Prologue (mine, not Dreher’s)
The book is an extended exposition of what is at heart a very simple thesis and message.
That premise: “Genuine, traditional Christianity is quickly dying throughout the West, as it has been for a long time. But now things are getting to a critically bad stage. If committed Christians don’t appreciate this, and aren’t ready, willing, and able to make radical changes in the way they live their lives, then The Faith will surely die out soon, perhaps carried forward in name only by what will have become little more than an imposter. Many Christians don’t appreciate this state of affairs, either through ignorance on the one hand, or willful denial and obtuse blindness on the other. The war is lost, and so it’s well past time for Christians to start thinking seriously about the strategic requirements of cultural survival. Hopefully it’s not too late, but it very well might be, especially if Christians don’t stop sleepwalking off the cliff. They will need to come to grips with the sheer precariousness of their situation, and figure this all out, pronto.”
Dreher puts a lot of meat on the bones of that proposition, but the idea itself is not too complicated. Since that idea is always in the background, discussing any of Dreher’s explorations of different aspects of the problem or potential solutions naturally ends up revisiting common themes several times.
Some of those themes include the critical importance of social environment on psychological influence, the “raise and release” problem of there being no current life-cycle solution so young people can stay in the fold and form families with like-minded mates, the ethics of perpetuation, and a proposed ‘campus community’ solution.
On occasion I will also go a little hard on Dreher when he engages in double-mindedness. He sometimes lacks consistency regarding how concerned one ought to be about respectability and normalcy. Dreher also tends to switch modes between writing as if this is an urgent and dire struggle for survival, but then denies advocating for exactly the kind of extreme measures that would be warranted were the situation as dire as he claims. Maybe there’s no one right position on those matters and so Dreher’s style merely reflects a judicious balance between competing interpretations. Whether that’s right or not, I’ll be pointing those occasions out, so that you can judge for yourself.
Now, Dreher focuses almost exclusively on the situation for Christians, which is a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, it allows him to keep a narrow focus on something about which he is more well-informed per the maxim “write what you know”. On the other hand, that exclusivity tends to obscure the real nature of what is going on, as if it were a strictly and peculiarly Christian issue.
It’s not: the premise clearly extends to any kind of traditionalism. That’s true whether it is tied to a particular religion or ideology, or whether it is merely a passively acquired collection of informal elements of social capital and culturally-embedded folkways. Regardless, any form of traditionalism stands no chance against the ‘ideological rectifications’ which characterize the contemporary forces of social change.
For example, there are plenty of secular atheists who want the sex segregation of toilets to continue to be the default cultural practice, and who aren’t on board with the latest PC crusade to impose this innovation on everyone, like it or not.
Eventually, these people are either going to get on board, or they are going to find themselves mixed in with the Christians and all the others in a bigger set of “Culture War Losers”.
How valuable is the book? Even if I was unfamiliar with Dreher’s extensive past writing on the subject, I wouldn’t say there’s much that’s informative or new about it, either to any serious and honest observer of the Western scene or even to those with only a small amount of historical familiarity.
To these people, it might be hard to stay very interested or invested since so much of what he’s saying seems obvious and noncontroversial.
And yet … despite that obviousness, it’s undeniably important for two reasons.
First, no one else seems nearly as motivated in sounding this indubitably necessary alarm, in nearly as clear and prominent a manner. Dreher is not ‘alone’ exactly as a voice in the wilderness, but he doesn’t have much company.
And second, raising that alarm makes a lot of people – both Christians (of a particular type) and anti-Christians – very upset in what is clearly a “she doth protest too much” manner. They understand the premise and its implications intuitively and well enough to feel an urgent compulsion to deny it and attack it vigorously, but when they do so, they usually embarrass themselves by demonstrating ignorance of its actual content. The confidence that they simply have to be right and Dreher wrong, is felt so deeply that they apparently feel fully entitled to make all these attacks without, you know, actually reading the book.
It’s just intellectually painful to read nearly all of those ‘critiques’, being almost all devoid of any shred of good faith. That is, the lack of integrity, horrid quality, and hysterical character of most of these criticisms is more revealing – and probably teaches us more about what’s happening and what’s likely to happen – than Dreher’s book ever could be.
Now, personally, I found that having followed Dreher’s blogging over the last several years to have been really indispensable to grasping the meaning and limits of every point he’s trying to make in the book. It really helps to know Dreher, The Man in order to know this book, when to forgive him, and when to roll your eyes at him.
Reading Dreher can be frustrating in that he so frequently crawls all the way up to an important insight and then … disappointingly chokes on the social undesirability of the conclusion at the last minute. (He may be doing this as part of a strategy to stay above the minimum threshold of public respectability, and there are a few times I suspect that, but my impression is that he’s almost always being sincere.) He’s like one of those sports teams which one can’t stop rooting for because it always gets so close to a win, but which just keeps breaking one’s heart.
But at least he chokes in an ironically predictable way. It is always the direction of “Mainstream, Respectable, Literate, American Christian Nice.” The kind of Nice oblivious to the way it is having its usually noble, pro-social sentiments abused and exploited by its sworn enemies. In this sense, if he has not transcended the very error he is begging his co-confessionists to overcome, then at least he is writing as one who knows them so well from being one of them, in a way that no one else can.
At any rate, I wouldn’t have wanted to read this book “dry”, as it were, without the sauce of that context, and I think had I done so, I’d come away with an inadequate impression of it.
If I were to point out his main fault, it is that he never calls the devil by its name, so to speak. He never points the finger at progressivism and leftism, and hardly thinks it’s important to discuss that ideological phenomenon as a central issue, to pluck it out of the extremely broad historical narrative he lays out. Now, this could be out of strategic wisdom and professional savvy and caution as much as out of ignorance or naiveté. I think it’s a mix that is about 80% the latter, for two reasons.
First, at times, on certain subjects, he seems like the infamous fish that doesn’t know it swims in water, and he lacks conscious awareness that he’s committed to some concept or moral notion that owes more to modern progressivism than anything with an authentic Christian heritage.
And second, despite frequently covering instances of their latest ideological excesses, he still tends to get the tenets and character of current progressivism wrong. Mostly, he is out of date. He buys into the neutrality narrative spun by the old liberal public intellectuals (many of whom are now also balking at the latest developments) for today’s real thing: the bullying power games of contemporary PC and the Social Justice Warriors.
This causes him to repeatedly make an error, which is to say that ‘religion’ is being eroded by a neutral, empty, nothing of relativism with an ultimate form of individualist secularism as the end point. Instead, it is simply being replaced by a new ideology that fills the vacuum with its own mythologies, orthodoxies, and an endless efflorescence of sacred norms, rules, and regulated status relations.
This puts someone like me in an odd and unique position. Almost all Dreher’s critics accuse him of crying wolf or being a Chicken Little at best, and more usually a looney-tunes-level alarmist kook or worse. Meanwhile, I’m saying that Dreher is underestimating his enemy, painting an overly rosy picture, and not being nearly alarmist enough.
This is going to sound strange, but go with me a while and let me explain. While Dreher may not be alarmist enough, at the same time there is a sense in which he also needs to lighten up.
There are two sides to the coin of rallying people to the fight. One side is negative: to shake them out of their complacency and fill them with justified terror and angst. “Wake up! They are coming for us! We are losing! The situation is dire!” But then, when the troops are marshaled, the other side of the coin must provide them with positive motivation, by reminding them what, exactly, they are fighting for.
And what traditionalists are fighting for is the way of life they cherish and which is awesome. A traditional, faithful life is filled with potential for moments of pride and sweetness and harmony with each other, the world, and the Lord. It allows one to meet adversity with a community, with love, hope, and joy. It is beautiful and true and worth fighting for.
Introduction: The Awakening
Dreher opens the book by saying he experienced the very common kind of political transformation that happens when a man becomes a father and tries to take a shot at traditionalist, wholesome child rearing in the current American scene. The responsibilities and interests of that role tend to lead to a new perspective on social affairs with different areas of emphasis and concern. When one starts to grasp the problems one faces, it is indeed a rude awakening.
It’s a political awakening in the “mugged by reality” sense, when someone in that position realizes just how ideologically naïve they’ve been (often in a libertarian direction), and how the deck has been stacked against them, and in so many ways beyond their control and power to mitigate.
Shared public spaces – and the official and informal social rules which govern them – have a character that either supports wholesome families or repels them and forces them into a self-imposed house-arrest. The situation is a zero-sum conflict of interest.
Dalrymple has described this situation in the context of the elderly in today’s Britain. They often do not feel free to leave their homes if it’s after dark on a boozing night.
The question of “who, effectively, owns the streets, and for what purposes” is one of fundamental political importance. It is a subject one only really begins to appreciate when one notices that he must exile his children from those ‘public’ spaces.
The old social order was much better at preserving a kind of public wholesomeness quarantine. It encouraged discretion and insisted that matters best kept away from innocent and immature children be sequestered from them in private spaces.
As such, most ordinary parents could afford to engage in “free-range parenting” without much worry. The new social order tolerated things like Times Square becoming a red-light district, before the negative public reaction led to reversing some of those excesses.
So fatherhood got Dreher thinking seriously about the nature of this crucial, difficult problem, in the child-rearing version of Johnson’s line: “Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”
What does wholesome child-rearing require in terms of psychological, social, and communal influences? Where could he go for the support and social reinforcement he realized he needed?
He wondered whether the Republican Party was still a political coalition able and willing to defend the interests of religious families, and he concluded that it wasn’t.
Within the GOP, there had long been tension between traditionalist, social conservatives on the one hand, and those who were more interested in resisting leftist economics and statism from a libertarian, individualist, and market-based perspective on the other. The latter group was indifferent or neutral to the social requirements of families, and over time, they seem to have won out.
What about the churches? Worthless. They had become culturally impotent, inert, and beleaguered. But worse, they were now mostly uninterested in counter-culturally challenging the ideological zeitgeist. The Roman Catholic Church under Pope Francis seems intent on surrendering to it almost entirely, And Dreher – once a Catholic himself – has blogged in a way that leaves little doubt that regards Pope Francis the same way that Dante judged Pope Boniface VIII – “a wicked man who leads his flock astray.”
But it’s by no means only a Catholic problem, and Dreher is not shy about insisting that all denominations of “his people” suffer from the same malady. He writes:
Even though conservative Christians were said to be fighting a culture war, with the exception of the abortion and gay marriage issues, it was hard to see my people putting up much of a fight. We seemed content to be the chaplaincy to a consumerist culture that was fast losing a sense of what it meant to be Christian.
Well, ok, but what kind of “fight” did Dreher want or expect? What would he have liked to have seen? More sermons? I have a feeling that if counter-culturalists of any stripe organized to put up real fights, Dreher would recoil in outrage.
Dreher was strongly influenced by Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue and puts his bottom line up front.
The time was coming, said MacIntyre, when men and women of virtue would understand that continued full participation in mainstream society was not possible for those who wanted to live a life of traditional virtue.
Few want to admit what is plainly true: full participation and the social integration of ‘normalcy’ is now deeply incompatible with a traditional lifestyle. And, like it or not, there is no alternative but to surrender on the one hand, or retreat and withdraw on the other. If you want your kids to grow up a certain way, believe in and cherish certain things, then there is no other option but to separate them from general society and surround them with a highly-selective peer group – really an entire sub-society – which will give you the support you need.
That’s a tough message. The first thing people try to do to deal when presented with very hard choices is to try to deny the reality of the trade-off they face.
People prefer to live in their illusions, able to tell their lies. They want to be normal people, fully participating in normal American society. They may like to signal different priorities, and claim that they’d be willing to give up some of the benefits of normalcy if there were any conflict with their sacred values and religious commitments. But, then that conveniently never happens to be the case.
No one wants to admit to the embarrassment of being on the losing side of a power and status conflict. It is humiliating to concede that one is being shoved out and compelled to leave by stronger, higher-status victors. And the opposition is likely to encourage the delusion to keep down their adversary’s guard and avoid triggering their early warning detection systems.
That’s all understandable, but if it doesn’t change, it’s going to be why 99% of Christians are going to fade away.
I called the strategic withdrawal prophesied by MacIntyre “the Benedict Option.” The idea is that serious Christian conservatives could no longer live business-as-usual lives in America, that we have to develop creative, communal solutions to help us hold on to our faith and our values in a world growing ever more hostile to them. We would have to choose to make a decisive leap into a truly countercultural way of living Christianity, or we would doom our children and our children’s children to assimilation.
By assimilation, he means apostasy, since the mainstream culture is far too un-Christian.
Meanwhile the Millennial generation began to abandon the church in numbers unprecedented in U.S. history. And they almost certain did not know what they were discarding: new social science research indicated that young adults are almost entirely ignorant of the teaching and practices of the historical Christian faith.
All of this raises the questions of why did these churches give up teaching, why is that world is growing ever more hostile, and why is Christianity now suddenly, unavoidably countercultural?
Dreher says that Obergefell was a critical milestone in the overall trend, a theme he will revisit several times:
Post-Obergefell, Christians who hold to the biblical teaching about sex and marriage have the same status in culture, and increasingly in law, as racists. The culture war that began with the Sexual Revolution in the 1960s has now ended in defeat for Christian conservatives. The cultural left – which is to say, increasingly the American mainstream – has no intention of living in postwar peace. It is pressing forward with a harsh, relentless occupation, one that is aided by the cluelessness of Christians who don’t understand what’s happening.
Dreher’s best contribution to the modern conceptual toolkit is his “Law of Merited Impossibility”: “It will never happen, and when it does, you bigots will deserve it.”
It began as a description of the untrustworthy rhetorical style by which elite progressive public intellectuals would argue for some social reform. It’s a slippery slope argument. Opponents would reasonably and accurately point out that the reform logically belonged to a class containing much more objectionable measures, and would open the door to them. All of those measures are bound together by a similar ideological value, but one that admits no articulable limiting principle, or provides any line of demarcation between the arguable and the awful. Thus, acquiescing to the nose in the tent would sooner or later mean letting in the whole filthy camel.
Which is what principled progressives really wanted, or at least found unobjectionable. They knew there was no such limiting principle, and that the disliked subsequent changed would follow. But they understood that admitting as much honestly and publicly would be politically foolish, as the camel’s filth remained too unpopular, at least, for the moment.
The principle of anti-discrimination, in its absolutist and dogmatically unreasonable form, simply does not tolerate any non-hypocritical exceptions to the general rule. And so all social institutions, norms, and policies inconsistent with the principle must and will be swept away, in the fullness of time. The issue of unpopularity, no matter how horrible the results, is merely one of a social force that causes frustrating delay but which is by no means insurmountable.
So they misled and tried to forestall these arguments by claiming their opponents were avoiding the merits of the narrow issue at hand. They then switched rhetorical gears, mocking those rivals mercilessly for fear-mongering and concocting absurd scenarios. They would say that all sensible people knew those scenarios were extreme exaggerations, which would never come about, and which were something the progressives weren’t even arguing for and, besides, everyone understood those things to be politically “impossible.”
Then, the minute the narrow reform was implemented or some political or judicial victory was won, it was suddenly ok to start publicly working on accomplishing those impossibilities without skipping a single beat.
The truth of Dreher’s law is taught to us by sad experience, and almost every other week these days. It is a supplement to Auster’s identification of unprincipled exceptions and says that all such exceptions are inherently fragile, that is, in the realm of politics, “all slopes are slippery”.
The ultimate political test of Dreher’s Law – for those who oppose some reform due to the undesirability of some logically implied extensions – would be to observe the response to an offer of a certain kind of limited compromise. That would be one in which the reform is enacted in exchange for official and reliable prohibition of all those “impossible” scenarios. And if the deal doesn’t survive the courts, then the whole bargain self-annihilates.
The progressives will say “no deal”. That would strike one as odd if one believed they were being honest about what is and is not “impossible”, since who would object to what one truly believes to be impossible? What’s the cost of offering insurance against something which cannot happen?
The real importance of Dreher’s Law is it makes one take ideological extrapolations seriously instead of dismissing them, which in turn helps one recognize the kind of future one is really facing and what one is up against.
In the final part of the introduction, Dreher outlines the structure of the book, and lets the reader know he isn’t going to get behind any specific proposal or suggestion. He is going to continue to raise the alarm, present some examples of Christians giving it a shot, and hope that it inspires people to get together and try to solve the problem.
Like, say, cutting themselves off from the mainstream and running for the hills.
Oh, whoops, Dreher doesn’t want to say that. That’s because it is one of two major ‘critiques’ of his thesis which are made by nominal Christians who really don’t want to admit they’re now going to have to choose between their Christianity and comfortable lifestyles. “Dreher says run for the hills!” is an interesting kind of argumentative fallacy. It is a sneaky way of trying to dismiss Dreher’s basic premise. If (1) a conclusion follows from Dreher’s statements, and (2) is so undesirable that my brain won’t accept it, then (3) it must be wrong and absurd, thus (4) Dreher is nuts and everything he says can be ignored. So (5) Whew, what a relief! Now we can ignore the problem and just go back to whatever we were doing. QED.
Dreher recognizes the power (however unfair) of this rhetoric in the fight for deutungshoheit and control over the public opinion on the issue. He responds by saying, “I’m not saying run for the hills! Over and over again, I insist, in the most explicit terms, that I’m not saying run for the hills! These people aren’t able to quote me, and they aren’t even making an argument that it’s a conclusion implied by anything I’ve said. Please stop saying it!”
Now, it’s true that his milquetoast-Christian critics haven’t made that argument, and they show no real interest in doing so. But unfortunately for Dreher, that doesn’t mean one couldn’t make it, or it wouldn’t be valid if one did.
It’s true that Dreher insists over and over that he isn’t saying run for the hills. But unfortunately, he can’t show that the solution set for the problem includes anything less drastic or radical. He would be more honest to say, “I might be saying run for the hills. I’m not sure yet; nobody is. It’s not something I’ve worked out or could work out. I really hope I’m not saying that, but it’s possible I am. To be even more gloomy and frank about it, it may turn out in the final analysis that even running for the hills wouldn’t be enough. Hills aren’t much protection anymore.”
I suspect that everyone, Dreher and his critics, grasps all that, but that the rhetorical games dance around it. Both Dreher and his critics may suspect it to be true, but have to pretend it’s false, for different reasons.
The critics pretend RFTH is false because that implies they don’t have to get off their asses to do anything: the most comfortable and pleasant possibility.
Dreher has to pretend RFTH is false because he doesn’t want it to scare away readers before even having a chance to make his case.
But again, how do we know that Christians won’t need to RFTH? How do we know that Dreher’s historical examples of Christian survival despite oppression and adversity are relevant to the modern age?
Modern religion faces a different kind of enemy: the metaphysical revolution of empiricism and eliminative materialism. One is contending not with superstitious pagans or even someone like Celsus, but with a set of ideas altogether (and durably) antithetical to all serious theological sensibilities. And it is a set which has solidly owned the perch atop all the hierarchies of our intellectual life for centuries, with every sign of being irreversible so long as advanced civilization persists.
The other major criticism from these types is the claim that separating from mainstream society can’t preserve Christianity because it is inherently anti-Christian. All Christians, these critics say, are commanded to evangelize and proselytize on behalf of the faith. They are to be the salt of the earth and a light unto nations. That, at a minimum, requires them to remain integrated with the heathens in order to be ambassadors for Christianity and winsome examples projecting the noble virtuousness of the Christian character. By such example and good works, and by routine display of courage and the strength of their commitments, they will generate such a positive impression that it will open the hearts and minds of the heathens, and make them receptive to the gospels.
This argument has even more rhetorical strength and emotional resonance than the previous one. Religious commandments are not easy to counter by rational explanation of exceptional circumstance in which injudicious obedience would be self-destructive. When the pragmatic mode of cognition turned off, the counterargument – that there is no sustainable strategy if converting one man comes at the cost of losing two – simply doesn’t resonate. “Will the last convert please turn out the cemetery lights.”
Dreher instead says, “We can’t give away what we do not have,” and something about the savor of salt. He is desperately trying to communicate with these critics in the accepted language of Christian argumentation, but it’s hard to sustain much patience for it.
I understand why he can’t be more blunt, but I sometimes wish he would break down just once and hit them with a 2×4 of frankness, like this:
It’s completely unethical of you to abuse the duty to engage in evangelism as an excuse to do nothing except put your head in the sand, deny the crisis, and avoid reality. It’s not like you’re some full-time missionary, converting and baptizing people left and right, and I’m asking you to stop all that and give up your important, holy works. You just don’t want to make the sacrifices that would follow from disengagement and separation from mainstream society. And you’re so desperate to avoid them that you’ll disgustingly pretend it would be anti-Christian to do so, which is perverse. And also, frankly, blasphemous, since the result of your counsel would mean a continuation of the status quo which is, obviously, the suicide of Christianity. “Passive evangelism” goes both ways, and you don’t look winsome to the abyss without it looking winsome back to you, or, more importantly, to your kids. It’s so winsome, in fact, that you can’t bear the thought of leaving it, even if it means the death of your Faith for your family. That allure is why you’re making all these excuses in the first place. You can’t bullshit your way out of this one, so get your head out of your ass. Jesus commands you to tend to the survival of Christianity, and isolation or insulation of one kind or another is only the bare minimum of what it’s going to take. To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven. Once we could play offense. Now we must play defense. Or perish. So buck up, it’s time to get with the program.
Chapter 1: The Great Flood
Dreher was living in the Baton Rouge region where he was raised during the 2016 Louisiana Floods, and blogged extensively about his experience of the disaster and the charitable assistance he and his family provided to those in need. He uses the example of that rare and devastating flood as a metaphor for the unprecedented crisis facing Christianity in the West. It was the kind of thing people ignored as a possibility because no one believed – or wanted to believe – it could ever really happen.
And then when it happened, most were woefully unprepared.
The analogy breaks down in that a flood is a statistical outlier and caused by impersonal forces of nature indifferent to any exercise of agency, while the crisis of Christianity results from the last several centuries of human history.
We Christians in the West are facing our own thousand-year flood – or if you believe Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, a fifteen-hundred-year flood: in 2012, the then-pontiff said that the spiritual crisis overtaking the West is the most serious since the fall of the Roman Empire near the end of the fifth century. The light of Christianity is flickering out all over the West. There are people alive today who may live to see the effective death of Christianity within our civilization.
… barring a dramatic reversal of current trends, it will all but disappear entirely from Europe and North America.
The storm clouds:
The breakdown of the natural family, the loss of traditional moral values, and the fragmenting of communities – we were troubled by these developments but believed they were reversible and didn’t reflect anything fundamentally wrong with our approach to faith. Our religious leaders told us that strengthening the levees of law and politics would keep the flood of secularism at bay. The sense one has was: There’s nothing here that can’t be fixed by continuing to do what Christians have been doing for decades – especially voting for Republicans.
He’ll revisit this theme later, but while it’s a long diversion, we might as well get into this here.
There is no possible final resolution to the ancient debate between moralistic idealism and realistic pragmatism. Probably, we are best off accepting a kind of tacit compromise of keeping both positions around and in a balance of dynamic, adversarialist tension, giving advocates of each side a chance to make their case in new and ever-changing contexts.
We must save our souls, but if we are to survive and our ways are to continue, then we must also save ourselves. And so, if we are to attend to both, then when we do not enjoy luxurious circumstances of perfect safety and security, we will sometimes have to make hard choices of trading one value off for the other.
It is of course usually good to have an allergy to fighting dirty. But that’s not the case when you are innocent and your life depends on it. Prison gangs are every bit worthy of everyone’s condemnation and disgust. But in the special context of prison, one joins or one perishes.
So, without being totally dismissive of absolutist viewpoints, we should also avoid letting either side go to extremes. That’s especially true in a time like ours, when advocacy and responsibility are so decoupled.
Dreher repeatedly signals his disaffiliation from the Republican party, and especially from Donald Trump. He seems to do so at each possible opportunity. In this, he is hardly alone, and certainly not an outlier among prominent, Christianity-focused American public intellectuals. He is probably more anti-GOP than the rest of them, and somewhat less anti-Trump: a difference that likely stems from how intertwined each of their careers are with establishment conservatism. Dreher writes for (indeed, his blogging seems to drive most of the traffic to) The American Conservative. But TAC is not an establishment journal, so he maintains some ideological distance from the GOP mainstream, which complements his geographic distance from the Acela corridor.
But what he seems to share with those Northeast fellow travelers is a common desire for disaffiliation and social distancing. Nearly all prominent right wing writers want desperately to be taken seriously and to be seen as special cases worthy of civility, respect, and thoughtful consideration in the eyes of liberals and progressive elites. They want to be friends, not enemies. They want to be seen as distinct: more principled, sophisticated, and nuanced than those straight-ticket-voter-for-life hoi polloi fundamentalists. They don’t want to be presumptively dismissed, reflexively disposed of, and ostracized from polite society. They abhor being found guilty by association.
American Christian public intellectuals have a common habit of declaring a kind of indifferent and transcendent insensitivity to basic political calculations. They repeatedly express agonized and angry disappointment with their ordinary American Christian fellows, tossing them under the bus for (purportedly) abandoning their Christian principles and commitments for the sake of temporal, political power.
