Monday, September 06, 2021

Book Review: The Benedict Option

The name Rod Dreher was one I was not terribly familiar with until last year, mostly in the context of being belittled by Conservative writers who considered him something of a unrealistic dinosaur with the vague aroma "Old School Christian and Unrealist".  I read the comments and thought nothing of it - after all, there are plenty of individuals that write on the InterWeb - until in several postings Claire Wolfe mentioned not one of two of his books and the concepts and writing in them very favorably.  And then he showed up in one of Joel Salatin's writings as well.

I like Claire and respect her opinion.  And I am becoming more fond of Salatin.  And the longer I read some of those other commenters, the less and less I find I have in common with them - so if they are opposed,  probably worthy of a purchase or two (Yes yes, I know - I swore off buying any new books until next year.  Forgive me, I am a flawed sinner like all...).

And so, The Benedict Option:  A Strategy for Christians In A Post-Christian Nation.

The Benedict Option starts with a basic premise:  The United States has become a post-Christian nation and not only a post Christian nation, but an aggressively post Christian one.  He quotes conservative Anglican theologian Ephraim Radner: "There is no safe place in the world or in our churches within which to be a Christian.  It is a new epoch".  He notes that the seeming abundance of churches (the book was published in 2017) is not indicative of the actual state of the church, based on demographic trends and that fact that with the end of the Cold War, the thin Christian veneer is "all finally being stripped away by the combination of mass consumer capitalism and liberal individualism".

Dreher notes:

"Americans cannot stand to contemplate defeat or accept limits of any kind.  But American Christians are going to have to come to terms with the brute fact that we live in a culture, one in which our beliefs make little sense.  We speak a language that the world more and more cannot hear or finds offensive to our ears."

He then posits a solution:

"Could it be that the best way to fight the flood is to...stop fighting the flood?  That is, to quit piling up sandbags and to build an ark in which to shelter until the water recedes and we can put our feet on dry land again?  Rather than wasting energy and resources fighting unwinnable political battles, we should instead work on building communities, institutions, and networks of resistance that can outwit, outlast, and eventually overcome the occupation.

Fear not!  We have been in a place like this before.  In the first centuries of Christianity, the early church survived and grew under Roman persecution and later after the collapse of the empire in the West.  We latter-day Christians must learn from their example - and particularly from the example of Saint Benedict."

Benedict of Nursia (480-537 A.D.) was a young Italian nobleman who went to Rome  to complete his education and then serve in the government.  Disturbed by what he saw there in the post-Empire Visigothic Rome, he retreated to a cave for three years for a life of prayer and contemplation.  After three years of living as a hermit, he acquired a reputation for piety and holiness and was asked to be an abbot at a monastery.  As part of the monastic experience, he wrote the Rule of St. Benedict, a guide to living in the community - and thereby established almost accidentally the Order of Benedictine Monks and the monastic community in the West.  It is this sort of community that Dreher suggests that Christians are called to become part of again - not as monks and nuns specifically but as Christians living together in community, supporting each other and their commitment to Christ in a world that at best sees them as anachronistic and at worst as an enemy to be eliminated.

Dreher moves in three streams as he writes: In one stream, he writes of the revived monastery of Nursia (now Norcia, Italy) with interviews of the Abbot and the brothers that live and their understanding of the rule and how it functions in their daily lives.  In a second, he discusses how the Post Christian World we are in came to be (In six easy steps over 700 years, in case you were wondering) and what that actually looks like in the worlds of religion, business, education, sexuality, and technology.  In a third, he looks at people who are actually doing this right now in sundry ways through world by starting schools, reviving communities, starting businesses, and preparing themselves for the Long Night - not in the sense of apocalyptic terms, but in the sense of how the Church was treated and existed under unfriendly regimes, be it the Roman empire or modern Communism.

