Considering the Benedict Option

This is a wonderful piece on the Benedict Option, and states clearly why we who are church — the assembly of people called to follow Jesus — should detach ourselves from the world, and what’s at stake:

Ours is not a rejection of contact with the modern world, but rather a refusal to believe any longer in the promises of modernity.

Absolutely. It is the promises of progress, technology, mastery over nature, of plenty, of wealth, and even of of equality, freedom, and democracy that we as church should question. As both means and ends. (This is me speaking now, and not the author, who may have other ideas.) I suspect, though, the author might be at least sympathetic to my list, given this:

The American Way of Life is—in every real sense of the word—a religion all its own. We are its willing disciples, our altar is the Free Market System, and we worship the trinity of consumerism, nationalism and democratization. A False God to be sure, but nevertheless one with its own unique rituals and sacraments. The American Dream is but a replacement religion, not a complimentary “lifestyle.” If one is contemplating the Benedict Option, I think the idea of being a “good American,” as that term is commonly understood, will have to be jettisoned. In fact, one may well have to be a decidedly bad American.

While the author is not convinced American Evangelicals are far too invested in the holiness of America to take this up — “When Baptist churches start removing their American flags from their podiums, then I will start taking notice.” — the historic churches themselves, particularly catholic and orthodox, don’t get a pass, as they have been very wrapped up in accepting the meaning of America as a vision for what it means to be church.

As to what the Benedict Option would look like, the author essentially says it is more of a very than a noun — webs of relationships, rootedness, thinking generationally, even the possibility of arranged marriages (with cousins?!?!). All of this to create “places of genuine, welcoming hospitality” where the church could be the church (and not worry about power or influence), “little more than traditional Christians acting and living as if they really believed it.”

Again, I’m all for this.I’ve said this for some time, and this has been my vision for years now, an alternative community and polity where we preach and live the gospel together and cultivate grace, mercy, and hospitality. I believe in this and want to do it for two reasons. First, the world won’t do it, even when it claims to. And the world is fantastic about claiming to be at least hospitable. It’s a false hospitality, one that is ideologically guided, and dependent on identity (of the guest and of the host).

But second, the church, having grown accustomed to power, privilege, and position, doesn’t know anymore how to do these things either. The church, like the rest of our modernity, wants systems and institutions of change, and care, and that may have been an appropriate (but still unfaithful) response to the times. But it is not a proper response now. It was never really enough for the church to want to create a world in which the poor, the orphan, and the widow, were caed for but in which no Christians actually had to do the caring (and writings going back all the way to the late medieval period show that some Christian thinkers longed for this kind of Christian commonwealth).

The kinds of mercy and compassion, the kinds of welcome and hospitality, Jesus demands of us requires a heart, hands, and a head. A human being, acting out of love, and not a social worker or a bureaucrat.

5 thoughts on “Considering the Benedict Option

  1. The rise of the monasteries after the fall of Rome suggest to our minds today a retreat from urban corruption and complexity to the simple life in a rural commune. In actuality, they were the high tech centers of their time. They were the last repositories of classical culture and knowledge. And literacy. They practiced agriculture intelligently and systematically. That’s why they could hold on to all that land — they made better use of it (and thus more food and wealth) than the recently semi-nomadic barbarian peoples could with family-based farming. Once enough of the barbarians converted, they were exempted from the ferocious violence of Dark Ages politics. They did not exist in tension with worldly power. They were part of the system, while having the freedom to be different — sort of like state universities.

    Before the era of the monks there had to be the era of the martyrs. That lasted for centuries. And that may be a more relevant model for what we are facing.


  2. While I think having communities where Christians practice what they believe and are able to pass those values down is important, I’m also kind of skeptical that the Benedict Option really represents anything more than another attempt to live the Christian life. Which is great. But sometimes I wonder if part of the Benedict response is simply to the effect of “We are the Christians that will finally get it RIGHT”, not like all those other unfaithful Christians who compromised with the world.

    I mean in practical terms what does this mean- I work at a special ed school right now with no particular religious bent. Am I complicit in secularization? If I like beer and Taylor swift songs, have I gone to the dark side? I mean what is not a compromise? Also where are these magical incorruptible Christians going to come from? Peter betrayed Jesus, and Jesus still said he would build a church on him.

    I think Christianity and the American Life could break up, at least for a while. But we will still be sinners in need of the mercy of God, and the kingdom still won’t come by our making. I’m just not sure how far to really be separated from the world, and which parts of the world, and what that separation will really “prove”.


  3. Maybe an even better model for what we are facing is the history of the nonconformist churches in England after the Civil War, from the time of Bunyan through the 19th century. They were subject to legal penalties at first, and increasingly held in contempt by those in power. ‘Puritan’ became a dirty word, and greatly distorted in its meaning. But then in the following two centuries, they grew in influence, and eventually provided the social infrastructure for the labor movement, and many other reformist causes. They failed to become the dominant culture in England, but succeeded in the US, at least until the American Civil War, after which late modernism has prevailed.


  4. I want to second Laurie’s comment above. We are always complicit in the culture and civilization we live in. There’s no way around it. Even an ascetic living on top of a pillar depends on the food left in his collection basket by the awestruck sinners below, or else he won’t be asceticizing for long. I am one with Barack Obama and with Dick Cheney. And with the Real Housewives of wherever. The gospel has absolute priority, but it is communicated and lived within the context of civilization (including its frequently predatory institutions and its morally ambivalent technologies), without which no actions can be taken beyond mere survival. There is a great value in civilization itself: not in some facile progress-for-its-own-sake, but in the recording of and reflecting on experience, the deeper expression and sharing of experience this makes possible, as well as many thousands of skills and techniques and (yes) products which make life a little more bearable. And interesting.

    I have known participants from several communal experiments; sometimes some good things resulted. Few lasted very long, at least not in their original form. All of our kids went (for at least some part of there school careers) to an “alternative” (i.e. ‘hippie’) school, which my wife played a small part in founding in the 70’s. The school underwent a crisis in the 80’s, and two founding teachers left, unhappy with the conventionalizing (i.e. bourgeois) trend — something necessary to improve college prospects for graduating kids. Also necessary to keep the public school system and law enforcement at bay. The culture would no longer shrug at teachers getting stoned and skinny-dipping with students on school trips, standard counter-culture stuff for the 70’s. At a graduation ceremony in 1980, diplomas were scrawled on pieces of toilet paper, in a show of contempt for the corporate credential fetish. Now, graduates have to complete ambitious projects of their own design, sometimes involving international travel and apprenticeships or internships with impressive people/organizations. Some get accepted to Ivy League schools. They are still counter-culture in the sense of emphasizing peace and environmental action etc more than the public schools, and they are really successful in promoting mutual acceptance and compassion among students. But the school mainly works for the motivated and self-directed.

    Be careful what you create. It could morph into something that really weirds you out.

    Dittos on Laurie’s last paragraph – the need for the mercy of God is always present, and the nations will come to Zion to receive it eventually. And indeed the kingdom won’t come by our making.

    Now that I’ve done enough serious stuff for one day (for a tired old guy like me), I think I’ll rewatch a 10-year-old episode of Veronica Mars on Amazon Prime streaming. Cutesy faux noir with clever dialog. Not quite Joss Whedon, but sometimes close.


  5. What are the odds? The episode of VM I watched last night included a cameo part played by Joss Whedon, from season 2. This happened because JW had come out as a fan of VM after season 1 (maybe at Comic-Con). I once knew all that, but my aged brain cannot contain all the secrets of pop culture. [An allusion to a line from Forbidden Planet (1956)]

    See, i can read Homer in Greek and still be shallow!


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