That All May Not Be Lost: Considering The Benedict Option

For a number of years now, I’ve been hearing about the Benedict Option—an idea, a movement, a prescription, a diagnosis, and now a book—put forward by the writer Rod Dreher to mark out how he believes traditional and conservative people should deal with what society has become.

I met Rod and his wife more than a decade ago after we’d corresponded a bit online. I was in Dallas with Melanie when we were still dating and Rod was living there with his family. He and his wife graciously invited us to their home and we had a great evening. He’d not yet published his earlier book Crunchy Cons, about the different kinds of political and social conservatives than we usually saw portrayed in the media, but I know he’d already begun exploring the ideas that would result in the Benedict Option.

Around the same time, Dreher had been struggling as a Catholic with the sex-abuse scandal in the Church and how to reconcile the attitudes and behavior of even those bishops we consider the “good” ones in dealing with the crisis with the divine nature of the Church. It’s a struggle that would eventually lead Rod out of the Catholic Church into Eastern Orthodoxy. In some ways, that struggle is also at the root of the Benedict Option.

So what is the Benedict Option? I think many people—in their rush to give their hot take on the book as soon as it came out— have misconstrued it as a call for Christians to abandon the world, to retreat into enclaves and cut themselves off, to turn away from evangelization and engagement, to stop trying to make the world better (or prevent it from getting worse), in order to await the day when we can re-emerge into a new world eager to receive the Gospel again.

But that’s not it at all. If you take your time reading it—as I have—you realize that there’s a lot more to the idea. For one thing, Rod is not advocating a retreat or a capitulation. Nor, as he writes, does he offer a political agenda, a spiritual how-to manual or a standard decline-and-fall lament.

From Rod’s point of view, “The light of Christianity is flickering out all over the West. There are people alive today who may live to see the effective death of Christianity within our civilization.” While there are still many who believe we can turn the culture around through new law and policies and keep secularism at bay, for Rod and those like him, the cultural revolution cannot be turned back. And as Christianity, especially a traditional practice of an orthodox Christianity, slinks ever more into the minority, what are we to do?

According to the Benedict Option, we are to build new forms of community that help sustain us and enrich us and keep our beliefs and traditions alive. In some ways, it will be not unlike the traditional Hasidic Jewish communities who live and work in a world hostile to them, but who sustain a unique identity and communal life despite it.

The Benedict Option is not about politics, per se, but if politics is a concern it’s all about the local. Rod doesn’t believe Supreme Court rulings and state and federal laws allowing abortion, same-sex marriage, and indoctrination of children, and requiring us to acquiesce to the same, will ever be reversed in our lifetimes, but he does believe that by banding together in geographically small and morally united communities, we can continue to influence how our local towns and communities are run.

Now, I have not completely bought into Rod’s view that we have reached a point of no return just yet. The fact that I work for a pro-life organization actively working to pass laws that end abortion and stop assisted suicide in a blue state like Massachusetts is proof of that much. But even if you don’t believe everything has crumbled already, there’s value to the Benedict Option.

What Rod gets right is his diagnosis of the primary ailment of Western society, a loss of Christianity as the principle that unifies us.

When we lost our Christian religion in modernity, we lost the thing that bound ourselves together and to our neighbors and anchored us in both the eternal and the temporal orders.

This is why we are so divided today. People no longer agree to disagree; we go for the jugular. People don’t just hold wrong opinions or views; they are evil and must be destroyed. Just look at the response by those were most aghast at the election of Donald Trump toward those who voted for him. They wanted apologies, at least, and blood, at worst. In the past, we had a framework for how a civil society functions. Even if we weren’t Christian, Christianity is what provided the common framework. But now we have lost the unifying principles.

The Rule of St. Benedict

The original St. Benedict, founder of monasticism, created a Rule for monasteries that has stood the test of 1,500 years and is the basis for the rule governing most monastic communities today. Because the Rule helped the monasteries survive the original so-called Dark Ages (from about 600 to 1000AD) and bring Christianity back to a full flowering in the Middle Ages, Rod sees it as a tool to help all of us organize and prepare ourselves for a new Dark Age. Throughout the book, but especially in the third chapter, Rod adapts the tenets of Benedict’s Rule to our modern life through interviews with the current Benedictine monks living in Benedict’s hometown of Norcia, Italy.

