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Hope Amid The Ruins

Over the weekend I read Bruce Frohnen’s review [1] in The University Bookman of The Benedict Option [2]I 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 [3]: 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 i [4]s 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. [1] Thank you, Bruce! This is the best and most thorough review I’ve seen yet. Readers, if you think The Benedict Option [2]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.

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13 Comments To "Hope Amid The Ruins"

#1 Comment By QuinDuke On June 5, 2017 @ 11:26 am

Speaking as a teacher and helper in the children’s learning and worship of our church, the VBS materials linked to above are at least partially intended as an outreach to children in the community. Many parents who might not bring their kids to sunday school are looking for activities for them during the summer, and presenting the church as a positive, fun place to bring their kids may be a start to getting the kids to come back, and to influence their parents. Perhaps we’re selling our preschoolers and elementary school kids with no prior experience with church short by not building a theologically robust, intensive program of scripture learning and discipleship training for them to spend their summers doing, but I doubt it.

Now, I don’t think that’s what you were arguing. Of course the level of theology presented in those materials shouldn’t be the limit of what we’re instructing them in, but as an introduction for young children, it has merit.

If the argument is that it’s too cute and not serious enough, or that it’s been dumbed down too much, then I would offer that it’s not specific to protestants.

[5]

[NFR: Believe me, I know this is not a phenomenon limited to Protestantism. — RD]

#2 Comment By Deplorable Me On June 5, 2017 @ 11:33 am

I think of modern society as a sewer, and civilized folk as sewer workers: we try to keep the sewage from flooding us, and keep a sharp eye out for people who want to climb out of the sewer and start living better lives, so we can help them.

I suggest we take Saint Art of Carney as our patron. As far as I know, his “Honeymooners” character, Ed Norton, was the only major character of a TV show who worked in the sewer.

#3 Comment By Reader John On June 5, 2017 @ 11:33 am

“[I]t 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.'”
Boy, does that ever capture a lot! And I’ve increased my word power, too, adding “temporize” where I formerly might have said “farting around.”

#4 Comment By Charles Cosimano On June 5, 2017 @ 12:19 pm

Uh, let me know when the shuttle lands.

Look, I know every writer likes a friendly review, especially after the utter nonsense that has been piled on you, but this guy is from Mars.

“Government’s proper goal is to foster the more primary associations of family, church, and local association.”

Where did he come up with that one? The proper role of government is to keep the wheels of society moving, to restrain people from killing their neighbors (which it does badly) and enable them to kill people in other societies (which it does well). Oh, and to collect taxes and distribute the money to its cronies.

Let’s go on.

“Obviously the church should be the primary institution providing guidance and patters of conduct in accord with our true nature.”

Scream “Deus Vult!” and bash each other over the head with clubs? What does he think the true nature of humans is?

One more.

“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.”

From the looks of things it would seem they are doing a very good job of forming minds around the truths of our nature and history. That is why things are in such chaos. The problem is they are not equipping students with the proper level of cynicism to avoid being bothered by it.

When he sticks to seeing what is in your book he’s ok. He gets it, I think. (I have to say that because I’m sure there’s a lot in it I can’t get simply because I’m not the market.) When he puts his own gloss in, he sort of spins into his own fantasy land.

#5 Comment By ginger On June 5, 2017 @ 12:22 pm

I would hope any Christian forbear worth his/her salt did NOT feel pity for powerful pagans, but rather compassion. Pity is a real turnoff because it carries the suggestion that the one doing the pitying feels superior about his/her own situation while compassion suggests “there but for the grace of God go I.”

Being on the receiving end of a pity turns me away faster than just about anything else. I immediately feel a visceral dislike of people who seem to pity me, while those who show true compassion and empathy earn my deep gratitude and respect.

“I pity those out-of-shape people who don’t/won’t workout like I do and are therefore out of shape and fat” as I run off to another gym class in my size 2 yoga pants vs. “I have real compassion for people who struggle to stay active and eat right. I totally get it, as I find it really difficult to stay motivated myself. Let’s try to get through this together. Want to go for a walk this weekend?”

The first person makes me want to gag (and head for the couch with an entire box of Swiss rolls). The second person inspires me–hey, she gets it! And she’s willing to walk with me every step of the way as I try to improve myself, too. I’m going to step away from the Swiss rolls and head outside for a short walk. Every step counts!

Pity is a sure way to turn off the unbelievers.

#6 Comment By DS On June 5, 2017 @ 1:02 pm

That doesn’t seem to be a fair take on the S’More Jesus kit. From your link, I see it’s a program for preschoolers and elementary schoolkids. Sure, it looks unbearably hokey to dour middle-aged guys like us, but it’s age-appropriate.

Spiritual “milk” is appropriate for spiritual children, even if meat is what they need as they grow. Cf. 1 Corinthians 3.

Yes, there’s a problem if the VBS’ers never move on to solid food, or if the high school kids are also getting spiritual s’mores. But the strongest Christians I know are lifelong Christians who went to these kinds of programs as kids.

