Is the Benedict Option the Answer to Neo-Barbarianism?

punks-2-300x200 Is the Benedict Option the Answer to Neo-Barbarianism?

“I was reminded of these neo-barbarians while reading Rod Dreher’s new book, The Benedict Option.”

At a recent talk, I compared our days to the times of the barbarian invasions and the fall of the Roman Empire. It is a fairly common comparison that applies to decadent societies like our own. In the end, I highlighted the need to continue to fight the Culture War and thus oppose the neo-barbarians at the gates.

Afterwards, a friend of mine who is a high school teacher, commented that if my description of barbarians was accurate, then his typical middle class students would actually want to be barbarians. On a separate occasion, another teacher friend of mine made a similar remark by telling me somewhat jokingly after dinner that he would be returning to his barbarians the next day. I was taken aback by both statements and at the same time struck by how true they were.

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Modern Barbarians

Normally, we think of being barbarians as something negative, a kind of us-versus-them phenomenon. It applied very well during the Cold War era when the West was threatened by the savage forces of communism. The label fits for today’s terrorists, gangs or drug dealers. However, it is not often used for middle class youth. It is hard to imagine how anyone inside the gates would want to be a barbarian outside—on purpose.

However, that is the sad state of our society. There are people who want to be similar to barbarians on purpose. It is not an accidental fall from grace, but something that is attractive to them. It is not us versus them anymore; it’s the neo-barbarian next door.

I was reminded of these neo-barbarians while reading Rod Dreher’s new book, The Benedict Option. He also compares our times to the fall of the Roman Empire. However, he claims the Culture War is over and lost and we need to position ourselves favorably to deal with the new situation of the barbarians inside the gate. He proposes the model of Saint Benedict of Nursia who formed an intentional community as a means of preserving the faith in uncertain times.

The Nature of Barbarians

The problem with such a proposal is found in the nature of the barbarian. A barbarian is by definition one who is lacking refinement, learning, or artistic or literary culture. It is not a person who never obtained a level of culture through some defect or lack of education. Barbarians simply are not interested in culture in general. Civilization holds no attraction to them.

Historically barbarians were brutal people. What characterized them was that they were slaves of their passions, whims and superstitions. They lacked normal restraints and were willing to do anything to gratify their appetites.

Thus, barbarians have been characterized as those who destroyed and killed indiscriminately. They devastated what remained of ordered society, often because it was ordered. They were not satisfied to follow their passions at home, but rather sought out the riches of others, often coming from afar, to loot and plunder Christian communities.

The Neo-barbarian Challenge


bum-man-lazy-300x200 Is the Benedict Option the Answer to Neo-Barbarianism?

Today’s neo-barbarians do not need to live in primitive settings like those at the time of decadent Rome. Our wired, pierced and tattooed neo-barbarians get along quite well in our high-tech world. The poor barbarians of the past were limited by the options to gratify their passions that often came after great effort. Today’s neo-barbarians can find self-gratification at the click of the mouse or swipe of a card. They can self-identify themselves to be whatever they want to be and force others to accept them as such.

They can also be brutal as seen in the culture of death that destroys the unborn babies and elderly who stand in the way of their road to gratification. Through Hollywood, we live in an anti-culture that glorifies the barbaric, the violent, the sensual and the crude. The barbarians of yore have nothing to compare to our own. Let’s face it, everyone, especially those who survived the sixties onward, in some way fights with the neo-barbarian within. We are already heavily infiltrated by a neo-barbarian mentality.

Trusting the Barbarians to be Barbarians

And that is the problem with Dreher’s Benedict Option. For him, the only response that still remains is to form intentional communities amid the neo-barbarians to “provide an unintentional political witness to secular culture,” which will overwhelm the barbarian by the “sheer humanity of Christian compassion, and the image of human dignity it honors.” He believes that setting up parallel structures inside society will serve to protect and preserve Christian communities under the new neo-barbarian dispensation. We are told we should work with the political establishment to “secure and expand the space within which we can be ourselves and our own institutions” inside an umbrella of religious liberty.

