I had a curious experience last week when I put up my not-very-nice review of Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option (in a nutshell, my review suggested that TBO offered just basic Christianity repackaged as a marketing gimmick, and one resting on a not-very-apropos historical allusion at that). Rod himself responded very graciously and appreciatively on his blog (even ignoring my little jab about Moscow, ID), while others, most notably Jamie Smith of Calvin College, piled on me as a Dreher fanboy. I had hoped to engage Dreher’s response in this post, but will have to postpone that for a few days. Instead, since I have been oddly cast in the role of a Benedict Option defender, and since, to be honest, I’m more disposed to side with gracious people than with angry people, let me take some time to address the critics. In this lengthy post, I will focus on Jamie Smith’s criticisms, both because I think they can be taken as broadly representative (though I really don’t get around the blogosphere much), and because Jamie so—how shall I put it?—emphatically insisted on Twitter that I do so.
Now, to be fair, Smith had been the butt of a pointed jab in the post when I wrote “one is forced to wonder just what is motivating the Christian intellectuals who contemptuously dismissed the book”—the link, of course, goes to Smith’s Cardus review (I had not, at that point, read his even more contemptuous Washington Post review). But I honestly did wonder what was motivating Smith and others. If The Benedict Option’s positive agenda was mostly just thoughtful Christianity when it really came down to it, then my saying this was critique to the extent that it implied Dreher might have blown it a bit out of proportion, but it was praise to the extent that it was hard to see why any orthodox Christian would get upset by it. To be sure, Smith and at least some other critics were perhaps bothered less by the positive proposals in The Benedict Option than by its diagnosis of why they were needed. And this is a conversation worth having. But—here was my point—even if Dreher was wrong in his diagnosis of our contemporary situation, it shouldn’t matter that much, inasmuch as so much of what The Benedict Option called for was a worthy battle plan for Christians in any age. Whatever Smith’s concerns about Dreher’s “alarmism,” then, it seemed to me (and still seems to me) that he owes Dreher the courtesy of acknowledging that most of what is actually said in the book is pretty good advice.
Now, toward the end of the barrage of tweets (note: being a Twitter novice, I really get lost among all the threads and sub-threads, and so will not even attempt to link individual tweets here; here, again, is where the thread begins—explore it as you wish), as also toward the end of his review, Smith did acknowledge something at least approximating this. First he granted that The Benedict Option includes many of the same insights that were offered by James Davison Hunter in To Change the World, and then that it might be a useful augmentation to Hunter’s book when it came to ecclesiology. But he asked whether The Benedict Option provided any insights that were not better provided by other books less fraught with problems. Perhaps not. I never contended that it had, and in any case, I can’t pretend to have read widely enough to answer that question comprehensively. What I can say is that The Benedict Option is a singularly accessible, readable, and practical guide to something Western Christians are in particularly urgent need of: how churches can establish patterns of life as communities that will instill the faith in the next generation and form their members in the virtues necessary to sustain Christian commitment in an unfriendly environment. Beyond that, my praise did not extend. In particular, while I noted that Dreher does assume, contrary what some critics have claimed, that churches must form Christians with the virtues to serve in the broader society, including its higher echelons, he is not very specific when it comes to this more outward-facing side of things.
Contempt, Alarm, and Alarmism?
Still, Smith’s much stronger objection was to my characterization of his own review of Dreher as “contemptuous,” and he demanded that I explain what passages in the review merited that label. I tried to do so, as best that Twitter allowed, pointing to such passages as:
“Dreher takes the commitment to stability in the Benedictine Rule and turns it into a counsel of despair”
“Maybe Boniface could find a way to navigate the messiness of war in a still-pagan world, but it’s hard for Dreher to imagine a future for Christian doctors and florists in our newly pluralistic one.”
“Dreher spies nothing less than civilizational apocalypse.”
