Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Book Review: "The Benedict Option" by Rod Dreher

(Source: Amazon)
Book: The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation Hardcover by Rod Dreher (2017; 272 pages).

        There are two main thesis running through Dreher's book: (1) that we live in a post-Christian West, generally, and a post-Christian America, specifically; and (2), the only way to preserve Christianity is to follow the example of the Benedictine monks and focus on building strong, tight-knit and largely self-sufficient Christian communities.

       Although Christianity is growing in areas such as Africa and China, Dreher worries that "[t]he 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." Echoing the complaint of the Alt-Right that modern conservatism has failed to conserve anything, he writes:
        This may not be the end of the world, but it is the end of a world, and only the willfully blind would deny it. For a long time we have downplayed or ignored the signs. Now the floodwaters are upon us—and we are not ready. The storm clouds have been gathering for decades, but most of us believers have operated under the illusion that they would blow over. 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 had 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. 
         Today we can see that we’ve lost on every front and that the swift and relentless currents of secularism have overwhelmed our flimsy barriers. Hostile secular nihilism has won the day in our nation’s government, and the culture has turned powerfully against traditional Christians. We tell ourselves that these developments have been imposed by a liberal elite, because we find the truth intolerable: The American people, either actively or passively, approve. 
        Of course, Dreher points to the political advancements by the LGBT community, and, in particular, the secular acceptance of same-sex marriage (SSM) to illustrate his point. To his point of view:
The U.S. Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision declaring a constitutional right to same-sex marriage was the Waterloo of religious conservatism. It was the moment that the Sexual Revolution triumphed decisively, and the culture war, as we have known it since the 1960s, came to an end. In the wake of Obergefell, Christian beliefs about the sexual complementarity of marriage are considered to be abominable prejudice—and in a growing number of cases, punishable. The public square has been lost.
He further writes:
[T]he verdict on the overall political strategy is clear: we failed. Fundamental abortion rights remain solidly in place, and Gallup poll numbers from the Roe v. Wade era until today have not meaningfully changed. The traditional marriage and family model has not been protected in either law or custom, and because of that, courts are poised to impose dramatic rollbacks of religious liberty for the sake of antidiscrimination.
Dreher lacks confidence in most established religious institutions to reverse this trend because he believes they "no longer forms souls but cater[ ] to selves." To Dreher, it is not so much that these institutions have become converged--although that is, in my opinion, that may be the root of the problem--but that they lack a theology sufficient to inspire believers to seek salvation. Dreher explains:
       [M]any of the churches that do stay open ... have been hollowed out by a sneaky kind of secularism to the point where the “Christianity” taught there is devoid of power and life. ... In 2005, sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton examined the religious and spiritual lives of American teenagers from a wide variety of backgrounds. What they found was that in most cases, teenagers adhered to a mushy pseudoreligion the researchers deemed Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD). 
      MTD has five basic tenets: 
  •  A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on earth. 
  • God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions. 
  • The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself. 
  • God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when he is needed to resolve a problem. 
  • Good people go to heaven when they die. 
This creed, they found, is especially prominent among Catholic and Mainline Protestant teenagers. [1]
Dreher notes that "MTD is not entirely wrong. After all, God does exist, and He does want us to be good." But:
The problem with MTD, in both its progressive and its conservative versions, is that it’s mostly about improving one’s self-esteem and subjective happiness and getting along well with others. It has little to do with the Christianity of Scripture and tradition, which teaches repentance, self-sacrificial love, and purity of heart, and commends suffering—the Way of the Cross—as the pathway to God. Though superficially Christian, MTD is the natural religion of a culture that worships the Self and material comfort.
Hence, Dreher recommends that "[e]very single congregation in America must ask itself if it has compromised so much with the world that it has been compromised in its faithfulness."

       One of the primary reasons for this dichotomy is that in today's society "[w]e are governed not by faith, or by reason, or by any combination of the two. We are governed [instead] by ... emotivism: the idea that all moral choices are nothing more than expressions of what the choosing individual feels is right." "A virtuous society, by contrast, is one that shares belief in objective moral goods and the practices necessary for human beings to embody those goods in community." This dichotomy means that "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."