However, barbarians don’t like parallel structures; they don’t like structures at all. They don’t co-exist well with anyone. They don’t keep their agreements or respect religious liberty. They are not impressed by the holy lives of the monks whose monastery they are plundering. You can trust barbarians to always be barbarians.

A Precarious Situation

We live in precarious times. The vestiges of moral law stand as walls to protect the remnants of order in society. One only needs to look at how the radical liberals treat us now at universities and statehouses, and in the public square, to have an idea of what is in store for us if we even so slightly abandon the field. It is enough for my teacher friends to leave the little neo-barbarians in their classrooms alone for a short time for chaos to reign.

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Should we disengage from the Culture War and follow a policy of “increasing and unstoppable fragmentation” which facilitates the building of “thriving sub-cultures,” you can trust the neo-barbarians to respond like neo-barbarians. They will target our intentional communities (and monasteries), which will be like low-hanging fruit, ripe for politically correct marauders and savage judicial fiats to steal.

Continued cultural engagement and maximum political action, however imperfect, are the only ways to hinder and confront this scenario. We forget that the Culture War began as a war of self-defense. You can’t just call off a war of self-defense without losing your freedom.

Benedict is Still Needed

But a Culture War of self-defense is not enough.

We need to take the offense and address directly the neo-barbarian within. In this sense, Benedict can still be an option. However, we need to see another side of Benedict. Historically, Benedict did not passively wait out the barbarian storm. He displayed a daring willingness to defy the superstitions and vices of his day.

He understood that barbarians respect strength of character. What impressed and later converted the barbarians was the conviction and courage of brave men who were unafraid to denounce the evils that oppressed all society at the time. Thus, they were captivated by fiery souls like Saint Benedict himself, who threw down their idols in Monte Casino; Saint Boniface in Germany who chopped down their sacred oak tree at Geismar; Saint Patrick who defied the Druids and lit the Paschal fire on the Hill of Slane. Souls like these, working with God’s grace, captured the primitive imagination of the barbarians. Whole peoples converted to the one true Faith.

Wherever the Church has gone, it has embarked upon the task of channeling the primitive energy of barbarians to the worship and service of the one true God. These barbarian converts, afire with the love of God, have often been the salvation of decadent civilizations like that of Rome. They later became missionaries and crusaders.

Perhaps people are waiting for these new Benedicts in our postmodern times. The evils of the day weigh heavily upon us all. What will awe and convert today’s neo-barbarians will be souls aflame with incredible convictions and courage who will defy death and its culture and capture their wandering imaginations. They will be drawn to disciplined and brave hearts that calm the frenetic intemperance of their sinful and disordered lives. With Divine grace, many will convert and burn with love for the one true God and thus help rescue our decadent civilization and the little children trapped in our neo-barbarian culture.

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12 thoughts on “Is the Benedict Option the Answer to Neo-Barbarianism?

  1. Thank you for this commentary on the neo-barbarians of our current social and political morass. I have not read THE BENEDICT OPTION yet. It sounds interesting, but I woild agree that secluded communities of Christian believers are not the answer. It isn’t that these communities are ineffective—their prayers are truly valuable, but, as you say, the barbarians live among us, so we must live among them; only then can they see Christian faith, hope, and love in action in any meaningful sense. I, too, am a high school teacher, an English teacher. I no longer recognize the landscape of any given school day
    Almost no commonalities exist with the ideal and real scholarly paths I have trod, or observed.The barbarisms which surround me throughout the day are shocking beyond description, not least because my consciousness has adjusted itself to interact with all manner of horrors while still maintaining the capacity to function as if all were normal. There no longer appears to be an “objective correlative” for constructing and maintaining order. We must PRAY FOR THE CHILDREN: AMERICA IS EATING HER YOUNG.

    • Carol, this your comment is a sobering snapshot of what is happening to the children. I’ve heard similar comments from other high school teachers. But what I found to be even more interesting was this your comment:

      “The barbarisms which surround me throughout the day are shocking beyond description, not least because my consciousness has adjusted itself to interact with all manner of horrors while still maintaining the capacity to function as if all were normal.”