In the wake of Trump’s election every one of these commentators has used some version of the following argument:
Christians and social conservatives have gone on and on for at least two generations, saying that choosing politicians of spotless integrity and character, and deeply committed to our moral values, was of preeminent importance, and a non-negotiable priority over any other political concerns. But now they are suddenly willing to drop all of that and support Donald Trump, whose personality and life history clearly represent almost the polar opposite of that ideal. So much for the principles of these so-called Christians! Don’t they realize we’ll irreversibly damage and lose our reputation for being sincere men and women of principle. The danger is that from now on, the progressives will simply call us a bunch of dishonest hypocrites who were never honest about the requirements of our faith, but charlatans merely abusing assertions of religious conscience and conviction as a cynical cover story. They’ll say it was all just a charade obscuring a political agenda based on bigotry, oppression, exploitation, and greed.
These commentators have a good point, there’s no denying it. However, pragmatism and realism dictate that strategies must change when circumstances change. And boy, have circumstances changed: half of TBO is dedicated to describing by how much. Different values can come into conflict, and the question is one of finding the optimal balance, not of “making an idol” of one value to the expense of all others and then taking it to harmful extremes. Indeed, the obsessive maximization of one value by their political and cultural opponents is exactly the origin of the trouble Christians are in.
That all raises the question: What is the right balance between idealism and pragmatism now?
We will revisit the subject in the review of Chapter 4, “A New Kind of Christian Politics.” But for now it’s enough to say that the right balance cannot be suicide.
And, to be blunt, there is just something pathologically suicidal about modern American Christianity un-tempered by a commitment to a superseding principle of the survival of the things one claims to care about.
There is something that craves the self-righteous satisfaction of taking a conspicuously public stand for collective martyrdom for the sake of ‘principle’ – one that is hard to distinguish from generic, progressivism-compatible ‘niceness’ – no matter how futile, impotent, unreasonable, or counterproductive. These performances overflow with displays of sanctimonious indignation, but at the end of the show it’s clear that they don’t take the danger of failure seriously. That’s someone else’s problem.
Absent the special circumstance of a solid track-record of transforming this kind of commitment into net increase and propagation, any beleaguered group whose members care about something more than survival, won’t survive. We cannot all be the priests in the French Carmelite Convent, or the holdouts on top of Masada, or there will be no one left to honor the martyrs and be inspired by their example.
Either you’re willing to accept the end of something, or you’re not. Well then, what if you’re not?
Perpetuationism is the general idea that for anything one deems worthy of permanent continuation, the moral imperative of existential preservation gets top priority. When working through one’s moral calculus and choosing among alternative courses of action, the principle of survival and maintenance of viability always has precedence and trumps other considerations.
When survival is not threatened, one is freed – indeed, morally obligated – to use one’s position of security and surplus to practice the other virtues, widen one’s circle of concern, and elevate the overall climate of social interaction, so far as it is feasible and prudent to do so. If one can afford to be gracious, one should be. If not, one is justified in stern harshness.
But in times of peril and catastrophe, it’s perfectly reasonable and normal to adjust ethical regimes as necessary and appropriate, especially when to do otherwise would mean to permit the perverse result of one’s defeat by a less scrupulous enemy. This is merely what happens when a situation warrants the declaration of martial law, and what people mean when they discuss “lifeboat ethics” or “wartime ethics”.
All of this seems consistent with common sense and normal moral intuitions, so why is the commentary so lopsided, and why do American Christian public intellectual commentators so often stick with advocating naively idealistic policies even when they are clearly counterproductive? There’s just no incentive for them to do otherwise. That’s what virtue signaling is all about. When one doesn’t actually bear any responsibility for consequences, one is judged only on what one says, not on the bad results which follow. That’s why the focus on things like ‘reputation’ instead of consequences.
At any rate, the “preserve our reputation” line relies on a myth. With perhaps the exception of a few high-status Christian commentators, Progressives have already believed those slanders about all religious conservatives for a long time: either they were brainwashed idiots or Elmer Gantrys at best. Nothing but evil liars paying lip service to religious sentiments they didn’t share, and scriptures they had never read, merely as means of suckering the brainwashed idiots as a road to power. The minute a principled man of character steps into the limelight and emerges as a potential threat, the progressives give that individual zero credit and their media apparatus spares no time at all in smearing the man as evil incarnate, whether that individual lived a scandalous life that gives them plenty of ammunition to do so, or whether he’s been a spotlessly clean boy scout from birth. E.g., Mitt Romney. (Though they are happy to emphasize all those positive traits and rehabilitate all the beautiful losers the minute after they no longer pose any political threat, and prove useful for other purposes.)
Now, it’s true that Dreher doesn’t want to be the “no choice but to vote GOP to buy time” guy for much the same reason he doesn’t want to be the “run for the hills” guy. It’s a wise position. It would cause unwanted and distracting collateral controversy that will seriously detract from his main message and deafen the ears of too many members of his intended audience. But at the same time, that doesn’t mean there are any better alternative options.
Ok, long diversion over. Let’s get back to the rest of the Chapter:
Dreher spends a few pages describing the collapse of authentic Christian belief in the West, and in America in particular.
The changes that have overtaken the West in modern times have revolutionized everything, even the church, which no longer forms souls but caters to selves. … Even more troubling, many of the churches that do stay open will have been hollowed out by a sneaky kind of secularism to the point where the “Christianity” taught is devoid of power and life.
He gives the basic tenets of Smith and Denton’s “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism”, which, not coincidentally, sounds an awful lot like the charitable, non-judgy, and politically-quietist NGO progressives want Christianity to be, or about as much as they can tolerate from it.
1. A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on earth.
2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when he is needed to resolve a problem.
5. Good people go to heaven when they die.
MTD is most of what’s left of American Mainline Protestantism, and, not coincidentally, is a little hard to tell apart from Unitarian Universalism. Herberg’s “triple melting pot” from Protestant-Catholic-Jew is now mostly one MTD melting pot for many Americans of all creeds with attachment to their faiths and traditions lighter than what is necessary to sustain a genuinely counter-cultural status and lifestyle. Which is now most people.
Americans cannot stand to contemplate defeat or to accept limits of any kind. But American Christians are going to have to come to terms with the brute fact that we live in a culture, one in which our beliefs make increasingly little sense. We speak a language that the world more and more either cannot hear or finds offensive to its ears.
At this point one might well ask what “coming to terms” means after transcending mere denial. But judging from many of the reactions to Dreher’s message to date, it seems that dealing with denial alone is such a major front in the war that one needs to focus on that, and ease them into it as gently as possible. Thus it’s best to be vague about next steps. And there is some value to letting people think it through for themselves.
But then again, maybe they already have on some level, and this frame has the direction of causation reversed. Perhaps it is a protective reaction that is downstream from already having faced – on some psychological level – some uncomfortable implications about the hard requirements of the near future.
That is, the recipe for their denials isn’t made up of a cold-blooded and hard-nosed analysis of the real state of affairs, but with precisely the ingredients of those implications. Realistically for most people – even those who like to imagine themselves as dedicated and pious Christians – these implications are just too hard to bear.
People are going to have to make the hard choice about how much they are willing to sacrifice. On the one hand, there is fidelity to faith, but with cultural withdrawal and separation. On the other, a normal, successful life, integrated into mainstream society and culture, and able to interact and socialize in general with one’s reputation and status intact, able to get into the good schools and good jobs.
“I’m not saying run for the hills!” – “Yeah, I know you’re not saying it. But … it kind of sounds like … we’re going to have to run for the hills. At least, that’s the level of sacrifice we’re talking about. And, if I’m being honest with myself, I’m not the run for the hills type. So, though I don’t like to admit it, I’ll probably just cave.”
No one wants to admit that. And one doesn’t have to: the only thing one has to do is pretend and deny the problem exists at all.
But that denial is made tough when faced with the facts and figures which Dreher marshals in favor of his claim, and indeed, which seriously faithful men and women across the country experience every day in relation to the weakening health of their churches and congregations.
So the number one response to Dreher so far has been some salt and light gibberish.
Dreher’s response is both current and very strategic and diplomatic. “We cannot give what we do not have. Our light must shine bright, not flicker in smoke, and our salt must taste savory and not lose its essence. So we must tend to our own very serious weaknesses and strengthen and build up ourselves and our own communities before worrying about that.”
After all, the “being salt and light …” rebuttal is like trying to plead with the lions in the arena, or ‘inspire’ the spectators who only came to see you become a fun, fancy feast. If it ever worked, it doesn’t any longer. The fact is, everybody knows this strategy has been tried for our entire lives, and it has failed, utterly.
Is there any precedent for the precarious times in which Western Christianity finds itself?
Fear not! We have been in a place like this before. In the first few centuries of Christianity, the early church survived and grew under Roman persecution and later after the collapse of the empire in the West. We latter-day Christians must learn from their example – and particularly from the example of Saint Benedict.
Dreher spends a few pages detailing the story of Saint Benedict, the case of whom he seems to have picked up from the following paragraph from Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue (my emphasis added).
It is always dangerous to draw too precise parallels between one historical period and another; and among the most misleading of such parallels are those which have been drawn between our own age in Europe and North America and the epoch in which the Roman empire declined into the Dark Ages. Nonetheless certain parallels there are. A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead often not recognizing fully what they were doing—was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness. If my account of our moral condition is correct, we ought also to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point. What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict.
But while Benedict does indeed have a special and important role in the history of Christianity, it’s worth asking before even getting started whether the example is a good analogy for our time or not. Have we actually been here before, or are modern technological times simply too different, too ‘disenchanted’, and too unique?
If we aren’t sure, then how do we know if we can actually learn anything of practical and spiritual use from Benedict’s example? After all, if the book is called The Benedict Option, and spends a lot of time on Benedict and his monastery, then and now, then if we even suspect that the answer to that question is negative, why even bother?
Rome’s fall left behind a staggering degree of material poverty, the result of both the disintegration of Rome’s complex trade network and the loss of intellectual and technical sophistication.
That was Benedict’s context, but consider just how different that description is from today’s conditions in which, if anything, it is our wealth and material prosperity and government welfare expenditures that make us much less dependent on neighbors or community.
Does it matter? My answer is that Saint Benedict is a fairly arbitrary choice and is not critically important to the book’s message, so one doesn’t have to worry about it very much. A dozen other examples could have been chosen and the same outline and structure followed. Indeed there’s something of a cottage industry online of people playing theme and variation with “X-Option” as a snowclone. X=Benedict is merely one satellite out of many possibilities orbiting the same general idea of alarm, rejection, exit, “exile in place”, and separation. The general idea of having an insular focus and building one’s own community according to a distinct, countercultural vision for the sake of that vision’s continuation when its survival is at stake.
There is a particular, important lesson that we can derive specifically from the Benedictines at the Norcia monastery, and I’ll discuss that when getting to Chapter 3.
Dreher later discusses MacIntyre’s thesis:
We are governed by what MacIntyre called emotivism: the idea that all moral choices are nothing more than expressions of what the choosing individual feels is right.
MacIntyre said that a society that governed itself according to emotivist principles would look a lot like the modern West, in which the liberation of the individual’s will is thought to be the greatest good.
… Achieving this kind of society requires:
1. Abandoning objective moral standards
2. Refusing to accept any religiously or culturally binding narrative originating outside oneself, except as chosen;
3. Repudiating memory of the past as irrelevant; and
4. Distancing oneself from community as well as any unchosen social obligations.
It’s worth pausing here and observing that this is not actually what our world looks like. Not even close. What’s really going on?
MacIntyre, Dreher, Deneen, and many other non-progressive Public Intellectuals of a certain age are still stuck in the ‘Relativist’ frame (cf: “Relativism and the Study of Man” – 1961) which goes back well over a century but which started to fade away during the early “New Left” era. They are beating a distracting dead horse, when there is a live one running around, winning the race.
Ask whether it makes sense that virtue is being undermined to critically low levels at the same time that “virtue signaling” is exploding in frequency of usage. It is being used as a legitimate complaint about an increasingly intense social phenomenon of conspicuous displays of sanctimonious condemnations. One can’t signal arbitrary, individualized virtues. It’s only possible when there is a dominant ideology emphasized by nearly all high status people has social currency.
Furthermore, does it make sense to say that it’s still all about choice and self-interest – the emancipation and liberation of individuals from authority – when ‘liberals’ are completely eager for state authority to impose various behavioral and speech rules on everybody, according to their moral vision?
All the relativism and principled (as opposed to boutique) multiculturalism talk occurred during what we can now appreciate to have been merely an intermediate phase of our political evolution. It characterized an early stage of the diffusion of a minority elite ideology into the cultural mainstream, until that ideology established sufficient levels of adoption and dominance to encourage its proponents to switch gears.
One argues for ‘relativism’ when one is trying to tear down an established moral order to make space for something new. And one drops that effort the moment one achieves the upper hand, then works to consolidate one’s gains and eliminate all rivals.
This evolution is entirely analogous to the evolution of progressive positions from free speech absolutists to ruthless speech police during the same time-frame.
The truth is, we’re not ‘after’ virtue at all. We’re just after the old set of virtues, which have been replaced by a new, progressive set.
We can demonstrate this by assessing the elements of that list.
1. Have we abandoned objective moral standards? Ask Americans whether slavery and racism are objectively evil. 95% at least for yes, especially if people are saying it in public under their own names.
2. Do people refuse to accept cultural narratives? Not if it’s the arc of history being long but bending towards social justice.
3. Is memory of the past irrelevant? Not when it comes to condemning most of that history as immoral by current standards.
4. Are we immune from communal standards of social obligations? Not when it comes to recycling or carbon emissions. Or paying taxes and supporting generous redistribution, unlike those evil, greedy, selfish people.
Dreher calls this barbarism, but it isn’t that at all. This is a rival set of moral and organizational principles which form the basis for a different form of civilization than the traditional Western one it is displacing. Not an equal civilization, mind you. Like attempts to establish Communist societies, progressive civilization will have its unpleasant and dysfunctional aspects according to its fundamental characteristics. But it remains a rival foundation for a civilization nonetheless.
Dreher concludes the chapter by going back to the Baton Rouge Great Flood of 2016, and to the ‘Cajun Navy’ and the rest of the local response which arose spontaneously, “… out of the love local people had for their neighbor, and the sense of responsibility they had to care for those left poor and naked by the flood.”
Now, Dreher is just using this example to illustrate what he hopes will happen with regards to a spontaneous response to the crisis for Christianity. But one can imagine a progressive asking that if, as is likely, these were mostly Americans more under the thrall of MTD than orthodox followers of Christianity, then what’s so bad about MTD after all?
I think Dreher would answer that this is a key error of someone who cannot think outside the progressive framework. It’s not about analyzing the pros and cons of different social models. It’s about whether one can live as a pious Christian in an antagonistic society, and if so, how. A society full of ‘nice’ MTDs untethered from any particular tradition, even those who can be relied upon to feed each other jambalaya after a disaster, still won’t help a Christian to live a genuinely Christian life. He needs more.
Actually, I think Dreher already knows that leftism / progressivism is not ‘after virtue’ but consists of ‘different virtue’ than the set handed down in the West’s Great Tradition, with its substantial Christian inheritance and influence.
Just like the critics of older Socialist movements and keen observers of the ‘sociology of Marxism’, Dreher has an instinctive recognition of the religious mindset, even when directed towards secular ends. He finds it intuitive to use religious terminology to explain the social psychology of contemporary progressivism. Terms like zealot, fanatic, Puritan, blasphemy, heresy, excommunication, etc., all seem to flow naturally and cut the nature of common and instinctive norm-policing behaviors at the joints.
Progressives are adamant in their instructions to individuals as to what ‘problematic’ things they may not say, do, or believe. At least if they are to retain their employment, invitations to talks, or membership in polite society.
I’m guessing he’s also has plenty of exposure to discussion of the idea of American Civil Religion (e.g., Robert Bellah’s 1967 article). That idea had some important influence on the neoconservatives and their conception of Civic Nationalism for a Propositional Nation, and it generated similar kinds of ‘religious’ behaviors. And indeed, a large part of the idea was to find a more universal substitute for religion which could deliver similar, salutary social effects.
So why all the emphasis on relativism and unlimited liberation then?
I think it’s two things:
1. People just can’t get past the ” ‘Religion’ Requires A Supernatural Deity” frame. They will say things like, “Without God, and without a fixed moral revelation, how can there be any basis for asserting moral claims? The immediate logical implication of the absence of such a tether is obviously moral nihilism.”
This is made more difficult by the fact that secular progressives also operate within the same epistemic framework, and would reject any identification of their ideology with a ‘religion’. They certainly wouldn’t go even further and recognize that it is effectively our “state religion”.
But that’s not how the social psychology of ideological cognition works. For better or worse, God is not a necessary ingredient.
The human moral mental architecture is able to accommodate, latch onto, and implement other, secular systems. And so long as enough high-status people signal their belief in that system, then the vast majority of adherents will be untroubled by any logical contradictions or other intellectual problems deriving from alternative, trans-objective metaphysical constructs taking the place of God.
2. The erroneous obsession with a purported “unlimited liberation of the individual” derives from the traditionalist social conservatives’ focus on sexuality and the family. If one maintains this cynosure, then the past 60 years look like
… a cutting asunder of straps and ties, wherever you might find them; pretty indiscriminate of choice in the matter: a general repeal of old regulations, fetters, and restrictions …
New rights to contraception, abortion, no-fault divorce, the moral welter of modern family law, a right to sodomy and to gay-marriage, normalization and commercialization of promiscuity, cohabitation, voluntary single-motherhood, all the new pronoun-Nazi and socially-contagious sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) stuff, ‘toxic’ masculinity, etc. The list goes on and on.
And it’s not just normalization, but Marcuse’s “repressive tolerance” which insists that the only new sin is the moral condemnation of the old sins.
One can see how someone of a traditionalist bent would view all that as almost morally nihilistic and libertine ultra-individualism. It seems to be heading inevitably towards unrestricted license to do almost anything with anyone or anything, like Bartol’s Alamut: “Nothing is true; everything is permitted,” or Crowley’s Thelema, “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.”
But all that is in error. Progressive sexual morality gives with one hand but takes away with the other, and can be obnoxiously and inhumanely strict in new ways depending on who is trying to do what to whom.
The subject is out of the present scope, but the point again is that to focus on ‘relativism’ is to be led astray.
Chapter 2: The Roots of the Crisis
Since it’s worth going over again for this chapter, let’s review Dreher’s Law of Merited Impossibility: “It will never happen, and when it does, you bigots will deserve it.”
When progressives propose some social reforms, traditionalists get worried. Some reforms are bigger deals that others. Some cross long-established lines that underpin important social compromises and hold back a flood of other measures. When the reform looks to be a crack in that dam, traditionalists figure out that new moral and legal principles would be established, the implications of which would include changing a lot of things they strongly care about. So they bring up the examples of those implied, undesirable consequences as an argument against implementing the reform.
Progressives don’t assuage such concerns by credibly committing to forswear the enactment of these potentially aggravating policies. If they were willing to do so, there are plenty of clever ways they could try to accomplish it. For example, they could do so by explicitly prohibiting them in the law, or perhaps by placing huge public bets against the prospect. Instead, progressives prefer to deploy an alternative, rhetorical strategy by saying that traditionalists are either lying to cover up their bigotry and/or being literally crazy, hysterical, and paranoid about what ‘everybody knows’ will never come to pass.
And then, when all that was predicted in fact comes to pass, and usually in just the blink of an eye, the progressives not only refuse to admit they were deceitful or even just innocently wrong, but say that of course it should be this way, because it’s a clear and obvious logical implication of a (now sacred and established) moral principle!
Since this keeps happening the same way, over and over again, in practical terms, Dreher’s Law translates as, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, or a thousand times in a row, shame on me. So don’t trust them again. They’ll ask for an inch, but when you give it to them, they’ll take a mile, call it justice, and still ask for more and more again. Either insist on rock solid assurances, or fight them to the end.”
We can observe this pattern in a more general way, without the persecution, but with unintended social consequences. When traditionalists and social conservatives predict a parade of social horribles and cultural undermining or moral collapse as a result of new policies, subsidies, and norms, the progressives will insist that’s all exaggerated crazy talk that will never happen, and then when it does, say it’s a good thing, after all.
Or, at the very least, that there is no valid, non-bigoted basis for judging a new ‘alternative’ state of affairs as worse than anything else.
“The Law of Transvalued Impossibility” doesn’t have the same ring to it. But it’s the equally true abstraction of Dreher’s Law, and one we can observe in operation every day.
All this provides the right perspective and framework to interpret the way Dreher starts his chapter by exploring the social fallout and collateral damage of the sexual revolution, feminism, and the adoption of new consumer technologies.
Yet neither woman is confident about the future for their grandchildren. One tells the other that in the past year, she has gone to six baby showers for young women in her family and social circles. None of the expectant mothers had husbands. Some had more than one child out of wedlock. The gray-haired women know what poverty and insecurity are like, and they can’t believe that these young women would bring children into the world without fathers in the home, given how much more likely children in those situations are to be poor. And where are the fathers, anyway? What is wrong with young men these days?
… Still, the normalization of having children outside of marriage is hard for them to take. In the 1940s, when they were born, the out-of-wedlock birth rate among whites was 2 percent. It is now nearly 30 percent (the overall birth rate to unwed mothers is 41 percent). “It’s like the whole world is coming apart,” sighed one of the women.
“I’m glad I’m not going to be around to see it,” said the other.
Those women aren’t imagining things. Their whole world really is unraveling. …
… We are living with the consequences of ideas accepted many generations ago, and as a result of those decisions, we are losing our religion – a far greater crisis than merely losing the habit of churchgoing.
Dreher spends the rest of the Chapter briefly explaining the outline of the theological, ideological, and intellectual history that got us to this point. Here are his “five landmark events.”
1. In the fourteenth century, the loss of belief in the integral connection between God and Creation – or in philosophic terms, transcendent reality and material reality.
2. The collapse of religious unity and religious authority in the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century.
3. The eighteenth-century Enlightenment, which displaced the Christian religion with the cult of Reason, privatized religious life, and inaugurated the age of democracy.
4. The Industrial Revolution (ca. 1760-1840) and the growth of capitalism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
5. The Sexual Revolution (1960-present).
For step 1, he explains Thomas Aquinas’s Scholasticism and “metaphysical realism” as having three elements:
1. The world and everything in it is part of a harmonious whole ordered by God and filled with meaning – and all things are signs pointing to God.
2. Society is grounded in that higher reality.
3. The world is charge with that spiritual force.
This sounds like angels-dancing-on-the-head-of-a-pin stuff, but its importance cannot be overstated. Medieval metaphysicians believed nature pointed to God. Nominalists did not.
But why did Nominalism win, or, at least win enough to change History? Dreher doesn’t say, and to be fair, that’s a hard question.
Another question is to what extent did Nominalism really win, as ideas related to natural revelation never seemed to go away, but again, that’s a tough one.
I think Dreher’s point is that the idea of separation between nature and God made nature more open to examination, study, inquiry, and artistic expression and exploration. It did so by dissipating its theological charge. Then Dreher’s story gets a bit murky as somehow the line of causation runs to a series of catastrophes such as the Hundred Years War, a great 14th century famine, and then the Black Death, out of which, somehow, emerged the Renaissance and the sprouts of individualism and optimistic humanism.
Then Dreher gets to Luther and the Reformation, but he treats the surface theological and moral versions of that narrative as sufficiently explanatory, while leaving out the geopolitical aspect of Luther’s German prince allies trying to break free of Rome’s power so they could enjoy it themselves.
Then he moves on to the savage European Wars of Religion, to include the Thirty Years War, which wiped out a quarter to a third of the population in some regions.
To be fair, the Wars of Religion were as political, social, and economic as they were religious. But the religious basis for the wars caused weary European intellectuals to explore ways of living peaceably with the schism between Rome and the Reformers.
Meanwhile, The Scientific Revolution from Copernicus to Newton:
… overturned the Aristotelian-Christian cosmos – a hierarchical model of reality in which all things exist organically through their relationship to God – in favor of a mechanical universe ordered by laws of nature, with no necessary grounding in the transcendent. … the revolution’s grounding lay undeniably in nominalism. If the material world could be studied and understood on its own, without reference to God, then science can exist on its own, free of theological controversy.
… The Scientific Revolution culminated in the life and work of Sir Isaac Newton, a physicist, mathematician, and unorthodox Christian who fabricated a new model of the universe that explained its physical working in a wholly mechanical way.
For multiple reasons including simple status envy, the power of this type of explanation would eventually be mimicked by all disciplines even when wildly inappropriate. This often led to hubris and overconfidence in the ability to model, control, and engineer all aspects of the complicated world to suit man’s purposes. Which often led to disaster.
(For some historical perspective: remember that a Mayflower full of Puritans left Plymouth over 20 years before Newton was even born, and would set up a strict theocracy on a new continent.)
Whether Dreher’s telling actually makes sense as a sufficiently, causally explanatory historical narrative could be the basic of endless debate. But we should ask to what extent is all of this explanation even necessary to Dreher’s thesis? Dreher writes:
For our purposes, the Enlightenment matters because it was a decisive break with the Christian legacy of the West. God, if He was mentioned at all, was not the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but the nondescript divinity of the Deists.
