The Benedict Option?
I heard about the Benedict Option for the first time today, and it’s only 7:15 am, which means I heard about it very recently indeed. So why am I writing about it when I hardly know what it is?
I suppose I’m writing about it because it gives me a strong sense of Déjà vu, the feeling that I’ve been here before.
A friend, Irving Hexham, posted a link on Facebook with this comment, “This article is a critique of the latest American evangelical fad, or should I say madness”: Serious, Non-Sarcastic Questions About the Benedict Option | The American Conservative:
I have great respect and affection for my colleague, Rod Dreher. But I have to admit, I am very frustrated by his latest obsession, because I don’t understand what it means.
I’m talking about the so-called “Benedict Option.” I know where the phrase comes from. It’s a reference to Alasdair MacIntyre’s book, After Virtue, which I read with interest several years ago. I don’t remember the book well enough to give a fully accurate summary, but the heart of it was a critique of the modern condition from an Aristotelian (filtered a bit through Hegelian historicism) perspective.
I’d never heard of MacIntyre or his book, but it seemed to me that this was very similar to what the hippie comune movement was about in the 1960s, and the Catholic Worker movement long before that. And in the 1960s some of us had dreams of establishing communities (that are today called by some Evangelicals “neomonastic”) in which we would teach theology, politics and agriculture. We spoke of such things as “Christian kibbutzim” because “commune” had not yet become part of everyday speech. Much of it was inspired by Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book “Life together”. Some of what MacIntyre was said to be saying about modernity also seemed to strike a chord with me.
Noah Millman, in his article Serious, Non-Sarcastic Questions About the Benedict Option, goes on to say:
…most of what I’ve seen is discussion of how corrupt and threatening to Christianity the surrounding culture is becoming, and how small-o orthodox Christians need to recognize that fact and prepare for it, combined with repeated assurance that the Benedict Option does not mean withdrawing from the world or compromising the Christian obligation to witness, spread the gospel, be in the world while not of it, etc.
And in that there are echoes of the 1970s and 1980s in South Africa, when Christians who refused to burn incense on the altar of the ideology of apartheid and were not totally subservient to the Nationalist government were regarded as part of the Total Onslaught and many of us thought that we needed to prepare for more and more persecution as the Total Strategy was refined and applied.
So we were, and were probably regarded by our contemporaries, as the “Religious Left”. I was therefore somewhat surprised to discover that this new movement, in spite of its apparent similarities, was regarded as a movement of the “Religious Right” in the USA: The Benedict Option: Why the religious right is considering an all-out withdrawal from politics:
Have you heard of the Benedict Option? If not, you will soon.
It’s the name of a deeply pessimistic cultural project that’s capturing the imaginations of social conservatives as they come to terms with the realization that the hopes and assumptions that animated the religious right over the past 35-odd years have been dashed by the sweeping triumph of the movement for same-sex marriage.
The problem is that all this seems to point back to Rod Dreher, who is not, as far as I know, an Evangelical (in the American sense), but an Orthodox Christian. I had not paid much attention to the writings of Rod Dreher, though I’ve followed a number of Orthodox bloggers, some of whom referred to him. I suppose that was mostly prejudice on my part, as he described himself in his blog as “Crunchy Con”, an epithet that was quite opaque to me. It made me think of celery and people who make their living from scams. No doubt there was an in-group who knew the connotations of the term “Crunchy Con” and I got the impression that he was speaking primarily to that in-group, people who who knew what “crunchy con” meant and didn’t need to ask. Rightly or wrongly, I thought that if one needed to ask, one wouldn’t be welcome. There are quite a number of bloggers, and others, who use this kind of language, suggesting a shared set of assumptions. If you don’t share the assumptions and don’t grasp the allusions and have to ask what they mean, then you are ipso facto a member of the out-group.
Now that all may be a bunch of presumptuous assumptions on my part, and perhaps I should have been paying more attention to what Rod Dreher is saying, especially if we are going to be hearing a lot more about the Benedict Option in future.
So it will be very interesting to see how American Evangelicals of the Religious Right are led by an Orthodox Christian into a life of hippie communes. The mind, as they say, boggles.