“And the alarm bells keep coming, building to a shrill cacophony”
“Christians need to sense ‘how urgent’ the fight for religious liberty is, he cautions; they need ‘to rise from their slumber and defend themselves while there is still time.’ (Can you fight from an ark? Is it a Navy?) At the same time, ‘conservative Christians must now prepare ourselves for very dark times.’ (The first-person plural pronouns in this book tell you a lot.)”
“In the second half of the book, Dreher fans this alarmism with the perfect fuel: anecdotes and anonymity.”
“What makes Dreher’s book both puzzling and frustrating is this over-the-top alarmist tenor coupled with a highly selective focus on matters of sexual ethics as ‘orthodoxy.’”
Now, if these aren’t “contemptuous” then I’m not quite sure what the word means. And if you still aren’t sure, check out Smith’s WaPo piece, which begins with the title “The New Alarmism: How Some Christians are stoking fear rather than hope,” and accuses Dreher and others of an alarmism that “is tinged with a bitterness and resentment and sense of loss that carries a whiff of privilege threatened rather than witness compromised.” And after quoting one of Dreher’s most apocalyptic lines, he scornfully observes, “Note, again: if you’re not alarmed, you’re not seeing things, a circular reasoning to help work yourself into a froth of fear.”
But the curious thing is that Smith seems to have fallen into his own circular reasoning, both in these reviews and his Twitter justifications of them: “if you’re not alarmed by the alarmism, you’re not seeing things.” In other words, he points to Dreher’s exclamations of alarm and treats them as iron-clad examples of alarmism, which is something else together. The one is a plain statement of fact about what someone is doing (they are warning us of danger); the other is a value-laden assessment (they are doing so irrationally and delusionally) based on a very different judgment of the background facts (that is, that there is not, in fact, any danger). Now it is this different judgment of the background facts that is absolutely crucial—if you’re going to accuse someone of alarmism then you have to successfully demonstrate that whatever they’re alarmed about isn’t really a problem, or at least as big of a problem as they think it is. I did not see Smith undertake this either in his Cardus review or his WaPo review. Instead, on Twitter, he kept insisting that he did provide evidence of alarmism in his reviews, because he quoted Dreher’s expressions of alarm. But this, as I have just pointed out, is a different thing altogether.
Now, I can’t help noticing the irony here, for it was just such pointing to quotes and unfavorably labeling them that Smith was objecting to in my treatment of him. I had pointed to his statements and labelled them “contemptuous,” but they were not, he insisted, because they were true. But it should be noted that this is not even the same sort of thing as pointing to alarm and labelling it alarmism. For while the descriptor “alarmism” is necessarily value-laden (there is no good alarmism), the same is not true with “contemptuous.” “Contemptuous” simply names a tone, which may or may not be justified (though, I should add, “what I said was true” is not yet a justification). It may well be that Smith’s contempt is justified (as it might be if it turns out that Dreher is an alarmist, and a bitter, resentful, and unoriginal one at that), but if you’re going to defend your contempt as justified, why get angry when someone calls it “contempt”?
To be sure, I am sympathetic to Smith’s complaint here, having been the victim of this sort of charge many times in the past. “Quit complaining about my tone as a way of dodging the substance of my criticisms,” I too have been tempted to retort. But tone does matter and while there are occasions when it is appropriate to adopt one of contempt, they should be carefully and thoughtfully chosen. Otherwise you will just be dismissed as a snobbish entitled professor who is resentful that an unoriginal small-town journalist is selling more books than you—or perhaps worse, as a panderer virtue-signaling to the secular world that you aren’t among those troglodyte “alarmist” Christians. (However noble his intentions may be, Smith needs to at least be more self-aware of the optics of his anti-Dreher crusade.)
But let’s attend to the substance of Smith’s criticisms, some of which I actually largely share.
