Is ‘The Benedict Option’ Insufficiently Radical?
I have had an open tab on my browser for almost three weeks now, trying to figure out how to engage with this massive, massive post about The Benedict Option from a blogger named Handle. It might be the longest single post anyone has ever written about the book. He likes parts of it, and he doesn’t like parts of it. Most of his commentary is really interesting, and I’ve been struggling with how to engage it without giving myself over to a 7,000-word reply that few people will read.
This recent essay by Victor Davis Hanson — “Epitaph For A Dying Culture” — gave me a way in. Hanson surveys the culture, pointing to a number of examples of a “new Dark Age” falling upon us. I won’t quote him at length — read the essay — but he’s talking about the widespread abandonment of cultural traditions (including legal principles) in favor of progressive dogma. Hanson warns that culture is much stronger than politics.
“In this growing Dark Age, nothing is as it was,” he writes. “We have only faint memories of what was normal just decades ago.”
The result is that, in lieu of pushback, to escape the new Dark Age, tens of millions of Americans are increasingly dropping out in search of some sort of physical or mental monastery, an escape, a refuge from a vindictive state and from those who crafted and are invested in it.
Millions no longer watch the Emmys or Grammys or any sort of entertainment awards event. They do not go to the movies or even watch new Hollywood releases on their computers or televisions.
Popular music is skipped on the expectation that it is not just vulgar and foul, but incoherently politicalized. They more and more pass on professional sports, neither watching nor attending what has become condemnatory rituals or lectures on social justice from pampered multimillionaire athletes.
At work, they keep their thoughts to themselves and nod assent to received pieties.
Courtship resembles a careful script in which a wrong word, an unartful advance can spell career destruction. To be safe, would-be couples inquire firsthand about their respective politics and traditions. The amoral marketplace, in Brave New World fashion, answers with promises of inanimate and mechanical sex partners.
All scour their past—in fear that something 20, 30, or 50 years prior might resurface, immediately become mythologized and thus weaponized to destroy them, especially should they have achieved status, public recognition, affluence, or influence. One’s personal privacy is kept hidden, not just in disgust with our generation’s therapeutic maladies in which others pour out their emotions and fragilities in lieu of an idea, but because any disclosure is expected later to be used against oneself.
An idea of retirement is not merely a house by the lake or a cottage on the coast to die in peace, but now a mental refuge in which we are at last free from 24/7 sermonizing and worry over thought crimes, both in person and electronically—a world in which a sermonizer on a computer screen or in a television set does not lecture us for perceived shortcomings without acknowledgment that he is more likely than not to also fail to meet his own standards of morality.
In other words, America is resembling the medieval Balkans, where spent traditionalists fled to the mountaintops, abandoned the plains of a dying culture to the new zealots who stormed in under the pretense of civilization.
Many of us on the Right who have been dismayed by the Trumpening have been hard hit by the Kavanaugh debacle, and have concluded that whatever our misgivings, we have no choice but to vote Republican this November, if only out of self-defense.
But let me quote two passages from The Benedict Option:
The cultural left—which is to say, the American mainstream— has no intention of living in postwar peace. It is pressing forward with a harsh, relentless occupation, one that is aided by the cluelessness of Christians who don’t understand what’s happening. Don’t be fooled: the upset presidential victory of Donald Trump has at best given us a bit more time to prepare for the inevitable.
I have written The Benedict Option to wake up the church and to encourage it to act to strengthen itself, while there is still time. If we want to survive, we have to return to the roots of our faith, both in thought and in deed. We are going to have to learn habits of the heart forgotten by believers in the West. We are going to have to change our lives, and our approach to life, in radical ways. In short, we are going to have to be the church, without compromise, no matter what it costs.
[T]he new Trump administration may be able to block or at least slow these moves with its judicial appointments, but this is small consolation. Will the law as written by a conservative legislature and interpreted by conservative judges overwrite the law of the human heart? No, it will not. Politics is no substitute for personal holiness. The best that orthodox Christians today can hope for from politics is that it can open a space for the church to do the work of charity, culture building, and conversion.
… [B]elievers must avoid the usual trap of thinking that politics can solve cultural and religious problems. Trusting Republican politicians and the judges they appoint to do the work that only cultural change and religious conversion can do is a big reason Christians find ourselves so enfeebled. The deep cultural forces that have been separating the West from God for centuries will not be halted or reversed by a single election, or any election at all.
