Last Thursday’s “Time for the Benedict Option?” discussion hosted by Plough, First Things, and The American Conservative was a great summary of the Benedict Option debate so far and where things ought to go from here. You can watch the entire thing here:
Noah Millman has a good summary of the event here, so I will not reproduce his work. Rather, I’ll jump into interactions with each of the respondents, since I think that’s the most fertile ground left to be explored as reviews of the book pile up.
I (and several others) have spent some time now arguing that the Benedict Option is dead on arrival if doesn’t integrate the work of social justice and evangelism into its formation. Rod Dreher and other BenOp proponents would say that you can’t really love your neighbors unless you’ve been properly catechized, which I agree with but would add that you’re not catechizing people into Christianity if their formation doesn’t include the regular practice of neighbor-love. I have further argued that a truly strategic Benedict Option would choose the places most in need of revival to locate: we need more monasteries, yes, but we should mostly be starting new monasteries in Kabul or West Baltimore if we want to form Christians that will be strong enough to endure the post-modern deluge.
The inverse is also true: Those whose hearts are animated by the Christian call to work for justice and preach the Gospel to the unsaved will watch their institutions get swept away by the flood without the Benedict Option. You don’t have to use Rod’s brand name, but the principles are there and the problem is real. The modern desire for total, unrestrained autonomy has enthroned Mammon and Aphrodite alike; one or both will get your kids in the end without some kind of strategic retreat like the kind that Rod is discussing. Hence, Social Justice Warriors like me need the Benedict Option just as much as the cranky old white dudes like Rod need us young SJWs in their monastic communities.
Ross Douthat: Rod’s right, even if he’s wrong
There isn’t a lot to add to this critique: even if we aren’t headed towards a new postmodern Dark Age where Christians are forced to huddle in underground bunkers, the basic practices of Christian formation are so deficient that we need to pay better attention to how we’re practicing them. In this sense, the Benedict Option (as is often observed) is simply a matter of the Church being the Church and Christians discipling Christians; the Benedict OptionTM and all this deluge/ark talk is just a way to get everyone’s attention.
I can’t understate the importance of this point for the folks who are too cool for the BenOp: Christian communities that work for the good of their neighbors are incredibly susceptible to burning out their leaders and under-catechizing their congregations. A lot of ink has been wasted under the wrong assumption that there is contradiction between any of various elements of the Church’s mission like social justice, mercy ministry, preaching, evangelism, or discipleship—but the kernel of truth there is that there is always a tension between these elements. When discipleship and formation lose out, only a handful of committed believers endure to continue (and fund!) the work
Young people today are in a cultural moment that is drunk on their own zeal for social justice, but that doesn’t seem to be reflected in the number of Christians committing themselves to solidarity with the poor and powerless. I’d argue that this is because far too many Christians are still enslaved by a desire for autonomy and control that modernity foments. Emotional appeals and proof-texting verses about God’s heart for the poor are like paper walls against the tide of liquid modernity; this lie at the heart of the post-Enlightenment West can only be exorcised through disciplines in community like the kind Rod discusses.
Michael Wear: Christians can’t just be a special-interest group
Michael Wear (whose new book will get a longer treatment here soon) focused primarily on the fact that there have been some recent legal victories for religious liberty and that Christians have both the opportunity and the responsibility to work for the good of all in the West. Rod’s response, I felt, was a bit weak in that he fell back on the same statistics and anecdotes that animate his conviction that Christians really do need to build an ark to survive the storm, whereas Michael and I would both say that our current situation is much closer to Paul’s journey by boat to Rome. Rod also misused Flannery O’Connor’s great quote about shouting for those hard-of-hearing; the level of alarm he’s raising is the right volume but the wrong pitch.
Alan Jacobs has briefly opined that things are not really worse than they used to be, which dovetails with Russell Moore’s opinion that Christianity isn’t dying, just shedding its dead cultural husk. While I think Jacobs and Moore and both right in their assessment and Rod is wrong about how dire the situation is, I do think he’s right (both Jacobs and Moore would agree) in that there will be consequences if religious liberty keeps getting restricted. These consequences will be bad for us all (but especially the poor) if the state decides that conscientious objectors to the cultural orthodoxy on sex cannot practice medicine or get tax deductions for their churches. (It’s worth noting that Australia doesn’t have the same generous tax deductions as America does and has not yet fallen into the ocean.)
Yet Michael’s point still stands: Christians still have plenty of cultural power and there will be a severe reproach if orthodox believers go bury their talent in the backyard instead of investing it. How to use the power we have, though? Michael spoke in generalities, but the last two panelists focused on some of the specifics.
Randall Gauger: Full Bruderhof or bust
I’m taking the last two panelists out of order, in part because I don’t have a lot to add to what Randall Gauger had to say. “The stronger the center [Jesus] is, the more daring the outreach can be.” Sounds like the conviction that animates missions! Gauger was fairly insistent on the necessity of the full, radical commitment that the Bruderhof embrace, which Rod applauds while never quite expressing an opinion one way or the other on their commitment to sharing all in common.