Well, that says most of it rather concisely. It was an irreversible metaphysical upheaval. When Science, reason, and empirical thinking – the Enlightenment state of mind – became high status and intellectually fashionable among European elites, then received traditional theology came to be doubted as unfounded superstitions suitable only for children and simple, low-status commoners.
Gradually over generations, and as with all fashions, that view dispersed among the elite classes and then trickled down the social hierarchy until it has hollowed out adherence to the old faith, the excesses of which came to be openly mocked as ridiculous. Eventually God is dead for a critical mass of the people that matter, and everyone else would catch up eventually.
Dreher then gets to Locke:
The purpose of government, according to Locke, is not to pursue virtue but rather to establish and guard a social order under which individuals can exercise their will within reason. …
The U.S. Constitution, a Lockean document, privatizes religion, separating it from the state. Every American schoolchild learns to consider this a blessing, and perhaps it is. But segregating the sacred from the secular in this way profoundly shaped the American religious consciousness.
For all the good that religious tolerance undoubtedly brought to a young country with a diverse and contentious population of Protestant sectarians and a Catholic minority, it also laid the groundwork for excluding religion from the public square by making it a matter of private, individual choice. In the American order, the state’s role is simply to act as a referee among individuals and factions. The government has no ultimate conception of the good, and it regards its own role as limited to protecting the rights of individuals.
One must note here that it is impossible, or at least incredibly unstable, for a government run by human beings to have no effective substitute for an “ultimate conception of the good”. Civilizations cannot be governed well without a set of ideas which provides both the popular legitimization of coercive power and a moral and practical guide for how to make all kinds of decisions which necessarily involve countless value judgments.
Whether recognized as such or not, all states have an effective state religion, with or without a supernatural Deity, and America is no different. If the state does not collapse, and when the old religions fade in importance and influence, then the state religion persists, evolves, and adapts to fill any vacuum left behind.
When a society is thoroughly Christian, this is an ingenious way to keep the peace and allow for general flourishing. But from the Christian point of view, Enlightenment liberalism contained the seeds of Christianity’s undoing.
That is, Christianity’s replacement.
Dreher then rapidly takes us through the familiar and abbreviated road of Rousseau, the bloody, terrifying, and deeply anti-clerical French Revolution, de Tocqueville, Marx, Darwin, Nietzsche, and up to the early Progressive era
The important changes, though, took place among the cultural elites, who continued to shed any semblance of traditional Christianity. In America, from 1870 through 1930, these elites worked what sociologist Christian Smith terms a “secular revolution.” They harnessed the energy and tumult of industrialization to remake society along broadly “progressive” lines.
It pushed religion to the margins of public life, advocating science as the primary source of society’s values and as a guide to social change. Within Christianity, it replaced the religious model of the human person with a psychological model centered on the Self.
In other words, freedom of conscience and religious choice turned religion into an optional consumption item and a competitive marketplace where the always-right ‘customer’ is, inevitably, in charge of what gets sold.
Dreher then gets into “The Triumph of Eros”. In the aftermath of WWI:
Sexual morality loosened. New styles of art and literature arose, making a conscious and definitive break with the discredited values of the prewar world.
Did we really see such a ‘discontinuity’ after the war, or were these simply continuations of trends that had been developing for a long time as people and society in general became richer?
Dreher moves on to the popularization of psychology, Freud, and his ‘interpreter’ Philip Rieff who wrote one of Dreher’s favorites, The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith After Freud.
Rieff, an unbeliever, argued that the West, amid unprecedented liberty and prosperity, was going through a profound cultural revolution. It had not become atheist, but it had spiritualized desire and embraced a secular “gospel of self-fulfillment.”
… In Rieff’s theory of culture, a culture is defined by what it forbids.
That’s reminiscent of the apocryphal line, “To learn who rules over you, simply find out who you are not allowed to criticize,” misattributed to Voltaire.
The main thing that helps a culture survive, Rieff wrote, is “the power of its institutions to bind and loose men in the conduct of their affairs with reasons which sink so deep into the self that they become commonly and implicitly understood.” A culture begins to die, he went on, “when its normative institutions fail to communicate ideals in ways that remain inwardly compelling, first of all to the cultural elites themselves.”
There are a few quotes about Eros and the liberation of an individual’s carnal desire becoming a cult that … don’t quite jive with the #MeToo era and cries of #ToxicMasculinity. Again, Dreher starts to go off track when the subject is progressive sexual morality:
The Romantic ideal of the self-created man finds its fulfillment in the newest vanguards of the Sexual Revolution, transgendered people. They refuse to be bound by biology and have behind them an elite movement teaching new generations that gender is whatever the choosing individual wants it to be.
That doesn’t sound right. For instance, most LGBT advocacy rejects Foucault’s framework in his The History of Sexuality and insists on “Baby I was born that way.” That is, these identities have nothing to do with “choice” and are “real and authentic,” innate and immutable characteristics that therefore deserve the same special legal protection as other discrete and insular minorities.
Transgenderism is the logical next step, after which will come the deconstruction of any obstructions, in law or in custom, to freely chosen polygamous arrangements.
That doesn’t seem consistent with typical feminist imperatives, but these things are fluid, as it were, and we’ll see. But this quote from philosopher Charles Taylor, which we are told “describes the cultural mindset that has captured us all,” seems completely out of touch with our era:
Everyone has a right to develop their own forms of life, grounded on their own sense of what is really important or of value. People are called upon to be true to themselves and to seek their own self-fulfillment. What this consists of, each must, in the last instance, determine for him- or herself. No one else can or should try to dictate its content.
No way does that describe out current culture. There is zero tolerance of ‘bigots’. No one is allowed to be racist or sexist, to discriminate or segregate or hate. Taylor’s description was the rhetoric and spin used by the Old Liberals when it was socially expedient to do so. That era was over long ago.
The church, a community that authoritatively teaches and disciplines its members, cannot withstand a revolution in which each member becomes, in effect, his own pope.
But each person is not his own pope. We have whole institutions dedicated to forming culture and shaping public opinion, that can broadcast to everyone on earth simultaneously at zero marginal cost. And humans are social animals who have a spontaneous desire towards mimicry of high status elites, which includes conspicuous adherence to the same beliefs in their attempts to signal affiliation.
It’s like the magnetic field at the North Pole, and all the compass needles all around the world respond to the field in the air and point toward it. That’s our new pope. That’s everybody’s pope, if not already, then soon enough. Even the actual Pope now follows that pope.
Dreher sums up:
The long journey from a medieval world wracked with suffering but pregnant with meaning has delivered us to a place of once unimaginable comfort but emptied of significance and connection.
I was hoping that Dreher would place more causal weight on that material comfort and wealth itself, but the idea that poverty and precariousness might in some ways be psychologically useful to preserve authentic religious belief across a whole community would likely be distracting and off-putting for his audience.
“To light a candle is to cast a shadow,” said the writer Ursula K. Le Guin. The shadow of the Enlightenment’s failure to replace God with reason has engulfed the West and plunged us into a new Dark Age. There is no way through this except to push forward to the true dawn. We who still hold the golden thread loosely in our hands must seize it more tightly and cling to it for future generations, or it will be torn from our grasp.
I realize Dreher is using it metaphorically, but one must appreciate how bizarre, exaggerated, and even absurd, the use of “Dark Age” must seem to a typical progressive looking around at what he or she perceives as the richest, most technologically sophisticated, and most ‘just’ society that has ever existed.
Furthermore, they are unlikely to agree that they have failed to replace God with ‘reason’. For one, they have replaced God. And they imagine their secular system of morality and conception of social justice to be objectively reasonable and vastly superior to anything which came before, the best that could be said about which is that they were grasping towards the current understanding. Serious thinking Christians do themselves no favors by using language that betrays a failure to pass the Intellectual Turing Test on this point.
Dreher doesn’t want to give progressives any more ammunition to pick the fight they want to have with him, and that’s prudent. But if one is going to survive a war, one really has to know how his adversaries think.
Chapter 3: A Rule For Living
Dreher relates his visit to the Monastery of Saint Benedict in the monk’s hometown of Norcia, where Dreher says he caught a, “… glimpse of the Christian future.”
But just the Christian future?
Dreher has written the book from what he calls the small-o orthodox Christian perspective. After all, even though it’s a little light on actual strategy, the subtitle is, “A Strategy For Christians in a Post-Christian World.” Emphasis on the Christian, and did I mention Christian?
That’s fine, and it confers several advantages.
He sticks to his areas of expertise, stays focused without overly broadening the scope of his effort, and retains the ability to talk to a selective audience in a language they already understand, and uses symbols and stories with which they are already familiar.
He also avoids picking a fight and provoking the progressives to rabid, bloodlust-level rage by saying he’s only writing about Christians. That’s instead of for a potentially larger (and thus more dangerous) coalition of the religiously-minded, traditionalists, and social conservatives. Also non-progressives of all stripes who may also be just as interested in carving out a different vision of community and a sustainable alternative to the progressive cultural hegemony.
I think Dreher would say that a specific focus on Christianity is warranted given its unique significance in Western and American history, and also the especially open contempt which current cultural elites have for Christian attitudes in particular, while tending to bite their tongues about other religious traditions.
But a consequence of that choice means that he spends too little time exploring the nature of the big picture which affects those other constituencies. The overall nature and structure of those Christian problems are the same as everybody else’s problems. They are, “bigger than Jesus,” if you’ll pardon the blasphemy, and Option-innovating Christians will need to understand them too if they are to have any hope of success.
Nevertheless, many of those specifically Christian factors still illustrate some point of wider interest. For example:
Father Cassian, a sixty-one-year-old American, reopened the monastery with a handful of brother Benedictines in December 2000, nearly two centuries after the state shut the tenth-century prayer citadel’s doors and dispersed its monks.
The suppression of the Norcia monastery happened in 1820 under laws imposed by Napoleon Bonaparte, then the ruler of northern Italy. Napoleon was a tyrant who inherited the anti-Christian legacy of the French Revolution and used it to devastate the Catholic Church in all territories under French imperial rules. Napoleon was the dictator of a French state so anticlerical that many in Europe speculated that he was the Antichrist.
It’s good to know the monastery is back, and that it will be rebuilt after suffering severe damage in the Central Italy earthquake of 2016. The capacity of great religions for long-term continuity, to persevere through adversity, to keep dreams and hopes alive, and for regeneration after gaps of countless generations is truly impressive and inspiring. Definitely worthy of study.
However, this passage only goes to show the inherent and awful vulnerability such institutions have, and the dilemmas they face, when they are out of favor with a state antagonistic to their values, practices, and very existence. Consider also the English dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII in the late 1530s, with the Act of Supremacy and the Suppression Acts. This included Benedictine institutions such as the Saint Radegund nunnery (which became Jesus College, Cambridge), Selby Abbey, and St. Peter’s Abbey of Dorset.
When facing severe cultural and political pressure, there is an obvious temptation to engage in complete political withdrawal and quietism in the hopes that the powers that be will leave one alone. The Napoleonic example shows that this is a foolhardy hope and an exercise in wishful thinking.
So, if the Benedictines offer a glimpse of the Christian future, then how can we know whether that future isn’t susceptible to being snuffed out in an instant by new or revived anti-Christian attitudes and movements? Why are the members of the current ideological vanguard and their allied enforcer agents of the state not the proper inheritors of the French revolutionaries? After all, consider their clearly allergic reaction to quite mild claims of The Benedict Option itself.
The problem is that no institution based on values at odds with state law or modern mainstream society can long survive without being selective as to its membership and associations. And that necessarily implies some degree of discrimination which will run afoul of the absolutist egalitarianism and anti-discrimination tenets of contemporary progressive ideology. That’s what’s so pernicious about the principle of anti-discrimination when taken to extremes: there is simply no end to the obnoxious interventions in intimate human affairs that it can justify, no private sphere immune from molestation.
For example, is it really that hard to imagine some kind of Memories Pizza or Masterpiece Cakeshop scenario for the monastery in which anti-Christians try to create disputes in order to force a shut down? What if a woman applies to join, the monks refuse, and she sues for discrimination? What if a biological woman asserts maleness, either with or without surgical alteration, and the monks refuse to recognize the claim’s accuracy or legitimacy or use preferred pronouns? What about if the monks are told to provide adequate facilities for members of other faiths?
What we know is that any hesitation in unconditional surrender will be chalked up to bigotry, plain and simple. Whether by compulsion of law or even just as a matter of unbearable public controversy, these possibilities are unfortunately perfectly realistic dangers.
One could come up with hundreds of variations, much more nightmarish than these, and pulled right out of today’s headlines (or dark humor versions thereof).
Maybe it seems like it couldn’t happen today, but things are changing rapidly, and what about in 2030, or 2050, or 2100? Nothing is really off the table on those timelines.
So the question is, why should anyone be confident it could never happen to the Benedictines, or to anyone else trying to establish a community that follows that institution’s example? How can one make sure that the glimpse isn’t fleeting and ephemeral: the only glimpse anyone will ever see?
Worth a ponder, as is this:
Most of the men who refounded the monastery are young Americans …
That’s interesting, and it raises the question, “Why so many Americans?” The easy guesses are that America is both big and (still) more religious than any place in Europe, that the country is rich and so these particular men may have been able to draw on greater financial support for their project, and also that social networks being what they are would cause word of a new initiative to spread in a particular way, in a particular ‘infosphere’, and so tend to fill the ranks of a new endeavor with citizens from the same country.
All that seems plausible, but my impression is that all this still misses an ineffable and important additional piece to the puzzle that derives somehow from America’s particular, distinct, and yes, exceptional cultural history. It’s difficult to articulate or explain, because one only comes to appreciate the distinction by exposure to devout Christians both from American and other backgrounds. For whatever reason, Americans seem different.
Perhaps it is because the sides in America’s culture war have been locked in an arms race for ages. They are experienced and hardened veterans which have been stimulating and thus strengthening each other through continuously sustained combat for a long, long time. And while it must be said that traditionalists have been gradually losing almost without interruption – and will continue to do so as long as they lack the support of the elites – still, by this special provocation, the fire that the lingering and rejectionist remnant carry in their souls is stoked to burn especially brightly.
From this perspective, it seems almost obvious that TBO couldn’t be other than an American book. One that needed to be translated into numerous languages for export to places with no domestic equivalent, instead of coming into the US from abroad.
Dreher goes on to explain The Rule of the monastery, but most of the details would not be of interest to a wider audience. What is important is the psychological impact of a way and pattern of life in which one is constantly relating to God, and one in which every person is surrounded by an influential social group of people who are all doing the same, all the time.
In that situation, one is formed and molded every day by consistent environmental cues, and thus automatically and spontaneously reinforced in one’s beliefs, attitudes, and perspective. Just as with language and other social conventions, culture is picked up automatically and subconsciously by social immersion.
For most normal people, these are the essential ingredients of a subculture which enables members to build and maintain a God-centered life. Or really any kind of value-driven life. Without them, most will not be able to resist the instinctive tendency to conform and go along with whatever values are mainstream and high-status in the broader society.
This is the perspective to maintain when reading Dreher write:
You can achieve the peace and order you seek only by making a place within your heart and within your daily life for the grace of God to take root.
The order of the monastery produces not only humility but also spiritual resilience. In one sense, the Benedictine monks of Norcia are like a Marine Corps of the religious life, constantly training for spiritual warfare.
And Brother Igantius Prakarsa says, “Everything is evangelical. Everything is directed to God. Everything has to be seen from the supernatural point of view.”
All that is to say that “Life is a PsyOp.” And Christians, if they are to live authentically Christian lives in a hostile environment, need to live lives that are constantly exposed to pro-Christian “psychological operations”, instead of undermined by rival secular influences and messages. They need “spiritual sovereignty”.
It’s the same way for everything. Humans tend to follow internal compasses that point in the direction of the strongest magnetic field. To point True North requires shielding and minimizing interference. And a post-Christian mainstream is a lodestone always pulling one away.
One’s daily existence itself – the sum total of one’s interactions, work, routines, allocation of time, encounters, observations, decisions, actions, and so on – is constantly and powerfully influencing and acting on one’s mind, mostly at a subconscious level. This is the sense in which Dreher uses the term ‘liturgy’. It is slowly and steadily adjusting one’s worldview and even self-conception in a process mediated by our most fundamental and core cognitive mechanisms.
The Secret of Our Success, says Henrich, is our cultural flexibility and ability to learn and pick things up from other members of our social groups, often effortlessly by mere exposure and with no conscious attempt at “instruction”, as children easily absorb spoken language and accents.
And one of the most important things we are learning all the time is how to fit in and succeed in the dynamic environment of our social groups. These were likely some of the most important and powerful instincts for our ancestors in their primitive environments, where our human nature was forged.
The brain is clearly always performing some specialized cognitive function of socially-relevant “intelligence collection”, and then calculating not just the optimal response, but instead constantly reprogramming the self. At least, to the extent it can, given its hardwired genetic constraints and other limitations (e.g., the familiar decrease in flexibility resulting from age).
It is a process that flies under the radar of conscious awareness, and for which the executive function mostly serves to concoct cover stories and rationalizations. People can always try to put up a conscious and deceptive act – to merely pretend they are conforming – but most people simply aren’t very good at lying. On the other hand, they are often intuitively good at detecting lies, at least at the gut-feeling level. So a better approach is to self-brainwash and really come to believe what it is socially expedient and useful to believe.
This is how most acculturation and assimilation really works, and it is also the basis of Rene Girard’s insight into “acquisitive desires” and “mimetic preferences”. We are constantly trying to show off: to seem cool and impressive, but without seeming as if we’re trying to look impressive. But that requires that we know what everyone else will find to be impressive.
One sees this process at work all the time, for example, when one joins a new church or congregation, or integrates into a military unit or a corporate culture. Human beings are social, and the brain has some kind of specialized Social Calculus Module which emerged to handle these matters, a function which has always been the key to human survival and success.
Most everyone grasps that this is the way things work for kids and especially teens who, in modern times, spend most of their waking hours away from parents. And it is why their peers and popular media have such a strong influence on their whole personality. These parents are more reluctant to admit that it works in the same way for adults and throughout our lives. Indeed, most advanced and sophisticated attempts at influencing people are trying to leverage these mechanisms, and to give one an impression of new common knowledge, of what all the other people are thinking and doing. Especially the cool people.
And while most people don’t realize it, this is what the culture war is really all about.
It’s a kind of “mental environmentalism.” No man is an island, and no countercultural (and fading) set of beliefs or traditions can expect to long survive if its members are thoroughly integrated and regularly exposed to the distinct values and habits of mainstream society.
If one isn’t going to reject, withdraw, and separate from mainstream society to a substantial degree, then one needs the normal, everyday social and mental environment to continuously support and buttress that desired worldview, for oneself and one’s children.
Otherwise, you’ll drop out of your counterculture, or your kids will. As Dreher points out later, “It takes a village” not just to raise a child right, but to keep men and women on the right track spiritually.
Parents simply can’t do it alone while trying to raise their families in the middle of a raging river with the current flowing the other way (especially when one sees brave salmon jumping straight into the bear’s mouth.) It does no good to try and install the best air filters in one’s own house when as soon as the kids head outside they are choking on poison gas.
So traditionalists need to shape the whole mental environment not just for their kids, but for themselves. There is pent-up, desperate demand from parents for help in this regard, for when and where their influence reaches its limits. And many of our political debates have this ‘postmodern’ insight lurking in the background as context. But if one can’t rely on the whole of society, then one needs the liberty to construct a separate, micro-society that accomplishes as much of the same functions as possible.
In his blogging, Dreher tends to both emphasize parental culpability, while also providing plenty of personal stories undermining the impact of that blameworthiness.
He is quick to blame lazy and weak parents for not doing enough at home, for not choosing Christian schools or homeschooling, for not going to church enough or living Christian-enough lives, and for allowing their kids access to popular culture and social media technologies.
But then he posts letter after letter from people whose parents did pretty much everything possible along those lines, or sometimes from the parents themselves about their lost kids, as projects that ended in complete failure. Usually the very minute the kids left home and joined mainstream society.
The lesson is that it’s impossible to do it alone, but it’s easy if the elites, law, and culture have your back. The public square has private impact, and so everyone has a stake in it. A hands-off strategy just means being at the mercy of whoever owns the megaphones. And if you can’t control the public square, all that’s left is exit of some kind or other, to your own private village where you can make your own square.
The situation of a Christian in the West today is akin to Lot in Sodom. One can’t be the cashier at the whorehouse and expect his piety to be unaffected by the experience. We are all radios tuned to the frequency of these socially-relevant signals, and one cannot be indifferent to whether those signals are wholesome or degrading, or to whether they build or burn the social, moral, and cultural capital upon which our lives depend.
And so the fact is that everyone has a huge stake in what the social environment feels like, what messages it sends and influences it has. Taking a hands-off and ‘free-market’ approach – a legacy of enlightenment values – is unilateral disarmament in the never-ending war for our souls.
It has become popular among public intellectuals as of late to explain the foundation of most of our cultural, ideological, and political disputes as having their genuine origins in the question of who shall have enjoy high, or suffer low, social status, despite all the posturing to the contrary.
And that seems correct, as it is increasingly well-established that matters of status are likely the fundamental drivers of human social psychology.
But an implication of that explanation is that there exists some deep intuition emanating from the Social Calculus Module that is in tune with the fact that all the signals bombarding every other brain powerfully influence how those minds and souls form and reform. And there is an instinctive understanding of the impact any changes to those signals will have on those minds, and, indeed, the whole social order.
And this is why the recent progressive reframing of religious liberty and tolerance into a mere “freedom to worship” is a deceptive mirage, and a trap believers must be keen to avoid. Progressives say this with the clear implication that religious individuals ought to compartmentalize their faith and quarantine it from their public life: to keep it as private and secret as possible. To keep it “in the closet”, so to speak. Believers are otherwise expected to participate in mainstream society and obey all the usual norms and laws in their interactions with others, whether or not this violates their consciences and their sincere and deeply held beliefs.
Accepting that state of affairs would be any traditional faith’s death warrant, executed, as it were, in the fullness of time.
But here’s the thing: the culture war is lost.
Or, at the very least, a lost cause. It’s far too late for any more “mainstream shaping and influence operations,” in order that the world “be made safe for” Christianity. One must accept the ugly truth that if Christians, or traditionalist social conservatives in general, ever get the mainstream culture back, it won’t be for many generations.
It is no longer possible for there to be a cohesive, coherent, and unified American popular culture in which the religious enjoy sufficient status with enough respect and perceived normalcy that they and their children can remain fully integrated into ordinary life while keeping their faith from imploding. The excruciatingly hard choice is either capitulation or strategic withdrawal with increased insularity. There is no alternative.
If religion survives in the West, it will be in deeply fragmented societies. And despite all the talk about multiculturalism, most Western countries have not had to maintain peace and order amidst such serious divisions for a long time. If it is to be done at all, it will require some substantial institutional innovation, both at the level of the state, and the level of independent, value-based communities.
A hopelessly incohesive and low-trust society requires different institutions than the ones we inherited and which are groaning under the pressure of a new, polarized context. These will not necessarily be “new” institutions, perhaps they will look like some updated version of old ones such as the Ottoman system of millets, or Chinese special areas. But the old ways will not persist, so new ways must be discovered.
And this is what the Option is really all about. But in the meantime, it’s going to get tougher.
The closure of certain professions to faithful orthodox Christians will be difficult to accept. In fact, it’s hard for contemporary believers to imagine, in part because as Americans, we are unaccustomed to accepting limits on our ambitions. Yet the day is coming when the kind of thing that has happened to Christian bakers, florists, and wedding photographers will be much more widespread. And many of us are not prepared to suffer deprivation for our faith.
The “certain” professions are likely to become “all” of them, at least, if one doesn’t hide, lie, pay lip-service, and either compromise one’s integrity or one’s theological principles. The progressives will insist on measures that force the bigots to out themselves, or accept the humiliation of silent heresy. What happens when the company wants everyone to attend the pride event, or to wear rainbow apparel, or to use forms of address inconsistent with traditional scruples?
How much of the labor force could really be immune to such trends and pressures? Christians trying to withdraw economically from all the sectors that might put their values at risk would be doomed to even lower status by means of lower status work, and lower overall life success. They would be poor, which by itself is no insufferable condition. But today, that poverty would imply an inability to afford to separate from the American underclass whose lives are defined by constant familial and sexual chaos, dysfunction, disorder, and sin. Which is not exactly Mayberry on the “wholesome environment in which to raise your kids” scale. A Christian-flavored gypsy subculture cannot be the goal.
People might think about withdrawal and dropping out of normal society to be better Christians, but their Social Calculus Module is sounding off the loudest alarms anticipating what a drop in status such a move would entail. And it will drive them with irresistible compulsion to invent some excuse and rationalize why they can’t do it, or why it need not, or even must not, be done.
Relearning asceticism – that is, how to suffer for the faith – is critical training for Christians living in the world today and the world of the near future. “There is no greatness which is not grounded deep in self-conquest and self-denial,” said Romano Guardini, who explained that all forms of order must begin with mastering the self and its desires.
Dreher compares this to a “fast”, but what is implied here is a permanent lifestyle fast. We can all admire and be inspired by the examples of extraordinary martyrs and saints who kept the faith despite incredible trials and hardships. But, realistically, a faith that requires a life of constant suffering is not a “test” most people can pass.