       This conclusion, however, leads Dreher to ask: "Could it be that the best way to fight the flood is to . . . stop fighting the flood? That is, to quit piling up sandbags and to build an ark in which to shelter until the water recedes and we can put our feet on dry land again?" And his answer comprises the second thesis in his book: "Rather than wasting energy and resources fighting unwinnable political battles, we should instead work on building communities, institutions, and networks of resistance that can outwit, outlast, and eventually overcome the occupation." To this end, Dreher looks back to the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, and, in particular, the efforts of St. Benedict in forming strong communities of faith, and tries to apply those lessons to the problem that confronts modern Christians. Dreher writes:
Fear not! We have been in a place like this before. In the first 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.
This is what Dreher calls "the Benedict option": "recogniz[ing] that the new order is not a problem to be solved but a reality to be lived with." [2]
        It will be those who learn how to endure with faith and creativity, to deepen their own prayer lives and adopting practices, focusing on families and communities instead of on partisan politics, and building churches, schools, and other institutions within which the orthodox Christian faith can survive and prosper through the flood. 
       This is not just about our own survival. If we are going to be for the world as Christ meant for us to be, we are going to have to spend more time away from the world, in deep prayer and substantial spiritual training—just as Jesus retreated to the desert to pray before ministering to the people. We cannot give the world what we do not have. If the ancient Hebrews had been assimilated by the culture of Babylon, it would have ceased being a light to the world. So it is with the church.
 And this is where Dreher spends the bulk of his book: explaining how to strengthen the church community and the faith of those in these communities. "In the Benedict Option," Dreher writes, "we are not trying to repeal seven hundred years of history, as if that were possible. Nor are we trying to save the West. We are only trying to build a Christian way of life that stands as an island of sanctity and stability amid the high tide of liquid modernity." In this regard, he recommends a new type of politics: not the unappreciated and unrewarded branch of the Republican party, but "a hands-on localism based on pioneering work by Eastern bloc dissidents who defied Communism during the Cold War." [3] He also warns that "[p]art 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."

       To create "an island of sanctity," or Christ-focused community, Dreher focuses on certain principles:
  1. Order. By this, Dreher is discussing ordering our lives to be in harmony with God and his creation.
  2. Prayer. By this, Dreher does not mean just that communication we seek when we kneel and pour out our hearts, or the quiet prayer of thanks or request for assistance during the day. Rather, he notes, "[m]ore broadly, prayer is maintaining an unfailing awareness of the divine presence and doing all things with Him in mind." Moreover, prayer must be combined with contemplation, since it is through quiet contemplation that God will mostly reveal himself to us.
  3. Asceticism. By this, he means taking on physical rigors for the sake of a spiritual goal: self-discipline. This can be through something specific like fasting, or more generally following the rules of our faith. "[T]he monk knows the human heart and how its passions must be reigned in through disciplined living." Dreher also notes that "[a]sceticism is an antidote to the poison of self-centeredness [i.e., narcissism] common in hour culture...". To a certain extent, this will be the lot of all Christians as we are driven from certain professions, careers, and business because our faith will be antithetical to the politically-correct culture.
  4. Stability. By this, Dreher remonstrates against the flightiness and lack of commitment that is part and parcel of a self-indulgent world. Thus, we should seek stability in our lives (putting down roots, so to speak) and in our faith.
  5. Community. Community derives from most of the points set out above, because it requires commitment and an interest in others; that we are part of a spiritual family and need to act the part. "To be part of a community is to share in its life. That inevitably makes demands on the individual that limits his freedom." The goal is to take diverse people and form a common culture.
  6. Hospitality. Essentially. although we are not of this world, we still are in it; and we must be willing and open to helping others. However, there is a limit: there must be borders because we cannot let outsiders disrupt or dictate the community's way of life. This can be a difficult balancing act: being welcoming and helpful whilst guarding against the wolf in sheep's clothing. Dreher cites one monk who suggests that this balance is best achieved through proselyting: "Let's attack by expanding God's kingdom--first in our hearts, then in our own families, and then in the world. Yes, you have to have borders, but our duty is not to let the border stay there. We have to push outward, infinitely."
  7. Balance. This essentially encapsulates the concept of moderation in all things, and not running faster than we have strength. Thus, we must eschew extremism as well as worldly-ism.   
       I do not question Dreher's conclusion that the Christian West is facing a crises of faith, and that Christians will increasingly find themselves under attack for living our faith. We merely need to look at the case of Jack Phillips, who has been penalized by Colorado for refusing to make a custom cake for a gay wedding because of his religious objections to SSM. While I have been encouraged by actions taken by President Trump, such as invoking God and bringing "Merry Christmas" back to the White House, he is trying to push a string up a hill. The momentum is against a rapid change of course.

