On Misreading The Benedict Option
A reader writes:
Tuesday I was having lunch with someone who is a pretty popular blogger. We got to talking about the Benedict Option. He told me two or three problems he had with it. I asked him if he’d read it. He said no he was relying on reviews. I said I thought as much. I said I had read it and what he was criticizing was not what you said. I suggested he read the book. I liked the book.
I find this endlessly frustrating. Why are so many people so eager to see things that are NOT in the book? Why are so many people quick to attribute to me things that I clearly do not believe, and that I explicitly contradict in the book? It’s bizarre.
Here’s a pretty clear summary of the Ben Op’s cultural critique from the popular Evangelical writer Scot McKnight. I smiled at this reference to Jamie Smith’s slimy “review” in the Washington Post:
Facts and interpretations are alarmist according to the eyes of the beholder. I read Smith’s review twice before I read Dreher’s book and Dreher’s book is not recognizable to me in Smith’s review. Hence, I want to give Dreher’s book a fair description.
And McKnight does just that — which doesn’t, of course, prevent some commenters on that post from saying that they haven’t read the book, but it seems to them that … and off they go accusing me of advocating things I do not advocate.
The National Review piece by Rachel Lu is a great example of this — better than most, because it is pretty clearly not written from a malicious point of view. Rather, it’s the view of a very smart person and a good writer who seems to have worked exceptionally hard to miss the point. Excerpt:
Worldly withdrawal is a hard row to hoe, which is why we probably needn’t worry too much that droves of Americans will suddenly decide to “go Benedict.” There will never be so very many who want to give up modern comforts and securities to become turnip farmers, and it’s not necessarily bad to have a few. Traditionalist experimentation can yield benefits for society, just as other forms of innovation can be beneficial. Tiny, traditionalist communities may succeed in uncovering or preserving certain salutary truths that have been lost to the culture at large. In any case, a free society should be able to make room for a few such endeavors.
Right, because if there’s one thing that The Benedict Option preaches, it’s that everybody should all rusticate themselves and become turnip farmers for Jesus. Good grief. For the record, here is one of many passages from the actual book in which I refute this lazy caricature — in this case, by quoting someone living out a Benedict Option:
“Ultimately I think Christians have to understand that yes, we have to be countercultural, but no, we don’t have to run away from the rest of society,” he says. “We have to be a sign of contradiction to the surrounding society, but at the same time we have to be engaged with that society, while still nurturing our own community so we can fully form our children.”
Another Lu passage:
The Benedict Option was controversial in large part because religious conservatives are already very attracted to quietist modes of thought. Quietism, a posture of spiritual detachment, has appeared in various forms throughout Christian history and culture. It gains force when a culture is in decline or elites become overtly hostile to Christianity. Withdrawal holds appeal, not only because the world is hard but also because Christians believe themselves to be the inheritors of a rich tradition that promises something better. To Christian faithful, life is first and foremost a quest for eternal redemption. If the mainstream culture seems uncongenial to that journey, there will always be some who judge it best to give up the fight for the world and to focus instead on forging a less perilous path for themselves and their loved ones.
So the Benedict Option is quietist? That’s not what the actual book says. From The Benedict Option:
The real question facing us is not whether to quit politics entirely, but how to exercise political power prudently, especially in an unstable political culture. When is it cowardly not to cooperate with secular politicians out of an exaggerated fear of impurity—and when is it corrupting to be complicit? Donald Trump tore up the political rule book in every way. Faithful conservative Christians cannot rely unreflectively on habits learned over the past thirty years of political engagement. The times require much more wisdom and subtlety for those believers entering the political fray.
Above all, though, they require attention to the local church and community, which doesn’t flourish or fail based primarily on what happens in Washington. And the times require an acute appreciation of the fragility of what can be accomplished through partisan politics. Republicans won’t always rule Washington, after all, and the Republicans who are ruling it now may be more adversarial to the work of the church than many gullible Christians think.
Many Christians are so discouraged by the political situation that they have resolved to disengage from partisan politics or at least to care less about it than they once did. This need not mean a retreat into quietism. [Emphasis mine — RD]
Later in that chapter, I hold up the late Czech dissident Vaclav Benda, who was a Catholic, as as an example of Christian engagement in a post (or anti) Christian environment:
At serious risk to himself and his family (he and his wife had six children), Benda rejected ghettoization. He saw no possibility for collaboration with the Communists, but he also rejected quietism, considering it a failure to display proper Christian concern for justice, charity, and bearing evangelical witness to Christ in the public square. For Benda, Havel’s injunction to “live in truth” could only mean one thing: to live as a Christian in community.
Benda did not advocate retreat to a Christian ghetto. He insisted that the parallel polis must understand itself as fighting for “the preservation or the renewal of the national community in the widest sense of the word—along with the defense of all the values, institutions, and material conditions to which the existence of such a community is bound.
