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Benedict Option Omnibus

I find myself deeply annoyed by people who regard universities putting on things like Social Justice Retreats in which students and professors are indoctrinated with prejudice, racial and otherwise, as just one of those silly things that colleges do to pacify the Social Justice Warriors. Wake up, people. These policies are having, and are going to have, a major effect on the psychology of hiring, of admission to colleges, and all kinds of things. Future elites are being trained to look down on certain people only because of their race, gender, and other factors. Along those lines, a reader writes:

I sometimes think that both education and government employment (post office, etc.) are the areas where we’re going to see the biggest push for “diversity” which means that everybody gets hired before straight white heterosexual Christians. From there it will spread to private employers (and it already has, in many places). Yet people still act like there’s no reason for the Benedict Option: just keep living like we are! they say. Well, what happens when you pay $$$ for your kid to go to a small religious college (because the secular ones are more and more hostile) and then there’s no work afterward, and no hope of paying back those loans? I already hear stories from people in this sort of position, and it’s just going to get worse.

This is why the Benedict Option is at some point going to have to have an economic aspect. It is too much for me to cover in this first book, but if the book becomes a best-seller, that is a good sequel. Or maybe somebody else (Caleb Bernacchio?) can write it.

I remind you what “Prof. Kingsfield,” a professor at an elite law school who is closeted as a Christian, told me last year, after the Indiana RFRA debacle, about what’s to come:

Businesses, however, are going to have a very hard time resisting what’s coming. Not that they would try. “The big companies have already gone over,” said Kingsfield.

“Most anti-discrimination laws have a certain cut off – they don’t apply if you have 15 employees or less,” he said. “You could have an independent, loosely affiliated network of artisans, working together. If you can refer people to others within the network, that could work. You won’t be able to scale up, but that’s not such a bad thing.”


“What happened to Brendan Eich” — the tech giant who was driven out of Mozilla for having made a small donation years earlier to the Prop 8 campaign — “is going to start happening to a lot of people, and Christians had better be ready for it. The question I keep thinking about is, why would we want to do that to people? But that’s where we are now.”

I pointed out that the mob hysteria that descended on Memories Pizza, the mom & pop pizza shop in small-town Indiana that had to close its doors (temporarily, one hopes) after its owners answered a reporter’s question truthfully, is highly instructive to the rest of us.

“You’re right,” he said. “Memories Pizza teaches us all a lesson. What is the line between prudently closing our mouths and closeting ourselves, and compromising our faith? Christians have to start thinking about that seriously.”


“A lot of us will be able to ‘pass’ if we keep our mouths shut, but it’s going to be hard to tell who believes what,” Kingsfield said. “In [my area], there’s a kind of secret handshake that traditional Christians use to identify ourselves to each other when we meet. Forming those subterranean, catacomb church networks is not easy, but it’s terribly vital right now.”

“Your blog is important for us who feel alone where we are, because it let’s us know that there are others who feel this way,” Kingsfield said. “My wife says you should stop blogging and write your Benedict Option book right now. There is such a need for it. My hope for this book is that it will help Christians like us meet and build more of the networks that are going to carry us through.”

Kingsfield said he and his wife send their children to a classical Christian school in their area. “I can’t tell you how happy that makes me,” he said. “Studying the past is so important. If you have an understanding of where we came from [as a culture], you can really see how insane we have gone.”

Through the classical Christian school community, he said, he and his wife have met believers from other traditions who are very sympathetic to the threat to all orthodox Christians, whether they are Catholic, Protestant, or Orthodox.

“We have to get to know them better. We have to network with them. Our kids have to grow up with those kids, even if it means some driving, some traveling, arranging joint vacations,” Kingsfield said.

We will have to help each other get jobs. More:

It’s hard to say what kind of landscape Christians will be looking at twenty, thirty years from now. Kingsfield says he has gay colleagues in the university, people who are in their sixties and seventies now, who came of age in a time where a strong sense of individual liberty protected them. They still retain a devotion to liberty, seeing how much it matters to despised minorities.

“That generation is superseded by Social Justice Warriors in their thirties who don’t believe that they should respect anybody who doesn’t respect them,” Kingsfield said. “Those people are going to be in power before long, and we may not be protected.”

Bottom line: the Benedict Option is our the only path forward for us. Indiana shows that.

Read the whole thing. If you don’t understand what’s coming, you will not be ready for it when it does. They are going to tell you over and over that you’re paranoid, until it happens, in which case they will tell you that you deserve it. The SJW seminars are all about preparing the displaced people for accepting that they deserve it.


Moving on to more mundane Ben Op stuff (more mundane, but more useful), Dean Abbott ponders what we can do right now in the lives of our families. This is very good. Excerpt:

There is, however, a more reasonable approach. It begins by asking, “How Much Benedict Option is Enough Benedict Option?” Getting the major benefits of a Benedict Option lifestyle doesn’t require hauling your family off to the woods. In fact, just a few changes result in big Benedict Option results.

