In Touchstone, Bradley W. Anderson has published a long, mostly positive review of The Benedict Option. He finds it to be like a contemporary version of Francis Schaeffer’s 1976 book How Then Shall We Live?, more on which anon. I very much liked this graf high in the review:
While a Protestant reading the title might wonder otherwise, The Benedict Option is an ecumenical book in the best sense of the word, written for Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Orthodox alike. Part of this is because the author himself has an eclectic background, growing up in a mainline Protestant world in Louisiana, converting to Roman Catholicism as a young man, then coming to embrace Orthodox Christianity in more recent years—with each step on the journey seeming to be prompted by positive motivations rather than reactions against what came before. But perhaps more than any personal factors, it is the times themselves that drive Dreher’s broadly catholic approach. For those who would be faithful to Christianity, the comforts of camaraderie can be hard to find, and kinship must be clung to wherever it can be found.
While in Europe recently, I met a Catholic who said that naturally it is a pity that I left the Catholic Church, and that he hopes I will return, he does not dismiss the possibility that God permitted my leaving for Orthodoxy to fulfill a greater purpose yet to be seen. “You could not have written The Benedict Option as a Catholic,” he said. I took him to mean that it would not have been received by Evangelicals had I been Catholic, and therefore the book would not have had ecumenical credibility. This Catholic reader very much believes that all traditional Christians need to draw closer to each other in these days.
Anderson says that people who think I’m advocating “head for the hills” withdrawal are wrong, but that I ought not be so surprised by that, having titled the book and the project after a monk who did head for the hills. He points out by way of clarification that I got the idea and the title from reading Alasdair MacIntyre, and responding to the suggestion at the end of After Virtue that those wishing to live by the old ways would do well to try to form communities within which those virtues can be lived out plausibly. That does require some kind of separation, though the forms that could and should take are debatable.
At the heart of Dreher’s “Benedict Option” is a belief that the culture war is over and traditional Christianity has lost, decisively and permanently (for the practical purposes of anyone alive today). The tide has irrevocably turned. Not only will Christians in the future lack even passive support from a Western culture that until recently was dominated by unconscious but real remnants of Christian sensibilities, but we will be actively assaulted in ways that will make it difficult for a historically recognizable Christianity to
[W]e in the modern West are living under barbarism, though we do not recognize it. Our scientists, our judges, our princes, our scholars, and our scribes—they are at work demolishing the faith, the family, gender, even what it means to be human. Our barbarians have exchanged the animal pelts and spears of the past for designer suits and smartphones. (17)
The classification of traditional Christian teachings as bigotry and “hate speech,” the imposition of sweeping bureaucratic imperatives on sex and gender that are at odds with the entire preceding history of Christian thought, an increasingly aggressive intolerance in the educational system towards any views at odds with the new orthodoxies, and technological changes in reproduction that are happening without reflection, let alone debate—seeing all this and more, it is hard to argue forcefully with Dreher on this point.
I appreciate this succinct summary of my viewpoint. As a related aside, I want to draw your attention to a short reflection by David Wolpe, a rabbi within Conservative Judaism, sent in by a reader. Rabbi Wolpe here talks about how incomprehensible it is to interfaith couples who come to him asking to be married in a Jewish ceremony without the non-Jewish partner converting. The rabbi writes:
Two prominent Conservative Rabbis recently left the movement in order to officiate at intermarriages between Jews and non-Jews, which the Conservative movement prohibits. Among the many arguments on both sides, there was an underlying reality: America is very uncomfortable with particularism. Borders, boundaries, and exclusions make us uneasy. Standards smack of elitism. Saying to someone, “you may not join,” goes against our American ethos.
In the American story, love erases all boundaries. Think of the Disney movies: beauty marries the beast, the mermaid marries the man. The people who stand on the sidelines in such stories and say, “you cannot marry each other, you are from different worlds,” are either clueless or evil. How many American movies, shows, and books tell the story of the outsider who is finally accepted? You can be a green witch, as in “Wicked,” or a green ogre like “Shrek,” but underneath everyone is the same.
Crossing boundaries is part of the American national story. Interracial marriage, and later gay marriage, were boundary questions, decisively resolved in American society by denouncing the validity of those boundaries.
He goes on:
To ask someone to convert, to become something other than they are, can feel like a different sort of dismissal — “I’m not good enough as I am?” In a society awash in language of self-acceptance and embrace of the other, how can a Rabbi sit and say, “I cannot celebrate your love unless you change”?
Yet we know what happens when there are no borders at all. Without boundaries there is no nation, without standards there is no institution, without periodic rejection acceptance means nothing. So on one side religion risks being seen as narrow and exclusionary, and on the other side is the possibility of losing all self-definition.