I admit that Trump was better on judges than I expected him to be. That said, I still stand by this diagnosis: Christians who believe that politics alone will be sufficient are not going to be prepared for what’s going to come when the Republicans lose the White House and/or Congress, which is inevitable. Our politics have become so sulfurous that there will be a vicious backlash, and that backlash will fall primarily on social and religious conservatives. A prominent pro-Trump Evangelical conceded in private, post-Kavanaugh conversation that when the Democrats regain power, conservative Christians are going to be in very bad shape.
To be clear: my Ben Op argument has always been that conservative Christians already are in very bad shape. Political power is holding up a façade that won’t remain much longer, precisely because politics is a lagging indicator of culture. Christians in America today — even those who identify as conservative — are far more catechized by popular culture than by the church. It’s not even close. The statistics are clear (I present them in my book.)
So, what does this have to do with the blogger Handle and his lengthy critique of The Benedict Option?
I want to focus in this post on one particular claim Handle makes early in his piece:
How valuable is the book? Even if was unfamiliar with Dreher’s extensive past writing on the subject, I wouldn’t say there’s much that’s informative or new about it, either to any serious and honest observer of the Western scene or even to those with only a small amount of historical familiarity.
To these people, it might be hard to stay very interested or invested since so much of what he’s saying seems obvious and noncontroversial.
And yet … despite that obviousness, it’s undeniably important for two reasons.
First, no one else seems nearly as motivated in sounding this indubitably necessary alarm, in nearly as clear and prominent a manner. Dreher is not ‘alone’ exactly as a voice in the wilderness, but he doesn’t have much company.
And second, raising that alarm makes a lot of people – both Christians (of a particular type) and anti-Christians – very upset in what is clearly a “she doth protest too much” manner. They understand the premise and its implications intuitively and well enough to feel an urgent compulsion to deny it and attack it vigorously, but when do so, they usually embarrass themselves by demonstrating ignorance of its actual content. The confidence that they simply have to be right and Dreher wrong, is felt so deeply that they apparently feel fully entitled to make all these attacks without, you know, actually reading the book.
It’s just intellectually painful to read nearly all of those ‘critiques’, being almost all devoid of any shred of good faith. That is, the lack of integrity, horrid quality, and hysterical character of most of these criticisms is more revealing – and probably teaches us more about what’s happening and what’s likely to happen – than Dreher’s book ever could be.
I appreciate him saying that … but Handle finds my critique wanting:
Almost all Dreher’s critics accuse him of crying wolf or being a chicken-little at best, and more usually a looney-tunes-level alarmist kook or worse. Meanwhile, I’m saying that Dreher is underestimating his enemy, painting an overly rosy picture, and not being nearly alarmist enough. [Emphasis mine — RD]
Here’s the core of his critique:
In the final part of the introduction, Dreher outlines the structure of the book, and lets the reader know he isn’t going to get behind any specific proposal or suggestion. He is going to continue to raise the alarm, present some examples of Christians giving it a shot, and hope that it inspires people to get together and try to solve the problem.
Like, say, cutting themselves off from the mainstream and running for the hills.
Oh, whoops, Dreher doesn’t want to say that. That’s because it is one of two major ‘critiques’ of his thesis which are made by nominal Christians who really don’t want to admit they’re now going to have to choose between their Christianity and comfortable lifestyles. “Dreher says run for the hills!” is an interesting kind of argumentative fallacy. It is a sneaky way of trying to dismiss Dreher’s basic premise. If (1) a conclusion follows from Dreher’s statements, and (2) is so undesirable that my brain won’t accept it, then (3) it must be wrong and absurd, thus (4) Dreher is nuts and everything he says can be ignored. So (5) Whew, what a relief! Now we can ignore the problem and just go back to whatever we were doing. QED.
Dreher recognizes the power (however unfair) of this rhetoric in the fight for deutungshoheit and control over the public opinion on the issue. He responds by saying, “I’m not saying run for the hills! Over and over again, I insist, in the most explicit terms, that I’m not saying run for the hills! These people aren’t able to quote me, and they aren’t even making an argument that it’s a conclusion implied by anything I’ve said. Please stop saying it!”
Now, it’s true that his milquetoast-Christian critics haven’t made that argument, and they show no real interest in doing so. But unfortunately for Dreher, that doesn’t mean one couldn’t make it, or it wouldn’t be valid if one did.