He reviews the parts of the Rule as they apply to communities of monks and then looks at them in terms of how families and communities can apply them today. He looks at the right Order of the world; The importance and value of Work; the need for Ascetism; the importance of Stability; the contribution of Community; the value of Hospitality, especially with regard to evangelization; the need for Balance between power and autonomy, self and community, monasticism and comfort, work and family life.

The remainder of the book looks at a new way of Christian politics; how to preserve and live out the Christian faith of your Church even if your leaders don’t have a clue; how to protect your family and build a community of likeminded people; what to do about education for your children (i.e. don’t put them in public schools); getting ready to be persecuted for your beliefs in your career; the culture’s obsession with disordered sex; and the effects of technology on culture.

On the last, it’s not just another warning that looking at your smartphone too much is bad for you (although that’s in there). What I found interesting was the discussion of the technological mindset of our era that believes that (a) if technology can do it, then it must be good and (b) that technological solutions to problems can always be had.

For citizens of a technocracy, if the technology exists to give you what you want, no one has a right to object. The mind of Technological Man cannot resist his heart’s desires, because he has been trained by his culture not to question them. Technological Man comes to believe that the limits on what he can do to nature lie primarily in his capacity to subdue it to his will. The Christian must rebel against this.

And so if you believe in your heart that you can undo your nature and be a man when you were a woman or vice versa or something completely different, this is a symptom of the technocracy. And it’s why those of us who still hold to a classical way of thinking find you incomprehensible and why you find us so as well.

I think this section was the most thought-provoking for me, although I do not completely agree with him that churches encouraging their congregations to use social media is a problem. But his encouragement of a technological asceticism bears some consideration.

Thinking that the world mediated by technology is the real world is a fatal error. We don’t see reality then; we only see ourselves. If we do not understand this, if we don’t believe that all things exist independently of our desires, that there is a world beyond our heads, then there is no reason to pay attention, because there is nothing to contemplate. If feeling defines reality, then contemplation is useless, and so is resistance. If we live as if boredom were the root of all evil, we will not be able to fight back, and if we do not fight back, we will find that our machines have mastered us. Perhaps they already have.

The Beacon Fires of Gondor

Rod is not some survivalist stockpiling beans in 50-gallon drums in a bomb shelter. He’s not just the latest crazy doomsayer to ignore as we go about our daily lives. Arguing about whether Dreher is wrong about Western Christian civilization having passed the point of no return or is only just approaching it kind of misses the point because whether the edge of the cliff is approaching or behind us, we need to figure out for ourselves and our families what to do about it.

It’s undeniable that our culture has crumbled a great deal over the past 70 years. Heck, even five years ago could you imagine someone apologizing on the radio for using “heteronormative” analogies to explain something? It is this secular liberal deconstruction that Rod is warning us to take even more seriously than other threats to our way of life.

In these pages, I have attempted to sound the alarm for conservative Christians in the West, warning them that the greatest danger we face today does not come from aggressive left-wing politics or radical Islam, as many seem to think. … For us, the greatest danger comes from the liberal secular order itself. And our failure to understand this reinforces our cultural captivity and the seemingly unstoppable assimilation of the next generations.

Rod’s suggestion of the Benedict Option is one way forward, a way that does not entail “constructing communities of the pure, cut off from the real world.” It’s a small-scale idea for ordering your life, not a large-scale strategy to save the world.

“The moment the Benedict Option becomes about anything other than communion with Christ and dwelling with our neighbors in love, it ceases to be Benedictine,” he said. “It can’t be a strategy for self-improvement or for saving the church or the world.”

One thing has become clear, though. The time for business as usual is over. The culture and society have moved away from us and traditional, orthodox Christians are no longer either in control or in the majority. The question is how we survive and thrive and provide for our children’s future.

Losing My Old Parish, But Can Something Be Saved?

