Reader Dave Kuntz gives me permission to share this letter he sent me:
I just finished “The Idea of a Christian Village” in The Benedict Option. I commend you for steering your readers away from Utopianism, and including the tale of “Ellen” whose totalitarian parents drove her to atheism.
That being said, I think that your views are still too Utopian, and that Ellen’s experience is likely to be the norm for a child raised in a Benedict Community. Here’s why: Making a conscious decision the leave mainstream society requires huge commitment. While many parents may make the choice for the right reasons of preserving their faith, I would gamble that a large portion of potential “Benedictines” would do because they crave a strong sense of control. This isn’t the fault of the Benedict Option, but rather, the consequence of it self-selecting the exact types of people it wouldn’t work for.
Let me elaborate from my upbringing. I am a 28 year-old male who was homeschooled. My parents are both college-educated, and I grew up near a large city. We joined several communities that were similar to how you describe the Benedict Option, including a large homeschool group, conservative church, and Christian debate club. Like your book describes, we had daily Bible readings, prayer, and theological discussions.
My parents did not start out extreme, but a large faction of our Benedictine peers were. As time went on and not all the promises of our community were fulfilled, my mother especially dove deeper into system, thinking we were not committed enough. Here is a list of things that were common in those circles. According to my fiance who was raised in Austin, Texas, these traits are ubiquitous in homeschooler Benedictine-like communities across the country as well:
Chaste Daughter Fetish: I was forced to “interact” with many families whose daughters were not allowed to talk to boys. This made playing Monopoly almost impossible. You wouldn’t want to risk giving your heart away and becoming chewed gum over a property trade, would you?
Militant Fecundity Fetish: This is the flip side of the Chaste Daughter Fetish. Once you get married, you got to have as many kids as physically possible. I’m not talking about just liking big families. I’m talking about the homeschool patriarchs who described their family size the way my gym buddies described their you know what. I never saw much difference between the two forms of “masculinity.”
Scandals: The homeschool leadership never could quite keep their hands to themselves, despite all the chastity talks. Two of the three most influential homeschool leaders who are still alive (Bill Gothard and Doug Phillips) turned out to be predators, as you’ve written about. On the local level, literally all my parents’ churches broke up.
No Real Vocation for Next Generation: Before its leader went Militant Fecund on his Chaste Daughter’s babysitter, Vision Forum was one of the biggest homeschool textbook/activist organizations out there. One of its core positions was that higher education was bad, all while the “Inner Party” and doctorate-laden board of directors touted their own expertise. Vision Forum romanticized the working-class lifestyle while selling their prole followers $400 conferences and $200 “pioneer” toys. I am one of the few to have a real career, although the homeschoolers from the debate club did better than average.
No Marriages: Ironic, considering how much focus was put on it. But perhaps when you can lose your innocence by just talking to people of the opposite sex, you don’t. I more or less tried six different courtships and always got rejected by the parents, despite (or perhaps because of) making more money and being more educated than the father in almost every case.
Conspiracy theories: It is not merely enough to believe that the onslaught of secularism is pushing Christianity out of the West. Rather, many of my conservative friends feel the great need to identify large, secretive organizations, satanists at home and abroad, and weirdly specific plots that were ripped off from “24” as the “real reason” Christianity is dying.
Weird eschatology: I literally had just walked into a conservative church, and when people learned by profession (artificial intelligence in the natural scientists) I was asked if I thought that the anti-Christ was a computer.
I’ve come to believe that a lot of this group-think was inevitable, and would occur in any close-knit community. We are herd animals, and the people trying to make “intentional Christian communities” simply switched their peer-orientation from the culture toward themselves, where everything became an obsession toward “godliness.” I call them BJWs, with “Biblical” instead of “Social.” Many young people in these communities ended up more apostate than their worldly peers. How would a potential Benedict Community possibly hope to avoid these pitfalls?
Thanks, Dave, for your provocative letter. I have not encountered any of this personally. I invite readers who have to share their strategies for dealing with it.