Rabbi Wolpe says quite correctly that if Judaism gives up its particularity because that particularity is an offense to modern standards of inclusion, it will disappear. He writes, “I continue to believe that the collapsing of boundaries is inseparable from the collapsing of standards, and that welcoming is a step from dissolving.”
He’s right about that. Though we draw our lines elsewhere, Christians face the same challenge. Saying “yes” to modernity, in the sense we’re talking about here, is to say “yes” to collective suicide of the faith. This is a reality that most conservative Christians today do not comprehend. And this is why though I see critical threats to the faith coming from outside the Church (e.g., Anderson’s list), I see even worse threats coming from inside the Church via doctrinal collapse into emotivist incoherence.
I’m not going to continue quoting parts of Anderson’s well-written review in which he states his agreement with The Benedict Option, though I will say there are many. Here’s one big place where he disagrees. He’s just quoted a passage from the book that says Christians today place far too much emphasis on politics:
I agree with that entire paragraph—we only have so much time and energy, and politics is, ultimately, one of the least important things in life, if one has any sort of perspective at all. But Dreher goes further: “Losing political power might just be the thing that saves the church’s soul. Ceasing to believe that the fate of the American Empire is in our hands frees us to put them to work for the Kingdom of God in our own little shires” (99).
Going back to the Alasdair MacIntyre quotation, Dreher is here making a not-so-subtle correlation between the “Roman imperium” and “American Empire.” It is hard to unpack everything in his argument, but I am content with saying that I am troubled by the tone and emphasis. I have largely done my own version of “seceding culturally from the mainstream,” have unplugged (and as regards social media, never did plug in) from the electronic cacophony of the wired age to a degree that many today would find odd, and years ago consciously chose to disengage from my previously very active involvement in politics.
Yet I would be quite troubled if too many “men and women of good will” did the same today, and I would hold my manhood a bit cheap, to put it in Henry V terms, had I not done my own tour of duty on the political battlefield. Dreher admits that the political fight for religious liberty has importance for Christians (even if his tone implies that it is more or less already lost), but politics doesn’t really work the way he seems to think it does. Meaningful influence requires comprehensive involvement. While Dreher can point to the requisite caveats in his book, one need only compare their relative tepidity with the vigor of his harsh critiques of Christian political involvement: withdrawal is Dreher’s take-home message on politics. But to embrace that idea is to believe that the spread of Christianity would have played out the same way if another Diocletian, rather than Constantine, had taken the throne in the early fourth century.
Let me clarify all this, if I can.
In the book’s chapter on politics, I say explicitly that we Christians cannot withdraw entirely from political life, especially when it comes to fighting for religious liberty. My concern here is the sense among conservative Christians that the chief threats facing the Church are political and legal, and can be dealt with through politics and law. To put it crudely, what I’m attacking in this chapter is the idea that everything is going to work out fine if we just elect more Republicans (and the right kind of Republicans). As I write in the book:
No administration in Washington, no matter how ostensibly pro-Christian, is capable of stopping cultural trends toward desacralization and fragmentation that have been building for centuries. To expect any different is to make a false idol of politics.
Leaving aside any number of things that Trump has done that principled Christians may plausibly object to, the Trump administration has certainly been more friendly to religious conservatives than a Hillary Clinton administration would have been. And if you think it doesn’t matter which party holds Congress, I invite you to consider the pointless theological inquisition Democratic Sens. Bernie Sanders and Chris Van Hollen inflicted on the Evangelical nominated for an Office of Management and Budget office. This kind of thing is going to become increasingly normal in our politics.
But: Have you seen a robust defense of religious liberty from the Congressional GOP? I haven’t. They need to pass the First Amendment Defense Act, which the president has vowed to sign. It’s going nowhere, even though Republicans control both houses of Congress. The corporate juggernaut on gay rights is hard for Republican lawmakers to resist. And they are terrified of being called bigots. Maybe they will find their voice, but I wouldn’t bet the future on it. If we’re honest with ourselves, we have to face the fact that the constituency for religious liberty when it clashes with gay rights is dwindling, along with the Christian faith itself in America.
Point is, conservative Christians need a Plan B, for when politics and law fails us. Critics of the Ben Op are right to say that the state is not going to leave us alone. I have never said otherwise! My argument is that we Christians have got to start digging in now, and making plans for how we are going to be the Church when the State becomes ever more hostile to us.