It’s true that Dreher insists over and over that he isn’t saying run for the hills. But unfortunately, he can’t show that the solution set for the problem includes anything less drastic or radical He would be more honest to say, “I might be saying run for the hills. I’m not sure yet; nobody is. It’s not something I’ve worked out or could work out. I really hope I’m not saying that, but it’s possible I am. To be even more gloomy and frank about it, it may turn out in the final analysis that even running for the hills wouldn’t be enough. Hills are much protection anymore.”
I suspect that everyone, Dreher and his critics, grasps all that, but that the rhetorical games dance around it. Both Dreher and his critics may suspect it to be true, but have to pretend it’s false, for different reasons.
The critics pretend RFTH is false because that implies they don’t have to get off their asses to do anything: the most comfortable and pleasant possibility.
Dreher has to pretend RFTH is false because he doesn’t want it to scare away readers before even having a chance to make his case.
But again, how do we know that Christians won’t need to RFTH? How do we know that Dreher’s historical examples of Christian survival despite oppression and adversity are relevant to the modern age?
Modern religion faces a different kind of enemy: the metaphysical revolution of empiricism and eliminative materialism. One is contending not with superstitious pagans or even someone like Celsus but with a set of ideas altogether (and durably) antithetical to all serious theological sensibilities. And it is a set which has solidly owned the perch atop all the hierarchies of our intellectual life for centuries, with every sign of being irreversible so long as advanced civilization persists.
The other major criticism from these types is the claim that separating from mainstream society can’t preserve Christianity because it is inherently anti-Christian. All Christians, these critics say, are commanded to evangelize and proselytize on behalf of the faith. They are to be the salt of the earth and a light unto nations. That, at a minimum, requires them to remain integrated with the heathens in order to be ambassadors for Christianity and winsome examples projecting the noble virtuousness of the Christian character. By such example and good works, and by routine display of courage and the strength of their commitments, they will generate such a positive impression that it will open the hearts and minds of the heathens, and make them receptive to the gospels.
This argument has even more rhetorical strength and emotional resonance than the previous one. Religious commandments are not easy to counter by rational explanation of exceptional circumstance in which injudicious obedience would be self-destructive. When the pragmatic mode of cognition turned off, the counterargument – that there is no sustainable strategy if converting one man come at the cost of losing two – simply doesn’t resonate. “Will the last convert please turn out the cemetery lights.”
Dreher instead says, “We can’t give away what we do not have,” and something about the savor of salt. He is desperately trying to communicate with these critics in the accepted language of Christian argumentation, but it’s hard to sustain much patience for it.
I understand why he can’t be more blunt, but I sometimes wish he would break down just once and hit them with a 2×4 of frankness, like this:
It’s completely unethical of you to abuse the duty to evangelism as an excuse to do nothing except put your head in the sand, deny the crisis, and avoid reality. It’s not like you’re some full-time missionary, converting and baptizing people left and right, and I’m asking you to stop all that and give up your important, holy works. You just don’t want to make the sacrifices that would follow from disengagement and separation from mainstream society. And you’re so desperate to avoid them that you’ll disgustingly pretend it would be anti-Christian to do so, which is perverse. And also, frankly, blasphemous, since the result of your counsel would mean a continuation of the status quo which is, obviously, the suicide of Christianity. “Passive evangelism” goes both ways, and you don’t look winsome to the abyss without it looking winsome back to you, or, more importantly, to your kids. It’s so winsome, in fact, that you can’t bear the thought of leaving it, even if means the death of your Faith for your family. That allure is why you’re making all these excuses in the first place. You can’t bullsh*t your way out of this one, so get you head out of your a*s. Jesus commands you to tend to the survival of Christianity, and isolation or insulation of one kind or another is only the bare minimum of what it’s going to take. To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven. Once we could play offense. Now we must play defense. Or perish. So buck up, it’s time to get with the program.
I am going to have to think about this. HH is correct that I have downplayed the “run for the hills” thing, but not for book-selling strategic reasons. I’ve done this because I don’t believe that it’s possible for the overwhelming majority of Christians to “run for the hills.” We’ve got to figure out how to do this where we live, at least most of us do.
But HH is onto something important. In some sense, the geographical sense of “head for the hills” — that is, me having to assure freaked-out Christian normies that they don’t have to load up the truck and head for a survivalist compound — has obscured the necessity of the Ben Op’s radicalism. Put another way, maybe HH is right. Maybe I don’t take the implications of my own argument seriously enough.
