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The Benedict Option?

21 May 2015

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.

St Benedict of Nuria

St Benedict of Nursia

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.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. 21 May 2015 11:41 am

    The title of your post leapt out in my reader this morning. I have seen a great deal about this Benedict Option from Mr. Dreher and a nice number of other Orthodox. Odd enough, for one who is only just hearing about it now, you in your incredulity (or boggled mind, as you say) characterize it surprisingly well here, which is to say highlight its more dubious qualities—and, lucky you, you didn’t even have to hear about it almost every day for two years or so in order to do so.

    I’ll add one thought: the way this thing gets talked about among various bloggers and Twitterers is troubling in a kind of paradoxical way. Some number of Orthodox Christians ally themselves with Evangelical Protestants (and some Roman Catholics, to be sure) on large kinds of social issues and broad dogmatic matters that we all more or less agree on (Mr. Dreher is well liked, for instance, by a good many Southern Baptist leaders), and yet really we Orthodox still remain in some kind of ghetto. The conservative Evangelicals of America don’t really think too highly of a good many of the things we believe. Albert Mohler likes to say that it is possible even thousands of Catholics will go to heaven, as long as they are true Christians and not fully believing Catholics, and I don’t doubt he would have similar things to say about the Orthodox salvation statistics, if he were inclined to talk about Orthodoxy at all. The Evangelicals who are the most vocal members of the religious right in America are no doubt in large numbers content to have allies, but they what do they really think of Orthodoxy? And, perhaps more important, what do the Orthodoxy really think of their own role in their society? Is Orthodoxy on the whole accurately represented by the writers who dominate the American portions of the Orthodox blogosphere?

    Forgive the lengthy comment. I’m sorry I’ve not kept up on all your posts very much, but I surely found a good one to happen upon this morning.

    • 21 May 2015 1:57 pm

      Thanks very much for the comment. I’m just rather tickled by the vision of an Orthodox Moses leading a bunch of Evangelicals, not to the Promised Land, but into the wilderness. Once there, I suspect they’ll need a St Anthony or a St Pachomius to sort them out, rather than a Benedict.

  2. Peter permalink
    23 May 2015 12:04 am

    Surprisingly or maybe not, a number of traditional Catholics are suspicious of whether this Benedict Option is anything at all beyond a self-promotional effort on the part of its proponent.

  3. 23 May 2015 4:00 am

    Reblogged this on MMM — Munson Mission Musings and commented:
    I have not heard the term… but I have seen the attitude. I was raised in a Separatist, fundamentalist tradition. I don’t really have a problem with fundamentalism (Note I make a marked distinction between small “f” for fundamentalism and Fundamentalism. For me, the former says that certain matters are essential/fundamental and the rest are not. Big “F” likes to compile bigger and bigger lists of things that are essential). But I do think the Separatist tradition is a generally failed program. It has worked for the Amish and for some Middle Eastern Christian enclaves, but it has done so in exchange for cultural impact.

    The Monastic movement in the Catholic and Orthodox traditions was pretty vital in the strengthening of these faiths. However, these were small and voluntary communities. Since procreation was forbidden within them, they were forced to interact with the larger church with its deep connections to the broader culture.

    It seems like the commentary of some Christians in the United States is becoming more angry and alarmist at the culture around them. A lot of the social media seems to done to try to make Christians more and more angry… an unworthy goal. In actuality, the culture of the US is probably no worse (maybe better?) than Roman culture in the time of Christ. It seems as if many American Christians had bought into the propaganda that America is (or was) a Christian nation. Truthfully, it has been a government of people (both godly and godless) since its beginning. For those that have created an AmeroChristian amalgam, it is understandable that there would be anger. But the anger is misdirected. The anger of Christians should be righteously redirected back at ourselves for creating a false idol… a false national identity and coveting the power associated with it.

    If some seek to separate themselves into unique communities… that may not be wrong… but they need to stay connected to the church and the church needs to stay connected to the community. To completely separate is to disconnect from Christ’s teachings on His present reign and our responsibility as His followers.

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