The 80/20 Rule

Let’s apply the Pareto principle. The Pareto principle states that in most situations, 80 percent of the effects are due to 20 percent of the causes. The economist who developed this idea was fond of pointing out that 20 percent of the pea plants in his garden contained 80 percent of the peas. If you run a business, you can expect 80 percent of your profits to come from 20 percent of your customers.

Obviously, attempts to escape a deteriorating culture are more difficult to quantify than the number of peas in one’s garden. Nevertheless, it stands to reason that the bulk of the goods one accrues from withdrawing from the surrounding culture will stem from only a few choices.

That has certainly been true for us.

Our family is already pretty opted out.  Just a few choices on my wife’s and my part have had a major impact on how much access the organs of the culture have to our daughters. I am pleased with how they are developing, especially when I consider the behavior and attitudes of their more culturally conformed peers.

I’m not going to tell you the four lifestyle choices that the Abbott family has made that have made a big difference in their lives, because I want you to read the whole thing.  I am going to tell you that our family made the same choices, and it has made an enormously positive difference, in the Benedict Option sense. There is more to be done, but these four things are a terrific start. As Dean Abbott writes:

Yet, it must be said, that the biggest upside to making these choices isn’t so much that they keep the culture outside the home at bay, but that they make space for the culture inside it to flourish. [Emphasis mine — RD] When the influence of the surrounding culture is minimized, the family itself becomes a healthier culture to rear children in, a more vital “little platoon” as Burke might say.

Achieving this is easier than it might seem. It’s tempting to fall into Benedict Option fantasies of moving to the backwoods to live off the land. It’s better to start small, with things that are actually feasible. Focus on those few choices that bring the bulk of the benefit. Do this, and see if what it produces isn’t exactly enough.

Enough, I would say, as a start. But what a great start! Read his post. 

Moving on again, I’ve been meaning to respond for a while to the Methodist writer Mark Tooley’s post suggesting the “Wesleyan Option” over the “Benedict Option.” He writes, in part:

The Benedict Option despairs of redeeming postmodern Western Civilization and counsels a Christian retreat into separatist communities to rebuild Christian culture through faithful discipleship. The model obviously is St. Benedict, who founded a vibrant monastic movement in the ashes of the imploding Roman Empire.

No doubt the Body of Christ and wider culture would benefit greatly if more Christians were to pursue some form of the Benedict Option, creating centers of self-denying devotion, prayer, learning and charity, even celibacy. May this movement, to the extent it fosters Christian growth and witness, grow and prosper!

But just as in Benedict’s day, roughly 99 percent plus of Christians will decline to actively pursue this option. Maybe some don’t have the spiritual insight and discipline. But many more likely don’t have the calling. Throughout the church’s history most believers have had a vocation to live and work within the world, with all of its temptations and snares.

Because I really like and respect Mark’s work, and think he’s made an honest mistake here, I’m going to break my rule of ceasing to engage with people who insist that the Benedict Option is only about running off to the hills in separatist communities. As I say in the Benedict Option FAQ:

Do you really think you can just run away from the world and live off in a compound somewhere? Get real!

No, I don’t think that at all. While I wouldn’t necessarily fault people who sought geographical isolation, that will be neither possible nor desirable for most of us. The early Church lived in cities, and formed its distinct life there. Most of the Ben Op communities that come to mind today are not radically isolated, in geography or otherwise, from the broader community. It’s simply nonsense to say that Ben Oppers want to hide from the world and live in some sort of fundamentalist enclave. Some do, and it’s not hard to find examples of how this sort of thing has gone bad. But that is not what we should aim for. In fact, I think it’s all too easy for people to paint the Benedict Option as utopian escapism so they can safely wall it off and not have to think about it.

Isn’t this a violation of the Great Commission? How can we preach the Gospel to the nations when we’re living in these neo-monastic communities?

Well, what is evangelizing? Is it merely dispersing information? Or is there something more to it. The Benedict Option is about discipleship, which is itself an indirect form of evangelism. Pagans converted to the early Church not simply because of the words the first Christians spoke, but because of the witness of the kinds of lives they lived. It has to be that way with us too.

Pope Benedict XVI said something important in this respect. He said that the best apologetic arguments for the truth of the Christian faith are the art that the Church has produced as a form of witness, and the lives of its saints:

Yet, the beauty of Christian life is even more effective than art and imagery in the communication of the Gospel message. In the end, love alone is worthy of faith, and proves credible. The lives of the saints and martyrs demonstrate a singular beauty which fascinates and attracts, because a Christian life lived in fullness speaks without words. We need men and women whose lives are eloquent, and who know how to proclaim the Gospel with clarity and courage, with transparency of action, and with the joyful passion of charity.

The Benedict Option is about forming communities that teach us and help us to live in such a way that our entire lives are witnesses to the transforming power of the Gospel.