I had two kinds of exposure to Christianity as a youngster — the dour Irish Catholicism that makes people flee as soon as they have a choice, and the you’re-going-to-Hell Protestantism that makes one convert for every 50 who are permanently turned off. We need more positive, age-appropriate programs for kids. VBS is the kind of thing that BenOp families should be for, not against.

#7 Comment By Harvey On June 5, 2017 @ 2:00 pm

Perhaps you have no choice but to pick the fight … but claiming the mantle of ‘authentic Christianity’ for yourself and those like-minded is bound to be incredibly corrosive within the larger faith community.

You might also consider that those who disagree with your claim that your version of Christianity is authentic have a powerful counter-argument; you’ve changed faiths twice. As you have sought authenticity so have others, including those who follow a MTD version.

In the past, you’ve argued that only very conservative sects are likely to survive. But conflating the truth claim with the instrumental claim is terrible argument.

#8 Comment By JZ On June 5, 2017 @ 2:13 pm

One of the ways I often hear the Benedict Option discussed is something along these lines – things have gotten so bad in the west, we now reluctantly need to turn to something like the Benedict Option so we can survive. You can hear some of this in what Frohnen said. It sounds defeatist. Rod writes:

“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”

I would fundamentally disagree with at least part of this. It’s not plan B. It’s plan A and always has been – at least broadly speaking. The only thing different about it from 50 years ago (maybe more like 100+) is the minority part. IMO the Benedict Option would be every bit as important were we to be living in a truly Christian culture. For example, were it not for modernity wouldn’t it be just as critical for us to cultivate a deep prayer life, seek to actively participate in liturgical worship, call each other to truth in community, integrate our work into our faith life, educate ourselves and our children in virtue, faith and culture, etc? If you’re an orthodox Christian, when have these things ever been optional? I think perhaps part of the difficulty in people seeing this is that they romanticize the past – as if there was a point in time where you didn’t have to actively struggle towards living as a Christian.

We live in a fallen world with a predisposition to sinfulness. Rod writes:

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

I would take this a step further – the battle lines are within the human heart. Do we want to live as Christians or not? Most Christians would say yes, but in reality, many aren’t willing (and all struggle) to change their lives in order to live as disciples of Christ. This, IMO, is the true source of the resistance to the Benedict Option within Christian communities. It’s a cop out.

If you disagree with some of the specifics of the Benedict Option – maybe something like its disdain for our public school system – I would ask what your plan is to raise your kids to know and love virtue and faith. If you accept the premise that this isn’t optional, you’ll eventually come around to something that is BenOp worthy. And I think that’s the biggest treasure of The Benedict Option – getting us to think about our life in the modern world based on premises that have always existed.

#9 Comment By MikeS On June 5, 2017 @ 2:13 pm

It seems that broadly speaking, two things are needed to maintain serious orthodoxy of the kind you want: information and commitment. You need to teach people the doctrines, texts, history, practices, and rituals of the Faith, and motivate them to commit to that. But (and here’s where Marshmallow Jesus comes in): you will probably get psychology or pedagogy types who will tell you “But people and kids have different learning styles: some by lecture, some by arts and crafts, some by playing (fun!)” etc etc. So there’s not even agreement on such fundamental things as what is to be learned and how, or whether discipline is needed in pursuit of the learning. So in the end, Ben Op Christians will do what they must do, and the Marshmallowians will have to hope for the best.

#10 Comment By Diane On June 5, 2017 @ 3:31 pm

Our church is doing the Camp Out VBS. The vast majority of children who attend our VBS do not regularly attend church. We view this VBS as the starting point for introducing Christ to the children. I am teaching the Bible lessons, which concern Christ’s miracle healings and His resurrection. You are right that Christians have a duty to raise their children to become disciples and with a much stronger foundation than Camp Out VBS. But some children do not have Christian parents, and Camp Out VBS (and other such programs) is a starting point.

#11 Comment By Martha On June 5, 2017 @ 3:42 pm

The comments about VBS really make me feel old. When I was a kid in a small Ohio town VBS was a joint effort by several Protestant churches held for two weeks, half days, at the local elementary school. We had crafts, singing, workbooks, Bible memorization and playground time. It was great fun. Those days are long gone!

#12 Comment By Greg On June 5, 2017 @ 5:22 pm

I like efficiency in my word salad:

“Government’s proper goal is to foster the more primary associations of family, church, and local association.”

Really? What, then, is proper government? How would such government “foster” these things? Folks who lament the loss of “our civilization” and have no idea that Thomas Hobbes was a person who wrote things…

#13 Comment By Gromaticus On June 5, 2017 @ 6:41 pm

What’s up with these kids today and their chocolate and marshmallow Christianity; when I was in kindergarten we wore hair shirts and read Summa Theologica while we walked to and from vacation bible school (uphill, both ways)