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Benedict Option and Balance

Had a great time this weekend at the annual conference of the Christian Legal Society, held this year in New Orleans. Julie and I arrived late on Friday evening and had to leave after lunch on Saturday, which meant we weren’t even in town for a full day. But it was a full day, so to speak. Met some great folks, some of whom I’ll be seeing again this weekend at the Benedict Option conference at Georgetown (Oct 10, 10am-12:30pm, Gaston Hall at Georgetown U., 3700 O St., NW). More info here. [1]

At the CLS confab, I spoke to a group of law students and law professors about the Benedict Option. After my talk, a young law student from Georgia approached me to say that he agreed with a lot of what I propose with the Ben Op, but he wanted to draw attention to my remarks about the difficulty of keeping the Ben Op from becoming culty.

“I’ve been reading the things you’ve been posting about the situation with Doug Wilson,” he said, referring to this [2] and this [3]. He went on to explain that he is a product of the conservative Christian homeschooling world, and that it was a great thing for him, but that he had a number of friends from the same world who had been damaged by fundamentalism of a sort marked by fear, paranoia, and control. Some of them were left so broken, he said, that they lost their Christian faith altogether.

I told the young man that it was very important for me to know more about this, and that I would like to stay in touch with him. I asked him to consider writing something for this blog about his experiences, and those of his friends, so you readers and I can talk about it in context of developing the Ben Op. He said he would do so.

About 15 minutes later, I was sitting at a lunch table with a group of students, including a young woman from California, who told me about her experience as an undergraduate at a well-known Evangelical college. The theology department there was so liberal, and so devoted to deconstructing the faith of the students, that she had to fight hard to hold on to her basic Christianity there. If I remember correctly what she said, a number of Christian undergrads she knew there lost their faith; she credited having grown up in a strong Christian home for giving her the foundation to hang on to her belief through the crazy.

How do we find the middle path between these two extremes? The Benedict Option is, of course, in part a reaction against loosey-goosey Christianity, so I don’t have a big worry that versions of the Ben Op would be at risk of being too lax and liberal. The real concern I have is that we would go too far, and create institutions or communities that would be too controlling or otherwise unhealthy. A secondary, lesser concern is that fear of fundamentalism would be so overwhelming that the nascent Ben Op community would fail to create the practices and structures that would be effective in accomplishing what the Ben Op is supposed to do.

Thoughts? I’m only interested in constructive criticism here. If you just want to gripe, don’t bother, because I’m not going to publish it. I’m genuinely trying to learn here, and value your meaningful advice and suggestions.

And hey, if you are in the Washington, DC, area on Saturday, please come to the Ben Op conference and share your ideas.

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66 Comments To "Benedict Option and Balance"

#1 Comment By Anand On October 5, 2015 @ 11:02 pm

Rod,

It strikes me that our moral intuitions are like an immune response. Too little protection from the world and they overwhelmed. But too much protection and they start becoming parisitic, looking within for monsters to slay. So the odd challenge that we have as parents is how to expose our kids to enough garbage to build up their immune systems.

Within some branches of fundamentalism, some of the things teaching your kid rock music would be disparaged. (I’m serious about this- I’ve actually heard people opine on the off-beat as an entry door for demons). Whereas I’d argue that actually it can be a great entry for learning to judge good and evil.

But how would this work in a BenOp setting?

-Anand

#2 Comment By Yoyo On October 5, 2015 @ 11:05 pm

Rod, I hope you do get a moment to read this comment because this is my profound fear of the Ben op model especially if combined with religious freedom exemption. [4].

Children are seriously at risk socially sexually physically and morally. Any Ben op model needs some kind of children’s advocate to prevent abuses.

#3 Comment By Yoyo On October 5, 2015 @ 11:07 pm

Rod, I hope you do get a moment to read this comment because this is my profound fear of the Ben op model especially if combined with religious freedom exemption. [4].

If homeschooling is attached the peril is more pronounced. These communities need independent children’s advocates.
Children are seriously at risk socially sexually physically and morally. Any Ben op model needs some kind of children’s advocate to prevent abuses.

