No one disputes the attractiveness of living outside the liberal and politically correct society that dominates American life. To the degree possible, there is even an obligation to keep some separation from today’s decadent society. Hence, all this explains the controversy around the so-called Benedict Option.
The Benedict Option is the brainchild of author Rod Dreher who, in his book of the same name, claims the Culture War is over. Rather than battle the waters of a decadent mainstream, he claims it is better to build arks to ride out the flood. Small intentional ark communities, not necessarily physically separated from society, will provide the means to carry this out. Just as Saint Benedict of Nursia supposedly left decadent Rome in the sixth century for the wilderness (he didn’t), so also concerned Americans should “secede culturally” from a rotten mainstream that is lost.
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A Postmodern Proposal
There is something very postmodern about the proposal. It is indeed suited to virtual times in which negative relationships with communities can be defined by unfollowing and unfriending and positive associations signaled with “likes.” A Benedict Option assumes one can unfollow the mainstream, unfriend those that threaten family life, and “like” those who hold similar views. It seems the proposal is much better suited to a Facebook page than a cultural blueprint for communities of believers.
And that is one of the problems with the Benedict Option. It is Benedict lite. It does not have the substance, unity, and goal of the Benedictine ideal that set the world on fire with the love of God. It does not aspire to the grand objectives that made the Benedictine model the center of culture and the foundation of Christian Europe. It is merely an option, or rather many options, one can entertain inside the storm. In postmodern terms, it represents the unraveling of a dominant metanarrative into many fragments and shards.
The Option can be reduced to a merited discontent with the modern world and a legitimate desire for alternatives. However, the Option does not specifically define what the goal or goals should be or how they are to be pursued. Rather, the goals and methods are left to whatever members decide them to be.
This is why the Option is Benedict lite. The Option takes those things that defined Saint Benedict and deconstructs them to adapt to postmodern times even to the point of contradiction. Thus, whereas Saint Benedict unified and melded a chaotic jumble of primitive monasteries into Western monasticism, the Option scatters households into “domestic monasteries” of different beliefs. Saint Benedict’s rules were very specific, flexible and ordering; the Option has no rules and leaves everything vague and ambiguous. Saint Benedict was Catholic and therefore universal; the Option is ecumenical and thus fragmenting and particular.
Unfortunately, the book does not enter or want to enter, into details about leaders and structures of authority inside the Option. This is a vital issue since it is the bane of intentional communities. The American sociological landscape is full of the ruins of intentional communities that failed after the death of their founders or because of internal quarrels. If some community is to be founded, it will need strong leaders like Benedict. More importantly for today, it will need Saint Benedicts. That is to say, these leaders will have to be virtuous, long-suffering, and prudent. They will need to be what sociologists call “representative characters” who know how to unify, set the tone and sacrifice themselves for the common good.
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That is what gives the Benedict Option its Facebook feel. Membership appears to be almost an opt-in. Its intentional communities are presented as associations of co-equal members with few governing structures. Such a social arrangement is not a community but a cooperative, in which members join and leave as it suits their fancy. Ironically, such options mirror the modern individualistic institutions and corporate structures that brought on the present crisis. It also resembles the Facebook page which serves as a shallow yet helpful point of unity for a group of individuals who friend and unfriend at the click of a mouse. While a page might supply news and updates, it can also project distorted images of reality. The danger of Benedict Lite is that people might think it is the real thing.
The Real Thing
Saint Benedict was the real thing. He was not afraid to engage the culture and understood well the struggle between good and evil. He finally settled not in the wilderness but on an estate of the father of one of his disciples. He could be seen overthrowing the idols, burning the sacred forests of the pagans, and preaching to those near his monastery. If there was someone who did not exercise the Benedict Option, it was Saint Benedict himself.
Saint Benedict had defined goals, established doctrines, and governing structures. In his famous manual called The Rule of Saint Benedict, he left nothing to chance. He established the fundamental principles, offices, and procedures that allowed his communities to prosper inside the ordered liberty of his flexible rule. He understood that this world is not made to be a material paradise and that man must embrace the Cross of Christ that is at the heart of life in this vale of tears. The saint understood the role of God’s grace in helping people and communities to practice virtue and reach perfection. Christendom was the result of his vision and labors.
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In today’s shallow Facebook world, people are tired of hollow options. They are exhausted by the frenetic intemperance of undisciplined lives of instant gratification. The real Saint Benedict speaks to postmodern man because he addresses longings for order, authenticity, and temperance. Saint Benedict cannot be reduced to an Option or made Lite. Rather, he must be presented as he truly was. The restless hearts of postmodern men demand the real thing.
As seen on The Imaginative Conservative