Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Dreher’s “Benedict Option” Not THAT Hard to Understand

Monday, while perusing Big Pulpit, I came across a link to Deirdre Mundy’s Aleteia post, “Where [Rod] Dreher lost me on the ‘Benedict Option’”. I recently bought the book The Benedict Option: A Strategy For Christians in a Post-Christian Nation (New York: Sentinel Books) but hadn’t got around to reading it yet. I’d read a couple of his columns on the concept two years ago (and wrote a post about them); the basic idea seemed pretty clear to me at the time. However, intelligent people like Dr. John Zmirak and Austin Ruse showed quite clearly that they didn’t get it. Nevertheless, I read the book before reading Mundy’s piece.

Build an Ark? Right!

Reading the book was kind of a let-down. I agreed with everything Dreher wrote. In fact, I had written about many of the things he discusses and drawn pretty much the same conclusions. It was like I had paid $16.00 for the privilege of reading my opinions in someone else’s book. (Mind you, I’m not accusing Dreher of plagiarism!) The difference is, Dreher is a more experienced writer who uses fewer twenty-dollar words than I do, so his style is more accessible to the average reader. So it was like reading my opinions the way I should have written them. The Benedict Option concept is just not that hard to understand; it’s not Plato’s Republic or Cicero’s On Public Duties.

Having forearmed myself with the assurance that I indeed knew what Dreher was talking about, I then plunged into Mundy’s article to see where Dreher lost her. It turns out that her problem is with a simile Dreher conjured up in passing: “I believe that Christians now have got to realize that we’re living in a post-Christian civilization and take measures to build a kind of ark for ourselves with which to ride out the dark ages, to hold onto our faith, and tender the faith for such a time as light returns and civilization wants to hear the gospel again.”

Rebuts Mundy: “Here’s the problem: from a Catholic point of view, we already have a metaphorical Ark: The Church. We don’t need to build a new, more isolated ark to ride out what Dreher sees as a coming dark age. We can continue to live in the Ark we already have, as members of the body of Christ.” The rest of the article discusses ideas that Dreher covers in his book, but they’re written as if she’s contradicting him instead of agreeing with him. Sigh; some more hay litters the pavement of the public square as another straw man has the stuffing beaten out of it.

… What’s an Ark?

Dreher’s only real mistake, I’ve come to conclude, was in trying to give his main conception a catchy name. By invoking St. Benedict of Nursia, Dreher practically invites people to assume that “BenOp” requires monks, monasteries, and the saint’s Rule. Don’t get me wrong; Dreher uses the Benedictines, especially the monks who reside in modern-day Norcia, as a framing device for talking about various approaches to the coming storm. But monasteries as such aren’t required for BenOp strategies. Neither are monks. Neither is the Rule. Neither is agriculture, though Dreher believes that orthodox Christians eventually will be forced out of the professions and into low-paying blue-collar or manual labor.

Whence comes the “ark” imagery, then?

From at least the early nineteenth century onward, as each country or region sent a wave of immigrants to the U.S., they settled in rural “colonies” or were forced into ethnically and religiously homogeneous ghettoes. Anyone who grew up in a major city between 1945 and 1980 will probably know of a section of the city called “Little Italy” or “Little Bohemia” or “Little Poland”; my uncle once cracked that my mother’s family, the Cronins, were “related by marriage to half the Irishmen in North Omaha.” In such circumstances, maintaining strong religious practices was much easier, and often bloomed in ethnic religious festivals like Omaha’s annual Santa Lucia celebration.

But the neighborhood boundaries and ties of ethnic and religious solidarity could not keep the external culture from affecting, even infecting, the sons and daughters of immigrants. So when the post-World War II economic boom and the G.I. Bill allowed more Catholics to go on to college and into the professions, they took advantage of their newfound prosperity to flee for the suburbs, where they tried very hard to resemble their WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) neighbors. By the 1980s, many such neighborhoods were dead or moribund. Nevertheless, while they were strong, these neighborhoods were “arks” in which ethnic Catholicism rode out the discrimination of the surrounding culture for almost a century and a half.

The Church and the BenOp

Now, the Benedict Option is not “about” rebuilding the ethnic neighborhoods or planting new colonies. “If it is going to bring about a genuine renewal of Christian culture,” writes Dreher, “the Benedict Option will have to be centered on the life of the church. Everything else follows” (p. 101). Later, he continues the thought: “… the church can’t just be the place you go on Sundays — it must become the center of your life. … we should strive to be like [monks] in erasing as much as possible the false distinction between church and life” (p. 131).

One aspect that Dreher emphasizes early on is hospitality. One of Mundy’s arguments against Dreher is that “... we must recognize that the blessing of a ‘good well’ comes with great responsibility, because we are required to share. As Catholic communities, that means welcoming wanderers and strangers and letting them drink with us. ... Instead of withdrawing and keeping our water to ourselves, we can go out into the world and share it with crazy generosity, whether it comes in the form of our time, our companionship, or our prayers.”

But “keeping the water to ourselves” is not part of the Benedict Option. Discussing St. Benedict’s Rule as practiced by the monks of Norcia, Dreher states quite clearly, “A church or other Benedict Option community must be open to the world, to share the bounty of God’s love with those who lack it” (p. 72). And Dreher uses the example of a young woman driven to atheism by a strict family who was part of a very controlling community that lived in radical isolation and a near-paranoid suspicion of outsiders to illustrate the danger of idolizing family and community (cf. pp. 129, 138-9).

No Walls, No Hiding

Mundy’s mistake, I believe, is a mental conflation of monks with hermits. Eremitical orders such as the Carthusians barely have a community life as such. Most of their days are spent in isolation, even to the point of eating their meals separately, coming together only to pray and, every once in a while, have some kind of communal celebration. They rarely allow visitors. Cenobitic monastics such as the Benedictines live and work in community, and regularly admit visitors and pilgrims seeking spiritual counsel. The monks of the Middle Ages regularly tended to the spiritual needs of the communities that sprang up around them, including Masses and running schools.

In fairness, Mundy is not the only one to make such a mistake. I recall running across the headline of an atheist blog that gave a mocking subtitle to The Benedict Option: “Behind Walls and Hiding From Queer People”. However, Dreher not only denies that BenOp involves “hiding” in any sense but even predicts that most people sooner or later will face the choice of either “offering a pinch of incense to Caesar” or being impoverished and marginalized. The point of the BenOp, in any event, is to become a counterculture, and a counterculture can’t do its job properly if it’s completely disengaged from the dominant culture.

Why, oh why is this so hard to understand? What is it about the Benedict Option that has so many people, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, thrashing the bejaysus out of so many straw men?

The Coming of the Dark Ages

I believe the sticking point is not the concept itself but rather its central premiss — that we have lost the culture wars (for now, at least) and must prepare for an ugly, anti-Christian future. Dreher, after all, was the one who recognized the Law of Merited Impossibility: “It’s a complete absurdity to believe that Christians will suffer a single thing from the expansion of gay rights, and boy, do they deserve what they’re going to get.” It’s easier to shoot Dreher’s idea down than it is to debate whether or not his central premiss is flawed.

No one wants to admit that the Dark Ages are upon us. I believe the personality cult now sustaining Pres. Trump is the last, hysterical attempt of some to convince themselves that the fading twilight is really the first glimmer of dawn and that everything that has gone wrong in the last sixty years can be reversed with one gigantic tug at the levers of power. But it’s already too late; nothing Trump or the Republicans can accomplish in this next 3½ years will prevent the cascade failure of the West. The barbarians are already among us.