From the “You should have listened to me before” file: The Archdiocese of Boston parish collaborative that includes my former parish in Salem where Melanie and I were married is in deep financial trouble, so now they’re going to turn one parish into a Polish shrine to St. John Paul II and merge my old parish and another one.

Three years ago, Salem was one of the first collaboratives under the Disciples in Mission pastoral plan and had Salem’s four parishes included. They quickly determined that four was too many and St. Anne’s was split off, leaving Immaculate Conception (my old parish), St. James, and St. John the Baptist, which was previously a Polish national parish. The pastor of the collaborative was unable to get the finances of the collaborative under control and ended up resigning last year.

Now the temporary administrator and the parish leaders have come up with this new plan to turn St. John the Baptist into a Polish shrine dedicated to St. John Paul II and merge Immaculate Conception and St. James into one parish while keeping the two churches open, which will let them sell off redundant property.
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Asking Pope Francis to Canonize Pier Giorgio Frassati

I’ve had a devotion to Bl. Giorgio Frassati for over two decades and built the first web site dedicated to him (which now exists as part of this site).

This past May 20 marked the 27th anniversary of the beatification of Pier Giorgio and in that time, devotion to this remarkable young man has spread throughout the world.

Now, the Spirit has moved those closest to Frassati to ask the Holy Father to move to the next step, to canonize PGF, perhaps at the upcoming Synod on Young People in October 2018. This is part of the cause for canonization, showing evidence that devotion to the blessed has spread throughout the Church, which it most certainly has.

To that end, they have asked everyone to go to to sign the letter to the Holy Father and then to spread the word to let everyone know to do so. I hope you’ll join me in this effort.

Without Dale, Does NASCAR Go On?

I’ve been a NASCAR fan for two decades, but was a casual watcher for a decade beyond that. I remember the good old days of Southern boys beating and banging on each others’ cars and occasionally each other. I also remember the bad old days of drivers dying in accidents. I’m so old that Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt, Jr., retiring comes as a shock because those are the young guys, or so I thought.

NASCAR has grown up a lot in the past 30 years, moving away from its backwoods-racing, moonshining Southern roots to its sleek, international, highly technological form that it has today. Mary Katharine Ham writes about her history around NASCAR that began with covering the sport as a cub reporter in Rockingham, North Carolina and how it has changed over the years.

As NASCAR prepares to say goodbye to Dale Jr. at the end of this year, it is the acknowledged end of an era. Everyone is taking stock (no pun intended) and wondering where the sport—which has begun to struggle to find viewers and attendees lately—will go from here. Have attention spans shortened to the point where viewers won’t watch a whole 3-hour race?1 Is the end of the shade-tree mechanic car culture in the US a harbinger of the end of car racing fascination?
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Better Dead Than Disabled?

Laws legalizing physician-assisted suicide send the message to both the disabled and to those around them that being dead is preferable to being disabled and that we shouldn’t respect those who choose to live.

Zachary Schmoll is disabled and writes a great essay in Public Discourse about this phenomenon. He contrasts the effect of laws banning assisted suicide with those that legalize it.

Laws that prohibit physician-assisted suicide encourage a worldview that says there is value to life and it ought not to be thrown away based on an individual’s subjective perception of his or her situation. Such laws teach us that our lives are objectively valuable, even if we do not recognize our own value. And they teach everyone else to help us in finding value and enjoyment in our lives.

But by legalizing physician-assisted suicide, we make a different statement. Such laws communicate the idea that suicide can be a reasonable, moral, and socially acceptable choice, because some lives are no longer valuable. Suicide is prohibited in all other circumstances, sending the message that most lives have value that ought to be protected by law, even when the person in question does not see that value. In certain circumstances, however—specifically, when an individual is losing his or her own independence—such protections need not apply. Society is affirming, by legalizing physician-assisted suicide, that it is better to be dead than disabled. It is better to be in the grave than to live with reduced independence. This message is sent both to people with disabilities like me and everyone else who interacts with us.

This is what is meant by “creating a culture of death.” When we fail to affirm the value of every life in our laws, then we create a condition and a context where some lives are not only less valuable, but that are expendable. And the expectation is created that such lives should be ended.