#4 Comment By Ryan Booth On October 5, 2015 @ 11:21 pm

“Fundamentalist” is a hard word to use in discussions. It’s a word that generates no shortage of intense emotions on all side. Yet its definition is so fluid two people rarely end up talking about the same thing unless they deliberate on its accepted definition beforehand.

Hear, hear. I really hate the word, Rod, as I don’t really know what you mean by it.

Do you use it to mean “Christian legalism,” a neo-Puritan system with lots of restrictive rules? Of course, every system or group has rules, but a lot of this is related to the doctrine of theonomy, which attempts to incorporate Old Testament law into modern Christian societies, and indeed asserts that Biblical law should be the law of the land. Doug Wilson’s theology is related to this concept, but it has been best represented by Greg Bahnsen, R. J. Rushdoony, and Gary North.

Or, when you use the word “fundamentalist,” do you mean it in the sense of the backwoods, country bumpkin Christian who opposes the teaching of evolution without honest consideration because he sees that idea as part of a liberal attack on his simple faith? In other words, do you mean it to refer to a certain brand of anti-intellectualism that pushes fideism (“just believe”) at the expense of the intellectual traditions of the Church?

The word is often used more broadly to refer to any Protestant who holds to the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy. That definition would include almost all theologically conservative Protestants, though there certainly exist very different understandings of what “inerrancy” actually means. For example, there are plenty of people (myself included) who hold to inerrancy but also believe that the Bible makes no scientific claims, because God accommodated his message to the scientific understandings of the people of the time, so that they could grasp the theological importance of the message.

The word makes me uncomfortable every time I see it used, because I never know what anyone using it really means, or whether it includes me or not.

[NFR: Fair enough. I’ll be more precise when I use it in the future. — RD]

#5 Comment By Franklin Evans On October 6, 2015 @ 6:25 am

I find significant if intensely ironic humor in a discussion amongst Christians over a label being applied to them, a discussion which includes disagreement over how the word is used or should be used.

Your friendly neighborhood Pagan was awakened at 4:45am by a call from work. He’s not really awake yet, wants to blame this post on his evil twin brother, and is going in search of coffee now.

#6 Comment By Pat On October 6, 2015 @ 6:41 am

From watching my parents’ participation in such a setup, I’d say that disinterested members are key. By which I mean people who have good will but do not care about the founding principles – because folks who try to ground everything in founding principles seem to always work themselves into a position where you must agree with every detail of their interpretation of the founding principles, and then stifling fundamentalism begins.

Any community that’s going to work needs a leaven of people whose only real concern is that everybody be treated kindly, and they need to be honored and respected. Of such are the kingdom of heaven.

#7 Comment By Neal On October 6, 2015 @ 7:00 am

You have a great model for Benop in the monastic life. There is no such model for family life. You cannot guarantee that your children will want to embrace this way of life so you risk the controlling aspects people seem to fear.

I grew up with a large family of 7 kids. The middle kid, while in high school, became unruly and was basically a juvenile delinquent. This was in the 70’s so it wasn’t particularly violent or anything like you see with crazy kids today. Still, it was incredibly disruptive. My parents nearly divorced over how to deal with the kid and the rest of us were completely fed up with him.

Now imagine this dynamic in your Benop community. People will take sides. Some will want to help the kid, others will want to banish him. And all that peace, love, and harmony will vanish.

People – even kids – will have to make an affirmative choice to join this community. But how can you ask that of a 10 year old or a 15 year old? There will always be one or two that rebel and want out. This community will need to have a way to deal with that problem and it’s an impossible problem since the kids cannot live on their own. This is the tension that destroys all these controlling “fundamentalist” families and their kids.

I can imagine that my family experience is what you all fear for your own families… that some aspect of corrosive culture or “running with the wrong crowd” will be a bad influence on your child and then all is lost.

The Benop will fail for families with kids who rebel. And even the best parents have rebellious kids.

