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.

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.

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

Why Fund the Arts?

President Trump has proposed de-funding the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and other budget items conservatives have been dying to get rid off for decades. Liberals are understandably upset and the debate has centered around the controversial and offensive artworks that the NEA has sponsored in the past, as well as the weird art they still promote sometimes.

Jazz Shaw at Hot Air says this is precisely the wrong argument to have. He argues that the NEA should be done away not because they supported weird or offensive art, but because the federal government shouldn’t be supporting art at all.

The arts, like everything else in society, can rise and fall on their own merit. The reason that we don’t have tremendous federal funding supporting the creation of blockbuster Hollywood movies is that such offerings tend to be popular and the business of making them is profitable. Creating paintings, sculpture, poetry or theatrical performances may not be as profitable, but if it has value to sufficient people, patrons may be found to support the work. If no such patronage is forthcoming then perhaps the “art” is better left to the lonely artist toiling away in their studio.

Unfortunately, Shaw is wrong because this is precisely why we should have public support of the arts, especially those less commercially viable forms. Look, I think NEA funding can be reduced or even eliminated, because I think having a federal bureaucracy as gatekeeper for the arts has been disastrous (cf. Mapplethrope and Serrano as Shaw references them).

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Shouting Them Down

I wrote in my previous blog post about the loss of the principle of the right to be wrong, meaning it’s okay for someone to disagree with us or for us to believe them to be wrong, yet still remain cordial, polite, and even friends. I’ve also written about the need to extend to others the benefit of the doubt, to assume good intentions in others or give the best possible interpretation of their motives until you learn otherwise. These are necessary for a civil society to operate.

Another disturbing trend, however, makes even those two principles impossible. I’m speaking of the epidemic of shouting, cursing, and yelling as a substitute for debate. I’m not even talking about two people sitting down over coffee ending up in a shouting match. I’m referring to the widespread practice of people showing up at a meeting or rally or speech and harassing those present by shouting and chanting and disrupting the proceedings. Usually there’s no attempt to change minds or present an opposing point of view. Rather it’s an attempt to intimidate or just frustrate their opponents, to bait them and anger them with no clear end in mind.

I work for Massachusetts Citizens for Life and, of course, my work involves an issue (or issues) that sees great emotion on either side. In January, we held our annual Assembly for Life, a gathering held in Boston’s Faneuil Hall that has its roots in an interfaith prayer event. While it’s not specifically a prayer service now, it still retains elements in the choice of speakers and topics and by including opening and closing prayers. After our rally had begun and we’d heard from one or two speakers, an obviously coordinated group of young people scattered through the audience rose to their feet, stood on chairs and began chanting pro-abortion slogans. The audience of pro-lifers responded mainly with prayer and rueful head shakes. Eventually they were escorted from the premises by the police.

What did they accomplish? Was there a single pro-lifer in the room whose mind was moved even one iota by the disruptive display? There were no neutral attendees to be swayed by one side or the other. There were no TV cameras to capture their yelling to be broadcast into living rooms. In the end it was all for naught.

We see this time and again. Last year, the screaming happened with some frequency at presidential rallies. The Democratic convention even saw some of it from Bernie Sanders’ delegates who didn’t like their party’s process. There is hours of YouTube footage of people yelling and screaming and chanting at one kind of event or another that they oppose. Heck, there’s a whole genre of video depicting so-called “scream-ins” where some gather to just scream at no one.

This kind of display isn’t intended to convince or educate. It’s just a way to express emotion and perhaps to make it impossible for the other to be heard. Yet another way that the current climate is making a civil society impossible.

The performances must stop. Just because someone else is saying things I do not like does not mean I need to say anything. My silence in the face of speech I think is wrong is not in fact complicity. Silence in the face of others’ bad actions could be, but not when they’re simply saying things I disagree with. For the sake of a civil society other people have the right to be wrong. The good news is so do you.

The Right to Be Wrong

Last week, the controversial academic and author Charles Murray, author of The Bell Curve among other works, was invited to speak at Middlebury College in Vermont. However, before he could even begin, the audience began booing and hissing, making it impossible to continue. The college moved him to a TV studio where he made his talk as a streaming video, but after he came out of the building, he and another professor were attacked by a group of thugs.

The same kind of story has been repeated over and over in recent years and has reached a fever pitch after this past election. College campuses are in a constant uproar whenever a controversial speaker attempts to talk resulting in audience disruptions, property destruction, and mob violence, with professors often at their head. The high-minded and longstanding principles of free speech and open academic inquiry seem to have been lost in favor of safe spaces and countering (non-liberal) micro-aggressions.