I personally think that a no less effective, exceptionally painful, and in the short term practically irreparable way of eliminating the human race or individual nations would be a decline into barbarism, the abandonment of reason and learning, the loss of traditions and memory. The ruling regime—partly intentionally, partly thanks to its essentially nihilistic nature—has done everything it can to achieve that goal. The aim of independent citizens’ movements that try to create a parallel polis must be precisely the opposite: we must not be discouraged by previous failures, and we must consider the area of schooling and education as one of our main priorities.
From this perspective, the parallel polis is not about building a gated community for Christians but rather about establishing (or reestablishing) common practices and common institutions that can reverse the isolation and fragmentation of contemporary society. (In this we hear Brother Ignatius of Norcia’s call to have “borders”— formal lines behind which we live to nurture our faith and culture—but to “push outwards, infinitely.”) Benda wrote that the parallel polis’s ultimate political goals are “to return to truth and justice, to a meaningful order of values, [and] to value once more the inalienability of human dignity and the necessity for a sense of human community in mutual love and responsibility.”
In other words, dissident Christians should see their Benedict Option projects as building a better future not only for themselves but for everyone around them. That’s a grand vision, but Benda knew that most people weren’t interested in standing up for abstract causes that appealed only to intellectuals. He advocated practical actions that ordinary Czechs could do in their daily lives.
How anybody can read these passages (to say nothing of the rest of the book) and conclude that I am advocating Christian quietism is beyond my ability to comprehend. There’s more:
Personality cults come and go, but the Jewish carpenter has held strong for nearly two millennia, today claiming almost 40 times as many living followers as voted for Trump in the last election. The lamb may look vulnerable, but he’s proven to be very resilient.
The book is explicitly about Christianity in the West, not global Christianity. To fail to see that and to acknowledge it in one’s critique is a fundamental failure as a reader. More:
Quietist-type thinking trains us to look on our culture with an eye only for the things we cannot change. Dreher traces our current malaise back to philosophical errors deep within the modern psyche, although at the same time he also blames Christians for their own downfall, contending that they were too willing to sell their birthright for short-term political victories. Our current struggles, it seems, were somewhat inevitable; nevertheless, in Dreher’s view, we should blame ourselves and don sackcloth.
At this point I wonder: what on earth is wrong with this reviewer? The Benedict Option is filled with practical examples of all kinds of Christians doing things to counter the spirit of the age. Rachel Lu is having an argument with a book that does not exist except in her imagination — and she is far from the only reviewer doing so. The reader who sent me the Lu piece adds:
I’m assuming she read it. I’m also assuming she is young, and sees the political sphere as a worthwhile arena for her efforts. But for some reason they just don’t get it. Not sure how else you can say it.
It’s like she was a liturgical traditionalist and thought Gregorian chant was the cat’s meow, and decided to start a traveling mission to bring it to parishes across America, but showed up at the first place and everyone realized she had no musical training. Could not sing. Could not play. Could not read music. Could not conduct. Sorry Rachel, you need to know how to do Gregorian chant to infuse the culture with Gregorian chant.
Or if she saw a great need for a soup kitchen and gathered up 100 volunteers, who showed up to discover no food, no money, no plates, no kitchen. Sorry. You aren’t prepared to embark on the mission you propose.
And that to me is the central critique. Of the BenOp.
Maybe I’m drunk. Or everyone else is. But this constant misreading seems to me like a pretty bad sign.
You say, hey, the music at this church needs work. Nobody can sing. Nobody can play. The organ is broke. Luckily we have a strong tradition. Let’s get some people trained up. Let’s raise some money and fix the organ. It’s important.
Response: Dreher hates music! He says stop singing. He says everything is wrong. Alarmism! Music is important! It’s a crucial ministry! What about St. Cecilia!? Let’s resist his urge to turn away from music and keep playing!
Dreher: But I love music. I’m saying you aren’t doing real music because the organ is broke and if it weren’t nobody could play it anyway, and…
Response: Music hater!
Look, don’t misunderstand: I hope everyone will like the book, but I am certainly aware that folks will have principled objections to parts of it, or all of it. That’s fine. That’s normal. What frustrates me are these people who seriously mischaracterize the book and its claims and contentions. I had a brief exchange on Twitter over the weekend with a self-styled Christian educator who dismissed the book entirely. When I asked him if he had read it, he did not respond, only redoubled his criticism.
If you have decided that The Benedict Option is all wrong, but you have not read the book, only read reviews of it, then you may be making a big mistake. Read it for yourself and make up your own mind. If you want a short, accurate description of its basic claim, read this Scot McKnight blog entry. McKnight seems to be writing a series of blog posts describing the book (here’s part 2), and I assume he will make his own judgment of it. I will be eager to read what he has to say. Though he is so far only really summarizing it, the accuracy with which he states the book’s argument and claims is hopeful. Even if he doesn’t agree, ultimately, I’m grateful for the clarity McKnight brings to the discussion.
As Maggie Gallagher said in the comments here, she has big problems with the book, but she says I ask all the right questions. I appreciate that. If others have better answers to those questions, then I surely want to hear them. My future as a Christian and the future of my descendants depends on it.
(Hey, readers, I’m about to head for the airport to pick up J.D. Vance, and then go on into New Orleans for the event tonight. I won’t be able to approve comments for most of today. Please be patient.)