      So, if I understood this correctly, you are saying that we’re living immersed in grossly abnormal situations although we act as if things were normal.

      Did I understand this correctly?

      I help John Horvat on his campaign Return to Order, and I am trying to understand this point better, to see if this is an issue that Mr. Horvat would perhaps like to write on and develop.

      Thank you.

    • As a mother of 5 teens living in liberal Ann Arbor, I agree that America is eating her young. I disagree with the notion that you shouldn’t be part of intentional communities; I’ve been a member of a covenant community for 30 years and have found the support for Christian living to be integral to raising my children to think Christianity is normal, not the paganism which surrounds us. Through the excellent catechesis at their Catholic schools and the support of the many families around us striving to live an authentic missionary minded Christian life my kids (I hope!) have been prepared to go into the world and be the light to those in darkness. There is a tremendous battle raging for the hearts of our children and we would be fools not to provide some shelter for them as they navigate the storm. Maybe the author referred to intentional communities as those that are completely closed off from the world; our community is certainly not.

  2. Hollywood?
    Say rather the film maker companies and their owners:
    They are not Christians.
    They have another religion and different intereses.

  3. I don’t think the end of the Roman Empire is the correct analogy for our times. What we are now living through is more analogous to the end of the Roman Republic and the beginning of the empire. Our plebeian masses no longer trust the institutions of the republic. Instead, they look for a strong man (first Obama, now Trump) to sidestep the constraints of the constitution and take the reins.

    • Sorry Mr. Arimathean…President Obama had a certain gift for rhetoric which rested well with the mentally impaired. He was personally a pusillanimous weakling; tp wit, forever apologizing for our beloved country and our heritage of Western civilization. Frankly he used prevalent racial sensitivities to hide behind his own skin in order to deflect just criticisms. There are some who might not agree with a truly strong man, Mr. Donald Trump. However, unlike garden variety politicians he has innumerable successful accomplishments in his life. In short he doesn’t need the presidency to salve his ego. Likely this truly strong man reads the present precarious decline of his country and understands that he has the leadership capacity and drive to restore America’s unparalleled potential to excel. So despite the carping of small minded detractors, he appears on course to fulfill his commitment to restore American greatness.

      • Trump is very much like Obama – a shallow, narcissistic authoritarian. More important to the topic at hand, however, is the similarity of their followers. Your apparent worship of Trump, which rests on little but wishful thinking, is similar to the fawning over Obama by his followers. The mobs who have flocked to both men never run out of superlatives for their heroes, nor do they run out of excuses for them. Both men’s most ardent supporters want them to rule as Caesars – “truly strong men”, as you put it. (And, obviously, some people voted for both of them, placing similar hopes for “change” in both. As a devotee of the republic, I voted against both.)

        The question is whether we are destined to follow the path of ancient Rome, which would see these charismatic but incompetent Caesars followed by an Augustus, who gathers ever more power to himself while exercising it competently. Or is there still a chance to turn back the fury of the mob and restore the republic?

        • Best wishes…consider putting on your “big boy pants” and giving a go at “proper discernment”.. That faculty, so obviously missing, will aid you in in other
          observations as well.

          • your own frank lloyd wright spoke of “genius and mobocracy”. pope francis warns of the dangers of populism – the theory that encourages everybody in their grievance. the benedict option may well be no more than a “holy huddle”, but some of us want a land-based culture, not money-based (our catholic distrbutists in england – “the church and the land, “, vincent mcnabb, o.p., your own old southern agrarians). the completely new middle classes in india and china are a grave threat. eric, view from the british isles (not all british).