I think Dave’s experience — which I believe is real, let me be clear — is what a lot of Christians tell themselves that homeschooling and other forms of Ben Opping are going to be, as a way of relieving themselves from the responsibilities of raising faithful, morally sane children in this culture. Matt Walsh writes about that here. Excerpts:
Granted, there are still some parents who are utterly determined to guard their children’s hearts and protect their innocence at all costs. But I fear that this is a rather small group, and getting smaller. Every day, more and more of us put up the white flag. There is no use in fighting it, we say. Especially if it means our kids can’t watch much TV (meaning, horrifically, that we have to spend time with them). We bow our heads submissively and hand over our children. “Well, I tried,” we say. But we didn’t really try. We didn’t even try turning the TV off.
I hear from these surrendered parents all the time. They behave much like the apostate priests in the book “Silence,” trying to convince those who’ve retained their faith and their dignity to stop resisting and join them in their treason. These parents, looking at the children whose moral formation they have not concerned themselves with, rationalize their failures by declaring that it would be unrealistic and harmful to even attempt to raise their kids in a way that diverges from the mainstream. “You can’t keep your kids in a bubble,” they explain.
Ah, yes, the mythical Bubble. I encounter this supposedly pejorative phrase every day. Indeed, I’ve been told of the Bubble ever since my kids were born, and all I know about it for sure is that, according to most people, I must not let my children enter it. Christian parents are warned constantly that they can’t raise their kids in the Bubble. The Bubble is bad. The Bubble is scary. Children of the Bubble are weird and different, and they don’t get invited to sleepover parties.
At any rate, whenever I am accused of keeping my kids in a Bubble, it is always because I have taken some step to preserve their innocence. That is the one thing we absolutely must not do, according to society. Let the TV and the school system decide when its time for your child to stop being a child. That time, by the way, is right around their second birthday and getting younger.
Well, no thanks. I will proudly house my children in this kind of Bubble for as long as I can. They may have fewer friends and a less expansive knowledge of the most popular cartoon shows and sex acts when they emerge from it, but at least they will have their souls. That’s a pretty good trade, as far as I’m concerned.
UPDATE: Reader John comments:
I was homeschooled from 2nd through 12th grade and attended a college catering largely to homeschoolers, so I’ve had a lot of experience observing the phenomena you describe. I didn’t personally experience the controlling environment Dave Kuntz writes about — my parents are both STEM professionals who believed strongly in higher education — but I have many, many friends who were brought up in subcultures like the one he describes.
First, I think the dynamics Mr. Kuntz writes about are seriously affecting how many conservative evangelicals are responding to your Benedict Option proposals. Whether fairly or not, this kind of “hyper-control” is the specter that pops into people’s minds, because these groups have had an outsize presence in evangelical culture for the past few decades. I think the Benedict Option, properly understood, withstands this critique: it invokes the authority of the historic Christian tradition rather than the authority of one charismatic person. But that’s why people can’t get the “head for the hills and join my cult” caricature out of their heads.
Second, in my experience, the single biggest factor influencing whether “children of the bubble” remained in the faith was their degree of exposure to the historic Christian tradition – that is, basically anything prior to 1800. Many, many, many young Christians raised in these environments have no idea what Catholics believe, have never even heard of Eastern Orthodoxy, and don’t know what the “creeds” are. Long lost is the richness of the Christian theological-philosophical tradition – Augustine, the Eastern church fathers, Aquinas, and so forth. The intellectual figureheads of this subculture are shysters like Kent Hovind and David Barton.
In some ways, it’s a dark mirror of the Moralistic Therapeutic Deism you’ve written about at length: it claims to be
Moreover, the intellectual boundaries of these bubbles are rigorously policed. To maintain good standing in an environment heavily influenced by Independent Fundamental Baptist theology, you’re expected to embrace a whole host of positions that would’ve been unthinkable to Christians before the last couple centuries: six-day creation, anti-sacramentalism, dispensationalist eschatology, and so forth. When students brought up in these environments go off to college, scientific and historical research hits their faith like a sledgehammer. So many theological eggs have been placed in the Ken Ham basket that the whole edifice collapses as soon as real questions come up.