So let’s start with the overarching concern behind the charge of “alarmism”—that Dreher’s “shrill cacophony” is blown out of proportion, because things really aren’t that bad. Prima facie, I am sympathetic to the concern. One of the most illuminating things for me about studying the Reformation and early modern period has been the realization of just how timeless Dreher-esque laments are. Even in the glory days of the Reformation and in the places where it took deepest root and bore the richest fruit, you can find a chorus of lamentations about “the evil days in which we live,” about the widespread corruption of church and society, and the sense that we might not be able to hope for much more than the preservation of a faithful remnant amidst it all. Still, as a student of history and human nature, I am disposed to think that we do live in a time of tectonic shifts.
Christianity is not about to disappear, even from the West (Dreher’s exclamation that “There are people alive today who may live to see the effective death of Christianity within our civilization” is one place where I agree with Smith about TBO being a bit melodramatic), but its center of gravity is rapidly shifting to the global South. There is much good news in that, but as an Augustinian and a philosopher of culture, Smith would surely agree with me and with Dreher in affirming the immense importance of institutions and their stored-up cultural capital. There is no denying that Western institutions, enshrining more than 1500 years of the Christian cultural heritage, are rapidly jettisoning that heritage and in many cases turning aggressively against it. Hopefully, Smith would also agree with me that few things are more fundamental to moral and social order than our concept of what it means to be human. This is certainly a concept which has undergone gradual and in some cases significant shifts over the past couple millenia, but nothing approaching the radical redefinition witnessed in the past century, a redefinition that seems to have finally filtered down into popular consciousness. The transgender movement rapidly taking hold, and the transhumanism and new eugenicism that would appear to be gaining at least a foothold, represent a challenge to Western civilization and public Christianity as significant as anything in at least the past few hundred years.
The golden days of Christendom never were the golden days we might imagine, and they’ve been a long time receding, but fifty years ago, it was still the case that by and large, our public morality—our sense of what was right and healthy and decent and what was not, even if we didn’t always live up to it—broadly matched up to the trajectories of Christian morality. That is clearly rapidly ceasing to be the case. But the most startling feature of the post-Obergefell world is not that Christians have to make their peace with public institutions that do not share their convictions, but that those public institutions do not seem disposed to make their peace with Christians. This is the development at the heart of Dreher’s alarm, and although Smith pooh-poohs it, it is hard not to see it as at least somewhat alarming, as indeed even many secular commentators, such as Andrew Sullivan, have. The rapid move to relabel positions that ten years ago the majority of society held as medieval bigotry is really an extraordinary development. The public rejection of religious liberty laws that would simply allow people to continue to hold such positions, regardless of what one thinks of them, is really an extraordinary development. Of course, I think this shift is broader than a mere religious liberty one, and affects more parties than just conservative Christians. That is part of why, in my review, I argued that Dreher’s case for doom-and-gloom is not really justified unless he takes into account some broader societal developments that are part of what make our current crisis, in my view, a genuine crisis. The recent kerfluffle at Middlebury College was but the latest in a jarring rejection of academic freedom that has come to characterize many of America’s leading college campuses: disagreement, whether religious or otherwise, is no longer welcomed, but, in the name of “diversity,” is violently protested and boycotted. Of course, this incivility and intolerance is every bit as common in some sectors of the Right as in some of the Left. This is what I lamented in my initial review as “the rapid collapse of faith in public institutions and truth-claims that threatens to reduce our society to a Hobbesian war of all against all, or at least to render us unable to engage in public deliberation.”
But let us return briefly to the concrete issue of religious liberty. Smith seems curiously dismissive of Dreher’s attention to the recent slew of prosecutions against Christian florists, bakers, and photographers, but it really is not at all a stretch to see similar challenges coming to Christian doctors, pharmacists, lawyers, accountants, and many more—not to mention teachers and professors, many of whom already have to tiptoe around every subject for fear of being hauled before administration on charges of “microaggression.” I am sure that Smith has many Christian colleagues in the academy who can testify to the deeply fraught landscape within which they have to work. Is Dreher exaggerating the danger here? I suspect perhaps so; after all, nothing rules our society as much as almighty Mammon, and the wheels of commerce would slow down if productive Christian businessmen and tradesmen were purged and persecuted. I suspect that Christians will lose more jobs to automation than to diversity imperatives within the next generation—which is why I highlighted this as the second great challenge to our civilization that Dreher fails to mention, and which might require some tweaking of his otherwise good proposals for Christians and work.
