Monday, July 31, 2017

The Benedict Option: Chapter 6 (The Idea of a Christian Village)

So beyond being a religious movement, evangelical Christians constitute an enormous subculture with various little factions. Some of those factions have effectively self-segregated, creating their own little communities here and even abroad in some cases. These evangelical communities can have their own businesses and schools specifically catering to their beliefs, which move beyond the Bible and into various "how to live" texts on things like child rearing.

Many of you know all of this. You have, perhaps, read one of the various blogs written by people raised in these communities, detailing all of the peculiarities that outsiders don't see. Perhaps you've read one of the exposes discussing the darker side of these ostensibly cheery communities. It's possible that some of you even had first-hand experience of this world yourself.

I mention all this because apparently Rod Dreher had no clue that these evangelical communities existed, because in this chapter he chastises "orthodox Christians" (a term he actually stopped using a while ago) for not having these communities, taking care to take a few special shots at evangelicals.
For decades conservative Christians have behaved as if the primary threats to the integrity of families and communities could be effectively addressed through politics. That illusion is now destroyed... 
...[I]n the Benedict Option, we cannot be laissez-faire about the ties that bind us to each other. With so many forces in contemporary culture pulling families and communities apart, we can't assume that everything will work out if we just go with the flow.
He follows this up with a set of tips that could have come straight out of any number of evangelical subculture books published over the past 20 years. Examples:
  • Don't Be Afraid to Be Nonconformist - Reminiscent of a classic bit of rhetoric directed toward evangelical youths. Usually it's phrased as "don't be ashamed of your faith" with the implication that being "unashamed" will make you seem weird and even hostile to others. No, I don't know how that helps with the whole "evangelizing" thing, either.
  • Don't Take Your Kids' Friends for Granted - Evangelicals keep a close eye on their kids until they're married, and not just for the obvious reasons. Some books advise parents that letting their children have close platonic friendships can draw them away from the family. At the extreme, some ex-evangelicals claim that their parents ordered them not to hang out with other evangelical kids for this exact reason.
  • Live Close to Other Members of Your Community - Again, evangelicals do this all the time. In some cases, they've been known to move to other parts of the planet (New Zealand is apparently a popular destination).
It's not like Dreher is just stealing from evangelicals here, but I find it amazing that he's never heard of people doing this. For good or (mostly) bad, American evangelical life has been in the maybe a lot lately. Perhaps this links up with Dreher's general disdain toward Protestants. Backing that up, Dreher dips in to his infamous mail bag to find a good evangelical-bashing anecdote from a really real evangelical teenager:
...[S]he dropped out of her local chapter because she grew weary of her peers smoking drinking and having sex. "Honestly, I would rather hang out with the kids who don't believe," she told me. "They accept me even though they know I'm a believer. At least around them, I know what being a Christian really is."
Two things: One, this totally sounds like a teenager wrote it; two, never take the pills you buy in the parking lot after an altar call, they're real bad mojo.

Honestly, there's not much to say about this chapter. Bellyaching over the decline of "community" is pretty universal these days - left or right, zealot or heathen, black or white, rich or poor, everyone is terribly concerned about some perceived isolation. Most of the time, it's one of those non-controversial issues that encourages people to take bold stands precisely because it's such an easy issue. And really, if Dreher wants his little communities, well...he can go for it. Aside from some of that great smugness that comes from assuming that some idea didn't exist before Dreher had it, there's just not enough meat in this chapter to warrant a serious dissection.

The good news is that this is a bit of a turning point. From here, Dreher's advice gets steadily more self-righteous, hostile, paranoid, and even a little squeamish at one point. Stay tuned.


  1. Does Dreher mention any potential problems of living in a closed community where conformity is emphasized? Any cautionary tales? "Don't be like the Branch Davidians"?

    1. That's a good point, especially since Dreher is casting a pretty wide net in terms of his prospective community members. I have to assume that this falls under his "balancing" comments to avoid idolizing community and family.