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Ben Op As Bondage

Benedict Option as moated castle? (Dennis van de Water/Shutterstock)

The ex-Christian, feminist blogger Libby Anne says that she grew up in a Benedict Option, and it didn’t work. Excerpts:

Well, as a homeschooled child, I grew up with this greater degree of separation, and it didn’t work. Let me explain why it didn’t work.

On the surface, it probably looked like it worked. As a child, my life revolved around church, Bible study, Bible club, homeschool co-op (you had to sign a statement of faith), homeschool debate club (another statement of faith), and children’s choir at our church. We had a large number of families in our social circle, and all were evangelical or fundamentalist Christians like us. All of the other children I was friends with were homeschooled, and all integrated religion into their curricula. My mother read the Bible aloud to us every morning after breakfast, and we were required to read the Bible to ourselves before breakfast as well. My father prayed with us before bed, and we memorized hundreds of Bible verses and studied theology and apologetics. All of our subjects were taught from a Christian perspective.

Growing up, we each made a profession of faith and we were each baptized. We were isolated from the influences we might have received had we attended public school. We didn’t date, we didn’t party, we never tried smoking or drugs. By all appearances, we were good Christian kids. In fact, at our evangelical megachurch—where we eschewed youth group as too worldly, because there were public school kids there—we were seen by many as the quintessential example of a godly Christian family. Our faith was woven seamlessly through our lives.

Despite all that, Libby Anne left the church anyway. When she went off to college, she was totally unprepared to engage people who didn’t see the world as she did. For another:

There’s another problem, too. Growing up within Christian community, I only ever heard the other side’s arguments through a sort of filter. For example, I studied evolution out of creationist textbooks which explained evolution in an incomplete way and was full of straw men of evolutionary scientists’ positions. The same was true with basically everything. I didn’t hear the other side’s argument from the horse’s mouth, as it were, until I was in college, and when I did I was surprised, because what the other side actually said didn’t line up with what I’d been taught it said. This created a crisis of faith, because I no longer felt I could trust what my parents had taught me.

Because what I call the Christian bubble filter is so common across congregations and communities, raising children under a more separate Benedict Option could potentially mean that all of their information about the world outside the bubble would be filtered and thus distorted. This is a problem because when they eventually hear something from someone outside of the bubble, unfiltered—the moment they meet an ordinary gay couple happily raising children, or learn that using entropy to argue against evolution fails on the most basic level—-it won’t line up with what they’d been told inside the bubble. And frankly, postponing this moment until adulthood spells trouble.

There’s a lot more, but I don’t want to overquote her here. Let me just say, read the whole thing. 

I appreciate her very challenging comment. As I’ve said here before, I grew up in a family where the approach to Christianity was undemanding. Believe it or not, even though I was raised in the Deep South, fundamentalists were thin on the ground in my town. I don’t think I met an actual fundamentalist who behaved in the way Libby Anne describes until I was an adult. Given my background, I longed for a Christianity that was deeper and more rigorous. Had I been raised like Libby Anne, I suspect that I would have similar misgivings about Christianity. It’s impossible to say.

And, I don’t want to push back as hard as I might, simply because as I’m writing the Benedict Option book, I want to learn from the experiences of people like her, for the sake of avoiding, and teaching readers to avoid, the mistakes that led her to lose her faith.

That said, I do want to push back against the idea that the only options on the table are life in a fundagelical bubble, or no separation at all from the world. Insofar as I’m raising my children in a Benedict Option, their childhood looks nothing like Libby Anne’s. I don’t personally know too many people who would say that they are Ben Opping in their families, but of those I do, their lives don’t look like Libby Anne’s family in childhood. At this point in my research, it’s hard to say with any precision what the difference is, but one thing that stands out is that none of us approach the world as a terrifying place from which the kids have to be protected like diamonds in a vault.