At the very least, people are going to need tight-knit and geographically proximate local communities to protect their interests and their faith. But our nations are still urbanizing, leading to a hollowing out of the smaller locales where such communities ones existed. We are quickly moving to an increasingly atomized society and to a point where no one knows how to live in that old fashion anymore, let alone in sustainable and enduring ways.
The rootlessness of contemporary life has frayed community bonds. It is common now to find people who don’t know their neighbors and don’t really want to. To be part of a community is to share in its life. That inevitably makes demands on the individual that limit his freedom.
But that loss of individual freedom was part of the tacit “deal”, for which one could expect to receive the consideration of various community benefits. There are certain situations in which fewer choices for everyone actually create social possibilities which wouldn’t otherwise exist. For example, fewer television stations, and synchronous broadcast, means it’s easy to talk to people about what was on last night. The Jeopardy! champion Ken Jennings has written that he first started watching the show obsessively due to just such a situation. He was living overseas and the Armed Forces Network was the only channel available for all his classmates.
More choices means less social synchronization. Choosing preferences for individual experiences can therefore undermine fulfilling one’s preferences for collective experiences. And if people can choose whatever they want in terms of congregational religious experiences, then it’s hard to ask for sacrifice, because it becomes impossible to provide collective benefits.
Today, one doesn’t care to know his neighbors in part because one can’t want what is irrelevant to one’s interests. The combination of modern prosperity and state subsidies means that people are more independent and don’t need to rely on each other the way they used to.
And modern technological and economic developments continue to make us more independent from each other every day as the trend is to try to unbundle and transactionally substitute for the services we used to barter with each other.
For example, one can view marriage as incorporating a kind of economic “deal” into the overall relationship. Maybe the wife does housework while the husband does yardwork, and after all, the cleanliness of the house and the beauty of the yard are things they enjoy in common. But if the couple is wealthier, maybe they just pay for maid service and landscaping, which frees up time to pursue their individual interests. Their marriage has gained something in an obvious sense. But it has probably also lost something in a more subtle sense.
We want power and freedom and independence but we also want community and belonging and lasting friendships. We are human and we want it all, even if all means a bundle of mutually exclusive contradictions. But for a community of deep and durable relationships, we need to need.
That consumerist approach to the community of believers reproduces the fragmentation that is shattering Christianity in the contemporary world. In Benedictine monasteries, however, monks are always aware that they are not merely individuals but are part of an organic whole – a spiritual family.
The Rule’s instructions concerning obedience are meant to foster mutual accountability. Everyone in the monastery depends on everyone else, and all decisions of importance must be made with others and consider their interests.
What is unpopular and demanding has a hard time surviving without a captive audience. But if you are dependent on everyone else in your community for everything – whether it’s trade, employment, friends, or even spouses for you and your kids – you’ll probably try hard to stay in everyone’s good graces. And that means living in conformity to community values and abstaining from rocking the boat.
Life in Christian community, whether in monastic or ordinary congregations, is about building the kind of fellowship that every one of us needs to complete our individual pilgrimage. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said in Life Together, his own rule, of sorts, for living in a faithful community:
A Christian needs another Christian who speaks God’s Word to him. He needs him again and again when he becomes uncertain and discouraged, for by himself he cannot help himself without belying the truth. He needs his brother man as a bearer and proclaimer of the divine word of salvation.
In the same spirit, Dreher concludes the chapter with a section “The Only Great Tragedy In Life”
The Benedictine example is a sign of hope but also a warning: no matter what a Christian’s circumstances, he cannot live faithfully if God is only a part of his life, bracketed away from the rest. In the end, either Christ is at the center of our lives, or the Self and all its idolatries are. There is no middle ground.
And he ends with some prophetic words:
When I first told Father Cassian about the Benedict Option, he mulled my words and replied gravely, “Those who don’t do some form of what you’re talking about, they’re not going to make it through what’s coming.”
Chapter 4, A New Kind of Christian Politics:
Dreher says that with the loss of the culture war, the era of religious right “values voters” having any kind of significant influence and sway over the GOP and state policy is over. That is, if they ever actually did have any influence above the lip-service payment level, which is debatable.
And so, traditionalists will have to abandon those pursuits as impotent, futile, and often counterproductive, and adjust their perspective and tactics to the new reality of permanent defense.
The Benedict Option call for a radical new way of doing politics, a hands-on localism based on pioneering work by Eastern bloc dissidents who defied Communism during the Cold War. A Westernized form of “antipolitical politics,” to use the term coined by Czech political prisoner Vaclav Havel, is the best way for Orthodox Christians seeking practical and effective engagement in public life without losing our integrity, and indeed our humanity.
Dreher is again trying to convince Christians to give up on normal politics, to give up on fighting a lost cause, and to focus as much as possible on building and maintaining their own “thick communities”, and strengthening their own faith and pious practices. He especially wants them to stop rationalizing exceptions and making excuses for themselves. They need to both withdraw and also to stop fooling themselves that current levels of “engagement” with the fallen mainstream culture are sustainable. Christians are to mind their own proper business and, “tend one’s own garden,” in Voltaire’s terms.
But the trouble with appeals to quietism or an ill-defined ‘localism’ is that while you may decide to not be interested in politics, politics can still be interested in you.
And relying on the good graces of adversaries so that they will not dissolve your monasteries is simply not a workable strategy.
The truly revealing thing about those infamous florist, cake decorator, and other cases is just how incredibly nice, pleasant, charitable, good, and friendly the defendants were. How they had lived lives indistinguishable from the ‘Mr. Rogers’ ideal advised by all those commentators going on about reputation and ‘winsomeness’. Heck, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if some of them even voted for Obama. None of that made a lick of difference for them, and there is certainly no reason to think it would in the decreasingly Christian future.
So the question is whether Christians – especially in America – are already so weak that they will only “suffer what they must,” or whether they still maintain sufficient potential strength to deter the intrusion of regular politics into any new ‘antipolitical politics’ they create for themselves. Without that, the situation is perilous in the extreme, and prospects are bleak.
Dreher goes on to give his own version of a narrative of “The Rise and Fall of Values Voters”, which emphasizes the sexual revolution and the 1973 Supreme Court abortion decision in Roe, which he identifies as a fundamental turning point. Then we fast forward 42 years to Obergefell and then, of course, to Trump:
Where do the erstwhile values voters fit in the new dispensation? We don’t, not really. The 2016 presidential campaign made it clear – piercingly, agonizingly clear – that conservative Christians, once comfortably established in the Republican Party, are politically homeless.
Well, maybe not “homeless”, because, after all:
During the general election campaign, some prominent Evangelicals and a handful of leading Catholics climbed aboard the Trump train out of naked fear of a Hilary Clinton administration. In his upset victory, Trump captured 52 percent of the Catholic vote, and a stunning 81 percent of the Evangelical vote.
Now, it may not be their dream house, or anything more than an “any port in a storm” refuge, but at 81 percent, it kind of sounds like at least some American Christians have a political shelter of necessity after all. Again, most Christian public intellectuals are much more likely to be Democrats or progressives. They have nothing but disdain for Trump which spills over into deeply bitter resentment for the support he enjoys among their fellow confessionists.
But support for Trump derives from the pragmatic political necessity of making the best of a tough situation, and dancing with the one that brought you when nobody else would.
Dreher warns this will ruin their reputation, but that’s trying to close the barn door after the horse has already bolted. Once a group is thought to consist of occasionally nice people, but who are still, fundamentally, “refusenik bigots” and loyalists of a “Homophobe Confederacy”, then in the words of the other candidate, “What difference, at this point, does it make?”
Besides, fair or not, conservative Christianity will be associated with Trump for the next few years, and no doubt beyond. If conservative church leaders aren’t extraordinarily careful in how they manage their public relationship to the Trump administration, anti-Trump blowback will do severe damage to the church’s reputation.
Ok, but how did that jive with this quote from Chapter 5?:
As Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore says in his book Onward, by losing its cultural respectability, the church is freer to be radically faithful.
That seems right, and so maybe the church shouldn’t be so obsessed with its reputation, after all.
Here’s where Dreher gets real:
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.
One reason the contemporary church is in so much trouble is that religious conservatives of the last generation mistakenly believed they could focus on politics and the culture would take care of itself.
Wait, what? That seems completely off base. This would have been a good point for Dreher’s editor to have pushed back and insisted on some evidence and quotations at the very least.
What religious conservatives of the last generation (or two, at least) were actually doing is constantly complaining about disturbing cultural trends, to such an extent that it often reached a borderline conspiratorial and paranoid manner. That’s the polar opposite of the kind of complacency of thinking the culture would “take care of itself.” And, as it happens, it turns out their apocalyptic gloominess for the future of Christianity and traditional values was prescient! More like Cassandra than Chicken Little.
If anything, participation in politics was often framed by these folks as being something thrust upon them by necessity in a desperate effort at “community organizing”, as it were. They had to use their numbers to compel the establishment and powers that be to stop ignoring them and take their interests seriously.
Dreher gets real again, in a good transition to the next section, “Traditional Politics: What Can Still Be Done”
The best that Orthodox Christians today can hope for from politics is that it can open a space for the church to do the work of charity, culture building, and conversion.
This line is extremely important, but it goes by fast if you’re not careful to stop and appreciate its full implications.
So, at the risk of going off on the kind of provocative and triggering sidetrack that – judging by nearly all of the critics of TBO – will make everyone forget everything else in this discussion, let me put that a little differently.
The best orthodox Christians, traditionalists, or rejectionists of all types can do is try to enable and protect the members, subcultures, and institutions of Benedict Option Communities, so that, in whatever form they may take, they won’t be dissolved by the state like so many monasteries before them.
Following from the logic of Perpetuationism, the existential considerations of cultural continuation and political survival necessarily take precedence over other matters, because those other matters could not otherwise be addressed at all.
And so, for social conservatives of all stripes, this goal ought to become the primary purpose of traditional, non-local politics. This is nothing more than the result of it being the last goal left when all the other, grander objectives are taken off the table, as no longer feasible.
Dreher says about as much when he writes:
Though orthodox Christians have to embrace localism because they can no longer expect to influence Washington politics as they once could, there is one cause that should receive all the attention they have left for national politics: religious liberty.
Ok, that’s settled.
But how to do it? What would it take?
To explore that, Dreher takes us to Kansas in 2014 with the very religious Sam Brownback as governor, when many state-level Republican politicians sought to introduce or expand the practice of introducing conscience clauses for various professions, and:
… anticipating court-imposed gay-marriage, tried to expand religious liberty protections to cover wedding vendors, wedding cake makers, and others.
The effort was strongly resisted by Democrats, but also by the Kansas Chamber of Commerce and other business groups, and failed in the Kansas Senate without ever getting to Brownback’s desk.
Which leads one to ask, “Well, OK, if religious liberty legislation can’t get passed by ordinary methods even in a situation like that – in as ideal circumstances as one can hope for these days – then to the extent one views these legal protections as essential, what would it take to get them?”
After the failure in his own state, former Kansas legislator Lance Kinzer (who spearheaded the original effort) just keeps banging his head against the same wall.
Yet Kinzer has not left politics entirely. The first goal of Benedict Option Christians in the world of conventional politics is to secure and expand the space within which we can be ourselves and build our own institutions. To this end, he travels around the country advocating for religious liberty legislation in state legislatures. Over and over he sees Republican legislators who are inclined to support religious liberty taking a terrible pounding from the business lobby. … Pastors and lay Christian leaders need to prepare their congregations for hard times.
Well then, as a purely logical matter, it looks like it’s either “game over”, or else something will have to be done about that business lobby.
So, if those Christian leaders are not to simply capitulate on the matter of engaging in traditional politics to expand their religious liberty and rights to community autonomy, and if it is not yet practically impossible, then it seems that they have no alternative but to play political hardball. With the business lobby, with Democrats, and even with the country at large, to whatever extent that proves necessary.
Which in turn raises the question: what would nonviolent, civil, and legal “political hardball” look like?
Now, at this point, one might say, that whatever that strategy might be, it’s obvious that it’s completely foolish to talk about it explicitly in public. That’s true! Unfortunately, it’s also obvious that there is no other effective way left for traditionalists to coordinate on these matters. That’s a fundamental weakness of position, but one goes to war with the army one has.
So, getting back to hardball, for one, it would require sufficient organization and coordination such that most sympathizers vote as a reliable bloc – a “votebank” – according to leadership endorsements of Republican primary candidates who can be trusted to pursue a religious liberty agenda.
True, previous efforts at such counter-establishment organization on the right have not had promising results, to put it mildly. And in general this kind of coordination and level of commitment is extremely hard to pull off.
However, much of the West seems to be in the midst of a disruptive political realignment and it’s not clear whether the situation will evolve to a more fluid one in which the old rules and patterns no longer operate.
One example of a non-mainstream American religious group which has already operated in this manner for decades – and to enviable levels of success – are the ultra-orthodox Hasidic Jewish communities of the Northeast. The power of the Satmar bloc in New York is legendary (or infamous, depending on your perspective). When the heads of those communities tell a candidate that they have the ability to get every adult to the polls and have them all vote the same way, they mean it, and they deliver. They are the ultimate “community organizers,” in that sense. Though in truth the community is already extremely organized by its very nature, and the leaders are merely riding that wave to play the democracy game. Benedict Option Communities will surely be so as well.
Despite their minority status and relatively small numbers, by and large, these ultra-orthodox Jews punch well above their weight, and so they tend to get what they want. And, in addition to as much public subsidy as possible (which is what any “organized community as special interest group” seeks), what they want is to maximize their autonomy: to be left alone and to manage their own affairs according to their own rules, with as little interference and oversight as politically and legally possible.
It’s a form of clientalist group solidarity which is a very pared down version of the old “machine” politics. And, for them, it works. It works really, really well.
Many contemporary American Christians – especially white ones – have been acculturated to bristle at that approach to democratic politics, just as they have nothing but contempt for the left’s constant agitation for identity politics and ceaseless denigration of ‘privileged’ class enemies. But seeing as those Christians have no other workable alternative, they’ll get over it, and the fact is, they’re already headed down that road.
Because, like it or not, clientalism based on group solidarity works. There is no stable equilibrium in a two-party democratic system – especially in an era of shifting demographics – in which only one party makes use of this potent weapon while the other maintains a policy of neutrality and unilateral disarmament.
We tend to think that kind of situation is both normal and sustainable because we’ve lived with that being the case for a long time. But that era was always destined to expire as the stresses continued to build, and now it’s over. Indeed, it seems the great mystery of what is happening to the right all over the West is answered by understanding there is a pattern to our observations and that we are watching in real time the convergent evolution of these movements to the right’s form of clientalism.
If that’s right, then the prospect of disciplined voting blocs insisting on religious liberty candidates, and their elected politicians reliably delivering on those narrow objectives, is not so outlandish after all.
Now, if something like that could be done – to be sure, an astronomical if – then how would those elected politicians actually go about playing hardball?
Well, if “hardball” is to mean anything it all, then when someone lacks carrots, that only leaves sticks. And, to be blunt about it, that means deterrence by a credible threat against something your opponents care about. A legal and non-violent threat – this isn’t antifa – but a compelling one nevertheless. So, what does the business lobby care about?
Now, in the US at least, due to a combination of historical contingencies, the geographic distribution of the population, and the founders’ intentionally frustrating vision of state political organization – in which ‘ungovernable’ was a feature, not a bug – it turns out there is a way for a steadfastly determined minority to get its way.
And everybody already knows what it is: Shutdown. Or, in the words of Internet inventor and nearly-President Al Gore, “Political Terrorism“.
Now, I’m going to talk about the potential for a shutdown in just a moment, but I think the only phrase that describes it is “political terrorism”: Nice global economy you got there. Be a shame if we had to destroy it. We have a list of demands. If you don’t meet them all by our deadline, we’ll blow up the global economy.
Right. That’s how intransigent minorities win.
Except, it’s never worked before, which is why the idea always gets such weary eye rolls from the commentariat at even the faintest whisper of floating the idea. “Oh brother, here we go again. This never works, and worse, it’s always counterproductive, resulting in nothing but completely pointless hassle for ordinary, innocent people.”
But ‘never’ isn’t right. That claim rests on thinking that the future will keep on looking like the recent past. But for Christians and traditionalists, it won’t.
There’s a simple explanation for why shutdown warnings have not worked so far, which weighs against believing that will continue to be the case in the future.
Brinksmanship threats don’t work if they’re both bluffs, and known by one’s opponents to be bluffs. They can’t work if your opponent is sure that you aren’t serious and, at best, merely going through the performative motions of signaling by means of frustrating political theater.
A nuclear option is worthless if your opponents knows ahead of time you’ll never actually press the button, as if they were able to read your instructions in your letters of last resort and learn that you ordered your commanders to just lie back and think of England. You can’t win a game of chicken if your counterpart can see you are sure to swerve away. Where’s the fear? If there isn’t any, then it’s all just a show.
And this is the charade which has characterized every single shutdown in modern history. It has always been an exercise in crying wolf, since nobody really means it.
But, it’s just a matter of time until someone comes along who does really means it. And they’ll really mean it, and everyone else will know they really mean it, because they will believe they have absolutely no other choice left but to really mean it.
And that is what will make the future look different from the past, which was full of choices and alternative options that are no longer available.
And, what Dreher is saying over and over again, is that “no other choice” is just another way to describe what is coming soon for American Christians and traditionalists.
Which is why they’ll need this “Benedict-Nuclear Option.” Or the game is over before it begins.
After all, to use Al Gore’s language, why exactly is one supposed to care about blowing up the economy if one is shut out of it, and one’s children can neither participate in, nor benefit from it, without compromising their faith and integrity? What’s the point of caring about what happens to “someone else’s economy”?
This is the kind of argument all discriminated-against groups tend to make, with justification. So maybe the “business lobby” (and chambers of commerce and so forth) have something to worry about, after all.
All of this is bound to strike an ordinary American as exceedingly apocalyptic and even more alarmist than Dreher is accused of being. Is all this really necessary? Will we really be shut out of the professions for our faith? Let’s see what Dreher says:
Part of the change we have to make is accepting that in the years to come, faithful Christians may have to choose between being a good American and being a good Christian. In a nation where “God and country” are so entwined, the idea that one’s citizenship might be at radical odds with one’s faith is a new one.
Dreher then mention’s Havel’s famous Power of the Powerless essay in which Havel uses the motif of a greengrocer compelled to put up a “Workers of the World, Unite!” sign in his window by a Communist state.
Dreher channels Havel and describes the political consequences of refusing to “live within a lie” and put the sign in the window:
His revolt is an attempt to live within the truth – and it’s going to cost him plenty. He will lose his job and his position in society. His kids may not be allowed to go to the college they want to, or to any college at all. People will bully him or ostracize him. But by bearing witness to the truth, he has accomplish something potentially powerful.
He has said that the emperor is naked. And because the emperor is in fact naked, something extremely dangerous has happened: by his action, the greengrocer has addressed the world. …
Because they are public, the greengrocer’s deeds are inescapably political. He bears witness to the truth of his convictions by being willing to suffer for them. He becomes a threat to the system – but he has preserved his humanity.
Or … he’s dismissed by all right-thinking and respectable people as some bigoted and hateful crank or delusional troublemaker who deserves everything he’s going to get before everybody forgets about him forever. Hoping for Havel’s outcome, as hard as his journey was, is naively optimistic in our present situation.
Imagine the typical progressive’s reaction to hearing someone got fired for refusing to wear a company rainbow pin during pride month. Are they moved by his “bearing witness”? Do they really think he’s a “threat to the system”? Or is it just, “good riddance to bad rubbish.” The image of George Wallace standing in the schoolhouse door. In this way, the story of the naked emperor is inapt. Half the people – and nearly all the educated and elite ones – see him clothed. They react to any claim of nakedness by concluding there is someone seriously wrong with the claimant.
So while Havel is a hero, and his essay inspiring, the story isn’t exactly reliable. One has to remember that details about life in the West had penetrated enough into the consciousness of people under the Soviet system that it had gone a long way towards undermining faith in and commitment to that system, and any optimism and true belief had long given way to widespread cynicism. When the West was widely perceived to have higher status, the writing was on the wall, and any failure of will to meet any sign of resistance with an immediate, brutal crackdown would spell the beginning of the end. And just so, it ended. But the West has no other West.
“A better system will not automatically ensure a better life,” Havel goes on. “In fact the opposite is true: only by creating a better life can a better system be developed” (emphasis RD).
The answer, then, is to create and support “parallel structures” in which the truth can be lived in community. Isn’t this a form of escapism, a retreat into a ghetto? Not at all, says Havel; a countercultural community that abdicated its responsibility to reach out to help others would end up being a “more sophisticated version of living within a lie.”
That sounds more like marketing than logic.
And anyway, what exactly is so bad about retreating into ghettos? And is there really a clear distinction between a ‘ghetto’ and a Benedict Option?
It’s fairly clear from the history of the Jews in Europe that the existence of ghettos, whatever their other drawbacks, was likely instrumental in preserving the continuity and traditions of local Jewish communities. When the Jews were liberated and emancipated and dispersed themselves out of their formal enclaves, it only took a few generations for most of them to assimilate and integrate into the cultural mainstream and watch their distinctive faith and practices gradually become watered down and fade away. Meanwhile, the ultra-orthodox, penned in by their eruv wires into modern, voluntary ‘ghettos’, and with their higher fecundity, are probably what the future of Judaism in the West will look like. Ghettos work.
Dreher quotes the admirable Vaclav Benda on building parallel institutions, especially for education:
The aim of independent citizens’ movements that try to create a parallel polis must be precisely the opposite: we must consider the area of schooling and education as one of our main priorities.
I recommend reading more about Benda’s life and practices, but it seems clear that a Benedict Option community should be one in which life in centered around frequent study, learning, and teaching. Like, say, a small ‘campus’ of connected, committed households in close proximity.
And, Dreher says, households in “internal exile” that disconnect from the broader culture, and look inward:
Here’s how to get started with the antipolitical politics of the Benedict Option. Secede culturally from the mainstream. Turn off the television. Put the smartphones away. Read books. Play games. Make music. Feast with your neighbors. It is not good enough to avoid what is bad; you must also embrace what is good. Start a church, or a group within your church. Open a classical Christian school, or join and strengthen one that exists. Plant a garden, and participate in a local farmer’s market. Teach kids how to play music, and start a band. Join the volunteer fire department.
The point is not that we should stop voting or being active in conventional politics. The point, rather, is that this is no longer enough.
Chapter 5: A Church For All Seasons
Dreher begins the chapter by referencing Robert Louis Wilken’s warning about the “collapse of Christian civilization” in the West, due in large part to the ‘normalization’ of most Churches. This ‘normalcy’ means widespread and substantial ignorance of Christian tenets and history, and an increasingly hermetic compartmentalization of religious life. More pious and knowledgeable Christians have long taken their traditional position as ‘culturally normal’ for granted, but they will now have to get used to a new reality, leaving ‘normalcy’ behind.
As Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore says in his book Onward, by losing its cultural respectability, the church is freer to be radically faithful.
When faith becomes weird, embracing the weirdness will set one free.
It’s not about losing respectability so much as it is about the members of the church putting themselves in a position where they are no longer so sensitive to the typical human impulses to care so deeply about perceptions of normalcy and broad respectability in general society.
The gap between churchgoers and secular infidels can grow so wide that it goes past a “point of no return”. Or, perhaps more precisely, past any point of remaining ambiguity where it would still be feasible to keep a foot in both worlds without marking yourself clearly as a “different other”.
Once that tether to mainstream secular culture is cut, it no longer pulls members into heretical or weaker forms of faith. If it pulls, it pulls out completely, and so those who remain become ‘free’ from the pressures to conform and compromise. In the alternative, they have intentionally been made (or purposefully made themselves) simply too incompatible with the mainstream to ever integrate easily, and too exclusively dependent on their coreligionists for social, spiritual, and even ordinary transactional needs.
Many traditionalist religious groups require conspicuously distinctive habits of dress and patterns of life which by design do not allow one to blend in with mainstream society (cf. ‘nonconformity to the world‘). Members of future churches will need to be metaphorically and psychologically ‘branded’ with costly signals of commitment in a similar, hard-to-reverse fashion.
Churches will need to re-evangelize and re-educate young Christians who know little of actual Christianity, but they must be wary to avoid the temptation to appeal to the fluid tastes of the modern masses and the lowest common denominators.
Too many of our churches function as secular entertainment centers with religious morals slapped on top, when they should be functioning as the living, breathing Body of Christ. 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. The sad truth is, when the world sees us, it often fails to see anything different from nonbelievers. Christians often talk about “reaching the culture” without realizing that, having no distinct Christian culture of their own, they have been co-opted by the secular culture they wish to evangelize.
Part of the problem is that, especially in the US – and as a longstanding feature of American history – many Christians – and especially Protestants – are not effectively a ‘captive audience’ of any particular sect.
