Sam Rocha: The Critic As Failed Oyster
I have learned some useful things about the limitations of my book from some critical reviews (e.g., Matthew Loftus’s). I learned nothing about The Benedict Option from Sam Rocha’s review, but I learned a lot about Sam Rocha. It’s not complimentary, I’m afraid. I wish I hadn’t promised Matthew Sitman I would write a response to Rocha’s review, but I did, so, here goes.
I had never heard of Rocha before this piece, but he seems to think he hath pronounced magisterially about the book, as if he were Edmund Wilson declaiming from the promontory of Partisan Review instead of an earnest and photogenic young assistant professor with a blog, a passion for warbling daiquiri-bar folk songs, and a forthcoming volume of essays he describes as “composed during the Obama presidency.” In lesser times, people wrote essays, but under the blessed reign of the globalist meritocracy’s own Marcus Aurelius, they composed them.
Perhaps Prof. Dr. Rocha sees The Benedict Option, appearing as it has two months after the ascension of Trump, that tweeting Commodus, as an analogue of Late Roman decline. Tant pis, as they say in Fishtown. Nevertheless, the sore, aggrieved tone of his review suggests that Attention Must Be Paid, in the same way a Band-Aid applied sloppily to a blister compels you to look at the thing, whether you want to or not. Okay, I’m game. Let us examine his review to see where The Benedict Option rubbed raw one man’s tender conscience.
Here’s the first sign of trouble:
After reading the introduction, I was shocked to find Dreher refer to the Rule of St. Benedict in anecdotal terms, from monks at present-day Nursia, and to make no effort whatsoever to describe who St. Benedict of Nursia was and what the Benedictine Order was in relation to its own time.
This is how we know this review is going to be of an increasingly familiar type: the petty griping of an academic who is aggrieved that I didn’t write the book he would have written, had anybody cared what he had to say. Look, as a non-academic, I did not write a scholarly book, and could not have done; I wrote a book meant to be accessible to the ordinary reader. This requires some simplification for the sake of storytelling Is my Chapter Two (for example), which covers the intellectual history of the past seven centuries in 7,000 words, rather sketchy? Um, yeah — and I admit so up front. From the book:
This outline of Western cultural history since the High Middle Ages admittedly leaves out a great deal. And it is biased toward an intellectual understanding of historical causation. In truth, material consequences often give birth to ideas. The discovery of the New World and the invention of the printing press, both in the fifteenth century, and the invention of the birth control pill and the Internet in the twentieth, made it possible for people to imagine things they never had before and thus to think new thoughts. History gives us no clean, straight causal lines binding events and giving them clear order. History is a poem, not a syllogism.
That said, outlining the role ideas—especially ideas about God—played in historical change gives us an important conceptual understanding of the nature of our present crisis. It’s important to grasp this picture, however incomplete and oversimplified, to understand why the humble Benedictine way is such a potent counterforce to the dissolving currents of modernity.
If Prof. Dr. Rocha is wounded by the lack of scholarly depth in this book, he either missed this passage, or he’s the kind of Very Serious Person who caterwauls about the lack of dramaturgical depth in Buffy The Vampire Slayer.
More scandalous to me was that, after invoking MacIntyre as the contemporary philosophical insight for The Benedict Option, Dreher only mentions MacIntyre on four of the next 237 pages, three of them in a quick, self-affirming gloss of After Virtue on pages 16-18. If this is the standard for the lectio and disputatio of “Benedict Option Christians” then it is very hard for me to see it as conservative, traditional, or worthy of invoking St. Benedict, MacIntyre, or Pope Benedict XVI. It is an emotivist critique of emotivism.
Scandalous, even! Sinner that I am, it pleases me to think of Prof. Dr. Rocha spitting out his free-trade kombucha in outrage that I did not write a book explicating the collected works of Alasdair MacIntyre. O lectio! O disputatio! I explain to readers very generally what MacIntyre’s diagnosis of our contemporary crisis is in After Virtue, and use that as a jumping-off point for speculation of my own. If you want to know what MacIntyre thinks, read MacIntyre, or his interpreters. It would delight me if The Benedict Option served as a gateway for readers to the works of MacIntyre. But I did not write a book about Alasdair MacIntyre.
It is here where one gets the idea that Prof. Dr. Rocha opened this book eager to be offended. That probably happens a lot. I’m only surprised that he doesn’t find me guilty of cultural appropriation, stealing from a contemporary Scottish Thomist to serve my lowbrow project.