We’re already seeing this in practice. In the Netherlands and Belgium, they’ve already extended assisted suicide for the terminally ill to now include those who are mentally ill or merely tired of living. Rather than extend treatment and help, such people are killed.

Even worse, the killing is now sometimes involuntary, i.e. doctors are taking it upon themselves to kill the elderly, the infirm, the mentally ill, the disabled without being asked for it, but because in the doctors’ estimation, those lives aren’t worth living.

We already see it starting in this country. In Oregon, patients seeking coverage for cancer treatment are being refused chemotherapy, but are told that assisted suicide would be covered by insurance. We know where this story ends: in furnaces and gas chambers. Does that seem hyperbolic? People are already dying.

Why is Nudity at the Children’s Theatre Okay?

Sometimes you see a news story and you realize that the people involved have their heads so buried in the own worldview that they can’t see how asinine the situation is.

The Boston Children’s Theater–an organization dedicated to putting on plays for children–is doing a performance of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”

That’s the first point at which someone should have questioned the artistic director’s judgment.

They included in the play a scene in which an adult man gets naked in front of the audience … of children. Is this not indecent exposure in front of children? This is the second moment someone should have stepped in. Of course, when some board members objected, it wasn’t because of the nudity per se, but because they weren’t consulted first. It’s really about turf, not appropriateness.

Now the artistic director is screaming censorship because he wasn’t allowed to parade a naked adult male in front of children, he’s been laid off (maybe temporarily, maybe not), a board member has resigned, and the cast and staff are on strike.

And those of us who are actual parents are aghast at the whole thing. What kind of parent would take a child to one of Boston Children’s Theatre performances now given their display of an appalling lack of judgement?

Meanwhile the director is defending his decision to include the nudity.

“We do have shows that are much more traditional children’s fare, and we also do shows that challenge the boundaries of children’s theater,’’ he said.

Why? Why do you need to challenge the boundaries? The boundaries are there for a reason, to protect children and their innocence. This part of the wider trend in society to further sexualize children at younger and younger ages. After all, they want to start sex education in kindergarten. I wouldn’t doubt someone is already doing it. By high school, we just assume that they’re having hookup sex and there’s no use expecting them to do otherwise.

Judge a society by how it protects its children. In our society, if they survive legalized abortion, they can expect have their innocence and childhood assaulted well into their extended adolescence in their 20s.

The Law of Unintended Consequences

Or, why you should be opposed to this attempt in New York to get at Trump’s tax returns, whether you think he should release them or not.

The media and the Left1 are pretty much the only ones who really want to see Trump’s tax returns. Ostensibly, they want to ensure that he has no conflicts of interest, but let’s be honest, they wouldn’t mind finding some dirt. But Trump isn’t budging on them.

So New York Democrats have crafted a law that would reveal five years of state tax returns for any President, Vice President, governor, attorney general or senator who filed in New York. Not “require the person to release”, but require the state Department of Taxation and Finance to release the returns without needing the permission of the people who filed them.

Apart from the obvious constitutional problem that this is essentially a Bill of Attainder2 and thus a violation of Article I, it wipes out current protections in the law against the disclosure of anyone’s tax returns.

The Tax Law prohibits the disclosure of information obtained from a tax return or during the course of an audit to any unauthorized person. The Tax Law, however, does permit us to share your tax information with the IRS and other government agencies, within defined standards of secrecy and reciprocity.

And once those protections are gone, then everything is up for grabs. Can you imagine how much data-mining companies would love to buy your tax returns from the government, even in anonymized and aggregated bulk?

In their zeal to get Trump, these lawmakers are putting everyone’s privacy at risk. People need to calm down and move on. It isn’t worth it.

  1. But I repeat myself, hey-o! I’m here all week, try the veal.
  2. A law aimed at the behavior of an individual or group of persons, making them guilty of a crime or imposing a penalty without benefit of a trial.

Backfire on The Oatmeal

I’ve long been a fan of The Oatmeal, the often irreverent web comic drawn and written by Matthew Inman. Once upon a time, the comics were wry discussions of common points of friction in life, like bad grammar or exercising or packing for a trip, or happy excursions on interesting tidbits of wonder or joy, like the love of a pet or the amazing mantis shrimp or the incredible life of Nikolai Tesla. The comic has become so popular that Inman is a veritable one man viral campaign. His merest suggestion of support for a cause can raise millions of dollars in days.