This means in part that they have the social right to exit and only suffer comparably minor social penalties and negative consequences from switching denominations. Furthermore, this is generally viewed as a common occurrence and personal matter which ought not to warrant harsh reproach, or raise any great deal of consternation or opprobrium. Indeed, sects optimistic about their own growth opportunities obviously see it as their theological mission to swipe members from other denominations as ‘fair game’, and are thus eager to engage in the ‘conversion contest’ while fishing for souls.
The trouble is that this state of affairs turns “churching” into a mere economic sector and competitive marketplace, with typical competitive pressures leading to a ‘customer service’ mentality of indulgent and obsequious unobtrusiveness. The attitude of “the customer is always right,” (or else he’ll leave) reverses the typical relations of authority and status. It also leads to gimmicks of low-brow appeal which are by their nature fragile and ephemeral when exposed to the fickle and discursive whims of the masses.
Indeed, such pressures weigh hard on those who cater to any minority, refined, or ‘elite’ tastes, which can increasingly only be done in the largest or most cultured cities with a critical mass of these rare patrons. Nevertheless, one might try to counter with the fact that, however diminished, the market still manages to supply these few, special consumers with products in their niche interests. So why should devout Christians worry about competition all-but-eliminating non-mass-appeal churches?
Because unlike all those other goods and services and entertainments, churches cannot be trying to please consumers. Instead, churches and religions must make difficult demands on the individual, teach the individual that it is he who ought to work hard to try to please God. It is very much a “no pain, no gain” message. And just like with strenuous physical exertion, people can train themselves to maintain the right perspective and attitude, and learn to enjoy and even love the process. As with exercise, it’s easier to get into, and near-effortless to maintain, if everyone else you like is also doing it, and it’s equally difficult if you are all alone while your friends are out at the bar.
But there is no question that members of households are told to give up their time, money, convenience, pleasure, every spare mental ‘clock cycle’, and many other life opportunities. That’s in order to fulfill their religious duties, and so the congregation functions all day, every day, as a constantly exercised social organism: the primary community of one’s entire life. Churches insist that instead of trying to indulge their impulses, congregants abstain from feeding and yielding to their desires. Churches may claim that a faithful life is ‘liberating’ in a certain, counter-intuitive sense, but such ’emancipation’ is still occurring under a system that emphasizes obligation, submission and one’s duty to obey holy authority.
Ok, one might counter, churches cannot function normally (or at least, as they often did historically) in a competitive market like some ordinary product in a bazaar. But maybe they are more like ‘jobs’. Don’t jobs also make difficult demands and require submission and obedience? And jobs are everywhere.
Yes, but jobs pay people, while people pay churches. Conscripts have gone without pay, but the sovereign can coerce them into contributing to the military effort. Imagine if those conscripts were not only unpaid, but also taxed, and yet somehow also free to leave and stop paying the tax at any moment. How many would stick around? Would you? You would have to really, really believe the cause was worth fighting for.
Only those motivated by the most intense sense of patriotism, the moral imperative of the cause, or compelled by the danger to their families and interests presented by an approaching enemy, would stay for that fight.
Churches also offer a ‘service’ that has no close analogy in a competitive marketplace. Companies are trying to tempt you with ever more intense ways to feel good. Churches place at least some emphasis on making one feel bad. The concept of sin and the emotions of shame, embarrassment, humiliation, guilt, remorse, contrition, repentance and atonement are all part of the natural and instinctive arsenal ordering human group behavior. The proper channeling of those moral impulses makes the higher forms of civilization characterized by strong religious community possible.
Yes, there is the upside of release and salvation via purification and forgiveness, but in the necessary moments of emotional discomfort those upsides lack salience. One perhaps need not go all the way to Edwards’ Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God every day. But give people plenty of choices, and the market will eventually weed out all the hectoring, which will throw some very important babies out with the bathwater.
Which is not to say that churches (or God through the church) don’t offer benefits to ‘trade’ in exchange for the burdens of devotion that make the cost worth bearing. These constitute some of the subconscious psychological incentives for continuing in pious observance. That’s the ‘gain’ from the ‘pain’. But these are either metaphysical and theological in nature (e.g., salvation of one’s soul from eternal damnation), or otherwise tacit in terms of various social benefits. These social benefits either fly below the radar of full conscious awareness, or are the kinds of things it is considered bad form to articulate as consideration in an explicit ‘bargain’.
All of which is to say there is nothing quite like a traditional ‘church’ in any marketplace, and that when churches are in a position of open competition it is inevitable that many will succumb to the pressure to converge to whatever else tends to succeed in the markets for mainstream culture and entertainment. That in turn means a constant temptation to compromise on matters of faith when it conflicts with the popular zeitgeist.
This alienates the orthodox, conservative, and traditionalist congregants who, judging by existing demographic trends, are the constituents of the only future the church is likely to have, if indeed it is to have one at all. In the present egalitarian cultural context, it also increasingly turns off men, with an emphasis on messages tending to lower the status of fathers and undermine traditional biblical conceptions of male roles and masculine virtues. Staying attractive and useful to fathers may seem to just be a different aspect of the “need to appeal” disease, but it’s really not. The church must provide the pragmatic utility of constantly repeating messages which reinforce institutions and practices which are fighting uphill battles against both animal impulses and the mainstream culture.
There is another downside to mass appeal, which one can see in almost any church today, and which is also exacerbating the membership problem.
In brief, the problem is that, out of the large set of possibilities, human beings can only maintain certain psychological ‘modes’ at any one time. And the way religious services are conducted tends to elicit one to the exclusion of the others, and so one must be careful to do it right, to trigger the right few modes, and not other, incompatible ones.
Consumerist churches bending their practices to the needs of popular appeal simply cannot carry on their worship in traditional ways that convey deep solemnity, sacredness, gravity, intellectual maturity and seriousness. They cannot add to that a sense of the supernaturally mystical; awe, wonder, and personal smallness when confronted with the majestic presence of the divine; and overwhelming significance, even across the distance of earthly intermediation.
There are many other substitutes and opportunities for “fun group events” in modern life (indeed, this is part of the problem). But there is no alternative for the routine reminding and re-grounding in theological metaphysics. For the reorientation from the mundane and worldly to the deep foundation of everything in the miraculous divine. To preserve one’s animating enchantment with everything as rooted in and emanating from God’s cosmic order, such that one feels compelled to live one’s life in harmony with that order instead of by mere whim.
There is of course plenty of room for the occasional fun holiday celebration and other outlets for youthful energies. But that ‘carnival concert’ spirit simply cannot become the regular mode of worship without coming off as puerile, off-putting, and low-brow to the smarter, higher-status, and more successful members of the congregation. These people constitute the natural aristocracy and indispensable pool of leaders of the religious community, and they will naturally balk and defect at the constant carnival. Instead, they will preferentially associate with the rest of their class, which is increasingly atheistic. They will need substance that induces a more contemplative frame of mind, when one can exercise higher intellectual skills and meditate and reflect on the meaning and implication of the overall theological framework.
This is an entirely different problem from merely being ‘weird’. Movements which are merely ‘weird’ don’t show any systemic disability in attracting intelligent leaders, and often start out with a cadre of highly intelligent people focusing on a new, ‘weird’ idea.
This isn’t about being a kind of elitist snob, just for tastes in churching. If the church, or Christianity, or religion in general becomes perceived as a low-brow pursuit of low-intellect, low-status, low-class people, then it will shed higher-status members below the critical mass it needs to function as an institution capable of providing deeply spiritual and intellectual fulfillment. Sadly, things have already moved a long way in this direction. A longer way than many people would like to admit.
In such circumstances the church becomes unable to focus on emphasizing knowledge and theological reasoning. It cannot be constantly teaching and reteaching the essential knowledge keeping people tied to the faith. The carnival displaces the catechism.
And it means that almost anytime members of these congregations encounter, use the services, or seek the counsel of intelligent, high status professionals, they are meeting people who look down upon their faith, and who will, intentionally or inadvertently, tend to make them feel ashamed about it. The message is clear: “Smart, respected, prestigious, and successful people don’t do what I do. If I want to be like that, to be seen as that kind of person, to be accepted by the rest of those kinds of people, I have little choice but to hide my faith, or really, just give it up.”
This is a very hard problem to solve. How to make both doctrine and regular collective experience applicable across multiple and highly distinct levels of intelligence and maturity and interest?
It’s difficult – maybe impossible – to do by design. The evolution of most organized religions included the gradual development of traditional institutions performing this role, usually by segregating sub-groups for special advanced study or other purposes. It probably emerged by a combination of trial and error and serendipity.
However, it’s worth observing that the institution closest to religion in modern times and which tends to carry on many of its historical patterns and practices – education and academics – has also developed a tiered system of differing levels of expertise and depth of understanding. And these also tend to correlate strongly with intelligence, prestige, and temporal success.
Benedict Option churches will have to re-adopt these patterns and practices and re-focus on education if they hope to make it.
It is at this point and in this spirit that Dreher starts to outline his list of Corrective Actions.
CA1. Rediscover the Past
A big part of the falling away today is that our children don’t know the history of Christianity or grasp why it matters. …
It’s not that Evangelicalism rejects the foundational theological writings of early Christianity, she [Dreher’s friend] explained, but that it never mentions them. Nor did the the church of her youth dig deeply in the Reformation tradition from which it sprang. In her church and religious school, she was fed nothing but the thin gruel of contemporary Christianity, with its shallow theology and upbeat sloganeering.
Dreher provides a far-from-exhaustive list of lives to study, the names of which I suspect are unknown to many Western Christians:
Polycarp, Justin Martyr, Athanasius, Augustine, John Crysostom, the Cappadocians, Jerome, Ignatius of Antioch, Clement of Alexandria, Maximus the Confessor, Irenaeus, and so many more: these voice from the first eight centuries of the Christian church still speak to us today. Christians seeking to deepen their connections to historical Christianity should read these men of God.
Most people don’t read very much, especially in our increasingly post-literate society which prefers assimilating new information through non-textual media. And not everyone is suited to the intellectual approach. But Dreher’s basic message to focus one’s efforts to learn much more history and heritage remains sound. Part of the reason is that a focus on deep history in particular is indispensable to a feeling of continuity, connection, and commonality with one’s predecessors, which in turn is an essential element of the Perpetuationist perspective and sense of duty to the past.
CA2. Recover Liturgical Worship
By ‘liturgy’ Dreher seems to mean more than just ‘stage directions’ for presenting the script of worship, but mental and spiritual influence writ large: the overall psychological effect of the whole context of a religious experience combined with the impact of all environmental stimuli. Some excerpts:
James K. A. Smith, an Evangelical Christian philosopher, points out that all of life is liturgical, in the sense that all of our actions frame our experiences and train our desires to particular ends. Every day we are living out what he calls “cultural liturgies” of one kind or another.
… The lesson here is that various elements present in the ritual of shopping at a mall activate particular desires and direct them toward certain objects, the purchase of which promises to deliver satisfaction.
Christian liturgies, on the other hand, should lead us to desire communion with God.
… The contemporary Reformed theologian Hans Boersma identifies the loss of sacramentality as the key reason why the modern church is falling apart.
… Liturgy restores the stability we’ve lost by cementing the story of the gospel in our bodies. As MacIntyre has said, if we want to know what to do, we must first determine the story to which we belong. Christian worship, done properly, provides us with regular reminders that we belong to Christ and to the story He is unfolding.
…The most power rituals involve the body, says Connerton. They make use of all the senses to impress the sacred story upon the individuals gathered. For example, when worshipers kneel or prostrate themselves at a certain point in a ritual, they learn in their very muscles the awe-filled meaning of that sacred moment – and it helps them remember.
Many of those movements have the effect of naturally evoking instincts of submission and paying respect to those higher in status. For example, there are the military and judicial customs and courtesies, and East Asian systems of etiquette.
Dreher says that Evangelicalism is at a disadvantage in this matter.
Simon Chan, a noted theologian, scholar, and writer based in Singapore, is one of a growing number of Evangelical church leaders who argue that their churches must return to the richness of liturgical worship. Evangelical ecclesiology is inadequate to the task of meeting postmodernity’s challenges, he has written.
The idea seems to be that this knowledge was once unneeded and so discarded and then ‘forgotten’. But the textbook is there to relearn it, if one is so inclined. Dreher continues:
This is in part because Evangelicalism has historically been focused not on institution building but on revivalism, making it inherently unstable. It has also taken an individualistic approach to faith that leaves it vulnerable to pop culture trends.
That’s true, and bad news, for all the reasons given above. Still, some of those pop culture trends derive from an evolution of approaches to become ever more sophisticated and effective at influencing their audiences. They work really well. So the use of those techniques has not been without its successes for the evangelical community. Still, there is a price to be paid, and if one lives by that sword, one dies by that sword.
Plus, evangelicalism developed partly in reaction to liberalism within Mainline Protestant denominations, whose more formal worship style led Evangelical dissenters to associate (wrongly, in Chan’s view) liturgy with spiritual deadness.
Chan believes that a worship approach that focuses on seeking spiritual highs – church as pep rally – is unsustainable. If you want to build faith capable of maintaining stability and continuity, you need to regularly attend a church that celebrates a fixed liturgy. That’s how individuals come to be “shaped by the Christian story.”
It’s easier said than done. Whether it’s at church, at work, at school, or even in a failing relationship, who doesn’t know what it feels like to suffer through boredom and “going through the motions” without genuine feeling or emotion? At the same time, there are couples who go on for decades with sustainable motivation and contentedness with their daily routines and joyous affections. Happy families are all alike, and so, perhaps, are happy parishioners.
More opposition to church as entertainment:
We detest entertainment as worship. We believe that God is to be worshiped in a way that communicates his transcendence, as well as the warmth of the Gospel,” Martin says. “Contemporary worship manipulates. God is not a fad or a hipster deity. To attach him to our own little slice of popular culture fails to do justice to Him as the transcendent God over all history and cultures.”
Ben Haguewood used to go to mainstream Evangelical churches, where he appreciated the seriousness with which the congregation took Scripture, but he grew to dislike the lack of reverence.
CA3: Relearn the Traditional Christian Habits of Asceticism
This may seem to be a somewhat strange section right after several paragraphs emphasizing the potential psychological importance of a sensuous richness in worship, but all things in moderation, including self-denial.
Religion involves a great deal of discipline and self-control at all times, and that is a skill which for most people requires long training and regular exercise to maintain.
Additionally, it helps break down the tendency to take material comforts for granted, and restores a sense of appreciation and gratitude for one’s blessings. Also, there has been and still is plenty of real suffering in the world, and routine experiences of discomfort help to expand one’s powers of empathy and sympathy, which stimulate the impulses of compassion and charity.
Fasting like this is not easy, especially at first. Eastern Orthodox priests ordinarily prescribe light fasts to spiritual beginners. The point is not to abstain from certain foods for legalistic reasons, but to break the power our bodily desires have over us.
CA4. Tighten Church Discipline
A community of faith must also be a community of high moral standards, accountability and enforcement.
The early church maintained fairly strict discipline among its congregations. They believed that the Way led somewhere and that those who refused to walk the Way needed to be brought back to it, or, if they persisted in sin, be sent away from their own congregations.
CA5. Evangelize with Goodness and Beauty
Dreher has been considering writing a book about this particular aspect of religious experience, and the power of encounters with works of extremely moving aesthetic qualities. Not just art, but ‘beautiful’ and inspiring human actions of kindness, nobility, love, and grace.
“Art and the saints are the greatest apologetics for our faith,” said Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI. Why? Because seeing examples of great beauty and extraordinary goodness bypasses our rational faculties and strikes the heart.
… Put more plainly, unbelievers today who cannot make sense of the Gospel’s propositions may yet have a life-changing wordless encounter with the Gospel through Christian art or works of Christian love that pull them outside themselves and confront them with the reality of Christ.
The first Christians gained converts not because their arguments were better than those of the pagans but because people saw in them and their communities something good and beautiful – and they wanted it. This led them to the Truth.
That particular historical narrative explaining the growth and appeal of the original Christian communities remains the subject of some debate, to put it mildly. But the overall message of the impact of human and artistic beauty on religious feelings is unarguable.
CA6. Embrace Exile and the Possibility of Martyrdom
Getting serious with this one.
In the early church, the willingness to suffer, even to the point of laying down one’s life, for Christ was seen as the most powerful testimony to the truth of Christ. Today’s churches will not be equipped if we do not keep this in mind and live lives prepared to suffer severe hardship, even death, for our faith.
That’s going to mean separating the truly committed from the fair-weather faithful.
… We should stop trying to meet the world on its own terms and focus on building up fidelity in distinct community. Instead of being seeker-friendly, we should be finder-friendly, offering those who come to us a new and different way of life.
This is a key line:
A church that looks and talks and sounds just like the world has no reason to exist.
Exactly right, and this is the precise reason why most Mainline Protestant denominations continue to implode.
Dreher ends the chapter with the real “Why?” behind The Benedict Option, which is to lay out the necessity to develop institutions which will survive and perpetuate themselves even under tremendous stress.
And Benedict Option believers will break down the conceptual walls that keep God safely confined in a church-shaped compartment. That’s because a church that is a church only on Sunday and at other formal gatherings of the congregation is not only failing to be the church Christ calls us all to be; it is also not going to be a church with the strength and the focus to endure the trials ahead.
Chapter 6: The Idea of a Christian Village
I had mentioned to [Michael Medved] that my wife and I were planning to homeschool our children. Well and good, Medved replied, but you should both understand that homeschooling is only a partial measure.
“You need to make sure you live in a community that shares your faith and values,” he advised. When your child leaves home to go play with the neighborhood kids, you have to be able to trust that the values in your home are not undermined by the company he keeps.”
… Everything that practical parenting experience has taught me confirms Medved’s counsel. It really does take a village – that is to say, a community – to raise a child.
Clinton didn’t mean it that way, but the point about the indispensability of a social environment which consistently reinforces and indeed marinates the forming, and ever-reforming, individual in the same set of values as ubiquitous social conventions is true and important.
The fate of religion in America is inextricably tied to the fate of the family, and the fate of the family is tied to the fate of the community. In her 2015 book How the West Really Lost God, cultural critic Mary Eberstadt argues that religion is like a language: you can learn it only in community, starting with the community of the family. When both the family and community become fragmented and fail, the transmission of religion to the next generation becomes far more difficult.
CA7: Turn Your Home into a Domestic Monastery:
“A man’s home is his castle” must combine with a new principle, “A man’s home is his church.” “Every man a priest” tends to evoke some matters of theological controversy, but the duties to teach, to emphasize, and to lead by example by being seen living one’s values belong to the heads of every religious household.
Just as the monastery’s life is ordered toward God, so must the family home be. Every Christian family likes to think they put God first, but this is not always how we live. (I plead guilty.) If we are the abbot and abbess of our domestic monastery, we will see to it that our family’s life is structured in such a way as to make the mission of knowing and serving God clear to all its members.
… Living in a domestic monastery also means putting the life of the church first, even if you have to keep your kid out of a sports program that schedules games during your church’s worship services. Even more importantly, your kids need to see you and your spouse sacrificing attendance at events if they conflict with church. And they need to see that you are serious about the spiritual life.
CA8: Don’t Be Afraid to Be Nonconformist
Raise your kids to know that your family is different – and don’t apologize for it.
This is easier said than done, but is almost self-evident in its necessity. Most families in this situation like to do this by emphasizing that they are living in a modern Sodom and that almost all the rest of the secular world is irredeemably fallen and sinful and thus must be avoided in every feasible instance.
CA9: Don’t Take Your Kids’ Friends for Granted
Parents, teachers, and other adult authority figures like to believe they are key influences in their kids’ lives and the main molders of their character and worldview. Alas, a lot of that is wishful thinking. As a salutary corrective to such thinking, Judith Rich Harris’s The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do remains one of the most important books of the last half century and required reading for any intelligent parent.
It’s important your kids have a good peer group. By “good,” I mean one in which its members, or at least most of them, share the same strong moral beliefs. Though parental influence is critical, research shows that nothing forms a young person’s character like their peers. The culture of the group of which your child is a part growing up will be the culture he or she adopts as their own.
Engaged parents can’t outsource the moral and spiritual formation of their kids to their church or parachurch organization. Interviewing a wide variety of Christians for this book, I often heard complaints that church-affiliated youth groups were about keeping kids entertained more than disciplined.
At times like this in the book I begin to suspect that even many devout and pious parents start to secretly think to themselves, “Good grief, who has time, energy, and persistence for all that? My faith is deeply important to me and I believe it to be the cornerstone of my life and existence. But honestly, I’m not a saint. I’m just an ordinary person who has to work late and comes home tired and sometimes it’s a struggle to just get dinner on the table. I can’t supervise everything all the time. Nor would I want to even if I could. I just don’t know if I’m up to handling being that “engaged” all the time. I’m going to need a whole lot of help.”
In other words, “It takes a village.” But one at culture-peace, not embroiled in culture-war, the battles of which parents are likely to lose.
Peer pressure really begins to happen in middle childhood. Psychology researcher Judith Rich Harris in her classic book The Nurture Assumption, says that kids at that age model their own behavior around their peer group’s. Writes Harris, “The new behaviors become habitual – internalized, if you will – and eventually become part of the public personality. The public personality is the one that a child adopts when he or she is not at home. It is the one that will develop into the adult personality.”
Harris points to the example of immigrants and their children. Study after study shows that no matter how strong the home culture, first generation offspring almost always conform to the values of the broader culture. “The old culture is lost in a single generation,” she writes. “Cultures are not passed on from parents to children; the children of immigration parents adopt the culture of their peers.”
Three points immediately follow from this.
First, while teenagers are often portrayed in popular culture as being naturally “rebellious”, they are in fact incredibly conformist and hypersensitive to matters regarding social opinion and approval. This may seem unbelievable to any parent who has experienced the struggle with surly and disobedient adolescents, probing for opportunities to reset the boundaries of dominance and power in the relationship. But that ‘rebellion’ is merely the manifestation of the teenager’s status radars switching targets away from their parents and locking instead to the worldview and attitudes of their peers and that of the general mainstream culture.
Second, “social contagion” is a real, powerful, and extremely important phenomenon. The young mind’s flexibility and tendency to self-reprogram in response to environmental cues about socially important matters has almost limitless potential, for good or ill. In certain circumstances, one bad apple really can spoil the bunch, and in contemporary society what happens during times of peer-interaction are particularly hard for parents to supervise. We are already at the end of the era where it is possible to discuss the truth of this matter as relates to matters of sexual orientation and gender identity without being reflexively accused of bigotry by the people who relish the role of making such accusations. But any educated person can acquaint themselves with the history of diverse cultural approaches to sexual matters to arrive at the conclusion that “baby I was born that way” is hardly the full story.
And third, at some level most parents already understand the importance of peer groups. But when “good peers” are a scarce resource, in the American system, parents start to compete with each other in a zero-sum price war for rights to attend the “best” local schools. Parents collectively pretend that this has something to do with the ‘quality’ of the education at those schools. But they nearly all secretly know what makes a “good school” is a high concentration of “good students”, and there just aren’t enough of those to go around. If parents find themselves unable to pay the prices in that bidding war either by money, grueling commutes, or other lifestyle sacrifices, then they’ll need another way to be selective about their kids’ friends.
CA10: Don’t Idolize the Family
This is one of those instances in which Dreher is using “idol” in the distinct and unconventional way of a subgroup of modern American Christians. What he seems to mean is “don’t worship your own family as if the members have no serious imperfections”, or “don’t romanticize all family life.” Ok, but these are common and obvious beliefs that have no pressing need of corrective action. Does anybody think attitudes toward the traditional nuclear family are too strong these days?
Dreher seems inconsistent and conflicted about the ideas of ‘extremism’ and ‘fanaticism’. On the one hand, he knows that he and many people of similar levels of Christian piety and devotion are regarded as akin to extremist fanatics by mainstream culture. Dreher in particular is accused of being so when he is perceived to be calling for the self-exile of Christians away from normal society.
But then, instead of concluding that there’s something fundamentally wrong at root with the idea of this kind of judgment, he tacitly concludes that it’s just wrong for him. He looks a little past where he happens to be and seems willing to turn that same artillery on others. He knows friends like him whose children lost their faith, and thinks it’s because of “the culture”, but when it happens to people more strict or alarmed than he is, it’s the parents’ fault, having “sheltered” them and “driven the children away.”
Aren’t the monks in the monasteries “fanatically religious”? Won’t the people in their Benedict Option communities be called “fanatics” and “cultists”, and indeed, with justice? Isn’t a ‘cloister’ a sheltering enclosure separate from the outside world? But if that’s what living the faith means, then what’s wrong with any of that?
My provisional conclusion is that because Dreher is a smart guy, he knows what he’s doing here, which is once again have to throw normals and the idea of ‘normalcy’ an occasional bone. That avoids the kind of triggers that make those normal people put up their mental shields and give themselves an easy out as a convenient justification to disengage from the whole uncomfortable topic.
Still, he’s doing the overall message of the book a disservice by using the same disparaging terms. Ask a typical European what he or she thinks about American Christians withdrawing from morally corrupting public schools and choosing to home-school. “Weird” and “Cult” and “Creepy” and “Fanatics” is exactly what you’ll hear. If that’s wrong – which it is – then what’s wrong with it that isn’t also wrong with Dreher’s vague prescriptions?