#8 Comment By Liam On October 6, 2015 @ 10:54 am

Neal is correct in his concern. All it takes is a significantly neuro-atypical child whose behavior is disruptive to the community. And if the B-Op! communities are promoting fecundity, the odds of such children are greatly enhanced. Plus, we have the miracles of modern medicine to keep such children alive in ways that pre-Industrial societies lacked.

#9 Comment By Rick Saenz On October 6, 2015 @ 1:34 pm

And again my question is: If you don’t know what you don’t know then how will you create something different with Ben Op communities?

We have lost relational skills in this country – the relational skills necessary to (re) build social capital, if you will. Lord Jesus, Robert Putnam – the social capital guru – all he can suggest is that we join book clubs at our local libraries.

Relational skills are only learned via experience – all the conjecture and writing and cogitating about them will *not* suddenly bring them back.

Sharon Joy,

I’m with you! My family accidentally embarked on a Ben Op journey back in 1991, after being profoundly affected by Neil Postman’s writings, particularly The Disappearance of Childhood. At the end of that book Postman poses six questions regarding how to respond to the ongoing crisis. The final question is: Is the individual powerless to resist what is happening? His answer:

The answer to this, in my opinion, is “No.” But, as with all resistance, there is a price to pay. Specifically, resistance entails conceiving of parenting as an act of rebellion against American culture. [Here follows a list of rebellious approaches to child-rearing] … Nonetheless, there are parents who are committed to doing all of these things, who are in effect defying the directives of their culture. Such parents are not only helping their children to have a childhood but are, at the same time, creating a sort of intellectual elite. Certainly in the short run the children who grow up in such homes will, as adults, be much favored by business, the professions, and the media themselves. What can we say of the long run? Only this: Those parents who resis the spirit of the age will contribute to what might be called the Monastery Effect, for they will help to keep alive a humane tradition.

During the twenty-five years since I read that we’ve tried our best to live out Postman’s suggestions and many more like them, with good success: homeschooling, detaching from media, simple living, relationships over accomplishments, living for the sake of others. In the early days we had high hopes that this could be done in community, but the communities we joined always let us down. Fortunately we learned that community was helpful but not critical, and lack of community was no excuse for not doing the work. We’ve been greatly blessed by having stuck with it. It was at first baffling, then just disappointing, that no one has been much interested in how we became the healthy family we are today. But good health is its own reward.

(I should mention that I think my hero Postman was wrong about the Monastery Effect creating an intellectual elite, wrong in that very American way which sees educated professionalism as the pinnacle of the Good Life. Well, even Homer nods!)

Your Ben Op is doomed to fail because those who promote it are operating out a failed philosophical system that valued and separated the mind over and apart from the heart.

It will fail because the lack of relational skills can not be addressed by *thinking* about them. You (and myself) need to learn the relational skills of communities that *indeed are* cohesive. Perhaps having missionaries from developing countries teach us how they honor their elders – may be a place to start? Although I have other ideas…

Right again! The Ben Op has been tried so many times in the not too recent past, and failed spectacularly. Why the emphasis on championing new, untested efforts in this area rather than studying those–or, at least, using previously failed efforts as a diagnostic for the new, looking to see how they avoid the flaws which led to failure?

You leave us with a couple of good ideas for how to proceed. I’ll add one of my own: work towards a deeper understanding of why movements always fail. First read three outstanding blog posts Alan Jacobs recently wrote on this site: “The Value of Disagreement”, “Disciplinary Bulverism”, and (especially) “Code Fetishists and Normolaters”. Then read the book The Rivers North of the Future: The Testament of Ivan Illich–it’s all in there. After digesting those, the reader may be inspired to stop waiting for a movement to carry them along to the land of Good Christian Character and just get on with the journey.

#10 Comment By JonF On October 6, 2015 @ 2:01 pm

Re: his community will need to have a way to deal with that problem and it’s an impossible problem since the kids cannot live on their own.

But it is a problem that solves itself with time: the kid grows up and he leaves (if still so minded).
The Amish and Mormons are both wise enough not to hang onto to people who want out. Keeping a bunch of angry dissidents locked in is what is destructive.