        But I do question whether Dreher sufficiently understands what we are up against. What Dreher does not seem to consider is that "progressivism" is not a refutation of religion, but a religion in its own right, whose "god" is a jealous "god." [4] What Christians face is not a conflict between the religious (Christians) and the non-religious (Progressives), but between competing religions, with all of the visceral hatred that entails on the part of the so-called Progressives. Progressives will not be indifferent to Christians, but will actively seek them out to destroy them. Thus, I am concerned that Dreher has selected the wrong historical model.

       Dreher's historical model is, as you can tell from the title of his book, the Benedictine monks between the collapse of the Roman Empire and the Christian Middle-Ages. Obviously, the West is cast in the role of the mortally wounded Roman Empire and its spiritual bankruptcy, being attacked and gutted by various tribes and hordes of barbarian peoples. However, one critical distinction I see is that the Benedictine monks are not what preserved Christianity in the Dark Ages. Rather, it was the Christian missionaries that spread Christianity among the very barbarians that were attacking the Empire.

       My concern is that, instead, the Christian West today is filling the shoes of the Christian East during the first millennium A.D. My goal is not to review another book here, but I would recommend that you check out Philip Jenkins' The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia--and How It Died. Basically, his story is one of a strong and vibrant Christian Church throughout the Near and Middle East, that even pushed its way into China and India. But just as the Eastern Church reached its apex, the nations of the those regions came under attack by the Muslim hordes. What had been a majority Christian Near and Middle East were, by the beginning of the second millennium, a minority, hated and persecuted by what had by then become a Muslim majority. As Jenkins documents, however, Christian communities survived for centuries thereafter, undoubtedly following many of the principles Dreher suggests. That all changed in the 20th Century. Aided by better communications and roads, Muslim governments were able to successfully tighten the noose on the remaining Christian communities. Although the Armenian genocide is the most famous of the anti-Christian pogroms, it certainly was not the only one. Sectarian governments in Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria slowed the extinction of Christians in the mid-20th Century, but with the Middle Eastern wars started in this 21st Century, the end has finally come for many Christian communities in the Middle East. For instance, Jenkins notes that "[t]he Christians who constituted 10 percent of the region's population in 1900 made up at most 3 percent by the end of the century." More specific examples include Palestine (15% Christian in 1915, and now less than 1%) and Iraq (5-6% of the population in 1970, and now about 1%). Jenkins writes that "Middle Eastern Christians, in short, tried every possible tactic to survive and flourish, and their efforts have largely failed. ... Growing religious tension, economic hardship, and the threat of violence have all conspired to drive Christians into exile, chiefly to the United States and Australia." He adds: "Christians thus survive in the Middle East, but their collapse in numbers and influence over the past century has been astonishing, and only a wild optimist would predict that the process of decline had finished."