Here’s “Ellen”, an atheist brought up in a strict home by “fanatically” religious parents:
“My parents are a very paranoid people. They’re conspiracy theorists. They’re afraid that if they exposed their children to the outside world, we were going to be corrupted, because they see the world as this filthy, filthy place,” she told me. “That total sheltering is very damaging, and cutting yourself off from the world like that is exactly the kind of environment you need to develop a cult.”
I’ll ask again, if living the faith means it looks like a “cult” from the outside, then what’s wrong with a cult? Weren’t the early Christians we’re supposed to be learning from and imitating considered to be developing a cult by their pagan compatriots? Those pagans were right! But, so what?
And didn’t Dreher just spend half a book demonstrating the truth of the proposition that Ellen’s parents were, in the main, right? They have every right to be paranoid, and Dreher says earlier that ordinary Christians aren’t being paranoid enough. They are right to believe the outside world is corrupting and filthy, and Dreher says earlier that ordinary Christians are exposing themselves too much to it. Dreher just got done telling us not be scared to keep our families different and not to apologize to the kids for it.
Didn’t the Bendas tell these (completely accurate) tales to their own children, that their Communist-run world and most other people in it were full of nothing but evil and lies and that they were to trust no one else but those in the family and their small group of trusted relations, all keeping the faith together?
But please tell parents that if they want their kids to stay Christian, not to do what mine did. They smothered us and made us into rebels.
This isn’t an uncommon story, but that by no means makes it a true explanation of what really happened here. The fact that Hollywood seems particularly fond of it should clue one in to what’s really going on. A big role of human consciousness seems to be in concocting rationalizations and narratives and to tell ourselves ‘explanatory’ stories that have little to do with actual cause and effect, and everything to do with blame-shifting excuses that will be socially accepted by our audience.
First of all, as above, parents don’t make teens into ‘rebels’. Teens ‘rebel’ because they are conforming to new sources of ‘social authority’ which are displacing familial authority. If anything, it just reinforces the above point that Ellen’s parents failed because they lacked a village.
Second of all, for every story of ‘fanatical strictness’ that goes this way, there’s another that goes the other way, with children brought up to love and cherish their faith, keep it throughout their lives, and pass it on to their own children.
And finally, the real problem here is the lack of a full-life plan. That is, a place in the village for children, for students, for adults with young families, for the retired, and for everybody at every stage. What even the most devout Christians – especially Americans – have been doing instead is just “raise and release”. As with domesticated animals, this is a perfect recipe for quick feralization.
The Anglo-Saxon tradition of having children move away from home and establish their own distinct lives at relatively young ages could only work to preserve family traditions in a cultural environment in which the fact that those traditions were widely shared could be taken for granted. But, for the social influence reasons explained above, that practice has always been counterproductive for counterculturalists, which Christians now are. So “raise and release” will have to change too.
CA11: Live Close to Other Members of Your Community
Dreher explores the necessity of close proximity to one’s fellow congregants. Most people have experienced how, despite all our advanced coordination, transport, and scheduling technology, actually getting people together for anything is like herding cats, and moving around is now a time-consuming ordeal. A modern, working faith community that gets people together all the time simply can’t afford to have its members spread out, even just a few miles apart across the same urban area. Except for some orthodox Jews, most religious traditions in America don’t have experience with dictating where congregants actually live.
But for any Benedict Option to be viable, matters of real estate and concentration will have to have central importance to the overall plan. When done intentionally or inadvertently, such actions will have the effect of a kind of local development plan which resembles the process of gentrification, especially if the land started out cheap. Members of these communities will have to find ways to accomplish these ends without upsetting other neighbors or local civil authorities. And political experience teaches us that people can be quite passionate and determined when fighting over ‘turf’ like this.
Dreher then spends some time applauding the Mormon successes in this regard:
The Benedictines structure all their life – their work, their rest, their reading, their meals – around prayer. Christians in the world are not expected to live at the same level of focus and intensity as cloistered monks, but we should strive to be like them in erasing as much as possible the false distinction between church and life.
Recall that Brother Martin of Norcia believes that after experiencing life in Christian community, it’s hard to be fully Christian, or fully human, without it. The Latter-day Saints (LDS, or Mormons) may not be Orthodox Christians, but they are exceptionally good at doing the kind of community building that the monk suggests is a vital part of being a Christian.
… Mormons don’t believe in ward-hopping. They are assigned their ward based on where they live and have no rights of appeal. This compels them to work together to build a unified community of believers, not to wander in search of one. Givens calls this “Zion-building, not Zion-hunting” – a reference to the Mormon belief that adherents must lay the foundation for Zion, the community that Jesus Christ will establish at His return.
It’s worth pointing out that Mormons, in addition to many other distinct traditions, by virtue of having additional scriptures, have what is probably a built-in inoculation against church-swapping. This doesn’t protect members of orthodox Christian denominations, especially those of the Mainline Protestants which once regarded each other as different as night and day. Through convergent evolution to mainstream culture and progressive ideology, the mainlines can barely be distinguished from each other any longer, even by their own theologians.
Related to religious real-estate development plans, in the Eastern Orthodox Community in Eagle River, Alaska:
A number of cathedral families live within walking distance of the cathedral, on land purchased by church members decades ago, when it was affordable.
“When it was affordable.” Could that work elsewhere too?
Paul and Rachel’s parents were among the early settlers of a distressed neighborhood in Augusta, Georgia where the new community’s members could afford housing. They helped each other fix up their places and began life in common. Today the Alleluia Community has around eight hundred members, many of whom remain in Faith Village, which is what they call the original settlement.
A pattern emerges. The same was true for the early Catholic families trying to concentrate themselves in Hyattsville, Maryland. They got in while the getting was good, but part of the reason that particular neighborhood is no longer as affordable today is because by their very presence they made it a more desirable place to live, especially for each other.
There’s a trade-off between living inside family castles on the one hand, or walls for a whole community on the other.
Currie, a Catholic in Hyattsville, Maryland, believes that the atomizing structures of American suburban life make it harder to be truly Christian. “A lot of the choices we make about how we live have tremendous consequences spiritually,” says Currie. “The way postwar America decided it wanted to live accelerated the process of cultural disintegration and alienation we’ve all experienced. Secular writers have written about this, but Christians need to understand that as well.
…Though Hyattsville is now less affordable than it once was, more than one hundred Catholic families have relocated there, in large part because they wanted to be part of a thick community with a good parish – and now a good school.
… Their close-knit Catholic neighborhood gives them the nurturing they need to be strong witnesses to the faith in the secular city.
… The only way they can resist the pressures of worldliness and secularization is by living near each other and reinforcing their religious identity through life lived in common. Their thick community is a strong model of being in the world but not of it.
An analogy of what’s going on could be to nuclear enrichment of isotopes of Uranium. U238 is like the common mass of inert mainstream society and U235 is like members of a particular faith tradition. If there are too few of them, too far apart, ‘alienated’ from each other, the potential for interaction is neutralized, and their main distinguishing potentiality has no outlet for manifestation. But if enough of them are concentrated to high commonality and above a critical mass, then one has the ingredients for a sustainable chain reaction.
CA12: Make the Church’s Social Network Real
More on the successful example of the Mormons:
The LDS Church lives out that principle in a unique way. The Mormon practice of “home teaching” directs two designated Mormon holders of the church’s priestly office to visit every individual or family in a ward at least once a month, to hear their concerns and offer counsel.
… Non-Mormons can learn from the deliberate dedication that wards – at both leadership and lay levels – have to caring for each other spiritually. The church community is not merely the people one worships with on Sunday, but the people one lives with, serves, and nurtures, as if they were family members. What’s more, the church is the center of Mormon social life.
CA13: Reach Across Church Boundaries to Build Relationship
Colson and Neuhaus realized earlier than many that the post-1960s cultural changes meant that conservative Evangelicals and orthodox Catholics now had more in common with each other that with liberals in their own church traditions. They called their kind of partnership, born in part out of pro-life activism, an “ecumenicism of the trenches.”
Today, things have evolved and advanced to the point where the real distinction is between progressives and traditionalists of all stripes.
Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, a senior bishop in the Russian Orthodox Church, has on several occasions appealed to traditionalists in the West to form a “common front” against atheism and secularism. To be sure, the difference churches should not compromise their distinct doctrines, but they should nevertheless seize every opportunity to form friendships and strategic alliances in defense of the faith and the faithful.
CA14: Love the Community But Don’t Idolize It
Again with the ‘idolize’, and again Dreher seems inconsistent, conflicted, and somewhat naive for taking “Ellen’s” narrative at face value. The danger at present is the opposite of an excess of communitarianism.
Father Marc Dunaway, the cathedral’s pastor, lived through the painful departure of friends and family who left in search of a more rigorously observant Orthodoxy. In 2013, he told me, “I think the cure for any community to avoid these sad troubles is to be open and generous and to resist the urges to build walls and isolate itself.”
Like, say, a monastery?
“If you isolate yourself, you will become weird.” … The idea of community itself should not be allowed to become an idol. A community is a living organism that must change and grow and adapt.”
This is just dead wrong. It’s not coming out of his own mouth, but including this quote at all was Dreher’s biggest error in drafting the book. I’m not saying he should be wearing “Make Christianity Weird Again” baseball caps necessarily, but warning Christians to be wary of forging their own path because they might seem strange from some other perspective is antithetical to the rest of his premise.
First, that’s almost the exact same rhetoric used to advocate for a series of liberalizations that end in the dissolution of the original faith. The ‘idol’ language is meant to be a warning not to take anything to an inappropriate extreme, but that includes throwing around idol language every time someone wants to merely insinuate that they are on the ‘moderate’ side of a debate, but without actually making an argument. “Don’t idolize warnings not to idolize.”
And while it’s not Dreher saying it, ‘weird’ is a particularly daft word. As explained above, devout Christians of all stripes don’t just seem weird to secular types. Like it or not, and whether they want to admit it or not, Christians are indeed weird now.
Warnings about weirdness are faulty at root and play right into the pressure towards secularization. It is completely at odds with Moore’s statement that, “by losing its cultural respectability, the church is freer to be radically faithful.” Worrying about being ‘weird’ means worrying about losing cultural respectability, which, in effect, means the prohibition of radical faithfulness.
Here are some more examples to emphasize the point. Foreign cultures – the Japanese come to mind – are often considered ‘weird’ to Americans, but that’s more due to our prejudice and obliviousness to the narcissism of thinking our own narrow perspective is somehow objectively more valid, than having anything to do with them.
Some Mormon practices are seen as ‘weird’, and generate a lot of mean-spirited mockery, but laugh all you want, the Mormons are winning and probably in better shape than any other Christian group. Ultra Orthodox Jews seem really bizarre, especially with their unconventional costumes. But outside of Israel, and going by current demographic trends, in a generation or two, nearly all observant Jews will be Orthodox. Speaking of Israel, the story of that country and Zionism fits so well with Dreher’s premise that its absence comes off as a conspicuous omission from his book. After all, Israel is like a Benedict Option writ large – all the way up to national sovereignty.
The point of Israel in the classical Zionist conception is precisely to serve as a place of refuge and sanctuary for the people of a particular faith, to be a Jewish state, and one in which, almost anywhere one goes, one can’t help but breathe in Judaism with the air. That is, to be the easiest place on earth to be authentically Jewish. I understand that if Dreher even mentioned Israel it would open up a completely distracting can of worms, and that he was wise to avoid it. Still, what Benedict Option Christians want and need are their own little Zions.
And speaking of foreign places, the past, too, “… is a foreign country; they do things different there.” Weird things. At least, to modern eyes. But if we are going to look backwards for inspiration and examples of how to live in a new, harder age, then we are going to have to recognize that ‘weird’ is a bogus group insult.
On the other hand, when applied to particular, socially-malfunctioning individuals, ‘weirdo’ has a much more legitimate and justified meaning, and talking about it is a good occasion to bring up the problem of screening bad characters out.
The reasons are complex, but it seems clear that something about our modern culture produces a lot of maladjusted and unstable castaways from mainstream society, the majority of which are incorrigible misfits because psychologically defective in some way. They think they just need a different home, and maybe some do. But unfortunately, many of them are the kind of people who can’t do well in any home, and will cause trouble, sooner or later. Because they don’t fit in with the mainstream, they are driven by loneliness, status-craving, and instinct to try and find a place for themselves in some countercultural community.
And there are lots and lots of them, so they will tend to show up in numbers that overwhelm the psychologically healthy if one is not careful about it. But a community consisting of a persecuted minority depends absolutely on the quality, loyalty, and reliability of its members, and is least able to deal with such types. Open entry is not an option without guaranteeing a quick descent to the lowest common denominator. They much be excluded, and, alas, such exclusion will probably be seen as very unchristian, because it’s not ‘nice’.
Which, yeah, it kind of isn’t. But here’s the thing – it’s possible to “Make an idol of Christianity” too, in a “mistaking the map for the territory” kind of way. Christianity can go off the rails in self-destructive and counterproductive ways too. To prevent certain bad tendencies from running amok, they must be balanced by the limiting principle of Perpetuationism. In the language of ecology, it must maintain its character as an adaptive and evolutionarily stable strategy, or else go extinct. Christian principles taken to self-destructive extremes in the past include xenophilia, socialism, and pacifism, and each of these have required correctives of one sort or another. In this case, charity, hospitality, and inclusiveness will have to be tempered by prudent caution. Personnel is policy, and a community can never allow itself to be turned into a flophouse, a bothy for itinerant transients, or a public restroom.
CA15: Don’t Let the Perfect Be the Enemy of the Good Enough
If you spend too much time planning and trying to build the perfect Benedict Option community, you will never start. And if you wait around for the church, or someone else, to get something going, it may never happen. What are you waiting for?
Part of the hesitation is the instinct that any such project presents a massive coordination / “Aumann common knowledge” problem that, by its inherent social nature, requires a lot of people to sign on all at once. Which they won’t do, unless they feel certain that everyone else will too. One needs to gauge real levels of interest and commitment, but you can’t really obtain reliable information leading to accurate predictions by merely asking people to provide a costless and riskless indication of interest.
Fortunately, commitment vouching and threshold-triggering techniques like the crowdfunding approach used by Kickstarter are emerging to help solve these coordination problems. Those who wish to form new Benedict Option communities would be advised to learn more about them.
Dreher highlights the encouraging example of the Tipi Loschi (“Usual Suspects”) community of San Benedetto del Tronto, Italy.
“The possibility to live like this is for everyone,” says Sermarini. “We have only to follow an old way to do things that we always had but lost some years ago. The main thing is not to go with the mainstream. Then seek God, and after that, look for others who are also serious about seeking God, and join them. …”
Though an ocean separates them, Leah Libresco (now Leah Sargeant) understands what Sermarini is talking about. She is a Catholic and effervescent Benedict Option social entrepreneur who lives in New York City with her husband Alexi. Before they married in 2016, Libresco organized Benedict Option events among her young single Christian friends in Washington, D.C. She started doing this after becoming convinced that her circle needed more Christian cultural liturgies in their daily lives.
“I used to do thing with my Christian friends, and we knew we were all Christian, but the fact that we were Christian never came up,” she says. “There’s something weird when none of the communal parts of your life are overtly Christian. The Benedict Option is about creating the opportunity for those things to happen. It doesn’t feel urgent, but it’s really important.”
Dreher concludes with a familiar focus on family and education:
In the years to come, Christians will face mounting pressure to withdraw their children from public schools. Secular private schools may offer a better education, but their moral and spiritual ethos will likely be scarcely better. And established Christian schools may not be sufficiently orthodox, academically challenging, or morally sound. A tight communal network generates the social capital needed to launch a school, or to reform and revive an existing one.
It’s hard to overstate the importance of the Christian educational mission. Aside from building up the assembly of believers in the church, there is no more important institutional work to be done in the Benedict Option.
Chapter 7: Education as Christian Formation
With the dawn breaking from the long Communist night, Vaclav Benda reflected on what he and his allies in the dissident movement had accomplished to that point. Benda was disappointed by their failure to establish much of a parallel polis, but one failure in particular he described as catastrophic: their inability to establish a schooling system that would provide alternative education to the state’s.
… Why had they failed? Their efforts had been too exclusive, and the forms too flawed. Even as it loosened the bonds in other areas of civic life, the Communist state kept its iron grip on education. And, said Benda, the destruction of the Czech family under Communism made it difficult for any educational reform to succeed.
Two observations worth pointing out. First, Czechia, while an astoundingly impressive economic recovery case and an increasingly prosperous nation, has not recovered culturally, at least insofar as levels of fertility and religiosity are concerned. There are few large and devoutly Catholic families like the Bendas left. But while the Communist tyranny undoubtedly played some role, in these matters Czechia does not seem all that different from other prosperous European countries, and so it seems clear that Benda was fighting a phenomenon of cultural transformation even bigger than the influence of Communist totalitarianism.
And second, while it’s easy to overplay the role and exaggerate the influence of education, everyone still recognizes how important it can be. This obviously includes the state, as demonstrated in this case even while it was relaxing controls on everything else. Any attempt to wrest control over education from the government and which the state perceives is opposed and threatening to its interests will clearly be met with whatever legal and political measures are thought necessary to neutralize that threat. It will be either in hard forms like outlawing homeschooling (as many other countries do), or softer forms such as curriculum control, ideologically problematic mandates, exclusion from competitions and other opportunities to demonstrate talent and merit, disqualification for grants or scholarships, or refusal to accredit, certify, or grant certain credentials, which are de facto requirements for many careers.
The state is likely content with an outcome such that the choice of non-state-sanctioned educational options means a loss of respectability and recognition so severe that it effectively means sacrificing any chance of a normal, successful life for any talented student. This creates a heart-wrenching situation for his or her parents who are forced to decide between their faith and their duty to improve the welfare of their children.
Benedict Option communities will have to stay out of politics whenever possible, but it seems likely that in the particular matter of education, broad autonomy and near immunity from state intervention and oversight must be fought for as a non-negotiable priority. It’s so important that it’s even worth the cost of some inevitable unfortunate cases of incompetent and inadequate instruction. For if, in the name of preventing those cases, education is to be regulated, supervised, and made to conform with the state’s will, ever other matter will come to be regulated as well.
The cloud of Communist tyranny did produce a strange silver lining in the Captive Nations, in much the same way that the ghettoization of the European Jews preserved them in their Judaism.
From Catholic Poland came the sparks – in the form of the Solidarity labor movement and Karol Wojtyla, Pope John Paul II – that ignited the fire that burned Communism to the ground. And yet today Poles like the Catholic philosopher and former dissident Ryszard Legutko lament that the faith and culture his people preserved through the dark night of totalitarianism are dissolving.
Don’t be too sad for the Catholic Poles in losing the dark night that inspired them to keep a candle lit, because it turns out they are in luck. Fortunately for them, the European Union seems determined to offer a soft and bureaucratic substitute for foreign domination by a totalitarian menace. And, at least at the moment, it seems like Poles are reacting with their characteristic failure to submit.
Meanwhile, in America, the fact that we are our own enemies in the Cold Civil War fails to trigger similar reactive impulses.
We traditional Christians in America can learn from both Eastern European examples. We face nothing so terrible as the Czechs did under Soviet domination, of course, but the more insidious forces of secular liberalism are steadily achieving the same aim: robbing us and future generations of our religious beliefs, moral values, and cultural memory, and making us pawns of forces beyond our control.
“The Great Erasure.”
What work is presently being done?
Today, across the Christian community, there is a growing movement called classical Christian education. It is countercultural in both form and content and presents to students the Western tradition – both Greco-Roman and Christian – in all its depth. Doing it right requires a level of effort and commitment that contemporary Americans are not accustomed to – but what alternative do we have?
The stories of these schools provide plenty of causes for both optimism and pessimism. On the pessimistic side, in 2013 Charles Murray wrote about a secular classical school’s experience with a government jealous of its control over employment and the curriculum.
From the beginning, the administrators of the Frederick County Public Schools (FCPS) were openly hostile to the idea of a classical curriculum and threw up one frivolous bureaucratic roadblock after another. Now, in the last months before the school is finally scheduled to open this fall, the FCPS has informed these parents that they can’t hire the nine teachers that they had selected after vetting 300 applications. Instead, under Maryland law, the school can be forced to accept teachers on the county’s “to be placed list”—in other words, teachers who the FCPS would otherwise let go. Furthermore, the parents running the school cannot even interview them—nor learn their names, nor have any other way to get an idea whether these teachers have any understanding of the classical curriculum or the ability or motivation to teach it. The FCPS can simply force placement of the teachers it can’t use in any of its other schools.
This is not an isolated case. The charter school movement can supply hundreds of them. It just happens to be one that has happened close to me. It is representative of the kind of naked display of power that increasingly happens throughout government—in the schools, the regulatory agencies, the tax authorities, at the county, state and federal levels alike. Americans who are acting in ways our civic culture has traditionally celebrated—harming no one, just trying make a living or build a business or, in this case, collaborate to educate their children—find themselves balked at, forbidden, and in some cases prosecuted, by bureaucracies that increasingly exist to protect themselves and their own interests, and have gathered unto themselves the power to do so. This is not a partisan issue. It represents a betrayal of what America is supposed to be about.
But there are many equally positive stories that shine a light through the darkness.
And what about after high school, to deal with the “raise and release” problem?
To that end, one of the most important pieces of the Benedict Option movement is the spread of classical Christian schools. Rather than letting their children spend forty hours a week learning “facts” with a few hours of worldview education slapped on top, parents need to pull them from public schools and provide them with an education that is rightly ordered – that is, one based on the premise that there is a God-given, unified structure to reality and that it is discoverable. They need to teach them Scripture and history. And they should not stop after twelfth grade – a Christian plan for higher education is also needed.
Progressives are not used to arguing for the value of public education with the same terms that the military uses to describe its goal of creating camaraderie and esprit de corps. That is, of inculcating a homogeneity of outlook that helps foster shared experiences and group consciousness, of common dedication to higher ideals, of national coherence and cohesion and collective patriotism instead of segregated insularity, and so forth. But watch the progressives turn on a dime and wrap themselves in the flag when it’s Christians talking about withdrawing from public schools en masse. That’s a trigger as effective as a matador’s cape is to a raging bull.
And, sadly, they’ll have a point too. These things are valuable, and reluctantly abandoning them out of necessity is the definition of tragedy. But, alas, the deterioration of the political and cultural situation has gone far past the point of any state of tolerance or feasible reconciliation that would make these various, legitimate values compatible once more. We must leave behind these dashed hopes, and with faith in Providence, sail into uncharted territory.
At any rate, if Benedict Optioners need a higher education plan, then when does the Christian learning stop after that? The answer is clear: it doesn’t.
The obvious implication of all this emphasis on education is the need for an institutional arrangement that insists upon a perpetual lifetime of learning, and of staying together with one’s ‘classmates’ for as much of one’s life as feasible. This is the kind of attitude toward constant religious learning that is behind the use of the Yiddish terms shul (“school”) and batei midrash (“houses of studying”) for synagogues.
If we start to pull all of Dreher’s suggestions into a synthesis we get something approaching a residential college campus. Once again, we see that universities are the most reliable guides for how to preserve and adapt traditional religious institutions like monasteries and project them into the modern age while maintaining their function. Like military bases abroad, residents would likely spend most of their time and social interactions with each other, living in ‘base housing’ or barracks, dormitories, faculty quarters, or fraternity group arrangements, and with everything revolving around the primary mission of the community.
And, conveniently, with just a few exceptions so far, universities are granted a legal status that affords them a remarkably broad degree of autonomy, selectivity, and the right to police the behavior of all members of the campus community. Children and young students would go to school full time, but even working adults can come together and take a night class every semester, according to their availability and intellectual capability, and for the rest of their lives.
Such a community is more like a village or shtetl that can adapt and expand its capacity to deal with all the various needs of its members. They may even find ways to network with each other for the sake of employment opportunities. And, as has been known to happen on campuses on occasion, they may even be able to fall in love with each other, and then form their families in the warm supporting embrace and cultural consistency of their fellow residents.
The setup could be one of clear physical enclosure like a ‘gated community’, or an informal amalgamation combining a lot of small and close properties together. But either way, some sort of ‘religious campus’ is the only sort of thing that has any hope of solving all the big problems at once.
More on classical Christian schooling:
Educator Martin Cothran, a national leader in the classical Christian school movement, says that many Christians today don’t realize how the nature of education has changed over the past hundred years. The progressivism of the 1920s involved using schools to change the culture. The vocationalism of the 1940s and 1950s tried to use schools to conform children to the culture. But the traditional way of education, which reigned from the Greco-Roman period until the modern era, was about passing on a culture and one culture in particular: the culture of the West, and for most of that time, the Christian West.
A good commentary about this Great Tradition and the changes in pedagogy can be found in Nock’s famous collection of lectures, The Theory of Education in the United States. Cothran continues:
“The classical education of the pagans that was transformed by the church attempted to inculcate in each new generation an idea of what a human being should be, through constantly having examples of ideal humanity set in front of it, and by studying the great deeds of great men,” Cothran told me. “This was a culture with a definite and distinctive goal: to pass on the wisdom of the past and then produce another generation with the same ideals and values – ideals and values based on its vision of what a human being was.
That is: Perpetuationism. That old system which emphasized the cultural continuity of the Great Tradition and which focused on character formation over utility worked very well for a very long time. With luck, we can hope it will again.
