In lieu of the critiques Rod Dreher offers against modernity, which he sees playing out in American culture, including the increasing acceptance of LGBT people, the dramatic rise of the nones, and the failure of our society to agree on a common good, he offers a proposal: the Benedict Option. The Benedict Option is a proposal to build alternative communities of resistance, nurture, and discipleship. And he uses the Rule of St. Benedict as a model.
I won’t go into as much detail, even as it is the heart of the book. But the ideas he proposes are a good overview of best practices, that a number of liberal Protestants have picked up on including Diana Butler Bass’ book, Christianity for the Rest of Us and Robin Meyers work, The Underground Church. They involve a centering of one’s life in God. To do so is to remove everything which obstructs this goal. The primary culprit is the self, the ego.
Practices to overcome the self include living in community (67). If you want to overcome the self, than living with other people becomes key. You have to adjust your wants, needs to others. Some of this happens through common practices, of praying together, working together, worshiping together (58) It is established through the Rule of St. Benedict, which governs communal life. (68) As Rod Dreher writes:
The Rule teaches that God must be the beginning and end of all actions. To bound our spiritual passion by the rhythm of daily life and its disciplines, and to do so with others in our family and in our community,
I worked for a liberal ecumenical student ministry, that had a student community who lived together at our ministry center. Though I would not call them monastic, they incorporated many of these practices. They included a shared meal, shared prayer, regular times of being together, even in the midst of class schedules and work. We know that families, that can do these things, spending time together, sharing meals, work, even prayers, are strengthened.
This becomes a model for the church and for the communities Rod Dreher lifts up. (132) Some of this involves literal shared housing, as in the example I raised. Some of this is an intention to live near each other and meet on a regular basis. This would sound like the church, but Dreher is convinced that churches fail at this if we only meet on Sunday mornings for one hour. The church, like our family, need to be part of our life, throughout the week. (13)
Instead of a church, Dreher proposes, a Christian village. A community that lives in close proximity to one another, visiting each other when sick, learning together in book discussions and prayer groups, incorporating the life of the church into much of our activities. He lauds Orthodox Jewish communities, who form a sort of “social ecology” that nurtures Jewish identity, belief, practices, and community. (130)
Not only does this deepen, nurture faith and identity, it gives us a place, a home. I have not read enough of Rod Dreher’s works, but I get this as a subtext that one finds throughout the book. Capitalism all but requires us to be rootless, which is to say that for those who want to get ahead, it means moving. Moving away for college, moving to the big city for a new job. Income and social mobility requires you to follow the job.
But it comes at a cost. A sense of home, a sense of self, with familiar people, surroundings, with people we are accountable to, are in relation to. We lose the familiar markers of buildings, geography, and people. You don’t see people grow up, get older, marry, because we’re gone in a few years. The Boston Globe had a recent piece on the loneliness of middle age, as many of our friendships and connections are lost. I think of Dreher’s project as a protest at those features of modern life that disconnect us from one another, make us isolated.
This is done by establishing new communities and connections, like the Benedict Option communities in this book. Some of this is establishing a different kind of familiarity that can root us. His discussion on liturgy accomplishes this well. It provides a kind of stability and tells us that we are not rootless. It says who we are in God.
And then there is a rootlessness where we lose a sense of our own history.
The sections in this book about reclaiming our own history, made my heart sing. To be rootless is to not know where you came from and where you are going. He describes modernity as an eternal present. So the church and these alternative communities should nurture a sense of history. Dreher describes communities and churches that have set up book clubs and discussion groups around the church fathers, around Augustine, around Reformation figures like John Calvin. (137) I believe liberal religious and other progressive communities should take this idea up.
I recommend Diana Butler Bass, in this case her book A People’s History of Christianity. For liberal Protestants, there are several authors who shaped their movements, that need to be picked up again. For the Disciples , I’d recommend Edward Ames and Winfred Garrison, who wrote in the midst of the modernist fundamentalist debate. For UCC folks, Walter Rauschenbush, Reinhold and H. Richard Niebuhr provide many resources in the time of Trump.
I believe one issue that liberal Protestantism faces is the belief that every issue being fought, every idea being considered is brand new. It’s not, it has a history we can trace back to the Reformation if not before. To learn our history is to know that you are part of a living tradition. I think it gives liberal Protestantism standing as opposed to assuming that we’re “making this up.” It also means we don’t have to reinvent the wheel.
