The commenter who goes by the nom de blog
“Raskolnik” [UPDATE: This is how he signed his e-mail, but I forgot that there’s another Raskolnik who comments more frequently. Sorry for the error. — RD] writes of his own bad Ben Op-style experience. I have slightly altered this at his request, to delete the name of his college:
I’m going to be as simple as possible. I had the privilege of spending 6 years being raised in a conservative Mennonite church, after my Catholic parents felt that the Catholic church didn’t provide a “safe” atmosphere. After my parents left the Mennonite church, they returned to home schooling, and my sister attended Christendom College. I went to [university deleted] as a commuter and in state scholarship student, before moving to Russia and Asia as an ESL expat teacher. I have spent most of the last decade abroad, with only about a year in total spent in the USA.
My parents, for all their faults and mistakes, were and are good and decent people. I never experienced any abuse physical, sexual, or otherwise, at their hands, or the hands of any community figures. In this way, I wouldn’t put myself in the “darkside” Category of anything. But few, if any things, were as isolated and bizarre as converting to a extreme Anabaptist sect. It caused permanent issues for my sister, and completely turned me off to religious enthusiasm of any kind.
My parents, based on conversations about it over the years, seemed to be afraid of several different things. I would basically put all their behavior down to a single motivation, a metaphysical feat. Basically the belief that society would not allow a place for their children to mature without ruining them. My mother is strongly anti-psychology although not anti-medicine or anti-vax. She was afraid I would be a medicated child if placed in public school. Although my mother was active in homeschooling, the Mennonite church had mandatory parochial school to the 10th grade. The quality of the education was basic but extremely poor, in terms of a college prep level. The Mennonites are strongly against higher education, and many have only an 8th grade education.
Spending the years of 9-15 among the [a broader Mennonite community], I found out a few things about human nature, and the nature of small groups which self-isolate. Some of these are biased, and some of them are facts which I have found to be true of humanity in general, even in places such as China and Russia.
First, women in these communities are often treated as little more than baby making cleaning machines. It isn’t that the community sets out to enforce patriarchy, per se, but rather the whole society is so limited, that single women don’t really have a purpose. With limited education opportunities, and no real skills, unmarried women don’t really have any way of supporting themselves, and so cooking, cleaning, and house wifery really is the best thing a woman can do. The women compete with each other, seeing who can have the biggest garden, or can the most tomatoes.
Domestic violence is not any more or less common than it is anywhere else, but it is likely easier to cover up. A man who beats his wife is going to get a bad reputation, but as long as he isn’t to aggressive, and does serious damage, it will likely be a private affair. In fact, the desire for family matters to remain private is one area where American religious sects seem to be like East Asians.
People tend to thrive on alternative viewpoints or even outright opposition. The problem with a society based on a shared vision is that what happens if the vision differs slightly? As your example of pants shows, there was an argument about beards within the church. My father had a beard since he was 18, and refused to shave. Mennonites shave beards as a religious difference (opposite of the Amish), my dad was like “I’ve had a beard my whole adult life, and I’d look ugly!” so they let him keep it. However, people asked if his beard was a sign that he believed in a certain Old German Anabaptist belief. A few times, he was encouraged to shave.
Now the funny thing about all this, is that the beard thing isn’t a matter of doctrine. The Cathechism of the Catholic church contains very little explicit rules along the lines of how long are hem lines, or haircuts. Little cults however seem to go mad, and love saying that cars must be blue or black, with no stripe.
Another issue is the family. People who are related to bishops or ministers are more “powerful” and seemed to have rights and honor that regular people lacked. My parents repeatedly alleged nepotism was rife, and the powers that be simply ignored it. Of course this creates a seriously messed up society. It is also rife here in China.
The real serious issue was the future. By isolating, de-educating, and brain washing children, many people really had no ability to leave the church. Talking to “other” people was scary. I spent my entire life either being home-schooled or attending Mennonite schools, before going to [large secular university]. People talked about drugs, women, and alcohol, but I was so unpopular I ended up drinking after turning 21, having sex for the first time in Russia, and smoked my first marijuana in China! I felt like I had nothing in common with anyone. No tv shows, no popular music, and basically no “normal” memories made it hard for me to consider Americans my age to be “peers.”
Now having lived as an expat for years, I don’t have to get along with people. My wife is Chinese, and I mostly teach, play PC games, and relax at home. I have little interest in the “future” since I have seen first hand what happens to those who worry about their children’s life. My sister married an evangelical Lutheran boy scout leader, who is a great guy, if a little dumb, and very lazy. I married a Chinese atheist and live in Harbin. Neither me, nor my sister, has anything like the life my parents expected. Although they know I’m fairly content.