“That’s what education was for over two millennia,” he continued. “It is now something that retains the old label, but is not the same thing. It is not even the same kind of thing. It has been abandoned in the modern school – including many Christian ones. Even many Christian parents who do not accept the political correctness of today’s schools have completely bought into the utilitarian concept of education.”
Dreher calls for a balanced and combined approach:
If it’s true that a simplistic, anti-intellectual Christian faith is a thin reed in the gale of academic life, it is also true that faith that’s primarily intellectual – that is, a matter of mastering information – is deceptively fragile. Equipping Christian students to thrive in a highly secularized, even hostile environment is not a matter of giving them a protective shell. The shell may crack under pressure or be discarded. Rather, it must be about building internal strength of mind and heart.
It will probably require something extra, too. Children will have to be taught an accurate and measured story about how and why it all went wrong in the secular mainstream, why the differences are significant and unbridgeable, and why it’s important that they withdraw and keep their distance to the greatest extent possible. As of yet, Christians have been both reluctant and incompetent at researching and imparting this state of affairs, and that will have to change.
CA16: Teach The Children Scripture
Some disturbing quotes from professors at religious colleges.
“You would be surprised by how many of our students come here knowing next to nothing about the Bible,” he said sadly. “A lot of our students come here from some of the most highly regarded Catholic schools in this region,” said one professor. “They don’t know anything about their faith and don’t see the problem. They’ve had it drummed into their heads that Catholicism is anything they want it to be.”
Which raises the question: how did such utter failure of religious instruction come about at these supposedly Catholic schools? But the broader point is that widespread ignorance is a real problem even in the best of circumstances. Religious scripture, doctrine, commentary, and history cannot be an optional sideshow or mere elective; they must be part of the daily life of study.
Again, we can learn from Jewish education here. Charles Chaput, the Catholic archbishop of Philadelphia, witnessed the power of Orthodox Jewish education on a 2012 visit to Yeshiva University. After observing students studying Torah as part of the university’s basic coursework, Chaput wrote how impressed he was by “the power of Scripture to create new life.”
Imagine multiple generations of entire families living at and attending a lifetime version of their religion’s approach to Yeshiva University together.
CA17: Immerse the Young in the History of Western Civilization
Education not only has to reset our relationship to ultimate reality, it also must reestablish our connection to history. That is, education is key to the recovery of cultural memory. The deeper our roots in the past, the more secure our anchor against the swift currents of liquid modernity. The greater our understanding of where we came from, the more securely we can stand in the post-Christian present, and the more confidently we can chart a course for the post-Christian future.
Dreher’s appeal is to connect people of the present to their deep heritage and to honor and carry on the memory of the entire long chain of their predecessors. Notice how opposite this spirit is from the recent trend of the Great Erasure, the PC-based implementation of damnatio memoriae which involves blotting out every public trace of each and every historical figure who would not be found perfectly compliant with today’s dyspathetic sensibilities. The effect of all of which is to alienate moderns from their history, focus on condemnation instead of respect, insist on the past’s irrelevance instead of the idea of that history containing insights worthy of modern consideration. To break any sense of continuity or commonality, gratitude or duty.
We have already gone a long way in that direction.
Consider the recent lament of Notre Dame political theorist Patrick Deneen. In an essay published in an online education blog, Deneen said his students are nice, pleasant, decent young men and women, but they are also “know-nothings” whose “brains are largely empty” of any meaningful knowledge. “They are the culmination of Western civilization, a civilization that has forgotten nearly everything about itself, and as a result, has achieved near-perfect indifference to its own culture.”
… However intelligent and accomplished they may be, these young people could be one of the last generations of this thing called Western civilization. They don’t even know what they don’t know – and they don’t care. Why should they? As with their scant knowledge of the Christian faith, they are only doing what their parents, their schools, and their culture have taught them.
Alas, it’s nothing new.
The angry secular prophet Philip Rieff, surveying the wreckage of universities in the wake of the counterculture’s protests, unleashed a thundering jeremiad against the higher educational establishment back in the 1970s. In his 1973 book Fellow Teachers, Rieff, also a college professor, excoriated educators for acquiescing to trendy student demands for “relevance”. In Rieff’s jaundiced view, they surrendered their magisterial authority and abdicated their responsibility to pass to the next generation their civilizational inheritance. “At the end of this tremendous cultural development, we moderns shall arrive at barbarism,” Rieff wrote. “Barbarians are people without historical memory. Barbarism is the real meaning of radical contemporaneity. Released from all authoritative pasts, we progress towards barbarism, not away from it.
Dreher makes a common complaint that his ‘higher education’ left him almost entirely ignorant of even the basics:
In all my years of formal schooling, I never read Plato or Aristotle, Homer or Virgil. I knew nothing of Greek or Roman history … I knew only the barest facts about Luther’s revolution. I was ignorant of Descartes and Newton. My understanding of Western history began with the Enlightenment. Everything that came before it was lost behind a misty curtain of forgetting.
As bad as that sounds, it’s even worse today, when historical instruction and knowledge even for ‘educated’ individuals tends to fall off a cliff if it was more than 100 years ago.
CA18: Pull Your Children Out of Public Schools
This section will probably strike the average reader as the most radical and personally burdensome element of Dreher’s counsel.
Because public education in America is neither rightly ordered, not religiously informed, nor able to form an imagination devoted to Western civilization, it is time for all Christians to pull their children out of the public school system.
There’s the matter of ideological conflict as well.
Plus, public schools by nature are on the front lines of the latest and worst trends in popular culture. For example, under pressure from the federal government and LGBT activists, many school systems are now welcoming and normalizing transgenderism – with the support of many parents.
Or, just as often, without the support of many parents. Or even the knowledge of many parents, who either aren’t informed about these matters, or, sometimes, and even in the cases of their own children, are simply lied to by school staff as implementations of official policy, when such lying is deemed to be more fully consistent with being an ‘ally’ to those children, in the name of an Orwellian version of “safety”.
There’s not much hope in fixing the public schools in this regard.
Few parents have the presence of mind and strength of character to do what’s necessary to protect their children from forms of disordered sexuality accepted by mainstream American youth culture. For one thing, the power of the media to set the terms of what’s considered normal is immense, and it affects adults as well as children. For another, parents are just as susceptible to peer pressure as their children are.
Most Christian parents understand all this on some level. But understanding the cost of the implications to be too high to bear, they are desperate to concoct absurd rationalizations for doing nothing.
Some tell themselves that their children need to remain there to be “salt and light” to the other kids. As popular culture continues its downward slide, however, this rationale begins to sounds like a rationalization. It brings to mind a father who tosses his child into a whitewater river in the hope that she’ll save another drowning child.
CA19: Don’t Kid Yourself About Christian Schools
Many American Christian schools are hardly Christian in anything more than name only, as a mere carryover from more religiously serious origins. Many of them gradually succumbed to the various competitive and market pressures to be little more than another typical private prep school, and a means to non-religious ends.
The principal of one Christian high school told me that he and his faculty are constantly battling parents who find the serious moral and theological content of the curriculum too burdensome for their children. “All they think about is getting their kids into a top university and launching them into a good career,” he said. Another principal, this one at a pricey Christian academy in the Deep South, said, “Our parents think if they’ve paid their seventeen-thousand-dollar tuition bill, they’ve done all that’s expected of them about their child’s religious education.”
CA20: Start Classical Christian Schools
As mentioned above, we live in an era of specialization, which includes the compartmentalization and disaggregation of the ‘trades’ underlying many social interactions. An individual these days, especially as enabled by new technologies, may have different and non-overlapping sets of ‘friends’ specific to the contexts of work, sports, studies, games, intellectual conversations, and so forth.
That’s completely different than doing everything with the same set of friends, even if it’s by necessity, and when it often means at least one person in the group isn’t particular interested in the event of the moment. That’s not very ‘efficient’ in a technical sense, even though sticking with the same group of friends in a variety of contexts has a value all its own.
The former situation allows for a variety of context-specific ‘identities’, whereas the latter scenario of being a ‘known quantity’ compels a static personality from context to context. Scott Adams has a famous and controversial blog post about the potential for individuals to disaggregate marriage itself. That current flows against the kinds of deep, multi-contextual human relationships needed to form the foundation of a strong and durable religious community. Such communities will need to focus intently on pulling the fraying strands back in and weaving them together in a sustained effort at reaggregation.
A good classical Christian school not only teaches students the Bible and Western civilization but also integrates students into the life of the church. At the newly opened Saint Constantine School in Houston, a classical Christian school in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, president John Mark Reynolds’s model integrates the school as much as possible with families and churches. He calls it a kind of “new monasticism” that seeks to harmonize church, school, and family life for its students.
In the American context there’s a potential legal benefit too, though one that will likely be vulnerable to sustained litigious onslaught.
School-church integration in a post-Christian age also has a practical benefit. Existing under the umbrella of a church offers legal protection not available to other Christian schools. Legal experts say that Christian schools facing antidiscrimination challenges in court have greater protection if they can demonstrate that they are clearly and meaningfully guided by established doctrines of a particular church and can demonstrate they enforce those doctrines.
CA21: No Classical Christian School? Then Homeschool
Again, this applies mostly to Americans who, when compared to the rest of the prosperous West (e.g.), enjoy this nearly unique right, and the wide latitude to teach their children in their homes as they see fit, so long as they meet some minimal requirements.
The trouble is that homeschooling comes at the opportunity cost of one spouse’s potential income. In a society in which most households are supported by one breadwinner, that wouldn’t present an insupportable burden. But dual-income households have constituted a majority of families for nearly half a century. The economic logic of the two-income trap means that failing to keep up with the rat race can yield a substantial drop in one’s standard of living and ability to afford a home in a quality neighborhood.
But it is possible for some, provided they are willing to live ascetically. Maggie added that she and her fellow homeschooling moms are surrendering careers, success, and given the local cost of living, significant material wealth for the sake of their children.
The deeply faithful will of course give up nearly everything for God, but as a purely practical matter, encouraging the marginal cases to ramp up their pious observance at life-altering cost is an awfully hard sell.
And it’s not just about quality of life. The answer to “So, what do you do?” is one of the core ways that people signal their social status to each other: how they show off their impressiveness and ‘interestingness’. Women tend to be particularly sensitive to these matters and, in this post-feminist era, feel intense pressure to provide a careerist answer.
This fills an isolated mother with pangs of doubt, regret, frustration, and restlessness. Having a social scene of other mothers where religious homeschooling is uniformly highly encouraged, respected, and perceived as both normal and noble is essential. It reverses the polarity of those pressures and provides the kind of social reinforcement which enables confidence, satisfaction, and pride.
CA22: The Benedict Option and the University
Dreher reviews some promising experiments at Christian campuses and among religious groups at conventional campuses, in the direction of students helping each other to live more fully and faithfully religious lives. That includes anti-vice social support systems to help people resist degrading and sinful temptations that would overwhelm them in isolation.
There were small but strict rules too. No girls in private rooms with closed doors. No alcohol except in the rooms of those of legal drinking age. Some men who struggled with pornography would leave their laptops out in the common room so they would not be tempted.
It worked wonders. Metge said that life in Chancellot gave him a level of emotional and spiritual health and stability that he had never experienced.
That’s impressive, but it’s hard to avoid the impression that they are fighting the steepest uphill battle in the presence of the ceaseless bacchanal that constitutes the only real ‘common culture’ at many American college campuses. The need to form and remain within one’s own institutions remains.
The specter of persecution in the name of ‘antidiscrimination’ now persistently looms over the roofs of religious institutions. The trouble is that advocates had long tried to convince the jurisprudential community that the analogy between racial matters and those like sexuality – which touch on the core of religious convictions – is legally isomorphic. That process is now nearly complete, to the point where it will inevitably be deemed to justify any action which was ever judged permissible in the fight against racial discrimination. The precedent of the Bob Jones case extending to non-racial matters is now what animates most of the justified fear.
The moment which made the danger clear happened during the oral arguments in the Obergefell case, when Justice Alito engaged then-Solicitor General Verrilli in the following dialogue:
Alito: “Well, in the Bob Jones case, the Court held that a college was not entitled to tax-exempt status if it opposed interracial marriage or interracial dating. So, would the same apply to a university or college if it opposed same-sex marriage?”
Verrilli: “You know, I – I don’t think I can answer that question without knowing more specifics, but it’s certainly going to be an issue. I — I don’t deny that. I don’t deny that, Justice Alito. It is — it is going to be an issue.”
Disaccreditation is one possible consequence of fights over that issue.
While groups like Metge’s will help students retain their faith in college as it is now, they may be even more vital in the future. If the much-feared attempts to strip academic accreditation from Christian colleges and universities on antidiscrimination grounds materialize and succeed, there will be many fewer places for believing students to go and for faithful professors to teach.
The problems at Catholic colleges mirror those at Catholic secondary schools. Catholicism doesn’t come first; mainstream ideological respectability does.
Anthony Esolen agrees. A well-known literature professor, Dante translator, and orthodox Catholic, Esolen came under intense fire in the fall of 2016 within his own school, Catholic-run Providence College, for speaking out against what he believed was the administration’s attempt to gut its Catholic identity for the sake of multiculturalism.
CA23: Go Back to the Classics and Forward to the Future
Classical Christian education is the new counterculture. In just over a century, Christians have gone from the center of American culture to its margins. Let’s own our status and be proud of it. “A dead thing goes with the stream, but only a living thing goes against it,” said G.K. Chesterton.
… Peering into the near future, the world of work looks uncertain for everyone, especially for Christians. The practical challenges facing us are unlike any that most believers in this country have ever dealt with. Schools and colleges – morally, spiritually, and vocationally – will have to prepare young believers for some increasingly harsh realities.
Chapter 8: Preparing for Hard Labor
In the age now falling upon us, Brother Francis and the Benedictine model of sanctifying ordinary labor will be a model for traditional Christians in our professional lives, in important ways. First of all, the Benedictine model reminds us that work and worship are integrated and that our careers are not separate from our faith. Seconds, it reminds us that manual labor is a gift – a gift that Christians may have to rediscover if post-Christianity squeezes us out of the professions.
CA24: What Work is For
The title of this section is not really a “corrective action”, which would more properly be “Remember what work is supposed to be for, from a Christian perspective.”
Balance is key. There’s a reason why the Rule prescribes labor only certain hours of the day. Work is a good thing, even a holy thing, but it must not be allowed to dominate one’s life. If it does, our vocation could become an idol. Recall that if an abbot sees that a monk craftsman is taking undue pride in his work, the Rule requires the abbot to reassign him. It’s a harsh penalty, but one that reminds all Christians that our labor derives its ultimate value from the role it plays in God’s economy.
CA25: Burning Incense to Caesar
Again, as a corrective action, it would be “Don’t allow yourself to succumb to the temptation to burn incense to Caesar to purchase peace.”
And you will be temped, because things and choices will get hard soon.
We may not (yet) be at the point where Christians are forbidden to buy and sell in general without state approval, but we are on the brink of entire areas of commercial and professional life being off-limits to believers whose consciences will not allow them to burn incense to the gods of our age.
… As the LGBT agenda advances, broad interpretations of antidiscrimination laws are going to push traditional Christians increasingly out of the marketplace, and the corporate world will become hostile toward Christian bigots, considering them a danger to the working environment.
The pressure is already mounting.
Among the criteria the foundation used in its 2016 evaluations was that “senior management/executive performance measures include LGBT diversity metrics.” A company that wants to win the foundation’s seal of approval will have to show concrete proof that it is advancing the LGBT agenda in the workplace. The “ally” phenomenon – straight people publicly declaring themselves to be supporters of the LGBT agenda – is one way companies can both demonstrate progress to gay rights campaigners, as well as identify dissenters who may stand in the way of progress.
… These workers fear that this is soon going to serve as a de facto loyalty oath for Christian employees – and if they don’t sign it, so to speak, it will mean the end of their jobs and possibly even their careers. To sign the oath, they believe, would be the modern equivalent of burning a pinch of incense before a statue of Caesar.
It is now Christians who have to choose between being “out” or in the closet, and who would stand to benefit from a normative institution such as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” that discourages any workplace actions that touch these sensitive matters.
There is plenty of reason for alarm.
Everyone working for a major corporation will be frog-marched through “diversity and inclusion” training and will face pressure not simply to tolerate LGBT co-workers but to affirm their sexuality and gender identity.
Plus, companies that don’t abide by state and federal antidiscrimination statues covering LGBTs will not be able to receive government contracts.
That’s a big deal when the state plays such a large role in almost every industry in the overall economy, and dominates contracting for entire major sectors.
In fact, according to one religious liberty litigator who has had to defend clients against an exasperating array of antidiscrimination lawsuits, the only thing standing between an employer or employee and a court action is the imagination of LGBT plaintiffs and their lawyers.
“We are all vulnerable to such targeting,” he said.
Says a religious liberty lawyer, “There is no looming resolution to these conflicts, no plateau that we’re about to reach. Only intensification. It’s a train that won’t stop so long as there is momentum and track.”
The progressives see the matter as a moral imperative, the political implementation of which admits no logically limiting principle. There will be no ‘plateau’ at all. Dreher mentions real cases and possibilities involving medicine, the law, public accommodations, and government, all of which leaves one wondering, “What’s going to be left?” It’s a good question.
CA26: Be Prudent
Basically, try to avoid open conflict on these matters whenever possible and consistent with one’s sense of integrity. For any party certain to lose a major dispute, it’s not about “choosing one’s battles” so much as attempting to dodge them in every feasible circumstance.
Silence does not always mean acquiescence, and in some cases it may be a wiser and more loving approach. In the end, we may be required to lose our jobs and even, alas, more. But aggressive workplace challenges to our faith can sometimes be deflected or stalled by a saintly exercise in prudence. Silence can be a shield.
CA27: Be Bold
Dreher says Christians should seriously consider switching fields.
… Christians need to ask themselves some tough questions. Am I called to work in this industry? If so, how do I live faithfully within it? If not, can I find a safer line of work?
CA28: Be Entrepreneurial
Now is the time for Christians whose livelihoods may be endangered to start thinking and acting creatively in professional fields still open to us without risk of compromise. The goal is to create business and career opportunities for Christians who have been driven out of other industries and professions.
Yeah, sounds good. But talk about having to deal with the problem of antidiscrimination lawsuits. Dreher says one outlet for entrepreneurial energies will be satisfying the demands of other Christians for specifically Christian goods and services. For example, for wholesome entertainment content and modest clothing.
An example of the potential market for these products, could be several Mormon companies including CleanFlicks and VidAngel (the latter claiming to operate under the ‘filtering’ provisions of 2005 Familiy Movie Act). These specialized for a time in Bowdlerizing popular films to remove all morally objectionable and inappropriate material, and then distributing those edited version to the pent-up demand of a large market particularly sensitive to those matters. The demand was there, proving the potential. But in these particular cases the major movie studios were not cooperative with the project, to put it mildly.
CA29: Buy Christian, Even If It Costs More
If one could actually get people to do it, and the prices were only slightly higher and quality the same, then the idea might have some merit. But the history of other such efforts outside of immigrant enclaves is not very encouraging. Free-rider and coordination problems make boycotts or ‘reverse-boycotts’ hard to pull off, just as the “Buy American” campaign fizzled out to little effect. The Nation of Islam once tried something like this (and in its characteristically zany way), but again, it all amounted to very little and eventually disappeared. Mass market products and commodities are probably not good candidates for this kind of strategy. However, personal services marketed via social networks present a much more plausible case.
CA30: Build Christian Employment Networks
This suggestion speaks for itself. But the trouble is that most businesses operate in highly competitive markets. That means that any distortion from meritocracy – to include religious favoritism – tends to introduce extra costs that are prohibitive because they make a firm less competitive. At least, outside special circumstances in which one is somehow able to derive large dividends from uniquely high levels of social capital. Another possibility could be when top workers are willing to work for lower wages at a firm more friendly to their values, or perhaps under pressure from their community and family members.
CA31: Rediscover the Trades
Dreher discusses the example of manufacturing jobs in the mostly Catholic community of Elk County, Pennsylvania.
If you have a strong work ethic, can pass a drug test, and can be trusted to show up on time, Elk County has a job for you. Its local manufacturers know that within ten years, they will need ten thousand workers to replace the skilled laborers who are retiring.
… MacDonald says there’s already a good basis for a Catholic Benedict Option community there. There are plenty of churches, a great Catholic school system that’s improving, and a culturally conservative ethos that’s family-friendly. Plus, it’s affordable: you can get a good house for around sixty thousand dollars, which is not much more than many skilled laborers make in a year.
The catch is that you have to work in a factory … And you have to live in a place MacDonald describes as “in the middle of nowhere”.
Unfortunately, those are likely not the only catches. There are advancing technological developments steadily increasing the power, capability, and cost-competitiveness of automation substitutes for human labor, which includes skilled labor. There are threats from globalization, foreign competition, and plain old outsourcing.
Elk County could be a model for the future, but there are also big risks. There are no guarantees in life, and things like Elk County sound like risks worth taking. But other, similar towns became bombed-out, rust belt zombies, depressing shells of their former selves.
Elk County might be special, though. The question remains whether such a strategy can scale to be employed by Christians across the West. These are just extremely hard problems, they face every developed country in the world, and no one seems to know what to do about them. Manufacturing jobs may be part of the solution, but won’t be enough for the majority of people looking for Benedict Option alternatives.
MacDonald continues trying to sell his community:
If you’re in a place in your life where you decide that you can’t work for your company because you can’t be an ally, Elk County might make sense,” he says. “Nobody’s going to ask a die-setter to be an ally. They don’t care.”
If recent history has taught us anything, it is that they will be made to care.
“You can’t make a living as a farmer, but you can make a living as a die-setter,” says MacDonald. “Industrialism is the new agrarianism. It’s not back to the land, but back to the trades.”
People used to be able to make a living as farmers, but now they can’t. If industrialism is the new agrarianism, the risk is that the same thing is coming for our die-setters and tradesmen. How long until all die-setting is done by robots? It’s not that far away; it’s going to happen in our own lifetimes. Elk County will adapt, but whether there will be enough manufacturing jobs left to go around remains an open question.
CA32: Prepare to be Poorer and More Marginalized
Times are going to get very tough for the faithful, and they will need to help each other out.
When that price needs to be paid, Benedict Option Christians should be ready to support one another economically – through offering jobs, patronizing businesses, professional networking, and so forth.
… Given how much Americans have come to rely on middle-class comfort, freedom, and stability, Christians will be sorely tempted to say or do anything asked of us to hold on to what we have. That is the way of spiritual death.
We will be able to choose courageously and correctly in the moment of trial only if we have prepared ourselves in every possible way. We can start by thinking of our work as a calling, as a vocation in the older sense: a way of life given to us by God for His own glory and for the common good. There is no reason we can’t serve the community and our own desire for professional excellence as doctors, lawyers, teachers, or almost anything else – as long as we know in our hearts that we are the Lord’s good servants first.
Chapter 9: Eros and the New Christian Counterculture
The opportunity to work is a gift from God that, when rightly employed, serves life and draws us back to Him. However, if work – or family, community, school, politics, or any other good thing – becomes an end in itself, it turns into an idol. It will eventually become a prison, a desert, even a graveyard of the spirit.
One manifestation of the “graveyard of the spirit” is a contemporary way of life best described by Milan Kundera’s “lightness of being.” It is a materialistic, consumeristic, and hedonistic existence devoid of sacredness, transcendence, overarching purpose, or spiritually deeper meaning. Though, to be fair, it is also free of the terror of hellfire and damnation, though perhaps susceptible in some cases to the cosmic angst of facing the nothingness of a truly terminal mortality.
It is a perspective that sees the point of one’s life as being little more than an opportunity to amuse oneself. And during that life one’s time is taken up with whatever whims strike one’s fancy, be they petty obsessions, striving for social status, or indulging in various forms of consumption, vice, and entertainment.
For certain souls, such a disenchanted, mundane, and inconsequential existence is, as for Kundera’s character, unbearable. The lack of a True standard, of profound significance, and of connection to the divine makes life feel dissatisfying, empty, barren, trivial, and aimless.
But those people are now likely in the minority. I’d guess that most folks would look around their workplaces and judge that most of their coworkers seem to bear such secular lightness just fine. On the contrary, they find any heaviness to be oppressive, awkward, and uncomfortably suffocating.
Still, outside of particularly intellectual environments, and with perhaps the exception of political subjects which act as substitutes for religious ones, it becomes impossible to carry on the kind of weighty spiritual conversation about serious philosophical matters that religious people have with each other on an easy and routine basis. And this is so alienating that it inspires a kind of ‘pity’ and an impression of spiritual ‘deadness’. Hence, ‘graveyard’.
But it’s not just in the secular workplace; it’s an outgrowth of modern mainstream culture at large. Unfortunately, that means it describes Christian communities as well, especially younger ones, and with increasing accuracy. Dreher described some of this in a popular 2016 post, The Coming Christian Collapse.
He begins the Sex and Incarnation section of this chapter like so:
I once heard an Evangelical woman, in a group conversation about sexuality, blurt out, “Why do we have to get stuck on sex? Why can’t we just get back to talking about the Gospel?