Anderson says that in politics, “meaningful influence requires comprehensive engagement,” and he’s right about that — but it somewhat misses the gist of my critique. As the saying goes, politics is downstream from culture, and with conservative Christianity in decline, both in terms of raw numbers and in terms of doctrinal orthodoxy on key issues, we cannot realistically hope to have meaningful influence in the years to come. Maintaining religious liberty is the key issue facing orthodox Christianity right now, given the attacks on it coming from social progressives. Given the trends toward acceptance of homosexuality, especially among Millennials (70% of Catholic Millennials, and 51% of Evangelical Millennials), support for religious liberty when it clashes with gay rights specifically and sexual permissiveness broadly will be feeble.
Think about it: how much political success do you think racists would have in making religious liberty arguments protecting their right to discriminate on the basis of race? Well, that’s going to be orthodox Christians defending our liberties in the public square. It does not matter that the comparison between race and sexual orientation does not hold up philosophically. That’s not how most Americans see it. Don’t get me wrong: we have to keep fighting on the political battlefield, but we should not harbor illusions about our prospects of success — and that’s why we should shift our focus to a different kind of politics, one I call (after Vaclav Havel) “anti-political politics.”
About the reviewer’s Constantine vs. Diocletian comment, I reject the relevance of the analogy to this discussion. Obviously the conversion of Constantine made an incalculable difference in the spread of Christianity. And obviously persecution at the hands of determined persecutors can as well. All things considered, I would rather live in a state in which the Christian faith was welcomed and supported than in one where it was despised and persecuted. But the future of the United States on this front is not really up to Christians, at least not principally.
Besides, if there were no religious liberty challenges at all on the LGBT front or the contraception-and-abortion front, and believers were free to run our institutions as we like, the vitality of the Christian faith would still be declining. People are not falling away from orthodox Christianity today because the state makes it hard for them to be Christian (though that is coming). They are falling away because orthodox Christianity is no longer experienced by them as compelling. Part of this is the fault of the institutional church, part of it is the fault of families, but most of it, in my view, is the consequence of living in liquid modernity. When I talk about politics-as-usual being a hindrance to authentic renewal of the Church, I mean it insofar as it encourages believers to think that the solution to the crisis threatening the faith is primarily political and legal. What I argue is not for abandoning politics altogether, but rather recalibrating our engagement to suit present and future realities.
Anderson also takes issue with my claim in the chapter on Work that younger Christians need to think long and hard before committing themselves to working within a profession that will likely compel them to compromise their core beliefs:
… I think writers, pastors, teachers, and parents should tread with great care when discouraging young people from entering a particular profession at all. As I remarked to my administrator friend, I am of the school of thought that I want “them” to have to kick me out, if my line of work is someday going to be closed to devout Christians. If they are going to cheat us, they should be made to do it to our faces, and not get to use the excuse that there aren’t any Christians in a profession because none apply.
With due respect, that kind of bravado is a lot easier for Dr. Anderson — a physician with nearly 30 years on the job — to say than it is for a young doctor, lawyer, scientist, or other professional just starting out, or considering whether or not to enter a certain field. From The Benedict Option:
Public school teachers, college professors, doctors, and lawyers will all face tremendous pressure to capitulate to this ideology as a condition of employment. So will psychologists, social workers, and all in the helping professions; and of course, florists, photographers, backers, and all businesses that are subject to public accommodation laws.
Christian students and their parents must take this into careful consideration when deciding on a field of study in college and professional school. A nationally prominent physician who is also a devout Christian tells me he discourages his children from following in his footsteps. Doctors now and in the near future will be dealing with issues related to sex, sexuality, and gender identity but also to abortion and euthanasia. “Patient autonomy” and nondiscrimination are the principles that trump all conscience considerations, and physicians are expected to fall in line.
“If they make compliance a matter of licensure, there will be nowhere to hide,” said this physician. “And then what do you do if you’re three hundred thousand dollars in debt from medical school, and have a family with three kids and a sick parent? Tough call, because there aren’t too many parishes or church communities who would jump in and help.”
The book does not say that no Christian should ever enter any specific profession. Rather, it discusses which professions are likely to be meaningfully hostile to orthodox Christians now and in the future, and advises believers to take this reality into account when considering a profession — and before taking on loads of college debt. These are facts that cannot be adequately confronted with “Come and get me, copper” bravado.
Now, back to the Francis Schaeffer claim. Anderson says The Benedict Option will affect younger Christians in much the same way that Schaeffer’s work affected Evangelicals a generation ago:
This book, in spite of its weaknesses, will, I suspect, do something similar for a great many readers—opening eyes to the dangers to Christianity of the current and coming age here in the West, inspiring lifelong deliberate and conscious efforts to build Christian communities that are loving and mutually supportive, spurring the founding of classical Christian schools and classical homeschool co-ops, and reassuring us that yes, we really can do this, no matter how hard it may get.