Yes, I know, this is what the church is supposed to be for. If the churches were doing what they (we) are supposed to be doing, we might not need to talk about Benedict Options. But they aren’t, so we must.

Anyway, back to Mark Tooley’s post, which, I’m afraid, turns the Ben Op into a straw man here:

Supposedly, even amid our unprecedented wealth, comfort and numbers, we live in very bleak times. Widespread Christian engagement didn’t create Zion in America, therefore it was all for naught. The earlier generation of Christian culture warriors are now supposed to have been an embarrassment for which the church should now atone. But no amount of apology will forestall the imminent apocalypse, which mostly includes critical internet commentary about Christianity and the occasional same sex rite at the local court house or empty Unitarian church. Woe is us as we drive our SUVs into the parking lots of megachurches in prosperous suburbs. Scary times indeed!

Of course, the secular culture does and has always posed serious threats to faithful Christian living. This spiritual warfare is permanent until the parousia. But all in all, Christians in 2015 America, even as the Devil still roams about like a roaring lion, have it better than any previous generation. Who among us would really prefer to live in 1950, 1850, or 1750, when America and Western Civilization were supposedly more Christian, never mind slavery, segregation and a thousand other social wickednesses countenanced by society and church?

Again, because I believe that Mark (whom I don’t know personally) writes out of good faith, I’ll point again to the Benedict Option FAQ as a way of saying that I do not imagine a Golden Age of Faith. The world has always been going to hell, so to speak. The sum total of sin in the world has no doubt been constant throughout the ages. We make progress against one sin, and two others worsen. It will be that way until the end of time. This “because we didn’t create Zion it was all for naught” business is a straw man the size of Sasquatch.

What makes this time different from the past is that we are now living in a post-Christian culture, one that has ceased to assume the fundamental truths of Christianity (or, if you prefer, the Hebrew and Christian Bibles) as normative. This is not about the church losing political power; this is about the Christian story having become not only unbelievable to many, but, increasingly, a menace to what a growing number of people believe to be the Good. And it is about the churches losing their own stories, and with them, their own people. It is about Moralistic Therapeutic Deism embraced as an ersatz substitute for Christianity — MTD being exactly the kind of pseudo-faith that late modernity, or post-modernity, requires as psychological support for its vanities and indulgences. The Benedict Option, among other things, is about fighting the cultural amnesia that has overtaken the churches in the West.

I suppose it’s unfair to blame people who don’t read this blog regularly for badly misinterpreting the Benedict Option. I will be glad when I have this book finished, and can say, “Here is the detailed vision I have, in one place.”

So, on to the meat of Tooley’s post, which is very good. He says we should look to John Wesley, not St. Benedict, for a more realistic and effective example:

Benedictine Option enthusiasts should like the Wesleyan example because it was built around small, intensely committed prayer and accountability groups with rigorous discipline who created distinct communities within a pervasively corrupt society and spiritually lax institutional church. Evangelism, discipleship, self-denial, service to others, and Christian joy were central emphases.

Wesleyans weren’t just focused on the spiritual charisms of their own movement. They self-consciously envisioned their vocation for spiritually renewing society and temporal polities. Wesley himself kept his movement out of direct political engagement. But he knew that as Methodism preached personal and social holiness throughout Britain and America there would be societal and political fruits. Wesley saw his times and culture as part of Christendom but also deeply in rebellion against God. He used the available foundations of a “Christian” nation, which included a relative legal religious liberty, despite howling hostile mobs, to proclaim the Gospel.

Early Methodism in America seized much of the frontier, where religion, formal or otherwise, was often absent. Methodist populism and revivalism, with its concern for social redemption, helped create America’s self-understanding of its democracy. It also contributed spiritual tools within civil religion for perennial social and political reform movements that continue to this day.

To varying degrees Methodism has repeated much of this process of personal and social renewal in once non-Christian cultures in Asia and Africa.

Methodism saw its surrounding culture as often wicked and hostile to the Gospel, which is perennially true, even in ostensibly Christian societies. Yet this challenge did not inspire cultural withdrawal but challenged Methodists to aggressively confront and work to change the cultures it spiritually invaded.

Read the whole thing.  It’s good, but I would ask Mark this: Where did the spiritual and communal resources to fuel this aggressive Methodist confrontation come from? I can’t think of anyone in America who has done a better job than Mark Tooley of detailing the decline of Methodism in particular and the Protestant Mainline in general into an effete chaplaincy to secular liberalism. (Here is his latest on that front.) How did this happen? How can it be resisted, even reversed, within Methodism?

The way I’m approaching the Benedict Option is as a varied renewal movement within small-o orthodox Christianity. If I’m successful in thinking through and articulating my vision, Mark and other orthodox Wesleyans like him will be able to draw from it inspiration and methods (heh) to revitalize their own tradition. Some Christian traditions will have it easier than others, because of their theology and ecclesiology, but all the orthodox should be able to benefit at some level. That is my hope.


about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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