       The Progressives are not akin to the the indifferent Europeans, be they decadent Romans or non-Christian barbarians, with whom Benedict was concerned, but are more like the fanatical and bloodthirsty Muslims that the Eastern Church faced. And it won't take Progressives centuries to successfully persecute Christians into near extinction. In the past, the maxim "out of sight, out of mind," together with distance, isolation, and poor communications protected Christians in the Middle East. Today, we face the potential of Progressives using the full panoply of powers and capabilities of an omni-present surveillance state to hunt down Christian dissidents and jail them. (And to anyone that would scoff at this ever happening, I would merely point to the example of the Federal and Territorial governments campaign against Mormons in the late 19th Century: sending an army to Utah, imprisoning leaders and members, and confiscating property, in an attempt to stamp out polygamy--an effort so successful that polygamy is reviled within the Mormon church to this day). I've written before about the legal reasoning that underlay the U.S. Supreme Court's support of laws outlawing polygamy and that same reasoning can be applied to opposition to SSM or transgenderism. But, to be brief, the Court reasoned that "[i]t was never intended or supposed that the [First] amendment could be invoked as a protection against legislation for the punishment of acts inimical to the peace, good order, and morals of society."As I noted in the aforementioned post, "[i]f same-sex marriage and extra rights for homosexuals is deemed by the government to promote 'peace, good order, and the morals of society,' what is to stop the government from requiring a church to open its worship services and membership to homosexuals 'merely because it may inhibit conduct on the part of individuals which is sincerely claimed by them to be religiously motivated'?"

       I agree with Dreher that we must first set our own houses in order, and build or strengthen our own Christian communities. But we must also make it painful for the government and Progressives to war against Christians. Although speaking to conservatives, Vox Day's recent advice that conservatives need to adopt some of the tactics of the social justice warriors has application to Christians:  taking steps to employ Christians in preference to those that are not, supporting Christian businesses and boycotting those that persecute Christians, and so on. I can't remember where I came across it, but I recently read an article wherein a woman in small southern town lamented the fact that, although she went to two or three bakeries in the town, none of them would agree to put crosses on cupcakes that she wanted to distribute at a church activity. I believe the proper response is to publicly shame these businesses so that people can register their displeasure and take their business elsewhere. We need to vote with our feet and pocket books. We need to proselyte and witness. We need to be good examples. We need to become knowledgeable about our faith and why the standards we support are provably beneficial to us and society.  Only by maintaining our majority status in a given jurisdiction and standing together can we maintain our Christian culture.

Notes:

[1]       Dreher briefly notes that the roots of this philosophy stretch back to the Protestant Reformation and the Enlightenment, although the most toxic elements are of a more recent lineage: the Romantics of the 19th Century who "prized emotion, individuality, nature, and personal freedom," and what we now term "progressivism." Dreher elaborates:
The effects of this progressive movement on American religious life were vast. It began the long liberalization of Mainline Protestantism by infusing it with a passion for social reform, over and against personal piety and evangelizing. Progressives turfed the Protestant religious establishment out of universities and other leading cultural institutions. 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. And progressives’ political ardor for greater democracy and egalitarianism found expression in church life by eroding the authority of the clergy and Scripture.
Turning to the then-new "science" of psychology, progressives held that the pursuit of happiness was no longer "a quest for unity with God, or sacrificial dedication to a cause greater than oneself but rather a search to satisfy the Self." Or, as Sociologist Philip Rieff put it: “Religious man was born to be saved. Psychological man is born to be pleased.”
That is, instead of teaching us what we must deprive ourselves of to be civilized, we have a culture built on a cult of desire, one that tells us we find meaning and purpose in releasing ourselves from the old prohibitions, as we self-directed individuals choose. “Eros must be raised to the level of a religious cult in modern society, not because we really are that obsessed with it, but because the myth of freedom demands it,” says political philosopher Stephen L. Gardner. “It is in carnal desire that the modern individual believes he affirms his ‘individuality.’ The body must be the true ‘subject’ of desire because the individual must be the author of his own desire.”
In short, "[h]ere is the end point of modernity: the autonomous, freely choosing individual, finding meaning in no one but himself." In answer to those that would espouse a purely personal religion,      Dreher instead contends that "[t]he church, a community that authoritatively teaches and disciples its members, cannot withstand a revolution in which each member becomes, in effect, his own pope." See also my posts on "The Evils of Liberalism" and "Secret Combinations."