The Benedict Option continues to disappoint Prof. Dr. Rocha:
But what is this “option”? This is not easy to understand. The language of the “turn” of theory seems to be at play here. The linguistic turn, the ontological turn, the material turn, and so on. But in this case, the word ‘option’ implies a choice. However, Dreher doesn’t explain what the other choices are, even when he should know that Benedictine spirituality is not the only option for Christians. Maybe he shouldn’t be entirely ecumenical, but the idea of this option over here and that option over there is an absurdity for a book that is trying to argue that the optional nature of religion (a key feature of secular society in Taylor’s analysis) is a problem. So who knows what this “option” idea is.
Let me see if I can explain this to him. Here is a passage from the book, in which I quote MacIntyre:
A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead—often not recognizing fully what they were doing—was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness.
The “option” is the choice facing orthodox Christians today: whether to continue living as if these were normal times, and identifying Christian life with the maintenance of the American way of life, or choosing something more radical and countercultural. The final chapter is titled “The Benedict Decision,” to indicate what I believe the choice is that all serious Christians must make. It’s right there in plain English. One wonders why Prof. Dr. Rocha didn’t grasp what was right under his nose.
And then, Rocha turns himself into Frank Costanza:
Now for the subtitle: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation. Perhaps Dreher didn’t choose this subtitle. Maybe Sentinel, his press, forced it upon him. I hope that is the case because the subtitle threatens to dismantle the entire book, especially in the final chapter where Dreher quotes a Presbyterian pastor who seems able to judge what is and is not truly Benedictine, saying, “[The Benedict Option] cannot be a strategy for self-improvement or for saving the church or the world.” If The Benedict Option cannot be those things then what does the subtitle mean?
Um, really? No, the subtitle is my own, and it threatens to dismantle nothing. The title is a “strategy” for Christians — but clearly not a strategy for political victory or self-improvement. The Presbyterian pastor only reiterates what I wrote earlier in the book: that Benedict did not set out to save Roman civilization, or to do anything other than to come up with a way of living within which he and his comrades could serve God with all their hearts, souls, and minds, in a very difficult time. Everything else followed from that. I quote Pastor Greg Thompson to this point to remind the reader at the end that the Christian life — and the Benedict Option — cannot be instrumentalized to achieve worldly goals.
The other glaring question is how one squares a universal church with “a Post-Christian Nation.” Does this refer to the nation-state of the USA? Or does it refer to some other sense of “nation”? Is this an option for Americans, drawn on a Roman saint, a British philosopher, and a German Pope? Of course, one need not only use local sources, but the book works seamlessly between a national sense, a sense of “the West,” and occasionally the world. There is a serious theological problem here, of course, since the church is universal in a sense that goes well beyond the demographic or geopolitical modern sense.
“And, and, and another thing: the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire — and there’s a serious theological problem with that!”
The less emotionally discombobulated among us will readily grasp that the author is writing a book published in the United States of America, aimed at the American reader. If the book finds publishers overseas, the subtitle will change.
The last question, before I move on the claims I find to be confused, might be a bit more subtle. What is Dreher’s method in this book? The first answer is that he may not have one. It comes across in the way a blog post does: direct, first-person, and with no sense of internal structure or order. Dreher enjoys telling stories and some of them he tells well enough, but many of them he tells at a moment when one would expect him to fill the gaps of an argument. Story, for Dreher, is something of a deus ex machina. The stories he relies on most heavily are woven into his analysis and add to his credibility, most of all from the monks at Nursia, but they also replace more careful work.
This issue here is not only that this journalistic method is profoundly modern (in a book that rails against modernity) but most of all that it is weak. There is little to nothing to support his opening claims which result in the middle of the book: a set of assertions made with no argument, platitudes invoked with no evidence. Nothing follows. Most of all, the book shows no ability to consider objections or to test its ideas against a possible weakness. The journalistic method takes a “report the facts” approach and uses philosophical sources as arguments from authority, not as aids in thinking things through. Whatever the method might be, it is not a thoughtful one.
Well, that is not the experience that has been reported to me by others, but whatever. Again, Prof. Dr. Costanza is aggrieved that a journalist has written a work of journalistic polemic for a popular audience. I’m not trying to provide an airtight syllogistic argument; I’m trying to tell stories that illustrate the concepts I’m trying to illuminate. If that doesn’t work for Prof. Dr. Costanza, I can live with that.
The first is the confusing matter of the Middle Ages. Dreher says two different things about the Middle Ages in his book. On the one hand, he sees the Middle Ages as the period that required a radical retreat in the face of the fall of Rome. On the other hand, he sees the Middle Ages as a period of enchantment and deep faith. These two stories are both vastly oversimplified, but they are quite off when they are both said to be true simultaneously. How can it be the case that when Rome fell the Benedictines endured the Middle Ages guided by their Rule and, also, that the fall of Christianity happened, like Rome, after the end of the Middle Ages? Anyone can see that this story makes no sense logically. Historically, it makes even less sense.