It seems the Ben Op is based on a faulty premise, that there is a connection between the events of late antiquity and today. I disagree, I believe that the destruction of western thought after WWI was permanent, irreversible, and total. China is the future, a godless, atheist, kleptocratic state that encourages “an orgy of consumption and a dearth of idea”. This is what many American think democracy means, the ability to but stuff at Walmart. The West is dead. You may chose to live in a Ben Op community, but you are simply avoiding, or at best postponing, the inevitable.
I think if you curtail your children’s education or vocational opportunities, by intention or by accident, they will abandon any and all the “spiritual lessons” you tried to teach them. Yes, mommy’s boys and scared virgins will stick around, but men will be men. Plenty of men went off to Paris, slept with Parisan hookers, and then returned to have a pretty normal, conservative, and traditional family life.
I know you say the Ben Op is not a cult, not a retreat, but it has to be. I mean TV is the message. Just think how much people talk about TV. Regular people I mean. Now don’t. I don’t watch Game of Thrones. I don’t watch True Blood. I don’t watch anything, and I know the names of these things! When your 16 year old who doesn’t know anything about pop culture meets his peers, he finds out he has no peers! There is no connection, and for many, it is easier to run into a nunnery. Christendom proved that, as parents sent their virgins there at a rate of almost 2 girls to every boy…or was it more?
Then, at Christendom, for four years the students learn Latin and Greek, like anybody cares, or there are jobs in the humanities departments? My friend is an adjunct at a community college teaching history for less money than a fry cook. What are all these people with a BA in Latin going to do? The rich ones go to law school, and hang out in Washington. The poor, well, they rose too high, too fast.
How to avoid being a cult? I suggest three things. First, the community must avoid all intrusion into the private life. No dress codes, no discipline, no holier than thou kind of rules. The church may suggest that people do things, but avoid making it into a contest. Since this is a voluntary organization, it must have a certain amount of freedom.
Second, there must be outside authority, a bishop, a pope, who is not related, by blood or marriage to the powerful people. Too many things revolve around families, especially when fertility is high. One generation and 40 kids later, things get ugly. The authority must not be easy to corrupt.
Third, there must be a transparent system in allegations of abuse. People in these communities often try to keep everything a secret, and without a clear process, abuse cases (sexual, embezzlement, adultery) can drag on, damaging people who weren’t initially involved.
Frankly I have a very low opinion of human organizations, and therefore find the idealism behind the Ben Op the most ridiculous thing. No matter how good the idea seems, it will, as always, turn into a rank pit of incest and corruption. It is the nature of things.
Seriously, I’m grateful for this, even though I disagree with some of it. I’m not going to answer this point by point. I do want to say a few things, though, for clarification’s sake.
I strongly agree that the church/group should be very careful not to get too intimate in the regulation of the private lives of its members. That said, Raskolnik’s idea that there can be no “holier than thou” rules (whatever that means) or discipline means that there can be no community. Every community, religious or not, has its own rules, mostly unwritten. The challenge is to be wise in their articulation and application. This is true for a church, it’s true for a school, it’s true for a Benedict Option community or institution, and it’s true for a homeowners’ association.
Second, the idea that you ruin your kid by not surrendering him to be formed entirely by popular culture is preposterous. My own kids have a fairly small-c catholic exposure to culture, both high and popular. There’s a massive amount of stuff out there that is good and true and beautiful. Sure, you can raise them in an airlock chamber if you want to, and set them up for rebellion. But you are not fated to do that. Again, I think Raskolnik posits extremes as the only realistic possibilities.
Third, the idea that there’s no realistic counter-response to the godless, consumerist, egocentric paradise that the globalists, the capitalists, the Chi-coms and others have prepared for us is bunk. I am not prepared to surrender myself or my children to it — and I don’t think that this requires us to turn into extreme Anabaptists. Maybe I’ll be proven wrong, but I’m willing to take that risk. What else is there? Living at home alone, playing computer games, and refusing to dream of an alternative? This is obviously preferable to the Mennonite life? I don’t see it, at all.
Having said all of that, I am genuinely thankful for Raskolnik’s testimony here, because I think this kind of thing is a real temptation for idealists like me who have no experience at all with this kind of community or church. This is something that all of us thinking about the Benedict Option have to consider.