History matters. The right is aware of this is, which is why the Arkansas legislature has considered legislation banning Howard Zinn from the public schools, including his People’s History of the US. I also recommend John Nichol’s book, the S Word which traces socialist history in the US. Our public schools are not teaching the history of unions. My guess is Eugene Debs is absent from the curriculum. Progressive communities need to work to rectify this situation
Rod Dreher notices this too about public schools. (154) It is not so much a conspiracy, as a result of their changing function. Public schools, including our college system, is designed for the utilitarian work of providing skills for workers in the economy. I was told that study was important if I wanted material success. (159) As if there was no intrinsic joy in learning. As if I was not being called to be changed, in my engagement with history and ideas. What does history, philosophy and religion do for our modern economy? When Obama made fun of art history majors, he was tapping into this sentiment.
Rod Dreher’s solution is to withdraw from public schools. (155) Not to put kids in Christian schools, which often have the same rationale as public schools. But instead to a new kind of Christian academy that would focus on history and ideas. (160) There is a curriculum involving “The Great Works” that focuses on the history of Western Civilization. I’m not familiar with this curriculum, but the idea seems compelling, even as I’d expand the subject matter.
He even has a great idea that others need to pick up on. Imagine how many folks with graduate degrees are shut out of the academy. (172) He credits it to discrimination against conservatives. I credit it to the end of full time work in the academy and the reliance of adjuncts. There you have an overabundance of knowledge, not being tapped into by the community. Why not find a way to connect their knowledge. He figures that such academies could hire them.
But instead I’d propose that if the Benedict Option could take off for progressives, one area that would need to explore is the tradition of Folkeskole, people’s schools, where life long education on history, politics, and more could be explored. I’m thinking of schools like Left University in Chicago. Being willing to invest in those folks who went to graduate school so they can help us fill in the holes of public education. But this would not be a substitute for public schools. It would be for adults and kids who want to continue to learn.
Why not a substitute? Because Rod Dreher and I have a fundamentally different theological commitment. For me, to be “rightly ordered to God” means I must encounter difference. Difference in race, gender, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, ability, background. Because it is in difference that I come to know God. I recommend Henry Nelson Wieman’s work on creative interchange on this. The public school, as long as it is narrowly conceived in terms of job prospects, loses its greatest gift. The ability to encounter difference in a shared community.
And it goes to the heart of the problem I have with the Benedict Option. Is it good news for those who are not orthodox Christians? I accept most of his critiques of modern society. So naturally I want to see how the wider society can embrace history, place, growth, community and public spaces. Public schools are the anchors of local communities in ways that charter schools, private school can never achieve. If there is one place in our country that we ought to be invested in it is in our public schools. But I will explore more in my third and last post in this series.
Rod Dreher, recognizes that not everybody could afford to be in such a Christian academy or has the means to start one. So he recommends homeschooling. And then he recognizes the financial cost and skills required for homeschooling. (165) He also recommends forgoing jobs to stay rooted in community. He recommends people put in the hours, required to build a Christian village, spending much of their time in prayer, mutual support, and building up the faith and education of their community.
And this brings me to Chapter 4, as he re-envisions a Christian politics. He is thinking of what is needed by the law to protect these Benedict Option communities. But I think there is a large hole in his account. I’d argue that if he wants to create a context where people can stay in place, can devote large amounts of time building these Christian villages, then the kind of politics needed is social democracy.
Imagine if we had single payer and health care was portable. We have somewhat gotten there through the exchanges (which church planters, overwhelmingly rely on). This could free up folks. They could leave their jobs and not worry about their health care. Imagine if we had a 35 hour work week like France? Or in Scandinavia where they average 32 hours a week. The volunteer time to build a Christian village would be there.
What if we had a guaranteed minimum income, so that could could forgo a move to a better job. They could stay in place to build their communities. What if that minimum income was enough that we could pay parents to take care of their children, to volunteer, including in the life of the church?
If the Benedictine Option seems implausible to some, it has because we have structured our economy around zero hour contracts, temporary work, working multiple jobs, moving to new places for a better job, both parents working for less and less pay. What if we structured our economy in ways that promoted labor unions, that could secure better pay? Which did not reward those who put in the most hours, but in collective bargaining?
What if as a society we said that involvement in civic society, the kind Rod Dreher, is more important than profit? Because even I wouldn’t be welcome in the communities he’d build, there are communities being built that would welcome me. And his argument, which I accept, is that these thick associations are the measure of the vibrancy of our society. (93) If so, could religious conservatives imagine supporting the left’s economic goals to get us there?
Volume 1 tackles the critique on modernity. Volume 3 will tackle the sexual revolution. And I want to explore what the LGBT community could teach the Benedict Option communities.