In any case, there is plenty to quibble with Dreher here, but I am puzzled as to how and where and why Smith would dispute his overall point: “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.” Notice Dreher’s words—this is the end of a world, a cultural-religious-political configuration of the social order. Although the details are new, the possibility of such a tectonic shift is not new, and several such worlds have ended since the coming of Christ. (To this extent, I might want to tweak and revise Dreher’s “1,500-year flood” assessment; perhaps this is more like a 500-year flood.)
Since this is Smith’s most significant criticism, and the one where empirical details matter the most, I have taken a bit more time on it (though still not nearly enough, I warrant). I will try to tackle the others much more quickly.
Board the Ark?
So much for Dreher’s reasons for alarm. But what about his positive proposals? I argued in my review that despite some problems with his diagnosis of our current predicament (and, I could certainly add, considerably more problems with his broad-brush history of all the steps in the last 700 years that led to it), at least most of what he calls the church to do in response is stuff we should be doing anyway. (It’s kind of like I say to Christian skeptics of climate change—“Ok, suppose the problem isn’t so bad after all; do you really think that consuming less carbon, polluting less, and living more sustainably are bad ideas?”) Smith partly seems to echo this assessment, but he also seems deeply freaked out by this passage in TBO: “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?” (12)
Smith comes back to this metaphor over and over in his review, turning up his nose at it as just repackaged fundamentalism, but without the overarching eschatology to at least render it internally consistent. I don’t disagree with Smith that this is a very bad metaphor and that if Dreher wants Christians to run and hide and let the world go to pieces around them, he deserves all the criticism he’s gotten and more. But I disagree with Smith that this metaphor dominates the book. Indeed, the very next sentences go off in a rather different direction: “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” (12). Perhaps Smith would still wince at the military metaphors, but this is a much more strategic and engaged posture than the ark metaphor implies. Indeed, the ark metaphor seems simply the result of Dreher getting carried away with his attempt to use his story of the great Baton Rouge flood of 2016 as an illustration. As the book goes on, such despair is simply not a common theme, and indeed, the adversarial metaphor of “occupation” and “resistance” is tempered by the insistence that the “parallel polis must understand itself as fighting for ‘the preservation or the renewal of the national community in the widest sense of the word’ . . . “In other words, dissident Christians should see their Benedict Option projects as building a better future not only for themselves but for everyone around them” (93-94).
Smith himself does Dreher the credit of, toward the end of his review, quoting the beautiful words in the final chapter that begin, “We live liturgically, telling our sacred Story in worship and song. We fast and we feast. We marry and give our children in marriage, and though in exile, we work for the peace of the city. . . ” (241). But whereas Smith thinks that this tone is the exception, which gets buried in “alarmism and reactionary posturing,” that was simply not my experience reading the book. Could the book have been better if it had taken a more consistently positive and anti-reactionary tone. Absolutely. Does it merit Smith’s harsh putdowns? I don’t think so.
Obsessed with Sex?
One of the things that jarred me most about Smith’s review (and which did make it come across as virtue-signalling to liberals) was this line: “What makes Dreher’s book both puzzling and frustrating is this over-the-top alarmist tenor coupled with a highly selective focus on matters of sexual ethics as ‘orthodoxy.’” Smith admits that only one of the seven prescriptive chapters focused on marriage and sexuality (a remarkably small proportion, by fundamentalist standards!), but thinks that the significance Dreher attributes to Obergefell proves that he is just another fundamentalist freaked out about sex.