[2]      As I discussed in my review of Michael Walsh's book, The Devil's Pleasure Palace, there are some Christians, even members of my own Church (the LDS Church) that advocate it is time for the Church to acknowledge defeat in the cultural wars and embrace the philosophies of the "victors."

[3]     Dreher does not espouse a complete withdrawal from politics. He recognizes that "[w]ithout a robust and successful defend of First Amendment protections, Christians will not be able to build the communal institutions that are vital to maintaining our identity and values." However, we cannot depend on political allies that Christians have traditionally turned to both to support and for succor. Dreher suggests the creation of a parallel "polis" which will act to both preserve Christians and their culture, but be subversive of the greater, godless culture; not giving in to the cultural warriors, but being willing to stand up to the Progressives' preference falsification. In a certain sense, although Dreher would likely deny this and, perhaps even condemn the idea, Dreher is calling for Christian tribalism: Christians supporting Christian professionals and businesses in lieu of non-Christian.

[4]      For instance, Mary Eberstadt, in The National Review, writes that "[f]or more than half a century, at least since the invention of the birth-control pill, secularists and progressives collectively, if not always consciously, have been assembling a new, quasi-religious orthodoxy."
In place of the Judeo-Christianity of yesterday, and mimicking its outlines to an uncanny degree, this new body of belief has by now a well-developed secular catechism. Its fundamental faith is that the sexual revolution — that is, the gradual de-stigmatization of all forms of consenting non-marital sex — has been a boon to all humanity.
She also observes:
       Christians and other social dissidents today aren’t threatened with job loss because of writing in self-published books about the biblical teaching against stealing, say. Military chaplains are not being removed from office and sidelined for quoting from the book of Ruth. No, every act committed against believers in the name of today’s intolerant “tolerance” has a single, common denominator, which is the secularist protection of the perceived prerogatives of the sexual revolution at all costs. The new intolerance is a wholly owned subsidiary of that revolution. No revolution, no new intolerance.

         What also needs understanding is that pace the suspicion of some traditionalists, today’s secularist progressivism is not a nihilistic worldview. To the contrary: It embraces an alternative orthodoxy and a well-developed body of beliefs. The fundamental impulse leading to the penalizing of moral traditionalists today is not libertarian. It is instead neo-puritanical — that is, it is aimed at safeguarding its own body of revealed and developed truths, and at marginalizing, silencing, and punishing competitors. 
         This substitute religion mimics Christianity itself in preternatural ways. It offers a hagiography of secular saints, for example, all of them patrons of the revolution: proselytizers for abortion and contraception, such as Margaret Sanger and Helen Gurley Brown and Gloria Steinem; crypto-scholastics whose work is revered by generation after generation of the faithful and off-limits for intellectual revisionism, such as Alfred Kinsey and Margaret Mead; quasi-monastic ascetics, such as the grim public custodians of the National Abortion Rights Action League and Planned Parenthood; and even foreign “missionaries,” in the form of representatives within progressive charities and international bureaucracies — those who carry word of the revolution, and the secularist sacraments of contraception and abortion, to women in poorer countries around the world. 

         Similarly well-developed is the demonology of this substitute faith, which now includes, say, the Roman Catholic hierarchy; the major spokesmen for evangelical Protestantism; legal groups involved in religious-liberty cases; most political conservatives; all social conservatives; and the occasional apostate who deviates from the secularist code. 

        The followers of this newfound code further accept as Holy Writ a canon of texts and doctrine — a body of literature and commentary that cannot be questioned without risk of excommunication from the group. It is also ruled by a certain kind of logic — not Aristotelian logic, but some other kind, whose syllogisms include “if you are against abortion, therefore you are anti-woman”; “if you oppose same-sex marriage, therefore you hate people attracted to the same sex”; and related formulations that Aristotle himself would rule fallacious.
Where I would disagree with Ms. Eberstadt is that, I would contend, the sanctification of sex through "love" is merely one of the sacraments of the modern religion, but not the sum and substance of the theology.  

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