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Hope Amid The Ruins

Piazza of St. Benedict, in Norcia, before the earthquake

Over the weekend I read Bruce Frohnen’s review in The University Bookman of The Benedict OptionI was deeply gratified, not only because it is, to my mind, the most accurate representation of what the book is about and what I’m trying to do with it, but also because I’ve known and respected Bruce’s thinking and his courage for years. To be understood is what every writer hopes for. To be understood and affirmed by a conservative thinker of Bruce Frohnen’s character and intellect is thrilling. Excerpts:

Rod Dreher has been calling for Christians to heal themselves, their churches, and their communities, for most of his adult life. One thing has changed in the ten years since publication of his first book, Crunchy Cons: He no longer holds that cultural renewal, to which he calls Christians in particular, can extend to society as a whole. As Dreher argues in his latest book, The Benedict Option, neither the United States, nor the Western Civilization of which it is a part, can be saved in the sense of returning to the norms of the Judeo-Christian tradition which produced and sustained lives of faith, family, and freedom. Our proper task, then, is to preserve and enrich cultural remnants for their own sakes—as embodiments of God’s love and as aids to those persons and communities who might yet walk in the ways of their Lord. Any resurgence or reclaiming of wider cultural influence is so far off in time that it cannot be allowed to guide our practical choices in the here and now.

Such arguments are dismissed as overwrought and defeatist by most people—whatever their party affiliation—with status and power in today’s society. The Benedict Option has not escaped such criticism. But this book is a sign and cause of hope. Dreher provides a penetrating diagnosis of our ills. As important, he outlines means by which we can follow our true nature and find joy in our lives together even as those around us lose sight of humanity and the goodness of life itself.

The Benedict Option is the product of years of thought, investigation, conversation, and at times argument. Not that Dreher himself is argumentative, far from it. But the position he has taken, like the norms he seeks to preserve, garners opposition on all sides. Why? Because it entails a refusal to either temporize with a culture that has become toxic to our real humanity or to declare even metaphorical war on those seeking to destroy the remnants of a civilization of which they know nothing, except that they have been taught to see it as “racist, sexist, and homophobic.” Dreher’s position is a delicate one in that it must balance the need to be “countercultural” with the necessity to engage with a now-dominant culture that is overtly hostile to Christians and their institutions, beliefs, and practices.

Yes, and that delicacy is not easy to communicate. We have to keep fighting as hard as we can, but we have to do so with the realization that we are probably going to lose. This is not despair; this is realism. The Benedict Option is Plan B, one that urges the “creative minority” of Christians to pioneer and implement ways of living that allow us to hold onto our faith in what is (to use a culture-war metaphor) occupied territory.

One of the most difficult things to get across is that the battle lines are not between the Church and the Post-Christian Culture. The battle lines are within the Church itself — and prospects for victory are bleak. Most of us American Christians have no idea how weak we have made ourselves by substituting Moralistic Therapeutic Deism for authentic Christianity. We cannot imagine how feeble we’ve rendered our ability to respond adequately to the challenge of post-Christianity — or even to survive it with our faith intact in this radically post-Christian culture. For example, this chocolate-and-marshmallow Christianity is doing nothing but preparing the next generation of Christian kids for capitulation and assimilation:

People mean well, they really do, but this is like trying to contain a forest fire with a garden hose. If you, Christian, think that continuing to do what we’ve been doing for the last 50 years is adequate to the crisis of our time, you are dreaming. Your false ideas will have consequences.

More Frohnen:

Government’s proper goal is to foster the more primary associations of family, church, and local association. Sadly, the best we can hope for today is to demilitarize the hostility toward our associations inherent to modern, social democratic secularism.

This realistic assessment is not cause for despair. Rather, it supports a call for a more fully Christian politics. Dreher points with approval to pro-life activists who have refused to limit their activities to the (hostile) legislative and judicial spheres. Wise pro-lifers open crisis centers and reach out to victims of abortion (including mothers recovering from abortion) and otherwise work to build communities dedicated to welcoming new life. In this vein, Dreher argues, all Christians must take positive action, rebuilding communities by starting church and school groups, joining the volunteer fire department, teaching kids music and scripture, playing games, feasting with neighbors, and more generally leading good lives in a myriad small communities centered on church, family, and neighborhood. “If we want to survive, we have to return to the roots of our faith, both in thought and in practice. We are going to have to learn habits of the heart forgotten by believers in the West. We are going to have to change our lives and our approach to life, in radical ways. In short, we are going to have to be the church, without compromise, no matter what it costs.” [Emphasis in original]

One more passage:

Obviously, the church should be the primary institution providing guidance and patterns of conduct in accord with our true nature. Unfortunately, as Dreher points out, too many in the pulpit know little of their own history or the grounds of their own faith. Instead of spiritual guidance, the faithful receive the bromides of self-esteem and reassurances that all truths are subject to “updating” to make them compatible with our wants and sins of the moment. Thus, churches, like schools and universities, have become nothing more than loci of ideology and the platitudes of the self-help group; they ignore their essential work of forming minds, characters, and souls in accordance with the truths of our nature and history. “Instead of teaching us what we must deprive ourselves of to be civilized, we have a culture built on a cult of desire, one that tells us we find meaning and purpose in releasing ourselves from the old prohibitions, as we self-directed individuals choose.”

Our time is one of fundamental disorder. And we cannot bring order to society until we bring it to ourselves and those around us. Order in society is an outgrowth of order in the soul, which comes from ordering ourselves according to the deeper, more fundamental order of being, of reality itself. In this light, the inevitable burdens of life on the periphery of a hostile, inhumane culture should hold less fear for us than it does. Already, many of us have had our life-chances severely limited by this culture, in which what is best in us is termed hateful bigotry. It is time, then, to cease pretending that we can make common cause with those who hate us, or that we can win some kind of war with them. We must treat them as our Christian forebears treated the powerful pagans of their time, with pity, love, and a healthy dose of caution. We must live among them, but we can no longer afford to believe that we are of them, lest we lose our own souls in the process. This is no message of despair, but a call to virtue we must heed in our daily lives, daring to be martyrs only when specifically called on to do so, and otherwise to build up the church by bringing God’s order to our own lives, and the lives of those we cherish.

We must live among them, but we can no longer afford to believe that we are of them… . Wisdom, let us attend!

Read the whole thing. Thank you, Bruce! This is the best and most thorough review I’ve seen yet. Readers, if you think The Benedict Option is about nothing more than culture-war surrender and a retreat into quietism, read Frohnen’s review and understand how wrong you are. At the Walker Percy Weekend festival, I met a number of people who said that they are reading the book in their church groups, as a spur to discussion on how they might respond individually and as a church to the challenges identified in the book. If you would like to do this with your church or other group, be aware that Sentinel, the publisher, will make bulk orders available at a steep discount. If this interests you, please drop me a note at rod — at — amconmag — dot — com, and I’ll forward your request to the publisher.

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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