Agency & The Benedict Option
At The Federalist, Cheryl Magness defends The Benedict Option:
The concern that Christians who embrace the Benedict Option are retreating into a cultish, anti-social lifestyle is perhaps the most common criticism of Dreher’s book. But Dreher has repeatedly denied that the book calls for Christians to withdraw from modern life to live in snobby little separatist communes.
Instead, Dreher encourages Christians to engage the culture, but to do so on their own terms, not on the culture’s. This is what I think a lot of people are missing about the Benedict Option. In focusing on the first part of the name, which evokes an image of monastic life, they are overlooking the importance of the second part of Dreher’s vision: “Option.” “Option” means “choice”—and it is the Christian’s commitment to choosing his path, rather than allowing it to be chosen for him by the world, that is at the heart of Dreher’s argument.
Yes, and to put a fine point on it, I get the idea of a choice, an “option,” from MacIntyre’s final paragraph of After Virtue, in which he posits the division between those in the collapsing Roman Empire who chose to continue trying to “shore up the imperium” with those who decided that to preserve what they most valued under those conditions, they had to live counterculturally. The idea is that we are not helpless, that we do have a choice — and if we have a choice, we also have a responsibility to choose well.
It’s interesting to me how some readers of the book say that the book’s ask is too hard, or at least harder on some than others, therefore we can safely ignore the whole thing. I think that’s a strategy of evasion. OK, so you can’t afford to pull your kids out of public school, or can’t homeschool, or send your kids to a solid Christian school? Fine — but what are you going to do about it? If your kids are in a less than ideal school setting, that only means that you are going to have to compensate at some point for what they are not getting. Maybe Ben Op-oriented parents whose kids go to a certain public school can get together, decide what their kids need supplementing with, and organize to do that. Maybe their kids go to a church youth group, in which case perhaps the parents can get more involved there to make sure the youth group is giving serious formation and discipleship to the kids, given that they’re not getting it in school. Creative minorities, y’all.
I never tire of telling the story of the Catholic priest who shut up me and a Catholic friend circa 2000, when we were complaining endlessly about all the things the local parishes, and the archdiocese, were not doing to form the laity and their children. The priest said yes, we were absolutely right to identify these problems and to lament the lack of institutional concern or assistance. But we were absolutely wrong, he said, to wash our hands of responsibility for ourselves, our friends, and our kids. As intelligent, capable, and well-formed laity, there was a lot we could do for ourselves without waiting passively for permission from the institutional church.
He was right. In the same spirit, if our kids in public school (or wherever) are not getting all that we believe they need, it’s much better to work to do something for them instead of lament what they don’t have, and to say, “Welp, guess we’re out of luck on this Benedict Option thing.”
For example, if it’s true that it’s much harder for single parents, or families where both people work, to do the Benedict Option, well, what can we who have more resources do to help make it more possible for those families? And if we cannot afford to homeschool or to do the educational aspects of the Ben Op for whatever reason, okay, then let’s work hard on the things that we can do. The perfect must not be the enemy of the good.
The Benedict Option is an abstraction. Everything about it is going to depend on the concrete ways in which people apply it, and those ways are going to vary from one person to the next. One family’s negative experience with something like the Benedict Option does not mean the underlying principles are all bad, just that it’s possible to not execute them well.
As Joy Pullmann observed, the Benedict Option is “summed up by a New Yorker named Leah Libresco Sargeant on page 142: “[P]eople won’t do it unless you call it something different. It’s just the church being what the church is supposed to be, but if you give it a name, that makes people care.”
For some, Dreher’s acknowledgment that he has merely given a name to something that is not new is a weakness, or as Simms describes it, a “gimmick.” For me, it is a revelation, a way of talking about what my husband and I have been doing for more than 20 years without realizing it. To be able to give our way of life a name so we can talk about it with others who are doing the same thing and to build one another up in our efforts is hardly a gimmick: it is a gift. (Dreher gave a similar gift when he wrote “Crunchy Cons.”)
I recently read “Hillbilly Elegy,” by J. D. Vance. It was a profoundly affecting experience, as my husband and I could relate to a staggering number of things in the book. It was also sad. Vance unflinchingly and honestly catalogs both the circumstances and personal behaviors that can make it difficult to impossible for people to chart a different path from the one in which they have been brought up. Yet the only way out is to wrest what control one can: to take responsibility for one’s actions and to make choices instead of letting others make those choices for you.
That is what the Benedict Option is all about: choosing. Do you send your children to public school because that’s what people do, or do you consider alternatives? Do you take the culture as it comes, or do you discriminate, saying no to music, books, movies, fashion, and other societal trends that conflict with your values? Do you let every latest piece of technology into your family’s hands simply because it’s available, or do you draw some boundaries?
Do you resign yourself to compromising your beliefs in performing your job because that’s just what one has to do these days, or do you refuse and accept the consequences? Do you make church a priority and seek out one that is serious about confessing Christ, or do you look for one that is comfortable and easy to fit it in around the edges? Do you actually read the Bible and pray as a family, or do you just call yourself a Christian and hope this and the occasional prayer born of urgency is good enough to get you into heaven some day?
Read the whole thing; it’s really good.
In interviews recently, I’ve been pointing out that so many conservative Christian parents think they’ve got everything well in hand because they send their kids to a Christian school (or homeschool them), go to church on Sunday, maybe send their kids to the youth group, and they hold the correct conservative Christian opinions. Meanwhile, they’re handing their young kids smartphones, thereby undoing everything they (the parents) think they’re accomplishing. The most common complaint? My kids will be weird if they don’t have smartphones.
This is how we surrender agency, folks. This is not on Hollywood, or the media, or the public schools, or liberals, any other outsider we might wish to blame. This is on us Christians.