Maybe we will have to head for the hills, either literally, or, if we stay where we are, then embrace a kind of separatism in a more direct and consequential way.
More from HH:
And, to be blunt, there is just something pathologically suicidal about modern American Christianity un-tempered by a commitment to a superseding principle of the survival of the things one claims to care about.
There is something that craves the self-righteous satisfaction of taking a conspicuously public stand for collective martyrdom for the sake of ‘principle’ – one that is hard to distinguish from generic, progressivism-compatible ‘niceness’ – no matter how futile, impotent, unreasonable, or counterproductive. These performances overflow with displays of sanctimonious indignation, but at the end of the show it’s clear that they don’t take the danger of failure seriously. That’s someone else’s problem.
Absent the special circumstance of a solid track-record transforming this kind of commitment into net increase and propagation, any beleaguered group whose members care about something more than survival, won’t survive. We cannot all be the priests in the French Carmelite Convent, or the holdouts on top of Masada, or there will be no one left to honor the martyrs and be inspired by their example.
Either you’re willing to accept the end of something, or you’re not. Well then, what if you’re not?
Perpetuationism is the general idea that for anything one deems worthy of permanent continuation, the moral imperative of existential preservation gets top priority. When working through one’s moral calculus and choosing among alternative courses of action, the principle of survival and maintenance of viability always has precedence and trumps other considerations.
When survival is not threatened, one is freed – indeed morally obligated – to use one’s position of security and surplus to practice the other virtues, widen one’s circle of concern, and elevate the overall climate of social interaction, so far as it is feasible and prudent to do so. If one can afford to be gracious, one should be. If not, one is justified in stern harshness.
But in times of peril and catastrophe, it’s perfectly reasonable and normal to adjust ethical regimes as necessary and appropriate, especially when to do otherwise would mean to permit the perverse result of one’s defeat by a less scrupulous enemy. This is merely what happens when a situation warrants the declaration of martial law, and what people mean when they discuss “lifeboat ethics” or “wartime ethics”.
All of this seems consistent with common sense and normal moral intuitions, so why is the commentary so lopsided, and why do American Christian public intellectual commentators so often stick with advocating naively idealistic policies even when they are clearly counterproductive? There’s just no incentive for them to do otherwise. That’s what virtue signaling is all about. When one doesn’t actually bear any responsibility for consequences, one is judged only on what one says, not on the bad results which follow. That why the focus on things like ‘reputation’ instead of consequences.
At any rate, the “preserve our reputation” line relies on a myth. With perhaps the exception of a few high-status Christian commentators, Progressives have already believed that about all religious conservatives for a long time: either they were brainwashed idiots or Elmer Gantrys at best. Nothing but evil liars paying lip service to religious sentiments they didn’t share, and scriptures they had never read, merely as means of suckering the brainwashed idiots as a road to power. The minute a principled man of character steps into the limelight and emerges as a potential threat, the progressives give that individual zero credit and their media apparatus spares no time at all in smearing the man as evil incarnate, whether that individual lived a scandalous life that gives them plenty of ammunition to do so, or whether he’s been a spotlessly clean boy scout from birth. E.g., Mitt Romney. (Though they are happy to emphasize all those positive traits and rehabilitate all the beautiful losers the minute after they no longer pose any political threat, and prove useful for other purposes.)
Now, it’s true that Dreher doesn’t want to be the “no choice but to vote GOP to buy time” guy for much the same reason he doesn’t want to be the “run for the hills” guy. It’s a wise position. It would cause unwanted and distracting collateral controversy that will seriously detract from his main message and deafen the ears of too many members of his intended audience. But at the same time, that doesn’t mean there are any better alternative options.
Again: read the whole thing. I’m going to think hard about what he’s saying here, and will blog more on it later. I wanted to throw it out there for you all to consider.
Warning: I want to have a serious discussion about this in the comments thread. If you only want to troll, or throw rhetorical bombs, don’t bother commenting. If you have nothing meaningful to add to our understanding and debate, save yourself the bother of commenting, because I’m not going to post it.
UPDATE: Several of you progressive readers have posted the usual comments about how Christians have brought this upon themselves, or that Christians are worried about something that isn’t going to happen, etc. I have not approved those comments because a) it’s the same old same old, and b) because of that, you are not adding to this discussion. Seriously, save yourself the time and trouble. If you think the Ben Op is nonsense, that’s fine with me, but this thread is not for you.