For example, all my kids know that gays exists, and that they are people like everybody else. Our kids know what sex is, and that people have sex outside of marriage. Et cetera. Our kids know what we believe to be morally right, and they know that our family’s beliefs in this regard mark us as outsiders in this culture. But they are still true anyway, and as is age-appropriate, we explain why we believe what we believe.

They’re getting normal biological science in homeschooling, but we explain to them how to reconcile what we know from science with what we know from Scripture and Tradition. And again, as age-appropriate, we explain the difference between Science and Scientism. And so on.

This is our general approach to the world outside the home. Is it going to produce resilient Christian adults who hold on to their faith once they leave the nest? We hope so, but we also know that there is no foolproof formula. Weirdly enough, my late sister and I both turned out to be more religiously observant than our parents, but I have had a number of friends over the years who were raised more or less like I was, and who no longer go to church because they believe there’s nothing much to it. On the other hand, I have a friend whose adult children were raised in the best of all conceivable Christian homes, yet one of her three left the faith in a big, bold way. You never know.

But I believe that there are some environments that grow more resilient kids, and some that do not. It would be interesting to me to know what happened to most of the other kids that Libby Anne was raised with. Are they still practicing the faith? Did they stick with fundagelicalism, or did they find a less rigid form of Christianity? Again, the kind of childhood Libby Anne had, I find strongly unappealing. But maybe that says more about Libby Anne and me than it does about that kind of Christianity. More important, I want to highlight that this fundamentalist-or-nothing model that she posits is a false choice. I don’t believe, as a matter of principle, that all Benedict Options are created equal. Again, though, I’m trying, in my research, to discover which practices work better than others. That’s why I don’t want to get too defensive towards the Libby Annes.

I’ve heard a lot before from people who were raised in Ben Op-type situations that went bad. I’d like to hear from those who were raised in these situations that succeeded. What did your parents and community do right?

Raising kids is hard. Always has been. It’s especially so when you’re having to raise them against the grain of the broader culture. Unfortunately, you only get one shot at it, and it’s easy to screw up. But you don’t see what you did wrong, except in retrospect — after it’s too late.

UPDATE: Fantastic comment by Jones, who is a believing Muslim:

No, isolation doesn’t work. I think that’s the message the woman’s post conveys. If this is going to work, it’s not because we’ve managed to successfully hide from the modern world. And if that were what it would take, that would not be a great endorsement of our worldview in the first place. A great worldview is one that can not only survive encounters with opposing views, but rout them in a square fight.

I grew up in a pretty sheltered environment — some of it on purpose, some of it not. And, yes, my world came crashing down when I left that environment, with massive, multi-year consequences that forever changed my life. These were long, brutally hard years. And I have been exposed to, indeed immersed in, the farthest extremes of irreligious modern life. Not only have I long been in company with radical leftist, feminist, postmodernist, Marxist, multiculturalists; I have been one of them.

And yet I came back. And I firmly believe in, and sometimes fiercely advocate for, a nearly opposite set of views (when it’s not blatantly imprudent to do so, which is almost never . . .).

Why?

Because the views I hold now are better. But how did I come to know that? Because I never forgot my youth; I never forgot my parents, and my community; and I never stopped loving my parents. I think for me that last one has been most important of all. It has always seemed immediately and intuitively obvious to me that they were better — morally superior — to most of the people around me in my “liberal” phase. It was just a matter of staying true to that, to their integrity, their piety, their humility. I never stopped believing in my parents and in their way of life. And I am committed to seeing it forward, even more so in a world that frustrates that way of life from the get-go.

The truth is that a lot of this might be very particular to me. Maybe not everyone can so directly compare the probity, the integrity of their parents’ way of life with the profligate degeneracy and licentiousness of modern life. Maybe not everyone can see the manifest superiority of one to the other with the blazing clarity of self-evident Truth.