#11 Comment By Sam M On October 6, 2015 @ 2:12 pm

Neal:

“People – even kids – will have to make an affirmative choice to join this community. But how can you ask that of a 10 year old or a 15 year old? There will always be one or two that rebel and want out. This community will need to have a way to deal with that problem and it’s an impossible problem since the kids cannot live on their own.”

I think this again envisions something of a walled community. As Rod has mentioned several times, St. Jerome’s in Maryland is something of a model. In case you are not familiar, Hyattsville is literally inside the Beltway. It’s not off on a mountain somewhere. A kid who simply could not get along at St. Jerome’s Classical Academy could enroll at Hyattsville Elementary. Literally across the street. Kids who do not get along at the teen gatherings at the church might do better at the less classically oriented DeMatha High School, which is like one block away. Or they might take the metro two stops up to the University of Maryland. Or two stops down to Catholic University.

Look. Everyone lives in a culture. And certain teens reject said cultures. BenOp parents with rebellious teens should respond… the same way all parents with rebellious teens respond. This is a major problem if you are in that proverbial mountain compound, yes. But a prime example of BenOp living proves that the mountain hermitage will be the exception, not the rule.

#12 Comment By Al On October 6, 2015 @ 4:42 pm

“And then you have people within your group who definitely break the rules who you are going to decide to kick out. But they’ll have family members who in many cases aren’t going to want to cut off contact and are going to want to provide support–what happens then? (Plus, I can’t think of something more likely to bring the wrath of the surrounding seculars down on you than a Ben-Op community kicking out an unmarried pregnant girl, unless it’s kicking out a gay teen.)”

It seems that a lot of people are picturing some sort of walled community with armed guards at the gates and a police force that punishes private sins and quashes dissent. Why would a BenOp community have to be like that? There are communities in the US that are BenOp already, and they don’t kick out pregnant girls or gay teens. They embrace such people as all sinners (meaning everyone) are embraced. There is no question of kicking people out…if someone does not like the culture, they simply leave of their own accord. Why would someone have to be “admitted” or “kicked out?”

#13 Comment By Al On October 6, 2015 @ 4:53 pm

“But they’ll have family members who in many cases aren’t going to want to cut off contact and are going to want to provide support–what happens then?”

Again, why would families have to “cut off contact” or withhold “support” from other family members? You seem to be imagining the BenOp as some kind of insular cult, where only the pure and holy live and all others are shunned. There are BenOp communities out there and this sort of thing does not happen.

#14 Comment By Neal On October 6, 2015 @ 6:29 pm

@ Sam M, JonF, and Al:

I wasn’t thinking of this as a walled community. Certainly my own family had no such walls. Yet the family structure is at risk regardless when the parents wish to teach and enforce a certain way of life and a child (or spouse) rebels or has doubts. If the parents and families are all going to the same church then they surely will know the comings and goings of the children. They will know which ones are in and which ones are not. They will want to protect their own children from the bad influence posed by my so-called rebellious kid. This is exactly what the Benop is supposed to do… protect the families from the corrosive effects of the surrounding culture. So when a family within the group starts having trouble with kids acting out or resisting, then the community will have an interest in how that situation is resolved. No?

At some point a child will make an affirmative decision to participate fully in this spiritual life of the community. We had these dynamics in my own family as some didn’t want to go to mass on Sunday morning. It’s one thing to handle it within a single family… it is another thing when your fellow church members start asking why little johnny isn’t at church.

Maybe all making too much of this risk, but these family dynamics don’t normally move out of the home unless there are close relationships between different families. That, I presume, is one of the attractions of the Benop.

#15 Comment By Sharon Joy On October 7, 2015 @ 7:09 am

Rick Saenz –

Thanks for your encouraging response! Apparently some white middle-aged guys *are* listening! (I’m making a lot of un-pc assumptions there, I realize…) I look forward to reading the literature you suggested. Blessings.

#16 Comment By JonF On October 7, 2015 @ 1:39 pm

Neil,

I also was not thinking of a walled community– neither the Mormons nor the Amish live in places with walls after all. I was only pointing out that childhood problems are transient because children do not remain children.