This is extremely petty and deliberately obtuse. The Benedictines emerged amid a particular crisis, in which their charism turned out to be a very effective response. The Franciscans and the Dominicans were a response to a crisis in a very different West. G.K. Chesterton writes well of this. Seven hundred years of civilization happened between the fall of the Roman West and the end of the High Middle Ages, which has been called the Age of Monasticism. Besides, I don’t say that Christianity “fell” in the Renaissance. I say that its unraveling began, an unraveling that is completing itself in our own time, 600 years later.
A second confusion is Dreher’s abstraction of Christianity. The book uses Roman Catholic sources and characters, but also includes a smattering of Protestants and a few Orthodox. By the end of the book, Dreher begins to sound like he’s written a manifesto, calling his new order “Benedict Option Christians.” Earlier he calls these “Benedict Option Churches” and “Benedict Option believers.” Just what are these churches? And what are the tenets of this belief? The book itself, with no ecclesiastical authority whatsoever and no scholarly credibility to speak of? This is tremendously abstract because there is obviously a real Benedictine Order that follows the real Rule of St. Benedict, which includes a lay apostolate for people like Dreher. Now, of course, this also implies that one be a Roman Catholic, which Dreher no longer is. In yet another boldly modern move, Dreher writes as if he can write on behalf of all of the Christian denominations that he has hopped from and to. Surely, someone so concerned with obedience and submission and the problems of modern excess can see that acting subjectively abstract about what is quite objectively concrete is a silly routine and a bad argument.
Go home, lad, you’re drunk.
I have written a book that explicitly attempts to speak not for small-o orthodox Christians, but rather to them. I attempt to make a case that we are all a lot more assimilated into modernity than we think, and that our very survival depends on becoming aware of that fact, and adopting practices to reverse that condition. I dedicate the book to the great Ken Myers, an Anglican whose Mars Hill Audio Journal is a model for how to minister to orthodox Christians from all three branches of the Great Tradition, to help us think critically about Christian life in modernity. I believe that Catholics undertaking forms of the Benedict Option faithful to their own particular tradition will do things that Protestants and Orthodox Christians may not do. And so forth. The book is addressed to all orthodox Christians of good will. In that sense, maybe Rocha hated it because it’s not written for or about him.
The critique goes on for much longer, but degenerates even further from there into spiteful bitching that only an academic could pull off, e.g., “He never once mentions mystagogy (although he talks about liturgy); only pedagogy seems relevant to him.” Oh, the humanity.
But I gotta mention this passage:
I would like to end by noting some ironies that might even be called absurdities about The Benedict Option. First, the book is about being prepared to be less popular, make less money, die a martyr’s death, stop using social media, “buy Christian, even if it costs more,” and more, but the book is published by a division of Random House (not a Christian publisher), was promoted for years online, and reads less like a guide for spiritual life and more like an aspiring New York Times Bestseller. The prose and pace have a Dan Brown quality that screams popularity.
A, the “Dreher’s A Cynic” gambit. It’s not original, and it’s stinks of envy no less than the first time someone said so. Rocha wrote this after The Benedict Option had hit No. 7 on The New York Times Bestseller List. There’s something more than a little self-serving about this remark. Seems to me that Rocha has protected himself from the likely prospect that his forthcoming book will fail to find an audience outside his friends and family by accusing me of having compromised myself to write a book that people might actually want to read. Well, he’s got me there. I write books people pay money to read. Rocha’s review reads like the neuralgic natterings of what Truman Capote once called a “failed oyster”: one that has an irritation, with no resulting pearl.
OK, look, I’ve been having a lot of fun here poking the pouty professor, but let me be serious for a second. Christianity in Western civilization is in severe crisis. No serious person can possibly suggest otherwise. Even Pope Benedict XVI has said that the West faces a spiritual crisis worse than any since the fall of the Roman Empire. My own efforts to address the crisis are flawed, heaven knows, but I prefer the imperfect efforts I am making to figure out what the church should do to the efforts gripers like Sam Rocha are not making to address the crisis. The church is burning down around us, and Prof. Dr. Sam Rocha is caterwauling about the sad lack of professionalism of the volunteer firefighters.
I did find one redeeming spot of Rocha’s review: at least he didn’t accuse me of racism and defending white supremacy, as others have. So that was something. But then I saw this tweet of his yesterday:
Guilt by association isn’t guilt. But if these are one’s friends maybe The Benedict Option has other problems besides the intellectual ones? pic.twitter.com/EDA2ThCWvu
— Sam Rocha (@SamRochadotcom) April 3, 2017
So there you have it. Dreher may not seem like a white supremacist, but a white supremacist is one of his 23,400 Twitter followers, so hey, I’m just going to leave that there.