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Holding On To Your Religion

Here are a couple of really intriguing responses to the “Ben Op As Bondage” post from yesterday. I took them out of the comments thread because they deserve greater attention.

Reader Simeon T. writes:

I am yet another young Christian shaped by the “fundagelical” movement. I was homeschooled, my family attended conservative churches (including leaving one that started to introduce too much of the “cool” factor), and we generally moved in circles that sound similar to those against which Libby Anne reacts.

Despite that, my faith (and thus far that of my siblings) is firm and vibrant. Praise God. I’ve been mulling over this piece for the last 2.5hrs (thanks for providing much better in-flight entertainment than whatever American was showing from CNBC) wondering how that happened. I think the answer may lie in history.

Often, fundamentalist Christianity isolates itself not only from present evil but also from much of the past, good and bad alike. Christian history is especially lacking. If the true church didn’t start with the 12 and jump from Acts to American Baptist circuit-riding preachers, it certainly did no more than begin with John the Baptist and jump from the Apostle John to Martin Luther. Many times Christian history is reduced to something like Jesus-Luther-Anabaptists-Wesley-Bryan (William Jennings)-Graham-us. Probably a couple 19th-century foreign missionaries are thrown in for good inspirational measure. Practically ignored as matters of church history are the Roman persecutions and Constantine’s conversion; the growth of the church amidst political chaos (including the original St. Benedict’s deeds); the heresies, schisms, councils, etc. that shaped the church in its unity and in its factions, and much more. In short, practically everything that points to the catholic church as one continuous body through time is left untaught or taught only as a footnote to World History. Perhaps it is because the American church has forgotten there was a true church before itself. Perhaps it is because that history smells too strongly of papism. Perhaps it is because of sheer intellectual laziness.

Compounding the lack of church is history is a lack of family histories. I’m afraid that many of my peers’ parents have failed to communicate their own histories to their children. Maybe it was to preserve their purity, like censoring a movie featuring “d*mn.” Maybe it was an attempt to preserve their kids’ respect. If the latter, the attempt failed all too often.

My own parents were raised in the faith and wandered for years before the Lord drew them back. They have told even these chapters of their histories to their children, not to boast of their depths of depravity, but as a testimony and a caution. In a sense, I don’t need to wander. I’ve done so through my parents. (“As in Adam all sinned,” but writ small and more personally.) As for church history, Eusebius and the Benedictine Rule were required reading.

In the end, here is the problem with what I call frantic fundamentalism. Without family and church histories from which to draw, each new generation has to start over in a mad rush to define itself: dedicate themselves to God “in a special way,” learn all conceivable apologetic arguments, hash out very old theological debates while thinking them novel, reinvent church music, be surprised by persecution or its portents. The burden is too great, and many individuals collapse under the weight.

My final point is this: the Benedict Option ought not focus so much on avoiding the evil present as on remembering the community’s own past. That is its difference from fundagelicalism and its great hope. Thanks to my parents for (unconsciously?) realizing and practicing that.

What a great comment. I have written here before, and have said in the manuscript I’m working on, that the Benedict Option is in large part a strategy for remembering in an age of forced forgetting.


In a very different comment, reader Kanitach writes:

It feels odd to write “I grew up,” because I’m still growing up, but. I grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family (and not Modern Orthodox, either), attending Orthodox Jewish institutions from preschool to summer camp to high school to first jobs, praying every day and going to shul every week. I follow a strict dress code and to this day have never so much as shaken hands with the opposite gender. Sex ed was nonexistent, and I’m blushing as I type the word. Until recently, my family had no home Internet, video games, or, for the kids, cell phones. I got an email address in eleventh grade, but I could only access it in school, and only when my teacher entered the Internet password.
We don’t live in Kiryas Yoel, but we don’t need to. Of the people in my life on any closer terms than acquaintanceship, exactly zero are not Orthodox Jews. When I first read about the necessity of a Benedict Option, I laughed out loud and wonder what took other religions so long to reach that conclusion.
Last year I started college, entering a non-Jewish educational environment for the first time. To say I was terrified would be an understatement. With my exposure to mainstream America hazy at best, I was convinced that college would be a hotbed of promiscuity and militant atheism. Spoiler: it was not. It took me over a year to get used to having the opposite gender in my class, but nobody cared that I was religious. After years of inculcation with a persecution complex, it was kind of insulting.
Living in a parallel universe, one that occupies the same space as the surrounding culture but never intersects it, I can say that the tight-knit wraparound of the community is both a curse and a blessing. On the one hand, there was utter consonance between school and home. My teachers and classmates, every lesson I learned, was reflected seamlessly in my life. My social life, my corner grocery, even my doctor is Orthodox.
On the other hand, communal standards are often elevated to religious precepts, your life comes prefabricated by the manufacturer, and any form of “rumspringa” can burn all your bridges behind you. My close friend, an artsy nonconformist wildcard totally unsuited to the path they were expected to follow, left Orthodoxy slowly, over a period of years: it started with experimentation in dress, interests that were harmless but unusual, and soon they were locked into the “problem child” track.
I’m an inquisitive person, an insatiable reader and questioner of everything. In another family in my community, my parents could have forbade half the things I read and told me I was a heretic, but they didn’t. Over the course of my life I can remember only three library books I brought home that they wouldn’t let me read. They respected my curiosity, allowing me to suck up information instead of cracking down on the danger sign it wasn’t.
But the Internet, that’s a big deal. Because my family didn’t have it, I assumed the whole fuss was just typical communal overreaction. I had virtually no unsupervised Internet access until the age of 17, and by then I was mostly mature enough to filter myself.
Mostly. If I could go back and do it all over again, I would delay my Internet awakening another few years. The ability to compare my lifestyle with the world, to view it from an outsider’s perspective, to read about some not-so-pretty internal affairs from an objective perspective, triggered a crisis of faith I’m still quietly working on.
There’s been an obvious generational shift of late; my younger siblings have been allowed unrestricted (albeit filtered) access to the Internet and occasional rentals of a movie, something that would have been unthinkable in my childhood (and boy does it feel weird to write “my childhood”). They make references to pop culture that I barely understand, mouth off to my parents, and break the dress code in ways barely noticeable to an outsider but that would have landed me in hot water. Nobody appears to be going anywhere ideologically, but the external standards have certainly been lowered.
Despite my crisis of faith, I’m 90% committed to Orthodoxy at this point. (I might make the jump from haredi to Modern Orthodox if the opportunity presented itself.) But I don’t think it’s been a very fair crisis of faith, because I haven’t actually tried any other way of life for fear of burning my bridges.
TL;DR I’m not sure where this rambling dissertation was supposed to go, but if you want to know if my community’s BenOp has been successful, it depends on your definition of success, I guess.

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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