Sadly, the comic has declined in recent years, in my opinion, because it has succumbed that disease that has run amok today, namely everything is political. So now the comics tend toward rants, mostly liberal, against the dangerous others, primarily Donald Trump and his voters.

In the last day or so, another Oatmeal comic has gone viral on the psychological phenomenon of the “backfire effect.”1 It’s a series of panels that are supposed to show that we are evolutionarily hardwired to believe new information that supports our core beliefs and reject new information that challenges them. His conclusion is that it’s okay to let our emotional selves react, but then we should engage our logic and change our minds so we can all be happy agreeing together.

I have a few problems with this.2 First, just because you can make a citation doesn’t make new information true. Yes, sometimes we are actually wrong about a basis fact of reality, e.g. That event occurred in 1945, not 1946. But even as Inman points out, those sorts of facts rarely impinge upon core beliefs. Instead core beliefs—those at the very core of self-identity and understanding—are complex. So a citation can never be simple. It’s often an interpretation or hypothesis or a claim that can admit no easy proofs.
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Groucho Was Right; The Club That Wanted Me As a Member

I received a LinkedIn connection request followed by an email from a young woman recently. She works for a “social university” as a city community manager, she said, and would I be interested in becoming a member? She told me that she’d looked at my background and based on it she thought I’d get a lot out of it and would be a good addition.

I’m not a credulous person. I know what a spammer and a scam look like, and this didn’t seem to fit that bill. And while I’m not easily flattered, I decided to do look into it out of curiosity. The organization is called Ivy, and it describes itself as a sort of salon of the internet age. Located in 7 cities so far with tens of thousands of members, it’s sort of an elite club that offers intellectual and cultural experiences, an opportunity to network with movers and shakers, and bonding and friendship through social experiences. Their list of associated “thought leaders” is a who’s who of business, academia, culture, and entertainment. It also feels like a real world response to social networking by those who grew up in the social media age, offering amazing experiences to people in person, and not mediated through devices.

But I don’t understand why anyone would think I’d be a good fit. Granted, the idea of an opportunity to engage in regular intellectual activities with top scientists and academics and artists and business leaders and authors sounds fascinating. Meeting the actor who played Harry Potter sounds like fun. Going to art galleries and plays and operas and concerts, too. But one look at the way they describe themselves on their website and what they show in their photos and videos leads me to an inescapable conclusion: This isn’t for me or people like me. Read More and Comment

What They Really Want is Lower Taxes

When conservatives and liberals debate taxes, many liberals often take pride in paying taxes, extolling the virtues of all the services that we receive from government paid for by our taxes. But the quiet reality they’d rather not admit is often that they would rather not have to shell out quite so much to the government.1

To whit, Lifehacker, a reliably liberal lifestyle blog aimed at millennials of the liberal bent, recently had an article titled “You Could Save on Your Student Loan by Moving to a Different State—Here’s How Much.” That’s a bit of a misnomer really. In reality, what they’re highlighting is that different states have different income tax rates and if you move from a high income tax state to a zero income tax state, you can use that extra money in your pocket to pay down debt, any debt, including student loan debt. And suddenly they love the idea of lower taxes!

Except when they don’t. The same writer penned an article yesterday on President Trump’s proposed tax cut that makes it out to be a sop to the rich (who pay the vast majority of income taxes and thus would logically reap the most benefit), but also have negligible economic value while depriving government programs of their funding.2

But where was the concern for people paying lower taxes when Lifehacker and their writer were suggesting readers move to places where they could pay no taxes? Of course, the argument is always that someone else should be paying more, usually those dastardly rich people who don’t deserve it.

  1. At the same time, the dirty secret many conservatives don’t want to admit is that while they want lower taxes, they’re reluctant to give up all those government services they like.
  2. Although, to be honest, I wouldn’t mind the tax cut as I’d end up with a $1,700 per year tax cut.
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