Two items of note which could be considered complaints and worth dealing with up front:

1)  The first is that in reading reviews of this work, one counter complaint that comes across is that Dreher was not proposing a Christian solution.  Christ never proposed running from the world but in engaging with it.  That interpretation, in my point of view, is partial correct.  In point of fact Christ did send His disciples out into the world to preach the Gospel.  However, if one reads the rest of the New Testament beyond the Gospels, what one finds is that the apostles spend a great deal of time talking about Christians in relation to each other.  The expectation is that Christians will support each other and be a part of each others lives in meaningful ways.  While they may not have specifically looked like a monastic community or even a somewhat separated community, I think it is also fair to say that times determine the means:  The Rome of Paul and Christ had a functioning government and legal system, the Rome of Benedict did not.  

2)  The book, both by title and content, is primarily directed at Christians - but I would argue, not exclusively so.  Recent developments should have convinced almost anyone that in point of fact most governments these days are leaning in Totalitarian directions, and today's group of accepted non-conformists is tomorrow's group to be thrust aside and brought under. And Dreher is also pretty clear that communities are not exclusive in the sense that should not reach out and make alliances with other like-minded people wherever interests collide (I believe his book Crunchy Cons was about this very subject).  And certainly the principles espoused in the book could be applied by literally any group that is seeking to create an island of civilization and culture in a rising tide.

As may be obvious, I liked this book. I am inclined in this direction anyway as regular readers may be aware, and in super small ways (buying old books and saving them) I am trying to preserve Classical Culture (if your community or monastic-style organization needs such a person, do not hesitate to reach out!).  And this book is rich, not only in stories but in ideas and their application - so rich, this review does not even begin to scratch the surface (because I really want you to read it).  And a man that, beyond a fabulous set of new writers I have never heard of (but need to acquire their books as well, apparently) quotes C.S. Lewis,  Wendell Berry, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Vaclav Havel - all heroes of mine - is someone I at least need to become more familiar with.

But this book was hard for me too.

It was hard to read the words  "The culture is lost" and that in reality, the Benedict Option is building for a world that we who are now living will likely never see.  Hard for me, anyway - even in my wildest rantings and ravings here, there is always some small part of me that believed that there was still an ember to be brought back into flame.  The reality - the cold reality that is evident since this book's publishing four years ago - is that there are no embers left. There is only the scattering of embers on the wind.

The Benedict Option, then, is to catch those embers, nurse them back into flame in a thousand small places, and then bring them out again when the the current zetigeist of modern culture and thinking has come to its logical conclusion.  

An quote early in the book by the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre from his book After Virtue sums up the whole situation quite nicely and could just as well have served as a capstone for the entire text:

"A crucial point in that earlier history (the fall of the Roman Empire) 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."


12 comments:

  1. After a rather profound series of experiences this weekend, I think I am going to pass if this is to become the mindset of Christians. “Fighting the flood?” TB, nobody’s even fired a shot. Christians stand by while queers and perverts and sinners come in, take over their churches and run them out. They do the same with their communities and even families.

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    1. They are working on the country, too.

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    2. Glen, I would actually disagree with you on that. I have been in congregations that have faced such divisions and the only thing to be done was to leave because it was obvious that there would be no home for them in the updated church and they could not, in good conscience, remain.

      Dreher is proposing building community of like-minded individuals to strengthen Christian commitment and resist (if that is the word that works for people) outward pressures to maintain and transmit culture. I am not quite sure I see the problem.

      Or, as Obi Wan Kenobi would say, "There are alternatives to fighting."

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    3. Tewshooz - The totalitarian mindset is to bring everything - every aspect of thought and action - under their control.

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    4. The totalitarian mindset is being sold under the guise of tolerance, diversity, acceptance, and multiculturalism. The church, which was actually founded on those things, is now regarded as the opposite of all those things - thanks to a decades long psyop by our current ruling class. They came into the churches and accused its leaders of bigotry and racism. When they objected they were threatened with lawfare and harassed by social justice warriors and the media. The rank and file christian has been flapping around and gawping as it tries to find alternatives to fighting, and so far as I have seen - those alternatives are just delaying actions.

