment, of Christians coming to terms. But the answer isn’t, “Now that we’re not in charge any more, we’re going to take our marbles and go home. Now that we’re not getting things our way, we’re out of here.” The response should be, “Maybe we need to be talking about these issues differently. Maybe there’s another way to engage and serve people.”

Being humbled is a good thing.

For the record, I don’t think one is persecuted because one is thought to be a bigot for holding orthodox Christian views. I think that the demonization of orthodox Christians is leading to some Christians losing their jobs and livelihoods, and having to go into the closet in their workplaces. This is going to happen a lot more. We know this.

But that is not even the main reason for the Benedict Option, which I was talking about before gay marriage became much of a thing. Alasdair MacIntyre doesn’t mention homosexuality in his book After Virtue, but he does diagnose our culture as fragmenting, and for reasons that go back centuries. It is quite clear that it is becoming very hard to hold on to orthodox Christianity in conditions of postmodernity. When I think of the Benedict Option, I think of these passages from a 2004 essay by the Biblical scholar Robert Louis Wilken:

In my lifetime we have witnessed the collapse of Christian civilization. At first the process of disintegration was slow, a gradual and persistent attrition, but today it has moved into overdrive, and what is more troubling, it has become deliberate and intentional, not only promoted by the cultured despisers of Christianity but often aided and abetted by Christians themselves.

Take, for example, the calendar. I am not thinking primarily of Santa displacing the Christ child or the Easter Bunny replacing the Resurrection; nor do I mean the transfer of festivals that fall in midweek (e.g., Epiphany or Pentecost or All Saints) to the nearest Sunday. I mean the dramatic, wholesale evacuation of Sunday as a holy day. At eleven o’clock on Sunday morning at Home Depot or Lowe’s the lines of folks with cans of paint, two-by-fours, and joint cement stretch almost as far as they do on a Saturday morning. The only lingering difference between Sunday and other days of the week is that the malls open later and close earlier. The churches, particularly the bishops of the Catholic Church, were complicit in the desacralization of Sunday as a holy day when they introduced late Saturday afternoon liturgies, called Vigil Masses. A more fitting name would be McMasses. The faithful can fulfill their obligation by slipping into church for a half hour or so on Saturday afternoon and then have Sunday to themselves without the pesky inconvenience of getting the family up for Mass.

Of course, one might retort that in the United States (unlike in Europe) the churches are flourishing and the number of Christians is growing. Yes, there are many Christians in the U.S., but can we still claim to be a Christian society? If one uses any measure other than individual adherence (what people say if asked) or even church attendance, it is undeniable that the influence of Christianity on the life and mores of our society is on the wane. And the decline is likely to continue. Which leads to a question: Can Christian faith—no matter how enthusiastically proclaimed by evangelists, how ably expounded by theologians and philosophers, or how cleverly translated into the patois of the intellectual class by apologists—be sustained for long without the support of a nurturing Christian culture? By culture, I do not mean high culture (Bach’s B-Minor Mass, Caravaggio’s The Calling of St. Matthew); I mean the “total harvest of thinking and feeling,” to use T. S. Eliot’s phrase—the pattern of inherited meanings and sensibilities encoded in rituals, law, language, practices, and stories that can order, inspire, and guide the behavior, thoughts, and affections of a Christian people.


Material culture and with it art, calendar and with it ritual, grammar and with it language, particularly the language of the Bible—these are only three of many examples (monasticism would be another) that could be brought forth to exemplify the thick texture of Christian culture, the fullness of life in the community that is Christ’s form in the world.

Nothing is more needful today than the survival of Christian culture, because in recent generations this culture has become dangerously thin. At this moment in the Church’s history in this country (and in the West more generally) it is less urgent to convince the alternative culture in which we live of the truth of Christ than it is for the Church to tell itself its own story and to nurture its own life, the culture of the city of God, the Christian republic. This is not going to happen without a rebirth of moral and spiritual discipline and a resolute effort on the part of Christians to comprehend and to defend the remnants of Christian culture. [Emphasis mine — RD] The unhappy fact is that the society in which we live is no longer neutral about Christianity. The United States would be a much less hospitable environment for the practice of the faith if all the marks of Christian culture were stripped from our public life and Christian behavior were tolerated only in restricted situations.