  4. This article provides a lot of food for thought. I suppose because I always (nowadays) try to find and deal with any hypocrisy I locate within myself before I point fingers at other people (didn’t work until I quit drinking alcohol 25 years ago and started to develop an ability at using my head instead of my emotionally charged ego). I just looked at the word Barbarian.” Makes me take notice: several weeks ago I was reading an article about a tourist who had been on a guided tour of the ancient Coliseum in Rome. During the tour the guide had been reported telling the tourists that over a million people had died in Rome’s Coliseum before the barbarian invaders sacked Rome. This tour guide ignored his own hypocrisy – death in the Coliseum continued after Rome was Christianized (a political move on
    Constantine’s part) at least until 404 AD.
    That’s the nature of hypocrisy: people end up living only in their egos, motivated by their emotions and (manipulated) passions, materialism and lust. Hypocrisy, emotional manipulation and irrationality are all
    expressions of “the Beast,” the “Shadow” of Depth Psychology). Rational, intuitive commonsense is by-passed for greed enhanced – and isolated – egos. Hate is the metaphysical causation of separation, isolation and chaos – entropy and death.

    Love, on the other hand is an expression of
    inner integrity, unity and ever increasing complexity and connection with other
    sources of life. Until we learn to take a conscious internal inventory of our
    whole selves and unite ourselves in Holy (read: wholeness and integrity, with
    Heaven and Earth – above and below) we will never unite the whole of humankind
    into a Catholic (Holy Catholic = Union, not necessarily Roman Catholic) family,
    in harmony with nature and the Creator, whether in Heaven or on Earth.

    Peace, Paul f. M.

  5. John, I agree and I believe that prayer, example by Christian living, and the love of Christ is the answer. Do we abandon the US and try to find a receptive society somewhere else? Or, do we attempt to salvage America through perseverance? This will require courage and patience and compassion. Let us not forget that America was anti-Catholic in its very foundation. The version of Christiantiy that did form America was one of religious intolerance which is becoming more and more apparent today. The Calvinist mentality of our forefathers has helped us accomplish much as a nation. But, it cemented the concept that worth = monetary and secular success. Those of us who stay to fight will find that the Love of Christ is not welcome by most who justify themselves as followers of that same Christ.
    Keep up the good work, my brother! God bless you!

  6. “Perhaps people are waiting for these new Benedicts in our postmodern times.” I am reading a book this Lent “St John & the close of the apostolic age” by Abbe Constant Fouard and learned that St. Timothy was the Bishop of Ephesus at the time St. John wrote to the 7 churches of Asia. According to the abbot, “it led Timothy straight forth to Martyrdom. At the passing of one of those shameless processions which were the disgrace of Ephesus, the Bishop protested so energetically, that the mob fell upon him and slaughtered him with a shower of stones and clubs.” The footnote further states: “The Martyrologies and abridged Acts of this martyr, preserved by Photius agree in representing the holy Bishop as falling a victim to the zeal he displayed in opposing the unclean festivals to which Ephesus had become wonted. These Acts place his martyrdom in the reign of Nerva, in the spring of the year 97.” [p 94 – quote will bring up google book]

    Meanwhile, in our time, the cardinals lead these unclean processions on St. Patrick’s Day! And the Catholic Church, at least in Baltimore, pays the entrance fee and solicits other “churches” to march w/them in these unclean processions! Bishops meet w/sodomites in their homes and encourage them in their sodomy! The pope meets w/his former students and their sodomite partners and announces who is he to judge sodomites and the sexually immoral–better yet releases pornographic sex ed program for youth!

    “When the Gay Pride parade kicked off in Baltimore on June 15, a number of faith communities were present – and Presbyterians were an important part of the event. Faith Presbyterian – one of the organizers of the effort – and Brown Memorial Park Avenue – were proudly marching behind the banner, FAITH COMMUNITIES OF BALTIMORE with PRIDE – as was First & St. Stephens United Church of Christ. But the largest number came from St. Matthews Roman Catholic church – the real instigator of the effort. Long before we started actively recruiting walkers, St. Matthews had paid all the entry fees (Faith paid for the banner)! Their goal was to have 100 walkers – I think the final number was 115!”

    Since Francis, bishops discourage pro-family, pro-life marches:

    The uncertain support from these bishops was being used by the press to discredit Catholic opponents of the gay unions bill.

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