      What's going to happen when you finally do get this community built, and they do the same thing, TB? Are you prepared to exclude the kinds of people that don't share your values? Are you prepared to fight back against the people that will inevitably attack your new community just as they did your old one?

      This is why I am frustrated with the churches. I have not seen a single one put up anything resembling a fight. They just pray for the people that are attacking them and undermining them - an in return they just keep doing what they're doing.

      Up here our churches are already supporting each other under the radar and off stage. With all due respect to Obi Wan... there is a LOT of fighting in that movie and the good guys don't win until they fought a pitched battle with the good guys.

      I admire your restraint but the time for that passed 10 and maybe even 20 years ago.

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    5. Glen, I would argue that the "rank and file" Christian is gawping around and flopping because they have been woefully unprepared by their leadership for the new world.

      I will push the question back at you: What do you mean by "putting up anything resembling a fight"? In terms of praying for the people that are attacking and undermining them - that is Scriptural: Christ Himself said "Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.". His commands, not mine.

      Is fighting legal actions? These have been done and will be continue to done (Grace Community Church in LA just won a court case against the state of California for putting a hard hold on their services during the Plague Shutdown; on the other hand, a web designed in Colorado has currently lost her case and may be forced to her job for a group she does not agree with for religious purposes) - but it is likely that as Christianity continues to fade as a cultural aspect, the Church can look less and less to courts to defend religious liberty.

      Church Discipline? I have been in congregations where this is followed; inevitably it fails as the individuals find another body.

      Boycotts? Name me a successful large scale counter-boycott of the last 20 years.

      So what does in mean, in your definition, to fight back?

      The reality is - by your own words - your churches are already engaging in this by linking up and supporting each other. That is really what Dreher is calling for: communities of orthodox (small o) Christian believers who have networks and support other networks.

      Glen, I am seeing - easily - the sort of totalitarianism of the Old Soviet Bloc and modern China. The church has survived - and thrived - there. That I am aware of, there have been no successful armed uprisings post 1949 in China and the only two at the height of Soviet Bloc - 1956 and 1968 - were brutally put down. Did the Soviet Bloc eventually fall? Yes, but not for another 20+ years following 1968 - and when it did, the Church was still there, ready to support and help build the society.

      If you have not, I might strongly recommend reading the Czech playwright Vaclav Havel, especially The Power of The Powerless. This is kind of survival mindset I would posit we need to practice.

      You are correct that there was a great deal of fighting in Star Wars and that the final act - the destruction of the Death Star - was brought about by violence. But I failed in one part of the concept and quote: When Han Solo was prepared to open up on the Death Star to "go down fighting", Obi Wan states (full quote) "You can't win. But there are alternatives to fighting." Without making the choice to not fight, they would have never survived to see their ultimate victory.

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    6. I can’t debate with you on a biblical or scriptural basis for a flat second, old friend… and I won’t insult your intelligence by trying.

      All I know is that for a community to exist, it has to have rules for everyone to live by. It has to enforce those rules fairly on everyone, and the people have to see it being done to see that everything is fair and on the up and square. Most of all, it has to defend itself and it’s members.

      You are looking at yourself and your fellow believers. I am looking at the bad guys. They’ve got complex, proven plans to attack your women and children and turn them against you. They have great ways to defeat your men too. They’ve got the media, the schools, the courts and the govt arrayed against you. They have plans for you. Your plan for them is to run away and hide and hopefully retain your culture and faith.

      I see no plans as to how you plan to counter the tactics being used against you. Tactics that have been used very successfully for the last 20~50 years. From my perspective, the church has been taking the “live to fight another day” approach for that entire time and has no intention of fighting at all.

      I don’t have the answers. I’ve tried to avoid fights and been burned horribly by it. I’ve stood my ground, gave what I got…and had the same thing happen there too. Up here in Canada, we are several swirls further down the socialist toilet than you are… so you might want to keep an eye on us and see what happens. Our churches are running and hiding too, and I am not sure of their future. It isn’t looking good.

      I’d much rather face the future with a regiment of Templar (or even Jedi) knights that running in craven retreat, but that’s just me. We live in truly divisive and evil times.

