Vasquez on Dreher, The Benedict Option

I have yet to read Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option, which was published on March 14th, 2017, arrived on the New York Times bestseller list on 4/4/2017 at #7, and apparently disappeared from the NYT list after that (correct me if I’m wrong). The book Hillbilly Elegy was dominating at this point (I’m told that Hillbilly Elegy wasn’t really being noticed by the press or the media until after Dreher started to write about it, though I’m not sure whether that’s true), and continued to dominate for some weeks after that. Hillbilly Elegy’s sales figures, when compared with those of The Benedict Option, almost certainly say something about the direction of the mood of the nation’s coastal and urban literati, and what it wanted explained, and where it wanted to go — not into the desert, but into a bright, progressive future.

I mentioned I haven’t read Dreher’s book. Summaries would normally here be in order, but I’ll need to rely on others this time. The shortest (it’s remarkably short, and the most telling) summary of the book is here; another solid and quite short summary of the book is here. If you want more, Dreher wrote an article for Christianity Today that four authors responded to, including John Inazu, whose book on pluralism I hope to read soon. Dreher also wrote a piece titled “The Meaning of the Benedict Option” and there is an FAQ interview with him about the book.

Nauseating summative repetition: I can’t say I recommend (or do not recommend) Dreher’s book, because I haven’t read it, and I don’t expect to anytime soon with so much material on secularity and secularism from Charles Taylor (& others) that I’ve not read. That simple. (Now that I’m bothering to post about it, however, I’m probably obligated to read it.)

What I have read is this review of Dreher’s book by Arturo Vasquez, and I’ve read it three times, and can’t get enough of it (this follow-up post by him is also worth reading). If you do nothing else from this post, read it. Vasquez notes that

From the book and his blog, I get the feeling that Dreher doesn’t really want to admit that a return to a “traditional” society at any scale would entail an ethos that is too mean and draconian even for the most conservative of contemporary Christians. I suppose not being too far removed from traditional rural Mexico (generationally speaking), I understand that, in order to live in a close-knit society, shaming and shunning are often the glue that keeps normal people from veering off too far from the norm. As far as I can tell, this is also the case with such communities as the Amish, traditionalists Mormons, Orthodox Jews, and other marginal religious communities. People are only as loyal to the community as their options. For all of the talk of “intentional communities,” sometimes the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. That is the downfall of many communes, ashrams, and other formations that seek autonomy from the broader society. If you don’t prescribe rules and punishments for people who don’t follow them, how are you going to bring in the harvest, raise the barn, keep the family together, and so on a so forth? I am not even talking about stoning adulteresses or caning children, but ultimately if a community isn’t bound together materially under a strict division of labor, it has no incentive to stay together.

This reminds me of one of my professors at BU, Wesley Wildman, who guided me through Schleiermacher. Wildman noted to us in class that there was a lot of research that he and his group had done on in-group and out-group formation within churches: the clearer the ethical, ritual, and dogmatic content the group held to (and expected of and regulated for its members), the smaller the group would be, and the more contrast it would feel with the wider society, but the higher amount of intimacy it would enjoy: fewer rituals and conventions in a relationship would need to be negotiated from the ground up between any two members of the in-group. If the group has fewer commitments that were vaguer, however, the group could grow proportionally larger, but with lower intimacy among the group as a whole, and less contrast with the wider society. Intimacy in any relationship within that group requires more building of customs and habits between two people for them to achieve intimacy, because that ground is not covered by the “costs” of in-group membership, so to speak. That’s as I remember Wildman saying; I could be mis-remembering.

Back to Arturo. Arturo also notes that “[f]or all of the claims of persecution and moral societal collapse, there is precious little self-reflection concerning the Christians’ own role in creating this “crisis of civilization”. What does this mean? Charles Mathewes notes that secular civilization is, in a sense, the victory of Christendom, achieved through its self-abolition. There are structural differences between Church-as-sect, and Church-as-public; the Catholic and Magisterial Protestant churches have been public religions. In his follow-up post, Arturo mentions that, in the wake of Westphalia (which was designed by Christians), the religion of a region would follow the ruler of the region. This is not a Church-as-sect model, but a Church-as-public model; it can only work under such conditions. Westphalia marks the beginnings of the language of secularization, though not in our modern sense. Arturo is right, however, to link Westphalia to secularization, and to lay the “blame” (yes, those are scare quotes) for this architecture at Christian feet. This is why Arturo suggests that “if it’s not a crime, it shouldn’t be a sin”. Being an executioner made one a pariah in Catholic German regions, as it was considered a sin; the Lutherans saw it differently. Criminality and sin did, and do, seem to go hand-in-hand for public religions.

Finally:

The collapse of Christendom means that we should probably take decades to examine in our doctrines and history as to why the collapse took place. In what ways are our “enemies” continuing aspects of the Christian message that we have neglected, even if in a distorted manner? Can we preserve Christian sexual morality and not be bigots about it? Can you really love the sinner but hate the sin?

He very, very wisely ties the shift in ethics –a shift that Dreher laments– in part (in part, I say, not entirely) to the demands of the marketplace:

Along with the greater flow of capital, goods, and people comes a necessary “tolerance” of difference, as long as it makes money. In order to have this tolerance, you may even have to lose money in the short run. In the long run, however, “live and let live” will be the law of commerce. As long as you don’t get in the way of buying and selling goods and services (and yourself as a brand), you should be allowed to do whatever you want, claim to be whatever you want to be, believe whatever you want etc. All of these are even chances to create more products, more innovation, and so on and so forth.

On the one hand, peace, stability, the sidelining of martial virtues by civic and courtesan virtues: these are all inherited under the press of late Christendom, specifically the projects associated with Grotius and Locke. On the other hand, this takes on an autonomous logic, and goes its own way, trampling on many things that were supposedly held in harmony with it in the older housing; this reminds me to listen to an episode from the Red Scare podcast that I keep meaning to get to. In the end: please read Arturo’s post. He is always worth a read, but here, he is on point.

~~~

It seems irresponsible of me to add anything else, since I haven’t read Dreher’s book. I thought I would add excerpts of one other review here, as an afterword of sorts, and then a list of links.

David Brooks at the NYT wrote a good, short review. He doesn’t agree with Dreher on Dreher’s rejection of the LGBT cause, so he necessarily disagrees with the whole project.

Maybe if I shared Rod’s views on L.G.B.T. issues, I would see the level of threat and darkness he does. But I don’t see it. Over the course of history, American culture has tolerated slavery, sexual brutalism and the genocide of the Native Americans, and now we’re supposed to see 2017 as the year the Dark Ages descended?

Brooks finally writes that

the real enemy is not the sexual revolution. It is a form of purism that can’t tolerate difference because it can’t humbly accept the mystery of truth.

While this only concerns one of Dreher’s more minor points, according to the first of the two summaries up top, it is one of his points, by all accounts.

~~~

There are other articles responding to Dreher’s book, often critical, often appreciative. The following seem worthwhile, from a cursory look at them:

https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/05/01/rod-drehers-monastic-vision

https://www.firstthings.com/article/2017/05/benedict-option

https://www.americamagazine.org/politics-society/2018/01/26/benedict-option-based-christian-principles-or-white-middle-class-ones

https://www.americamagazine.org/arts-culture/2017/06/14/book-christians-should-read-instead-benedict-option

https://www.commonwealmagazine.org/detachment-plan

https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2018/05/the-benedict-option-and-mediating-structures

https://www.plough.com/en/topics/community/church-community/forum-even-if-hes-wrong

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