It’s always good to hear that Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option” still hangs in the religious consciousness, if only amongst those on Twitter or fortunate enough to the Dreher speak. Leah Libresco has a great new book on the concept, giving it some hands and feet (and a nice personal narrative) that makes it a little more tangible for some. More often than not, it seems, those who write about it continue to get it wrong (or just wrong enough). Alan Jacobs, most recently of The Year of Our Lord 1943, recently responded to a review of Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed that ties in Dreher’s The Benedict Option by Adrian Vermeule for the American Affairs Journal. The issue, as is too often the case, boils down to misunderstanding the Benedict Option as withdrawal from broader culture versus finding some way to more effectively engage the culture. Vermeule would like to see more examples like “Esther, Mordecai, Joseph, and Daniel” and others like Paul. Jacobs wonders if that’s even possible given the current state of Christianity in our culture. From Jacobs’ blog:
This is a powerful and in many ways beautiful vision. Perhaps the most attractive element of it, to me, is the commendation of limited goals on our part — the mere “attempt to ensure the survival of [our] faith communities in an interim age of exile and dispossession” — that may, in the providential wisdom of God, lead to something much greater: the transformation of a “decaying regime” into a “great instrument with which to restore a substantive politics of the good.” One should never expect something like that but it is meet and right to hope for it.
But I think Vermeule’s vision is missing one absolutely essential element. My question for him is: Where will these Josephs and Mordecais and Esthers and Daniels come from? . . .
So a key question arises: If you need people who are sufficiently skilled in negotiating the liberal order to work effectively within it, but also committed to its transformation, and who can sustain that difficult balance over decades, you have to figure out how to form such people. And it is just this that the churches of the West – all the churches of the West — have neglected to do, have neglected even to attempt. With the (in retrospect quite obvious) result: the accelerating collapse across the board of participation in church life.
What is required, in the face of a general culture that through its command of every communications medium catechizes so effectively, is the construction of a powerful counter-catechesis. Who will do that, and how will they do it? The likely answer, it seems to me, brings us back to the very localism that Deneen and Dreher advocate and that Vermeule rejects.
There’s more to it than that, of course. And Jacobs’ post deserves a longer, more intentional reading. I highly encourage it.
It think, obviously, that Jacobs’ points are valid. What is sobering is that some of the best examples that might exist of such “Daniels” will probably/ultimately find themselves at odds with the very foundational communities that nurtured them (case in point? someone like Russell Moore, a bastion of Baptist thoughtfulness for some, a picture of liberal heresy for others). And that can be an awfully lonely place.
This issue, on some level, also has roots in and adds color to many people’s understanding of youth ministry, where young Christians are “prepped to engage” the culture around them in their high schools. Too often the “counter-catechesis” Jacobs would like to see starts way-too-late to be “high school effective.”
Definitely something to consider as culture marches on (and too much healthy Christian culture seems to continue to recede.)
(Briton Riviere’s Daniel in the Lions Den from fineartamerica.com)