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    7. Glen - You have never insulted my intelligence. I value your thoughts as they help to sharpen my own.

      I cannot disagree about the opposition. I have read their the thoughts and plans (more than I have wanted to I suppose; you have prompted me to do this). And I wish I had better answers for you, except that running and hiding is perhaps an overstatement of what I have proposed (the fault is undoubtedly mine; I sometimes use words inexactly): in point of fact it is more like connecting and enduring.

      You are correct: the opposition has plans. But the opposition has always had plans. In point of fact, the Church (small o, large organization) has never been completely stamped out. It has gone into hiding (read about the Hidden Christians in Japan) or being visible but severely punished. I do not know that is so much running and hiding as enduring and connecting with others to strengthen us.

      The other thing that both of us do not see or know is God's movement in this period of time. We (and the opposition) discount God at our peril. Ultimately, it is God's purpose of building His Kingdom through the salvation of souls that we are to be about. Sometimes that looks like smashing evil (World War II, for example). Sometimes that looks like the church getting smashed. Ultimately all of this - the evil and good - occurs because God allows it, in His own good time, for our good and His Glory - even if we do not see it all the time.

      Perhaps - and this may be my not knowing - I tend to shy away from more kinetic solutions because they once started, they scarcely end the way anyone thinks and the scars will go for generations. But I would also be a fool to argue that "turn the other cheek" is a universally binding command for all forms of attack instead of personal or reputational attack.

      These are divisive times, and the outlook does seem evil and ill. That said, Good Friday was a dark day as well.

      But no-one at that Friday could see forward to the following Sunday.

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    8. I love the phrase: “kinetic solutions”. πŸ˜ŠπŸ‘

      I think at the rate we are going ballistics will be involved in what is coming, and there will be no place for God in it except for sorting the bodies and souls out once the smoke clears. I’m glad you’re watching the bad guys, because I don’t think you, your authors or the esteemed Claire have the right of them - yet. What we are seeing right now are not the tyrants or the totalitarians. What we are looking at right now are just the useful fools. At best, they’re paid actors and court jesters. If Christians can’t deal with these guys… I seriously doubt their chances against a modern motivated foe.

      I disagree with Claire too: outliving or surviving the storm ahead is not enough. America was founded on Christianity - as was Canada. It was the major pillar of our nations that allowed us to create the most prosperous and free countries in the world. If we ever hope to see that again, we are going to need a kinetically and ballistically capable Christianity to make it work. Without it, we will, in all probability see a more powerful oppressor once the current ruling class fails.

      There is no place to run, guys. This is it, right here. There are no bountiful wild places hidden away. There are no isolated small towns beyond the eye of Sauron. There is no place you can go that your adversary can’t follow.

      I’ve said everything I can say I suppose. All I can say now is that I hope I’m wrong and you’re right… for all our sakes.

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    9. Glen, I am pretty sure the phrase "kinetic solutions" is not unique to me, although I have no idea where it came from.

      I wonder about who we are seeing Glen - Yes, I think we are seeing the useful fools, but I do not wonder that we are seeing some of the powers behind them. Would seeing the powers behind them invoke a different response? Possibly, although I wonder. Were we to see Satan instead of a lesser demon, would we change how we react?

      But to go down the other road for a second: what if there was a kinetic solution and the oppressor's won? Based on your opinion and mine and history, I am pretty sure the outcome of such an event would be a scouring and searing that would make Hitler and Stalin's rampages look like a carnival ride.

      You are right - there is no place to run at this point. That said, Claire has been in this game a lot longer than I have and I have to respect her opinion.

      There is a line between resisting firmly and provoking that I am cannot see, but am sure is there. If I were wiser, I might see it.

      Frankly, I hope both of us are wrong and there is a third option I do not see. I find that doubtful, however.

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  2. I just finished my second cup of coffee.
    I'm now awake.

    I just need to decide what I want to do for lunch.
    What will you decide?

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    1. How to live my life well Just So, how to live my life well.

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