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Benedictine Agrarians

Area Man with Becky and Philip Elder, at their Kansas farm

Russell Arben Fox offers a typically rich, complex, thoughtful take on my recent writings about the Benedict Option, and the example of some Kansas friends of ours, the amazing Elder family, who live and farm near Wichita (they call their farm “Elderslie”). It’s impossible for me to do justice to his post in my reaction below, so when I advise you to read the whole thing, I mean it.

Russell writes:

Alan Jacobs refers to the Benedict Option as putting its priority on Christian “culture-making” and enabling those concerned about the values of the Christian tradition to be “fully shaped….by the Christian account of things.” Again, for people like myself who care about tradition, that’s a vital and inspiring point. But is thinking hard about how to build and preserve the roots of–and the socio-economic and legal space for–a culture mostly a (as Rod sometimes seems to suggest) liturgical phenomenon? Perhaps you could argue that Elderslie and other family and community operations like it really are “liturgical” in some sense, because their direct engagement in the practices that keep them going really do result in a kind of discipline and ritual to their lives. If so, then I suspect that the Benedict Option which has struck me as a needful way of helping to shape how we think about community in the 21st century will only grow more convincing in my mind. But if not–if Rod’s Benedict Option really is, essentially, about protecting the “church of Jesus Christ,” as Alan put it–then I think, at least right now, that it’s allowing current arguments about religious liberty to narrow its focus too much (though Rod is, clearly, still thinking about this stuff, writing recently that “the Benedict Option is far more a response to pervasive consumerism, individualism, and atomism than anything to do with gay rights,” which I think puts things right).

Rod has insisted, in response to Frohnen, that he’s not an agrarian–and of course, that’s true. But Frohnen has a get-attachment-24point, I think–whether or not Rod’s thinking about the Benedict Option currently points him this directly, I suspect (and I have written before) that it is very difficult to get to the kind lasting, sustainable separateness which he thinks (and I at least partly agree) is needed if those traditions supportive Christian virtues are to be fully lived and inculcated into one’s children without at least some kind of anti-capitalist, agrarian mentality. Becky Elder took the time to preach to my students for a short time about Andrew Lytle, one of the Southern Agrarians, and his important essay “The Small Farm Secures the State”–one of the essential 20th-century Jeffersonian declarations against an economy based on distant specialization, monopolistic centralization, and all things big. If we don’t, in our innumerable and diverse ways, seek to enable our families and communities and co-ops to become more capable of feeding themselves, then a pattern of dependency inevitably follows. Honestly, just how far could any church group go in building for itself a genuinely separate cultural track if the individuals who make up that group ultimately, fundamentally, have no real independence in their livelihood, in making the money to put food in their own and their children’s mouths? Will liturgy suffice if your boss changes your shift to Sunday, religious liberty be damned? Will a strong pastor be enough to provide an education which reflects Christian priorities when all the families in the congregation are too busy to volunteer to help out in classes, because food costs and health care costs and mortgages require every family send both spouse out into the work force full-time?

Read the whole thing. I mean it.

I tell you, I am well and truly blessed by having readers like Russell, who challenge me to think more deeply into these things. He will be happy to learn that I’m finalizing my book proposal for The Benedict Option this week, and I am including in it the Elders’ farm and the classical school they run as an example of what the Benedict Option — or Benedict Options, plural — could look like. All of America can learn from them.

As Russell says, I am not an agrarian, though I am sympathetic to agrarianism. We are not an agrarian country, and if the Benedict Option depended on everybody becoming an agrarian, it would be stillborn. That said, the points Russell makes about the material and institutional forms that the Benedict Option will have to take are very strong, and I suspect the Elders will have lots to teach even non-agrarians, and never-will-be agrarians, about the connection. I can’t say much more about this now because I have to learn myself … and that requires a long visit with them, as part of the book’s research.

Related to this, I finished last night Matthew Crawford’s newest book, The World Beyond Your Head. Crawford’s is a work of philosophy, not religion; in fact, I would be surprised if he had any religious beliefs at all. But his book gives me deep insights into how to think about the Benedict Option — insights that ground the book in a more truly MacIntyrean approach, I think. To be clear, I think Crawford’s vision is incomplete, because it lacks a religious dimension. But as I read, I kept thinking about how this or that philosophical point he makes could be placed within a Christian vision — one that Crawford lacks.