This seems fundamentally unfair. First of all, sex is the single most morally fraught aspect of our human existence—the point where the most powerful urges of our animal nature and the most powerful urges of our relational/emotional human nature come together. Yes, it is the error of moralists in every generation to obsess over sex to the exclusion or occlusion of other weighty issues, but it is the error of some generations—and clearly ours among them—to make libertinism in sex a virtue and dismiss any form of restraint as puritanical legalism. If Dreher considers sex an important battleground for today’s Christians, it is because he has two eyes in his head, not because he is a crazed reactionary fundamentalist.
But this point is not even necessary to make, because Dreher’s emphasis on Obergefell, etc., has less to do with the fact that it is about sex per se and more to do with the issues I highlighted above—the progressive redefinition of human nature (to which a redefinition of sexuality is central) and Obergefell as a turning point when traditional convictions were suddenly equated with outright bigotry. So there is really nothing “highly selective” about it.
Resentment and White Privilege?
Another trendy and politically-correct charge that Smith lobs at Dreher is that he is motivated above all by resentment at the decline of white privilege. This charge is muted, though present, in the Cardus review, but blares loudly out of the WaPo op-ed:
“But the new alarmism is something different. It is tinged with a bitterness and resentment and sense of loss that carries a whiff of privilege threatened rather than witness compromised. When Dreher, for example, laments the “loss of a world,” several people notice that world tends to be white. And what seems to be lost is a certain default power and privilege.”
Since of course this is the Washington Post, Smith doesn’t provide any sources for his claim. Okay, lame joke, but seriously—that’s a strong charge, and deserves some backing. But Smith provides none. I flip back and forth through the book, and I don’t see resentment and bitterness; instead, I find lines like:
“We faithful Orthodox Christians didn’t ask for internal exile from a country that we thought was our own, but that’s where we find ourselves. We are a minority now, so let’s be a creative one, offering warm, living, light-filled alternatives to a world growing cold, dead, and dark. We will be increasingly without influence, but let’s be guided by monastic wisdom and welcome this humbly as an opportunity sent by God for our purification and sanctification. Losing political power might just be the thing that saves the church’s soul. Ceasing to believe that the fate of the American Empire is in our hands frees us to put them to work for the Kingdom of God in our own little shires.” (99)
You might think this is too gloomy, but bitter and resentful? There are a couple moments in that quote where it seems ready to go in that direction, but then Dreher himself diffuses any hint of resentment himself and calls us to an attitude of joyful service.
And as for racial issues, well, this charge only works if the broader charge stands. Yes, it is true that the political power that Dreher describes slipping away has belonged disproportionately to white Christians. But if Dreher is not in fact indulging in resentment on this point, then he can’t be indulging in racially-tinged resentment either. Moreover, even if the sea-change we are experiencing is a more dramatic one for white Christians than Black or Latino Christians, that hardly means this is a book just for whites. If you consider the list of forty-seven positive proposals that make up The Benedict Option, I think you’ll find precious few that aren’t worthy suggestions for minority communities as well. Of course, it may be that as minorities, such communities might be further along than us in practicing some of these, and yes, that’s something Dreher could and should have emphasized more; I can think of many places where his stories of the Benedict Option in action could have been enriched by stories drawn from minority Christians. But it’s hardly a charitable read to look at this oversight and chalk it up to resentful white privilege.
Smith’s final and most comprehensive concern is a worthy fear, and also the point where Smith comes closest to complimenting The Benedict Option (though he can’t quite bring himself to). Essentially, he concedes, a great deal of what Dreher proposes is not new at all, but very old in the best sense of the word (as indeed Dreher intends it to be): classic Christianity, spiced up perhaps with insights from recent authors like Charles Taylor and Stanley Hauerwas. The danger, he says, is that his branding exercise would prove so successful that people will mistake that old-time religion for The Benedict OptionTM, and if they are turned off by its alarmism, as he expects they will be, then they might be turned off to traditioanl Christianity altogether. The point is important enough that Smith is worth quoting at length here
“The uniquely Dreher-ish rendition of these analyses and proposals by others repurposes them within a project that is narrow and reactionary, with little of the outlandish beauty of grace. This is probably my biggest concern: that Dreher’s idiosyncratic repackaging of the historic disciplines and formative practices of the church retroactively makes newcomers and outsiders mistake the Great Tradition with the narrowness of the Benedict Option—that the catholic heritage of the faith gets owned by the BenOp™, thereby associating the treasures and riches of the tradition with a particular take that is ultimately parochial and reactionary.
