Thursday, July 27, 2017

The Benedict Option: Chapter 5 (A Church For All Seasons)

Or: Liturgies! Liturgies! Liturgies! Liturgies! Liturgies!

The balance of The Benedict Option consists of Dreher describing the various elements of his ideal communities - or, to put it another way: "Life: Ur doing it wrong." The first few chapters in this portion are less that scintillating, but rest assured that they'll get juicier as we go along.

Dreher ain't fucking around, either. Referencing a piece from First Things in 2004, Dreher concludes, in his typically understated way:
If you do not change your ways, you are going to die, and so will what's left of the Christian faith in our civilization. (Emphasis in original)
"Follow my advice or die" is not subtle, but Dreher seldom is. Anyway, the first advice chapter, as you might expect, is "Worship: Ur doing it wrong," and it's all about tradition. In case you hadn't figured it out, tradition (or at least some small subset therein) is very important to Dreher:
Too many churches have succumbed to modernity, rejecting the wisdom of past ages, treating worship as a consumer activity, and allowing parishioners to function as unaccountable, atomized members...
...If today's churches are to survive the new Dark Age, they must stop "being normal." We will need to commit ourselves more deeply to our faith, and we will need to do that in ways that seem odd to contemporary eyes.
Sounds like Dreher is going full Mennonite, but of course that's not what The Benedict Option is about. It's about being totally uncompromising in your commitment to God without having to compromise your lifestyle too much. Oh, and also liturgies.

"Liturgical worship" is my main takeaway from this chapter, mostly because that one subhead takes up nine pages out of a 22-page chapter (by contrast, most of the subheads are three or fewer). Dreher is very, deeply passionate about liturgies and I have no clue what he's talking about. Oh, I get the concept of a liturgy, of course - a standardized form of worship. The problem is that Dreher is addressing people from many different traditions, some of which are relatively new and have no ancestral traditions, some of which specifically reject this kind of conventional worship. The result of which is that this section quickly descends into Brooksian mush, with vague dispatches like:
All worship is in some sense liturgical, but liturgies that are sacramental both reflect Christ's presence in the divine order and embody it in a concrete form accessible to worshipers. Liturgy is not magic, of course, but if it is intended and received sacramentally, it awakens the sense that worshipers are communing with the eternal, transcendent sense that worshipers are communing with the eternal, transcendent realm through the ritual and its elements.
Not to put too much emphasis on this, as there are other subheads, such as "Relearn the Traditional Christian Habits of Asceticism" (Read: Only drink wine five nights a week), "Tighten Church Discipline" (Read: Don't be hypocrites - kick out all the divorced sluts), and "Embrace Exile and the Possibility of Martyrdom" (Read: Be hostile to everyone so that only the really committed will deal with you). Apart from the obsession with liturgies, this section sounds an awful lot like certain extant evangelical communities, and the similarities are only going to grow as we move along.

Except...Dreher actually isn't a big fan of American evangelicals - yeah, they show up in The Benedict Option, but only after Dreher spills a lot of ink accusing them of being excessively worldly and suggesting that they worship wrong and generally doing everything he can to show contempt. Now, I have a lot of problems with evangelicals, but insincerity and lack of commitment are not among their flaws - this is one group that clearly gets something out of going to church. Putting myself in Dreher's shoes...yeah, I'd still have problems with evangelicals, but I wouldn't be so eager to cast them as Goofuses.

Maybe his problem is Protestantism. This is a man who views Martin Luther as the Yoko of Christendom, and as far as I can tell he's never affiliated with any branch of Protestantism, evangelical or otherwise. Combine that with the fixation on things like liturgical worship and his obvious love of hierarchy, and I have to wonder if some part of his devotion to Christianity is tied up in love of ceremony and ritual and, above all, traditionalism. You don't get a lot of that in Protestant churches, and maybe Dreher just can't feel anything without all of that blessed ceremony. I don't want to question Dreher's sincerity, and I certainly don't think he's lying to the world in this book, but I can't shake this feeling that his desire to live a more Godly life is largely a desire to live a life richer in tradition.

What Dreher is trying to do here is assemble the trappings of some idyllic 10th century church in hopes that doing so will recreate that glorious age. He's certainly passionate about it, but it feels less like the passion of a man looking to give his life to the divine and more like the passion of a dedicated wargamer trying to reconstruct the Battle of Waterloo in exquisite detail. I have no doubt he gets something out of it, I just wonder if his real love is for some romanticized history of days gone by.

It's just a hypothesis for the moment, and we'll have many more chances to figure out if there's anything to it. The next chapter is "Community: Ur doing it wrong," and we'll see if we can't reconcile Dreher's idealization of evangelical communities with his general disdain for evangelicals.


  1. Has Dreher even participated in a monastic retreat? Catholics still do that. You mentioned a brief visit in an earlier chapter but nothing since then.

    1. The visit to Norcia is the only one he mentioned in the book. He might have gone to some other places for research (though not monasteries), but it seems like most of his accounts are either articles he's read or letters he's received.

  2. Adding to the above, I expected the book to be at least a little autobiographical, less 'you folks should do this' and more 'I have been doing this for a while, here's what I found out."