There is a cost. My parents lived lives of breathtaking sacrifice. In that sense their lives could not have been more “un-American.” Selflessness was so built in so deeply to their way of life, I can’t imagine how it could be taken out. Even now I struggle to get them to enjoy the things I enjoy, to have the things I have — and even what I have is pathetic in comparison to what most Americans around me have.

Maybe my ability to see the light even in the times of greatest darkness is a gift from them to me–an unspeakably precious gift, bought at an incredibly high price. That price was the unstinting integrity with which they lived their lives. I’ve spent my whole life trying to find ways to repay them — and I have come up with nothing.

Maybe the lesson is this: you cannot hide your children from the world, and you cannot guarantee that they will become good Christians. I should add that I think my parents have been disappointed, sometimes even devastated, at what me and my siblings have become in this country. I don’t think they ever imagined it. But if you live your life in a way that exemplifies the virtues you want to pass on to them, they will surely remember and learn from your example.

Two other points to make sure what I said here is interpreted correctly:

My parents were not saints. They were not people who never did anything wrong. Nor was our house some sort of paradise. It was often filled with rancor, conflict, and misery. So don’t get the mistaken impression that that’s what I’m talking about; some poster image of a good happy family. To the contrary. That only enhances their virtue in my eyes. They worked so hard, for so little reward, and with no purpose except the love of their children.

My parents could not have done what they did alone; they belonged to a community that all held the same norms. And they relied on that community constantly. We enjoyed the benefits of a culture not of our own making.

UPDATE.2: Check out this great response from Will Dole:

I’m not sure that what I’m about to say is entirely different than what a couple of other commenters have posted.

I grew up in a home with many similarities to what Libby Anne describes. I’m the oldest of 11 children (from 25 down to 3), was homeschooled after the second grade, most of my friends growing up were homeschooled, we lived in the country, attended homeschool conventions, eschewed youth group (because of the “bad influences”), and my parents had a conniption fit when I began dating (the pastor’s daughter) at age 17. Fundagelical,indeed.

I also knew a lot of kids in the same degree of sheltering, or greater. The results, like those of any parenting style, are wildly varied. I know folks who, like me, rebelled in various fashions; anything from pornography use to having children out of wedlock, partying, and divorce. Some left the faith. But there is the flipside, namely, that some of the most godly people I have ever met have come out of such a background.

Let me tell you, as someone who has said “never” to sheltering my kids in the way that my parents (attempted) to shelter me, why I am so drawn to the benedict option:

There is something very true in what the fundies see or feel. The world is not their friend in raising godly children. And that non-friend, that enemy, becomes more invasive with each advance in technology. But they miss something even more important, namely that the primary problem of each human is not one which lies outside. Rather, it is one which lies within our chests. Original sin, and the volitional sins which flow from it, are a much bigger problem than the temptations to that sin which the world provides. And here is where I understand your articulation of the Benedict Option, as I understand it, to be so helpful. If we form intentional communicates where we ourselves are formed by our faith, and we can then in turn raise our children in this formation, we are doing this not only as a means of [i]preservation[/i] in the midst of the world, but, perhaps more importantly, an act of [i]preparation[/i] for engagement with the world. So, to take an example, I don’t want to hide from my children the fact that such a thing as pornography exists. I very much do desire them to have minimal or zero access to such materials until they have reached an age, maturity level, and level of spiritual formation that I can reasonably hope that they will respond to the temptation in a wise and godly manner. I don’t want them to just know that “dad said no” or “dad said God said no.” I want them to understand that viewing pornography would be to view a human being as an object for their personal pleasure, rather than an image bearer of God. It would be an affront to that person, to themselves, and to God. Not surprisingly, I don’t think handing a 7 year old a smartphone comports with this. Nor does sending them to a school which is full of children whose parents don’t share my commitments and values.

Is this really rocket science? So much more could be said. But in sum, I see the problem with Fundie sheltering, an essentially think it’s imply the opposite of modern unParenting. And BenOp is totally different.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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