The Benedict Option Again

I’ve been rather busy these last couple of months, so I only just saw this predictably apocalyptic column from Rod Dreher that came out after the Supreme Court’s same-sex marriage ruling:

I’ve discussed the absurdity of the Benedict Option before, so I won’t rehash those arguments. Instead, I’ll focus on Dreher’s belief that these isolated “Benedict communities” will one day spring forth and take back civilization once us decadent secularists foul everything up.

As the reader probably knows, the term “Benedict Option” refers to the Benedictine monastic communities that were established during late antiquity and the early Middle Ages that helped spread Latin Christianity and preserve certain aspects of classical culture (I say “certain aspects” because some manuscripts were purposely destroyed by Christians during late antiquity, while other simply disappeared from the West because no one knew the Greek needed to read them. While it’s true that monasteries helped drain swamps, preserve those works that were considered worthy of being saved, and maintained a culture of literacy, it’s unclear how much the average peasant or serf would have benefited from their efforts. Monasteries, especially those in the early Middle Ages, were essentially closed communities, and monks weren’t supposed to have much contact with the masses, because that could lead to too much worldiness. Most people living in classical antiquity, the medieval period, and beyond would not have shared in the cultural inheritance of their society, because they weren’t literate. For all intents and purposes, European paganism continued well into the twentieth century, because it wasn’t considered worthwhile to try and educate the masses in the art of being an “orthodox” Christian. Presumably, everyone in Dreher’s Benedict community would be literate, but that in and of itself, is a modern innovation that he doesn’t seem to understand.

Dreher compares the supposedly dire state of white conservative Christians to the “cultural darkness” suffered by the first Benedictine monks. However, the “cultural darkness” the original Benedictines lived through was caused by the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, which in turn lead to the decline of the classical literary tradition (which was hastened by the “what hath Jerusalem to do with Athens attitude”), and the militarization and feudalization of formerly urbanized areas, not by mass immorality or secularization, as Dreher implies in his article. While there are many aspects of our culture that I dislike, the fact is that more people have access to “Great Books,” classical music, works of philosophy, and other aspects of high culture than ever before. About a hundred year twenty ago, the only way to hear Richard Wagner’s Parsifal was to actually go to Bayreuth and hear it. As of this writing, I have two DVDs of Parsifal, a CD box set, and various albums with clips from that opera. I can also see clips from various Parsifal performances on YouTube and other online sources. Furthermore, you can download many “Great Books” for free from Kindle, Project Gutenberg, Nook, and other sources. Dreher complains about the corrosive effects of the mass society, but his imagined community assumes that certain aspects of modernity, like mass literacy and easy access to high culture, are a given.

I’m not convinced that these hypothetical Benedict communities could ever mount much of a challenge to the secular culture, because white conservative Christianity in this country is culturally sterile. Most of what passes for “art” in the white evangelical community are bad versions of secular art forms that are of no interest to anyone outside of that particular tribe. While Catholics would probably point to the great cathedrals of Europe as a sign that their church loves art, those churches were built hundreds of years ago, and the same is true for the religious masterpieces found in museums. The modern church (nineteenth century to the present) hasn’t produced anything that would give Hollywood or the fine arts world a run for its money, and certainly not the Catholic church in America. The traditionalist Catholic sub-culture, for example, has been around for over forty years, and all that’s been produced are a thousand tracts on why women shouldn’t wear pants. I think this is why white evangelicals and many Catholics cling so hard to C.S. Lewis, because he’s the best they have in terms of having semi-decent cultural projects.

The same is true for almost every modern group with separatist views, from the Independent Fundamentalist Baptists to the various Hasidic Jewish groups, where any kind of creativity or critical thinking is discouraged. These religious groups aren’t producing scientists, researchers, artists, or anyone that would actually challenge secular culture in a substantial way. Highly religious “universities” like Liberty University, Bob Jones University, Christendom College, and the Orthodox Jewish yeshiva and kollel system exist to be finishing schools for young fundamentalists, rather than institutions where new ideas are generated. If your primary interest is in ensuring that your kids believe and act in a very narrow way, then a certain degree of cultural and intellectual stagnation is inevitable, but such stagnation is spun as “virtue,” rather than studied ignorance.

If Dreher wants to get an idea of how to be a counter-cultural Christian, he should probably start hanging around black Christians, who have never expected the majority culture to reflect their personal preferences or beliefs, yet have arguably been the most culturally creative group of Christians in the United States. But I doubt that would happen, because I think that Dreher, like many liturgically minded white conservatives, has an instinctive dislike of the black way of doing church. This is one reason why white conservative Christians face such a dire future, because they can’t even cooperate with Christians from other racial groups who share their theological beliefs, and wonder why they keep losing ground. Assuming Benedict Option communities are able to remain viable for more than a generation or two, I think they will end up like Russia’s Old Believers, rather than the Benedictine monks of antiquity; eccentric religionists that are an interesting curiosity, but not something anyone takes seriously.