Plough Magazine’s very strong interest in the Benedict Option is in some ways worth talking about in and of itself; fans of Rod are usually not this exuberant about social justice. This brings up the fact (referenced by Alan Jacobs and Richard Beck, among others) that there are plenty of intentional communities to Rod’s left (some more liturgically oriented, some not). A brief but inexhaustive list would include the Christian Community Development Association (my drug of choice), L’Arche, the New Monasticism, and Catholic Worker houses. Based on Rod’s brief engagement with Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, I imagine that he’d probably approve of these as long as they didn’t deviate from historic Christian teaching on sexuality.
As I’ve said before, I think the emphasis on solidarity with the poor that these communities bring is absolutely essential and that the Benedict Option will suffer for lack of such solidarity. This does require an even more intense commitment and sense of sacrifice, but that’s what we all signed up for, isn’t it?
Jacqueline Rivers: Does it come in any color besides white?
I nearly jumped up and started clapping during Dr. Jacqueline Rivers’s comments. She started off similarly to Gauger, pointing out that Acts 2 demonstrates the apostles’ commitment to community, fellowship, and teaching that is worth emulating. She also raised the awkward question of race not once, but twice; this question has dogged the Benedict Option for some time now. Rod shared three basic responses to Dr. Rivers’ observation about how the Benedict Option feels like it is somewhat disconnected from nonwhite and non-Western churches, each of which deserves further exploration.
Rod’s first response is that he’s white and Western, so while it is wonderful that Christianity is flourishing in the Global South, he still has to deal with the problems that white, Western Christians are facing. It must be noted, though, that African-Americans are very much part of the West and it is intellectual malpractice to leave people of color out of the story of the West’s rise and fall. Indeed, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr argued, we ought not neglect the people who saved the West from its last great moral crisis:
But if physical death is the price that some must pay to free their children from a permanent life of psychological death , then nothing can be more Christian. Keep going today. Keep moving amid every obstacle. Keep moving amid every mountain of opposition. If you will do that with dignity, when the history books are written in the future, the historians will have to look back and say, “There lived a great people. A people with ‘fleecy locks and black complexion,’ but a people who injected new meaning into the veins of civilization; a people which stood up with dignity and honor and saved Western civilization in her darkest hour; a people that gave new integrity and a new dimension of love to our civilization.” When that happens, “the morning stars will sing together, and the sons of God will shout for joy.’’
Rod’s second answer is that he didn’t feel like the horrors that African-American Christians have endured were comparable to the relatively pedestrian oppression that was coming for orthodox Christians like him, nor did he feel like he was personally capable of doing justice to this topic.
To Rod’s credit, this has prompted him to call several times for a Black writer to take up the challenge of writing a book about how the Black Church would speak to the Benedict Option. While this humility is respectable in an age where everyone feels like their wisdom is worth sharing with the world on Facebook, I am not buying it in Rod’s case. I understand that he had a deadline with this book, but he’s had plenty of time (and many years left!) to read Dr. King, John M. Perkins, Thabiti Anyabwile, Trillia Newbell, Jarvis Williams, and all the great writers over at the Reformed African American Network (and those are just the contemporary, accessible ones!) It may be that Rod will delve into Black Christian thought and still find his capability to work with it in his writing wanting, but if he’s serious about this Benedict Option thing he is only cheating himself by leaving them unread.
The third response was fairly ambiguous but perhaps the most revealing: Rod related a story about how a white pastor in his town was gung-ho about integrating the congregation but failed to appreciate how he could never provide the riches of the Black Church tradition in his services. It is unclear what the implication here seemed to be; Rod was quick to call racial reconciliation “gospel work” and to say that we shouldn’t take this as an excuse to never fellowship together, but he seemed to indicate that there might be too much cultural distance between Christians of different races and cultures for racial solidarity to be a worthwhile goal.
While I don’t think every church must be integrated at any cost, if racial reconciliation really is a “Gospel issue”, then we have to find ways to deal with the historic and ongoing racism in America—particularly in our churches. If the deluge is really coming, we had better ensure that our brothers and sisters of color are unhindered by injustice in the nation at large or subtle racism within our churches lest we find our Christian witness hamstrung by unhealed wounds from the past or continued pain in the present.
To answer the question: Yes, it is time for the Benedict Option, even if it may be time to stop using the phrase “Benedict Option”. Based on the standing-room-only panel I attended, Rod Dreher has clearly touched a nerve: Christians of all persuasions are anxious about the Church’s failure to catechize its own and wondering how to do things differently. I cannot hide the fact that I am one of those race-baiting Social Justice Warriors that Rod frequently derides on his blog, and yet I wish more of my friends and colleagues would take seriously what Rod has to say about the perils of liquid modernity and the necessity of retreat for formation. The more that we take seriously the fact that we are all in this together against the powers of our age, the more formative our habits of retreat will become—no matter which boat we think we might be boarding.