Friday, August 11, 2017

The Benedict Option: Conclusion

Oh David Brooks, I just can't get away from you, can I?

Brooks has been something of a fan of Rod Dreher for a while. Five years ago, Brooks put the then-fortysomething Dreher on his list of young rising stars of the conservative movement, but it was The Benedict Option that really got him excited. Brooks has been doing his level best to promote this thing, and I can see why. Sure, there are critical differences between Brooks' The Road to Character and Dreher's The Benedict Option, as well as differences between Brooks and Dreher in general - Dreher's religious philosophy is much more specific than the vague mush we saw in The Road to Character, and Dreher is mortally terrified of gay people whereas Brooks is famously one of the first cons to reject homophobia.

Broaden your view a little bit, though, and you'll see a common thread of logic running through both works. Both books divide history into a lost golden age and a modern age of decline. Both books attribute that decline to self-absorption and dissolution among the youth and the degeneration of hierarchies and traditions. Both books argue that fixing these problems through political or social change is impractical and possible even undesirable. Both books argue, however, that we can reclaim this golden age through a combination of spirituality and study of a select cadre of cultural Great Men. In short, both books are very fundamentally conservative.

But none of you needed me to tell you that Rod Dreher is conservative.

Perhaps the best summary question to ask about The Benedict Option is...are "Benedict Communities" desirable for anyone? My answer: I don't know. Obviously they're not desirable for me - I've developed a taste for being able to make my own decisions. But even having read this thing (as well as Dreher's other insights), I have no idea what these communities are supposed to look like. Dreher was writing for an audience with differing backgrounds so he had to be more a set of guidelines than a plan for living, but even by that standard of guidelines The Benedict Option is vague. These rules could describe anything from a pair of yuppies who cut back to five bottles of wine a week and quit shelling out for cell phone upgrades for their kids to a couple taking their kids into a lost house in some impenetrable woods so their children aren't ruined by popular culture and any arrangement in between.

There are a few things we can use to narrow that range a bit. First off, most of this advice was not written with Protestants in mind - so much of this book, especially the stuff about traditions, is definitely geared more toward the highly ritualistic Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches rather than those low church heretics. And while some of the advice could potentially be followed by anyone, the bigger ideas are targeted to a more affluent audience - not a lot of poor folk have the financial means to relocate on a whim or start a business or start their own fucking school. In short, Dreher is writing this for folks like himself, advising them to do the things he did. He wants them to move back home, worship in preapproved ways, shelter their children from the corrupting influence of queers and science, and exclude all the tainted people (but only in a "hospitable" way, of course).

All of this is in service of order, which is Dreher's paramount value. He seeks to create a little bubble world in which nothing ever changes unless the authorities desire it (and they never do). It might explain his idealization of the early medieval period. It was an age of corruption, injustice, brutality, criminality and stagnation. It was an age in which, for some peasant living in an isolated village, every day of his life was the same - and the same as every day of his father's life, and his grandfather's, eventually repeated in the lives of his sons and grandsons. To me, that sounds like hell; to Dreher, it's heaven. Again, he's not writing this for me.

But there are two problems. First, I'm not sure it's actually obtainable. Change comes slowly in a bubble, but it arrives eventually, and I wonder how Dreher's hierarchy would react to it. Put it this way - the impetus for this whole thing was LGBT rights. Dreher might be able to shut out a gay-friendly popular culture, but some fraction of the people born in his paradise will be gay, and some fraction of them will let that slip out. What happens then? Expulsion? That's a pretty grim punishment in a community like this because community is all they have. Read accounts of ex-evangelicals who were rejected by their communities for "rebelliousness" - for many of them, it's like being condemned to walking death.

Maybe that's a plus, though - the modern version of excommunication, a strike so dire that none would risk opposing those with the means of delivering it. You'd like to believe that the people who possess this power would feel honor-bound to never abuse it, but of course that's impossible. While I was going through The Benedict Option, I was also reading a book of medieval history called A World Lit Only By Fire that deals with the awe-inspiring, almost cartoonish corruption within the medieval church. While there was bad behavior all the way through the RCC, the worst of it was centered within the Holy See, gifted as it was with the power to condemn and immunity from all rules, even their own. Perhaps my favorite tale of corruption involves the notorious Alexander VI who, in an effort to dispose of one of his critics, threatened to excommunicate an entire city unless the denizens executed the critic...which, of course, they did.

Here's the thing, though - you don't need to be a massive, empire-defining body with authority over the souls of your followers to exhibit these abuses of power. It can also happen in tiny insular communities, not unlike those which Dreher so admires. The decentralized world of evangelical Protestantism has been experiencing a mini-epidemic of sex abuse scandals as of late. The most disturbing part of this is a truly profane ritual in which the victim (often well under the age of consent) is forced to stand up in her church, confess to adultery and forgive her rapist (who rarely suffers punishment) or else risk expulsion. It's despicable, but there's a certain brutal logic to it for people who value order above all else. The removal of an authority figure will, in the short-term, destabilize the community and, in the long-term, inculcate doubts as to the righteousness of their beliefs. Isn't it better to keep the family together, even if someone has to suffer?

Don't think for a moment that Dreher disagrees with this notion of stability over justice, either. Remember his comments on the Reformation - Church corruption was bad, but by calling attention to the corruption and disrupting the Church community, Martin Luther did something worse.

You know what, though? Let's set all of this aside. Everything I've just said about "Benedict Communities" having the potential to become simmering cauldrons of injustice assumes that a significant number of people reading this book actually follow the advice in some significant fashion. It ignores the people who make a few negligible changes to their lives and use it as an excuse to look down on other Christians. It ignores the people who don't changes their lives at all, but merely shake their heads at those secular liberal barbarians. In short, it ignores all those people who are like Rod Dreher in the most fundamental way - terminally smug.

And that's another one down. The Benedict Option was my most difficult dissection yet - The Road to Character was more boring to read, but it was a struggle to come up with interesting things to say about Dreher, much to my surprise.

As with previous non-fiction works, I have a review on Amazon and I would appreciate upvotes. It's not my best review, but it's the best I could do within my limitations as a barbarian.

Beyond that...well, I have the usual assortment of projects. If you haven't checked out my photoblog yet (or recently), now would be a good time. And if you have 99 cents burning a hole in your pocket, I have books and appreciate kiss-ass reviews. Thank you, and have a nice day.


  1. Based on your blog, I brought your book. Haven't read it yet, so its kinda of a tip jar until I do. I'll make sure to let you know what I think.

    1. Thanks a lot, and sorry for the delay in expressing my gratitude - life often stands in the way of blogging, alas.

  2. Thanks very much for doing this series.

  3. Thank you for this.
    one thing - as you note even in a bubble change comes - even in the middle ages where one sees the start of what would become the Renaissance. Honestly what Dreher describes seems like a Pol Pot style nightmare with mandatory public prayers.
    Again thanks for taking the hit for us and reading his.