If Christian culture is to be renewed, habits are more vital than revivals, rituals more edifying than spiritual highs, the creed more penetrating than theological insight, and the celebration of saints’ days more uplifting than the observance of Mother’s Day. There is great wisdom in the maligned phrase ex opere operato, the effect is in the doing. Intention is like a reed blowing in the wind. It is the doing that counts, and if we do something for God, in the doing God does something for us.

This is the gist of the Benedict Option: creating the conditions and habits necessary for our faith to live on in an anti-Christian society in which the dominant culture is so overpowering. Going along to get along is not going to suffice. How do we do this? I don’t think there is one set way. But that’s for another post.

One of our visiting friends said to me last night that I’m missing something important when I talk about the Benedict Option, and this accounts for the persistent misunderstanding of many people.

“You didn’t grow up in fundamentalism, so when you talk about withdrawal, you’re thinking about monasticism,” she said. “People who are recovering from fundamentalism, though, they hear you talk this way and they immediately think of people who get panicked about movies and music, and want to shield themselves and their children from everything. I know that’s not what you mean, but you’re not getting that a lot of people can’t get past the language you use. It reminds them of fundamentalism.”

I thanked her genuinely for this insight. My friend is correct: I have no real experience of fundamentalism. I’m not trying to run away from something bad; I’m trying to run toward something good. I’ve noticed from being part of the homeschooling community for years that you can always tell the difference between people who homeschool because they want to pursue excellence, both spiritual and academic, for their kids, and those who do it because they’re afraid of the outside world.

The division is not clean. There are people (we are among them) who really do see dangers in the mainstream culture, which is why, for example, we don’t let our kids have unrestricted access to entertainment media. Choosing for excellence does not mean that you think there are no dangers out there. It means, though, that you are making an affirmative choice for the good, versus choosing simply to avoid the bad. Does that make sense?

Monks live in monasteries not because they consider themselves holier than everybody else, but rather because they believe they need to live together, in community, with some distance between themselves and the outside world, for the sake of working out their salvation. They will tell you that they are too spiritually weak to be in the world. But most monasteries welcome pilgrims and visitors, because the monks (and nuns) like to share their own lives with others. I went to a monastery last weekend. It’s possible to stay overnight there, and to meet with the monks for spiritual counsel, and to worship with them. These aren’t frightened gnomes, but rather men who are serious about the Christian life, and who have chosen to live it together, according to a rigorous traditional set of disciplines.

How would something like that be applied to life outside the monastery? How can we adapt that orientation to building thick communities of habit, ritual, creed, and culture-making, communities that form resilient believers who can hold on to what they have been given in very difficult times, both now and to come.

That’s what I’m interested in exploring. But I do very much appreciate what my friend said to me, because it had not occurred to me that the only experience the great majority of Americans have with this kind of discussion is through fundamentalism. Aside from the distortions of fundamentalism, we don’t have many monasteries in the United States. Monasticism is alien. People simply don’t grasp the monastic spirit, or think in monastic categories. It seems weird and suspicious to them.

These are challenges I’m going to have to work through as I write this book. I would last about five minutes in a grim, joyless fundamentalist compound. Our friends arrived tonight after eight hours on the road, and we served dinner, had beer and wine, then retired to the living room for coffee, tea, and long conversation about life, about church, about books, about God. This is part of the Benedict Option for us. Of course you don’t have to be any sort of lay Benedictine to be hospitable; all good people are hospitable. My point is simply that this kind of hospitality is not something we do in spite of our Christianity; it’s something we do because of the kind of Christians we are. I am basically a Byzantine hobbit who lives by a Christianity that both fasts and feasts, and that sings psalms, and says the knots on a prayer rope, and lights candles, and makes prostrations during Lent, and on and on.

It’s a life that is vivid and joyful, with the sacramental worship of Jesus Christ at its center. Not as an add-on, but at its center. That’s what I mean too by the Benedict Option.

What I don’t mean is “we’re not in charge anymore, so we’re taking our marbles and going home.” As I have said, and said, and will have to keep saying, if there were no such thing as same-sex marriage, there would still be a need for the Benedict Option. The advance of gay rights has only sharpened and quickened trends that were already there, and that have been dissolving Christian faith. The Benedict Option is far more a response to pervasive consumerism, individualism, and atomism than anything to do with gay rights. If “we” were still in charge, I would say the same thing. You don’t really expect the guy who wrote Crunchy Cons to believe that all would be well if only we elected more conservatives, do you?



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