Well, good, The Benedict Option is finally out in paperback. Over the past year — the book was released in March 2017 — I’ve run into lots of people who say they want to read the book with their church group, or to assign it to their classes, but the price of the hardback was prohibitive. That problem is solved. Plus, I’ve written a Study Guide for the paperback edition, with constructive questions designed to inspire reflection and action. I’m having lunch today with a college professor traveling through town, who wants to brief me on some very serious Ben Op planning he and a network of like-minded professors are doing. They read the book, and know from their own experiences in the academy that dark days are coming. They want to be ready.
As I have noted in another venue, calls are already being made for Christian institutions to lose their accreditation also. Many Christian colleges will be unable to survive losing federal aid for their faculty and students alike; those that can survive that may not be able to afford their taxes once they lose their traditional exemption; but a loss of accreditation is likely to be the death knell for all of them, because that will dramatically reduce the number of students who apply for admission. Students with degrees from unaccredited institutions are deemed ineligible for almost all graduate education, and for many jobs as well. How many parents, even devoutly Christian parents, even those few who can afford it (given the lack of federal student aid), will be willing to pay to send their children to institutions if that narrows their future horizons so dramatically? Almost none, I suspect.
The people who argue that Christian institutions should support the modern left’s model of sexual ethics or else suffer a comprehensive shunning do not think of themselves as opponents of religion. And they are not, given their definition of religion, which is “a disembodied, Gnostic realm of private worship and thought”. But that is not what Christianity is. Christianity intrinsically, necessarily involves embodied action in the public world. And this the secular left cannot and will not tolerate, if it can help it, because it rightly understands that Christianity stands opposed to the secular left’s own gospel, which, popular opinion notwithstanding, is not essentially about sex but rather may be summed up as: “I am my own.”
All this to say that while I agree with Trueman that Christian institutions need to plan for a dark financial future, I also believe that the Christian community as a whole needs to plan for a future in which most or all of its educational institutions have been forced either to close or to accommodate themselves to Gnostic disembodiment. What does Christian formation — paideia and catechesis — look like in a world in which many of the institutions that have long supported that formation have been shut down or substantively eviscerated? In relation to these issues, that is the question that Christian need to be asking. Because, I am convinced, that moment is coming: maybe not in the next decade, maybe not even in my lifetime, but certainly within the lifetimes of many reading this blog post.
You will not see much of this reported on in the secular media. But it’s happening. Christian college administrators and faculty members who are willing, even eager, to make the shift will deny or downplay it so as not to rouse opposition. Don’t you believe them. It’s coming.
I am eager to hear what this network of academics are planning to do about it.
That is exactly what I was hoping the book would do. If you’ve read it, you know that I don’t have all the answers, but I do believe I’m asking the right questions — and that working together, we will come up with answers that work for us in our own local circumstances. The crisis that The Benedict Option addresses did not arise overnight, and it’s not going to be the sort of thing that we can develop a quick fix for. This is not a problem that anyone can “solve”; it is a condition to be lived with, and struggled against.
In 2016, Alan Jacobs wrote a short blog post addressed to critics of the Benedict Option (which he has been at times). It’s worth repeating in part here:
The Benedict Option, as I understand it, is based on three premises.
The dominant media of our technological society are powerful forces for socializing people into modes of thought and action that are often inconsistent with, if not absolutely hostile to, Christian faith and practice.
In America today, churches and other Christian institutions (schools at all levels, parachurch organizations with various missions) are comparatively very weak at socializing people, if for no other reason than that they have access to comparatively little mindspace.
Healthy Christian communities are made up of people who have been thoroughly grounded in, thoroughly socialized into, the the historic practices and beliefs of the Christian church.
I have to say that I simply do not see how any thoughtful Christian could disagree with any of these premises or the conclusion that follows from them. If any of you do so dissent, please let me know how and why — I would greatly benefit from hearing your views.
So what’s the problem? My sense is that many of you shy away from Rod’s rhetoric, which you believe alarmist. But in itself that’s a shallow reason for setting aside the whole BenOp argument. Rod has already begun to identify some of the communities which he believes to be doing the BenOp right — do you think they aren’t? Do you think they’ve gone astray? If so, please explain how.
The critical responses to the BenOp I’ve seen have struck me as merely visceral. I’d like to see more careful and thorough articulation of the critiques. But if you don’t believe that the three premises I’ve listed above are true, then I think you’re whistling past the graveyard. And if you accept the premises but don’t agree with the conclusion, then we definitely need to do some exercises in logic.
That was 2016. Of course there are plenty of people who still reject the idea, but whose reasons strike me as “merely visceral.” The most prominent of these unpersuasive critics have been two people very close to Pope Francis: Father Antonio Spadaro and Cardinal Blase Cupich, both of whom have publicly declared the Ben Op to be counter to Pope Francis’s vision. Father Spadaro’s Jesuit newsletter denounced me as a “Donatist,” and both of them have said that contrary to my view (which he called “a Masada complex”), Pope Francis wants Catholics to go out into the world.
Well, sure. Catholics and other Christians who don’t evangelize aren’t faithful to Christ. That’s not negotiable. But these critics ignore or elide over the fact that far too many Christians — especially Catholics — have nothing to take to the world, because they do not understand their faith. Take a look at these inconvenient facts. Father Spadaro and Cardinal Cupich are not just whistling past the graveyard, they are circling it with a marching band.
As I said the other day here, no church can escape liquid modernity. It’s very clear from the European Christian experience in the second half of the 20th century that either Christians do some form of the Benedict Option, or they should prepare to dissolve into unbelief. Americans can’t see this coming because Christianity is still so much a part of our cultural ambience. They can’t grasp how quickly it can — and will — collapse.
I expect The Benedict Option to stay in print in paperback for a long time. When reality smacks individual Christians — pastors, professors, Sunday School teachers, youth ministers, principals, teachers, moms and dads, students, and others — upside the head, they will wonder what to do. This book is a starting point.
A number of you have asked me to start a website for the sharing of ideas and of contacts among individuals, churches, schools and associations interested in the Benedict Option. I will be talking soon with a potential donor willing to fund and administer the site. It’s important to me that it be strictly not-for-profit, and only a place for people interested in the concept to meet and to share information. I’ll write more about that when I can.
Let me take this opportunity to thank all of you who bought The Benedict Option in hardback, who came to my talks and lectures over this past year, who e-mailed me with questions, comments, and ideas, and who are taking the message to your local communities, and trying to figure out how to be authentically Christian in a post-Christian culture. We’re all in this together!