I intend to blog in much more detail about Crawford’s book later this week, but for now, and in relation to Russell’s post, let me say that Crawford is a traditionalist and an Aristotelian in the sense that he believes that our culture of liberal autonomy and choice has reached a dead end. We are incapable of building cultures of practice that lead us to virtue, because we cannot identify one thing as being better than the other. Choice, not what is chosen, is what matters. I can’t stress strongly enough that Crawford does not have in mind any particular idea of virtue in a moral sense. He’s talking about defining goals and organizing one’s life in such a way as to make it possible to attain those goals, in community. He writes:

When the sovereignty of the self requires that the inheritance of the past be disqualified as a guide to action and meaning, we confine ourselves in an eternal present. If subjectivism works against the coalescing of communities and traditions in which genuine individuals can arise, doe the opposite follow? Do communities that look to established forms for the meanings of things somehow cultivate individuality? …

But here we come up against a methodological problem. On the one hand, to speak about “community” in general is to be led almost necessarily into idealistic blather. This would not be very informative, and would also tend to alarm some people: those who maintain the enlightener’s vigilance against the threat that communal authority poses to individual self-fashioning It would be easy to trigger this defensive reflex while also tickling a contrary sentimental reflex among those who long for “lost community.” But I don’t want merely to press PLAY on a dusty old culture war cassette.

Crawford goes on to write at length about the culture within a shop of pipe organ makers Taylor & Boody, in Staunton, Virginia. He goes in-depth in writing about what they do and how they do it. The goal this community of craftsmen sets for itself is turning out exquisite instruments. To reach this goal, there are certain practices that they have developed, certain traditions they have held fast to, and certain traditions they have altered, to reach the goal. They all recognize — had to recognize — that there is something beyond their individual desires to which they must submit if they are going to become what they want to become: first-rank craftsmen. And it works.

Reading this, I kept thinking about what aspects of a Benedict Option community must be present to produce members who care about preserving and living out the faith amid the atomizing forces of decadent liberalism (and by “liberalism,” I mean the Enlightenment tradition). Crawford writes, of the organ makers:

The point isn’t to replicate the conclusions of tradition (here, the use of oak), but rather to enter into the same problems as the ancients and make them one’s own. That is how a tradition remains alive.

Funny, but that’s how Dante’s Divine Comedy came alive for me: I was able to enter, imaginatively, into the same problems he faced — how to make sense of an unjust world, and to live well in it as a Christian — and make them my own. Anyway, what I’m after in the Benedict Option is showing why we who see it vital to hold on to the Christian faith in one of its orthodox forms must adopt a radically countercultural stance toward liberalism, and to explore how to instantiate this subversive orthodoxy in our time and place.

One of the principles guiding the organ makers is, to quote from one of them, “What can I really get away with here, and what will the results of my actions be four hundred years from now?” This man is not talking about politics or religion; he’s talking about building an organ that lasts, and continues to serve future generations long after those who have made it have passed on. You can see, though, the applicability of this approach to religious life, can’t you?

It is an absurdly tall order to expect contemporary people to construct the kinds of communities that will still be around in their present form four centuries from now. But we have to play the long game here — and that includes, as Russell indicates, devising and implementing material forms of the Benedict Option that allow us to support our communities over the long term. The Benedict Option cannot require a dropping away from politics entirely, if only because we have to defend our right to be left alone. But it does demand a repositioning of orthodox Christian thought and action away from politics and toward building and thickening Christian culture within the church, as it has grown dangerously thin, even as we orthodox Christians have been chronically focused on politics and law as our protectors.

As the philosopher Crawford makes clear, the threat to any kind of tradition is not liberal Democrats, but liberalism itself — and that includes libertarians. Modernity tears us from any connection to the past, and to anything outside of the desiring self, and that leads us to a dead end. If I’m reading Crawford correctly, he is saying that there’s a better way, a more ancient way, a way that has served humanity well. We Benedict Option Christians can learn from him. And from the Elders — even if most people living the Benedict Option will do so in the city or the suburbs.

One aside before I go back to writing the proposal. Russell writes:

But to rush past all this vital, practical, material work, and cast the Benedict Option as an imperative act of moral or metaphysical sanctuary in the face of the collapse of Christianity itself…that, I think, just misses the trees for the forest, if you know what I mean. (I should note that it’s possible I can speak this way, wanting to push the particular and local mechanics rather than clutching at the biggest themes, because I simply don’t see the “collapse of Christianity” happening at all, not one bit. Yes, strong protections of religious liberty and certain tax and legal privileges enjoyed by Christian institutions have been, I think, of tremendous civic benefit in American history, and deserve to be fought for–but it’s not like their loss in a more secular America would equal some kind of Christian Armageddon, unless one happens to believe, as I presume the Francophile Rod does not, that France with its laïcité is a formally oppressive and persecuting anti-Christian society.

But I don’t believe that the American state will persecute Christians! It may happen, but if so, that will be a long time into the future. And I don’t believe that losing tax exemptions counts as persecution. When I speak of the “collapse of Christianity,” I’m talking about the cessation of church life, and/or the end of anything like Christian orthodoxy. In the Netherlands, churches are not oppressed at all — but Christianity has collapsed. I don’t actually believe that the greatest threat to US Christianity comes from the government, but rather from the culture, which includes corporate culture. If the Republican Party dominated our government from now until kingdom come, the need for the Benedict Option would scarcely be less.


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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