For example, was John Calvin extolling Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option when he hoped that the entire city of Geneva could be reformed as a magnum monasterium? When Abraham Kuyper founded a Christian political party, a Christian newspaper, and a Christian university, was he unwittingly a practitioner of the Benedict Option? When Reformed communities in Michigan or Ontario built Christians schools alongside their churches, were they building arks in despair of the culture around them? Is Stanley Hauerwas merely an early adopter of the BenOp™? No, because they all had a fundamentally different posture and hope. Their proposals and actions grew out of the logic of mission and not merely as a “strategy” reacting to the times. They had fundamentally different understandings of the relationship between the church and the world.
If every form of intentionality about Christian community, every expression of liturgical formation, every instance of ecclesial “centring” gets mistaken for the Benedict Option, then what is really a catholic inheritance is going to be confused with Dreher’s unique brand of resentment.
What’s unfortunate is that a constructive, even beautiful call to a way of life that bears witness to how the world could be otherwise gets buried in alarmism and reactionary posturing.”
Now, I share a substantial piece of this concern. I am pretty allergic to marketing and slogans and attempts to appeal to a culture obsessed with novelty by trying to make the old seems new and exciting. I’m on record complaining against this sort of thing (ironically, you will see in that review that it was the same James K.A. Smith who was the fan of the “old repackaged as new!) and indeed my initial review of Dreher raised this general concern. I would much rather that Dreher had chosen a different name for his book, eschewing the branding temptation altogether, and had made more effort to highlight all sorts of historical analogues (besides just St. Benedict). Of course, I also try to be a realist, and I conceded in my review that maybe when it comes to marketing, the end does have to justify the means somewhat.
I also agree with Smith in some measure when he contrasts a posture of mission and hope with one of reaction and fear. There is a bit too much of “what’s wrong with the world today” prefacing nearly every one of Dreher’s positive proposals, and I wish he had framed them more explicitly as “this is what it means to take the gospel seriously” and less as, “this is a crucial antidote to the fissiparous forces of modern secularism.” I really do, and I get Smith’s frustration about the framing. And maybe, if I had read the book when I was having the bad day, as Smith seems to have, I would have had a grumpier reaction too. (Mostly I read it while flying to Colorado on spring break, so….) But on the other hand, if you want to create a book that can serve as a practical guide for a host of ordinary Christians, you need to make it concrete. And one of the best ways to make it concrete is to meet people where their real-life problems are, and to show how this way of life is an effective remedy to those problems, rather than simply rhapsodizing abstractly about the ideals of Christian community. But more importantly, as I’ve emphasized in the preceding, I also think that the critics are coming at the book with a very jaundiced eye. There is lots of hope. There is lots of exuberance. There is lots of “This is what it means to be a Christian, and it’s so liberating to live this way” in every chapter. For every example of worried reaction, there are probably three of cheerful witness and engagement. These lines are representative:
“Here’s how to get started with the antipolitical politics of the Benedict Option. Secede culturally from the mainstream. Turn off the television. Put the smartphones away. Read books. Play games. Make music. Feast with your neighbors. It is not enough to avoid what is bad; you must also embrace what is good. Start a church, or a group within your church. Open a classical Christian schoo, or join and strengthen one that exists. Plant a garden, and participate in a local farmer’s market. Teach kids how to play music, and start a band. Join the volunteer fire department.” (98)
In the end, I wonder whether those who bitterly and resentfully camp out on the negativity in the book are not, ironically, doing to Dreher just what they accuse him of doing to our culture.