Maybe a decade after I was out of college, I went back and re-watched the film series of How Should We Then Live? and picked a couple of Schaeffer’s books off my shelf, and I was surprised to find them to be virtually unreadable and unwatchable—in content, argumentation, quality of writing, datedness, you name it. It wasn’t just that I had converted to Orthodoxy by then, because I still delved widely and appreciatively into the writings of Protestant and Catholic thinkers alike—it was that I had read deeply in the Western Christian tradition for myself, and had moved on.
I found it hard to believe that I had been so affected by Schaeffer, and yet I had been, undeniably so—and I remained grateful. His books were for a certain place and time in our country’s religious and cultural life, and for a particular setting of intellectual vulnerability from which I might not otherwise have emerged spiritually intact. I wasn’t alone in how I was affected—a whole generation of conservative Protestant Christians was shaped by the same experience. It is hard to know, but I imagine others likewise shared my reaction upon returning to consider Schaeffer later in life.
The Benedict Option is a book that is going to get a lot of well-deserved press, both positive and negative. I suspect that, like Schaeffer’s books, it won’t hold up all that well with the passing of years. Those who are inspired by it really won’t mind that, because they will by then be far down a path that changed their lives for the better.
This sounds familiar. I tried a decade or so ago to read How Then Shall We Live? because so many Evangelical friends I respect recommended it. I couldn’t get through it, and told them so. Most of them agreed with me about that book’s limitations, but offered some variation of, “You cannot imagine how much I needed that book back then.” They would explain that Schaeffer opened doors of thought and imagination to them that their own churches had not. Yes, they had grown beyond him, but they would not have grown at all if it had not been for him.
Maybe that’s how The Benedict Option will be. If so, that won’t be such a bad thing. As I never tire of telling people, the book is not meant to be a collection of answers as much as a book that asks the right questions, and offers a framework for discussing them among orthodox Christians. If The Benedict Option is a gateway drug to much deeper books and sources of intellectual engagement with the Great Tradition of the Christian faith, and the West, then it will have done everything I hoped it would do. A book like this is meant for a popular audience, and cannot possibly be more than a gloss on the topics it touches. There are hundreds of deeper, more vital books to be read — and to be written! — by fellow Christians who might never have thought to do so had they not read The Benedict Option.
In the end, if I’m wrong about this or that thing in the book, I am truly eager to accept correction. It only helps the public cause most meaningful to me: the survival of the Church in the West. The book only exists, at least in the mind of its author, to compel truthful and meaningful answers to the question, “How then, in 2017, in the post-Christian West, shall we then live?”
By the way, TAC publishes today an English translation of a critical Russian review of the book. The reviewer says, in part:
Meanwhile, in the US this year quite a bit of attention has been generated by a book urging genuine Christians to abandon the struggle to salvage a dying post-Christian world; to instead withdraw to their religious communities, continuing to observe Christian norms and maintaining those prohibitions against which secular society rebels.
… It is easy to sympathize with Dreher, who, seeing no other way out for Christians, recommends self-isolation in closed communities of like-minded people.
Here’s what’s strange, though. It turns out that the “Benedict Option,” in the context of Dreher’s book, operates something like a self-contained metaphor that doesn’t actually require realization in the real world. After all, Dreher is not writing instructions on how to lead a monastic life. He does not demand from his readers that they actually remove to settlements populated only by the faithful, places where neither television nor the Internet will be available any more. It is obvious, to the contrary, that he himself peruses the Internet, and even those newspapers and magazines where they write about love that is “free and pure.” The Benedict Option is nothing more than a person’s self-alienation from the affairs of the surrounding society, a refusal to strive for victory within this society. It is something more like heroic pessimism in the spirit of Max Weber: the world is dying, so let us be the courageous witnesses of its last days, not sharing in hopes for its miraculous salvation.
… Secular humanity is moving towards some kind of flickering light; Christians know that this is not the Light that shines in the darkness, but if Christians leave this world, who then will be left to point that out?
If the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.
You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in Heaven.
To my mind, it is in this well-known fragment from the Gospel of Matthew that we find our best answer to the book by an American religious conservative and his call for retreat from frontline positions that are not yet fully overrun.
Once again: The Benedict Option does not recommend “self-isolation in enclosed communities of like-minded people.” Boris Mezhuev, the reviewer, seems disappointed that I did not write the book he thinks I should have written, so that he could criticize it. Indeed, I wonder if he read my book at all, or is simply reacting to what others have said about it. If he were to read the actual book, he would see that my counsel to small-o orthodox Christians is to strengthen our own commitment to the faith, individually and collectively, and let that light shine in the gathering darkness.
UPDATE: I forgot to ask you readers who have read both How Then Shall We Live? and The Benedict Option to please consider writing about the similarities and differences between my book and Schaeffer’s. I’m very curious to know!