In a truly civil society, the one we used to live in, if you disagreed with someone else’s views, you could either engage them in a civil debate or ignore them, but you’d acknowledge their right to be wrong. But not any more. In today’s uncivil society, you are not allowed to be wrong. If you hold wrong beliefs—i.e. wrong according to my measure—then you must either change your mind or be destroyed, one way or the other.

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A Civil Discourse of Personal Affront

Because the world needs another armchair sociologist to diagnose what’s wrong with society, I’m going to tell you a difficult truth: When something bad happens in the world, it’s not about you. When someone posts a critical meme, it’s not about you.

What regularly happens on my social media is that someone posts a meme or link to an article or a news report and people lose their minds. They are offended or outraged or triggered. Here’s a real world example: “Your great-grandparents had eight kids. Your grandparents had four. Your parents had two. You had an abortion and a dog.”

Now, that’s rude. It’s trying to make a point—and maybe a good point about demographic changes or a lack of openness to life or something similar—but it fails because it’s wrapped in an outer layer of judgmentalism and lack of tact.

In a civil society, we would note that it’s rude and then move on. We ignore it and don’t grace it with a response.

In our current society, we take it personally. We fire back in the comments. We mock. We spit vitriol and fire. We declaim that in our case we haven’t had multiple children because of fertility issues and how can you be so hurtful? Or we haven’t had children because we’re not ready to make that leap. Or we love our dog. Or my grandparents had one child and so you’re attacking my lovely grandma who was a saint.

A civil society functions not because everyone is nice to everyone else all the time. Given human nature, that sort of place can’t exist. Civil society functions because we let occasional failures in social graces and basic kindness pass by unheeded. We smooth out the bumps in social discourse, perhaps by giving the benefit of the doubt or silently—silently!—resolving to not give that person the opportunity to be rude again.

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The First American Chaplain Killed in WWII

Fr. Aloysius Schmitt died on December 7, 1941 in Pearl Harbor just after celebrating Mass on the USS Oklahoma. He was among the men trapped inside after the battleship capsized and helped a dozen men escape through a porthole, but he died because he couldn’t fit. (I can sympathize.)

He was posthumously awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal and had a ship, the USS Schmitt named for him.

Thanks to DNA testing, his remains have been identified and he is returning home this month to Iowa to be interred in a chapel dedicated in his honor.

Culturally Appropriating Your Noodles

cultural appropriation in your pho

The latest trend in the worsening race relations in the US is cultural appropriation. It’s a grab-all term that basically means that people who weren’t born in a particular culture are not allowed to partake of or speak of aspects of that culture.

The latest dust-up surrounds the cultural appropriation of ethnic food. Today’s example comes from a video by Bon Appetit magazine in which a non-Asian chef discusses how best to eat the Vietnamese noodle soup dish pho.1

The controversy stems from the fact that chef in the video, Tyler Akin, is white and white people are not allowed to “whitesplain” anything from cultures other than their own.

Much of the anger centered around the choice of a white person to authoritatively speak about an Asian food. As the chef shared his personal insights, he never mentioned his fondness for the soup, his personal connections to it. That omission was an editorial mistake. Treating pho as merely a fashionable food negated its rich role in Vietnamese, Vietnamese-American, and now, American culture.

Must every essay and recipe and quick video include a long preamble as to the importance of the dish to a particular culture? Or is the goal simply to force people to eat only food from their own culture?

Two points: First, this is the fracturing of America. We are not a melting pot or even a patchwork quilt anymore. We are an archipelago of race and culture islands constantly at war with one another, with the main enemy being the big white European island in the middle. We are a nation divided, not because of the divisions of the past, but because of the demagogues of the present who use the division to create power for themselves.

Second, cultural appropriation is baloney. Every culture appropriates. Culture doesn’t spring up from nowhere. It assimilates elements from every culture it encounters to grow and evolve. Even in the pho controversy, the critics admit that pho originated in at least two other cultures: French and Chinese.

Yes, it was the French who made beef scraps available, and yes, many of the initial pho cooks were Chinese, but the noodle soup was created in Vietnam. The Vietnamese people made the best of their circumstances and turned the situation into something of their own.

That is cultural appropriation right there. But there’s nothing wrong with it because the Vietnamese took something, modified it, and made it their own.

This current tempest may be about a bowl of soup, but it has its roots in a dangerous trend.

  1. Bon Appetit has apologized and removed the video but it can be seen here.
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