Such is the plea of the desperate conformer to the mainstream who, in her inability to reconcile the clear conflict between her faith and popular ideology, seeks a kind of relief in the hope she can simply overlook, ignore, and avoid the problem.
Obviously there are a host of theological explanations deriving from Christian religious doctrine that explain why it is imperative to get “stuck on sex”, and Dreher makes a very brief but satisfactory summary of them.
But more generally, the traditionalist conception of social organization is one in which the fundamental and culturally prioritized unit is the family, not the individual. As Milton Friedman once said regarding the role of inheritance in the human motivation to work and save, “We are really a family society, not an individualist society.”
If one takes that seriously, not just as a description but a prescription, then one arrives at the perspective of familialism. Raising that concept to a fundamental principle and purpose of the civilized social order naturally implies a whole framework and constellation of norms, policies, and folkways that sustain that order against the entropy and chaos of primitive human impulses.
And, of course, Christian norms also emphasize a particular, traditional vision of family life, such that its doctrines regarding sexuality build upon this common familiastic foundation. In other words, any ideology that focuses on the family cannot help but be “stuck on sex” as the most fundamental matter to regulate and tame, and the most fundamental impulse to be channeled and elevated to sacred importance. In an ideologically-stable family-based society, everything necessarily orbits around a particular ideal enjoying the highest status and level of social (and divine) approval.
This necessarily comes at the expense and exclusion of all deviations from this ideal, which is unfortunate. But that’s part of the tragedy of the human condition, for status is always a zero sum game, and for there to be winners, there will also be losers. Winners should of course treat losers with charity, compassion, and generosity of spirit, but only as much as is compatible with maintaining the effectiveness of the influence of the overall mental environment. That is in exchange for the pro-social sacrifice that is being thrust upon them, and in the past this has been managed with some hypocritical leniency and tolerance so long as matters are kept private and discrete. But none of that implies that the system should be abolished, in a naïve and futile attempt to end the tragedy. It’s built into who we are; there’s no getting rid of it.
Nothing but the whole arsenal of social institutions and pressures can hope to contain impulses as powerful, volcanic, and potentially dangerous as those surrounding the evolutionary imperative of sexual reproduction.
Social conservatives have been warning for generations that traditional moral institutions are indispensable to this hard project, and that human sexual nature being what it is means that tearing down these institutions in the name of other values – while thinking that these reforms will be ‘harmless’ – will yield results that are anything but. They will come mostly at the expense of the social normalcy of strong and healthy family life, especially for the lower classes. And that’s exactly the collapse we watched happen over the past several generations.
Dreher summarizes the typical orthodox Christian perspective on sexual deviancy:
Contrary to modern gender theory, the question is not Are we men or women? but How are we to be male and female together? The legitimacy of our sexual desire is limited by the givenness of nature. The facts of our biology are not incidental to our personhood. Marriage has to be sexually complementary because only the male-female pair mirrors the generativity of the divine order. “Male and female he made them,” says Genesis, revealing that complementarity is written into the nature of reality.
Easy divorce stretches the sacred bond of matrimony to the breaking point, but it does not deny complementarity. Gay marriage does. Similarly, transgenderism doesn’t merely bend but breaks the biological and metaphysical reality of male and female. Everything in this debate (and many others between traditional Christianity and modernity) turns on how we answer the questions: Is the natural world and its limits a given, or are we free to do with it whatever we desire?
… The point, however is that to the modern Christian imagination, sex was filled with cosmic meaning in a way it no longer is. Paul admonished the Corinthians to “flee sexual immorality” because the body was a “temple of the Holy Spirit” and warned them that “you are not your own.”
“You are not your own” illustrates one of the key ideological differences between traditional religious viewpoints and the modern, liberal perspective sanctifying the individual will and especially sexual autonomy.
Dreher goes on to describe the rapid and radical change in attitudes regarding sexual orientation and gender identity over the last few decades, and continues with his correction action plan.
CA33: Don’t Compromise to Keep the Young
Be prepared to accept shrinkage by “evaporative concentration”, letting all the loosely attached members go (who were unlikely to tough it out anyway), and keeping only the truly committed and reliable.
CA34: Affirm the Goodness of Sexuality
Andrew T. Walker, a Southern Baptist lay leader of the millennial generation, says he grew up in a good church but never heard a single sermon about Christian anthropology (i.e., what is man?) or biblical sexuality beyond conservative platitudes.
“I don’t ever recall having a lesson about why my body is a good thing. No one ever explained to me why complementarity is important,” Walker tells me. “We’ve been so driven by a culture of entertainment, but if you told most congregations that for the next few weeks, we’re going to have a sermon series about biblical anthropology, the congregations wouldn’t greet the idea enthusiastically,” he continues. “This is wrong. That has to change if we’re going to survive and pass down the faith.”
“Tragically, I fear that the average Christian in America is no different than the average American – we just want to be told what to do and how to feel. …”
This gets back to the point about ideological messages needing to be able to be expressed with multiple layers of depth, suitable for different personalities, needs, and levels of sophistication and maturity. Sometimes detailed, rational explanations are just the ticket. But sometimes they can be counterproductive, even undermining other hard demands when someone falls into the conceit of thinking that no rule can be legitimate or worthy without a rational explanation, but being unable themselves to articulate such a justification.
Generals must sometimes provide their subordinate officers with detailed explanations so that they can understand the big picture. These lower ranking officers then exercise their independent judgment and use their delegated authorities to improvise and help accomplish the overall mission when the situation’s complexity and uncertainty overwhelms any prior attempt at planning. But the junior enlistedmen need just the opposite. That is, a spirit of faith and trust even in the absence of explanations, and a readiness to simply follow orders, submit, and obey, as suits their role and purpose. And by such reliable obedience, they deliver a better outcome for everyone involved.
Dreher notes an interesting difference in attitudes regarding sexuality between American Evangelicals and Catholics:
There is an enormous disparity between Evangelical youth and Catholic youth on sexual matters. Surveys find that while Millennials as a group are much more liberal about sexual matters, Evangelicals are more likely than Catholics to profess traditional Christian teachings. Indeed, Catholics are doing such a poor job forming their youth that Catholic Millennials are more likely to be sexual liberals than average Americans are.
That’s interesting, and again raises some difficult questions about why the emphasis on these matters has fallen so steeply in the Catholic church in particular.
Yet there is a growing movement within many churches to downplay or dismiss entirely the Bible’s teachings on sexuality and instead emphasize fighting poverty, racism, and other forms of social injustice. This is a false choice. Social justice activism is laudable, but it does not earn you indulgences for sexual sin.
Wrong: it’s not laudable at all. At least, not in the forms typical of our day and age. Dreher may be caught in a bind. There is a worthy ‘Social Justice’ tradition in orthodox Christianity, and Dreher doesn’t want to get caught in the trap of criticizing that tradition. But he knows full well, and better than most, that the movement going by that name has warped and metastasized into a terrible monstrosity that must be discouraged and de-emphasized if there is to be any hope of restoring it to its proper bounds. Personal sacrifice to privately contribute to worthy charity is laudable. Encouraging conspicuous and heavily politicized virtue signaling at no personal expense is socially corrosive and downright contemptible when displacing traditional religious activities and values.
CA35: Moralism is Not Enough
To reduce Christian teaching about sex and sexuality to bare, boring, thou-shalt-not moralism is a travesty and failure of imagination.
… Young people are not going to be argued into Christian chastity or browbeaten by moralistic maxims. Beauty and goodness, embodied in great art and fiction, and in the lives of ordinary Christians, married and single, is the only thing that stands a chance.
CA36: Parents Must Be Primary Sex Educators
If we don’t do it, the culture will do it for us. The pornification of the public square continues apace. To paraphrase the late, great media scholar Neil Postman, when children can access computers or smartphones and watch hardcore pornography, childhood is over.
Mothers and fathers have to be far more aggressive in governing their kids’ access to media and technology.
The best default baseline is probably a complete blackout, with individual uses being authorized by exception.
Kids today grow up in a culture that seeks to obliterate the natural family: one man and one woman, bound exclusively to each other, and the children they have together. It is now considered bigoted to say that the natural family is superior to any other arrangement.
This throws the culture war’s fundamental ideological battle line of familialism vs anti-familialism into stark relief.
It’s hard to know how to start those conversations and where to take them. A terrific resource for families is The Humanum Series, six short movies … presenting the traditional Christian visions of sex, gender, marriage, and family.
… Christian parents must never assume that their children understand that the natural family is God’s plan for humanity. We have to make this explicit in our teaching.
CA37: Love and Support Unmarried People in the Community
Young Americans are waiting longer to marry, making it more likely that your church community has single Christians in it. As I said earlier, church can be a lonely place for singles. I didn’t marry until I was nearly thirty and felt invisible in the parishes I attended as a single man.
It is understandable that churches hold marriage and family up as ideal forms of the Christian life, but doing so often devalues the lives and witness of those who do not receive the call to marriage.
Dreher’s sympathy with singles is understandable and compassionate. But social nudges are usually as uncomfortable as they are necessary. And there’s nothing wrong with that nudge, quite the contrary. Progressives have a long tradition of arguing against the ‘stigma’ that traditional social institutions place on anti-social behaviors. But that stigma, emotionally difficult as it may be to bear, serves a vital social function.
And in contemporary America, it’s remarkable to what extent life in high status circles – where intense working conditions are common – is dominated and run by singles. Or by people who relegate their family life to such minor important they might as well be single. That’s because people who have to devote any percentage of their potential working time to the needs of family or church are at an obvious competitive disadvantage when it comes to maximizing productivity, availability, and flexibility. They will either not be selected to fill those top roles, or they will not even try in the first place.
These incentives are highly discouraging of family formation. At these levels, the scales of the secular world are already out of balance in favor of singles, and it is entirely appropriate for religions to push them in the other direction, to say that it is the duty of singles to join the social order of family life, or to serve it in prescribed ways, but not to stand apart from it.
Dreher recommends churches establish fraternities or barracks for their singles.
Moreover, if a parish community has the resources, it should consider establishing single-sex group houses for its unmarried members to live in prayerful fellowship as what you might call lay monastics.
Dreher says this compassion should be extended to homosexuals.
Gay Christians, like all unmarried Christians, are called to a life of chastity. This is a heavy cross to bear, but one that cannot in obedience be refused.
Our gay brothers and sisters in Christ should not have to carry it alone.
At the same time, Christians should be prepared to respond to charges of sexual ‘cruelty’ – that they are singling out particular people to suffer a lifetime of agonizing sexual frustration – with the doctrinal perspective on chastity.
CA38: Fight Pornography with Everything You’ve Got
One should be cautious in using the results of convenient empirical studies to try to bolster a religious point, for fear of sawing off the branch one is sitting on. This grants a higher magisterial authority to Science, which is the metaphysical break that led to the modern condition.
Still, in the case of pornography, the science we have is merely consistent with common sense and what are now sadly routine observations of the addictive, drug-like effect it has on people.
Recently though, neuroscientists have discovered that pornography use has potentially devastating effects on the brain. Watching porn floods the brain’s pleasure centers with dopamine. The more one uses porn, the more one has to use it, and more extreme versions of it, to get the same dopamine hit. Pornography literally rewires the brain, making it very difficult for longtime users to be aroused by actual human beings.
… Christians, especially Christian parents, don’t dare take this lightly. In addition to having the porn talk with their children early, parents should firmly resolve not to give kids smartphone with access to the Internet – or unmonitored Internet access, period. Parents have to watch the peer groups of their children closely and take strong, decisive action if porn enters the picture.
Dreher concludes by quoting Wendell Berry:
As with so many other things in contemporary society, we modern Americans see sex as wholly a private matter, one of individual rights. But this is false. The rules, rituals, and traditions of a community pertaining to sexuality, says Berry, intend “to preserve its energy, its beauty, and its pleasure; to preserve and clarify its power to join not just husband and wife to one another but parents to children, families to the community, the community to nature; to ensure, so far as possible, that the inheritors of sexuality, as they come of age, will be worthy of it.”
Berry goes on to say that “if the community cannot protect this giving, it can protect nothing – and our time is proving it so.”
Chapter 10: Man and the Machine
Dreher begins by offering personal testimony on the reality of e-addiction and our constantly nagging psychological dependence on our electronic devices and information flows. Disconnection and solitary quiet time, alone with one’s thoughts and reflections, while one of the most common human experiences for all of history, now feels a little like withdrawal. This is something one can see in the pathetic desperation of the faces of people looking for a place to recharge their dead or dying smartphones.
The religious mind needs time to ponder, contemplate, meditate, and commune with the divine: to concentrate deeply for an extended time on prayers and big questions. But such things become impossible with our collapsed attention spans and when the temptation to constant distraction is ever-present.
We have trained ourselves into becoming obsessive, wireheaded rats, constantly pressing the lever for a burst of whatever pleasure we derive from these things, or relief from the uncomfortable silence of solitude.
As a reference, Andy Crouch’s The Tech-Wise Family: Everyday Steps for Putting Technology in Its Proper Place has much more to say on this, including some important, sensible, and practical advice.
One warm spring weekend in 2016, I went to a Benedict Option conference at Clear Creek Abbey, a Benedictine monastery in deep rural Oklahoma. Once I arrived, I was unsettled to learn that we were so far from civilization, as it were, that cell phone reception was impossible. Wi-Fi was possible only if you went into a building on the conference site and stood in a certain place, or placed yourself in a single corner of the abbey’s guest quarters, and hoped for the best. For that weekend, I was largely cut off from the outside world.
I was startled by how anxious this made me. …
Over the course of the weekend, every time there was the slightest lull in conversation, my hand reached into my pocket reflexively to pull out my iPhone and check e-mail, Twitter, Facebook, and the news. … This unplanned exercise in asceticism was revealing, and I did not like what I saw.
We lose the ability to be genuinely present and attentive. More disturbingly, even basic and indispensable skills of effective face-to-face socialization fade and become more challenging. Speeches and sermons of even ordinary length may be ‘obsolete’ as viable methods of public communication when one’s audience can no longer pay the kind of attention that allows them to follow along. Lawyers and doctors already report that juries no longer have any patience for long opening statements, and patients start to tune out after the first few sentences of attempts to gain informed consent. Important or popular exercises of the oratory and rhetorical arts of public speaking used to attract crowds who would eagerly go to such events and attend for hours. Today, one is lucky if one can get someone to listen with sustained interest longer than it takes to make an elevator pitch.
As I sat listening to speeches, the moment my attention flagged even in the slightest, I went for my iPhone. The speakers were quite good, but I still found it difficult to give them my full attention. Am I always like this? Yes, alas that’s me. It had become so second nature that my addiction was invisible to me, in part because nearly everybody else I know does the same thing.
… We think our many technologies give us more control over our destinies. In fact, they have come to control us.
Dreher says it’s even worse and deeper than that in terms of implications for sustaining a religiously faithful mindset in an increasingly virtualized experience of human existence. The argument could use some more fleshing out.
And this opens the door to the more fundamental point about technology: it is an ideology that conditions how we humans understand reality. … [technology] trains us to accept the core truth claim of modernity: that the only meaning there is in the world is what we choose to assign it in our endless quest to master nature.
…Technology itself is a kind of liturgy that teaches us to frame our experiences in the world in certain ways and that, if we aren’t careful, profoundly distorts our relationship to God, to other people, and to the material world – and even our self-understanding.
All of that seems reasonable and concordant with recent experience. But then Dreher stretches the argument too far. In the “Technology is Not Morally Neutral” section, he says that that the technological view in general makes us see the world in a material way, something, “over which to extend one’s domination, limited only by one’s imagination.”
It is only in modern times, with the rise of technology, that our tools have turned the tables on us and gained the power to direct our metaphysical and theological convictions.
This doesn’t make a lot of sense. Later, Dreher specifies that the internet in particular is the really radical and disruptive new technology, but here he remains too abstract. If Dreher meant modern, information technology, or maybe advanced industrial technology, he really should have said so.
Technology as a general term includes pretty much any tool or technique that humans developed since the origin of their distinction from animals. Not just “since the stone age”, but including the stones. Discoveries, innovative inventions, and other technological progress – to include items we now regard as simple like pots and wheels – are essential elements of civilization and any state of human existence that can even approach a condition of prosperity. Even cultural institutions are “social technologies” in a way, and ones necessary to sustain civilized communities.
Technological development occurred all over the world and long before Jesus was born, and there is little evidence that the metaphysical applecart was overturned by the ideology of technology every time someone create a new, better tool. Dreher says we don’t have to go Amish (and even the Amish are using plenty of technology), which implies there might be some way to approach technological use with enlightened awareness, discipline, and moderation. He will make some suggestions in this regard, but it’s hard to know whether anything could really work.
A more likely story would be that our use and development of tools does not displace traditional philosophy with a “technological ideology”, but that instead the wealth, capabilities, and social changes that are the consequences of technological progress produce conditions and incentives that enable new concepts to flourish which were once prohibitive or infeasible. These influence the ideas people use to make sense of and navigate these new and very different worlds. That is, it may not be the “ideology of technology” but “ideology after technology.” The really pessimistic view is that if one doesn’t like the bathwater of that modern ideology, one has little choice but to throw out the baby as well, but no one knows for sure.
More deeply, though, technology as a worldview trains us to privilege what is new and innovative over what is old and familiar and to valorize the future uncritically. It destroys tradition because it refuses any limits on its creativity.
That just doesn’t seem to be true; it’s a much more mixed story with plenty of awareness that the sword is double-edged. Sometimes we privilege the new, but one can find articles any day fretting about the risks of troubling technological developments such as nuclear energy, autonomous drones, and bioweapons. There is always plenty of talk precisely on the topic of imposing limits to avoid future dangers.
The 1978 birth of Louise Brown, the first “test tube baby,” caused great controversy at the time, especially among religious leaders, many of whom denounced it as unnatural and warned that it would lead to the commodification of childbearing by separating conception from sexual union.
Putting the ideologically sensitive question of the status of human embryos to the side, it’s still reasonable to argue that those warnings turned out to be either mistaken or exaggerated in terms of the greater impact of IVF technology on general sexual morality, where other cultural developments and trends were much more influential.
This line, however, rings very true.
For Technological Man, choice matters more than what is chosen. He is not much concerned with what he should desire; rather, he is preoccupied with how he can acquire or accomplish what he desires.
Dreher then sets his sights on the internet as the great modern culprit, though with some inconsistency. Consider that this line:
But the Internet, like all new technologies, also takes away. What it takes away from us is our sense of agency.
Immediately follows this paragraph:
And guess what? It’s wonderful. It has made my life better in more ways that I can count, including making it possible for me to live where I want to live because I can work from home. The Internet has given me a great deal and does every day.
Doesn’t that sound like a terrific expansion of agency?
Perhaps the tragedy of the modern human condition is that we are now “Slaves to Agency”?
Matthew Crawford identifies a paradox intrinsic to the Internet as technology: it tells us that it is giving us more freedom and more choice, but in fact it is seducing us into passive captivity. The experience of inner compulsion I had at the abbey repeats itself in some small way every day.
He then returns to his questionable claims regarding philosophical impact.
Compounding the problem, the technological mentality denies that there is anything important to be known, aside from how to make things that help us realize our desires: in ancient Greek, techne, or “craftsmanship,” versus episteme, or “knowledge gained through contemplation,” Techne refers to knowledge that helps you do things, while episteme refers to knowledge of how things are, so that you will know what to do.
That’s not right. Even if Dreher meant to qualify it as, “anything important to be known about the nature of truth and the universe,” it still wouldn’t hold, as there remains a thriving intellectual community that vigorously explores this type of knowledge even when it lacks obvious utilitarian value (though perhaps not admitting as much on the grant applications).
The production of new knowledge and scholarship on all manner of non-technological topics is probably at all-time highs. Indeed, it is due in large part to the capabilities that new technologies have created. For an example of pursuing knowledge about something “important to be known, the big question of “Who We Are and How We Got Here,” looms large, and is also the title of geneticist David Reich’s recent book. Which, far from being some esoteric obscurity, has generated plenty of mainstream interest and commentary.
CA39: Take on Digital Fasting as an Ascetic Practice
It will take a great deal of mental discipline.
Developing the cognitive control that leads to a more contemplative Christian life is the key to living as free men and women in post-Christian America.
The man whose desires are under the control of his reason is free. The man who does whatever occurs to him is a slave. …
If you don’t control your own attention, there are plenty of people eager to do it for you. The first step in regaining cognitive control is creating a space of silence in which you can think.
Old practices and institutions can and should adapt and expand to deal with the problems of the digital age by encouraging regular disconnection and abstinence.
A Jewish organization called Reboot promotes a nonsectarian concept they call “digital Sabbath.” It’s a day of rest in which people disconnect from technology – particularly computers, iPads, and smartphones – so that they can reconnect with the real world. The digital Sabbath is not a punishment but rather a means through which one can lay aside the world’s cares (at least the ones communicated to us via digital technology).
This is akin to the ancient Christian habit of ritual fasting … This is why all serious believers must engage in periods of asceticism. They teach us to rid ourselves of accumulated distractions that keep our eyes from seeing our goal. Neil Postman, though a secular man, praises religious ascetics … To paraphrase the title of Postman’s most famous book, the practices of religious ascetics prevent them from amusing themselves to spiritual death.
CA40: Take Smartphones Away from Kids
The danger is real.
My wife once asked a new Christian friend why she homeschools her children, given that they live in a good public school district. Said the friend, “The day my fifth-grade son came home from school and said his friends were watching hardcore porn on their smartphones was the day my husband and I made the call.”
For the sake of both convenience and maintaining amicable relations with their children, parents are sorely tempted to want to trust their kids to make good – or at least innocent – choices with digital technology. But that is profoundly naïve wishful thinking.
Moms and dad who would never leave their kids unattended in a room full of pornographic DVDs think nothing of handing them smartphones. This is morally insane. No adolescent or young teenager should be expected to have the self-control on his own to say no.
Another useful supplement to the “no smartphones” policy is a “no screens in bedrooms” rule. The only way to deal with the risks of digital connectivity while preserving some of the benefits is to make the use of such devices as public as possible.
Additionally, this problem once again illustrates the need for widespread social support and reinforcement for a “wholesome commons”, because one either makes the public world safe for children or has to keep them sheltered from it. This is impossible without widely shared agreement as to fundamental values. For example, there are products available that provide filtering or monitoring capabilities, but what kinds of things will be filtered out in our contentious environment? It’s likely that any company with a product that even offered the option of an “LGBT filter and monitor” would immediately bring the entire force of progressive ire on top of them like a ton of bricks.
Dreher talks about the perils of sexting, but he could be talking about social media in general.
Finally, though most teens who sext will never find themselves in legal jeopardy, the moral dimension can be ruinous. The habit trains kids to objectify the opposite sex, treating them as commodities, and to regard their own sexuality as something to be marketed for status. A single illicit image that hits social media can destroy a teen’s reputation and set them up for bullying and abuse.
It’s worse than that. A key problem is that any digital content sent over networks falls outside of one’s control and can be copied without limit and accessed indefinitely with a persistence approaching immortality. The past can come back to haunt everyone, and that one sin, mistake, or ‘youthful indiscretion’ can now live forever and be used to embarrass or worse. It’s too hard to put the toothpaste back in the tube once it gets out.
It’s now a common joke for non-millennials to say that they thank God they made their mistakes before the advent of Facebook and Twitter and so forth. But young people will have no such luck. The danger is that they do not have the cautious instincts and norms needed to preserve their future reputations in an increasingly digital world. The Onion headline, “Report: Every Potential 2040 President Already Unelectable Due to Facebook,” is funny precisely because it expresses the disturbing truth of the matter.
Dreher says ban it all, even though your kids will hate it, and hate you for it. At least until they grow up to appreciate the wisdom and necessity of the action. They’ll hate much less, and think it’s normal, if you are able to surround them with peers who all face the same rules instead of all being free of them. Yet another reason we need Benedict Options.
In another example of his conflicted inconsistency regarding cult-like weirdos and control freaks:
Yes, you will be thought of as a weirdo and a control freak. So what? These are your children
“So what” indeed.
CA41: Keep Social Media Out of Worship
CA42: Do things with Your Hands
Technology enables us to treat interaction with the material world – people, places, things – as an abstraction. Getting our hands dirty, so to speak, with gardening, cooking, sewing, exercise, and the like, is a crucial way of restoring our sense of connection with the real world. So is doing things face to face with other people.
CA43: Question Progress
Dreher is worried about amoral and immoral future technological developments, and could have quoted Ian Malcolm’s line from Jurassic Park, “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”
The only impregnable fortress is metaphysical, the conviction that meaning transcends ourselves and is grounded in God. There are boundaries beyond which we cannot go if we want to live.
Dreher then wraps up the chapter and the substantive chapters of the book. It’s also a fitting book-end to the whole discussion, which I hope was of some value to you.
If Christians today do not stand firm on the rock of sacred order as revealed in our holy tradition – ways of thinking, speaking and acting that incarnate the Christian in culture and pass it on from generation to generation – we will have nothing to stand on at all. If we don’t take on everyday practices that keep that sacred order present to ourselves, our families, and our communities, we are going to lose it. And if we lose it, we are at great risk of losing sight of the One to whom everything in that sacred order, like a divine treasure map, points.