The overwhelming majority of my still-Christian friends who came from these “bubbles” have since gravitated to Catholicism or conservative Anglicanism or Lutheranism. I know many homeschooled ex-“bubblers,” however, who’ve walked away from Christianity entirely. The determining factor, in every case, has been the degree of engagement with “pre-American” Christianity.
“Pre-American Christianity” is a great designation.
UPDATE.2: Another reader e-mails:
I am a long-time reader of your blog, and I read the Benedict Option with great interest. I want to comment on your recent post, “Children of the Bubble”, as I have a great deal of experience dealing with these children.
Without going into too much detail, a substantial fraction of the children at our church have been home-schooled for some fraction of their lives, and some were home-churched as well. I can fully support Dave Kuntz’s assessment – these stories are not the exception, they are common. I’d say one-in-five or one-in-four.
To give one example: a family of six children decided to home-school their kids using the Bill Gothard curriculum, and the kids were subject to regular physical and verbal abuse. The primary causes were an angry and negligent father, and a controlling and neurotic mother. While it is likely that these issues would have arisen under any context, the fact remains that the Gothard curriculum installed a belief system that justified and enabled the parents’ abuse. The church was clueless; by all outward appearances, they were the model family. It was only until the police were called to their house by neighbors for domestic violence that the facade was shattered. I have been a mentor and teacher to some of the children for a few years, and I started a few years after this was discovered.
Because there are six children, there is a substantial age gap between them, and the older children were able to form a protective environment for the younger children. This is common in abusive families, and, as a result, the sibling bonds are incredibly strong, but also co-dependent. The older ones are more consciously-aware of the abuse and able to verbally process their pain, but the wounds are incredibly deep. However, as they age out of college and into the workforce, they are gaining more perspective and maturity. It remains to be seen if they will remain in the church. For at least one of them, the answer is decisively no. The younger ones remain in denial, they project cheerfulness but are quiet and timid. It will be sometime yet before they are willing to confront their anger and fear. (And yes, they and the entire family are in professional counseling; rest assured that I am very aware of my limitations as a lay leader in the church.)
This leads me to my greater point – the church has very little defense against sociopaths. A sociopath that can clothe his depredations with the right religious shibboleths will not be recognized or stopped until incredible damage is done. This includes abusive parents, “churchian” hucksters, and the real McCoy, narcissistic sociopathic pastors. To take a more secular-sociological analysis, the true-believers of a memetic system (such as Christianity), especially one that includes provisions such as “judge not, lest ye be judged”, “he who is without sin, cast the first stone” will have a difficult time discriminating and expelling impostors that are skilled at deploying defensive arguments within that meme structure.
This is doubly-true for home-schooled kids. Because they are in the “bubble”, they have been socialized among high-agreeableness, high-conformity, high-trust true-believers, and they have not learned to recognize predatory or sociopathic behavior. They are simply too trusting and too credulous, and this can be easily exploited by people both inside and outside their social circles.
As far as I can tell, the only defense for any church from sociopaths is to have people in the church who have experience swimming with the sharks. In other words, you need people who have proven themselves in the secular world, with high levels of competency and success by the standards of that world, who are placed in positions where they can serve as an early-warning against such people. They don’t need (and don’t really have the time to) be responsible for everyday church activities, but, like an immune system, can activate as necessary to repel sociopaths. They must establish trust with the body of the church prior to the attack, otherwise the sociopaths will too easily sway the church against them.
Our church has had to recently defend against an …. overly-ambitious, shall we say, pastoral intern. However, because our church has many very competent people in professional fields where dealing with sociopaths is routine, this person was put through a oversight process that lasted several months and led to his eventual resignation.
These experiences lead me to believe that the church must have one foot in each world. We must protect the innocence of children from the social insanities that lurk behind every glowing screen, yet we must also harden them for eventual battle against the same. The home-school bubbles fall prey to sociopaths from without and within. I personally think it is incumbent upon the lay leadership, the elders and deacons, to advise the (often somewhat sheltered) pastoral staff of these dangers, while still submitting to their spiritual leadership. There are many archetypes for this leadership model. The gentle and wise leader who appoints an energetic war-chief in times of conflict, or FDR and Eisenhower.