When I talk about “building a cultural ark,” and the Benedict Option, it never fails that people assume I’m advising heading for the hills before the barbarians descend. I’m not, though no Christian can ever rule that out without dismissing the Desert Fathers, who live at the heart of our tradition. On rare occasions, you really do have to run for the hills — think of the Assyrian Christians today, or the Jews of 1930s Germany — but we are not there today, nor are we close to that.
But we are living in a time and place where the spirit of the age is essentially nihilistic, though we have powerful reasons to deny it. The Benedict Option — or, if you prefer, the cultural ark — is a state of mind and way of life that enables us to ride out the flood, and to … well, here’s Alasdair MacIntyre:
It is always dangerous to draw too precise parallels between one historical period and another; and among the most misleading of such parallels are those which have been drawn between our own age in Europe and North America and the epoch in which the Roman Empire declined into the Dark Ages. None the less certain parallels there are. A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead—often not recognising fully what they were doing—was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness. If my account of our moral condition is correct [one characterized by moral incoherence and unsettlable moral disputes in the modern world], we ought to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point. What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict.
Emphasis mine. I do not believe it is feasible, or desirable, to create utopian settlements. I do not believe in utopia. What I believe is that we small-o orthodox Christians and other traditionalists have to find ways — there won’t be only one way — to sustain intellectual and moral life amid the unfolding catastrophe. Unless we are called to monasticism — a rare calling — we Christians don’t have the right to seal ourselves off from the world. That way lies madness. Certainly the Benedictines are not entirely cloistered (though some are). We owe so much to the monks of the early Middle Ages, who kept cultural memory alive throughout the early Middle Ages, even as they served the people among whom they lived. They organized their lives, individually and collectively, in such a way as to make that possible, and to help anyone who came to them for assistance, and who wanted to share in that life.
They kept the flame burning. Thomas Cahill’s popular history, How The Irish Saved Civilization, is about Western monasticism, not Benedictine monasticism specifically. The point is the same. As he concludes his wonderful book:
If our civilization is to be saved – forget about our civilization, which, as Patrick would say, may pass “in a moment like a cloud or smoke that is scattered by the wind” – if we are to be saved, it will not be by Romans but by saints.
Our task today, it seems to me, is to create the habits and institutions that make saints. That has always been the task of the church, but today we face unusual challenges to that goal.
Making art is essential to the task, not only because art is diagnostic (raising our consciousness of our condition), but because it is also prescriptive (showing us how to live rightly) and therapeutic (giving us what we need to bear the burdens of this life, and even to transform them into blessing). Here’s publisher Gregory Wolfe, from an interview with Artur Rosman:
Gregory Wolfe: Ideology. And the blinders that ideology imposes. What I find fascinating is that the two most prominent critics articulating the “decline and fall of Catholic literature” argument—Dana Gioia and Paul Elie—emerge, respectively, from political right and left. You’d rarely find them agreeing about public policy, but they’re certain it’s all been downhill since Flannery O’Connor.
Ideology thrives on what I’ve called “declinism,” the notion that things are not only bad but well-nigh apocalyptic. That’s because the bad guys are at fault and we good guys are the only solution.
For one, the “bad guys” are “the 60s and the post-Vatican II mess,” while for the other it’s repressive papacies and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Okay, perhaps that’s a little extreme, but caricatures are based on real features. I have great respect for both men and count them as friends, but this is my challenge to them: Take off the blinders and look around. There’s a lot of good work out there that needs your critical engagement and thus support. Writers are starving in garrets. Let’s give them a meal.
Elie has suggested that because I publish and edit a journal of contemporary literature I have a vested interest in arguing against the decline and fall thesis. But we all have vested interests. I have tried to not only point out who the writers and artists are but to articulate why I believe their achievements are enduring and worthy of deeper engagement.
I think Alice McDermott is an outstanding Catholic writer (on multiple levels) and in a fashion that reflects the culture of the present moment. Elie thinks that she’s merely a historical and regional writer. These are the kinds of judgments that people ultimately have to make for themselves.
I am certainly a declinist, but I don’t think that “we” have a “solution” to our civilizational malaise. I think that we are well into the post-Christian era, and the existence of Christianity itself in the West is at stake, not because of persecutors (though that may come), but because of the ideas that have darkened our intellects. We have to work harder to see some fundamental truths that were easier for our ancestors to see, and if we still see them, we have to help others to do so.
On Ethika Politika, Rosman points to a new novel published by a Wolfean imprint, Slant Books, that he (Rosman) thinks is one of the greatest works of religiously-informed fiction he’s ever read: Death Comes for the Deconstructionist, by Daniel Taylor. Here’s Rosman:
This book cannot be recommended enough. It is a literary achievement on a grand scale. As one of my friends put it:
I don’t know. Maybe you’re going to think I’m crazy, but I read this as world class literature. Bernanos comes to mind. But also, for philosophical acuity, Thomas Mann. I didn’t say Flannery or Walker. They are left far behind. (Shoot me, go ahead.) As for the genre aspect, it works. Perfectly.
Death Comes for the Deconstructionist is a novel for our cultural time and place, but it also transcends it. It will be discussed long after deconstruction has killed itself and the humanities. Daniel Taylor’s debut novel (hard to believe it’s a debut!) matches just about anything you will find on my top living religious novelists list, or even my list of all time favorite novels.
It’s that good. Don’t miss it.
Er, wow. Click here to read an excerpt and to order the novel. I read the excerpt, and was hooked. I’m going to get this novel.
Whether he intends it to be or not, Taylor’s novel is ark-building. It is lantern-lighting. It is (counter)culture-making.